It was billed as a showdown, but the Steelers treated Sunday’s AFC North battle with the Browns as an opportunity to slow down talk about Cleveland being ready to take a seat at the grown-ups table.
Despite all the talk about the Browns having won four in a row, scoring at least 32 points in each of the games, or how they entered the weekend with the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, the Steelers still treated them like bothersome little brothers, bullying them on offense and defense en route to a 38-7 victory at Heinz Field.
Don’t let the final score fool you. The game was more lopsided than 31-point difference. The Steelers led 3-0 after their opening offensive possession, 10-0 after their first defensive series and 24-0 late in the first half. By late in the third quarter, Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield, nursing sore ribs and a bruised ego while trying to cope with a relentless Steelers pass rush, was replaced by veteran Case Keenum, who fared no better.
It was Pittsburgh’s 12th straight win at home against the Browns, which matched their most-lopsided victory during that streak — a 31-0 whipping they inflicted in December 2008. Defensive end Cameron Heywardnoted the importance of the game earlier in the week when he described it as a primetime matchup that would not be played late at night. CBS agreed with him, sending its No. 1 broadcast team. But to paraphrase the immortal words of Public Enemy, we should not have believed the hype.
“At the end of the day it just comes down to respect,” said running back James Conner, who gained 101 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. “We just want our respect.”
Performances like Sunday’s is how that respect is earned for the Steelers (5-0). It was not a particularly sublime showing for the offense, which gained just 277 yards and was 5 of 14 on third-down conversions. But it didn’t matter because the defense was on point. It allowed only one third-down conversion in 12 attempts, had four sacks and stopped the Browns on each of their three fourth-down attempts. None was more symbolic than the one early in the third quarter, when the Browns were still hopeful of getting back into the game.
Cleveland had scored just before the half to make it 24-7 and trailed by 17 midway through the third quarter when facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 29. Actually, they needed less than a yard, so coach Kevin Stefanski left his offense on the field. And why not? The Browns brought in two talented tackles this offseason, signing free agent Jack Conklin and drafting Jedrick Wills with the 10th overall pick. They had a former league rushing champion in Kareem Hunt in the backfield and the confidence as a unit that comes with averaging 188 yards rushing per game.
Mayfield turned and handed the ball to Hunt, who had to stop before he could get going. The Steelers had pushed the line of scrimmage backward, creating an impenetrable wall of humanity. Hunt jump-hopped to his right, hoping for a crease of daylight, but he found none and was swarmed under for a 1-yard loss. The Steelers had turned the Browns’ strength into a weakness. Cleveland finished with just 75 yards on 22 carries.
“We just want to show what kind of team we can be, and we feel like we can be a very, very special defense,” linebacker T.J. Watt said by phone. “It starts with smashing the run and then pinning your ears back and getting after the quarterback. You see that if we’re not getting to the quarterback we’re creating some issues with tips and overthrows, and our guys on the back end are doing a really good job in coverage and creating some takeaways for us.”
Third downs were particularly tough for the Browns. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick set the tone with a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown on Cleveland’s third play from scrimmage. On his next third down, Mayfield was sacked. He threw incomplete on the next two third-down tries, then was intercepted again after that.
By that time, the Steelers were in full control. They were embarrassed the previous game when the Eagles converted on 10 of 14 third downs and wanted to atone for the performance. The only negative for the defense — though it was a big one — was middle linebacker Devin Bush suffering a torn ACL. On offense, center Maurkice Pouncey also sustained a foot injury which caused the staff to pull him late in the game.
It is in moments like these when Tomlin relies on one of his favorite sayings: “The standard is the standard.” Typically that refers to backups having to step in and perform at the level of the player they’re replacing, if not exceed it. But the line also applied to the overall approach to Sunday’s game. While others hyped the Browns, the Steelers wanted to maintain the standard of success.
What’s strange is the Steelers aren’t being frequently mentioned as a potential Super Bowl favorite. The focus often is on the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, or the Baltimore Ravens, who had the NFL’s best regular-season record (14-2) last year. And lately, some are beginning to mention the Tennessee Titans, who remain undefeated and will face Pittsburgh this coming weekend.
Not giving the Steelers their due could be a mistake. This is a team that was forced to grow up last season when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed all but the opening six quarters with an elbow injury. In his absence the Steelers had some of the worst quarterback play in recent memory, with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges combining to throw just eight touchdown passes over the final nine games. And yet the team was still in the playoff hunt late in the year.
With Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer, now under center and the defense more mature, there is no telling how far the Steelers can go. The Titans will be a significant test, particularly running back Derrick Henry, who leads the league with 588 yards and six rushing touchdowns, and has surpassed 100 yards on the ground in three of his five games, including 212 on Sunday against the Houston Texans.
If the past is prologue, Pittsburgh should be fine. It has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, holding Saquon Barkley to six yards on 15 carries, Melvin Gordon to 70 on 16, David Johnson to 23 on 13, Miles Sanders to 80 on 11 (one went for 74 yards), and Hunt to 40 on 13. For now, the Steelers are holding off on making any statements, including predicting just how good they can be.
“That’s a great question,” Watt said. “We just want to continue to improve and build on our performances each week. We know each week that the opponent we’re facing has been watching the film and teams can be stubborn and try to run the ball against us, and that’s all right because we love to smash the run. Or they can try to pass it, and we’re cool with that, too. It really doesn’t matter. We’re going to prepare for every opponent and take it one game at a time.”
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