The Steelers 38-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns was billed as a gut-check game for both Cleveland and Pittsburgh — the contest that would tell us who the contender really was between a 4-0 squad and their 4-1 opponent.
Well, we learned plenty. Here’s a sampling, organized by the quotes before and after the game:
“This one’s for Myles.” (Kareem Hunt)
It turns out this wasn’t such a rallying cry after all.
You could start this by pointing out (as some have) that Myles Garrett wasn’t the victim in the helmet-swinging incident last year, so dedicating this game to him was awkward and misplaced. You could also point out (as others have) that Hunt, who claimed he and Garrett bonded over being suspended last season, was himself suspended for being caught on camera pushing and kicking a drunk woman. So perhaps he’s not the best judge of inspiration or injustice.
But what I’m most struck by is how wholly Garrett was silenced by the Steelers O-Line. Garrett finished the day with four tackles and a sack, but with one minute left in the first half, he had yet to register a stat at all. (His only entry in the record was a defensive offside penalty immediately after Cam Sutton’s interception of Baker Mayfield. The Steelers scored a touchdown four plays later to take a 24-0 lead.) Aside from his sack, just before halftime, all of his tackles came in a single third quarter Steelers scoring drive (see below) – the final was on Ben Roethlisberger’s 4th and 1 quarterback sneak. Ben had already picked up two yards.
For the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year, he seemed pretty underwhelming to me.
“It just never felt like we did much.” (Ben Roethlisberger)
Ben was right – the Steelers offense didn’t seem to do much on Sunday. And they still put up 31 points.
That’s a really good sign. Because this offense is loaded with talent, and it CAN get things going when needed. Chase Claypool is a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are Pro Bowlers. James Washington was the team leader in receiving yards last year, and has quietly put up a number of highlights this season already. Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald are both capable of dominating an opponent. Benny Snell Jr. ran for 100 yards in his only significant playing time this year. And Diontae Johnson (who didn’t even play) was the team’s leading receiver last year.
And that doesn’t even mention Ben , who had one of his quietest games in memory, but still has his “A” game ready – his deep ball is still powerful and getting more and more accurate; his pump fake (one of the best in the game) is still outstanding, and his decision making is as good as ever. If Ben suddenly needed to put up 400 yards and four touchdowns to win a game, does anyone think he couldn’t do it? Especially with this cast? I think he could.
Fun fact: the Steelers offense is currently ranked 5th in the NFL in points per game, with 31.2. Remember all those years, with the Killer B’s piling up yards, when the talk was “this year we’ll average 30 points.” They never did it in those years. And this year, with no one really tearing up the league (except Chase Claypool), they’re well above the mark.
A top-heavy team gets headlines, but apparently a deep team gets points.
“Winning is fun.” (Chase Claypool)
My favorite drive for the Steelers offense: in the third quarter, after stuffing Hunt for a loss on 4th and 1, the Steelers took over on downs at the Browns 28. They proceeded to chew up 5:55 in game time, landing in the end zone after eight consecutive rushes by four different players. They ran off the left side four times, off the right twice, and up the middle twice. They converted a 3rd and 4 on the ground; they converted a 4th and 1 on a quarterback sneak; and they scored the touchdown on a WR jet sweep. And it gave the Steelers a 31-7 lead as the fourth quarter began.
In other words, they bullied the Browns with force, shot past them with speed, and spun them around with trickery. It was a master class in showing the opponent who’s boss.
And it was fun to watch.
“We’re not looking for low-hanging fruit.” (Mike Tomlin)
Tomlin’s talking about the Myles Garrett/Mason Rudolph storyline here, but I keep thinking about how relying on the opponent to make cheap mistakes is also “low hanging fruit.”
The Browns defense gave a object lesson on how dangerous it is to live and die by your opponent’s turnovers. In fact, Cleveland still leads the league in takeaways, even though the Steelers didn’t give the ball away once on Sunday. That’s a big reason why the Browns had won four straight; and it’s a big reason why they got plowed by the Steelers. A patient, careful team with a veteran quarterback, a strong offensive line, and a willingness to grind down the clock, will usually beat a turnover-driven D.
Don’t get me wrong: turnovers are great, but they’re fickle – especially fumbles. If you’re a decent D (but not great) who wins by getting a ton of takeaways, you’re eventually going to get exposed. On the other hand, a great D that forces turnovers too – like the Steelers version, for example – gets the job done whether they get a pick-6 or not. Just like they have all season.
“I’m just trying to inflict good punishment.” (Cameron Heyward)
I love pointing out how dominant the Steelers’ pass rush was all day. They battered Baker Mayfield so badly he looked utterly lost. They even made some great downfield hits (Bud Dupree’s shoulder-check on Austin Hooper was one of the most surprising hits I’ve seen all year). But not enough people are talking about the Steelers shutting down the Cleveland running game.
The Browns came into Sunday’s contest leading the league in rushing (with 188.4 yards per game). In fact, even after getting held in check by the Steelers (to the tune of 75 yards on the ground), they are still number one in football, with 169.5 ypg. That’s how far ahead they were. And yet, they were held 113 yards below their season average, and failed on two 4th and 1 running attempts (both of which went backward).
Some might point to the absence of Nick Chubb as the real cause of this struggle, but let’s remember: Kareem Hunt is only 25 and led the NFL in rushing just three years ago. And second-year man D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 95 yards in spot duty against Dallas two weeks back. This team is loaded at running back and it shows.
And they were punished by the Steelers.
“Good job, Tony. Tony finally made a good call… Just joking, Antonio.” (Ben Roethlisberger)
This poke at Tony Romo was funny enough on its own. But I want to use it because Roethlisberger wasn’t having a giant day, but was having fun because the Steelers were winning. Just like JuJu Smith-Schuster (2 catches, 6 yards) had fun all day, even as he watched James Washington and Chase Claypool get 11 targets and almost all the Steelers passing yards. He was having fun because the Steelers were winning. Just like Josh Dobbs, in street-clothes after losing his job, then his roster spot, last year, and only being brought back this summer at a lower grade, stayed neck deep in the game, suggesting playcalls to Big Ben that lead to touchdowns. This is a team that wants to win more than it wants anything else.
At a time when other teams are shedding talent like dog hair, the Steelers appear to have bought into the “we, not I” concept 100%, and are loving the results.
“We do not care.” (Mike Tomlin)
Mike Tomlin doesn’t blink. And neither do his troops.
Everyone knows that Devin Bush won’t be replaceable, but the Steelers didn’t seem to stumble much with Robert Spillane. In fact, Spillane was second on the team in tackles with six (five solo) and even recorded a tackle for loss (an area the Steelers are absolutely dominant in, by the way – leading the league in TFLs outright, even though the next ten teams have all played one more game than Pittsburgh).
This kind of thing was happening all over the field. David DeCastro (one of the best guards of the era) misses another game, Maurkice Pouncey (perhaps the best center of the era) goes down mid-game, and Zach Banner (slated to replace long-term starter Ramon Foster at tackle) misses the entire season. And so rookie Kevin Dotson comes in at guard, J.C. Hassenauer at center, and Chukwuma Okorafor plugs in at tackle, and the Steelers dominate the Browns’ supposedly powerful D-Line, winning the time of possession battle by over eight minutes. One could even point to the unsung Tyson Alualu, the backup DE and Jacksonville draft bust from a decade ago, who changed positions at age 33, and has become an anchor nose tackle on the NFL’s best run defense.
“The standard is the standard.” “Next man up.” “We do not care.” However you want to frame it, this team embodies it. And whatever it is, it’s working.