Sunday, November 25, 2012

A win is a win is a win

The Pittsburgh Steelers played like the Cleveland Browns Sunday and suffered the same fate the Browns have against Pittsburgh way too many times since 1999.

The Steelers played Santa Claus a month early at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday, coughing up the football eight times, committing nine penalties and generally playing Cleveland Browns football.

Taking nothing away from the Browns, who played a stunningly aggressive (for them) brand of defense all afternoon, but the 20-14 Cleveland victory might have been different if Ben Roethlisberger had been the Pittsburgh quarterback.

We’ll never know, of course, but when it comes to the Steelers, a victory is a victory no matter how you achieve it. It’s only the fifth time in the last 28 games that the Browns have left the field on the plus side of the score.

All Big Ben could do was watch helplessly from the sideline as the Cleveland defense relentlessly outslugged the Pittsburgh offense all afternoon in what can legitimately be called the team’s best defensive effort of the season. The trenches belonged solely to the Browns, time and again beating the Steelers off the ball.

It was no accident that the Browns achieved the trifecta plus two on the afternoon. Four Pittsburgh running backs, eight fumbles, five lost. No matter whom Steelers coach Mike Tomlin tried, ball security was a lost art. The Browns converted three of Pittsburgh's eight turnovers into 17 of their points.

Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey all tried to run and hold on to the ball at the same time. And failed.

As it turned out, Dick Jauron’s aggressive approach – smack them in the mouth before they smack you in the mouth – was the perfect antidote to whatever the Steelers had in mind on offense.

Sure, Charlie Batch quarterbacked the Steelers, but he has beaten the Browns before and the Pittsburgh running game has averaged nearly 140 yards a game for the last five games. But the Browns shut that down in a hurry by stacking the box, forcing Batch to throw.

Of course he’s no Roethlisberger, a playmaker who rarely misses open receivers and is brilliant at extending plays with his feet. Batch, slower than ever at 37, can do neither. And he showed it Sunday with three interceptions.

Does Roethlisberger’s absence cheapen this victory? Absolutely not. This was well earned. It was extremely ugly, but well earned.

It looked real ugly early, though, when Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons intercepted Brandon Weeden on a deflected pass on the fourth play of the game and romped 53 yards with the pick 6. Boy, does this look familiar, moaned at least a few Browns fans.

And when Rainey bounced off the pile at the goal line and raced into the end zone with a second remaining in the first half to give the Steelers a 14-13 lead, it provided another here-we-go-again moment. Sheldon Brown’s mugging of Plaxico Burress in the end zone set it up.

Each club relentlessly hurled bombs of self-destruction with alarming consistency all afternoon. Bad penalties at inopportune times had Pat Shurmur and Tomlin shaking their heads in disbelief at the ineptitude.

The Browns were three of 16 on third down; the Steelers were one of nine. The Browns committed 10 penalties for 90 yards; the Steelers were flagged nine times for 68 yards. Throw in several others that were declined and we’re looking at 200 in penalty yardage.

Good teams don’t play the game in reverse. Backward march is not their mantra. It seemed as though referee Ron Winter’s crew reached for their flags on just about every third play.

But still with all this, the Browns, bless their hearts, couldn’t help by making it exciting down the stretch. How many times have we seen them enter the fourth quarter with a lead, only to somehow find a way to blow it and lose? Answer: too many.

Browns fans have come to expect fourth-quarter letdowns, fourth-quarter trauma and ultimately fourth-quarter losses. They can’t help themselves. It’s in their DNA.

That moment, strange as it might seem, never occurred against the Steelers. That, in large part, was because Roethlisberger was a sideline spectator. That 20-14 lead entering the final quarter never seemed safer. The only way it would have been jeopardized is if Big Ben had gone to the locker room and suited up.

The Steelers’ first drive of the fourth quarter began at the Cleveland 46 and wound up in a Billy Winn interception after Mike Wallace bobbled Batch’s pass and Joe Haden knocked it into the air for Winn to grab.

So far, so good.

Next drive, a quick three and out. What’s going on here? There’s got to be a how-are-they-going-to-lose moment somewhere. After all, these are the Steelers and those Terrible Towels always seem to work their magic.

Third drive begins at the Pittsburgh 15 and ends with a Haden pick on a deep throw to Wallace that was underthrown. Still three minutes to go in the game and the Steelers have all their timeouts.

But wait a minute. Here comes Colt McCoy in at quarterback because Weeden’s helmet and Joe Thomas’ knee collided on the last play of the last series. A healthy McCoy is a lot better than a woozy Weeden.

Three Trent Richardson runs – talk about conservative football, but it worked – and three Pittsburgh timeouts later, the Browns punt and the Steelers begin the drive at their 26 with just one timeout (the two-minute warning) left. Plenty of time to reach for another nail to drive into the hearts of Browns fans.

But it’s Charlie Batch, not Big Ben, under center for the Steelers. No need to worry. Not on this afternoon. Some fans just knew there was no way the Steelers would somehow pull this one out because it wasn’t meant to happen.

And sure enough, Rainey cooperated on the very first play by belching up the football after Haden spun him around and T. J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson sandwiched him, defensive tackle Phil Taylor gathering in the spoils with 2:25 left.

Time to breathe. Relax. This one actually is going to wind up in the win column. You can smile now.

You remember what it’s like after a Steelers victory, don’t you? First time since Dec. 10, 2009.

As it turned out, a pair of Phil Dawson field goals and touchdowns by Richardson on a perfectly executed 15-yard draw play in the third quarter and Jordan Cameron on a terrific five-yard throw by Weeden against a stingy Pittsburgh defense in the second quarter proved just enough to win.

The Cleveland defense was even stingier, limiting Pittsburgh running backs to just 49 yards rushing. In 16 series, the Steelers ran a meager 55 plays.

The Browns sacked Batch only once, mostly because the Steelers employed quick developing plays, but forced him to throw before he wanted on several other occasions.

If nothing else, the Browns proved to themselves that hard work, determination and perseverance can translate into winning a game.

Now let’s see if they can do it two weeks in a row next Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, an eminently beatable team.


  1. Hey Rich, some of my random thoughts....While we all would have loved to have had Rube and Phil in there all season, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Hughes and Winn. They gained valuable experience that will carry them and the d-line well all season...Where in the heck has that aggressive approach on defense been all season?...Shurmur may not be the answer as HC, but to his credit, and credit is due here, this team plays hard for him....I couldn't agree more with your statement about hard work, determination and perseverance...At no time in the 4th quarter did I think the Steelers could come back...Without Big Ben the Steelers are an average team. The Browns outhit, outhustled, outplayed, looked faster and were the better team. Damn it felt good to say that.

    And Shurmur was right when he said "Monday's feel better after a Browns win".

    Syco Marc

  2. Wish I could remember my google ID.......Marc

  3. The part I liked best was they took the Steelers' toughness and gave it right back to them. Once this becomes a team with attitude, with swagger, it will get better.

    I'm almost convinced this team is finally, after all these years, headed in the right direction. I'll be more convinced once we see what Haslam's front office looks like around draft time.