The best rushing offense in football needed to pick up a yard on Sunday, in a critical, game-saving situation on fourth down deep in its own territory. With seven men across their line (an eligible tackle to the left and a tight end to the right) the Browns sent Odell Beckham in motion to the right side and initiated a handoff to Kareem Hunt up the middle.
The Steelers, meanwhile, had five defenders to counter Cleveland’s seven blockers, with linebackers Robert Spillane and Vince Williams sitting about four yards back. The run was obvious, but the push generated by five Steeler defenders was so intense that neither linebacker ended up needing to contribute to the play at all. It was over so quickly that they barely made it to the line of scrimmage. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward bullied the line, collapsing their blockers like foldable cardboard boxes. Tyson Alualu slipped passed his man and burrowed himself into the ground, causing a massive pileup. The Browns’ line was dropped back into Hunt’s lap and Heyward simply had to grab the running back by the torso and hurl him to the ground for a loss.
Pittsburgh was ahead by more than two scores at that point, though there was no better, singular representation of what Sunday meant for the Steelers, the Browns and the AFC North as a whole. On one side was the league's best front seven (even after Devin Bush's torn ACL). On the other was the league's best offensive line (and best O-line coach, in Bill Callahan). It was establishment vs. progress. The upstart potential future of the division against its immovable past stalwart. And for now, the matchup is not even close.
With a win over Cleveland on Sunday, one that, by the way, featured just 162 passing yards from Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers firmly inserted themselves into the conversation for the best team in football ahead of the most critical stretch on their schedule. Pittsburgh visits a 5–0 Titans team next week and a 5–1 Ravens team a week after that, giving them an opportunity to cement the evolutions they made this offseason that have helped them torch the first quarter of their schedule.
Most notably, they have barely scratched the surface of their full potential.
The Steelers have chugged their way to an undefeated start like a marathoner well aware of their fuel reserve. Roethlisberger has topped 300 passing yards just once this season. None of his longest passes have gone to JuJu Smith Schuster, who is healthy, and playing offensive snaps and catching the ball at the highest rates of his career. James Conner is gaining nearly five yards per carry, and 40% of his rushes are gaining more than expected yardage (according to NFL NextGenStats), despite the fact that only two other regularly-used running backs in the NFL see more loaded boxes than he does.
Even Chase Claypool, their big-bodied rookie wideout who has scored more touchdowns through five weeks of a career than all but one other wide receiver in modern NFL history, is still working into the game plan in pieces, picking up opportunities on deeper, more vertical routes. Almost all of his blockbuster catches this year have been with less than a yard of separation.
The Steelers are going to continue blitzing more than most teams in football. They are going to continue integrating their offensive weapons. They are going to continue to shut down the run at a rate devastating to opponents. Barring a significant injury, they are only going to get better as the year rolls on.