So as to begin with that which was positive, commend the Browns and their coaching staff for coming out ready to play, energetic, alive, motivated, hustling and evidently eager to compete. There were, consequently, a number of developments that provided Cleveland fans with reasons to be proud and to feel entertained.
Regrettably, these were ultimately too few and the team was again overmatched. That can hardly be debated. It was also encouraging to see the run defense fairly up to the challenge of containing the vaunted Steelers in Pittsburgh, a difficult thing to do when one of the cornerbacks lacks what it takes to factor as a tackler.
After yet another loss to the Pennsylvania outfit that had once been competitively owned by the contingent representing NE Ohio—as if any of you need to be reminded, it's now 12 straight losses in what had been touted as a rivalry, 18 of 19 and 25 of 28—it is easy to identify suspected reasons for the defeat. It's the right side of the offensive line. It's the QB. It's the slow veteran RB. It's the dropped passes. It was that damn measurement call just before the half. It has to do with some kind of a curse. Etc.
One would have to eventually mention what the opponent had going for itself, most prominently its preparation. The Pittsburgh coaches were completely ready for the invaders, except perhaps for the Flash packages executed by the most Golden of those produced lately by Kent State, Joshua Cribbs.
What the Steelers were able to do against the umbrella coverage Cleveland was playing was, for this writer, the story of this contest.
As has been the case for most weeks, the underbelly of the Browns' coverage was exceedingly vulnerable. It must be acknowledged that every defensive scheme seems to concede to an opponent the means to move the football in one way or another, though it is usually more difficult to identify the permitted approach and how best to exploit it.
Pittsburgh not only repeatedly liberated pass-catching targets between the numbers, but seemed also to have ready-made blocking in front of them, no matter how far down the field the ball was caught. How a team could not only spring its receivers but simultaneously provide downfield blockers should serve as a clinic for the Cleveland coaches.
Hines Ward's 52-yard touchdown catch-and-run was just the most graphic illustration, as several of his grabs came with instantaneous escorts. Fellow Steeler wideout Santonio Holmes alertly stopped moving toward that particular flying pigskin when he spotted Ward's approach and fell brilliantly into screening the Cleveland DBs in his vicinity. Ward was on his way.
The soft underbelly being offered to Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger suggested nothing the visitors could do would protect whatever offensive momentum they might manage, however implausible that would've been with the present inabilities of the Cleveland passing game. Though some might maintain the Browns were in it til Derek Anderson underthrew Mohamed Massaquoi near the Pittsburgh goaline with about 4:30 remaining in the contest, there is little doubt the home club would merely have welcomed the opportunity to put yet more points and yardage behind themselves at the expense of the Cleveland coverage, a word used most loosely, befitting the manner in which that supposed "coverage" was executed.
Just behind the normal alignment of the retreating LBs and just in front of where the safeties might've begun the play, Steeler receivers approached the hashes with the ball on its way, a reception guaranteed, after-catch yardage assured. That's how an offense gets to 520 or so total yards without all that much of a ground game.
Roethlisberger threw for well over 400. Both Ward and Holmes exceeded 100 reception yards. TE Heath Miller was also having a field day. It was Halloween early along the confluence, lots of treats amid the tricks.
Cleveland defenders don't have the closing speed, the tackling skills, the enforcer mentalities or the pass rush to get away with playing such a way against the better passers in the sport. The defensive design may keep the score relatively close, but it won't win many games, though it alone does not explain the Browns' 1-5 2009 start.
Were it not for Pittsburgh second-half turnovers—and some credit must go to the Browns for them—the Steelers would not often be stopped. Did the home team punt even once?
Many are the maddening aspects to a typical Browns' game this season, not the least of which are McDonald's putrid renditions of an NFL tackler. Seeing so many catchable footballs dropped by Cleveland professionals, regardless of which side of the ball they play, is another. Especially when the opposition seems to be catching everything it gets a single paw upon.
Wasn't it Brian Robiskie's first NFL reception, coming at about the five-minute mark of quarter four, that counted as the first by a Cleveland wideout not named Massaquoi. That's maddening, too, as is watching a slow-to-the-hole former RB star seem also to be playing without the aid of vision.
Maybe most maddening of all—though this is a very fierce competition—is how Pittsburgh seemed to know pre-snap every occasion Cleveland had in mind to pass, responding with more rushers and far more quickness than Cleveland was prepared to counter. Hard to say which were slower up front on those Cleveland passing downs, the wits or the feet.
So much of this conspired to negate so much of what began well. The first quarter was scoreless, a competitive matchup for the most part. This was no small feat against a superior opponent which came in leading the sport in first-quarter scoring differential.
There was offensive creativity from the Browns, especially the use of Cribbs as a running threat from the QB spot. Anderson's scramble-and-pitch to a trailing Jerome Harrison was inspired and exciting. Fans seemed about to receive four quarters of competitiveness. And they actually got it, in many ways.
Presumably, much of what allowed the defending NFL champions to dominate the scoreboard and the stat sheet had to do with what was being done to mask what is lacking in talent and accomplishment. On this particular sun-washed October afternoon in the Steel City, it was ultimately not nearly enough. The umbrella was shredded for all to see.
Was good to see USC rookie Kaluka Maiava receiving snaps at ILB, finally realizing Head Coach Eric Mangini's post-draft vision. "He'll help us matchup in underneath coverage," said the coach at that time. Such assisance is surely needed.
The Browns employed a number of creative defensive packages, some of which included but two defensive linemen. Or but two LBs. Again, however, a shortage of defensive speed and athleticism was apparent. One can only do so much with schemes.
Cleveland exhibits little quickness, leverage or footwork when Womack aligns next to John St. Clair along the Browns right side. Consequently, Steeler LBs Lamar Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons, were terrors on the pass rush against overwhelmed Cleveland QB Anderson. Whether passing against Cleveland or rushing the Browns' passer, mis-match was the operative adjective.
It is understandable that leagues do all they can to squash insinuations that officiating is impartial, objective and as accurate as possible. Then come events such a Florida's fourth-quarter, game-tying touchdown drive in Gainesville against Arkansas and today's literally incredible measurement just prior to halftime. Clearly, a full inch existed between the position of the ball and the downfield stick, as television monitors displayed. The word that comes to mind is "shameful."
Credit the Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi for the research, but Cribbs has now scored eight times on returns. The team has won but one of those games.