Backing Into Week 18: Browns @ Steelers

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via Steelers.com

“We fight hard. We don’t fight smart all the time, but we fight hard.”

Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson spoke those words early in his press conference, and the Browns did indeed fight hard—very hard—as the Steelers took a while to wake up, and just barely managed to do so in time. As commentator Rich Eisen said after half-time, “One team looks like it want to be here. One team looks like it wants to be in the locker room, or at home.”

To be fair, the offense finally started to click, and they were the ones most affected by the “benchings.” The defense, who was mostly playing starters, were admittedly missing two of the most important ones, Stephon Tuitt and James Harrison. And a third starter, Ricardo Mathews, left early in the game and was replaced by a guy who was on the practice squad two weeks ago.

And as long as we’re looking for excuses for the defense, Isaiah Crowell has been very good this season for a seriously underachieving team. In fact, he was the No. 10 back according to Football Outsiders. He was on pace the first five games of the season for 1500 yards. And although they obviously fell off, the Browns have had over 100 yards rushing in the past three games, and obviously this game was no exception. Their offensive line has been dreadful, despite the presence of All-Pro LT Joe Thomas, and they gave up their season average of sacks to the Steelers (4 per game, basically), but they gave Griffen enough time and space to throw for 232 yards and run for 32 more.

And even early in the game there was some good stuff. Sean Davis had his first NFL sack. There were a couple of nice pass defenses.

But when you spot the opposing team loads of yards on special teams (the Browns’ average starting field position was at the 33 yard line in the first half, the 28 yard line in the second) it doesn’t help anything. It was fortunate for the Steelers that the Browns had two ST penalties for 20 yards in the first half, or their non-TB starting positions would have been: Own 45, 30, 43, 32, and PIT 47. Conversely the Steelers averaged a field position in the first half of the 22 yard line, and that average would have been the 14-yard line if not for the fumble recovery on the CLE 37. This was also exacerbated by penalties—Johnny Maxey got a 15 yard Unnecessary Roughness penalty and Rosie Nix had a holding penalty for 7 yards. The second half and into overtime was more even, but the ST play needs to be tidied up before the playoffs.

The second-team offense showed some promise. They were three for three in the red zone, one for one on goal to go. That’s actually a lot better than the Steelers’ season average. In the end, Landry Jones put together quite a good game, with a 103.1 passer rating, and the final drive to win the game was beautiful. Darrius Heyward-Bey was back, and he was extremely welcome. His hustle play on the pick of Landry Jones to knock the ball out at the 1 yard line (which Landry Jones recovered in the end zone) saved a touchdown in a game that ended up as a 3-point win.

Tomorrow there will be more. In fact, like the Steelers yesterday, we are saving the best for last, as Homer J has written a fabulous wrap-up to send us rejoicing into the post-season. In the meantime, what’s heartening is that a) in the end they won, b) a lot of young guys and backups got valuable experience, and c) it was without some of the best players in the NFL playing on the Steelers side of the ball. I’ll take it.

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