By Christina Rivers
A loss is never something a team wants to see, and bad games cause ravenously dedicated fans to suddenly turn sour. In a game where the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be the most dominant force on the field, they practically gave the game away to the Cleveland Browns. With quarterback Charlie Batch throwing three interceptions and all four of the starting running backs losing at least one fumble, the Cleveland Browns took advantage of ugly play by the Steelers to win the Sunday matchup, 20-14.
Turnovers absolutely killed the Steelers this week. Batch had just a few days to work out with the first-string offense and coach Mike Tomlin was worried that there were too many miscommunications between the little-used quarterback and the receivers heading into the game. At least two of Batch’s interceptions were the result of missed reads. One of them was tipped but that still resulted in an interception. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and even Chris Rainey had little room to run against a tough Cleveland defense. Mendenhall had only four carries for six yards and two fumbles. Redman had two carries for seven yards and one fumble. Dwyer had nine carries for 19 yards and one fumble. Rainey had five carries for 17 yards and one touchdown but ended up with two fumbles of his own. The first came on a pass that Rainey lost, but the ball went out of bounds. The second fumble by Rainey could understandably be considered ‘due to injury’ as he caught a pass and was tackled with one leg completely twisted underneath him. In reaction to the twist in his leg and knee, it may have been impulse to grab for his leg with his hands, thus letting go of the ball. Whatever the case, the Steelers’ final offensive play of the game was a fumble during a crazy lateral play between players running down the field to try for a last-ditch effort and score.
Batch was only able to complete 20-34 passes for 199 yards. His receivers never did seem to be on the same page as their quarterback. Emmanuel Sanders led all receiving for the Steelers with five receptions for 75 yards. Sanders also gave up two fumbles, but one was recovered by the Steelers. Mike Wallace was completely locked down by Cleveland, catching only one pass in the game. Tight end Heath Miller started getting some good yardage in the second half, catching the ball six times for 63 yards. The rest of the receptions went to fullback Will Johnson and to the running backs. Plaxico Burress added no spark to the offense.
Offense Grade: D
For all the under-achievement of the offense, the Steelers’ defense played hard-nosed against the Browns. James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Clark led the team in tackles overall, a total of 28. Harrison came in hard and was busy in the Browns’ offensive backfield, helping to contain Cleveland running back Trent Richardson. Harrison also got to Brandon Weeden for a sack that stalled a drive. Jason Worilds had two sacks on the day and Brett Keisel one. The Steelers’ defense came on strong when, in Cleveland’s opening drive, Will Allen nearly caught an interception against Weeden. One play later, Keisel tipped the pass at the line and Timmons was in the right place at the right time to grab the interception and run it back for a touchdown, putting the Steelers up by seven points right away.
It would require fierce competition by the Steelers’ defense for the remainder of the game because the offense was so inconsistent. They held Cleveland to just 3-16 third-down conversions and no fourth-down conversions. The defensive line was aided by Clark out of the backfield in punishing Cleveland’s rushing game. Richardson was held to just 85 yards in 29 attempts and a single touchdown. Cleveland’s other rushers didn’t produce. Weeden only completed 17-26 passes for 158 yards and a single touchdown. The only receiving touchdown Cleveland got was on a pass from Weeden to Cameron. If the offense had been better, the Steelers’ defense held down their part and the Steelers could have won this game.
Defense Grade: A
There wasn’t much that was special about special teams play for the Steelers on Sunday. They played well, but Rainey, who handled kickoff returns, only saw that opportunity four times. Emmanuel Sanders handled punt returns, but even he couldn’t get more than 8 yards on his longest. The special teams did a good job of keeping Cleveland’s returners from getting loose. Shaun Suisham has proven to be a reliable, if not nearly perfect, kicker. He only got the opportunity to kick two extra points as the Steelers couldn’t get into field position offensively to bring him in for a field goal attempt. Punter Drew Butler was steady, kicking six times for a 45.8 yard-per-punt average. Butler was able to put one inside the Browns’ 20-yard line and his longest punt went for 55 yards.
Special Teams Grade: A-
The coaching staff of the Steelers seemed determined to put the best players on the field. Due to turnovers, they were constantly having to put in new offensive backs, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a difficult task on his hands. After making pre-game adjustments to make Batch comfortable as a quarterback, Haley couldn’t have predicted that he would see his offense lose eight fumbles or that Batch would throw three interceptions.
Coach Tomlin looked frustrated because on a day when ‘next man up’ should have been a rallying cry, no one seemed to come to the front and volunteer to lead. Mainly considered a ‘defensive guy’, Tomlin was still paying attention to the offense. Nevertheless, Tomlin didn’t make any strange calls and stuck with the playbook.
Dick LeBeau has been a defensive genius and is considered at the top of his game as defensive coordinator. He had the Steelers’ defense firing on all cylinders and had no problem with guys not stepping up. While he didn’t put in any fancy blitz packages, he ran an effective defense.
Running backs coach Kirby Wilson had the hardest job on the field against the Browns. The players under him were abysmal. He was consistently huddling with them on the sidelines, and at one point looked like he was giving instructions about how to hold the ball correctly. That is something the players should have learned the first football game they ever played in. Coaching can only go so far, and then the responsibility is on the players. Wilson will most likely be spending this next week in practice having anyone available hit his rushers to reinforce fundamentals.
Coaching Grade: B
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.