As some of you may have noticed, some recent changes at SI.com have led to a pause in our suite of newsletters, including the NFL-centric Morning Huddle. While we work on updating our new platform, we’ll still be posting a morning column here, as well as some links to what you should be reading in the magazine, online and elsewhere outside the SI family. Feel free to reach out with any suggestions at email@example.com.
During their collegiate years, Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph faced each other three times. With Mayfield as the signal caller for the Oklahoma Sooners and Rudolph as his counterpart on the Oklahoma State Cowboys, the pair took part in three Bedlam Series showdowns, with Mayfield emerging victorious on all three occasions. Their final game in 2017 was one for the books; a 62-52 spectacle only possible in the Big 12 that produced 1,046 combined passing yards and five touchdowns apiece for Mayfield and Rudolph.
Fast forward two years, and the duo found themselves once again quarterbacking opposing regional rivals, only this time at the NFL level. But unlike the good old college days, Thursday night’s matchup between the Steelers and Browns was anything but bedlam (save for the final seconds). Mayfield kept his spotless record against Rudolph intact, guiding the Cleveland Browns to a 21-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that produced fewer yards of combined total offense (529) than Mayfield accrued in passing yards (598) in that 2017 game against Oklahoma State.
In traditional Thursday night fashion, it was a sluggish, choppy, dull matchup lowlighted by offensive impotency, endless punts, missed field goals and penalties. Unfortunately, the most energetic play of the night came with under 10 seconds to go in the game. With Rudolph facing a third-and-forever, the Pittsburgh QB dumped the ball off to Trey Edmunds as Browns defensive end Myles Garrett came roaring around the left tackle, taking Rudolph to the ground. The pair began wrestling, with Rudolph—no shrimp at 6’ 5”, 235 pounds—yanking at Garrett’s helmet. This enraged the former No. 1 pick to the point where Garrett hauled Rudolph up by the front of his jersey, ripped the black helmet off and clubbed the Pittsburgh quarterback hard over the head with it as Rudolph attempted to get in his face. Garrett was immediately pig-piled by David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, with Pouncey throwing punches and kicks at the helmeted defensive end. Garrett, Pouncey and Cleveland’s Larry Ogunjobi were ejected, and Garrett is sure to receive one of the lengthier suspensions in recent memory for an in-game altercation.
Aside from the outburst of wanton violence, not much else moved the needle in this one. Mayfield continued his gradual in-season improvement, going 17-for-32 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He looked particularly sharp on the opening drive, hitting Odell Beckham Jr. for a 42-yard strike that set up a one-yard quarterback sneak for six on the following play. Mayfield flashed the elusiveness and accuracy on the run that made him such an exciting prospect coming out of college, spreading the ball around to six different receivers while keeping the interception column empty for the third game in a row after early-season issues locating pass catchers on the correct team.
Beckham Jr. led the way with four catches for 62 yards, with Jarvis Landry chipping in six receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown. Kareem Hunt continued to round back into form, reeling in six catches for 42 yards despite a paltry 12 rushing yards on six carries. Nick Chubb once again handled most of the groundwork, rushing 27 times for 97 yards. The red-zone troubles of a week ago did not affect the Browns on Thursday, as all three possessions that made it inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard-line translated into points.
The Cleveland defense outplayed their more heralded counterparts in black and yellow, holding an anemic Pittsburgh offense to 58 rushing yards, logging four sacks and picking off Rudolph four times despite losing the services of starting safeties Morgan Burnett (ankle) and Damarious Randall (ejection) during the game. Joe Schobert led the way from the linebacker position with 10 combined tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions. Backup safety Juston Burris played well in relief of Burnett, tallying five tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and a pass defended. For a unit that entered the game with only nine takeaways to their name, their clampdown on the Steelers’ offense kept Mayfield and the Browns offense plenty comfortable throughout.
For the Steelers, all the momentum gained from their four-game winning streak appears gone as Rudolph turned in his worst game as a pro. He completed 23 of 44 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown, four interceptions and a putrid 36.3 quarterback rating. Rudolph appeared lead-footed in the pocket throughout the affair, missing receivers badly on three of his four picks and failing to complete a pass over 25 yards. The loss of James Conner early in the game to the same AC joint injury that kept him out of the previous two contests didn’t help, and neither did JuJu Smith-Schuester’s exit before halftime with a concussion. Add in the loss of Diontae Johnson in the second half (concussion) and the absences of Roosevelt Nix and Ryan Switzer, and an undermanned Pittsburgh offense never found anything remotely resembling a rhythm.
The offensive line did Rudolph no favors. In addition to eating four sacks, the second-year quarterback found himself under duress for most of the evening, a bad omen for the pocket-rooted Rudolph. The Steelers woes on third and fourth down continued, as the offense converted a rancid 2 of 11 third downs and none of their three fourth down attempts. Those problems were exacerbated on third/fourth-and-one, as Pittsburgh only converted one of five such attempts with a false start wiping out another. For a team thought to be rounding back into form for a Wild Card run and facing a 3-6 opponent over which they held a 20-3-1 advantage since 2007, the Steelers picked a bad time to turn in this woof of a performance.
As for the Browns, they head down the backstretch with the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL and a glimmer of playoff hope still dancing in their heads. Though Garrett’s antics will mar a solid team win and handcuff a defense that desperately needs the services of its best player, Cleveland gave their long-suffering fans something to smile about during an underwhelming season and against a team that tormented them for the better part of the last decade.
Up until the fight, the spiciest moment of the game was Beckham Jr.’s yawn celebration following the 42-yard opening drive reception, a nod to Mike Tomlin’s reaction to a preseason question about facing the stud receiver twice a year. It was a vintage OBJ moment, but regrettably one that would be an accurate forecast of the evening’s action on the field.
Yawn, indeed. Thursday Night Football, you’ve done it again.
* * *
MUST-READS AT SI.COM: Albert Breer reminisces on the first showdown between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson … Michael Rosenberg explains how the NFL has put Colin Kaepernick in a tough spot… Breer on how Hue Jackson plans to help Kaepernick with his upcoming workout ... Kalyn Kahler takes a look at the NFL playoff picture
* * *
THE BEST OF AROUND THE INTERNET: The updated list of teams planning to attend Saturday’s Kaepernick workout in Atlanta … Your Week 11 NFL picks courtesy of the MMQB staff … Malcolm Jenkins discusses his social impact work including the documentary “College Behind Bars … A look into the toxic culture of the Nike Oregon Project … Can fans sue the Astros for sign stealing?... A look behind the curtain at the making of Ford v Ferrari.
* * *
ONE FUN THING: If you’re a fan of a poor sports team, Tankathon.com has all your mock draft, lottery odds, tank-related and misery-wallowing needs.
Question or Comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.