Thursday night games are brutal on the road team.
However, that was only one of the numerous reasons why I had extremely low expectations for the possibility of a Pittsburgh Steelers road victory Thursday night in Cleveland.
Ben Roethlisberger owned the Browns during his 18-year career with the Steelers, but since he has retired. T.J. Watt has destroyed the Browns offensive game plans throughout his career, but he is currently on injured reserve with a pec injury. The Steelers have yet to show they can win a game without him.
The Steelers team that took the field Thursday night was just what the doctor ordered for a Browns team coming off one of the worst losses in recent team history. The Steelers offense has struggled to convert third downs and control time of possession. The Steelers defense has struggled to get off the field on third downs, especially in the second half of games.
On paper, this was a terrible matchup for the Steelers, considering the fact that the Browns have the best running attack in the NFL, led by the best running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, plus a powerful run blocking offensive line.
The Browns inexplicably did the Steelers a favor by basically abandoning their running game in the first half, choosing instead to focus on exploiting the middle of the field. Who could blame them, because the Steelers continue to struggle mightily trying to defend the middle of the field.
As effective as that strategy was for the Browns, the Steelers held a one-point lead at halftime. However, the Browns were holding there own in time of possession, and their defense wasn't gassed. The Steelers lead and first half offensive success hardly felt secure or sustainable. Steelers fans have seen this song and dance before.
Second half offensive struggles and defensive fatigue has been a reoccurring theme for the Steelers, and Thursday night was more of the same. The Browns coaches were finally smart enough to feed Nick Chubb the rock and get out of the way. The Steelers, without Watt, continue to struggle for answers.
Stock Up: Alex Highsmith
Highsmith is an excellent complimentary running mate for his edge partner T.J. Watt. With the aforementioned Watt out with injury, Highsmith is being asked to attempt to pick up some of the slack in light of Watt's absence. He has also become more of a focal point of opposing offenses since his three sack performance in Week 1 of the season. After struggling to make an impact against the Patriots in Week 2, he rebounded with a strong all-around performance against the Browns.
Steelers defenders struggled throughout the game to wrap up and bring down the Browns powerful running backs. Highsmith did an excellent job setting the edge, and bringing down the ball carriers at first contact. He also finished the game with 1.5 QB sacks. Nice bounce back performance from Highsmith.
Stock Down: Tyson Alualu
One of the biggest issues with Thursday night games is the extremely short recovery time for your older starters. That was the case for Alualu Thursday, and it showed. Alualu struggled more against the Browns than in any game in recent memory. He struggled to anchor, regularly given ground against double teams. On one memorable short yardage play late in the third quarter, Alualu was blown back immediately after the snap and ended up flat on his back, looking up at the stars. I honestly have never seen that happen to Alualu in his Steelers tenure. Was that the byproduct of the short week, or his advanced age catching up with him? For the Steelers sake, let's all hope it was the first option, and definitely not both.
Stock Fluctuating: Jaylen Warren
Warren looks like a spark plug on a Steelers offense in desperate need of a positive charge. He is a instant change of pace back to established starter Najee Harris. Warren continues to show explosive quickness and phenomenal contact balance. He is a solid receiver and a punishing blocker in pass protection. He appears on the verge of a big play every time he gets his hands on the football. Warren's biggest challenge is earning the opportunities to get his hands on the football, and then holding on to the ball once he does. Warren was a difference maker against the Browns, but hardly saw the field after he fumbled the football yet again, a reoccurring theme of his early professional career. Warren can form a dynamic one two punch with Harris if he can learn to better protect the football.
Stock Down: Diontae Johnson
Johnson got paid this offseason. He was compensated like the really good receiver he is. Good, but not elite. He has been extremely inconsistent to start this season, alternating plays somewhere between the spectacular and absolutely head-scratching varieties. Johnson had a huge, drive killing drop on a key third down deep ball in the second half. A second half that desperately needed a big play to regain momentum. Your best, and did I mention highest paid, receiver has to make that play.
Another one of the reasons I was totally against paying Johnson 20+ million a year has been on full display already this season. Johnson has never met a sidelines he didn't like. He loves to lose his coverage in an instant, turn and catch the ball, and flow straight out of bounds without ever being touched. It's his favorite route. Forget about Johnson trying to utilize his quickness to maybe make a defender miss and pickup desperately needed yards after the catch. It's apparently against his personal code of conduct to ever even attempt to break a tackle.
I vividly remember Franco Harris gliding out of bounds at the end of various outside runs, but he was a workhorse running back who was trying to limit unnecessary punishment. That description doesn't apply to Johnson, besides the fact he is avoiding contact for personal protection. Bigger compensation means greater expectations.