Some thoughts on a feel-good Browns' win over the Steelers.
But first, a disclaimer:
We all know the Steelers usually feature one of the league's top quarterbacks and typically don't fumble the ball five times. Yet, a Browns' win over the Steelers is a rare, magical occurrence – something that helps lift the spirits of a fan base suffering through a 3-8 season. So yes, a rusty Charlie Batch and eight turnovers obviously helped out. And of course, the Browns converting seven turnovers into only 20 points is inexcusable.
But again, a Browns' win over the Steelers is reason for celebration.
1. Anyone else get the feeling that somehow Pat Shurmur was going to bungle the game with under a minute left? Somehow Shurmur decided that he didn't want Colt McCoy to take a knee, but would rather take a delay of game, then punt the ball back to the Steelers. A bizarre sequence of events led to Reggie Hodges' best punt of the year and honestly, the Steelers weren't likely to pull out a last second miracle. However, to even place the ball back into the hands of your opponent is a classic, brain-numbing display of skittish coaching. And let's not think too hard about that fumble that could have led to something terrible. Again, in a battle of two of the league's worst game managers in Shurmur and Mike Tomlin, one had to win. And that "one" was the one whose offense could only convert seven turnovers into 20 points and was continually bailed out by an impressive defensive display.
2. Much, much, much more important is a celebration of two things we don't often see in Cleveland. First, the Browns' defense attacked a somewhat handicapped Steelers' offense and played the kind of physical, almost vicious type of football that has been lacking for several years. The Browns' physical style perfectly complemented a complete meltdown by the Steelers' running backs and receivers – several of whom displayed the kind of stone hands that haven't been characteristic of Pittsburgh teams of the past. And for those Steeler apologists who would claim that a healthy Steelers team would have presented a different challenge, the Browns' defense simply played against whoever lined up across from them.
3. It was obvious the Steelers were offering an ultra-conservative attack because of Roethlisberger's injury – a strategy that played right into Dick Jauron's hands. Jauron's defense, one that usually features a cautious approach, was able to concentrate on the Steelers' running game and take away deep routes to Mike Wallace. Once the fumbles began, the Steelers were continually pinned in their own territory and faced a variety of untenable third downs. Because Wallace was the Steelers' lone deep threat, the Browns were able to roll deep coverage towards him. And it's worth mentioning that T.J. Ward – or at least his helmet – was in the right place at the right time to break up a sure touchdown.
4. Despite Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown's absences, the Browns' secondary deserves credit for an effective performance throughout the game. Joe Haden matched up well with Wallace on occasions and Buster Skrine was solid both in coverage and run support. Of particular note is Sheldon Brown, who again showed how effective he can be in tighter spaces. Brown is clearly not the fastest player on the field, but he still uses his size and strength to position himself well on shorter routes. At this point in his career, Brown can be an asset to the Browns' secondary – if given coverage assignments that suit his strengths.
5. Up front, it's obvious that Phil Taylor has returned in great playing shape. Taylor was disruptive in both run support and in pressuring Charlie Batch. In the second half, Taylor executed what was one of prettiest swim moves ever seen in Browns' Stadium. Taylor's presence has also strengthened the Browns' defensive line rotation – which suddenly looks a lot fresher than a month ago. While rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn performed admirably during Taylor's (and Ahtyba Rubin's) absence, they are clearly more effective in supporting rotational roles.
6. Disregarding any statistics, Sunday may have marked one of T.J. Ward's best games as a professional. Again – considering the kind of game the Steelers were trying to play, Ward found himself in a role that looks to suit him. Ward was effective cutting off secondary running lanes and attacking receivers and ball carriers underneath routes. Ward's second half tackle that caused another Steeler fumble was a perfectly timed and executed hit.
7. Ward's technical prowess can only be accented by a complete lack of fundamentals by his Safety partner Usama Young. In perhaps one of the dumbest displays since the days of Dwayne Rudd, Young dropped his head and was smashed by the Steelers' Heath Miller. Young remained down on the field – yet another reminder of how most football injuries are caused by poor technique, something that is either inexcusable or just really stupid considering Young is a professional player. While the league has (finally) began addressing head injuries in the NFL with a variety of fines and suspensions, Young deserves similar treatment for simply being a moron.
8. While Young's form of aggression is obviously detrimental to both himself and the game, the Browns' as a whole hit harder and fought for yardage at a level not seen since perhaps the last time the Browns beat the Steelers in 2009. The physical aggression by the defense was evident, but the offensive contributions of Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon should not be overlooked. Both Browns' rookies turned inconsequential plays into big gains and first downs. Richardson in particular did not have great stats, but yet again fought hard for every single yard he gained on the afternoon. Gordon also turned short catches into bigger gains, fighting for much needed yardage.
9. Perhaps the most unsung players of the afternoon were the Browns' tight ends, who contributed to both of the team's offensive scores. Jordan Cameron caught a first half touchdown and Ben Watson delivered a diving first down reception. Most impressively, Alex Smith contributed a lane-sealing block on Richardson's touchdown run. Smith showed an unbelievable amount of toughness in surviving two early vicious hits – a thought that will likely be lost in the light of victory.
10. Regardless of who played and who didn't or the circumstances that led to the outcome, it's a pretty rare thing for the Browns to get a win over the Steelers. Such an event is always reason to celebrate* – and if this game somehow eventually contributes to the now 6-5 Steelers missing out on the playoffs, then the effects of this game will linger into the offseason. As we've noted before, when the Browns beat the Steelers, it's usually a harbinger of the Steelers sitting at home in January.
Make sure you remind a Steelers' fan of this.
*Another reason to celebrate comes from the news that Mike Holmgren is finally/officially leaving town. And in absolute essential Holmgren style, he will hold a press conference the day after the Browns achieve their biggest win of the season. And of course, clueless national types will somehow associate Holmgren with the Browns' success – as if the two are in any way linked. Naturally, this will lead to Holmgren again becoming a hot commodity around the league – and the best salesman around will net yet another fat contract.
Yet, in the glow of a Browns' win over the Steelers, fleeting images of Holmgren, Randy Lerner and Shurmur's ill-equipped offense are not worth recognizing. Certainly, these are items that have or will be addressed. What's paramount at the moment is the realization that the Browns defeated the Steelers.