At FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie, the weather for Sunday’s Steelers-Browns Opening Day matchup was nearly as ugly as the two teams trying to play football in it. Played from start to finish in a constant rain that varied only in intensity, the 21-21 tie in overtime easily could have wound up in the win column for Pittsburgh, if not for the Black-and-gold’s near-total meltdown in the fourth quarter. But despite the many post-mortems being written already on the Steelers’ new season, this game likely tells us even less about what to expect from the 2018 edition of Rooney U. than the preseason games did.
While the usual suspects are noisily calling for the benching of Ben Roethlisberger, the firing of Mike Tomlin and other wholesale changes in the organization, we need to keep a few very important points in mind before we start leaping from the ledge. First, the Steelers might easily have been 0-1 at this point, but they’re merely 0-0-1 — not exactly the end of the world with 15 more games to play in the regular season. Secondly, the weather in which this game was played entirely frustrated the normal capabilities of both teams, and because the Steelers clearly are the better team under normal circumstances, the tie — somewhat unfairly — makes Pittsburgh look far worse than it does Cleveland. Finally, the fact that neither team’s starting players saw very much, if any, action during the preseason would have made this an ugly game even if it wasn’t played in a deluge.
More than any other single factor, it seemed that fatigue caught up to the Steelers in their fourth-quarter collapse. In particular, an offensive line that seemed to be owning the Browns’ defense earlier in the game was unable to hold Cleveland at bay in the final quarter when even a single Pittsburgh score of any description would have won the game. As for the obviously poor coordination between Roethlisberger and his receivers throughout the slop-fest, this should have been expected from the opening kickoff, not only due to early-season rust, but also to the ridiculous weather conditions. The biggest disappointment was the fact that the Steelers had a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter prior to James Conner’s fumble, plus possession of the ball. So if there’s any serious blame to assign for this pathetic outcome, it ought to fall on the apparent decision by the Steelers to try running out the clock much too early in the final quarter — instead of keeping their foot on the gas.
As it turned out, the Browns’ defense — and especially Myles Garrett, their stellar 2017 first-round draft pick (and first overall pick) — might have been down, but they certainly weren’t out, as they stifled virtually everything the Steelers tried to do offensively late in the game. The Browns also forced some late and crucial Pittsburgh turnovers to turn the tide, including two sacks and recoveries of Roethlisberger fumbles — one coming at 6:48 of the fourth quarter and the second coming at 0:41 of the OT period. If not for T.J. Watt’s block of a Zane Gonzales FG attempt with only 13 seconds remaining, today’s story would be even worse, as the Steelers would be 0-1. And just prior to the blocked Cleveland FG attempt, Chris Boswell missed a 42-yard attempt wide left which would have lifted the Steelers to 1-0.
Although Steelers Nation likely will dwell on what might have been, it’s worthwhile to consider how far below the line both teams performed in this washout of a game. Despite passing for 335 yards in the miserable rain, Ben threw three interceptions and was sacked a total of four times, including the back-breaking sack/fumbles when the game was on the line. His quarterback rating for the game was a pathetic 60.5, but Tyrod Taylor’s rating was even worse for Cleveland at 51.8 with one interception and seven sacks.
Filling in for the absent Le’Veon Bell, Conner was one of the few bright spots for Pittsburgh, rushing for 135 yards on 31 carries for a 4.4-yard average and two TDs, plus catching five passes for 57 yards. It’s tough to come down too hard on Conner for his fourth-quarter fumble, as he was stripped from behind by the budding superstar Garrett. This might have been the first time in his football career that Conner has been mugged by a Defensive End trailing the play from the opposite side. It was simply a great football play that took No. 30 completely by surprise.
Ryan Switzer, the Steelers’ recent acquisition from the Raiders, also looked very good, returning three kickoffs for 69 yards and a 23-yard average, plus also returning five punts for 56 yards (11.2-yard average).
But in terms of what this opening game tells us about the 2018 Steelers team, it was practically useless. Thus, any definitive conclusions drawn from the sorry exhibition we saw on Sunday afternoon in Cleveland are likely to be premature and off-target. Not that this caveat will stop any zealous critic from grinding his or her ax, but we’re going to need at least two more games played under reasonably normal field conditions before we can legitimately start characterizing this Steelers team or pointing fingers at individual players and coaches — or even possibly the equipment manager. The game-time conditions in Cleveland on Sunday simply were so awful that this dreary outcome is hardly indicative of anything significant — at least not yet.
So as we look forward to Week 2, in which the Steelers face the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field, it’s probably better to recognize this Week-1 affair for what it was — a clash of two rusty teams under some of the worst field conditions you’ll ever see for a football game. Though it’s almost never done in the NFL, the league ought to seriously consider postponing games when the weather conditions are predicted to be especially awful. Even given the early-season rust factor, what we saw in Cleveland was nothing close to being representative of NFL football, what with six Pittsburgh turnovers and a combined 203 yards in penalties for both teams. As you might have noticed, the weather nowadays isn’t exactly improving, and the fans who support this league deserve far better.