Browns vs. Steelers: 10 Observations from Thursday Night Football

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIDecember 9, 2011

Browns vs. Steelers: 10 Observations from Thursday Night Football

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    A stomach-churning Thursday Night Football contest finished with a gutsy defensive stand by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite a slew of breaks tailor-made for an upset, the Cleveland Browns left Western Pennsylvania without winning for the eighth straight trip.

    While the final score was indicative of a snooze fest, the unrelenting drama gripped fans on both sides for the full 60 minutes.

    The Browns traveled down the field in the first few minutes of the game at Heinz Field, and the home fans were surely surprised at the transpiring events. It would be the best Cleveland's offense looked all night; it wouldn't be their last chance to score.

    After Cleveland quickly opened scoring with a field goal, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense answered with a touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.  Immediately, they reclaimed possession, systematically matriculating down the field again.

    The Browns defense looked hapless, and it appeared a blowout was imminent.  Then, fate intervened and reminded the Steel City of two things:

    1. Anything can happen in a football game.

    2. Take nothing for granted.

    After a litany of turnovers kept the Browns within striking distance, fans at Heinz Field had reason to shout negative opinions. When Ben Roethlisberger's ankle buckled under the weight of a hi-lo sack by Cleveland's defense, that collective voice turned into silence. 

    Like the Texans losing Matt Schaub, Steelers Country came ever close to acknowledging, "Houston, we have a problem, too."

    Ultimately, Ben returned to the field with the Steelers still ahead 7-3. A costly interception gave the Browns a shot to take a 10-7 lead in the final minutes.

    Instead, Colt McCoy returned the favor to Big Ben and was intercepted by Willie Gay in the end zone. On a night of highs and lows, it was Roethlisberger heroically finishing on top with a long touchdown to Antonio Brown, capping a 14-3 win.

    With so many implications in this game, ranging from the AFC North Championship to the long-term health of key players, the contest was truly a drama queen's dream.

    Here are 10 observations in the aftermath of Thursday night's tension!

A Collective Sigh of Relief

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    Against the Browns, the Steelers almost lost Big Ben. Further tests may reveal bad news (McNabb played on a broken ankle) but, for now, there is hope. Currently, reports indicate that there is no break in the bone, but Ben did suffer a painful high ankle sprain.

    Did you ever wonder why the Pittsburgh Steelers have attained Lombardi's five and six only recently, opposed to in the 1990s or early 2000s? After all, the Men of Steel had a "Steel Trap" defense, occasional respectable offense and the great power running back of a generation.

    The answer is very simply BEN ROETHLISBERGER, all capitals and no question about it.

    Neil O'Donnell may have been competent at the position, and Kordell Stewart was certainly ultra-athletic. Despite their strengths, both lacked something Pittsburgh finally found in 2004. 

    The "it" factor.

    "It" is the reason the Steelers are vying for a third trophy in seven seasons. "It" lines up behind center.

    Sure, Ben threw an interception late in the game off of a bad ankle. Anyone judging him on that lone play is being cynical. 

    His return to the game sent a powerful message: you can't keep me down. In fact, it was more than that!

    You can't keep us down!

    At night's end, his touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Antonio Brown, a wonderful connection in the last two months, ended the competitive phase of a near upset.

    Early in the game, Ben showed off his unique skill set and looked as crisp as ever, shedding defenders, evading the rush and finding his receivers all around the field.

    In a split second, a possible blowout became a quest filled with doubt. 

    Charlie Batch, a respectable backup quarterback by any measure, entered the football game. His rust was apparent. The offense sputtered.

    A collective lump settled on the larynx of every Steelers fan.

    Whether or not Batch could have won this game isn't even the issue. The Steel City is also called "City of Champions." 

    To honor that tradition by bringing another championship to town, Ben Roethlisberger must have a helmet on his head, particularly in January.

    If not, Pittsburgh can win games, but the dream of a "Super Season" is over. 

The Perfectly-Timed 10-Day Hiatus

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    Steelers players recognized the long gap between games as a blessing long before events unfolded against Cleveland. Suddenly, the time between contests against the Browns and 49ers, December 8th and 18th, seems like a godsend.

    Entering action, the talk of the town regarding the injury report was Lamarr Woodley. The general consensus amongst fans was that the fantastic linebacker should sit out against Cleveland to allow his hamstring time to heal. 

    With that information alone, Steelers fans could agree that the extended time away from football would be great for Pittsburgh.

    Then, Week 14 happened. Suddenly, the timing is a blessing!

    Ben Roethlisberger was a few pounds of pressure from a season-ending ankle injury.

    Maurkice Pouncey was spotted limping along the sidelines, having to leave the game despite his best effort to play through pain.

    The entire nucleus of the Pittsburgh offense is suddenly on bum legs.

    Beyond injuries, the Steelers need to finish 2011 without any blemishes to have a shot at the AFC North Championship. Their next game is a trip to the west coast for a meeting with a San Francisco 49ers team playing great football.

    Time to heal bodies.

    Time to study an unfamiliar opponent.

    Time to rest before a huge time shift and long trip.

    Ten days never sounded so good!

Antonio Brown Does It Again!

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    Fans will debate about which receiver is the most valuable on offense; while Wallace demands coverage in excess, Antonio Brown makes them pay with game-breaking receptions on critical downs.

    Mr. "3rd-and-19" grew another yard, transforming into Mr. "3rd-and-20," his reaching grab over the middle of the field just another in a slew of fantastic receptions. The fourth-quarter reception helped the Steelers set up a 1st-and-goal before a Cleveland goal line stand kept the score locked at 7-3.

    After a night of high drama, Brown capped off a 151-yard performance by hauling in a 71-yard touchdown on an athletic play that served as a microcosm of his breakout campaign. In fact, one apparent reception taken off the board possibly denied him the opportunity to increase on his total, though logic dictates that any chance in a game changed the entire course of action thereafter.

    In other words, maybe in hindsight he can be grateful. 

    With two of the best receivers in the NFL on any down, or distance, every drive has hope, whether or not the offense translates the talent into points.

Credit Goes to "Big Play" Willie Gay

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    Listening to local radio on the Friday morning after the game, a pair of radio personalities defended Willie Gay. It was perfect timing for his defense as his late-game interception marked the second contest of 2011 sealed by his timely playmaking.

    I heard, "All everyone remembers is Rob Gronkowski burning Gay. It’s time to get past it!"

    In my estimation, this is a narrow assessment. More than just the New England tight end has given Gay fits in recent seasons. Before this campaign, the corner struggled in more than one spot.

    Nevertheless, he looks far more polished in 2011, hitting the right spots with far more frequency and not surrendering big plays with the frequency of the past.

    I’m going to swallow hard and put it on the record: it’s time to give Gay his due. He deserves to have the slate wiped clean. 

    Dare I go as far as to say he is playing well?  You bet! 

    That's right, folks. I'm ready to (cautiously) give Gay credit. The Browns did everything they could to fix Gay into one-on-one matchups, and Gay ultimately made them pay for it by ending Cleveland's final shot to take a late lead via the interception.

    In fact, the entire secondary (which was deceptively effective in prior seasons, considering yards per attempt by opponents) has been more solid; remember the fits they gave Patriots receivers? The excitement of fans when they decided to expand on their coverage strategies and got physical with Wes Welker and company?

    The change wasn’t just an improvement in scheme. It was able to happen because of an improvement in the individual coverage skills of the men executing in the defensive backfield.

    Carnell Lake deserves much of this credit. His coaching has resulted in a more capable secondary, able to play it any way. 

    For his achievements with the defensive backs,  the shining testament to his skill is the man affectionately labeled by Tomlin "Big Play" Willie Gay.

    Finally, it’s starting to stick.

Prime-Time Problems

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    Under the lights, the 2011 Black and Gold can't seem to get things right!

    The defense is forcing turnovers and, lately, the offense has done a good job (generally) of avoiding them. 

    Lately, against inferior opponents and especially under the lights of prime time, the Steelers have allowed teams opportunities to end their hopes for the AFC North title. Any loss could effectively have Pittsburgh packing their bags for a best case scenario that includes a lot of frequent flyer miles.

    Considering this risk, turnovers in the red zone are unacceptable. They shift momentum, take points off the board and keep the competitive phase of games alive too long.

    While Ben’s interception late in the football game resulted from a misread, the fumbles are simply a matter of will. It comes down to a mindset to protect the ball, the conscientiousness to protect the ball and the WISDOM to protect the ball, especially from veterans.

    Sure, fumbles happen, but the story is repeating itself like a bad rendition of "Groundhog Day."

    The lights come on, Pittsburgh jumps out to a lead, and it appears they’re well on their way to certain victory. Suddenly, a key member of the offense loses the football as the desperate, overmatched defense can only resort to attempting the strip and it works.

    They gain confidence. And the Steelers are left to kick themselves.

    It’s been a common occurrence. Mewelde Moore fumbled while heading toward the end zone at Arrowhead Stadium. Last night, Hines Ward (who has fumbled far too often in the last few seasons when Pittsburgh has momentum, e.g. the 2009 opener vs. Tennessee) and Heath Miller (2010, at New Orleans) joined the list again.

    One could point out that they fumble rarely, but they’ve fumbled more than they should recently. These blunders are a slap in the face to football fundamentals, such as using the four points of pressure when possible and protecting the football at all costs. When I see the ball carried so carelessly, as I did in both cases, I can only take it as unprofessional.

    It’s football 101. And, if it continues against superior opponents, the Steelers won’t get away with it as they have against the Chiefs and Browns.

The Real McCoy

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    I've made my conclusion: Colt McCoy has struggled at the NFL level due to a lack of talent surrounding him and inferior arm strength. It’s popular notion that you must have a cannon arm to play pro quarterback—while that may not be true, you better have some pepper behind your throws.

    On a few occasions, Steelers defenders were able to close on receivers coming back to the ball, preventing Cleveland from converting a number of key third downs. McCoy’s throws needed more zip or a more dominant receiver to shed off the defensive back and retrieve the pass.

    In the case of Cleveland, neither applies.

    Considering their 4-8 record and 30th-ranked offense, fans at Heinz Field were certainly surprised to see the former Longhorn move the Browns downfield with relative ease early. It was obvious that McCoy’s knee injury against the Ravens was not hampering his mobility, as he avoided a number of heavy rushes throughout the evening.

    As the game progressed, however, the defense began to tighten. The windows were narrower, the tackling was more aggressive, and the Browns' gig was exposed. As the screws tightened, Colt’s screws finally came loose.

    In fact, his entire state of awareness was probably rattled on a hit by James Harrison that will surely draw a fine from the league. Harrison led with his helmet on a vicious tackle along the sideline that was bad form, especially considering the emphasis on head injuries.

    While McCoy deserves credit for pulling a Big Ben Lite and getting back into the game, the end of the story was expected. Like Polamalu earlier in the game, who read McCoy perfectly and closed on a throw over the middle, William Gay took advantage of an underthrown pass against perfect coverage, seemingly capping a night of bad decisions by McCoy.

    It didn’t end there, though. The Browns signal-caller continued to narrowly avoid or throw interceptions into the final minutes, simply unable to muster the football into tight spots. 

    In my estimation, McCoy has many great quarterbacking intangibles in his favor, but he doesn’t have the arm for long-term NFL success.

The Cleveland Defense Was Suspect but Physical

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    Pittsburgh's offense, which looked like gangbusters in the early going, left open plays on the field and succumbed to Cleveland's efforts to force mistakes. 

    As mentioned, it looked like a cakewalk for the Pittsburgh offense early. Ben Roethlisberger had time in the pocket and found Cotchery, Brown and Wallace wide open in taking an early 7-0 lead. The trend continued on the second and third drives, but the end result changed.

    On a great play call, Hines Ward picked up a first down before being stripped by Browns defenders. A Polamalu interception got the football back into the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, who found Heath Miller on the next offensive snap.

    Heath Miller initiated contact with cornerback Joe Haden, who stripped him of the football for the Steelers’ second fumble in two plays.

    Earlier, I criticized Miller and Ward for these events, but the Browns defense deserves some credit for bringing a physical game plan into the Steel City. While the Pittsburgh offense had ample opportunity to take advantage of blown assignments and individual mismatches in their favor, they didn’t as Cleveland took the "bend but don’t break" route. 

    Hard hits dominated the contest, and much of that physicality was shown by the men wearing orange. 

Troy Finally Gets Rewarded for His Play

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    In the court of Polamalu, fans have both supported the safety, noting his disruptive nature and playmaking that doesn’t make the stat sheet. Others argue that he has lost a step, some going as far as to question his decision-making and speed.

    Like Ben Roethlisberger’s impact on offense, Troy Polamalu will be indispensable in the coming weeks. Steelers fans expect the highest degree of performance, making mistakes magnified. Despite his occasional over-aggressive approach, the safety plays both the pass and run and is typically a sure (if fundamentally unsound) tackler.

    For those questioning this skill set, spending a few weeks on the other side of Pennsylvania watching Eagles defenders whiff on tackle attempts will put things back into perspective.

    Personally, I see little-to-no drop-off in his play. People tend to equate big numbers with great performances, but Troy’s style of play cannot be judged on paper. His hybrid style makes him eligible to take on any assignment on defense, from linebacker to safety to corner.

    It’s thoroughly confusing to defenses. Many fans have criticized his play, but would they replace him? I’m guessing not.

    Frankly, I can’t understand any rationale that doesn’t size up Troy as an elite player.

    As stats go, sometimes the breaks come easily, and sometimes they don’t. Plain and simple.

    Has he dropped a few interceptions? Yes.

    Has he been out of position and taken a few ill-timed risks? You bet.

    But, in the truest nature of what makes him special, his gambles pay off more often than not. 

    How many pass defenses has Troy made in the end zone?

    How many running backs have suddenly had "Roger Craig" eyes as No. 43 meets them milliseconds after the quarterback exchange?

    Leaping over lines, closing ground on receivers like a rocket and coming up with a few big plays to boot, Polamalu continues to shine in the Pittsburgh defense. Last night, his efforts finally paid off with the type of big noise play that garners the attention of fans and the favor of those only looking at fantasy football statistics.

    He read the quarterback, anticipated the play, got a jump on the ball and made the interception. Sure, the play was negated in a rash series of turnovers in the second quarter, but Polamalu can't teach ball protection and kick butt in the defensive backfield. Classic Troy, and there will be more of it to come!

Worilds and Kemoeatu Are Going Two Different Directions

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    Jason Worilds played admirably on defense, recording nine tackles along with two sacks and a forced fumble. 

    What else can be expected of a player this far into his young career? If there is anyone who questions the Steelers' front office for their ability to replenish the defensive talent pool, they should have their head examined. And, that examination should include an endless replay of tapes highlighting the performances from years and years of great Steelers football. There are so many homegrown talents, and in an era of free agency, it is amazing that the trend continues!

    Timmons, Worilds, Hood. 

    The future will be bright for defense on the North Shore for years...and likely decades!

    On the other hand, a veteran player continues to prove coaches correct for their decision to bench him. As a matter of necessity after an injury to center Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky took over the sophomore's duties. 

    For his shift to the center of the line, Chris Kemoeatu entered the game. 

    That man has no business wearing Black and Gold. He cannot control his emotions during the height of battle, but it gets worse than that. 

    He's just a bad football player and a large part of the reason our offensive line improved in his absence and failed in his presence last night.

    In approximately one half, Kemo took four penalties, killing the Steelers on a number of drives. Likewise, he missed blocks on the goal line, preventing a touchdown after the offense marched quickly downfield and set up 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line!

    Projected across an entire game, Chris was on pace for eight infractions, four missed blocks and 14 negated points. Clearly, it doesn't really work that way, but what a putrid effort!

    A year of personal fouls, bad execution and yellow handkerchiefs, has added up to a solid portfolio of bad line play. For his inability, Chris should not rejoin the team in any future season.

    It's obvious.

"A Nail-Biter and a Blowout"

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    Since the Browns returned to NFL action in 1999, their series with the Steelers has seen two specific trends.

    1. The Steelers usually win.

    2. Every year, there seems to be a nail-biter and a blowout played between the two teams, as indicated in my preview of the game earlier this week.

    Like last season, the Browns hung around at Heinz Field into the latter stages of the second half. In 2010, Cleveland trailed 14-10 before the Steelers put the game away.

    Last night, they were only behind 7-3, driving with a chance to win before losing 14-3.

    The encore performance in 2010 was a 41-9 drubbing of the Browns along the shores of Lake Erie.

    Could this year's Week 17 "Division Weekend" prove to end the same way?

    It's sheer coincidence, but that is the trend. For all of the butterflies fans experienced in the home contest, the trip to Ohio will be far less stressful. 

    Isn't it obvious?!

Side Observation: The State of the NFL

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    Along the sidelines, James Harrison leveled Colt McCoy, sending the Brown back into the days of Otto Graham. It was probably a welcome destination for the former Longhorns stud who knew only winning prior to his NFL baptism.

    Clearly, it appears the NFL will be levying a fine to Harrison for the nature of the hit, which was a helmet-to-helmet collision. In this instance, with the speed of the game, I'm not sure that I agree with the "spirit of the rule," but I do respect it. As such, I'm in agreement with a reasonable penalty.

    Still, are all of these calls, from a split-second contact between players' helmets to being flagged for literally brushing a quarterback's helmet with your forearm or hand, taking away the bravado of the game? Further, is it corrupting the soul of football, which at its heart is a physical sport played by what were traditionally viewed as "gridiron warriors?"

    With such advantages and protections in today's game, it's no wonder offenses are able to break records that were earned against the face of fearsome competition in past eras. When Unitas threw 30-plus touchdowns and revolutionized the passing game in professional football, he didn't have the luxury of today's rules, aka offensive pampering.

    In fact, one of our own had his hand in starting the wheels of motion toward an offense-oriented NFL. Cornerback Mel Blount was so dominant at his position that rules were changed to assist receivers with getting off of physical corners who were jamming them relentlessly at the point of attack and not letting up.

    Beyond rule changes, too many blatantly inexplicable play calls and penalties are surely tempering many fans' passion for the game.

    If anyone can explain how the Antonio Brown overruling on the Steelers' second possession wasn't a catch, I'd love to hear a reasonable account of the play.

    Overall, I feel the NFL would benefit strongly from further emphasis on consistency and quality control. 

    And, a little nod back to the defenses that work so hard at their craft wouldn't kill anybody, either.