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Steelers stumble in victory, salvaging a narrow win over hapless Browns

Pittsburgh seemed to be stuck in preseason mode as they played well only in brief spurts against the Cleveland Browns.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that the Steelers won their 2017 regular season opener by the score of 21-18. As everyone knows, of course, a win is a win. But surely as we look forward to the matchups awaiting the Black-and-gold during the coming weeks, Steelers Nation must be more than a bit concerned about the team’s overall performance in Cleveland which, by any measure, can be judged as uninspired and error-ridden.

While head coach Mike Tomlin and his franchise quarterback deftly ignored the elephant in the room during their post-game press conference, it was evident to anyone watching this game that the Steelers had done just barely enough on the shores of Lake Erie to squeak out a win against arguably the NFL’s worst team.

How bad was it? Let us count the ways. After one-and-a-half quarters of play, the Steelers’ offense had converted only two first downs and only one out of four third-downs, netting a mere 46 yards of total offense. Given such an underwhelming performance, it seemed somehow fitting that, when Antonio Brown recorded his biggest gain of the day near the end of the first half with a nifty catch-and-run for 50 yards, No. 84 needed to snag a tipped pass from Ben Roethlisberger which just as easily might have been intercepted.

Instead of trying to establish the running attack early in the game as a way to shake off the preseason cobwebs, the Steelers unsuccessfully attempted a weird combination of bubble screens and other short-range passes while their grabby receivers negated nearly every solid gain by drawing ill-timed holding penalties.

On defense, disaster struck early in the first quarter when Stephon Tuitt suffered a potentially season-ending biceps injury on a play when he penetrated the Browns backfield and forced running back Isaiah Crowell to the sideline for a loss. While the Tuitt-less defense continued to play mostly solid football and finished the game with seven sacks of DeShone Kizer, a significant number of those sacks resulted from Kizer holding onto the ball well beyond the point of no return for NFL quarterbacks. Without Tuitt, the Steelers were unable to put Kizer under much pressure throughout most of their Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Despite an overall sound showing, the defense committed some costly penalties throughout the game which extended Browns scoring drives. Finally, late in the game when they most needed to stop a last-ditch Cleveland drive which narrowed the margin to three points, they failed. This revived unpleasant memories of similar lapses last season.

Certainly, it was no surprise that the Steelers turned in a sub-par performance after a preseason characterized by scant work for starting players plus some last-minute player deals that recently added new faces to the mix. What we didn’t expect to see, though, were so many issues ordinarily presumed to be ironed out during the preseason. Of course, Browns fans at First Energy Stadium clearly got their money’s worth on Sunday because their gang of perennial bottom-dwellers led by an untested rookie quarterback nearly succeeded in sending an early-season shock wave through Pittsburgh’s entire fan base.

With the victory, though, the Steelers have a 1-0 record and at least some measure of plausible deniability with regard to complaints that they appeared unprepared and uncoordinated on Opening Day. Thus, after the game, we heard a lot about how Cleveland actually is much tougher than they might seem on paper. We also heard a lot about how proud everyone in the organization is that the Steelers returned aboard their team bus with an important road win against a divisional rival.

While such bromides might make everyone feel better temporarily, they’re not going to help us beat the Vikings next Sunday. The fact is that the Pittsburgh Steelers made a boatload of mistakes in Cleveland—errors which many other NFL teams gladly would seize as open invitations to defeat them. Even in view of Antonio Brown’s scintillating individual performance, the main reason why the Steelers garnered their first win of the season has much more to do with the weakness of their opponent than with any indication this team is nearing the neighborhood of where it needs to be as a serious championship contender.

When their 2016 season ended early this year, and even with their impressive late-season rally to the playoffs, it was pretty obvious the Steelers still weren’t quite good enough to reach the promised land. Because many other NFL teams have improved themselves significantly via off-season acquisitions, it’s crucial for the Steelers also to continue to improve. Unfortunately, what we saw in Cleveland on Sunday was an ugly collage of shortcomings similar to those that frustrated many fans primarily in the first half of the 2016 season.

It’s pretty difficult to “paper-over” a performance like this, and efforts to do so seem futile. The most constructive thing might be simply to forget this game entirely—just as one might do in the aftermath of an embarrassing pratfall or drunken binge. In fact and based on the game-thread comments, many loyal Steelers fans found that they simply could not drink enough to make this particular football game palatable.

Sunday’s upcoming matchup at Heinz Field with the Minnesota Vikings will provide further evidence speaking to the general premise that the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers might verily be described as a rising NFL power. With their 2016 season record of 8-8, the Vikes were—and presumably still are—at least a couple of cuts above the Browns. So that means Pittsburgh will need a substantially better effort next Sunday if they hope to extend their record to 2-0.