In so many ways the Steelers trip to Cleveland was like other games earlier in the season as it featured:
- A slow start
- A dramatic big play on offense
- 2nd half defensive fireworks
- A field goal coming on to the field to settle things as regulation expired
Yet, this one had a different result, as the Browns beat the Steelers 13 to 10 on a last minute Dustin Hopkins field goal. The reason this one was different for Pittsburgh is simple: Kenny Pickett not only failed to find his 4th quarter magic, his performance suggested that the previous examples were mere mirages.
Browns Start Strong, Steelers Sputter
The 9 game the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have been a historical aberration. They’ve been outgained in all of their games and collectively outscored. Yet they arrived in Cleveland after having passed the season’s half way mark with a 6-3 record.
- Were they a bad team hiding behind a couple of three on Any Given Sundays?
- Or where they a good team struggling to find themselves?
As staff writer Tony Defeo observed on X (formerly known as Twitter):
You can't keep playing ugly football and hope to win. It doesn't work that way. Eventually, you have to look like a playoff team and not a bad team that just happens to have a winning record.
— Love the Show (@Defeoman) November 19, 2023
Could the Browns offer something of a real test?
After all, they’d lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season and were starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Steelers had lost Kwon Alexander, Kenau Neal and were already missing all Pro Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and forced to start practice squanders Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson at inside linebacker and safety.
Credit the Browns PR staff for selling the “Browns locker room rallies around the rookie story” as the CBS broadcast crew kept touching on threads tied to this story line every chance they got.
- But credit Kevin Stefanski and his staff for breathing truth into this narrative.
No one would mistake Cleveland for an offensive juggernaut nor did its defense go into shut down mode, but they were clearly the better-prepared unit in the first half, as the Browns scored 10 points while the Steelers spent the first quarter burning time outs on both sides of the ball to avoid penalties.
And while the Steelers defense hung tough in the Red Zone late in the first half by forcing a field goal, with the Steelers offense completely AOWL, Pittsburgh was lucky to be down by only 10.
Meet the Steelers One Man Offense
The Steelers got to the ball to open the second half. On first down Najee Harris got the nod, and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage, gaining one yard. Another 30 minutes of “Sludge Ball” seemed to be in order.
- Matt Canada decided to hand it to Jaylen Warren next.
Warren ripped off a 74 yard run that was even more impressive than his cousin Fast Willie Parker’s 75 yard Super Bowl XL romp. In the blink of an eye, Warren had gained more yards than the entire Steelers offense had gained in the first half and he’d putt Pittsburgh to within three.
Jaylen Warren was literally the only thing about the Steelers offense that worked against the Browns. He followed his touchdown with a 14 yard catch, a 21 yard run and a 12 yard run. Would Warren have been able to “take over the game” had Matt Canada given him a chance?
It is hard to be sure.
But clearly he was out performing Najee Harris behind an offensive line whose run blocking was shaky enough. Hindsight’s 20/20, but the Steelers should have leaned on Warren more.
Defense Delivers 2nd Half Fireworks
Statistically speaking the Steelers 2023 defense ranks near the bottom both against the run and against the past. They’ve made a lot of fantasy football owners happy this season. But they’ve found a way to deliver when the game is on the line.
Sunday’s trip to Cleveland was no exception:
- Mykal Walker, Cam Heyward and Elandon Roberts combined to force multiple negative plays
- Joey Porter Jr., Patrick Peterson and Trenton Thompson tipped passes away
- Chandon Sullivan got an interception
- T.J. Watt got a sack
All of that was good enough for the Steelers defense to force punts on 5 punts the Browns six the second half possessions. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like a frustrated, clueless rookie through much of it.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to do something Kenny Pickett wasn’t able to do – get his team into field goal range inside the 2 minute warning.
Kenny Pickett finished 2022 with a bang. He started 2023 with a thud. He looked terrible in blowouts to the 49ers and Texans and in the week 2 win over the Browns.
- In his six wins his MO has been the same: Start slow, finish strong.
Narrative spinners in Steelers Nation have liked to talk about Pickett’s 4th quarter magic as if its been something he turns on at will during the game’s final 15 minutes. But the truth is that he’s gotten progressively better as games have worn on.
Others may disagree, but even in the loss to the Jaguars he seemed to be improving on the “eye test” before he got hurt. Last week’s win over the Packers was a little different. Pickett did get a little better as the game progressed, but his improvement was marginal.
- Against the Browns it was next to non-existent.
Kenny Pickett converted just 2 of 11 third downs passing. After the Steelers tied the game with 7:44 remaining, Teryl Austin’s defense forced two punts and limited the Browns to just 10 plays. That gave Pickett and the Steelers offense 2 possessions to get 3 points in the game’s final minutes.
Yes, Pickett did start that stretch with a nice hook up to George Pickens. After that he threw 5 passes, completing only one of those. Those incompletions are damning enough, but if you really want to understand how Pickett has come up short look at his completion: A 2 yards pass to Jaylen Warren on third and 15.
For those of you who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the 1999 Steelers won just six games. Its no exaggeration to say that if Kenny Pickett doesn’t find a way to pick it up, the Steelers might finished 2023 with a similar total.