The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I'll admit, I can see where Steelers safety Mike Mitchell is coming from when he says "we kicked their butts." On one hand, I'm sure he still had some adrenaline going. He made three big hits in the game, all three of them jarred the ball loose from the player he hit, and one of them was a fumble - only the second turnover committed by a very disciplined Browns team. The other two were basically the only two deeper passes the Browns didn't complete in the game. On the other hand, it was more a matter of Pittsburgh's defense giving up big plays than being soundly defeated. Mitchell wasn't on the team last season when the New England Patriots orchestrated one of the most savage offensive beatings in Steelers team history. This game wasn't good, no doubt, but the loss to the Patriots was an epic disaster.
Statistically, the numbers paint a Browns win, there's no doubt about that. And while the Steelers piled on some yards late, they didn't get that many overall (neither team rushed for a yard in the fourth quarter, meaning after three quarters, Cleveland held a 158-138 advantage in yards on the ground). And contrary to much of the anti-Todd Haley sentiment, the Steelers, again, without a single carry in the fourth quarter, had 32 rushes in the game.
The problem was the timing of those runs. We've got a video coming up sometime soon here pointing out the decisions in short-yardage situations and how execution and what appeared to be plays being changed at the line of scrimmage made a negative impact, in addition to the play-calling itself.
Now, why Ben Roethlisberger is choosing to change those plays and why he doesn't have confidence in what's being called is a separate issue from why the team isn't executing whatever he's calling. Lots of layers to this.
Cam Heyward and Sean Spence were dominant in this game early. The defense, as we've probably forgotten thanks in part to a complete meltdown in the second quarter, was playing very well early. Six plays run for -8 yards, and a defensive front-seven that looked powerful against a good offensive line. It seemed like the big play to Jordan Cameron really shook the defense up. They didn't play with the same sense of confidence after that.
Ramon Foster's comments
To be honest, I had to read over them a few times to make sure I didn't miss anything. The sting after a game exposes raw nerves and everyone gets incredibly sensitive. Foster didn't say anything fans don't say on a day-to-day basis, whether on this site and others, particularly to fan bases like that of the Cleveland Browns. The Browns can celebrate their Week 6 Super Bowl all week. Good for them. They won a big game and they played a solid football game. But there's a recurring theme in the statements being made after the game, and it might have to do with the fact the Steelers lost two defensive linemen to leg injuries during this game. That leads us to...
There's a reason the Steelers have generally made a point not to employ this method and, typically, not in the manner Browns left tackle Joe Thomas did on defensive end Cameron Heyward, which sent him into rage at the end of the loss. I have respect for Joe Thomas and no one disputes the block was within the rules of the game as they're currently written. But late in a blowout like that, it seems to me the danger of such a move really isn't worth jeopardizing the season and very possibly the career of another guy who gets paid to destroy his body for a living.
Another way to put it, if you're going to cut in that situation, you really ought to do it in a bit more of a workmanlike manner than Thomas did there. It wasn't as shoddy as David DeCastro's attempt that put Maurkice Pouncey out for the season, but it wasn't very good either. Maybe there's bad blood between the two, but I know I wasn't happy to see Browns center Alex Mack lost for the season on an entirely clean football play. I salute him as a worthy adversary and I'd be extremely upset if his injury was the result of a play with the intent to injure, which it was not.
So where to now?
It becomes a 10-game season with the Steelers starting at pure zero. If we've learned anything from this team the last few years, we know it's a peak-and-valley group of players and coaches. But there's something settling about the idea they really couldn't have had a much worse game and, play-to-play, it wasn't that bad (again, using the Patriots game as a measuring stick to define "bad"). Probably like you, I've grown weary of the "they did it last year" rallying cry. Still, I'm not seeing the injuries the Steelers have suffered this year being as limiting as those we saw last year. Sean Spence is playing infinitely better than Vince Williams was (perhaps better than Ryan Shazier was too). The offense seems to be dealing with more internal strife but it's vastly superior this year to where it was last year. If they're going to get out of their current situation, it'll be based on who they are today, not who they were last year. This is really a matter of players needing to check their egos at the door and sharpen their focus, while coaches need to develop realistic, competitive and succinct game plans on both sides of the ball.
Whether fans like it or not, and I'm sure they don't, ex-Steelers coach Bill Cowher is exactly right; this is a finesse offense. This offense wasn't designed to be Bill Cowher's power scheme. They're not the kind of strong gap-concept group people expect them to become on third-and-short. Sure, they claim they are in interviews, but there's very little film to support the notion they're a quality power-running team. They're athletic and they're quick. They out-maneuver their opponents and they win or lose based on those concepts. While they certainly have room for improvement, the group has done a reasonable job to this point. They'll improve as well, so after watching this one again, I don't think it's quite as bad as my initial reaction assumed. On the other hand, my hopes regarding the height of this team's ceiling have been lowered as well.
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