By Daniel Benjamin
Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster had a career game as the Pittsburgh Steelers sent the Cleveland Browns (0-16) into the record books with a 28-24 victory at a frigid Heinz Field on Dec. 31. With the loss, the Browns became the fifth team in modern NFL history (1960-present) to finish a season winless.
Smith-Schuster hauled in a season-high nine passes for 143 yards and a score. The former USC Trojan also had a career-best 122 yards on two kickoff returns, including a key 96-yard touchdown scamper that put the Steelers up 28-21. Smith-Schuster is the first Steelers player with a receiving touchdown and a kick return touchdown in the same game since Gary Ballman in 1963.
The Steelers (13-3) earned their 10th win in their last 11 contests with the victory, despite sitting several of their key players. The win also means that the Steelers will finish the regular season with their most victories since going 15-1 in 2004. The Steelers ended up as the second seed in the AFC as the New England Patriots defeated the New York Jets 26-6 to secure the conference’s top seed.
Landry Jones, making his fifth career start, was highly efficient and did an excellent job managing the game. Jones completed 23-of-27 (85.2%) passes for 237 yards along with one touchdown. He averaged a very nice 8.85 yards per throw, although he only completed one of his two tosses over 20 yards—a 46-yarder to Smith-Schuster.
Jones did turn the ball over twice. He was intercepted by rookie safety Jabrill Peppers as he tried to squeeze the ball into Smith-Schuster, who was well covered. Jones also lost a fumble.
Smith-Schuster was unequivocally the star of the game. He caught all but one of his targets and had three plays of 20-plus yards. Smith-Schuster accumulated 35 yards of 143 receiving total after the catch. Veteran Steve Ridley, in his Steelers debut, tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Seven of his carries went for five or more yards, breaking four of them for 10-plus yards including a long of 21.
The defense was excellent in the opening quarter. The Steelers held the Browns to a negative-16 yards on nine plays in the opening stanza as they registered two sacks and forced three three-and-outs. They ended up surrendering 374 yards to the Browns.
As has been the case this year, the Steelers’ biggest issues were giving up the big plays and poor tackling. The Browns’ first two scores were a result of big plays. Wide receiver Josh Gordon’s 54-yard reception early in the second quarter set up the team’s opening score. Gordon beat cornerback Joe Haden as Haden was looking into the backfield at a possible reverse play. And once he realized that wasn’t the play, Gordon was past him and safety Mike Mitchell was unable to cover that much ground in such a short time in order to get over to him. Gordon didn’t score on the play as he was ruled having stepped out of bounds.
On the second touchdown, wide receiver Rishard Higgins beat linebacker TJ Watt on a quick slant, and after catching a short pass over the middle from quarterback DeShone Kizer, he broke the tackles of safeties Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell and ended up in the end zone for a 56-yards later.
Kizer hurt the Steelers with both his arm and legs. The Steelers limited Kizer to 16 completions on 30 attempts (53.3%), but he had a season-high 313 yards to go along with two touchdowns. Kizer also garnered 61 yards on six carries with a long of 20.
On the positive side, the Steelers compiled six sacks totaling a loss of 42 yards. Defensive end Tyson Aluala led the team with eight tackles including two sacks and four tackles for losses. Watt, who tied Aluala for the team lead, finished with eight tackles (six solos) to go along with one sack and two run stuffs.
The Steelers coaching staff gets kudos for getting Jones and Ridley ready to play as well as letting them do their thing. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley did a fantastic job calling the plays as the Steelers almost had a 50/50 split between running (28) and passing (27) plays of their 55 offensive snaps. While most of the plays were basic, Haley did get creative a couple of times, both of which resulted in touchdowns.
On the negative side, the Steelers took three points off the board on their third possession as a result of the Browns being offside. While the decision was not necessarily wrong as the penalty gave them a first and goal at four yard line, the Steelers weren’t able to punch it and they failed to score on fourth down inside of the one. The biggest issue was the play-calling; the Steelers attempted four running plays with the last two being by fullback Roosevelt Nix. Nix, who had one previous carry in his career, accumulated a negative one-yard on the two carries.
Defensively, the Steelers’ game-plan was excellent. The execution was not always up to snuff, but, the defense got tons of pressure on Kizer and came up with key plays when needed down the stretch.
Special Teams A+
Smith-Schuster essentially earned the team such a lofty grade himself, with his exhilarating touchdown return that came immediately following a Browns touchdown that knotted up the game at 21-21 early in the third quarter. The 167 total return yards on six returns are a season-high for the team.
In addition, special team ace Tyler Matakevich got a hand on Cleveland’s punter Britton Colquitt’s kick, which ended up traveling 27 yards. The Steelers ended up scoring their second touchdown of the afternoon after taking over possession.
Chris Boswell, who did not attempt a field goal for the first time since Week 1, made all four of his extra point attempts.
The Steelers will be off next week. They will host the winner of one of the two AFC wild card games at a yet to be determined date and time. The Steelers will face the higher seed of the two teams that remain from the opening weekend of playoffs, meaning they will either play third seed Jacksonville, fourth seed Kansas City or fifth seed Tennessee.
Jacksonville plays sixth seed Buffalo next week, but the Bills will head to New England if they defeat the Jags. The Chiefs will host the Titans.