Mike Tomlin had an “awkward feeling” in evaluating the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-21 loss to the Cleveland Browns. That’s because it was actually ruled a tie, one of the few calls the NFL got right.
No matter how it felt.
The Steelers coach addressed the good, bad, ugly and indifferent about the Browns game in his weekly news conference at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, including several interesting revelations, as well as his thoughts on the Kansas City Chiefs.
My take on Tomlin’s talk:
1. Injury front: We knew that cornerback Joe Haden left the game with a hamstring injury, but Tomlin said that right guard David DeCastro has a fractured hand and Ben Roethlisberger an elbow injury that could limit his early-week practice participation.
That’s alarming, especially about DeCastro. He’s one of the NFL’s best players at his position and would be a significant loss if he has to miss some time to allow the injury to heal.
Tomlin categorized Roethlisberger’s elbow issue as normal bumps and bruises, but even after a five-turnover game he’s still the Steelers’ best option under center.
Haden didn’t finish the Browns game, giving Cameron Sutton a shot. Sutton gave up a pair of big pass plays in the fourth quarter – a 38-yarder to Rashard Higgins followed by a 17-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon – but also had an interception at the Steelers 8 with 23 seconds remaining.
For the Steelers to have four question marks in the starting lineup – don’t forget about tight end Vance McDonald, who was inactive Sunday – for their home opener is a troubling sign.
2. Talking turnovers: The Steelers outgained the Browns, 472-327, had a 25-22 edge in first downs and converted 7 of 15 first downs but their minus-five turnover margin contributed to the outcome.
Tomlin focused as much on the Steelers’ inability to force takeaways as he did on their giveaways, but credited the secondary for breaking up passes and coming close on interceptions.
The Steelers had seven sacks but forced only one turnover, while committing six turnovers (three interceptions and three fumbles). Roethlisberger was responsible for five.
“First of all, we are very fortunate to be in the game, turning the ball over six times and not getting turnovers,” Tomlin said. “We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. We have to do a better job equally of getting the ball.
“If you factor in weather as a legitimate factor, whether you choose to or not, if it affected us negatively offensively, it should’ve also affected the Cleveland Browns negatively.”
3. Extra praise: In an attempt to minimize the negativity, Tomlin mentioned that “there were things in the game that were good” and “certain things in the game that were extraordinarily good.”
When asked to elaborate on the extraordinarily good efforts, Tomlin singled out T.J. Watt, the second-year outside linebacker who had 11 tackles, four sacks and a blocked field goal.
Tomlin also praised inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich for his kick coverage and special-teams play.
That Tomlin didn’t mention James Conner, who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns and finished with 192 yards from scrimmage in his first NFL start tells you everything you need to know about the importance of Conner’s costly fumble.
For as much as Conner made fans forget about Le’Veon Bell for three quarters, the Steelers knew they could count on Bell to protect the ball. Bell had seven fumbles on 742 touches the past two seasons, an average of one for every 106 touches.
And Conner getting 31 carries and five receptions – backup Stevan Ridley got no touches – only appears to justify Bell’s agent voicing his concerns about a wear-and-tear workload.
4. Where’s Washington?: The Steelers are solid with top-two receivers Antonio Brown (nine catches for 93 yards and a touchdown) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (five catches for 119 yards), but they haven’t replaced Martavis Bryant’s production.
Justin Hunter had one catch for 6 yards and newly acquired Ryan Switzer had an 8-yard carry, but the absence of second-round pick James Washington was glaring. Washington had a strong preseason and training camp, making his share of combat catches.
“He’s just got to keep working,” Tomlin said. “He’s a young guy. He’s made some plays in preseason football. He’s made some plays in a training-camp setting. He played some on Sunday. That will continue. It’s just the natural maturation process or development that all players go through.
“What happened with him Sunday is no reflection of the trajectory of his career, whether it was positive or negative. I think it’s important that young guys just wipe the slate clean and clock in and work each and every day and don’t overanalyze the here and now because the reality is, in the big scheme of things, he’s been here a very short period of time. I know it seems like he’s been here for a long time for him. He just needs to keep coming to work, as do all the others.”
Tomlin added that the abdominal injury did not limit Washington’s work last week, but that doesn’t mean missing practice time the week before didn’t limit his involvement in the offense.
It’s worth noting that Smith-Schuster didn’t have any catches in the opener last season and finished with 58 for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
5. Unique talent: Tomlin spent a week with Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill at the Pro Bowl, and talked about his development from a “gadget guy” to the Chiefs’ “chief receiving threat.”
“He’s just a talented player, one that has to be minimized because every time the ball snaps he’s capable of running through the end zone,” Tomlin said, noting that Hill has more touchdowns of 50 yards or more than any player since joining the league. “That’s reflective of not only his speed but his talent, and I think vision is an element of that. He’s a great open-grass football player.”
No wonder Tomlin spent so much time talking up his secondary, knowing that the Steelers will need a special effort from young corners Artie Burns, Mike Hilton and Sutton to stop one of the NFL’s most dynamic big-play threats.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.