PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS CLEVELAND BROWNS
I traveled back to Pittsburgh for to see if the Steelers could handle the surging Cleveland Browns. Steve S. drove me up. Steve has not lived in the Burgh for years and travels around the world from his now home base in the DC area. He is part of the Pittsburgh diaspora but remains a Steelers fan. He’s a bit younger than me, his earliest memories are of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister quarterbacked teams. The first game he attended at Three Rivers Stadium was a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in December 1986. The game started bad with the Chiefs blocking a Harry Newsome first quarter punt in the endzone for a touchdown. They built a 26-6 halftime lead and held onto to win 24-16 despite Mark Malone’s 351 passing yards. The Steelers had 515 total yards to the Chiefs 171, but the score is what counts. Thankfully, the Steelers opened this game much stronger than the first game he ever attended.
The Browns rode a four-game win streak into town. The Steelers matched that streak with one of their own. The question was about the quality of their opponents. The Vegas line favored the Steelers at home by three points – a virtual tossup.
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 . Matt wanted us to watch Chase Claypool with Diontae Johnson out of game. But inexperienced right side of the offensive line would have to deal with monstrous Myles Garrett. Then, Matt focused our attention on whether Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt could penetrate to disrupt both the Browns passing and running game. Also, Joe Haden and Steve Nelson need to cover Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry without biting on play action. Matt concluded that the Browns were thin at safety which offense could exploit.
Tyler Wise identified the key matchup to watch this week. Tyler focused our attention on the Steelers pass defense against the Browns play-action pass game. Mayfield is phenomenally successful on play-action rollouts. Tyler noted that the defense must remain disciplined against a strong running team.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the five keys to a Steelers victory . First, the offensive line neutralizes Myles Garrett. Second, the defense stuffs the run game early. Third, exploit the Browns safeties. Fourth, defense improves the third down conversion rate. Fifth, offense uses motion to release speedy receivers for passing play.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Browns prediction. Alex foresaw victory if Steelers contain Cleveland’s running game, Alejandro Villanueva plays his A-game, and Ray-Ray McCloud breaks long returns. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if fooled by a trick play at critical time, defense can’t handle Mayfield’s mobility, and offense turns over the ball. Alex predicted the Steelers winning 28-20.
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?
The Steelers scored three on their opening drive. But a hot second quarter gave Pittsburgh a 24-7 halftime lead.
OPEN WITH A THREE BUT SEVEN WAS WITHIN REACH
The Steelers first play from the 25-yard line was a five-yard James Conner run. On third down Ben connects with James Washington for 28 yards. No three and out! Conner runs to the left side three times in a row for 22 yards and two firs downs. Then Snell catches a pass for four yards to the 17-yard line when the drive stalls and Chris Boswell kicks for three. Ben’s pass to Washington was the critical play on second and six. I took this snap from my seat. You can see the ball in the air, and it looks like Denzel Ward is undressing Washington in front of the Field Judge.
OFFENSE STRIKES TWICE
The Steelers punted away on their next two possessions but enjoy a 10-0 lead thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick scoring a pick-six. The offense got the ball at their 12-yard line following a Browns punt early in the second quarter. Conner dug the Steelers out of the hole with a 14-yard run on the first play. Sheldrick Redwine extended JuJu’s one-yard catch by 15 yards by grabbing his facemask. Eric Ebron picks up another first down with a seven-yard catch. Then Ben finds Chase Claypool deep down the left sideline for a 36-yard gain. Conner caps the drive with a three-yard touchdown run. Steelers 17-0.
The offense gets the ball back at midfield following Cam Sutton’s interception. Ben almost found Claypool deep on a free play due to defensive offsides. Conner loses four. Then gains 13 after Claypool’s eight-yard catch to set up first down at the 28-yard line. Ben passes to James Washington for a 24-0 lead.
ONE MINUTE OFFENSE SPUTTERS
The Browns score to make it 24-7. The offense gets the ball with 1:01 left in half to either score or at least keep the ball until the whistle. From the 24, Ben targets JuJu but is incomplete. Myles Garrett sacks Ben on the next play and Browns call timeout. On third and `18, James Washington gains six yards and inexplicably allows himself to be forced out of bounds stopping the clock instead of just dropping to the ground to force the Browns to call a second timeout. Instead, Cleveland gets the ball back with 33 seconds and two timeouts. Plenty of time to get into field goal range. With the Browns receiving the second half kickoff, they can score three times in a row. Luckily, the defense holds, and Ben ends the half in a kneeling position.
Steelers punt on first possession but kill five minutes off clock. Score twice more to flush the Browns down.
FIVE YARDS GAINED; FIVE MINUTES KILLED
The offense starts with great field position at the Browns 45 due to McCloud’s 16-yard punt return. The drive starts optimistically with Conner running for six, then three yards to set up a third and one. Ben threw to McCloud who was running down the field, but he could not complete the catch. Conner bulls over to get the necessary yardage to convert the fourth down. Ben completes a short pass to conner but officials’ flag Maurkice Pouncey for holding. The all-22 film may reveal it but the replay in the stadium replays show no evidence of Pouncey’s hold. Fans lustily boo the NFL officials.
On first and 19, Ben runs the ball! It had to be a broken play. It looked like Anthony McFarland got tangled up with a blocker and defender. Must have been a broken play but Ben had everyone so shocked he was tucking the ball the defense froze for a full four seconds allowing him to pick up four yards. On third and 13, Ebron caught an 18-yard pass but another flag appears. Officials say Ebron pushed off. Again, the all-22 may show it but he stadium replay shows little or no contact and again the booing commences with all the gusto five thousand fans can muster. On third and 23 Claypool catches a seven-yard pass and the Steelers punt. Eight offensive plays (one no play) with a net gain of five yards but the Browns have five less minutes on the game clock.
OFFENSE RUNS UP THE SCORE
The Browns hand the ball back to the Steelers on their own 28 when they fail to gain a first down on fourth and one. The Steelers run the ball eight straight times for another score. Conner runs the first four for 17 yards and a first down. Snell runs twice for six yards to set up a fourth and one at the five-yard line. Todd Haley is heard screaming, “NOOO!” from somewhere outside the stadium. It might have been near Tequila Cowboys, yet his protestation goes unheeded as Ben performs a quarterback sneak despite its being blacked out in the playbook. First down at the three! Claypool stretches to the left for the final three and a 31-7 lead.
STEELERS SCORE ENCORE THEN COAST
Browns fail to convert another fourth down and the offense starts at their own 45 early in the fourth quarter. Conner takes the ball into Browns territory with an eight-yard run. Then follows with a six-yard run. Safety Andrew Sendejo in on both tackles. Claypool, Snell, and McFarland combine for five carries and 17 yards. On third and seven, Claypool catches a 23-yard pass and I thought reached the pylon for the touchdown, but officials call him down at the one. Benny Snell drives the stake in with a touchdown run. It’s 38-7 with 8:08 to play and time to relax – at a Steelers game? Can’t remember the last time had this feeling with so much time left.
Mason Rudolph comes in to mop up. Anthony runs a couple times and catches a Rudolph pass. The offense punts but it feels satisfying for Rudolph getting to play a little after last year’s head bashing drama. He finishes the game with three kneel downs to tend the game in the victory formation.
Defense established domination early in game. One miscue eliminated the shutout.
EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN UNTIL PUNCHED IN MOUTH
Mike Tyson’s famous line applies in this game. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The Browns had the strongest running attack coming into this game. Averaging something like 188 rushing yards a game. Many Steelers pundits observed that if the Steelers defense did not quell the Browns running game early, their heavy use of play action passes could ravage the defense.
On cue, Kareem Hunt ran on first down. He gained two yards. Baker Mayfield scrambled for five yards and it was third three with the Steelers leading 3-0. Mayfield targeted Harrison Bryant over the middle but it was Minkah Fitzpatrick who pocketed the ball. He raced 33 yards for the pick six and a 10-0 lead and the game were not even five minutes old. The Browns ran the ball 22 times for 75 yards. This first series set the tone for the rest of the game.
THREE PUNTS AND ANOTHER INTERCEPTION
The Steelers defense forced the Browns to punt on their next three possessions. On third and six, Bud Dupree sacked Mayfield. Browns punt from 26-yard line. Next drive, Browns start to move the ball picking up a couple first downs, but Stephon Tuitt sacks Mayfield on second and three. Mayfield throws for Odell Beckham, but Joe Haden defends the pass. Browns go into punt formation again. T.J. Watt dropped Hunt for a loss to start a third drive. Terrell Edmunds bats a pass intended for David Njoku. On third and five Mayfield misses Jarvis Landry. On fourth down, Jedrick Wills false starts and browns punt again.
Beckham gains a first down on a 12-yard reception to start another drive down 17-0. Referees call holding making it second and 20. A short completion and Mayfield back to pass on third and 12. The ball intended for Rashard Higgins but Cam Sutton high points the ball landing on the 50-yard line. It seems that every time the Browns enjoy a positive play, the Steelers defense is there to punch them in the mouth and take the Browns offense out of its rhythm. The offense exploits the turnover, and it is 24-0.
MISCUE RESULTS IN BROWNS SCORE
Steelers are up 24-0 and the defense dominating. Kareem Hunt runs twice for six yards. It is third and four. The play clock is wind down, 3-2-1-0 snap. I’m yelling for a delay of game flag. A flag appears on the ground. The replay shows Watt stepping into the neutral zone. He must have anticipated the snap as the clock transitioned from one to zero. A close call but the browns drive continues instead of punting from their own 31. The call distracted the Steelers. Mayfield competes a 36-yard pass to Austin Hooper and are at the 28. I believe this is the play Devin Bush hurt his knee on the sideline. On second and ten, Joe Haden intercepts the ball. Again, the replay in the stadium is inconclusive to me. I’ll have to ask Dave and Alex what the all-22 film shows. Hunt takes the ball into the red zone. Mayfield is slippery but Cam Sutton sacks him for no gain. But on the next play Rashard Higgins is alone in the right side of the end zone and scores. Not sure what the breakdown was but the secondary left Higgins completely uncovered.
The Browns get the ball one more time with 33 seconds and two timeouts. Officials flag Jarvis Landry for offensive pass interference. On second and seven, Robert Spillane in for Bush tackles Austin Hooper to prevent a first down. On third and one Mayfield throws incomplete toward Beckham. Defense holds and preserves the 24-7 lead.
The defense stops three fourth down plays to hand the ball back to the offense. Forces punts on the other two drives of the half.
BROWNS OFFENSE NO WHERE TO GO
The Browns longest play on the opening drive of the second half was Hunt’s two-yard run. Bud Dupree sacked Mayfield again for a ten-yard loss. An odd non-play occurred on third and 18. Two officials stood in the Browns formation talking as the play clock wound down. Mayfield appealed to them but after a quick conference with the head referee, the officials flagged the Browns for delay of game. On third and 23 Tuitt forced D’Ernest Johnson to fumble. Johnson recovered his own fumble – I thought Mother Hubbard came up with it, but the statisticians have a better view than me. Also, not sure if it was end of first half but Heyward creamed Mayfield on a passing play. He was in Dupree’s grasp, but officials had not blown the play dead. Mayfield brought himself off the ground like Colt McCoy after a James Harrison shot.
THREE FOURTH DOWNS AND BROWNS GO FOR IT
The Steelers led by three scores 24-7. On third and four, Mayfield completed a pass to Jarvis Landry midway through the third quarter. Steve Nelson defended the play and initially the official called it an incomplete. The Browns won the challenge where Landry had the ball in one hand and stretched out and downed the ball on the ground. A couple years ago that was an incomplete. But after the Jesse James debacle against the New England Patriots (he caught it) the NFL revised their interpretation of what constitutes a catch. Nevertheless, he was a yard short of a first down. Kareem Hunt went up the middle, but Heyward and Watt dropped him for a one-yard loss.
Case Keenum replaced Mayfield on the next drive as the third quarter ended. Keenum completed a pass in the backfield to Hooper. Spillane dropped him for a six-yard loss. Keenum passed for consecutive first downs. First to Landry for 24 yards then for 13 yards to Beckham. Vince Williams crushed Hooper on an eight-yard pass. On third and two Haden defended a pass to Landry. On fourth and two Keenum missed Hunt. Tomlin may have come onto the field somewhere to complain that the quarterback intentionally grounded on a pass.
The offense scored again, and it was 38-7 with 8:08 left. Renegade played right before the kickoff. Dontrell Hilliard ran for 19 yards and then for eight. The Browns were killing time. But on fourth and two, the Browns went for it a third time. This time Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu brought the runner down for a two-yard loss.
The Browns got the ball one more time but with 3:17 left they just wanted to go home. On fourth and two the Browns punted in lieu of going for it a fourth time in a row. The game just needed three kneel downs by the offense to end it.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goal kicking and blocking field goals plus PAT attempts.
Chris Boswell kicked off seven times. Two kickoffs were touchbacks. Donovan Peoples-Jones returned four for 89 yards. He reached the 25-yard line once. Steelers coverage unit tackled him behind the 25 on the other three returns. Dontrell Hilliard returned one 13 yards to the 16-yard line. Highsmith and Jordan Dangerfield made two tackles apiece on kickoffs. Claypool, Pierre, and Snell each credited with one.
Cody Parkey kicked off twice. The first was a touchback. Ray-Ray McCloud returned the second 28 yards to the 24. The Steelers average start was at the 24.5 line; the Browns at their 22. Advantage Steelers.
Dustin Colquitt punted five times averaging 41.8 yards a punt. The Browns returned the first two for six yards. Spillane and Highsmith credited with the tackles. Great coverage on both kickoffs and punts. The Steelers penalized five yards for illegal formation making Colquitt’s net with the touch back a lowly 35.6 yards per punt.
Jamie Gillan punted six times averaging 40.3 yards a punt. McCloud returned the first four yards to the 35-yard line. He also returned the last two punts for 16 and 17 yards, respectively. He does not go down on first contact usually. Gillan netted 34.2 yards a punt but pinned the Steelers behind the 20 twice compared to once for Colquitt. I still give the edge to the better returns by McCloud. Advantage Steelers.
FIELD GOALS AND POINTS AFTER TDS
Chris Boswell made his only field goal attempt. He went five for five on extra point attempts. The field goal gave the Steelers a 3-0 o start the game. Parkey made his only PAT. Advantage Steelers.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST REVIEW
- Offensive line neutralizes Myles Garrett. Garrett sacked Ben once and recoded three total tackles. Mission accomplished.
- Defense stuffs the run game early. Minkah’s interception put the Browns in an early hole. Hunt runs for just 40 yards. Mission accomplished.
- Exploit the Browns safeties. Ben landed a couple deep shots. Mission accomplished.
- Defense improves the third down conversion rate. Last week, defense gave up 10 of 14 third down conversions. This week just one of 12 plus stopped three fourth down attempts. Mission accomplished with gusto.
- Offense uses motion to release speedy receivers for passing play. Still hidden in the playbook but not needed yet. Mission fail.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 775 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Ross McCorkle kept us informed with live updates as we chirped our comments.
Cam Heyward smashed Baker Mayfield late in the second half. It took him awhile to get up. Surprising that his linemen weren’t there to help him. Stone Age Tone from across the pond had the leading comment of the half: “Baker could be done, Keenum after HT would make me a little nervous?” Mayfield would be done later in the second half. Case Keenum subbed for him in the fourth quarter.
Dante Parker did not like the run-pass-option plays, “Stop that rpo ben u suck at it. 2nd time almost picked.”
The 6 Ring Circus thought T.J. Watt was fast off the ball. The refs did call him once. “TJ Watt has got a great get-off today. My eyes are telling me he’s offsides, but the replays tell a different story. Explosive.”
I had the pleasure of meeting a regular contributor to the Steelers Depot comments section. At halftime, I got to meet the Ravens Team Gynecologist:
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
Comments down to 758 in the 2nd half live discussion. The Steelers start half up 24-7 and it was 38-7 before it was all over.
Alevin16 produced the favorite comment of the half and it did not involve the Steelers.: “Patriots go down. Not as satisfying without Brady but I will take it” I guess the game got too boring with such a big lead.
Aj Gentile noted “Hooper is going to regret signing in the AFC North.”
Dante Parker had no mercy, “Keep on the gas steelers!”
Nelsonator762 observed “Here we go with the officials trying to keep these close again.” Definitely Not Udyr agreed, “The NFL needs to make a decision to either: 1) make holding legal; or 2) start calling it. Sheesh.”
DarthYinzer commented on the Cleveland incompletion overturned by replay, “Jesse James says that’s incomplete.”
Alevin16 must be a mind reader – “I want Rudolph to fake a handoff and throw a TD.”
Steve summed up the game. “The most complete win by this team in a long time. And by the way, Cleveland is a much-improved team, the Steelers just happen to be a little bit better today.”
It was very satisfying except for the devastating injury to Devin Bush.
The Steelers announced that 5260 fans attended the game meaning 95.6% of available tickets scanned entering the stadium. I observed some Browns fans at the game but not as many visiting fans as last week. In any case, those I saw exiting the stadium after the game looked stunned, like someone punched them in the face. If their original plan was a postgame celebration at Pittsburgh’s expense, now there only thoughts were the fastest way to the Ohio border.
The stadium did play Renegade just before the fourth quarter kickoff after the final score. The fans in the stadium enjoyed it and hope the players did too.
Fans kept waiting for something bad to happen. Well losing Devin Bush for the season is a terrible blow. But the fans were also worried about a comeback by the Browns. We are yinzers after all and big leads have slipped away before. A 14-point Steelers still haunt me lead against the Oakland Raiders in the 1976 season opener. Ken “Snake” Stabler engineered 17 unanswered points with five minutes to play in the game against the best defense in NFL history. But that’s another story.
Minkah Fitzpatrick proved his doubters wrong. He is now one of just 18 Steelers with three or more defensive touchdowns. He punched Cleveland in the face. The rest of the defense added to the assault. Bud Dupree crushed people and chased an elusive Mayfield around the backfield sacking him twice. Heyward laid the wood on Mayfield. Cam Sutton recorded a sack and an interception. The defense stopped three fourth and short plays in the second half. Dominance.
One question is who replaces Devin Bush? A combination of Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, and/or Ulysses Gilbert? Or do they seek help from outside? On Tuesday, we will hear the official team report on Bush and others like Mike Hilton (shoulder) and Maurkice Pouncey (foot) who did not finish the game.
The offense scored 31 points. The offense has many weapons. Last week it was Chase Claypool. This week James Conner controlled the tempo gaining over 100 yards and scoring a touchdown. Oh, and last week’s hero offensive hero scored again. Ben is taking what the defenses are giving him. I like it.
The coverage units on special teams have blanketed returners. Colquitt may be on thin ice. I heard on the Steelers Depot Q & A Livestream Monday night that Jordan Berry may be in for a tryout. Whatever it takes to keep the team improving. Another big game next week! I’ll be watching this one remotely. Here we go!
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. Pittsburgh dominated and by the fourth quarter Cleveland submitted. Here is Dominance and Submission by Blue Oyster Cult.