The Pittsburgh Steelers took care of business on Sunday with a win against the Cleveland Browns with their largest 28-14 victory on the season, but disappointingly not getting the necessary help to make it to the playoffs. Encouraging performance though with a highlight on offense getting six explosive plays including a touchdown and improving in red zone touchdowns with two on the ground, the defense playing well overall with two interceptions and a whopping seven sacks, along with winning the penalty battle 4-9. In this article, I will provide data from Pro Football Focus and takeaways from watching the film.
Let’s start with the offense:
PFF’s highest-graded player in the finale was tight end Connor Heyward (84.5) who saw more playing time with 25 snaps as fellow tight end Pat Freiermuth exited the game early due to injury, catching three of his four targets, with one considered a drop in the end zone, and providing 45 yards highlighted by an impressive catch up the seam for an explosive 27 yard gain, along with a six-yard run, and playing well as a run blocker. The second-ranked grade is tackle Trent Scott (75.6), and agree that he blocked very well on his limited six snaps as an extra lineman, and glad he got this recognition. Wide receiver George Pickens was next in the grades (75.4), starting the game out quiet but coming out strong with six targets, catching three of them for 72 yards and a touchdown, which was an explosive 31-yarder where he made the Browns pay for a busted coverage on the longest touchdown for the offense all season, and his other two catches were impressive as well, with a second explosive play of 24 yards and a chunk of 17 that were both awesome catches in combative situations. Up next is fullback Derek Watt (75.2), highlighted by one of the team’s rushing touchdowns punching it in from the one-yard line, and played six snaps.
Pickett had the fifth-ranked performance on offense this week (70.7), going 13/29 for his lowest completion rate of 44.8% on the season (other than his one attempt before he was concussed against Baltimore) emphasizing his struggles with accuracy at many points in the game, though he was not helped on the receiving end with at least three drops, throwing for 195 yards and the touchdown to Pickens, along with having more issues in the pocket rather than on the move. The final player with a +70 grade is tight end Zach Gentry (70.3), who had a good game as a blocker after a largely down season in that regard, along with an explosive catch and run for 23 yards on his only target. Freiermuth was the only player with a below 50 grade this week (42), unable to connect with Pickett on his two targets, along with a below-the-line performance as a blocker, with struggles in a couple of matchups against Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett (as many would), and the play he was injured on was a prime example. Thank goodness the team got good news that it was a knee sprain and would not require surgery.
Pittsburgh’s offense came on for the first time at 12:28 in the first quarter with the scoreboard still empty and encouragingly got the ground game going right away with great collective blocks from the entire offensive line and Gentry, with a particularly good interior push including tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Scott, giving running back Najee Harris room to roam on the eight-yard gain. On second and two, it was right back to Harris on the ground, duplicating the result with another eight-yard gain where guard James Daniels blocked his man to the ground and Heyward landed just enough on the pulling block to allow the bounce outside, picking up the first down and more with cornerback Denzel Ward getting past wide receiver Diontae Johnson who did not attempt to block for the tackle.
The following first down was right back to it, where Harris provided another great run dodging the defender that Pickens allowed into the backfield, then made another great cut to get vertical and churn forward for the six-yard gain. On second and four, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, giving running back Jaylen Warren a turn on the carry and able to get most of the needed yardage for three, getting behind a good double team block from center Mason Cole and Daniels, but Gentry allowing his man to track the ball and tackle the churning run. Third and a short one now, and love the sneak threat quarterback Kenny Pickett provides in these situations with Cleveland crowding the line and interior but instead running a recent wrinkle on the tight end sweep to Heyward this week, who was able to get one on one against the smaller cornerback on the edge thanks to good blocking again, dragging him for six yards on the conversion. Awesome start with five straight successful runs.
Third first down of the drive and it’s Pickett’s first pass of the game, sliding right off the shotgun snap and getting it to Johnson on the flat route after he went in motion, but drops the easy would-be catch eying his YAC opportunity. On second and ten, Okorafor was pushed back on the stretch run to his side, forcing Harris to turn back inside, but Garrett was unblocked on the backside and there to meet him behind the line, nearly able to break the tackle but a sea off Browns flying in to ensure their first run stop on the loss of three. Third and a long 13 now, and Cleveland was still in the holiday spirit, gifting Pittsburgh an offsides penalty that led to a more manageable third and eight. Pickett takes the empty shotgun snap and fantastically eludes the would-be sack with Okorafor beat badly, rolling right and finding Johnson who got wide open and made a great cut inside to elude one defender and gallops with plenty of green grass in front, deciding to try and get outside of the one man between him and the end zone, which allowed a defensive back to track him down from behind and make the tackle at the two-yard line. Man, SO CLOSE to Johnson’s first touchdown of the season, but the bright side is an explosive 32-yard play and in the red zone.
On first and goal, Harris got the call but Daniels was thrown to the ground and Okorafor allowed his man by, getting his knee down just before the goal line at the one-yard line. On second and goal, it’s a Pickett sneak behind Cole and Daniels, but nothing doing as he’s brought down for no gain on another run stop. Big third and goal, and it’s back to Harris who tries to leap across the goal line, but with the ball exposed the linebacker is hair-pullingly able to jar the ball loose, with Cleveland getting the luck of the bounce and excruciatingly recovering it for the turnover. Painful red zone fails continue for this offense, and no points on an overall encouraging drive, ouch.
The offense returned with three minutes left in the first quarter and the game still scoreless, and Pickett is forced to scramble with guard Kevin Dotson beat, similarly finding Johnson again who worked inside to get open, but near disaster on back-to-back plays with Ward knocking the ball out, but the original call of a fumble was thankfully overturned and goes down as an incompletion, whew. On second and ten, wide receiver Steven Sims comes in motion and gets the jet sweep handoff, getting around the faked-out defender and around a good block from wide receiver Gunner Olszewski, then makes a nice inside cut past the defender on the nice chunk gain of 16 yards.
The following first down was another Browns’ penalty, this one illegal contact drawn by Freiermuth that thankfully negated a Pickett sack where both Daniels and Cole were beat. The next first and ten was back to Harris on the ground, where tackle Dan Moore had a good block and Cole took his man to the turf, but forced the jump cut inside and tackled quickly with Daniels unable to connect on the linebacker who made the tackle for only two yards. On second and eight, Garrett beat Moore around the edge on his pass rush, and with Dotson sliding towards him trips up Pickett after his quick release on his first target to Freiermuth on a stop route at the sticks which was understandably a bit off target, thankfully getting a hand on it on the pass breakup as opposed to an interception. Third and eight now, and Pickett enjoys a clean pocket but is inaccurate once again, overthrowing Johnson on the in route over the middle who was also double covered to force the punt.
Returning with 13:29 in the second quarter Pickett fakes to Harris, then to Warren on the reverse, and comes back to Harris on the screen pass but unfortunately, Dotson is called for a huge ineligible man downfield penalty, negating a would-be double explosive play down the sideline, ugh. Trying again on first and 15, Warren got the carry here but is limited to only one yard with Garrett able to get there despite Heyward’s cut block along with Okorafor being unable to land the second level block on the run stop. On second and 14, Pickett takes the shotgun snaps and eyes his three receivers to the left, and gets a bit antsy with seemingly good coverage and Garrett using an inside spin move on Moore but has good help from Dotson, then takes the dump off to Warren who is brought down fairly quickly after a bit of YAC on the gain of three. Third and a long 11 now, and despite good pass protection (though Daniels was pushed back) is inaccurate again on an extreme overthrow to Pickens. Tough short sequence here and forced to punt it away.
The offense returned at 6:27 in a seven-point hole now and Pickett play actions and rolls to the right, finding Gentry wide open on the intermediate over route for the catch and run for a nice explosive 23-yard gain to start the drive. The following first down was a handoff to Harris, but lacked room with Daniels and Dotson allowing their men to work off their blocks to tackle the two-yard gain. On second and eight, Olszewski comes in motion and takes the jet sweep with Freiermuth and Harris out in front, blocking the same man and allowing the free cornerback to tackle him out of bounds for only three yards. Third and five now, and Pickett flings it down the sideline to Johnson on the go ball incomplete, but draws the huge defensive pass interference that sets up a fresh set of downs.
Continuing on first down, Warren got the carry and was able to accelerate forward despite Gentry allowing Garrett to penetrate in the backfield, finding space around a Dotson block but Moore was unable to connect on the linebacker who tackles the successful six-yard gain. On second and four, there was a big hole on the right side initially between Daniels/Okorafor and Gentry, but the safety came up quickly to make the tackle on another successful gain of three. Third and a short one now, and Pickett drops back but disrupted quickly with Garrett winning soundly around the edge on Moore, prompting the step up and flails a scary dump-off pass to Warren to avoid the sack, and excellent job forcing one missed tackle behind the line and met by two defenders on the one-yard gain and generous ball spot in my opinion for the first down.
As the drive continued, Harris gets the carry but is blown up for no gain by the edge rusher and muscled to the ground by the defensive lineman. On second and ten at the two-minute warning from the 26-yard line (near red zone), Pickett is able to get the pass off despite Okorafor losing badly to the outside, going for Johnson on the deep go ball in the end zone, and the throw is too far outside landing out of bounds and also broken up by the cornerback, man they’re trying but still no touchdown for Johnson. Third and ten now, and Pittsburgh just can’t seem to stop shooting themselves in the foot with an all too familiar untimely penalty, this one an unforced delay of game penalty setting up a third and even longer 15. Pittsburgh lucked out here though, with the Pickett to Pickens connection showing up thanks to a good pocket, aligning from the slot and running wide open on a blown coverage up the seam for the easy catch and waltz in for the explosive 31-yard touchdown, which is the longest score for the offense all season! Two explosive plays and three key conversions including the touchdown encouragingly put Pittsburgh’s first points on the board and tie the game.
With 1:11 left before halftime, the offense quickly returned thanks to the takeaway by the defense, and Pickett gets pressured on his first dropback allowed by Dotson, but gets the target to Johnson though the pass is a bit high but definitely catchable, hitting him in the hands on the bobbled leaping effort and broken up on the way down falling incomplete. On second and ten Pickett goes back to Pickens despite Moore getting pushed back, this time on a back shoulder and showcasing his knack to break off his go route to free himself up for the catch, then slammed out of bounds on the pretty 24-yard explosive play.
57 seconds left and in field goal range, and on this first down drop back Heyward provided a great chip but Harris lost in pass pro up the middle, but Pickett was able to go right back to Pickens, making another back shoulder grab and toe-tapping, with the closest official thinking he made the spectacular catch but overruled as an incompletion out of bounds, making it all the more confusing that it wasn’t reviewed, crazy. Timeout #1 Pittsburgh doesn’t change the cause either, wow. On second and ten, Pickett takes the shotgun snap and slides right, directing traffic over the middle but not liking what he sees (and enjoyed seeing him communicate that to the receiver), and scrambles out of bounds for a one-yard gain. Third and nine now, and Cleveland brings a six-man blitz and Pickett just flings it out of bounds with a free rusher in his face, smart play maintaining good field goal range and putting more points on the board, and get their first lead just before heading to the locker room.
The offense came on first to start the second half with the score 10-7 and encouragingly opened on the ground with a Harris run, getting behind a good second-level block from Moore and between a bit of space between Freiermuth (one on one against Garrett) and Dotson, but allowing their men to tackle the five-yard gain. On second and five, Warren got the handoff for the outside run with Heyward providing a good pulling block on the safety to spring him, along with a nice downfield block from Johnson on the explosive 22-yard run down the sideline, love it.
The following first down had interesting backfield action, with Olszewski motioning to the right and Pickett selling the roll out that way which got the defense flowing with it, but instead turning left and getting it to Harris in the flat, making the catch and ducking/stiff-arming the one defender in front for the forced missed tackle, able to get ten yards before he was chased down. First down once again and it’s back to Harris, this time on the ground getting space with good blocks from Daniels and Cole, but Dotson not landing a second-level block, and Moore allowing Garrett to tackle the three-yard gain. On second and seven, Pickett made a great sell on the play action rollout to the right, with a great find and throw to Johnson on the run, making the catch at the sticks but stumbling slightly backward and out of bounds. This leads to a third and a short one, and it’s a sweep to Olszewski, cutting inside with Gentry and Freiermuth blocking on the edge, taking on the free defender and close call at the marker, and the officials give him just enough for the first down, didn’t think he got it whew.
Continuing on first down, it’s back to Harris on the ground, this one another successful gain of eight with good blocks and a hole created by Daniels and Okorafor, but Sims allows his man to get in on the tackle along with Dotson allowing his man to chase down the play. This set Pittsburgh up in the red zone on second and two, Harris is the man once again and busts off another chunk gain of nine with great collective blocks including a Daniels pancake, Dotson seal, and Cole out in front to spring him.
First down once again and Harris is finally stopped for a short gain of one on this run, pressing a bit straight ahead and running into a brick wall that was Cole’s back, and uncharacteristically falling to the ground with seemingly minimal contact. On second and nine at the ten-yard line, Pickett slides right on the snap and eyes his first read in Freiermuth on the out route that’s well covered, then looks toward Pickens on the post route in the end zone and noted he was seemingly open but would have needed to likely riffle it over a defender, instead coming back to Freiermuth on the sideline but couldn’t keep his feet in and is incomplete. Third and a long nine now, and Moore is beat soundly around the edge by Garrett who tries to elude, but is brought down for a crucial drive-halting sack, another unfortunate example and inability to get in the end zone from the red area, but do come away with points on the field goal to go up 13-7.
Returning at 5:42 in the third quarter following the defense’s second interception in great field position at the 25-yard line and the lead still at six, the Steelers appropriately go with a handoff to Harris who takes it outside around Cole being pushed back, then makes a great cut inside of Moore who got out to the cornerback, and able to take it to the sideline for the nice gain of 11 to quickly get into the red zone. The following first down was right back to him, avoiding the defender that beat Daniels to the outside in the backfield, getting between a big hole with seals from Moore and Heyward, along with a great double team push from Cole and Dotson, with the latter comboing to the linebacker, and spinning past another tackle before being brought down on the gain of five. On second and five from the nine-yard line, this Harris run goes for only two yards with the unblocked linebacker filling the hole and hitting him at the line of scrimmage, attempting another spin as he makes it a positive gain. Third and a short three, and Pickett finds Warren quickly on a flat route from a tight end alignment, making the catch and picking up just enough for the conversion as he was tackled out of bounds.
First and goal now from the four-yard line, and it’s a play action quick trigger to Johnson on the slant, but it’s batted at the line and thankfully not intercepted with the deflection landing between two Cleveland defenders in the end zone, whew. Also, unfortunately, unable to capitalize on Ward’s absence, who was ruled out earlier in the game. On second and goal, back to the ground with Harris who got skinny through the hole on the right thanks to good blocks from Okorafor and Scott, along with a particularly fantastic block from Gentry pushing his man all the way to the goal line where he churned in for the touchdown! Great job to capitalize on the field position and punching it in from the red zone, considering how poor the team has been in that regard in 2022, outstanding. Lead is now 20-7.
The offense returned with 57 seconds left in the third quarter following a near turnover on the punt, and insanely happens on back-to-back plays here, with Pickett flipping to Warren on the toss that hits his hands and bounces forward, hitting two different Browns players before Dotson is able to fall on it to retain possession, a crazy amount of luck going Pittsburgh’s way as the game has progressed, wow. On second and 12 Harris got an expected standard handoff here, but hit a brick wall with Moore stood up by Garrett, and is able to make a cut to elude the defender at the line and make it a positive gain of two.
Third and a long ten to start the fourth quarter, and Okorafor helps to the inside on the pass snap, but is way late and out of position to try and recover to the free edge rusher, forcing Pickett to scramble and throw on the run to Warren on the dump off along the sideline, but goes off his hands incomplete. Three and out punt here.
Pittsburgh’s offense returned with 10:11 on the clock and the lead cut to six, and Pickett comes out with a play action rollout to the right, which took him away from Daniels being beat, and gets the pass to Heyward in the flat for the catch and run of nine yards with a good initial block by Gentry to help free space on the sideline. On second and one, Harris got the carry behind a good pulling block from Heyward, and Dotson got beat inside initially then recovered by forklifting his man off the ground to open the lane along with Moore’s seal to pick up the first down and more on the six-yard gain. Timeout #1 Pittsburgh.
Cleveland absolutely dominated the following run snap, where Cole was pushed back, as well as Dotson, and most egregiously Freiermuth (who also would not return, injuring his knee on the play), who had the tough one-on-one assignment on Garrett again, who easily won and got in for the run stop of no gain. On second and ten, Pickett has time on the drop back and goes deep for Pickens on the go ball, but overthrows him slightly and falls incomplete. Third and ten now, and they try again, this time to the opposite side and Pickens makes an unreal contested catch for the 17-yard gain.
The following first down was back to Harris on the ground, a stretch run where Cole got beat and allowed his man to get to him in the backfield, but is able to stiff arm and continue outside, and is met by two defenders at the line of scrimmage and churns for the positive gain of two. On second and eight, Pickett has time on the drop back with good blocking but did note Cole pushed back, and overthrows Johnson on the corner route falling incomplete. Third and eight now, and good overall pass pro including a solid chip from Warren, takeover from Okorafor, and pancake from Dotson, giving time for Pickett to find Heyward on a good pass nice over the middle up the seam, making a leaping and spinning catch over the defender for the excellent catch for a 27-yard explosive play to get in the red zone again. Wow.
Continuing on first down, Harris got the carry but was limited to two yards as he considered bouncing outside Heyward’s pulling block, but nothing doing as he cut back inside for positive yards. On second and eight, Pickett wants Johnson on the post route toward the end zone, but the pass is once again batted at the line, the second such Johnson end zone target from the red zone which I was really hoping they could accomplish, is it doomed?! Third and a long eight now, and Pickett takes the shotgun empty snap and fires a great throw on a heater to Heyward on the slant, with a nice grab and gets just past the sticks for the nine-yard gain! Awesome play.
This set up first and goal from the three, where Warren got the carry but was only able to gain one yard running straight into Moore’s man who made the tackle. Timeout #1 Cleveland. On second and goal, Pickett surveys then finds Heyward in the back of the end zone, running a pivot route working back to the inside but is unable to corral the high pass off his hands and a bit outside his frame incomplete, so close. Third and goal now, and Pickett tries Pickens on the red zone slant this time, but falls incomplete but saved by the laundry with the cornerback hit with a ginormous pass interference given the circumstances. Insane.
This set up first and goal at the one with 4:39 left in the game following the Steelers’ second timeout, and really enjoyed the play call to send Heyward in motion (who got a tight end sweep early in the game) with Pickett spinning instead and handing it inside to Watt on a recent successful addition to the offense, and this play is no exception with great blocks, particularly from Moore, Dotson, and Scott for the waltz-in touchdown. Yet another red zone score, I could get used to that as the Steelers put up their second-highest point total on the season. I know the following play isn’t a touchdown, but Pickett was able to connect on the two-point conversion on a great throw to Johnson on the fade route, which is a consolation prize that’s better than nothing as Pittsburgh extends their lead to 14. Awesome long drive that ultimately put this game away.
Now for the defense:
PFF’s highest-graded defensive player in the finale was safety Damontae Kazee (81.6), highlighted by a great read and react in coverage to undercut a short route for an interception, allowing only one catch (15 yards) on his three targets for an impressive 11.1 rating against. The rest of the +70 grades are mostly secondary players as well, with cornerback Levi Wallace ranking second (78.1), allowing no catches on his two targets including the team’s second interception, and a 0.0 rating against. Cornerback James Pierre is next up with a 77.1 grade, allowing one catch (15 yards) on his two targets, with the incompletion being a pass breakup and nearly an interception as well, with a 75 rating against. Safety Terrell Edmunds ranked fourth (74.8) with five total tackles, one for a loss and a sack, along with a pass deflection, but allowed one catch on his only target late in the game for 18 yards for a 118.8 rating against. Cornerback Cameron Sutton also played well in the strong game for the unit overall (73.2), highlighted by a pass breakup on his three targets, allowed two catches but the third-best rating against in this group at 70.1. The final player with an above 70 grade was defensive lineman Montravius Adams (70.1), playing ten snaps and had two tackles including a stop along with a good push on a pass rush in my notes, and thought his grade might have been a touch high. Expected edge rusher Alex Highsmith (65.1) to have a slightly higher grade (eight tackles, two for loss, and 2.5 sacks) but did struggle in coverage and had two missed tackles, and particularly defensive lineman Cameron Heyward (57.5) deserved a better grade in my opinion (eight tackles, two for loss, two sacks, and a pass deflection), with the latter dinged for the questionable (to put it mildly) roughing the passer call that stripped him of a third sack and only one missed tackle.
The below 50 grades this week were also position specific, with linebackers Robert Spillane’s (29.8) and Mark Robinson’s (22.5) grades likely not a surprise. Spillane did have eight tackles, with only two stops and a missed tackle, and was bullied in coverage allowing seven catches (by far most on the team) for a 100% catch rate and 94 yards allowed including an explosive 38-yarder as well as a touchdown for the worst possible 158.3 rating against along with a big defensive holding penalty. Robinson had more missed tackles (two) and only made one on his 11 snaps, and allowed two catches for a 100% catch rate and 33 yards allowed, for a 118.8 rating against. Not good Bob.
Pittsburgh’s defense came on to start the game, and Cleveland came out looking to catch them off guard with a play action, where quarterback Deshaun Watson looks downfield but ultimately gets it to the expected player’s hands in running back Nick Chubb, who was wide open on the dump off, and Robinson triggered down but slipped and fell allowing a big chunk of 19 yards right out of the gate with Spillane finally making the tackle. The following first down was right back to Chubb on a pass in the flat with a bit of space, turning upfield and getting five yards with Highsmith making the tackle off his zone drop. On second and five, Browns backup lineman James Hudson was caught for an illegal use of hands penalty drawn by edge rusher T.J. Watt, and already a crucial matchup to take advantage of going in the Steelers’ favor as I pointed out in my outlook article. This led to second and 15, where Watson found one of his tight ends over the middle on the drop back, where defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi got a good push, and Spillane allowing the short catch but tackling him quickly for only six yards. Third and a long nine now, Ogunjobi was blocked to the ground and Watt got a good rush around the edge, forcing Watson to step up, with this pass intended for his other tight end David Njoku, but Edmunds did a great job to anticipate and leap for the pass breakup to force the punt. No runs by the Browns on their opening drive, definitely didn’t expect that as the Steelers get off quickly.
The defense returned at 6:14 in the first quarter with the game still scoreless off an offensive turnover, but in good field position with Cleveland backed up at their own five-yard line. First down was a Chubb run, finding a sliver of space in the backfield between seals on Ogunjobi and Watt, and gets free behind a pulling block on Spillane for an unfortunate chunk gain of 11 where safety Minkah Fitzpatrick finally made the tackle, man.
The following first down was right back to Chubb on the ground, where Robinson shot the gap and got a piece of him in the backfield and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward finished the job for only one yard. On second and nine, Watson play actions and is deterred from a swing pass to the wide receiver with Highsmith winning the edge, and ultimately draws the holding penalty setting up second and 17. Watson has time in the pocket, allowing the intermediate stop route to develop on his first target to wide receiver Amari Cooper, and is tackled quickly by Pierre who was in coverage along with the assist from Fitzpatrick. Third and a short three now, and Watson is forced to hand the read option to running back Kareem Hunt thanks to Heyward coming on a free pursuit with the lineman pulling, and Watt congests the middle forcing the bounce out, then Robinson fills the hole but is eluded, and the jump cut inside thankfully leads him to defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk who worked off his block for a nice wrap up in the nick of time to make the tackle just short of the sticks. Another nice early stand for the defense to force the punt.
Returning with 44 seconds left in the first quarter and no score still, Watson comes out in an empty set and Adams got a good interior push along with Heyward, but fires it for the easy completion to wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones who got wide-open on a coverage lapse from Spillane and Edmunds, with the former reading the quarterbacks eyes and covering no one, allowing the huge catch and run for 38 yards where Sutton made the tackle. These are the types of coverage struggles I highlighted in my recent coverage article, and unfortunately, it rears their ugly head again. The following first down was a good response though, where Watson hung on to the ball against seemingly good coverage, allowing time for Watt’s win around the edge and pursuit to catch up to him, along with Heyward working off his block to combine for the sack!
Continuing to start the second quarter on second and 15, Chubb got the handoff and had space on the edge due to a confusing rep from Highsmith, who worked inside but ended up with his back to the ball on the handoff allowing an eight-yard gain with Sutton and Heyward, who did a good job pursuing despite the lineman staying engaged, combined for the tackle. Third and seven now, and Pittsburgh crowds eight men at the line, bringing four on the pass rush that included Watt, Kazee, and Ogunjobi on one side, with the latter benefitting but cannot finish the sack on Watson, who got the dump-off pass to Hunt but is corralled well behind the line of scrimmage by Sutton, Kazee, and Heyward with the latter making the tackle. Three drives, three punts forced by the defense.
At 11:24 in the second quarter, Pittsburgh’s defense returned with the game still at goose eggs, where Watson took the empty shotgun snap and gets the throw past a good push from defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, and a great job by Sutton to undercut the Peoples-Jones in route for the pass break up. On second and ten, Chubb finds daylight up the middle between blocks on Heyward and particularly Ogunjobi, gaining seven yards before linebacker Myles Jack could work off the block to wrap him up. Third and a short three now, and Watson has plenty of time with a lack of pass rush, finding his tight end who got free over the middle for the catch and gain of 14, where Fitzpatrick made the tackle.
The following first down was a good play by Highsmith, getting the run stop on Chubb by setting the edge on the tight end, then disengaging to tackle the outside run for no gain. On second and ten, Watt dipped and ripped Njoku then beat Hudson inside, but Watson was, unfortunately, able to elude the pressure, scrambling right and throws it away with defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal pursuing and getting the quarterback hit on his release. Third and ten now, and another costly penalty on Pittsburgh, this one a defensive holding on Spillane who was covering Hunt out of the backfield, unfortunately negating an excellent recovery from Pierre in coverage, pushing Njoku out of bounds on the grab.
Instead a fresh set of downs where Watson play actions then surveys, and Robinson comes on the blitz, zooming in but missing another opportunity on the sack which left the middle of the field vacant, and Watson instantly dumps it to Hunt before Ogunjobi, who won to the outside could get to him, with ample room for YAC and bounces Fitzpatrick back with his head of steam for a 14 yard gain where Adams and Wallace finally made the tackle. Another first down here, and Hunt got the carry this time, able to get four yards between blocks on Leal and Ogunjobi, with Jack making the tackle. On second and six, Hunt enjoyed a bit of space once again, landing good blocks including the second level, and Spillane was able to work off his to get to him first along with Jack teaming up to tackle the five-yard gain. Third and a short one now, and quarterback Jacoby Brissett comes into the game, and the thought of quarterback sneak enters the brain, instead tosses it to the left to Chubb, who was able to easily pick up the first down and more with good blocks on Spillane, Highsmith, and Sutton on the edge with the latter two finally tackling the gain of 12.
This conversion set Cleveland up in the red zone at the ten-yard line, and Watson play actions which sucked up the linebackers, and Njoku got open after leaking out following his block on Highsmith, and with no chance for Spillane to recover in time makes the easy catch and run in for the touchdown. Third and long penalty and missed tackle/sack opportunities loom large after an encouraging start to the game, and Pittsburgh now trails by seven.
With 1:42 left before halftime and the game now tied, Pittsburgh returns and plays off in pass defense given the situation, and Watson takes the short target to Hunt who goes down and gets it, and is touched down quickly by Fitzpatrick. On second and six, Watson goes deep and it’s thankfully a poor read, allowing Wallace to react off his man to get a huge interception to keep Cleveland off the scoreboard before the half, awesome.
Returning one last time before heading to the locker room with 33 seconds left, and Watson looks right for a screen pass but Watt is in the area, and don’t blame him for keeping it for the scramble where he also made the tackle. Last timeout Cleveland. On second and three, Highsmith provided a strong pass rush and nearly got to Watson, who tried to dump it off to Chubb, but Heyward is there for perhaps one of the easiest batted passes of his career and incomplete. Third and three now with 21 seconds left, and Watson quick triggers the wide-open slant and YAC (against off coverage) that picks up 15 yards but still well outside of field goal range. Then Watson spikes the ball with seven seconds left. On the final play, Watson fumbles the shotgun snap but is able to recover, and unfortunately, Watt, Heyward, Spillane, and Highsmith were each close to bringing him down for a sack, but is only able to pick up two yards with Edmunds and Fitzpatrick making the tackle. Thank goodness no points are allowed before the half and the lead is still three.
The defense returned with 8:57 in the third quarter and Watt provided a fantastic rush, pushing the lineman back into Watson’s throwing motion and sending the wobbly pass over Cooper’s head and out of bounds. On second and ten it’s a Chubb outside run where Fitzpatrick set the edge well but missed a tackle opportunity, and Watt did a stellar job to throw off the tight end, and work through two pulling linemen to get there for the run stop along with a strong disengage and pursuit to combine for the great run stop for no gain. Third and a long ten now, and Watson sees a good push coming from Watt, Heyward, and Sutton on the edges, and scrambles forward with a huge lane and Spillane the only man out in front of him, a severe mismatch and unable the keep up on the scramble that goes for an explosive 21-yard gain with Fitzpatrick finally making the tackle, crushing conversion.
The following first down was a Chubb run, this one a gain of three with Heyward and Spillane both holding their blocks/gaps to close off the designed running laned, with Leal and edge rusher Jamir Jones having good backside pursuit to combine for the tackle. On second and seven, Watson play actions and Edmunds is already in the backfield before Chubb can do anything about it in pass pro, and Watson tries to duck him but touches him while his elbow is down for a huge loss of 11 on the sack! This set up third and a very long 18, and another fantastic play here by Kazee to read with impressive closing acceleration to undercut the short in route for a big interception and set the offense up in stellar field position. Great job.
At 3:12 in the third quarter, the defense returned with a 20-7 lead with the offense capitalizing on their turnover, and Ogunjobi got a great push on Watson’s dropback, getting a hand on him but unable to bring him down, then cuts past Watt in the backfield who got free of the blocker and finally slides down on the seven-yard gain where Heyward showed great hustle in pursuit to touch him down. On second and three, Watt got around the edge on his pass rush but was slightly pushed past the pocket, still prompting a step up from Watson that led him right into the hands of Ogunjobi, one of which was thankfully not called for a blatant face mask and goes for a six-yard loss on the sack, lucky. Third and nine now, and both Watt and Highsmith wreak havoc on the edges, with the former getting there first and spinning Watson around and bringing him down for the sack! What a job by the defense to get back-to-back sacks for a three and out, lead is still 13.
The defense returned with 14:49 left in the fourth quarter with the same score, and let up a big run by Chubb of 15 yards, where cornerback Arthur Maulet won inside Cooper’s block attempt to get in the backfield but missed the low tackle attempt, along with Heyward pushing his blocker to the ground to get a hand on him but not near enough to slow him down, then cutting around Fitzpatrick as he got up the field, and finally brought down by Edmunds.
The following first down both edge rushers got around the edge on the drop back, with Watson stepping up but Watt blocked to the ground late, though Highsmith was able to work back and wrap him up behind the line but churns past the line of scrimmage for a gain of one. On second and nine it was back to Chubb, and the defense, unfortunately, gives him some momentum once again allowing and 11 yard gain on the run, a delayed handoff where Highsmith committed to Watson, Heyward worked to the ball but couldn’t get there, Spillane unable to disengage from his block, Fitzpatrick shooting in but missing the tackle, Sutton blocked on the edge and also unable to bring him down, and finally, Spillane working back to combine for the tackle with Jack. Let’s tighten back-up run defense.
Another first down here and this one is another chunk, this one in the pass-game with a lack of pass rush from Loudermilk, Adams, and Alualu with Watt getting a late push, but ample time for Cooper to get wide open against the zone coverage on the over route with separation on Fitzpatrick for the catch and run for an explosive 36-yard gain where he ran him out of bounds, ouch.
This set Cleveland up in the red zone at the 14-yard line, where Hunt got the carry for three yards with where Adams wrapped him up, and Jones coming in late to combine for the tackle. On second and seven, Heyward did a great job getting inside the tackle, then darting to the quarterback with a free path as Highsmith drew attention looping inside, wrapping Watson up who refused to go down, and muscles him to the ground to ensure the sack as opposed to another missed opportunity, but instead is infuriatingly called for a roughing the passer penalty, unbelievable.
This painfully set up first and goal from the six-yard line, and Watson play actions, and good job by the defense to get depth on the second level once they realize this, with the target going to Peoples-Jones who crossed the formation on the flat route with Edmunds and Highsmith the first line of defense to get there and the latter tackling the gain of two. This setup second and goal from the two, and Watson play actions and has what seems like forever to throw, with Heyward and Ogunjobi getting a late push as he stepped up (not seeing Cooper wide open), and with Highsmith coming off coverage to cut off his scramble allows Chubb to get wide open in the end zone for the touchdown. A tough and arguable penalty leads to an ugly final play and touchdown allowed, lead cut to six.
With 4:30 left in the game, Steelers up by 14 now with the offense’s late touchdown, and Cleveland starts with a Chubb run behind a bit of a push, with Heyward and Ogunjobi making the tackle on the five-yard gain. On second and five, Watson dropped back and dumps it off to Njoku on the screen, and hurdles over Sutton to get past the sticks for the seven-yard gain with Spillane making the tackle, but stays in bounds, keeping the clock moving on back-to-back plays. The following first down Watson surveys and hangs onto it too long with Highsmith, Heyward and Watt all converging as he scrambles and the latter two combining for the sack! Timeout #2 Browns.
On second and 20 with 3:28 left, Chubb gets the dump-off with Pittsburgh playing off and picks up eight yards, where Spillane and Fitzpatrick combined for the tackle. Third and 12 now, and Heyward provides a push forcing Watson to step up, then pumps thinking about triggering to Chubb on a short pass, but instead scrambles for six yards where Fitzpatrick and Kazee combined for the tackle. Fourth and six now, and Cleveland goes for in and unfortunately picks up the conversion, with Watson finding Njoku on the 18-yard chunk play from a clean pocket, getting the throw over Edmunds was trailing in coverage and made the tackle.
Cleveland gets the following first down off just before the two-minute warning, a Chubb run for 14 yards where Leal wrapped him up. On second and six, Watson targeted Peoples-Jones deep and a nice play by Pierre to get his hands on it in coverage but was unable to snag the interception to officially put the game away. Instead, it’s third and six, and Watson gets the pass to Njoku again, this one for seven yards with Spillane and Edmunds combining for the tackle but allowing him to churn for the conversion.
With 1:15 left and a fresh set of downs, Watson keeps it going with Njoku but is dinged for holding on the play, drawn by Ogunjobi. This led to first and 20, and Watson gets the short pass to Chubb for the catch and run of eight yards, where Pierre and Spillane combined for the tackle. On second and nine, Watt and Highsmith converged on Watson’s dropback, getting the sack and jarring the ball loose but Cleveland is also penalized for an illegal shift that negates the play. Second and 14 this time with 53 seconds left, and Watson’s pass for Hunt who leaked out at the last second as Heyward closed in for the quarterback hit, and the pass falls incomplete. Third and 14 now, and Highsmith ducks the tackle to soundly win the edge for another sack, finishing with 14.5 sacks in his impressive second season. This officially ended Cleveland’s last-ditch efforts, letting the clock run on fourth and a mile (25), and Highsmith gets pressure first yet again, but can’t spin him down, but Heyward finishes the job on the scramble for his second sack which ended the game and would have been a third if not for the bogus roughing penalty.
Let’s look at special teams:
PFF’s highest-graded special teamer was Elijah Riley (75.3), highlighted by a strong tackle in kickoff coverage. He is the only player with a +70 grade, emphasizing another lackluster performance from the unit overall. Two below 50 grades in the finale, starting with Kazee (48.9) who had a missed tackle, and Connor Heyward bottoming the special teams’ grades with a 40.8.
Kicker Chris Boswell kicked things off to start the game, a short one that was muffed but recovered, then able to elude Derek Watt who missed the tackle and returned for 16 yards where Pierre made the tackle. Sims got his first punt return at 12:37 in the first quarter, fielding it at the 21 but was corralled quickly with Maulet and Jamir Jones unable to land blocks on the 12-yard return. Sim’s second punt return came at 3:11 in the first quarter, fielding it at the 21 but once again limited on the return for only eight yards, running sideways instead of getting vertical with space in front initially. Punter Pressley Harvin’s first attempt came with 56 seconds left in the first quarter, and thankfully the returner shies away from the fair catch at the 15-yard line, allowing it to bounce to the six where Boykin downed the 42-yarder.
Harvin’s second attempt came at 11:34 in the second quarter, a booming 57-yarder that was fielded at the 24-yard line, and Pierre the first line of defense prompting the sideline angle, Jones missing the angle, Kuntz missing the tackle opportunity, then Elijah Riley laying the wood on the strong tackle on the five-yard return. Boswell kicked off at 1:47 following the Pickens touchdown that tied the game, sending it to the end zone but taken out, blocked up well including but not limited to Miles Killebrew, and Maulet setting the edge and getting a small piece of the returner along with Derek Watt combining for the tackle but a 32-yard return. Boswell capped the last drive before halftime (43 seconds) with his first field goal, connecting on the 49-yarder to give Pittsburgh their first lead of the game of three points. The following kickoff went to the eight-yard line, going for a return of 17 with better coverage here, largely due to a good edge set by Warren who combined for the tackle with Benny Snell.
Boswell made his second field goal to cap off a red zone drive, connecting from 34 and extending the lead to six. The following kickoff went to the nine-yard line, going for a return of 11 where Warren did a good job setting the edge again, Derek Watt was tripped up and flew by on the diving effort, with Robinson and Killebrew coming in for the strong simultaneous hit at the 20-yard line. With 1:05 left in the third quarter, Sims went back for a punt return with the lead at 13, attempting to field it at the 34-yard line and muffs it, but thankfully able pounce right on it for the recovery, and thankfully another break goes the Steelers way, wow.
At 14:55 in the fourth quarter, Harvin had a 45-yard punt that only traveled to the 23-yard line, where it was thankfully fair caught considering the lack of pressure on the catch. Boswell kicked off at 4:37 following the encouraging late touchdown to go up 14, sending to the 11-yard line, and on the return the Browns were hit with a holding penalty that put them at the 15.
STEELERS VS. BROWNS WEEK 18 SNAPS & REGULAR SEASON TOTAL SNAPS:
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