During the first of his past two weeks leading up to the Steelers-Browns matchup at Heinz Field, Ben Roethisberger was posting on social media from somewhere in the Bahamas enjoying some well-deserved R&R. But Ben never told us that he took his entire offense along for the week of frolicking in the sand and chugging umbrella drinks. This might be only a rumor, but that’s certainly the way the Steelers’ offense appeared throughout the first quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday. But as the game wore on, the hometown crowd finally got a taste of what they had expected from the opening kickoff — a dominant, 33-18 Steelers’ victory in a game that wasn’t quite as competitive as the final score.
So let’s chalk this one up to post-beach hangover, because the alternative explanation would be that the Black-and-gold has reverted to its well-known habit of playing down to the competition. As they say, “All’s well that ends well.” But given some notable Steelers’ flubs that nearly allowed the Browns to make a game of it, the result might have been worse if Rooney U. been facing a finely-tuned NFL offense (e.g. New England or Kansas City) instead of the Browns.
While Cleveland’s young QB Baker Mayfield looks like he might become an NFL star someday, he’s clearly still in the developmental stage, along with pretty much the entire Cleveland offense. Of course, the Steelers’ defense did turn in another strong showing, hounding Mayfield from sideline to sideline throughout most of the game. But offensively speaking, and particularly in terms of their offensive line, the Browns are still mired in a sorry state of affairs punctuated by the firing of Head Coach Hue Jackson and OC Todd Haley. It seemed pretty obvious that Cleveland’s coaches knew their jobs were on the line because, by the end of the fourth quarter, Jackson appeared to be cursing at raindrops while Haley was seen staring silently into space along the sideline. Yep, same old Browns but with a slightly different twist of the dagger. Joe Haden’s excellent performance might just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in Cleveland.
So maybe we should simply consider this game as a scrimmage for the Baltimore Ravens next weekend — a chance for the Black-and-gold to shake the sand out of their shoes and recover from one too many Pina Coladas. But if you were looking for any definitive clues about the general state of the team at mid-season, you probably didn’t find any on Sunday, despite the relatively easy win. The Browns simply are too awful to draw any conclusions from this game.
Nevertheless, there were some good things to consider. James Conner continues to make the question of when Le’Veon Bell returns to the locker room increasingly irrelevant. Antonio Brown is still AB and the Steelers’ offensive line continues to resemble an impregnable fortress protecting King Ben.
This was a case of winning a game that we likely chalked up as a victory back when we took our first glance at the Steelers’ 2018 schedule. Seen in that light, it’s clearly a positive and necessary step forward. But we shouldn’t ignore the Steelers’ poor start or the huge screw-up on the free kick following a safety which would have enabled any reasonably competent NFL team reason to get back in the game. In general, the Steelers played mediocre football throughout the entire first half, and that’s an issue they’ve got to address if they want to avoid playing from behind against teams with potent offenses.
But all’s well that ends well — at least until next weekend. Say what you will about Baltimore Ravens’ head coach Jim Harbaugh — he knows exactly how to frustrate most of the things the Steelers’ offense likes to do. Harbaugh’s game uses tough defense to force the Black-and-gold to play out of character. This can be an especially frustrating spectacle because, in reality, the Ravens themselves are still a pretty mediocre bunch — albeit not quite as hapless as the Browns.
On the positive side, though, if the Steelers can’t manage to run away with the AFC North divisional title this season, then their issues would be far more serious than anyone imagined. Given what we’ve seen so far in 2018, it seems inconceivable that either the Bengals or the Ravens has the ability to make a race out of this division.
But most of the teams on Pittsburgh’s schedule in the second half of the season are considerably stronger than those they’ve already played. So until we see the results of the upcoming games with Carolina, Jacksonville and the Chargers, we won’t have a very good fix on the true strength of these 2018 Steelers. If Pittsburgh coasts into the playoffs with six or seven losses due to poor competition in their own division, they might be in for another rude awakening like the one they received at Heinz Field last January.
On the other hand, if Pittsburgh puts together another late-season winning streak, as they’ve done in recent years, it’ll suggest the team is ready to compete seriously in the playoffs. Beating the Browns might be an ego boost, but November football will determine which way the arrow truly is pointing.