It wasn’t pretty.
At times it was actually butt ugly.
It confirmed more doubts that it dispelled, at least on one side of the ball.
What the Steelers 26-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football means for the rest of their season remains very much an open question.
But there’s one thing we do know now: Pittsburgh won because they prevailed in the game’s critical “Reality Football” football moments.
Stats Don’t Win Games, Players Do
“A Most betraying box score,” was the first headline I saw the morning after the game. It was in an email from The Athletic. And let’s agree: the stats don’t paint a pretty picture for Pittsburgh. Consider:
- The Browns outgained the Steelers 411 to 258 yards
- Cleveland logged 21 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 9
- The men from the Mistake by the Lake dominated time of possession 35:28 to 24:32
And no, I won’t go to “So and So made their Fantasy Football owners happy BUT…” again, because it would be flat out wrong. That’s because Jerome Ford, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb both delivered for their team in multiple key moments.
But the Steelers defense came up bigger in the game’s critical moments. Before we dive into that, let’s discuss the Nick Chubb situation.
Yeah, But What About Chubb, Watson and the Penalties Etc…
First, Godspeed and good luck to Nick Chubb in his recovery whose injury is almost as gruesome as gruesome Joe Theismann’s was.
As it relates to the game, many are saying “The Steelers wouldn’t have won had Chubb not been hurt.” They’re probably right. So are those who argue “Had Deshaun Watson not self-destructed, the Browns would have won.” Or “Cleveland killed itself with penalties.”
All of that is irrelevant.
The Steelers 1-1 record doesn’t come with an asterisk today. Nor will Roger Goodell add one at the end of the season, just as Pete Rozelle never added an asterisk to Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record because Rocky and Franco both got hurt in the 1976 AFC Championship game.
Injuries and errors are both a part of football, and winners are ones who can capitalize on them.
Steelers D Dominates on Weighty Downs
Anytime a defense outscores an offense in football, we tend to describe the defense as “dominant.” Yet, the Steelers defense gave up runs of 69 and 20 yards and passes of 23 and 29 yards. And frankly, Cleveland made it look easy. Just think back to Deshaun Watson converting a 3rd and 13th while standing on his own 3. He made it look so easy Troy Aikman was left in disbelief.
- Indeed, that was a key moment of “situational football” that the Browns offense won.
- And it likely would have been a critical moment had the Steelers defense not created bigger moments.
Alex Highsmith set the tone by picking off a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected and taking it to the house on the game’s very first play. Ten plays later Joey Porter did it again, by batting away a pass and forcing a field goal.
- The defense didn’t get to rest much.
Kenny Pickett almost gave the Browns a layup, throwing an interception with his third pass of the night on Pittsburgh’s 16. Larry Ogunjobi sacked Watson on the next play. His next pass went for one yard. Ogunjobi got credited for defending a pass on the ensuring third down. Then the Browns missed a field goal.
And that was the story of the night:
- When the Browns went for it on 4th, Montravius Adams stripped Watson, as Ogunjobi recovered
- With Cleveland threating to score to close the first half, T.J. Watt forced a field goal by sacking sacked Watson.
- Cole Holcomb forced another fumble in late in the third quarter
- Alex Highsmith answered Moore’s third down conversion with a strip sack, that Watt recovered and scored on.
And Joey Porter closed the game the way he opened it, by batting away a ball on 4th down. While it still has its warts, the Steelers defense showed it can create its own destiny.
The Steelers Offense: From Reality Football to a Reality Check
While the Steelers defense made a statement following their awful performance against the Browns, their offense did the opposite.
Sure, Kenny Pickett had a nice connection with George Pickens. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped off a handful of authoritative plays. Calvin Austin came down with a very nice third down converting pass, catching a bullet that Pickett tucked into a tight coverage window.
- Those were all excellent, highlight-worthy plays.
The problem is they were the only positive plays Pittsburgh’s offense made all night. Thank God the Steelers defense scored on their first and last turnovers. Because the other two resulted in a total of 4 plays that led to a fumble and a punt.
- How bad was the Steelers offense?
Going into the 4th quarter it needed 2 points to take the lead. Not only did the offense need the defense to score those points, but Kenny Pickett and company actually netted negative 5 yards.
All of the progress the offensive line appeared to make last season seems like a mirage. For once, Matt Canada doesn’t look as bad as his critics say he is. He looks worse. And Kenny Pickett looks lost.
Time for Less Work, More Progress
Against the Browns the Steelers defense showed itself as a unit capable of creating its own destiny. As for the offense? Bob Labriola, fully admitting to being charitable, remains a work in progress.
Fair enough. But next week against the Raider the offense had better start proving it is capable of making that progress.