The Browns are the Super Bowl champions.
Not quite, but don't tell that to Cleveland fans on this Monday morning.
Living in Ohio, I've never seen the Browns' fan base celebrate a win with this much passion. You'd think they had just defeated the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game and not just the second game in October.
Steelers fans mostly aren't feeling that way these days, except occasionally on those increasingly rare Sundays following a convincing Pittsburgh win. So far, the 2014 Steelers are following the same script that was the story of Pittsburgh squads in the two previous years. But instead of faltering late in the season (2012) or stumbling out early (2013), this Steelers team is mastering .500 ball by swapping wins with losses every week thus far. Since their last playoff appearance, Pittsburgh is 19-19, mirroring the Dallas Cowboys' model of mediocrity over the last 17 years prior to this season, when it appears they might finally break through.
Speaking of the Cowboys, a big reason for their success has been their consistent focus on running the ball, mostly by handing the ball to DeMarco Murray early and often. Murray toted the rock 29 times for 115 yards as Dallas ran the ball 37 times in all in their upset victory at Seattle yesterday. Why aren't the Steelers doing the same with Le'Veon Bell, who many argue is the best back in the NFL? Bell had just 18 carries yesterday, while Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 42 times, with 50-percent accuracy. That's 20 plays that produced no yardage and one play that led to the interception that sealed Pittsburgh's fate. Until the Steelers have a second wide receiver step up opposite Brown, 20 carries for Bell or 30 carries between himself and LeGarrette Blount should be automatic.
Bigger than the passes attempted was the troubling one that wasn't attempted. The Steelers ran on three consecutive plays inside the Browns 10-yard line on their second drive of the game without even trying a bubble screen to Antonio Brown, a shovel pass to Bell or a slant inside to Heath Miller, if anything just to mix things up.
After their third drive yielded a botched field goal attempt, the slumbering Browns offense finally woke up. Following their second-half success in Week 1, the Browns went back to their hurry-up offense and took advantage of a Steelers' pass defense still learning how to play together. After Cleveland took the lead on a 51-yard touchdown strike, Pittsburgh's offense checked into the same hotel where the Browns' offense had crashed in the first quarter. Cleveland's offense scored again following the Steelers first three-and-out of the game and made it 21-3 after the Steelers' offense again punted after three plays, with the last play a deep pass that went incomplete when they needed only one yard to prolong the drive. While the Steelers' defense doesn't get a free pass, their offense did nothing to help them when it was needed most.
While this defense clearly isn't what it once was, injuries haven't helped. Ike Taylor and Ryan Shazier's absences have clearly been felt, while the team is still waiting for one of its young defensive linemen to evolve into a quality starter. The Steelers were also facing an offense that has an identity and is dedicated to running the ball, a philosophy that used to belong to Pittsburgh.
To summarize what most Steelers fans know, the Steelers are a team that has talent but not much depth and too many holes right now to be an elite club. As they wait for a second receiver to establish himself and a defense to overcome injuries and mature on the defensive line, they have to utilize their strengths while maximizing their scoring opportunities in the meantime to get wins. We're not good enough right now to complain about "ugly wins"; that word doesn't exist anymore, not in the team's current state. For the current, 2014 Steelers, each week is about just trying to get a win and surviving to see another week.