A Day Worth Recording: Steelers at Cleveland
I don’t know about you all, but I had a bad feeling about this game. The circumstances reminded me all too forcibly of that dark day in 2009 when the Steelers’ four-game losing streak became five. I suspect it was one of the games the Rooneys mulled over in their minds when deciding whether to re-sign Bruce Arians a few years later.
The circumstances were all too similar. A team which had started the season with such promise had lost a lot of games in a row for a Steelers team. Over the years they haven’t been known for long losing streaks. In fact, a quick glance at the invaluable Pro Football Reference Team Encyclopedia for the Steelers reveals that since 1970 only six other Steelers squads have lost four or more games in a row, counting the 2009 team. This includes the 1985 team, who despite ending the season at 7-9 never lost more than three games in a row. It also includes the 1986 team, who were even worse, (6-10) and yet didn’t lose as many as four of the games in a row.
The teams who did manage to lose more than three in a row were the 5-11 1988 Steelers, who lost a stunning six in a row and followed it up with four losses in a row, the 1991 squad, who lost four in a row, the 1999 team who lost six in a row, and the 1998 and 2003 teams, who lost five games in a row. Considering the number of seasons spanned (47, but who’s counting?) that’s an amazingly small number of times for a long loss streak to occur. Heck, for some teams it seems to be a practically yearly occurrence.
But as I noted, the auguries were not good. Not only were the 2009 Steelers losers of four in a row, but two of the losses were to teams who ended the season with a losing record—KC (4-12) and OAK (5-11.) The other two losses were to division rivals—the 10-6 Bengals and the 9-7 Ravens. So a game in Cleveland, where Ben Roethlisberger has historically dominated, seemed like just what the doctor ordered.
But on that long-ago night (it was a Thursday game, in December) the wind was blowing, the snow was falling, and it was cold. Actually, I didn’t really need to mention that part. Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley were reminiscing about Cleveland games of yore, and they both asserted that only once in their 11 years or so in the league, playing in Cleveland every year, was the sun actually shining.
So to return to the 2009 game, the temperature at kickoff was 15 degrees, the winds were 25 MPH, giving a wind chill of -6, and you would assume this would be a perfect time to run the football. But they didn’t, or not enough. Rashard Mendenhall had 16 rushing attempts, netting 53 yards. Which isn’t great, but isn’t terrible, especially as the long was seven yards, which means the number isn’t inflated by a single long run.
But Ben also threw the ball 32 times. Only 18 of those were completed. In the meantime he was sacked eight times, for a loss of 60(!) yards. In other words, more yards than Rashard Mendenhall gained. And it isn’t like the Browns ran the score up early. At the start of the second quarter the score was 3-0, Browns. At the start of the 3rd quarter the score was 3-13, Browns. At the start of the fourth quarter the score was 6-13, and there it remained. But there was plenty of time to come back, all along, without slinging the ball around like it was a hot potato or something.
All this by way of saying that I had a sinking feeling about this game. Imagine my surprise when the Steelers not only ran the ball but did so effectively, when Artie Burns got an interception, when the defense, without my beloved Cam Heyward, got eight sacks.
I certainly didn’t think we would see this with this year’s defense, especially not once we lost the sack leader on the team. The league-leading Buffalo Bills have 31 sacks. The Steelers entered Week 11 tied for last, I believe, with 13. All of a sudden they have moved all the way up to No. 16 (although there are some teams who have only played nine games at the moment.)
And of course it is in the sack category that we see one of the records to which I referred in my title. James Harrison (or “old” James Harrison, as Tomlin referred to him at the post-game presser) set the all-time Steelers record for sacks. Sack No. 77.5 fittingly came in the same place he got sack No. 1, in the game he replaced Joey Porter when Porter was ejected during pre-game warmups.
He’s setting a record of another sort as well. He isn’t the oldest player on an NFL roster—the older guys are mainly kickers, one punter, and Tom Brady. But he is the oldest defensive player. The only guy who is even close is Terence Newman, now with the Vikings. Newman is about three months younger than Harrison, and seems to have drawn from the same fountain of perpetual youth, as he has already played almost 600 snaps for the Vikings this season. Harrison had played just under 300 before yesterday’s game. There are a few other defensive players of 35 or over, but most are several years younger than these two.
But there was another record set today. Le’Veon Bell’s 201 yard game yesterday set the record for 200 yard games for a Steeler. He also leads the league in average yards from scrimmage this season (142 avg. per game.) If it weren’t for his suspension at the beginning of the season he might well lead in total yards as well.
There was another facet of this game which may represent an NFL record. I can’t confirm it, but it wouldn’t surprise me. How many games feature even one untimed down? You would think that three of them would represent some sort of record.
The first two untimed downs were classic cases of the Browns shooting themselves in the foot. The second quarter should have ended without the Steelers scoring (or this is at least how I would view it were I a Browns fan) but not once but twice a Cleveland penalty gave the Steelers an untimed down. The Steelers did, of course, score, and then were still able to go for (and successfully convert) the two-point attempt. This was so crazy, I actually went back for another look.
It all began with a first-and-goal at the 3 yard line with 10 seconds left in the quarter. Ben threw the ball to Cobi Hamilton at the back of the end zone, but it was too high and sailed out the back, just grazing Hamilton’s fingers. So it was second-and-goal, and you would think a sensible coach would just bring out the field goal unit at that point, as there were only five seconds left. But they didn’t. Instead Ben threw another pass, this time to Antonio Brown, which also fell incomplete. The clock was now at 0:00, and that’s the end of it, except for the defensive holding call on Cleveland which put the ball on the 1 1/2 yard line and gave the Steelers an untimed down.
So the game continued, but still without bringing out the kick unit. Ben quickly threw the ball to AB once again, but Joe Haden was attempting to get the ball by climbing AB’s back, and to the shock of everyone who watches a lot of Steelers football, a PI call on Haden gave the Steelers a second untimed down. This time the kick unit was called out. Wait, who am I kidding? Ben gave the ball to Le’Veon Bell, who waltzed into the end zone on the contrail of Alejandro Villanueva. Then they went for the 2-point conversion, as noted above. All of this added more than four real-time minutes to the game, although part of the time was due to a stop in play because Browns fans were chucking stuff into the end zone.
The Browns’ untimed down was at the end of the third quarter, and was a result of the penalty on Lawrence Timmons for the hit on Cody Kessler. I didn’t know you would need to have an untimed down on a quarter that wasn’t ending the half or the game, but apparently you do.
To return to record-breaking occurrences in this game, the Browns also set a record today—an 0-11 start, which is the worst in the history of the franchise.
But enough about the Browns. Let’s talk about the Steelers some more. There’s a lot to like and little to dislike about today’s game, at least in my opinion.
It was an incredibly balanced offensive attack, with 28 rushes and 36 passes. That may not sound all that balanced until you consider that eight of the passes were in essence delayed handoffs to Bell.
Ben certainly wasn’t Transcendent Ben or even Heinz Field Ben, but he didn’t throw any picks and didn’t mess around with many low-percentage throws, surely a good idea in these conditions. The first [and one of the few] long passes was blown about five feet away from AB by an errant gust of wind, and some combination of Ben and Todd Haley apparently took note. Instead, Ben and the Steelers’ offense played slow, patient ball-control football. The Steelers held the ball for almost eight minutes more than the Browns. Ben wasn’t sacked or even touched as far as I could tell. Pretty sweet.
But the story of the day is surely the Steelers’ defense. They sacked the quarterbacks eight times, which they haven’t done since 2005, and just missed several more. Unfortunately Lawrence Timmons is going to get fined for one of those, as he drilled Cody Kessler just after he had released the ball. Kessler left the game for good and apparently has a concussion. It was actually Kessler’s head hitting the ground that did the damage, but Timmons’ shoulder put him there. This may be one of the things which caused Mike Tomlin to do something he seldom does—to say in his post-game press conference that the officiating was pretty bad. (Ed Bouchette opined after the game that Tomlin will be fined for saying it.)
I expect one of the other things Tomlin was pretty hot about was the Roughing the Passer penalty on Daniel McCullers that negated a second defensive touchdown in the space of about two minutes of game time. Tomlin could be seen arguing with the official that McCullers just patted McCown’s helmet. Maybe so, but with big paws like that you should keep your hands off the helmets of opposing players. And as I watched it, McCullers definitely smacked him. There was no reason to do so. I don’t think Tomlin really had a case.
And speaking of defensive touchdowns, that was refreshing. The interception to shut down the opening Cleveland drive by Artie Burns was also a welcome sight. He managed to keep his hands on the ball, unlike everyone else today, who looked like they had been attending the Ike Taylor School for Defensive Receiving. Mike Mitchell had one go right through his hands. Lawrence Timmons, Artie Burns a second time, and Sean Davis were others I noticed who missed what looked like pretty easy balls.
Nonetheless, the defense was playing with attitude and confidence. One can only hope that will carry through to rather more competent opponents. Lawrence Timmons had a great game. Ryan Shazier was everywhere. Artie Burns is starting to grow into the guy the Steelers hoped they were getting. All in all, the arrow is pointing up.
As for special teams, punts were few and far between, always a good thing. Chris Boswell was three for three on field goal attempts and one for one on PATs, unlike 11 other kickers in the early Sunday games alone. (There was also a PAT miss in the late game.) This included the Browns kicker, who missed the extra point after their touchdown. The 12 missed kicks are an NFL record.
My only question about special teams was, what was with AB letting not one but two punts fall to the ground and bounce behind him another 10+ yards? Seems to me a fair catch would have made more sense in both instances.
This post is obviously not intended to be a minute examination of the game. We might get to that tomorrow, although with a very short week tomorrow’s post may have to be the Opponent Preview. So just in case, here are a few more odds and sods which intrigued me.
In Tomlin’s post-game presser he referred to this game as a “fork-in-the-road type week” in reference to the snap count for James Harrison. He said that usually they look at how they use him from a “global” perspective—not just the current game but to have him available for the rest of the season. But Tomlin noted that at this point “what are we preserving him for?” I presume part of the global interest, if you will, was giving Jarvis Jones the chance to prove himself. But I guess when push comes to shove they prefer James Harrison. Jones had probably 25% more snaps per game on average than Harrison through last week. I scarcely saw Jones on the field yesterday until the game was obviously in the bag. I’ll be curious to see if the updated snap counts confirm that.
Ben Roethlisberger’s 167 yards passing were the least he has thrown for since a Week 11 home game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. Some of the receivers in that game were Jerricho Cotchery, David Paulson, and Emmanuel Sanders. Ben threw for 160 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions, and the Steelers won 19-16. Which just goes to show that it isn’t how much you throw but how much to the purpose. Or something like that.
Oh, and there is another record. Ben is now 20-2 against Cleveland, which is the most of any quarterback against any single opponent since the 1970 merger. Furthermore, 10 of those wins were in Cleveland, so Ben is also tied for the record of most wins by a starting quarterback in the Cleveland stadium since the revamped team opened for business. He is tied with Derek Anderson, who was a starter for the Browns. Oops…
The Steelers still had too many penalties—eight for 70 yards. Much of the yardage was racked up on the two personal foul type penalties mentioned above. There were a couple of offensive holding penalties, an Artie Burns hands-to-the-face penalty that seems to be a regular feature of his game, and false starts from David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell, of all people. But that’s the breaks…
That will do it. I’ve got to gear up for Indianapolis. It’s a short week here at Going Deep Steelers, and unlike Mike Tomlin I have to cook Thanksgiving dinner as well.