By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers extended its winning streak against the Cleveland Browns to five straight games on Sunday afternoon with a surprisingly tough 21-18 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Steelers (1-0) have now won their season opener for a second consecutive season and for the third time in the last five years.
Pittsburgh’s offense struggled all day while the defense was stout for the most part, and its special teams were spectacular. The Steelers ended up out-gaining the Browns 290-237 in total yards despite running eight less plays (54-62).
Although the Steelers, who are projected to be Super Bowl contenders, got a much needed divisional victory, the adage of all well that ends well is not always true. The Steelers are reportedly in jeopardy of losing defensive end Stephon Tuitt for the reminder of the season with a torn bicep. Tuitt was a disruptive force in the three series that he was in against the Browns, recording one tackle for loss and a quarterback pressure, before leaving the contest for the remainder of the game.
The Steelers’ offense was discombobulated throughout the game. They were never able to get into any sort of rhythm, especially running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a couple of timing issues on passing routes. Bell finished with only 10 carries for 32 yards with a long of 10 yards. He did add three catches, on six targets, for 15 yards.
Antonio Brown really saved the day for the Steelers offensively with several big runs after catches. Brown, who caught two long bombs for 88 yards, did most of his damage on quick outs, slants, and drags. Brown caught 11 passes on 11 targets for 182 yards, although he didn’t score. However, he was the catalyst during the Steelers’ first offensive touchdown, totaling 80 receiving yards, which put Pittsburgh up 14-7 just before halftime. Brown also drew a 41-yard defensive pass interference that help set up the Steelers’ final score of the game.
As expected, the Steelers brought a lot of pressure against Cleveland as rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer made his first NFL start. And it worked – the Steelers recorded seven sacks, eight quarterback hits and an interception. Five of the 20 first downs that Browns got were a result of Steelers’ penalties.
Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the brother of Houston star J.J., had a historic day. Watt led the team, along with inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, with seven tackles to go along with two sacks and one interception, becoming the third player in NFL history to record two sacks and one interception in his debut. Six of Watt’s stops were of the solo variety.
Anthony Chickillo,who started at left outside linebacker in place of Bud Dupree, also had a big day as did former Brown Joe Haden. Chickillo totaled six tackles and two sacks while Haden also had six tackles to go along with a sack and one pass defensed.
Special Teams: A
The special teams unit is the real reason that the Steelers won the game. After forcing Cleveland to a three-and-out and to punt deep in its own territory, the Steelers shifted to an overload to the right side. This overload alignment allowed Tyler Matakevich to come up the one gap and block Britton Colquitt’s punt. Chickillo recovered the blocked punt in the back of the end zone for the team’s first score.
Week 1 is typically uneven in one aspect of the game, and it certainly was for the Steelers. The coaching staff did a nice job in their play calling in the red zone. Pittsburgh was 2-for-2 in the red zone with both touchdowns coming as a result of short passes from Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James. It would have been nice to see a better pass-run balance.
The play calling on the defensive side was solid as the Steelers confused and outmaneuvered the Browns with their different alignments. Pittsburgh also did good a job keeping running back Isaiah Crowell in check, holding him to 33 yards on 17 carries, and limited the Browns’ passing attack to underneath completions for the most part.
Pittsburgh will open its home schedule in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. This meeting marks the 18th time the two franchises will hook up, but it’s the first time since Sept. 29, 2013 . The Vikings lead the all-time series 9-8. However, the Steelers have won three of the last four contests, including both at Heinz field.