The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a weak road team in 2011. Going into the final game, Steel Curtain Rising suggested that contest at Cleveland Stadium would serve as a dress rehearsal for what would likely be a series of tests on the road to a shot at Lombardi Number 7.
In effect, the question was “Is it time to count style points?”
Well, the opponent was the 4-11 Browns, and the outcome was 13-9 with the losing team having at shot at an upset in the game final moments. How do you evaluate the Steelers performance in this dress rehearsal? Given that Baltimore took care of business in Cincinnati, is the glass proverbial half full or half empty?
For Steel Curtain Rising, the glass is half full, the reasons for which we explain below.
Steelers vs. the Browns, Football As It Should Be
Credit, (once again) Tim Gleason of Behind the Steel Curtain. In his capacity as Steeler historian, the author of From Black to Gold has done his part to educate the younger members of Steelers Nation on the nature of the Steelers Browns rivalry.
Gleason’s contention is, that for all of its greatness, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is more about the two biggest dogs on the block fighting for the same bone. I am not sure if I agree completely with Gleason on this front. I have likewise found it difficult to raise my anti-Cleveland ire ever since Art Modell ripped the heart out of his community by moving his team to Baltimore in 1995.
But Gleason was certainly right on one thing, the Browns take this rivalry seriously, and they proved it on the field.
The game at Cleveland Stadium had everything you could want in a classic AFC North match up. Hard hits, players leaving with injuries, timely turnovers, fierce bone-chilling winds, and to top it all off, snow. These Browns had nothing to play for, but neither team left anything on the field.
A 13-9 win over a 4-12 might not seem to be the ideal dress rehearsal for a Lombardi run, until you consider the context laid out above.
Over Coming Adversity
Ben Roethlisberger was played hurt. LaMarr Woodley was out and in the course of the game the Steelers lost Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and worse yet, Rashard Mendenhall.
That’s a lot to overcome, but the Steelers did want they needed to do to win the game and, if you look beyond the scoreboard, they did it in impressive fashion:
- A week after gouging the Ravens for 112, Peyton Hillis was ineffective vs. the Steelers defense gaining only 30 yards
- Isaac Redman fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland got zero points off of it
- Losing the turnover battle (again) the Steelers won the turnover war by converting Polamalu’s pick into gold in the form of the game’s only touchdown
- Ben Roethlisberger looked shaky for much of the first half, but was sharp enough to drive the team 70 yards to get Pittsburgh on the board
Meanwhile, on a day when the wind made airing the ball out dicely proposition, the Steelers running backs put up 161 yards rushing, and Ben Roethlisberger managed to connect with nine different receivers.
One of the many amazing stories of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers is the turnaround of its secondary.
The defensive backs ended 2009 as a shell-shocked unit who had let two games bounce off of their hands. Led by the return of Troy Polamalu, the unit bounced back in 2010, but ultimately Aaron Rogers exposed weaknesses that were so great, that they became to be seen as lethal liabilities during the 2011 off season.
The Steelers, it seemed, had doomed themselves by not trading up to get a top defensive back in the draft, instead “settling” for Cameron Heyward.
No, the Steelers didn’t get a top corner in the draft, but the did something which might have had more impact – they brought back Carnell Lake to coach their secondary.
13 months ago as the Steelers departed the field in Arlington, Texas, William Gay was considered to be a back up nickel back at best and Keenan Lewis a failed project. Under Carnell Lake’s guidance, both men have grown into being confident, compotent members of the NFL’s number 1 pass defense.
Seneca Wallace had to throw in the same wind as Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace isn’t the quarterback that Roethlisberger is, but also wasn’t hurt. Wallace did however, have the misfortune to throw against the Steelers secondary.
The Steelers defense was all over the Browns receivers, knocking away balls, taking away easy check down routes, and throttling guys after the catch.
- Troy Polamalu made the defining play of the game with his interception in the third quarter.
The Steelers had just tied the game, after consuming much of the clock, and Polamalu’s pick snuffed out Cleveland’s chance to match Pittsburgh blow for blow.
After that it only took Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, and ultimately Isaac Redman to find the end zone.
The Steeler did leave plenty to find fault with in the Browns game – they lost the turnover battle and struggled to score in the Red Zone.
But even if we accept that from Polamalu’s interception onwards, one thing was clear:
- The Steelers were going to, and did make whatever plays were necessary to win.
That’s not a bad formula to take into the playoffs.