The Browns wanted it more.
They were superior in terms of urgency and emotion.
The Steelers’ heart was lacking.
Came out flat and stayed that way.
They didn’t care.
They quit on themselves.
The above sentences were written by Pittsburgh-area sportswriters after the Steelers’ shocking loss to the Cleveland Browns. And you’ll note that each was given its own paragraph to emphasize how profound I think they are.
Of course, like the myths above, that is a lie.
Fact is, and as hard as it is to believe, the Steelers gave all they had. I don’t say that because Mike Tomlin said so after the game. I say it because I’ve watched the game three times. I didn’t get sick at any point, nor was it a form of self-torture, because I thought the effort was there from start to finish.
Let’s take a quick run through it.
Browns’ first series: six yards and punt.
Steelers’ first series: Guards fire to blow up linebackers on first play; tight end drives a linebacker back five yards on second play; third-and-one shotgun and sack when Corey Williams – a reserve the Steelers targeted in free agency two years ago, a guy they think is a pretty good player – whipped Justin Hartwig.
Browns’ second series: one first down on a 3rd-and-10 completion over a head-spinning Lawrence Timmons and in front of reserve safety Ty Carter.
Steelers’ second series: third-and-3 sack by unblocked Hank Poteat, the lone blitzer.
Browns’ third series: Josh Cribbs’s big punt return was caused by a muff and seven overaggressive Steelers skidding past him after he picked it up, looped around and made one cut. Dan Sepulveda gave great effort in getting Cribbs to the ground, and the Browns lost four yards before kicking a field goal.
Steelers’ third series: Blocking TE, a rookie, dropped the first-down pass, but a hobbled Hines Ward managed to get his feet down before the sideline for a 9-yard gain. After a bad spot, urgency was displayed with a 4th-and-1 conversion from their own 32. On the next play, Santonio Holmes dove but couldn’t catch an errant pass in the middle of triple coverage. And on the next play, Ben Roethlisberger scrambled and dove concussed-melon-first for a first down. The drive stalled when a screen was thrown to Ward with Mike Wallace in front of him as the blocker. Mike Wallace couldn’t block James Harrison’s mom and he never touched Eric Wright. Roethlisberger was then sacked by a linebacker who came untouched on a 4-man rush.
There were errors of overaggressiveness, of trying to do too much, at key moments in the second quarter, like Timmons overpursuing on Cribbs’ 18-yard run and Farrior doing the same on the touchdown run. There was also Heath Miller diving for the sticks while being tackled. There was LaMarr Woodley running nearly 50 yards to the opposite sideline to tackle Cribbs, who’d broken a weak tackle attempt by Carter as Ike Taylor was being rag-dolled by a rookie receiver.
So errors of aggression coincided with poor play from the usual suspects, but in the second half the Browns didn’t score a point and had only four first downs.
Lack of effort had nothing to do with this loss, nor did the Steelers turn the ball over. They committed only four penalties.
The actual problems were consistent: poor play by Carter and the slump-ridden Taylor; a quarterback who, in not getting rid of the ball, showed he was too worried about making a mistake (and perhaps rightfully so); a team that was too tight; a line that couldn’t protect its quarterback.
The last problem was the biggest problem, the protection, and it reflects on the coaching staff. We know the players. We know their problems. Does the staff?
None of the eight sacks resulted from a rush of more than five Browns, so the Steelers were beaten mentally as much, if not more, than they were beaten physically.
Once, Hartwig ran wide to block a cornerback who dropped back into coverage, leaving the middle of the line to pour over Rashard Mendenhall. At two other critical junctures, Browns blitzers came untouched because fake blitzers forced miscommunications. Should that be happening to a group that’s been together for two seasons? A group that faces this stuff in practice all the time?
And it wasn’t just the mental errors, it was the alignments and the playcalling and the poor timing of each. A third-and-one shotgun snap to start the game, deep in your own territory, on the road in gale-force December winds, is not what Art Rooney II wanted to see in THE game of his very first season alone at the helm.
Do you think he missed the stark contrast that in those conditions, in his division, his Steelers played finesse ball and the Browns came right at them with a beastly wildcat quarterback and a couple of young, mobile, strong and highly-drafted linemen?
Tomlin will have to get it fixed with the most sweeping of measures.
Does he replace OC Bruce Arians? I have no clue. Maybe it’s the line coach. Maybe it’s the players, the quarterback, the new third-down running back. Only Tomlin knows for sure.
At least this loss reminded him that more than the secondary needs fixed. And it’s not so much the playcalling on offense, or even the style of play, as it is the regression the $102 million investment displayed at the most critical point of the season.
Roethlisberger’s best moments have almost always come on the run, but he’s losing that elusiveness. The Browns touched him eight times Thursday and he went down every time. Maybe he’s at the point where he can’t beat you on athleticism alone. It’s clear he didn’t play as well in the pocket as he should have. Even if he puts a monstrous conditioning spree together, there’ll come the time when he’ll need more brains than brawn.
Is the coaching up to the task of motivating Roethlisberger in the proper direction? On Thursday night, the answer was no.
So Tomlin either needs to figure out why it was an anomaly, or change the coordinator. Because he saw the tape. He knows the effort was there.