Steelers Shut Down Browns, 38-7: Plenty Went Wrong, One Area Did Improve
The Cleveland Browns came back down to Earth with a disappointing thud, having their four-game winning streak snapped by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who move to 5-0.
A blowout, even as ugly as this game was, still only counts as one loss. It's no different than after the Browns were dismantled by the Baltimore Ravens to open the season when many assumed the Browns were done before they started.
As incapable and terrible as the Browns looked at times in this game, they are still 4-2. Plenty will focus on the fact the Browns were annihilated in their road matchups with the Steelers and Ravens, but they still look good to make the playoffs.
If they lost by a point in each contest, they'd still be 4-2. It's up to the Browns to find a way to learn from this game and ultimately get better, a lot of which comes down to getting healthy. They have faced two legitimate contenders and been shown they aren't there yet, but their record gives them every opportunity to get there by the end of the season.
The focus will be on Baker Mayfield.
Baker Mayfield made two awful, game losing decisions, both of which were intercepted. The first, the first drive of the game, Mayfield appeared to predetermine his throw to Austin Hooper and didn't see Minkah Fitzpatrick move up into the box. The throw went right to Fitzpatrick, who was more than happy to deposit it into the end zone.
The second, Mayfield was able to escape pressure from the Steelers on 3rd-and-12. He made a bad situation worse by being unwilling to accept not getting the first down and while falling backwards threw what amounted to an awkward looking arm punt that fell woefully short of its intended target, easily caught by Cam Sutton, ending the drive with another turnover.
When there are critics of Mayfield, either calls for him to be benched or the Browns to move on from him in terms of their plan, these two plays make it easy to make that case. They simply cannot happen. The hole dug as a result was massive and proved to be too much, especially against a defense this talented.
Mayfield has to play better. Coming into this game, so much of this game for Mayfield was stepping up and acing a test. During the four-game winning streak, he had passed the tests thrown at him, but he hadn't been truly great in any of them. Against the Steelers, an opponent he has seen a number of times, the hope was that he would start to figure things out and improve.
There were some terrific throws in this game. Those two decisions were awful and he'll be the first one to say as much. However, it begs the question as to when it stops? Mayfield will put the responsibility on himself, take all the blame and he knows better. The challenge for him coming out of this game and the rest of the year, including another matchup with the Steelers in Cleveland, will be proving stop making the same mistakes over and over.
Growth, especially at the quarterback position isn't linear. It tends to operate in leaps and stagnation. Mayfield has been stagnant this year, occasionally showing brilliance. but he needs to eliminate those miscues and elevate the team's play. If that doesn't happen over the course of this season, then it becomes a conversation about his long term viability.
Neither interception had anything to do with learning the offense, adjusting to coaching or anything along those lines. It was simply bad football.
Coming into this game, the Browns offensive line was playing at a high level and in order to win this game, they needed to at least force a stalemate up front if they weren't going to dominate.
Steelers defensive front dominated Browns offensive line.
From the opening possession of the game, the Steelers defensive front dominated the Browns up front. Yes, Chris Hubbard is a backup and a liability, but this was across the board. Jack Conklin and Joel Bitonio had a number of poor plays and Jedrick Wills had his share of issues.
The Steelers were able to stop the run and put endless pressure on Mayfield, landing a number of big hits on him, which ultimately resulted in him leaving the game for his preservation in the fourth quarter. Some of these hits were Mayfield's fault, but the offensive line was overwhelmed. Teller being back wouldn't have magically fixed the issue.
The Browns came off of a game where they played well against a physical Indianapolis Colts front and it seemed to carry over into this contest. They looked weak and inferior against the best defensive line in the league. Some of that comes with the normal process of an NFL.
The identity of the Browns offense is the line. And when that is getting dominated the way it was against the Steelers, it wasn't going to end well.
The defense played their best game of the season.
The Browns appeared to be outmatched when it came to dealing with the Steelers receivers and tight ends. And the Steelers were without David DeCastro at right guard, but the Browns defense played pretty admirably in this contest.
Despite how lopsided the score was, the defense played well enough to enable the Browns to hang around far longer than they deserved.
After yielding a field goal on the first drive of the game, they were able to force a number of punts and played more sound defensive football than they have at any point this season. There were fewer defensive breakdowns and although the numbers look great for Ben Roethlisberger, there were times when he didn't look very good, unable to find open receivers.
Myles Garrett did produce a sack, but the Steelers got the ball out quickly and ran to try to keep that group off balance. It wasn't full of highlight plays, but the Browns were able to get stops and play some good football.
Andrew Sendejo struggled in tackling rather than coverage in this game. The Steelers went after Sheldrick Redwine, who had a reasonably solid day. Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson played well. Malcolm Smith is impressive.
There is still so much that needs to be addressed with this unit, but they at least showed capable of improvement. Credit to Joe Woods, the defensive coordinator, for the game plan and the Browns defense for playing hard and staying with it throughout the game, even in what was a futile effort against the Steelers.
When Ronnie Harrison is healthy, maybe the Browns can look at Redwine moving to the free and Harrison taking over the strong safety position with either Sendejo or Joseph playing in the slot at times. This doesn't need to be a wholesale change, but both Redwine and Harrison are showing really well in small doses and they can slowly build up over time.