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5 plays that explain the Steelers’ slow start, and strong finish, vs. the Browns in Week 13

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Looking at the Steelers’ decisive win over the Browns at Heinz Field in Week 13.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers defended their home field Week 13, splitting the season series with Cleveland and effectively eliminating the Browns from the playoffs. But it was far from stress free, as the Steelers started off slow, falling behind 10-0 while running all of 5 offensive plays in the first half and a total of 9 when they fell behind by 2 scores.

Today in the Film Room we are going to take a brief look at how the Steelers fell behind, and how they dominated from then on.


Mike Hilton’s rough start

Third play of the game, 3rd and 7. Mike Hilton starts the play just above the hash mark on the 32 yard line, covering Jarvis Landry.

Jarvis Landry roasts Hilton for a 19 yard gain. The Browns would get a few good runs and end up turning this drive into a 3-point lead to start the game. Here’s a better view of just how badly Hilton got juked.

Landry throws down a filthy move and Hilton does well just to stay upright.

Hilton’s rough start wouldn’t end there.

Browns third drive, 3rd and 5. Hilton is to the top of the screen, college hashes at the 12 yard line.

This play is intended to run Kareem Hunt behind two other routes, and when he sees Hilton has fought hard to get outside, he cuts inside for the Browns only TD of the day.

Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton miss tackles on Hunt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is a little slow getting back to help. Both Sutton and Haden are worried about Rashard Higgins and Hilton has no real help inside. 10-0 Cleveland because the Browns were getting it done on third down.


Attacking the Steelers aggressiveness

This season T.J. Watt is destroying opposing offenses, and the Steelers have largely released Watt from other responsibilities and most plays he just rushes aggressively. I’ve covered several different ways teams have tried to counter-punch against Watt’s aggressive rushing, and the Browns threw out one I haven’t covered.

3rd and 4

I was harsh on Vince Williams in my Mark Barron analysis, so here’s a classic Vince Williams play. The Browns try to sneak Kareem Hunt inside Watt’s rush after he looks like he’s committing to block Watt. Vince Williams stays home, and is able to avoid the right guard, and he makes a great tackle on Kareem Hunt for a 2-yard loss and a punt. Vince Williams is really good in small spaces, and he doesn’t miss tackles. Once the Steelers settled down, and started executing better the Browns couldn’t exploit the Steelers aggressiveness and after 3 third down conversions in the first quarter, and the TD to Hunt above for their fourth, they would not convert another third down in the game.


Solving a staple

I showed in my film room about Randy Fichtner and his offense with Mason Rudolph how often the Steelers run short crosses to give the QB an easy pass on most plays. The Browns did a great job of solving a three-route variation on those crosses.

Pay attention to the defenders and routes around the Steelers logo.

The camera pans out fast and Hodges is sacked pretty quickly here, but the routes in the middle of the field are locked down here. The big deal is the defender on the cross that is closest to their receiver hits their crosser after the defenders switch. This prevents the Steelers player getting a lead on them as the LB tries to reverse their momentum.

This was the Steelers first third down of the game, their third of 5 offensive plays they would run in the first quarter. Fichtner has been using those crosses and modifications of them all season to help out his young QBs. Teams are focusing on them now, and that’s one reason you saw the Steelers throw deep more, because the Browns took away Hodges’ training wheels.


Poor clock management, or a poor play call?

3rd and 6, 2 minutes left in the 4th quarter. A play that has been cited numerous places as a bad clock management decision, throwing a pass when a run play would have taken a lot more time off the clock for a Browns team that had no timeouts.

I don’t agree with that. Devlin Hodges had converted a 3rd and 5 and a 3rd and 6 already on that drive, the Browns were on their heels and a first down ends the game right there. Devlin Hodges has been at his best when he’s taking risks and making plays. I’ve got no problem with Tomlin and Fichtner betting on their young QB who was on a run.

I do have a problem with the play call. (Watch the middle of the field, the routes around the logo)

Look familiar? On the Steelers last third down of the game he runs the same routes as he did on the first one, this time from a different formation. The Browns use the exact same tactic to shut it down that they used in the first quarter.

I’ve been supportive of Randy Fichtner for changing up his offense on the fly, and for how well that offense has worked with so much talent off the field and all the new faces on the field, but this play call was a mistake. It will be interesting to see what Fichtner does to counter this tactic, because it is simple enough that any team we face can copy it.


James Washington

I’ve already covered 5 plays, but what’s in a name, really? It would be wrong to do a film room about this game and not include a James Washington catch, so here’s my favorite of his four receptions, and his last of the game.

That’s a fantastic route. Denzel Ward is a very physical corner and he tries to steer Washington into the sideline after his outside release. James just swats his arm away and protects his space to the sideline, then gives Ward a little something when Ward tries a second time, and that lets him create space for the catch. He just out-muscles the guy drafted 56 spots ahead of him to get to a ball that was thrown as soon as Hodges saw Washington was 1v1 with the Browns #1 corner. That’s trust. Hodges trusted Washington to keep his lane, beat Ward to the ball and make the catch.

And what a catch it was.

Ward’s last resort is to grab Washington’s arm and interfere with the catch, but Washington isn’t having that, he catches the ball one-handed and then puts his other hand on the ball, pulling Ward with it.

What a game.