In a game that lived up to its billing as an ugly, vicious divisional rivalry a little too much, the Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 26-22 on Monday Night Football. Pittsburgh delivered a near-heart attack victory, meaning that as always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. A win that still feels like a loss
There were positives in the Steelers’ win on Monday — we’ll get to those in a bit — but there are still plenty of negatives to unpack. For one, Browns star Nick Chubb’s departure following a grisly knee injury cheapened Pittsburgh’s victory and added a sober undertone to the rest of the game.
On the Steelers’ side of things, there wasn’t much beyond the out-of-this-world play of TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith that showed legitimate improvement from last week’s blowout loss to San Francisco. Nearly all of the same problems that hurt Pittsburgh in Week 1 re-emerged on Monday, leaving the Steelers’ victory seeming more like a lucky break than a building block. Yes, a win is a win, but the Steelers’ defense scoring two touchdowns a game is not a sustainable road to victory. The Steelers may have put their season back on the right track by avoiding an 0-2 start, but they are still miles away from where they need to be.
2. Kenny Pickett might be a bust
The “might” is holding a lot of weight in the above sentence, but it’s time to breach the subject. Sure, the Steelers didn't draft Pickett to be a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen throwing 50-yard bombs down the field, but they did draft him to excel in the above-the-neck aspects of quarterbacking, such as poise, accuracy, and decision-making. But against the Browns, Pickett continued to look overwhelmed and inaccurate. There have been multiple instances over the past two weeks where it’s been clear that the Steelers were a competent quarterback away from a good drive on offense.
But that’s when the “might” comes into play. The level of awful that Pickett has looked during the regular season has been matched by the play calling of his offensive coordinator, the pass-blocking of his offensive line, and an ineffectual run game. He’s still a young quarterback that’s developing, but he just hasn’t been getting the help he needs.
It’s worth noting that two bad games shouldn’t completely erase Pickett’s clutch streak last season or his sharp preseason this year, and he had a handful of strong throws against the Browns that deserve credit. There’s still hope for him — but as of now, the Steelers’ receivers are getting open and Pickett hasn’t been able to deliver. As I wrote last week, if he continues to look as bad as he has so far this season, the Steelers’ future is in terrible shape.
3. Worth every penny
Alex Highsmith and TJ Watt are both playing on sizable contracts this season and beyond, but on Monday they more than justified the Steelers’ choice to spend big on two pass-rushers. Between the two of them they recorded 11 total tackles, 2 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 3 tackles for loss, 2 passes defensed, and 2 touchdowns. That’s the stat line that won Pittsburgh the game. Whatever percentage of the salary cap Highsmith and Watt are taking up is still less than their importance to this team. And if Alex Highsmith doesn’t win AFC Defensive Player of the Week, we riot.
4. Secondary problems are a primary issue
It was another rough outing for the Steelers’ veteran corner duo of Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace, who were thoroughly outmatched by the Browns’ offense in both zone and man coverage, and even run contain. And an injury to All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t make their night any better.
Not to downplay the Browns’ wide receiving core, but a passing offense led by Deshaun Watson and an injured Amari Cooper will be far from the best air attack the Steelers face this season, and yet they still got shredded. The answer is simple, at least: the Steelers need to give rookie corner Joey Porter Jr. more snaps going forward. The youngster provided tight coverage all game, earning a pass defensed early on and then stifling a fourth-down attempt late to secure the victory. Yes, there was a missed jersey hold on that play, but the truth of good coverage in the NFL is that the best corners still commit pass inference — they just don’t get caught. And even if Porter Jr. does come with the risk of becoming a penalty magnet, Pittsburgh needs to take the leap of faith and let their big-name draft pick develop.
On that same note, does anyone know what happened with Desmond King? Given how much help the Steeler secondary needs, it’ll be worrying if he remains a healthy scratch for much longer.
5. A redemption game
Steelers punter Presley Harvin III had an awful performance against the 49ers last week that put his job in jeopardy, as Pittsburgh worked out another punter after the game and Mike Tomlin specifically called out Harvin’s shortcomings in a press conference. He managed to come back in a big way on Monday, however, landing four of his seven punts inside the 10-yard line to play a huge role in the field position battle. His highlight of the night was a 40-yard boot that bounced out of bounds at exactly the one-yard line. He also showed his value as a holder, corralling a bad snap by long snapper Christian Kuntz during a field goal attempt. Harvin’s contributions were a big part of Monday’s win, and hopefully his accuracy and consistency carry on to the rest of the season.
6. The crowd did their part, too
Primetime divisional games in Pittsburgh provide an unmatched energy, and that was no different Monday night. Acrisure Stadium was rocking all game, with crowd noise raining down on the Cleveland offense during every critical moment. Fans even snuck in a “Fire Canada” chant at one point.
More impressive was the classy standing ovation for Cleveland’s Nick Chubb as he exited the field on a cart following his injury. The Steelers crowd did exactly what they were supposed to do all night, and it didn’t go unnoticed. Alex Highsmith made sure to shout out the fans in his postgame interview on ESPN.
7. Odds and ends
- Matt Canada’s play calling remains infuriating. I don’t even want to write much about it.
- The Steelers’ offensive line took some time to gel last year before having a much better showing later in the season. Obviously it would be better if they just looked great from the get-go, but there’s a chance this season’s offensive line has a similar slow start with a solid final result. You have to question offensive line coach Pat Meyer’s methods if this becomes the standard — the Steelers have the talent up front to be a much better line than how they’ve been playing.
- George Pickens had a career night with 127 receiving yards and a touchdown. Clearly not everything on the Steelers’ offense is broken. Let’s just hope that Pickett can get him the ball more consistently going forward.
- The Najee Harris/Jaylen Warren debate found new life on Monday. I’m not willing to dive back into that, but I think we can all agree that a 50/50 carry split is starting to look more and more reasonable.
- Speaking of debates, the TJ Watt/Myles Garrett discourse should have a fairly cut-and-dry answer at this point. I think Steeler fans can underrate Garrett at times, but there’s no question: Watt is the better player. He outshines Garrett every time the Browns and Steelers meet.
- Pickett and Harris aren’t getting the chance to find a rhythm with how the offensive line has been pushed back all season. As a result, it’s hard to completely evaluate their games despite the rough starts.
- Pat Freiermuth’s disappearing act cannot happen again this season. Pickett needs a security blanket and Muth should be that guy.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick is obviously known for his splash plays, but his unrelenting effort might be an even bigger trademark to his game. His chase-down tackle on Browns’ running back Jerome Ford was evidence of that. Hopefully his injury is nothing serious.
- Tackling was horrible Monday night. That needs to change.
- Gunner Olszewski’s toe-tapping catch to stop a Browns’ kickoff from going out of bounds is not what you want to see from a former All-Pro returner. Gunner O’s days on the Steelers roster may be numbered. I wouldn’t put his fumble later in the game completely on his shoulders, though. Kenny Pickett hung Olszewski out to dry on that pass and I hope that the resulting head injury was nothing serious.
- The Pittsburgh defensive line is clearly not the same without Cam Heyward, but Larry Ogunjobi stepped up in a big way on Monday night. There’s certainly some pass-rushing juice in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense, but stopping the run remains a work in progress.
- Mike Tomlin’s second challenge of the night was one of the worst I’ve ever seen.
- The long instances of a two-game split screen on the ABC broadcast were infuriating. Fans who want to watch the other game could simply change the channel. Fans who wanted to watch both at once could go to a sports bar. No one wants to watch Steelers/Browns on a shrunk-down screen for an entire drive.
Once again, the Steelers are winning games by dragging teams down to their level instead of rising to the occasion. The victory is great, but there still isn’t much optimism surrounding the rest of the Steelers’ season.
What are your overreactions and takeaways from Steelers vs. Browns? Agree/disagree with the ones above? Join our Behind The Steel Curtain community and let us know in the comments!