The Cleveland Browns have turned the corner, and now it's time for them to prove they can remain consistent. We've been waiting for the offense and defense to play collectively well together, and when they did, the result was a 31-10 smackdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell's claimed that the Steelers "dominated the Browns except for a few trick plays." Is there such a thing as trick plays on defense? No, and yet Cleveland held Pittsburgh to 3 points for most of the game.
On offense and special teams, the Browns didn't even pull off anything out-of-the-ordinary -- no players other than a QB throwing a pass, no fake field goals, and no fake punts. The Browns ran the ball 38 times and attempted 17 passes. Pittsburgh couldn't stop the run well enough, and when they overcommitted, the Browns went down the field in the passing game. That's not trickery, that's effective game-planning and Kyle Shanahan out-coaching Dick LeBeau. Let's get to the complete game review.
WEEK 6 - PITTSBURGH STEELERS VS. CLEVELAND BROWNS
(COMPLETE GAME REVIEW)
- Awarding the Game Ball: OL John Greco - It's a tall order to step in for a Pro Bowl center like Alex Mack, the anchor of perhaps the best offensive line in the league. Greco had been having a marvelous season at right guard, but was asked to slip over to center. It's a position he's practiced for years at camp, but this was his first NFL game at the position, and he held his ground firmly and didn't seem to miss a beat.
- Goat of the Game: RB Isaiah Crowell - When you have 11 carries for 77 yards and 1 touchdown and are the goat in a 31-10 blowout victory, there really is no goat, per se. Crowell ran the ball well, but he put the ball on the ground three times -- twice on catching the pitch, and once for a fumble. We could afford it in this game given the lead, but those would be crippling plays most other weeks.
- Gipson an Early Difference Maker: When the Browns' defense has run into difficulties, I've talked about individual defenders not making plays they are in position to make when they have an opportunity. That changed against the Steelers, and we saw our first glimpse of it on Pittsburgh's opening possession.
Facing a 3rd-and-1, QB Ben Roethlisberger is going to fake the inside handoff to the fullback, or at least a potential misdirection, before pitching the ball out to RB Le'Veon Bell. OLB Jabaal Sheard is going to crash inside immediately, leaving FS Tashaun Gipson as the only person able to make a play on Bell.
TE Heath Miller can't contain Gipson here, but this is still a situation that I'd expect Bell to win more times than not. Fortunately for Cleveland, Gipson makes a hell of a play by making a beeline toward Bell, grabbing his leg after a diving tackle, and hanging on as the Browns drop Bell for a loss of one yard to force a punt.
- Blount Denied on 3rd Down: After the Browns went three-and-out, Pittsburgh had run 8 consecutive run plays to set up a 3rd-and-3 from the 3 yard line.
I thought for certain that we'd see a pass play here, but the Steelers stayed on the ground with RB LeGarrette Blount. The Steelers are going to double team NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, which will allow ILB Craig Robertson to shoot through the gap shown and meet Blount.
Blount sees that the hole is filled and tries to make an outside move. At that point, he's a dead duck as the Browns' defense swarms him and holds him to a gain of just a yard. The Steelers settled for a field goal to go up 3-0. It would be their only points of the game until a garbage time touchdown late.
- Steelers Miss Opportunity, Botch FG: After the Browns went three-and-out again, Pittsburgh began their drive with a short field, starting at the 50 yard line.
Pittsburgh used a mix of runs and passes to set up a 3rd-and-3 from the 17 yard line at the beginning of the second quarter. The intended receiver on this route is going to be WR Markus Wheaton, who is in the slot to the left of QB Ben Roethlisberger and being guarded by CB K'Waun Williams.
The Browns have tight coverage across the board except for Williams, who was off of Wheaton, similar to how he was off of WR Kendall Wright when he scored a touchdown the previous week. Roethlisberger gets the ball out, but it's already on Wheaton as he turns around. I put the blame more so on Wheaton, who either ran his route too long or just simply dropped the pass. Pittsburgh's holder, P Brad Wing, then botched the hold on a field goal attempt, so the score remained 3-0.
- Browns Finally Move the Chains: After two straight three-and-outs, the Browns faced a 3rd-and-6 situation, and I'm sure some fans were wondering, "will we ever get a first down?" Up until this point of the game, the Steelers had the edge on both sides of the ball.
WR Miles Austin is at the bottom of the screen running a route to the middle. The safety who vacates the area does so because he is creeping up on TE Jordan Cameron. The other safety remains deep -- perhaps too deep -- which takes him out of the play.
You can see the cornerback being turned around by Austin here, and QB Brian Hoyer delivers a strike over the middle for a gain of 17 yards. Cleveland never looked back -- after this play, all of the momentum in the game belonged to Cleveland.
- Troy Polamalu Faked Out, Part 1/10: I'm actually not going to cover ten parts of Troy Polamalu being faked out, but I probably could have. He is a safety who has made a reputation of taking chances in his own little world, and usually against Cleveland, it pays off. Not this time. Polamalu was taken to school by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
This route is becoming a staple for WR Travis Benjamin, who is at the top of the screen. We saw him do it against the Ravens (see bullet point #3) for a big play, and it capitalizes on Benjamin using his speed from sideline to sideline rather than just streaking deep down the sideline.
The different wrinkle this time around is that this time, Hoyer is going to bootleg toward Benjamin (to the left), whereas against the Ravens, he went the other way and then came back across the grain to Benjamin. Using the run game fake sucks in all of the players near the line. Meanwhile, TE Jordan Cameron is going to act like he's trying to block at the second level before leaking out deep.
Nobody is near QB Brian Hoyer, and Polamalu likely sees him rolling this way. You can tell that he abandons his coverage on Cameron, probably thinking he can make a heroic play, maybe even an interception, on a throw targeted for Benjamin.
Because of that, Cameron is wide open. I've seen some fans critique the fact that this ball was thrown in a way that made Cameron wait for it, but I once again don't see a problem with it. Would you rather have a "Brandon Weeden overthrows Chris Ogbonnaya" moment?
I measured out (via a triangle sketch) the distance of the throw itself, and it comes to about 37.2 yards. Until we see a defender break up a pass because of a receiver having to wait for it, I'm not going to complain. The play went for a gain of 42 yards. One play later, RB Isaiah Crowell sprinted to the right corner of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown, giving the Browns a 7-3 lead.
- Skrine's Standout Day: Now it was Pittsburgh's turn to have their first three-and-out of the game, thanks to the coverage of CB Buster Skrine, who had four passes defended on the day.
Skrine is defending WR Markus Wheaton at the top of the screen. He is going to have safety help over the top, as the safeties pretty much vacate the middle of the field on this play.
The way Skrine is defending, he is letting Wheaton beat him over the top if he so chooses to, likely knowing he has the safety help. Therefore, Skrine plays in front of Wheaton with his back to QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Skrine senses the pass is coming at the right time, turns around, and knocks the ball away. Wheaton asks for a penalty, and if Skrine hadn't turned around, I think the officials would have flagged Skrine. You can't flag a guy who plays the ball, though.
- Barnidge Gets the Bonus Game Ball for TD: Besides Greco, I was anxious to give out a bonus game ball this week to TE Gary Barnidge.
My recollection is that the Browns have not taken very many deep shots on 3rd-and-2 type of situations, but they went for the big play here. In the screenshot above, pay attention to several things. In the green is S Troy Polamalu, who is going to be pretty lost on the play. The cyan rusher is none other than the hated OLB James Harrison.
Harrison is coming off the edge, and it's the responsibility of Barnidge to come across the field and meet Harrison head on. You can see that Polamalu is playing the run right here, and because he's so close, Cameron is going to have a one-on-one matchup deep.
Bang. Barnidge meets Harrison. Polamalu is lost at this point, not really knowing who to cover.
Hoyer takes a hit, but he got the throw off just in time, thanks to the time Barnidge bought him.
The throw is right in stride, allowing Cameron to go 51 yards for the touchdown and giving the Browns a 14-3 lead. Both touchdowns were scored within two minutes of game clock. Click here to see a GIF of the play.
- Every Completion Hit a Home Run: QB Brian Hoyer averaged an absurd 27 yards per completion on 8 completions against the Steelers. Although the 51 yard play helped, the Browns were consistently picking up gains of 20+ yards with their pass plays.
After another Steelers three-and-out, the Browns are trying to score touchdowns on back-to-back-to-back drives. On first down, RB Isaiah Crowell picked up 11 yards. With the running game being a clear threat to Pittsburgh, the playaction fake is going to draw both safeties up into the box, giving both of our receivers a lot of open field to work with.
I don't care how good of a cornerback you are -- with this type of room to work with and the jaw-dropping pocket that Hoyer has to work with, it's going to be nearly impossible to stop this. WR Travis Benjamin is in the green streaking upfield. The area he vacates will be taken by WR Taylor Gabriel, who runs over from the area in yellow.
Hoyer hits Gabriel in stride. The first-year receiver could have gotten some more yards had he not stumbled upon catching the ball, but the plays till goes for a chunk of 24 yards.
- Mack's Injury: One play later, a bit of horror sets in as C Alex Mack suffers what we later find out to be a broken leg.
The shot above pretty much captures the agony both as a player and a fan.
Mack's teammates rally around him as he is carted off. Will that motivate them to finish the game strong, despite not having Mack at center for the first time since the 2008 season?
- Greco's First NFL Snap at Center: The Browns did respond in a major way after Mack's injury, and it started with OL John Greco, who was now at center for the first time in his career during a regular season game.
The Browns did a couple of shifts pre-snap, with the final shift moving FB Ray Agnew over to the left of QB Brian Hoyer. ILB Lawrence Timmons times the snap, though, and is already darting right up the middle at Greco.
Greco snaps the ball and immediately gets the chip on Timmons.
Agnew is going to block S Troy Polamalu, and the rest of Cleveland's blocks are solid. RB Isaiah Crowell is already turning the speed up a notch here, so Timmons isn't even as close as he appears to be in the screenshot above.
Crowell has avoided Timmons, and the hole is gaping.
Timmons is circled in cyan. For good measure, Greco isn't done -- he decides to block another Steeler, even though Crowell is already ten yards downfield. The play goes for 16 yards and a first down.
- Hoyer Throws a Block Too: On the very next play, RB Isaiah Crowell dropped the pitchout from QB Brian Hoyer.
This type of play could be a loss of five yards, or even a turnover if the running back boots the ball again. Remember, the play was designed for Crowell to go to his right (which would be left of the defense above), with Hoyer rolling out to his left (right of the defense above).
Hoyer spots OLB Arthur Moats coming and starts charging at him.
Hoyer cut blocks Moats, taking him out of the play.
Crowell eventually gains a yard. Above, you can see Moats staring at Hoyer after he gets up, probably thinking, "did I just really get cut blocked by the quarterback?" Must have been a trick play. Click here to see a GIF of the block.
- Adjustment to Defend the Back Shoulder: The Browns were up 21-3 after a rushing touchdown by RB Ben Tate. Before the end of the first half, the Steelers were trying to see if they could put together a quick scoring drive.
Pittsburgh found success with two back shoulder plays from QB Ben Roethlisberger to WR Antonio Brown for 16 and 17 yards, respectively. On both plays, Haden had pretty good coverage, but the throws and timing were good. The Browns had their safety playing deep.
Two plays later, Cleveland made an adjustment on Brown. This looks to be the same route, but SS Donte Whitner starts creeping up to the line (cyan).
At the snap, Haden is going to play the deeper route, while Whitner cuts off the underneath stuff.
With a double team on Brown, Roethlisberger looks elsewhere. He goes for WR Markus Wheaton on the right, but he's already been owned by CB Buster Skrine on the day, so that doesn't pan out again. That sets up a 3rd-and-10, and after Pittsburgh's screen pass goes for just one yard on the next play, they have to punt.
- Benjamin Has Been Weaponized: Now in the third quarter, the Browns got the ball first. On their second play, facing a 2nd-and-2, they gave WR Travis Benjamin the ball on an end around, and he picked up 3 yards for the first down.
On the very next play, the Browns are going to fake the end around again, this time to WR Andrew Hawkins. TE Jim Dray is running a route across the field to his right. Not seen on the left of the screenshot above is WR Travis Benjamin running a deeper route to the other side of the field.
S Troy Polamalu is either eying Dray or Hawkins in the backfield. With the cornerback trailing Benjamin, he is going to have the advantage on an accurate throw.
Hoyer's throw is on point, and I was surprised to see Benjamin come down with a leaping catch. No receiver in recent Browns history has made more strides as a receiver than Benjamin. Part of that is due to Kyle Shanahan using him properly, but Benjamin deserves a lot of credit too. Cleveland didn't score on this drive, but they passed on an opportunity for a 54 yard field goal and instead pinned the Steelers back with a punt down to the six yard line.
- Mingo's Pressure Leads to Sack, Part 1: After nine plays, the Steelers were in field goal range at the 30 yard line with a first down. Could Cleveland's defense maintain the team's 21-3 lead, or at least hold Pittsburgh to a field goal?
On 1st-and-10, the Steelers are looking to pass. OLB Eric Martin is going to rush inside, with the right tackle picking him up. OLB Barkevious Mingo is lined up even wider with TE Heath Miller being the only blocker on him.
Mingo dips his shoulder and beats Miller right off the snap.
Before Roethlisberger can even step up, he sees Mingo charging at him. Roethlisberger is forced to step up, where he's eventually sacked by ILB Karlos Dansby for a loss of a yard.
- Mingo's Pressure Leads to Sack, Part 2: Now facing a 2nd-and-11, the Steelers line up to pass again.
This time, OLB Barkevious Mingo is facing a double team -- the tight end and the right tackle. He is going to make several moves here, as shown by the cyan line, to get pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger.
This is the final move -- a spin followed by an attempted bull rush.
As you can see, the right tackle's feet have been pushed back in front of Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger pumps a throw down the middle here, but it's covered by SS Donte Whitner.
Roethlisberger tries stepping up, but he's then met by DE Desmond Bryant, who drops him for a loss of six yards. Now back to the 37 yard line, after getting nothing on third down, the Steelers punt.
- Tight Ends Fill in on FG: Cleveland's next drive began with two big plays -- a 24-yard run by RB Isaiah Crowell, and then a 31-yard reception by TE Jim Dray.
The Browns would go on to settle for a 40-yard field goal attempt from K Billy Cundiff. The reason I point this out though is that Cleveland was forced to adjust their personnel this week on field goals. Usually, the two end guys are DE Billy Winn and DE Armonty Bryant. As we know, Winn was inactive this week, and Bryant tore his ACL in the first quarter. TE Gary Barnidge and TE Jim Dray stepped in as their replacements. We'll see if they remain their long-term, but it's something to watch given the issues earlier this season on the protection unit.
- Dialing Up Austin's Signature Play Again: WR Miles Austin has scored twice on this type of play already this season, but both times, he lined up to the left of QB Brian Hoyer.
This time, Austin is on Hoyer's right side. When Hoyer fakes a handoff to RB Ben Tate on 3rd-and-2 from the 4 yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the middle of the field opens up in the end zone as the linebackers and safeties bite. Austin fakes a step to the outside and then cuts inside.
This would've been an easy touchdown, but CB Cortez Allen held Austin, resulting in an incompletion, but a fresh set of downs due to a defensive holding penalty.
- The Final Dagger: Two plays later on 2nd-and-goal, the Browns put the final dagger in with a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Ben Tate.
Here goes ILB Lawrence Timmons trying to make a "Polamalu play" by jumping through the line. Pay attention to RT Mitchell Schwartz and LG Joel Bitonio.
Schwartz has not only taken his guy to the ground, he is going to cut Timmons down. Meanwhile, Bitonio is going to come and hit Timmons up top. Ouch.
Tate could probably call it the easiest 1-yard touchdown of his career, eh? This put the Browns up 31-3, and a late Steelers touchdown to WR Lance Moore ended the game at 31-10.
- Special Teams Tackles: There were five special teams tackles, with two for WR Marlon Moore and one each for TE Gary Barnidge, ILB Chris Kirksey, and S Jordan Poyer. The Browns had four assists, with one each for OLB Barkevious Mingo, S Jim Leonhard, S Johnson Bademosi, and LS Christian Yount.
- Snap Counts on Offense & Defense: If you missed them, here are the links to our snap count trackers for offense (link) and defense (link). On offense, RG Paul McQuistan took Greco's spot at right guard when he shifted to center. On defense, DL John Hughes and DL Ishmaa'ily Kitchen were forced into action due to injuries on the defensive line.
- Brownies: The only person on the Browns' active roster who did not play was QB Johnny Manziel. ... The Browns were 4-of-11 (36%) on 3rd down. ... The Steelers were 6-of-16 (38%) on 3rd down, but 0-of-2 on 4th down. ... DL John Hughes tipped a pass that led to an interception for CB Buster Skrine. ... WR Marlon Moore helped down a punt at the 6 yard line. ... Despite the Browns' commitment to the running game, they maintained an up-tempo offensive attack, which is why their time of possession was only 26:55 to the Steelers' 33:05.
Up next, the Browns take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. Keep it tuned to Dawgs By Nature for our coverage leading up to the game!