As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. A winning streak
Not only did the Steelers finally gain a winning record after their victory over the Browns, but it was their third straight win. That winning streak likely won’t end over the next two weeks, as the Steelers have two extremely winnable games against the Bears and Lions in their following matchups. It’s far too early to guarantee that the Steelers will be on a streak of 5-straight victories heading into their primetime matchup against the Chargers on November 21st, but it would be a massive confidence boost for the team as they enter the final stretch of their season which is as crucial as it is difficult.
2. A winning formula
I’ve constantly brought up how important it is for the Steelers to follow the formula of good defense, a consistent running game, and smart quarterback play this season. I’ll bring it up again as the Steelers used exactly that method to beat the Browns on Sunday. It’s certainly no small feat, as two-thirds of that formula, the running game and quarterback play, are far from guarantees each game.
But the Steelers’ young offensive line is finally playing like a unit that can consistently impose their will in the run game, while Ben Roethlisberger, sans his usual one terrible throw each week, has managed to play a more conservative role in Pittsburgh’s offense. For the most part, Ben made smart, safe reads against Cleveland, all while attempting well under 40 pass attempts. In turn, Najee Harris and the young offensive line were able to carry the offense throughout most of the game.
Paired with their defense holding Baker Mayfield and the Browns to just the 10 points, the Steelers were able to play their brand of football against Cleveland — and as a result, they emerged with a win.
3. A breakout game
Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada might have had his breakout game of sorts against Cleveland.
His trademark pre-snap motion seemed more intentional than ever, with players actually receiving the ball on sweeps and reverses, which in turn helped open up the interior run game. Play-action was used to some success, which was also set up by a toss play that the Steelers used earlier in the game. Derek Watt saw some snaps on offense, while the team’s usage of tight ends was successful and occurred more often than usual.
Canada was also noticeably more aggressive, and some of that is likely thanks to Mike Tomlin. The Steeler offense stayed on the field for a fourth down that they successfully converted, and the game-ending quick slant to Diontae Johnson was both a risky and brilliant play-call. For the past few weeks, it seems as if the Steelers are becoming more comfortable in their own skin, and for an example look no farther than Matt Canada.
4. To fake or not to fake?
Mike Tomlin’s call of his team’s ill-fated fake field goal at the end of the first half has been plenty criticized over the past few days, and while I initially hated the call, I’ve found it harder and harder to object to.
First off, many fans, including myself, have criticized Tomlin for not being aggressive enough throughout the season. He definitely made the aggressive call on the fake kick, which was a gutsy decision that would have been heralded as genius if it had worked. Beyond that, while it was never a guarantee that the fake would work, the chances of Boswell getting hurt was never very high. During the play, the Steelers’ kicker held onto the ball for too long, and besides, it was likely an illegal hit that knocked him out of the game. Tomlin shouldn’t be blamed for that.
Tomlin’s call of the fake kick may not have been his best, especially since it was defended so well by the Browns, but it certainly does not deserve as negative of a reaction as it has received.
5. Moore Island
I legitimately felt bad for Steelers’ left tackle Dan Moore on Sunday.
The rookie offensive lineman was left on an island against one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers in Myles Garrett for a good portion of the game, and it went as expected. Garrett’s strength and athleticism often left Moore, who has struggled in pass protection this year, looking like a turnstile. So the fact that Garrett was held to only one sack should definitely be surprising.
Ben Roethlisberger certainly deserves some credit for his play against the Browns’ defensive front, as his pocket awareness was impressive despite his limited mobility. Roethlisberger managed to get the ball out fast and at the right time more often than not against Cleveland, which prevented Garrett from getting a few easy sacks.
Moore didn’t have a completely terrible game on Sunday, but most of his success came in run-blocking. It’s a hard task for any left tackle in the league to be left one-on-one so often with a pass-rusher like Garrett.
6. Shutting down the greatest threat
The Steelers defense have taken on an almost Bill Belichick-esque defensive identity this season. They’ve focused on shutting down the opposing offense’s greatest threat and forcing them to move the ball through other means. In some cases, it’s worked, such as how well Pittsburgh defended the Bills’ Stefon Diggs in their Week 1 victory. But the Seattle game was a different story, in which the Steelers successfully shut down Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, but let Alex Collins run wild in the second half.
However, that strategy worked perfectly against Cleveland. The Steelers shut down the Browns’ run game, perhaps the best in the league, holding them to under 100 total rushing yards. Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ receivers had a rough game despite being dared to throw by Pittsburgh’s defense.
7. On the same page
Perhaps the most understated play the Steelers had against Cleveland was when Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass to Chase Claypool on a back-shoulder route after an RPO. After so many such plays have failed for Pittsburgh this season, especially between Ben and Claypool, it was great to see them look like they were finally on the same page. After the Seahawks game, I wrote that Roethlisberger and his receivers would have to improve their communication during the bye, and after the Browns game it certainly looks like they did.
8. Hit or miss?
Devin Bush had an incredibly rough day against Cleveland. Not only did he consistently struggle with disengaging from blocks, but his missed tackle on D’Ernest Johnosn’s touchdown run was one of the worst examples of not “breaking-down” before a tackle I’ve ever seen at the pro level.
There seems to be a bit of debate on whether Bush is a first-round bust or not following his disappointing play this season. While he looked promising his rookie year, the rest of his career has not looked like that of a top-10 pick, although it is worth noting that his torn ACL last year has certainly impacted his play.
NFL Network used to run a segment called “Hit, Miss, or Meh” regarding first-round picks. The “hit” and “miss” labels are rather obvious, while the “meh” was reserved for players who were decent starters but never lived up to their first-round billing. Right now, Bush fits in that “meh” category, as despite some poor play in recent weeks he has still been a solid starter on Pittsburgh’s defense. That isn’t to say he can’t ascend to “hit” status as his young career progresses — and if one thing is for sure, the Steelers’ trade for Joe Schobert is looking better and better each game given the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the team’s inside linebacker room.
9. Justin Layne sighting
Justin Layne didn’t have any big defensive plays on Sunday, but he still made his presence felt on the field. He had a nice tackle on special teams, but also managed to recover what could have been a costly fumble by Ray-Ray McCloud on a return.
Layne has received a lot of criticism, much of it well-deserved, for his inability to contribute to the Steelers’ defense. But although he hasn’t lived up to draft expectations, it’s worth noting that he’s seemingly still managing to help his team through his special teams play — and if Chris Boswell’s injury taught us anything on Sunday, it’s that special teams are still a very important aspect of football.
The Steelers gained a quality win against a quality opponent on Sunday. Hopefully their win can set the tone for the rest of the season.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.