Pittsburgh, despite its depleted offense that included the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who is out for the rest of the year with an elbow injury, rode into town on a four-game winning-streak and, at 5-4, was now firmly back in the playoff race.
As for the Browns, despite all of their obvious talent, despite all of their offseason hype, they were the same old Browns, complete with a 3-6 record and loads of incompetence and chaos.
The Steelers swagger was back, both with the players and with their fans, while those derogatory memes about the Browns were as plentiful as ever on social media.
You just had to expect Pittsburgh would find a way to defeat those Brownies, come heck or high water.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the only thing that was high on Thursday was the Browns’ energy, as they basically had their way with the Steelers in a 21-7 victory that didn’t even seem that close.
I suppose it was no surprise that the Steelers offense struggled against Cleveland. Under the leadership of second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, that’s come to be expected. It’s a woe familiar to most teams missing their most important player at the most critical position. Unfortunately, in one of those “all hands on deck” situations, the Steelers were quickly down some very vital skill-position players, as receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson left the game with concussions, while running back James Conner re-aggravated a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the previous two weeks and also went out early.
The result? Even more struggles than normal, as Pittsburgh’s only touchdown drive was aided greatly by penalties.
Rudolph often looked indecisive and confused, as he completed 23 of 44 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and a whopping four interceptions. Rudolph was also hurried and harassed most of the night to the tune of four sacks. That’s right, not even the Steelers decorated offensive line could make life easier for the still struggling to make it Rudolph. Both tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler played more like the projects they entered the NFL as and not the starters they eventually became.
As for the defense, I suppose it was just a matter of time that it would look mortal and ordinary—even the good defenses have a hard time avoiding such days from time to time.
Baker Mayfield didn’t look like a future Hall of Fame quarterback on a night in-which he completed 17 of 32 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns, but he did prove to be frustratingly elusive while avoiding the Steelers pass rush most of the night, often escaping potential sacks before scrambling away and making something positive happen for his football team.
And in addition to only recording one sack on the night, the Steelers opportunistic defense was brought back down to Earth and couldn’t come up with a single takeaway to help out the offense.
No answers on offense. No answers on defense. As for the special teams? How about a botched hold by punter Jordan Berry that led to an ugly field goal miss by kicker Chris Boswell early on when the Steelers were trying to respond to a Cleveland touchdown with points of their own?
I suppose the Steelers were due for a letdown, especially after living so close to the edge during most of their four-game winning-streak.
But a defeat that was so thorough? A performance that was so lifeless in just about every area? When the biggest fan pop comes from a Maurkice Pouncey beat-down of Myles Garrett, who committed one of the most egregious acts in recent memory by taking Rudolph’s own helmet and smashing him in the head with it, you know it was a night in-which the Steelers had no answers.
Will they be able to find the right answers in time to keep the playoff discussions realistic over the final six games?
I guess we’ll find out in another week or so. The only thing we know for sure is, the Steelers have a lot of studying to do between now and the next time they line up to play a meaningful football game.