Tim Benz: Where it all went wrong for Steelers in tie with Browns
A lot needs to go wrong to lose to the Browns.
Sorry, tie the Browns. Dang, I keep screwing that up!
Not like there’s much of a difference.
The fruit hangs very low on this one. Six turnovers with five by the quarterback. Twelve penalties. Poor officiating. Thrown helmets. Dropped passes. And a missed game-winning kick in overtime.
Despite those ugly notes within the final box score, the Steelers still had a 21-7 lead after three quarters.
If I told you Sunday morning that the Steelers would have a two-touchdown lead in Cleveland during a rainstorm with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, you would’ve bet your house the Steelers would win.
Apparently so did the Steelers. Because that’s the way they approached the fourth quarter.
That is where it all started to go to wrong for the Black and Gold. Because despite everything else that stunk up until that point, Mike Tomlin’s players were able to overcome it.
Once the fourth quarter began, the die was cast for an epic collapse. And a lot of it was the result of their play-calling.
Sure. The weather was terrible. Ben Roethlisberger was worse. James Conner had been running the ball well.
But the Steelers turtled to start the fourth quarter. That’s too early. Yes, even up 14 points against Cleveland. I mean, they’ve watched their own defense play, right?
Consider how the Steelers’ drive chart went in the final quarter. After starting with a fresh first-and-10 to begin the frame, the Steelers picked up a first down and tried a pass on the next first down. Following an incompletion on that try, they ran Conner on second-and-10 and third-and-10 for a total of 4 yards and then punted instead of trying a 51-yard field goal.
I don’t fault the decision to eschew the field goal. I fault the decision to avoid a slightly more aggressive path to get closer.
When the Steelers got the ball back on their own 14, Conner ran once more. Marcus Gilbert committed a penalty. The next two plays were run calls, too. Conner netted just 3 yards on them. Another punt occurred after Roethlisberger tried a short pass to Antonio Brown.
That was the punt that resulted in the ball, um, “not striking” Nick Chubb’s helmet with 8:52 left.
After Cleveland received that break, the Browns got the ball back down to the Pittsburgh 18-yard line before their drive was stopped on downs.
The gift was returned to sender though when Conner fumbled on the first snap after the Steelers regained possession. Cleveland instantly turned that into a touchdown to pull within 21-14.
Perhaps sensing they had pulled back too much, the Steelers finally took to the air again, throwing twice after the kick. The first was a positive gain, 17 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster. But the second backfired when Roethlisberger was strip-sacked on first-and-10.
The Browns couldn’t convert, yet field position switched. Now — spooked by a fifth Roethlisberger turnover — the Steelers went back into a shell and stayed on the ground for five of six snaps. The last of those snaps came on a third-and-9 before a seventh Jordan Berry punt.
The Browns scored two plays later, and the lead was gone. From there, the comically bad exchanges of offensive ineptitude and special teams disasters occurred, and the two teams dragged us kicking and screaming through overtime en route to the first NFL season-opening tie since 1971.
“A lot of things could’ve been better,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said when I asked him about the fourth-quarter run blocking. “We just didn’t make the right plays.”
So, including the negative yardage thanks to the Gilbert penalty, the offense attempted 13 runs in the fourth quarter that yielded a net of 21 yards for an average of 1.62 yards per carry. Two of those attempts came on third-and-10 and another on third-and-9.
“Weather conditions? Maybe you have a lead in the fourth quarter, and it’s better to run the ball,” tackle Alejandro Villanueva said, pondering why the Steelers were so ground oriented late on Sunday. “It’s tough in the NFL to run the ball if they are stacking the box.”
Poor weather? I get it. Bad quarterback play? I understand. Weak pass protection all day? Indeed.
But those sequences were all too conservative. And that’s where a tie was snatched from the jaws of victory.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.