It was far from pretty, but few wins in the AFC North are pretty.
Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Steelers, without kicker Chris Boswell in the second half they were able to emerge with a key 15-10 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday afternoon in FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, moving to 4-3 on the season.
The Steelers showed a lot of balance offensively, stopped the run at a high rate defensively and forced a couple of key turnovers late in the game to remain right in the thick of things in the AFC North and the AFC Playoff picture.
Let’s get to some grades.
QB — B-
On a day in which he needed to be just good enough offensively, Ben Roethlisberger was just that, avoiding the back-breaking turnovers, hitting the key throws when they were there and keeping the Browns’ secondary honest as the Steelers’ offense was well-balanced throughout Sunday’s 5-point win.
Roethlisberger did have a couple of questionable throws in the win, but overall he avoided the turnovers, hit the throws he needed to and moved the ball down the field throughout the game. He even showed the ability to extend some plays, threw a dart on the run to Diontae Johnson and did a nice job overall of keeping the Steelers ahead of the sticks.
That’s all you can ask of him at his point in his career. There’s a winning formula there and the Steelers and Roethlisberger followed it to a T on Sunday.
RB — B+
Though the box score stats might not look great overall for Najee Harris, the Steelers’ rookie was really good in his first game against the rival Browns, rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, adding another 29 yards on three catches.
Harris ran very hard, consistently fell forward and wore down the Browns’ front seven down the stretch, helping the Steelers run out the clock for the big 15-10 win in AFC North play.
The workload is a bit of a concern as Harris is on pace for more than 400 touches as a rookie, but he’s built for the workload, at least early in his career. When he’s this successful too and gives the Steelers an identity on offense, you have to keep feeding him.
Behind Harris, Anthony McFarland made his season debut and rushed one time for one yard, serving more as a decoy when on the field as he’s eased back into the lineup. Kalen Ballage rushed once for -3 yards and left the game with injured ribs, while Benny Snell had one catch for seven yards. It’s very clear this is Harris’s backfield.
WR — B+
I was really pleased with the Steelers’ receivers on Sunday. They stayed patient, made plays when it counted and really helped keep the Browns’ defense honest throughout the game.
Diontae Johnson continues to emerge as a star, hauling in six passes for 98 yards, including a win-sealing 53-yard catch-and-run on an RPO late in the fourth quarter, slicing through the middle of the Browns’ defense to end the game.
Chase Claypool was a man possessed on Sunday, fighting through a number of tackles and making some clutch contested catches, finishing with four catches for 45 yards in the win.
James Washington was the only other Steelers’ receiver to have a catch in the win, hauling in one pass for four yards. Washington did have a monumental blunder on a Ray-Ray McCloud end around, getting called for holding that wiped out an explosive run near the goal line.
McCloud rushed the football once for 10 yards, Claypool added two carries for 16 yards.
TE — A-
Without Eric Ebron, I had some concerns about the Steelers’ abilities from the tight end position to factor into the passing game, Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry put that to rest early and often.
Freiermuth was terrific on Sunday, hauling in four passes for 44 yards and a spectacular juggling, toe-tapping touchdown. He was a physical blocker in the run game too and has really opened things up for the Steelers’ offense over the middle of the field.
Gentry really surprised me as a pass catcher on Sunday, finishing with three catches for 39 yards, including a clutch 24-yard catch on first and 20 to move the chains late in the fourth quarter. This feels like a really solid duo moving forward in Pittsburgh. I wonder if we could see an Ebron move on Tuesday.
OL — C-
Overall I thought the offensive line took another step forward as a run blocking unit on Sunday, helping the Steelers wear down Cleveland’s front seven. I still have plenty of concerns about the group’s ability to protect the passer though.
I was really pleased with the moment the line got up front in the ground game as Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green had really good games, while I liked what I saw from Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor at times as run blockers.
Moore Jr. was dreadful in pass protection though, struggling mightily against Myles Garrett as he was left on an island throughout the game. Aside from the struggles in pass protection against Garrett, the offensive line really had issues with penalties, including some pre-snap brain cramps that can’t continue to happen, like being on the line of scrimmage.
There were far too many holding calls as well on Sunday that need to be cleaned up moving forward.
DL — A-
Against one of the best offensive lines in football, a shorthanded Steelers’ defensive line had a whale of a game.
Cameron Heyward turned in one of his best performances of the season, finishing with four tackles, half a sack, two quarterback hits and blew up numerous run plays with initial penetration. He was a one-man wrecking crew throughout the game and couldn’t be blocked.
Henry Mondeaux flashed at times against the run, getting early penetration and working off plays to disrupt the flow.
Something about playing the Browns brings out the best in Chris Wormley too. The veteran finished with four tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit in the win and was instrumental in bottling up the Browns’ rushing attack, as was Isaiah Buggs and Isaiahh Loudermilk, who focused on staying in their gaps and keeping linebackers clean behind them to flow to the football and make plays.
LB — B
Talk about a revenge game for Joe Schobert. Though the former Brown struggled at times in coverage, he was fantastic in the box, finishing with a game-high nine tackles and combined with Taco Charlton to force a key fumble in the win. Schobert did a great job working off of blocks and finding the football, which is the key against the Browns’ rushing attack.
Devin Bush had a strong game too, finishing with five run stops, though he had as bad of a rep as you’ll see on D’Earnest Johnson’s touchdown run, overflowing and leaving a massive cutback lane for the score. He’s getting his legs under him and seemed to play much faster on Sunday. That’s a positive sign.
Robert Spillane was sound against the run too and maintained gap integrity this week after struggling in Week 6 against the Seahawks.
Outside, T.J. Watt was again a menace, finishing with six tackles, 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and three quarterback hits. Much like Myles Garrett, Watt simply can’t be blocked. He’s a game wrecker that teams just don’t have an answer for.
Opposite Watt, Alex Highsmith had a rather quiet game, finishing with just four tackles. He did have a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit, though he was hit with a questionable roughing the passer penalty in the win.
DB — B-
Early on it looked like it was going to be a rough outing for the secondary once again as Baker Mayfield and the Browns marched right down the field, picking on Joe Haden and James Pierre.
After that though, the secondary rebounded and played well overall.
Haden continues to miss tackles at a high rate, but he’s still decent in coverage, while Pierre and Cameron Sutton had strong games overall in coverage. They were certainly bailed out by some key Jarvis Landry drops though.
At safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick made some big plays on Sunday, forcing a key fourth-down incompletion to Landry and generally looked like Minkah once again, while Terrell Edmunds was sound playing the run, made some big stops and really rebounded from a bad performance against the Seahawks.
Arthur Maulet is turning into a nice player in nickel for the Steelers too. He’s a good run defender, brings some juice off the edge and can handle himself in coverage. Good piece to have there.
Special Teams — D
The fake field goal for Boswell to throw was absolutely dreadful in that situation. Kick the field goal, take the points and go into the half up 6-3. Instead, they went for the fake, Boswell got drilled and missed the rest of the game and the two teams went into the half tied at 3-3 with the Steelers missing their kicker the rest of the game.
Without Boswell the kicking game was non-existent and really threw everything off from there.
There was a bad delay of game penalty late in the game on a punt, followed up by a short 37-yard punt from Pressley Harvin III. That said, the rookie was good throughout, averaging 44 yards a punt, downing the Browns inside the 20 yard line once.
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice day returning punts, reeling off a 19-yarder near the end of the first half. He needs to be catching all punts though that he can, rather than letting some of these bounce and take favorable rolls for the opponents.
I was very pleased with the coverage teams on Sunday overall. The Browns had just 10 kick return yards and a 1-yard punt return. There was no room throughout the game to do anything in the return game for the Browns.
The infractions, decision making and inconsistencies need cleaned up though.