Josh Shreckengost | HTSN
Mike Tomlin called the Steelers’ 38-7 smackdown of the Cleveland Browns “varsity ball” and Cam Heyward and his defensive teammates inflicted plenty of “good punishment” on Baker Mayfield during an early-season statement win in Week 6. In the week leading up to the AFC North clash between the Steelers and Browns, there was plenty of talk about how the Steelers would react to Myles Garrett following last season’s braining of Mason Rudolph with Rudolph’s helmet. However, Pittsburgh chose not to address the issue and Tomlin played down the possible billboard material, choosing instead to say that Steelers/Browns was just another game and that his team didn’t pay attention to the “nameless, gray faces” on the opposite sideline. Another storyline which was heavily repeated by the national media in the leadup to the game was that the Browns were somehow on par with the Steelers in 2020, that this wasn’t the “same old Browns” and that Cleveland would serve notice to Pittsburgh and the rest of the AFC North that they were legitimate contenders for the division crown. Laughable. As usual, the Browns disappointed and were sent back to Cleveland with their collective tail between their legs. The defense suffocated Mayfield, shut down one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks (statistically) and the offense delivered plenty of points in what has become typically efficient fashion. When all was said and done, the Steelers remained undefeated at 5-0 and the Browns fell to 4-2 and once again, all was right with the world. In this week’s three Big Play Bullet Points, we’ll examine how unbelievably dominant the defense played as a unit against Cleveland and its record-setting pace this season, the impact of Devin Bush being lost for the season to an ACL injury and just how balanced and diversified the offense has been thus far in 2020.
· D is for Dominant Hard to believe that the defensive unit which absolutely stifled the Browns on Sunday was the same group which gave up 29 points and 10-of-14 third down conversions to the lowly Eagles the week before. Give credit to defensive coordinator Keith Butler for putting together a game plan which not only confounded Baker Mayfield, but was able to survive the loss of starting inside linebacker Devin Bush in the second quarter and hold Cleveland to just 75 yards rushing on 22 carries. The game was over just a few minutes into the first quarter when, following a Steelers field goal, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick read Mayfield perfectly and jumped a route for an interception which he promptly returned 33 yards for a touchdown. It was the splash play Steelers fans were waiting for out of Fitzpatrick and he delivered in a big way by not only putting points on the board, but by shaking Mayfield’s confidence early in the contest. The defense got to Mayfield for four sacks on the afternoon and also forced two interceptions and the Steelers have recorded at least three sacks and a pick in each of their first five games this season and are the first team to accomplish the feat since the 1985 Giants (hint: they were good). The Steelers are on pace to lead the NFL in sacks for the fourth straight season which would be an NFL record and it seems like there is no way to stop or even slow down Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from rushing the quarterback. In fact, Watt has the highest pass rush win percentage in the NFL and the Steelers as a team lead the NFL in sacks through six weeks with 24. Though they have played one less game than second place Tampa Bay (22 sacks), they still lead the league in QB takedowns and are second in the NFL by a smidge to the Buccaneers in yards allowed per game (282.0 to 285.2) and rushing yards allowed per game (64.3 to 66.2). The Steelers held the Browns to 113 yards less than their season average in the victory, but if Pittsburgh is to maintain the otherworldly pace it has shown so far in 2020, it will have to do so without Bush. Which brings us to our next Big Play Bullet Point… · How the Steelers Will Replace Devin Bush Just kidding, I have no idea how the Steelers plan to replace Devin Bush. When Bush went down with an injury in the second quarter after seemingly just making a cut, it was a worst-case-nightmare scenario for Pittsburgh. The Steelers traded up to get Bush, a generational talent at middle linebacker, to fill the massive hole in the middle left by the tragic injury sustained by Ryan Shazier. Sadly, the team is in that same situation again, this time for at least the 2020 season following Bush’s ACL tear. Robert Spillane, an undrafted free agent who bounced around before landing on the Steelers’ practice squad last season, came into the game against Cleveland and performed admirably, but I don’t think anyone is considering Spillane as the long-term solution in Bush’s absence. Pittsburgh was admittedly thin at middle linebacker in training camp and the team – which is right up against the salary cap this season and will certainly have issues in 2021 when the cap is considerably lower – are not looking at any wild moves which would bring on more salary, so don’t expect a trade. The solution will likely come from within the organization in the form of Spillane, Ulysses Gilbert III and/or Justin Layne. Combined, the three of them have less than 60 NFL snaps at the position and Layne was drafted as a safety out of Penn State and converted into a hybrid linebacker during his time with the team. For now, it looks like Spillane will get the nod until he proves he is incapable of providing adequate results at MLB or the Steelers will use a rotation of Spillane, Gilbert III and Layne until one of the three stands out among the rest. It is an unenviable position for the team heading into Tennessee this weekend, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. Everyone deals with them and nobody feels bad when an opponent must endure them. Spillane and whoever else may get run at middle linebacker will have their work cut out for them against Derrick Henry and the Titans and this Sunday’s game will be a good barometer of just how much of a drop-off the team faces without Bush in the lineup for the rest of the year. · Back to Basics on Offense I’ve waxed poetic about Ben Roethlisberger the past couple of weeks and I’ll give Ben his due again for his performance against Cleveland, but the most impressive thing to me about the offense against the Browns was the second half when Big Ben attempted only five passes and the rushing attack drained the clock to seal a blowout victory. Ben was efficient once again, throwing for 162 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions on 14-of-22 passing. Roethlisberger also spread the ball around again with seven different receivers recording at least one catch. Big Ben also had a quarterback rating of over 100 for the fourth time this season (his lone game below a 100 QBR was a 98.7 rating against Denver) and he was artistic at the line of scrimmage, mixing and matching his personnel and calling audibles and shifts after observing how the defense was lined up. Yet it was the running game, especially over the final 30 minutes, that brought me the most joy. James Conner continued his strong play, going over 100 rushing yards again and running his touchdown streak to four games. Benny Snell had a few carries in the second half and Chase Claypool scored his second rushing touchdown in as many weeks as offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner again pulled out all the stops in the ground game. The Steelers ran the ball 37 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns, many times directly into the teeth of the vaunted Cleveland front four. Though Pittsburgh averaged only 3.5 yards per carry on the afternoon and their longest run was just 14 yards, the rushing attack was effective and draining, in terms of the clock as well as the Browns’ defensive energy. Make sure to check back every week after each Steelers game for Shreck’s Steelers Synopsis as Josh Shreckengost posts his musings, observations and opinions on the Black and Gold here at www.hightopsportsnetwork.com.