PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS THE BROWNS
The Pittsburgh Steelers were a home underdog to the Cleveland Browns for the first time in 30 years. A TribLive article noted that the last time this happened Chuck Noll was head coach. The Browns easily covered the two-point spread winning 51-0 on September 10, 1989. The Browns have not swept the Steelers since 1988 and that version of the Browns became the Baltimore Ravens a few years later. It’s about seven hours to kickoff. Let’s hope that the Steelers buck the odds today.
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) November 26, 2019
Is it Devlin Hodges or Mason Rudolph? That was the question early in the week. Head coach Mike Tomlin answered the question at his Tuesday press conference. Duck Hodges is starting.
Browns fans were threatening to take over Heinz Field. I’ve never seen any team’s fans takeover Heinz Field. Just a few thousand visitors at most that a sea of Black & Gold swallow up. Usually visiting fans are in the hundreds not thousands. Nothing like away games where Steelers fans occasionally will be occupying upwards of 20-25% of the seats and forcing the home quarterback into silent counts. Look forward to seeing if the Cleveland Dawg Pound really does travel or if their bark is worse than their bite.
This week, we also found out that Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, and Alan Faneca are Football Hall of Fame semifinalists. I hope all three make it but two out of three won’t be a bad result.
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game. Duck Hodge’s passing is key. Will he continue to protect the ball? The offensive line creating room for Benny Snell to run is another area to watch. On defense, limiting splash plays and creating turnovers is a crucial factor. Matt said the main thing to watch for was not letting Baker Mayfield out of the pocket.
Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch. This week, Tom focuses our attention on Mayfield’s mobility versus Steelers pass rush. He escaped pressure four times last week to complete three third downs and a touchdown. Tom suggests using a spy or forcing him to scramble left instead of right to limit his effectiveness. The Steelers sacked Mayfield just once last game. Multiple sacks would be nice.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the 7 keys to a Steelers victory against the Ravens. First, Steelers must end an 18-game streak of turning the ball over. Second, the Steelers must run the ball effectively. Third, defense holds Nick Chubb to less than 100 total yards from scrimmage. Fourth, a Bud Dupree strip sack could make a difference. Fifth, the pass rush defense must keep Mayfield in the pocket so he can’t extend plays. Sixth, the Steelers receivers gain additional yards after the catch. Seventh, the Steelers players cannot give up dumb retaliatory penalties costing 15 yards.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Browns prediction. Alex foresaw a win if Duck Hodges can let the ball fly, the defense contains Mayfield, and there are no big coverage breakdowns. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if the offensive lines lose the point of attack on run plays, the Steelers receivers can’t make the big explosive catch, and lose the field position battle on special teams. He predicted a narrow 17-16 win.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
SLOW START, OFFENSE FIRST POINTS
The Steelers offense had four first half possessions. The Browns dominated the time of possession: 19:31 to just 10:29 for the Steelers. But games are won by what the offense does with the ball not how long you hold it.
The Steelers first two drives ended with punts. The next two yielded ten points and tied the game.
The offense could not respond after the Browns scored three points on their opening drive. Two runs and then the Browns sack Hodges for a 13-yard loss. The next drive was a little more successful. Benny Snell runs for four yards on first down. Hodges completes a pass to Jaylen Samuels for seven yards and a first down. Unfortunately, Diontae Johnson false starts putting the offense into a hole at second and 13. The Steelers end up punting. This penalty was the first of several called on the Steelers receivers and tight ends.
The Browns score again to put the Steelers in a ten-point hole. The offense responds with a 67-yard drive that yields three points. On third and nine, Sheldon Richardson breached the neutral zone giving the Steelers a free play. Hodges connects with James Washington for 31 yards. Diontae Johnson runs around the right end for 17 more yards on the next play. Jaylen Samuels runs twice for 12 yards to set up first down at the 22-yard line. A Cleveland player dives across the line of scrimmage on second and seven. Fans are cheering until the referee signals false start by the Steelers. The replay goes on the screen and there is no movement except for the Cleveland player. The fans boo loudly. The penalty is on the Duck, but the fans are not buying that notion. Still a field goal has Pittsburgh on the scoreboard.
STEELERS OFFENSE OPENS UP WITH TWO MINUTES LEFT
The Steelers last drive of the half started after the two-minute warning. This was good because now the Duck could open his passing game. He completed four of five pass attempts. Deon Cain gained five yards on his only catch of the game, but it was for a first down. Tevin Jones caught a 28-yard pass that advanced the Steelers to the 30-yard line. James Washington demonstrated concentration as T.J. Carrie grabbed him in the end zone, Washington went to the ground but still snatched the ball in the air before it hit the grass to score a touchdown.
The Steelers offense started sluggishly but ended the half with two long drives. The last a 48 second beauty that tied the game. The momentum of the game had clearly shifted in Steelers favor.
STEELERS SCORE ON FIRST TWO POSSESSIONS
The Steelers scored ten more points on their two third quarter possessions.
The second half kickoff had the offense starting at their own 31-yard line. Key plays included a 15-yard pass to Jaylen Samuels to convert a first and 15 into a fresh set of downs. Following a Samuels’ run that placed the Steelers in Browns territory, Diontae Johnson committed a foul. Thankfully, the first down remained but the 15-yard penalty pushed the Steelers back to their 41-yard line.
Then Hodges threw a deep pass to Washington for 44 yards. A nine-yard Benny Snell run up the middle created a second and one at the six-yard line. Inexplicably, the Steelers ran wide left and the Browns caught Snell for a six-yard loss. I heard Charlie Batch opine that Hodges may have misread the play off his wristband during the Steelers Nation Radio postgame show. It will be interesting if we hear an explanation because it was a terrible play call. Denzel Ward mugged Cain by the goal line to set up a first and goal which Snell converted into a touchdown.
The Browns turnover gave the offense the ball in Cleveland territory. Snell ran twice for 18 yards, but Vance McDonald was called for false start. Duck Hodges scrambled nine yards to convert a third and seven. The Steelers got as close as the three as Duck tried to pass on the run under heavy pressure. The refs declare a fumble, but it went out of bounds, so the Steelers settle for three.
OFFENSIVE MISCUES BUT MAKES PLAYS AT THE RIGHT TIME
James Washington marred the third drive with a false start on third and 10. McDonald caught a pass and gained only 12 of the 15 yards needed forcing a punt. The Browns respond with a field goal and now just a touchdown away from tying the game.
Terrance Mitchell intercepts Hodges on the very first play after the kickoff. The Steelers defense bails the offense out. But a fake field goal followed by a pooch punt that the Browns down at the one-yard line. Matt Feiler’s false start loses even more ground. Benny Snell brought Steelers fans to their feet with an 11-yard burst up the middle. Diontae Johnson created another first down with a 14-yard catch but stopped the clock by running out of bounds.
The Brown’s defensive line made a sudden sideway shift that induced Vance McDonald to rock in his stance. The movement was enough for officials to flag him for a false start which stopped the clock again. McDonald made up for the miscue by bulling his way through defenders for a first down.
The two-minute warning and the Steelers have third and six. Hodges is scrambling around midfield but instead of taking the sack to keep the clock moving he throws the ball out of bounds.
This drive ate up 3 minutes and 43 seconds. More importantly it forced the Browns to expend all their timeouts. Two rookie mistakes and a veteran’s error left too much time on the clock but the defense got the ball back so the Duck could finish the game with two kneel downs.
The Duck and the offense generated just enough points and key plays to help overcome an early ten-point deficit and finish what Cleveland started a few weeks ago.
NO BREATHING TIME FOR STEELERS DEFENSE
The Browns fans who drove to Pittsburgh were feeling good in the opening part of this game.
Cleveland gouged the Steelers defense for 62 yards after the opening kickoff. Baker Mayfield completes a short pass to Jarvis Landry that goes 19 yards for first down. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb combine to make another first down on two running plays. Another Mayfield pass to Stephen Carlson gains 21 yards. On third and 14, Mayfield throws to Landry but he is out of bounds. Loud cheers because everyone believes the defense has held them to a field goal, but Freddie Kitchens throws the challenge flag. After a long wait, boos as the officials overturn the original call. Steelers fans turn noticeably quiet. The Browns fans in my section are rowdy. T.J. Watt sacks Mayfield to force third and 12 which they can’t convert. The Steelers are down by three points but relieved that it is not seven.
The defense truncates the Browns second possession on a third and four play. Mayfield shovel passes to Kareem Hunt, but Vince Williams tackles him for a two-yard loss.
The offense is not moving the ball and the defense has already been on the field for 12 of the 15 minutes of the first quarter. Jarvis Landry picks up another first down with an 11-yard catch. Then Chubb runs five straight times for 35 yards. The Browns smell blood in the water. Cleveland finishes the drive with Kareem Hunt in the end zone. The Steelers are down ten to zip and the defense has already been on the field for over 17 of the 22 minutes of play.
DEFENSE GETS SOME REST
The defense rests 4:44 as the offense scores a field goal. The respite helps as the defense holds the Browns to a three and out on their next possession. The Browns get one more opportunity in the first half. The Steelers tied the game, but they have 55 seconds left on the clock. Hunt runs for 32 yards on two carries but the Steelers just trying to prevent a deep pass. Mayfield passes deep twice to Odell Beckham but cannot find him. He hurts his throwing hand on one of these plays. In comes Garrett Gilbert who throws two more incompletions. The half is over. The question remains whether the defense will have answers to the Browns running game or Mayfield’s passing.
DEFENSE STARTS TO SMELL BLOOD
The defense did answer the Browns in the second half. They created two turnovers and forced two punts. The defense limited the Browns to three points out of five second half drives.
The Steelers scored to open the half. The Browns reached the Steelers 38-yard line, but referees called former Steeler Chris Hubbard for holding. On the next play, Bud Dupree strip sacked Mayfield and Cam Heyward recovered the forced fumble. The defense preserved the Steelers lead.
The Browns did not get the ball back until the fourth quarter. Now it was the Steelers defense that smelled blood in the water. Cam Sutton forced a Browns punt by sacking Mayfield before he could gain any yardage scrambling.
The Browns did score a field goal on the next drive. Mayfield threw five straight passes. The first three gained 63 yards as the defense could not keep up with the no huddle offense. The Browns reached the 14-yard line with a first down threatening to score a touchdown. The defense contained Mayfield who could not connect with Demetrius Harris resulting in third and ten. Mayfield went to pass a sixth time, but Dupree and Heyward combined to sack him. Cleveland settled for three instead of seven.
TWO BIG DEFENSIVE STANDS
The Browns intercepted Hodges and Terrance Mitchell returned it 28 yards when Diontae Johnson quit on the play failing to tag him down. The defense met the challenge. Mike Hilton defended a deep pass intended for Jarvis Landry. Terrell Edmunds tackled Kareem Hunt for no gain on a short pass. Javon Hargrave sacked Mayfield for an eight-yard loss that took Cleveland out of field goal range.
The Browns had one more chance to tie the game with 1:45 left in the game. Minkah Fitzpatrick knocked a pass down intend for Landry. He knew he could have intercepted it. Bud Dupree hit Mayfield just after he threw an incompletion. The officials penalized Dupree for roughing the passer, but it looked like a clean hit. Regardless, the penalty gave the Browns a first down and 15 more yards. Mayfield went long for Jarvis Landry which Joe Haden intercepted to effectively end the game.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).
Boswell kicked off five times. Two resulted in touchbacks. Dontrell Hilliard returned the second kickoff 15 yards just reaching the Cleveland 20-yard line before Kameron Kelly tackled him. Tavierre Thomas returned two kicks. He muffed the first and Johnny Holton tackled him at the seven-yard line. Thomas fielded the last Boswell kick two yards deep in the end zone but ran it out seeking a big play. Kelly tackled him at the 18-yard line. The two Browns returners combined to average 12 yards per return. Cleveland’s best starting position occurred after touchbacks.
Austin Seibert kicked off four times. His first three kicks were short of the end zone testing Pittsburgh’s weak return game. Kerrith Whyte fielded the first at the seven-yard line and wasted no time in scampering 34 yards to the 41. He returned the next kick from the goal line to the 17-yard line. Whyte fielded the third kick at the ten-yard line gaining 21 yards. The Browns kicked deep the final time. Whyte averaged 24 yards per return. The Steelers began only one drive behind the 25-yard line. Advantage Steelers.
Jordan Berry punted four times averaging 43.3 yards a punt. Hilliard returned one short 36-yard punt five yards before Anthony Chickillo tackled him at the 23-yard line. One punt was fair caught at the 26-yard line and a third went out of bounds at the 30-yard line. His final punt was 53 yards but resulted in a touchback. Boswell only netted 37 yards per punt with the touchback factored in. Boswell’s punts gave the Browns starting positions between the 20- and 30-yard lines which is not bad.
Jamie Gillan punted three times averaging 48 yards per punt. Diontae Johnson returned two punts for 14 yards. DJ caught the first at the 14-yard line. He started left but then tried to cutback and the Browns cut him down after a one-yard gain. He would have been much better off cutting straight up field which may have gotten him 3-4 more yards instead of pinning the Steelers so far back. Gillan boomed a 58-yard punt that DJ returned 13 yards. Instead of starting behind the 20-yard line, the offense got the ball at the 31-yard line. Respecting DJ’s dangerous speed, Gillan punted away from DJ with the ball going out of bounds at the 39-yard line after traveling just 41 yards.
Place kicker Austin Seibert kicked the final Browns punt. The Browns lined up for what would be a 56-yard field goal attempt with 5:46 left in the game. Dubious since his longest field goal was 51 yards when he was in college, but he also was a punter. The ruse worked as the Steelers lined up to block a field goal, but Seibert pooched a punt instead. The Browns downed the ball at the one-yard line. Mike Tomlin challenged but Al Riveron upheld the play. Tomlin and Danny Smith did request an explanation as he never had possession and touched the ball while in the end zone. I am interested on exactly what the rule is. He did appear to put downward pressure on the ball, but does that count as possession? Regardless, the Steelers climbed out of that deep hole, but it was a creative special team play by the Browns. Advantage Browns.
Chris Boswell made both field goals. His 39-yard kick scored Pittsburgh’s first points of the game. His 29-yard chip shot gave the Steelers a two-score lead to start the fourth quarter. Siebert also nailed both his attempts. His 31-yard field goal capped the Brown’s opening drive. The fourth quarter 34-yard field goal brought the Browns within a touchdown of tying the game. A steady performance by Boswell. Advantage Even.
REVIEWING THE SEVEN KEYS TO A STEELERS VICTORY
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST
- Steelers must end an 18-game streak of turning the ball over. Hodges threw an interception late in the game. Fail.
- The Steelers must run the ball effectively. Look forward to the analysis on effective runs. I believe at least half the Steelers runs were effective including Snell’s touchdown and his big 11-yard run from the half yard line in the fourth quarter. Check.
- Defense holds Nick Chubb to less than 100 total yards from scrimmage. Chubb gained 58 yards rushing and 21 receiving. Check.
- A Bud Dupree strip sack could make a difference. Dupree forces Mayfield to fumble on their first possession of the second half. Heyward recovers the ball. Check.
- The pass rush defense must keep Mayfield in the pocket so he can’t extend plays. The Steelers sack Mayfield four times and record seven quarterback hits. Last game, Steelers recorded just one sack and three QB hits. I recall just one play Mayfield extended a play for a completion. Check.
- The Steelers receivers gain additional yards after the catch (YAC). I have not seen the YAC stats yet, but Vance McDonald gained a critical first down with some yards after the catch as did Diontae Johnson. Check.
- The Steelers players cannot give up dumb penalties costing 15 yards. Diontae Johnson gave up one. Referees called Bud Dupree for roughing the passer, but replay shows that was a bad call. Just one and it was overcome. It was a pretty clean game. Check.
Six out of Seven does the trick
The Steelers successfully completed six of seven punch list tasks. The Steelers won the turnover battle two to one. Containing Mayfield was critical to the Steelers success as was the effective running game. As a result, Duck Hodges only had to pass 21 times and receivers were getting open against a depleted Cleveland secondary.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 1143 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. The Steelers tied the game 10-10 after falling behind early.
Bulldog 101 got the most upvotes in the first half with this comment: “As I said, Duck throws with precision when shackles are removed! Some jackass downvoted me on that but I think my point is proven!” Emotions were high as the Duck’s performance was evaluated on the fly.
El Sweet Lee (A Jam Up Guy) observed a limitation in the Duck’s mobility. “Duck would make a terrible NASCAR driver. Can’t turn left.”
Chris92021 was not happy with Randy Fichtner in the first half. “Whatever we are doing for offensive game planning, just stop.” The offense really did not open up until the two-minute warning.
DirtDawg1964 agreed with Chris92021. “I get why they are tempted to play it safe. But then don’t tell me about not living in your fears. You’re afraid, and you’re playing like it. Free the Duck and let him rip it. Seriously, we are a borderline playoff team anyway. Go for it!”
Many people agreed with MP when NFL officials overturned the incomplete pass call to Jarvis Landry to give the Browns a first down at the 11-yard line early in the game. “Nonsense. His hand was still moving on the ball. He didn’t have control.”
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
A strong showing of 1290 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. I was at the game so did not contribute much to the conversation. But yinz carried the day. There was plenty to comment on in this game.
SeventhHeavan had the most upvoted comment of the game. People were incredulous that the referees penalized Bud Dupree for his hit as Mayfield released the ball. “One of the worst roughing calls I have ever witnessed.” L Garou identified why the referees threw the flag on Dupree. “NY Rigged, right on schedule.”
CP72 is obviously happy with the change in starting quarterbacks. “We don’t win that game with Mason.”
Matt-Steelers Fan may have a bunker-mentality. But don’t most Steelers fans? “Screw the Browns, NY, refs and NFL. Go Steelers!!!!!”
DirtDawg1964 loved the response of the defense following the Duck’s interception. “That was a huge series by the D. That was top notch ball right there.” He also liked Duck’s decision-making in dumping a pass to Vance McDonald. “That’s a nice check down. Good decision”
Alevin16 summed up a lot of Steelers thoughts: “Hey Kitchens still have that T shirt on…Cause PITTSBURGH ENDED IT!”
— Beaver Falls Hosiery (@subBurgher) December 1, 2019
NOT PERFECT BUT A TEAM WIN
The Pittsburgh Steelers got a very satisfying win. The Browns tried to bully them in Cleveland and were intent on completing a sweep in Pittsburgh. Baker Mayfield is a talented quarterback but had no answers this time around. Duck Hodges may not have Mayfield’s pedigree but proved he belonged on the same field as the first-round draft pick.
Team’s rarely play the perfect game. There are always mistakes, decisions or poor execution that we fans can second guess. This game is no different. However, both the offense and defense stepped up at critical times to preserve an especially important victory.
The defense pushing Cleveland backward following Hodge’s interception and Joe Haden’s interception to effectively end the game. The offense advancing the ball from their one-yard line to start a drive to force the Browns to expend all their timeouts. All contributed to the victory.
A ROOKIE LESSON
Rookies made mental errors. Hodges throwing the ball out of bounds instead of taking the sack. Diontae Johnson going out of bounds after gaining a first down. Both stopped the clock when seconds counted. Most egregious to me was Diontae Johnson easing up before a play was over for the second consecutive game. It allowed the Browns to return an interception 28 yards after the Browns pulled within a touchdown. Thankfully, the mistake did not result in a different outcome in the game.
Diontae could learn from another rookie player’s experience. The Steelers had a rookie running back in 1972. He was playing in a game against a big rival. In one play with the Steelers losing, his assignment was to pick up a blitz. The ball was snapped and as the quarterback extended the play, the rookie had no one to block. The designated receivers were well downfield. Instead of just standing there, he recalled his college coaches instructions. When you find yourself on your own during a play, run to the ball. The rookie started racing downfield as the quarterback passed the ball with no role in the play. Suddenly, the defender and intended receiver came together at the same time as the ball. The ball flew backward, and the rookie snatched the ball inches from the ground while in full stride. He continued into the end zone to win the game.
Always play until the referee whistles the play over. If you have no other role in the play run to the ball. Franco Harris can tell you that good things can happen.
DAWG POUND TAKEOVER FIZZLES
There were rumblings that Cleveland fans planned to take over Heinz Field. I did see more visiting fans than usual. It is hard to estimate but my guess it was somewhere between two to five thousand. My section had at least twelve. One idiot in the second row decided he was going to stand all game disrupting people’s view and taunting the Steelers fans early in the game. A season ticket holder who is a police officer quietly identified himself and asked the Browns fan to please sit and limit the profanity. Not only did he refuse his friends started talking disrespectfully to the officer. They left the stadium before the first half was over.
They tried telling the police that they could stand and yell profanities in Cleveland to which an officer told them, “this ain’t Cleveland.” Amazingly, the Browns fan grabbed a sheriff. The police placed all three into custody presumable to spend a night in jail. Most of the Browns fans in our section were polite but I was amazed at the brazen attitudes those three had toward law enforcement and as visitors. I cringe to imagine what was happening in the upper decks. In this case, they started it, but Pittsburghers finished it.
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
This year’s Steelers are not the most talented group in the team’s long history, but they have a lot of heart. For me, I’m enjoying this season as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. On to Arizona. Here we go.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. Here is Every Rose Has Its Thorn by the Poison. A top single of 1989. That was the last time oddsmakers favored Cleveland to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. We’re still a thorn in their sides.