Following an impressive 4-1 start to the 2020 NFL campaign for the Cleveland Browns, Northeast Ohio enjoyed a fun week of excitement, anticipation, cautious optimism, & even some social media dick-swinging ahead of the Week 6 matchup against the bitterest of division rivals. But Steelers Week ended in an all-too-familiar fashion: unmitigated disaster & a humiliating trouncing at Heinz Field. A stadium they haven’t tasted victory in since 2003.
For a brief moment, the game began with a small dash of promise. The Browns defense, which put up a strong showing all game despite the final score, put up a nice stand on the opening drive of the game. Highlighted by CB Denzel Ward breaking up an attempted touchdown pass in the endzone on 3rd down to force a field goal which K Chriss Boswell hoofed down the middle of the uprights to put Pittsburgh up 3-0.
Then it got messy for Cleveland.
And it didn’t stop getting messy until the clock hit zero. On the third play of the Browns’ first drive, QB Baker Mayfield threw arguably his most appalling pass attempt this season. A pass meant for TE Austin Hooper that was thrown into double coverage as Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick read the Browns QB’s eyes from the moment the ball was snapped and cradled an easy pick which was returned, uncontested, for a touchdown. It looked as if Mayfield had already resolved to throw that pass, no matter what, & attempted the throw even when it was clear there was no viable play across the middle as both safeties swarmed in to undercut the tight end.
The Browns dug themselves an early hole & only managed to dig deeper as the game wore on. When the Browns got the ball back following the pick-six, they promptly went three & out. Baker’s second pass attempt of the game was deflected by the Steelers DLine & on third down Baker took his first of four sacks in the game.
The Browns defense forced two three and outs on the Steelers’ next two drives.
Roethlisberger began the game 2-8 for just 31 yards in those first three Pittsburgh possessions without a single target to star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster or rookie starlet Chase Claypool, who accounted for four touchdowns last week. The 38-year-old future Hall of Famer would finish with a modest 14-22 passing, 162 yards & 1TD stat line. As Big Ben struggled early, Pittsburgh began to lean more heavily on the running game which paid dividends despite the Browns high-ranked rush defense.
RB James Conner finished with 101 yards on 20 carries (5.1yd p/c) and a TD as the Steelers managed to rack up 129 total rushing yards on a defense that couldn’t stay off the field to catch its breath as the Browns offense stuttered & stalled from start to finish. It was the first time this season the Browns allowed a player to rush for 100+ yards (the previous high was 57 by RB Jonathan Taylor last week against Indianapolis) & the most team yards they had allowed to an opponent in a game all season.
The defense certainly does not shoulder much, if any, of the blame for this defeat, or the unflattering scoreline as the Browns shipped 38 points. The front-seven did struggle to put pressure on Roethlisberger with any consistency throughout the game, but this fact was not consequential to the result of the game. The offense, on the other hand, coughed up two interceptions & a fumble, which was recovered by the team, laid eggs all over the field with a flurry of three & out possessions &, to top it all off, went a combined 1-15 on third & fourth down conversions. All of this conspired to put the defense in impossible situations as the Steelers began most of their drives with a short field & against a defensive unit that was still gassed from the previous drive after the Browns offense could not stay on the field longer than it takes to down a shot of tequila – of which many were needed to survive this dire performance. Time of possession was roughly 34-26 in Pittsburgh’s favor.
To begin to illustrate the ineptitude of the Browns offensive output, prior to Higgins’ 13-yard touchdown reception with just a minute left to go in the first half, only two Browns wide receivers had caught a pass. Baker went into half time just 9-17 for 107 yards, a TD, two interceptions, while getting sacked three times. One was a devastating hit to his left side which may have exacerbated a rib injury he was already carrying into the game. TE Austin Hooper, the only bright spot on offense, did lead the team at the half with three receptions & 50 yards (including a big 36-yarder to help set up the sole touchdown for Cleveland), while Hunt led all rushers with a paltry 33 yards on nine carries. Anyone thinking that the loss of Chubb would be wholly offset by the presence of Kareem Hunt is sorely mistaken. The combination of the two offered a completely different dyamic that will be dearly missed.
The second half, if one can believe it, was even worse. Baker would only throw for 13 more yards after the restart as he was benched late in the third quarter by Coach Stefanski. QB Case Keenum would see his first on-field action of the season. Keenum looked every bit rusty as he finished just 5-10 for 46 yards. On a crucial 4th down attempt, which had to be converted if the Browns were to have any shot at a miracle comeback, he threw well behind Hunt on what would have been an easy catch & first down. Hunt, himself, would only see four more carries for a gain of seven yards in the second half before the reserves took over.
The offense was also hampered by a lackluster display from a normally stout offensive line. The Steelers DLine bullied & brutalized Cleveland lineman all game & thoroughly dominated the trenches. At half time, nine different Pittsburgh defenders recorded a QB pressure as Baker was hounded & hurried all game. Pittsburgh’s front seven stuffed the Browns’ running game from start to finish. The Browns failed to move for a gain of more than 10 yards on the ground until the fourth quarter when the reserves came onto the field for garbage time & RB Dontrell Hilliard ran for a well-earned gain of 19, late.
But the playcalling & decision-making was also suspect. An example, on a pivotal 4th & 1 early in the 3rd quarter, with the team down 24-7, Stefanski called a run up the middle that everyone, including Pittsburgh, saw coming before the Browns head coach even called the play. The Steelers were not remotely deceived by the player in motion & the Browns actually lost yardage on the play. In the first half, on the Browns third drive of the game, Stefanski called a pass play on 2nd & 2, after Baker had already thrown a terrible interception, had another pass deflected & taken a sack, Mayfield dropped back & took another sack for a loss of seven, which pegged Cleveland back inside their own 10 with a tough 3rd and long.
This game is the first time a serious element of doubt about Baker Mayfield’s ability as an NFL quarterback has crept into my thinking. Too many times in the past I have made excuses for poor play by the guy under centre. Today, it would be easy to reel off a few more excuses in order to assuage my doubts about Cleveland’s QB. He was playing injured, the OLine was giving him no time, his top two receivers were ill/injured all week coming into the game. But, even with that in mind, it is becoming evident that when the running game is stifled, Baker does not possess the goods to move an offense on his own. Certainly not against elite teams like the Ravens & Steelers who are among favourites to lift the Lombardi trophy. And the organization is going to need those attributes in their quarterback if they want to get to the next level. He has the OLine, he has the skill players, now it’s time for Baker to show his hand in his third year & prove he has what it takes.
I’ll finish on a positive.
The Browns are 4-2 and they play the 1-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals next week, which gives them a great opportunity to be 5-2 this time next week. Their two losses have come against teams who are a combined 10-1 with elite quality defensive units. After years of abject failure, we fans are just wanting a competitive football team on the field that will challenge for a playoff berth. Achieving elite status can wait a year or two as the team plugs holes in the defense through the draft & free agency. However, the Browns need to know, now, that they have the right QB to get the team to that next level. If Baker doesn’t prove himself capable this season, with the help he has, then he never will. In that event, the Browns will have to move quickly to find a guy who either can, or has proven it.