With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.
- Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.
Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.
Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.
Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.
- But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.
- There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.
First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.
- These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.
Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.
The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.
Wanting It More
On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.
- Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.
Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.
Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.
Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson
The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.
- Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.
As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.
Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.
Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP
The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.
The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.
Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:
- Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
- Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
- Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25
Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.
Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives
While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.
- The offensive line is better.
- Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
- Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
- Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
- Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.
Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.
- That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.
The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.
Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.
Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.
It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.
Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.
But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.
The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.