After the first Steelers-Browns game, a game the Steelers won after blowing a big lead, Mike Tomlin identified three of his team's weaknesses:
1. Defensive communication.
2. Defending outside zone plays.
3. Defending misdirection passes.
The Steelers didn't do a good enough job correcting those weaknesses and were trounced by the Browns, 31-10, in the second meting.
While communications no doubt improved for the Steelers, the tackling did not, particularly against the outside zone, or stretch, run plays.
And that led to even bigger problems.
"We knew we could run the ball," said Browns RB Isaiah Crowell. "We could do whatever we wanted with these guys, so we did. Everything that happened the second half of last game happened this game.”
In the second half of the opener, the Browns rushed 20 times for 129 yards. In Sunday's game, they rushed 38 times for 158 yards, and much of the damage occurred after the Browns lost center Alex Mack with an injury.
In fact, the play after Mack was carted off, Crowell rolled left with his line and cut up for a run for 16 yards.
“I was amazed on how well we were able to put (OL Paul McQuistan) in there and move (OL John Greco) over and just continue to do the things that we were doing before," said Browns tackle Joe Thomas. "Alex is one of the most reliable guys in the NFL and to lose him at the center position is devastating, but I can’t say enough about the job John and Paul did stepping in there and not missing a step.”
Did the Browns do anything differently?
“They are still a zone running team with play-action off of the zone," said Lawrence Timmons. "The same stuff, but they incorporated a few different things."
The play-action off the running game certainly helped Browns QB Brian Hoyer. He threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Jordan off of play-action out of a three-TE set to give the Browns a 14-3 lead.
But one of the differences was that Hoyer played off the Steelers' reaction to the misdirection passing game that hurt them in the opener. In this game, Hoyer twice rolled away from the flow, but threw back into it – a misdirection off of a misdirection – to produce two of the biggest plays of the game.
The first was a 42-yard throwback to Cameron that set the Browns up for a 5-yard touchdown run by Crowell and a 7-3 lead.
The second occurred in the third quarter, one play after a 24-yard outside zone run by Crowell. Hoyer faked a handoff, rolled right on a bootleg, and threw back to tight end Jim Dray for a 31-yard gain that set up a field goal and a 24-3 lead.
A questionable call gave the Browns an interception on the next Steelers series to put a wrap on the game.
The Steelers couldn't keep up with a Browns offense that was having its way – on the ground and through the air – with the Steelers' defense.
“You could tell that they were trying to stop the run, especially in our no-huddle looks," said Hoyer. "The safeties were down and that’s where we got a lot of our big passing plays. When we have something that’s working really well, and the defense tries to take it away, you have got to take advantage of what they try to do. We hit some big passes behind that.”
Browns coach Mike Pettine sounded like an old-school Steelers coach in explaining his strategy.
“First of all, the run game’s relentless," Pettine said. "You have to be able to defend the run. The zone scheme’s difficult. Not a lot of teams do it, so if your offensive linemen aren’t good, big athletes you don’t get a good feel for it in practice. Then, I think (offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan) does a really good job with the formations, movement, pre-snap movement, changing strength. He causes a lot of rules to be broken, or rules to be applied when the tight end motions or the slot motions. Then, he also does a good job of condensing the formations. That changes some things, defensively, that we don’t line up a lot of times in just normal spacing. A lot of those things add up to being very effective."