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Offense Goes AWOL Again as Defense Seals Steelers’ First Win

In a game that might have redefined the winning-ugly concept, the Pittsburgh Steelers held on to defeat the Cleveland Browns 26-22 on Monday night at Acrisure Stadium. Besides the gritty play of a defense missing emotional leader Cam Heyward, very little of what transpired on the gridiron suggested a 2023 Steelers team prepared to seriously compete for a postseason berth.

This game was as torturous to watch as any in recent memory. Despite numerous opportunities to support its defense and put the game away, the Steelers offense was so inept through four quarters of play that, by the time it failed to convert a crucial 3rd-and-1 late in the final quarter, nobody was really surprised. A single first down in that situation would have deprived Deshaun Watson and the Browns offense of their opportunity to stage a final drive which might have sent the Steelers to their second home defeat of the season. Just as they had done throughout the game, the Steelers offense hung their defense out to dry yet again.

Also for the second consecutive week, Kenny Pickett was almost entirely ineffective, finishing with a rating of only 71.8. As he had facing the 49ers defense a week earlier, Pickett looked largely out of synch with his receivers, often appearing to be hurrying his throws. Kenny threw a room-service interception to the Browns’ Grant Delpit midway through the first quarter and later threw another ill-advised pass intended for a blanketed George Pickens which easily could have been intercepted. The Steelers offense managed only 9 first downs vs. 20 for the Browns. They converted only 4 of 14 third-down situations and compiled only 255 total yards. This performance certainly does nothing to relieve the pressure on Pickett, who finds himself increasingly under scrutiny by pundits and the fanbase alike.

The Steelers’ OL hardly distinguished itself as, once again, the ground game was virtually non-existent, netting only 55 yards for the game (2.6 yards-per-carry average). As the 49ers had done last week, the Browns dominated the Steelers in time of possession (35:28 to 24:32), forcing Pittsburgh’s defense to stay on the field for most of the game. The Steelers ran only 53 offensive plays compared to 81 for the Browns.

In a game poorly played overall by both teams, the difference turned out to be the Steelers’ linebacking corps. T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Cole Holcomb and Kwan Alexander made pivotal plays which not only added two TDs to the scoreboard for Pittsburgh, but consistently thwarted Cleveland’s offensive drives. Nevertheless, a game this ugly was bound also to have an ugly ending, as it did when the referees decided not to flag obvious pass interference by Joey Porter, Jr. on a 4th-and-9 pass Watson intended for Donovan Peoples-Jones at midfield with only one minute remaining.

As they walked off the field, each team surely realized it must make significant improvements in the weeks ahead to have any hope of contending for a playoff berth. Without star RB Nick Chubb (now lost for the season), Cleveland’s offense will be severely hampered while Watson certainly gave no indication he’s capable of carrying the team by himself.

As for the Black-and-gold, during their first two regular season games, they’ve shown next to nothing offensively while putting tremendous pressure on their defense. Even in the wake of victory, this seems more like a prescription for a long and disappointing season. So even as Steelers Nation celebrates the season’s first win, they do so with a generous dose of concern about the team’s prospects in the weeks ahead.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin proclaimed, “We’re not going to apologize for winning.” But the fact remains — unless the Steelers’ overall play improves substantially during the next 3-4 weeks – the need for apologies might become more pronounced by mid-season. Regardless of the fortunate outcome, this effort certainly was nothing to write home about. At the very least, it raises additional, troubling questions about the team’s offensive coordination and the continuing development of Kenny Pickett. As far as “style points” are concerned — with the exception of their decisive LB play — there was precious little on display Monday night to resemble anything definable as “style.”

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