The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns on Sunday due in large part to the fact that they have Antonio Brown and Cleveland does not. Brown, a veritable football god, amassed 182 yards on 11 catches ranging in difficulty from “typical” to “oh my God how did he do that?” His final catch was a 38-yard reception on which he ran across the width of the field, leaped over approximately three defenders to secure the ball, maintained possession, and essentially ended the game (inexplicably, Cleveland called a timeout to decide if they wanted to challenge the play, subsequently decided to challenge said play, and then lost the challenge, thereby forfeiting their final two timeouts on a single play).
There are several quantifiable measures that further illustrate the significance of Brown’s performance. First and perhaps most notably, Brown generated almost 63 percent of Pittsburgh’s gross offensive output, which is ridiculous. Sunday’s game was supposed to mark the glorious return of the Killer B’s, but instead it devolved into a war of attrition that was won because Brown is an exemplary receiver. In other words, we’ve seen this kind of game before.
Second, Brown--much like his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—has developed somewhat of a penchant for dismantling the Browns. In six games against Cleveland since the beginning of the 2014 season, Brown has caught 57 passes for 818 yards. (To Cleveland’s credit, they haven’t allowed Brown to score a touchdown since 2015, which can be judged as a minor victory, I suppose).
As per usual, Antonio Brown’s stock is up. The same is true for…
T.J. Watt – Stock UP
Watt had a big-time “life comes at you fast” kind of moment on Sunday.
The Browns, down two possessions but in field-goal range, had just surrendered a sack to Anthony Chickillo with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Watt, seemingly unsatisfied by the fact that DeShone Kizer was already on laying the ground, barreled into the rookie quarterback for no reason whatsoever, drawing a well-deserved personal foul in the process. The malicious nature of the play is debatable, but it certainly exemplified unnecessary roughness. Undeterred, Watt intercepted Kizer’s very next pass, making up for what could have been a back-breaking rookie mistake.
Aside from his momentary lapse in judgment, Watt had a solid debut. He collected two sacks (by his own admission, he should have had three, but failed to put Kizer on the ground), six solo tackles and the aforementioned interception, putting together easily one of the better rookie debuts in recent memory. The Browns have a good offensive line, so Watt’s performance against this unit is markedly more inspiring than his showing against the New York Giants and their sieve-like offensive line in the second week of the preseason. Obviously, Watt isn’t going to collect two sacks every week, but a sustained record of solid production will put him firmly in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
Playing with discipline – Stock DOWN
The fact that the Steelers walked away from First Energy Stadium with a victory after committing 13 penalties for 144 yards is both enraging and encouraging. On one hand, such a voluminous portfolio of infractions is sure to spell doom against the Chiefs, Patriots, Packers or Ravens. On the other hand, the ability to overcome more than a dozen penalties is a strong testament to Pittsburgh’s overall talent.
Committing a greater number of “minor” penalties in Week 1 is understandable, but the Steelers absolutely must cut down on the personal fouls, which are both aggravating and, frankly, borderline dirty. Watt and Ryan Shazier both received personal fouls for separate late hits against Kizer, who had already given himself up on the plays in question, while William Gay was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver. Gay’s tackle came on a bang-bang play and appeared to lack actual malice, but Watt and Shazier committed the kinds of penalties that will generate several “The Steelers are a dirty team” stories on rival blogs.
Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line - Stock DOWN
I don’t want to overstate this: Sunday was one of the poorest outings of Bell’s career (statistically speaking, it was his least-productive showing since 2013). WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED IF HE SHOWED UP TO CAMP. SAD!
There might be some veracity to this spicy take. Bell had 13 touches, which is the fewest he has had in a single game since 2015. Did Tomlin limit Bell’s workload to send a message? (No. No, he did not).
Bell gained averaged 3.2 yards per rush, which is a number that sounds made up. Even crazier is the fact that Bell gained 22 yards on two carries on Pittsburgh’s final drive of the game, meaning that over the course of the first 56 minutes and 27 seconds of a very close game, Bell gained 10 yards on eight rushing attempts. This, in my opinion, indicates that either Tomlin is an insane person who puts sending a message before team success (which seems unlikely), or that Bell simply didn’t have any room to run (considerably more likely).
Somehow, Cleveland’s front seven channeled their inner Steel Curtain and manhandled Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which is allegedly one of the best units in the NFL. With that said, things can only go up from here, because Sunday’s contest against Cleveland was the worst game the offensive line has played since Alejandro Villanueva became a full-time starter.
(Unless, of course, Tomlin paid the linemen to play poorly to SEND A MESSAGE TO LE’VEON BELL).
Secondary receivers not named Antonio Brown or Jesse James - Stock DOWN
Jesse James is the greatest tight end in NFL history. With six catches, 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the incumbent no. 1 end has evidently taken Tomlin’s “junior varsity” comment very seriously. It’s a good thing he did, too, or else the Steelers might not have won—and as a brief aside, Sunday’s game yielded an alarming number of or-else-the-Steelers-might-not-have-won moments. Martavis Bryant looked noticeably rusty, Eli Rogers was anonymous, Juju Smith-Schuster was unable to make an impression despite playing more than 20 offensive snaps and new addition Vance McDonald playing only 18 snaps compared to James’ 54.
This group will figure things out sooner or later; but if they don’t, the Steelers can rest easy knowing that Antonio Brown will drag them kicking and screaming to the promise land.
The defensive line - Stock UP
Stephon Tuitt will apparently NOT miss the entire 2017 season, which is a welcoming nugget of news after the bleak outlook that followed his initial diagnosis.
Pittsburgh’s defensive line, which was always going to be among the team’s strong suites, held Isaiah Crowell to 33 yards on 17 rushes and enabled Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers to fly around the backfield like a gaggle of screaming hellbeasts. Chickillo and Watt should be commended for their performances, but that duo doesn’t combine for four sacks without Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Tuitt handling their business in the trenches.
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Roethlisberger was sacked only once, but was routinely hurried and forced into some pretty awful throws. The fact that the running game struggled and none of his receivers aside from James and Brown were able to get open probably promoted some severe frustration, too.
Still, a win is a win, and he has now won more games on Cleveland’s home turf than any quarterback they have employed since before I was born. I think he’ll stick around for at least one more week. We’ll put the BRR Index at a 5 for this week (mildly annoyed, could voice frustrations to the media, but still all-in).