The Pittsburgh Steelers finally played a quality opponent this week, but you’d never have known it from their wire-to-wire, smashed-to-a-pulp beatdown of the Cleveland Browns for the 17th straight time at Heinz Field. Even in a game where it feels as if Ben is playing with one hand tied behind his back, the offense put up plenty of points and ran it down the Browns’ throats, which was plenty to complement a defense that completely shut down the Browns’ “#1 ranked rushing attack” until garbage time, intercepted Baker Mayfield twice, forced a fumble, had a pick 6, blasted a variety of Browns’ skill players with bone-jarring hits, and totally harrassed Baker Mayfield and the Browns OL for 3 quarters. But it was the hit of Cameron Heyward–– blasting Mayfield as Bud Dupree held on to Baker’s leg––which sent the Browns’ signal-caller flying through the air and onto the turf. Mayfield and his bruised ribs tried to get up from all fours, but looked like Mike Tyson trying to find his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas sent him to la-la land. I give major credit to Baker for getting up and attempting to continue but that hit is the kind of memory that ruins QB careers.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) October 18, 2020
On the other side of the ball, Ben’s day started slowly, with attempts to force-feed James Washington in the slot––a place where he doesn’t really fit. For the entirety of the 1st quarter, Ben was erratic throwing the ball and, even though the Pittsburgh run game seemed to be clicking and keeping Myles Garrett at bay, it looked like the day might feature struggling offenses on both sides. But then the 2nd quarter arrived, Ben hit a perfectly placed deep ball to the suddenly unstoppable Chase Claypool for 36 yards, Conner waltzed into the end zone, and the rout was on.
The day’s tone was set early by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who showed up on the scoresheet in a big way, reading Mayfield’s telegraph message and depositing his subsequent interception in the end zone for a 10-0 lead. And the Steelers defensive front absolutely bullied the Browns OL and TEs. Mayfield was so under fire that he was even unable to find outlet passes or openings to escape the pocket. The domination up front was total and complete. What a game from the Steelers front 7.
Speaking of tone-setting, in a 12 minute span of the late 3rd and early 4th quarters, the Steelers threw one pass for 32 yards, ran it 16 times for 60 yds and 2TD, held the Browns to 2:38 possession & a turnover on downs… and took the game from 24-7 to 38-7. They went full Mortal Kombat on Cleveland and pretty much watched the Browns’ collective soul leave this mortal coil.
And, for all the pregame hype for Myles Garrett exacting revenge for last year’s fiasco with Mason Rudolph, Garrett was basically erased by the Steelers OL, especially first-year starter Chuks Okorafor. Chuks absorbed Garrett’s pass rush like few in the NFL have, and the Browns moving Garrett around only gave more Steelers’ linemen the chance to wear him out in the run game. Between the runs and Ben getting it out decisively, TV close-ups showed Garrett out of breath and sucking wind by the latter stages of Pittsburgh’s initial drive.
The Steelers OL was almost as good as their defensive counterparts today, something that shouldn’t be downplayed.
But, the win came at a high cost: the loss of Devin Bush. Bush tore his ACL on a meaningless RB dump-down throwaway, catching a cleat in the turf and twisting awkwardly. Bush has been making a ton of tackles and the defense has been so clicking with him, yet the loss is one of the few on defense that might be survivable without a steep drop off in performance of the unit as a whole. Robert Spillane stepped in and played pretty well for his first game action as the green dot. He has flaws to his game, but his play speed is a good deal faster than his testing speed. He processes well and was in the right place most of the time that I saw. He’s also going to have a handful of solid hits in every game he plays––something he’s already been doing on special teams. He’s probably not going to be a big cover guy, but lately Devin Bush has been covering Hook/curl/flat vs. RBs, so that may in fact be a job he can do satisfactorily.
The Steelers may finally give some snaps to Ulysses Gilbert III, who has gone from camp/preseason phenom to IR to a weekly inactive in his two-year stint. If GIlbert can be the player he appeared to be last year, maybe they can utilize both players in a rotation, depending on situation. They might also use some Sean Davis/Marcus Allen snaps to cover the missing Bush snaps on passing downs. Or they might sign a street free agent or even make a trade for a player like a Jarrad Davis or the like. One name that came to mind for me is a bit of a blast from the past: Travis Feeney. Feeney has been in the CFL and recently looked very good playing for the San Diego Fleet of the AAF. Never underestimate the Steelers value of a familiar face.
What they probably won’t do is make a blockbuster move to bring in someone who makes enough jack to decrease their cap space. I think they’d love to carry that balance over to next year if at all possible. But I’m sure they weigh net year type desires against doing whatever it takes to win this year––a season that looks a lot like a real year of contention for a Lombardi trophy.
I can’t shake the feeling that the offense hasn’t even really put it all together yet. They seem focused on getting everybody involved––a different face stands out each week. James Washington got a lot of looks and ran a fabulous double move that––along with a superb pump fake from Ben––left his defender in the dust and resulted in a walk-in TD reception. JuJu, Snell, Conner, Johnson, Claypool, Washington, McFarland, Ebron, even Ray Ray McCloud–– all have gotten quality touches, and even Tre Edmunds, Derek Watt, and Jaylen Samuels have contributed. Behind them all, Roethlisberger is as big a factor orchestrating and adjusting as he has been actually throwing the ball, It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that he audibled the deep route to Chase Claypool on the long bomb in the 2nd quarter. You could see Ben going over to Claypool and giving him instructions before the snap. Whatever the contributions everyone is making, they’ve now put up winning efforts in 5 games without fully playing a complete game on offense. Sure the NFL landscape has changed a little this year with the reduction in offensive penalties, but here are some numbers to consider. This team’s high-water mark in scoring with Ben Roethlisberger/Bell/AB was 2015, when they averaged 27.5 points per game. The team record is 1975’s 28.7 yards per game. This year, with an offense that is barely hitting on all cylinders and with a 38 year old QB coming off elbow surgery is averaging 31.2 points per game. What might they do if they really get it rolling, which feels inevitable when you watch them and their array of talent.
Losing Bush hurts. Three tough road games loom on the horizon. A real test against Baltimore has to be kept out of sight and out of mind for another week, lest they fall prey to the formidable formula that the Titans are wining with.
But in the meantime, we can savor a win against a would-be rival who so intently wants to be considered a contender in the division, a team that hypes the annual matchups with the Steelers as if it were their Super Bowl, and who keeps going home unhappy.
• A Steelers opponent was finally called for an offensive holding penalty– first of the season. Hooray! There were also a handful of obvious holds NOT called, so, take it for what it’s worth.
• The Steelers were apparently outraged that they only run the ball 5th-most on 2nd and long––they are striving for #1 with 4 runs out of six 2nd and longs in the game. Then again, on the two passes, Ben got sacked by Myles Garrett and threw a 2 yard pass to Ebron on the other.
• The OPI on Eric Ebron that negated a wonderful throw and catch to convert a 1st down was almost as weak as the one called against Chase Claypool last week.
• Maurkice Pouncey has some lingering issues with his ankle/foot. He’s playing through it but had to leave the game in the late stages after it flared up. Something to keep in mind going forward
• Cameron Sutton made a leaping interception, made more impressive by noting that he got burned last week on a similar play when he didn’t drop enough to the deeper sideline route. If the Steelers coverage continues to improve on what they’ve already put on tape, the skies’ the limit. They could be 2008 good.
• Lightly-used Jaylen Samuels came into the game, lined up as a WR, and made a nice block in space to spring Chase Claypool on his rushing TD.
• Austin Hooper is going to spend some time in the ice tub–– he got run over by a truck about three times in the game, on hits from Bud Dupree and Robert Spillane, to name two.
• Speaking of Dupree, he made a tremendous play early in the game on a sack of Mayfield––he wasn’t fooled by the jet sweep action and was in Baker’s lap by the time he finished the play-action fake.
• Apparently, the report that Ben “never takes deep shots” might have been premature.
Lots of good to savor, and the loss of Bush to address… but the season waits for no man––on to Tennessee, where the Steelers hope to avoid coronavirus and the first blemish to their 2020 record.A1