CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns came into Sunday’s AFC North battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers missing starting running back Nick Chubb, starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, and starting offensive tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills.
For most offenses, facing a top-flight defense like the Pittsburgh Steelers with such absences would have been terrifying, and well — the Browns might’ve been.
Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt spent most of the what became a 13-10 Cleveland win doing just about everything possible to keep rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson out of the situations where the Steelers feast.
The Pittsburgh defense is designed to bend but not break. It’s designed to allow yards — which the top offense in the NFL basically can’t be stopped from getting anyway — in exchange for the ability to get splash plays and turnovers.
That’s why the Steelers entered play on Sunday 25th in the NFL in yards allowed, but ninth in points allowed.
But that plan has a significant flaw, and its one that the Browns exposed on Sunday. If teams are so afraid of the Steelers’ defense making big plays, that they basically refuse to take risks during the game, it’s hard for the Steelers to make them turn the ball over.
The Steelers were lucky to get one against the Browns, when a pass from Thompson-Robinson went off the hands of Amari Cooper and Joey Porter Jr. and Chandon Sullivan corralled the deflection.
Cleveland’s focus on not turning the ball over was so great that Thompson-Robinson thought he threw the game away right then and there.
“I was going to lose it,” he said. “I was hurting. I was frustrated. I didn’t know how the game was going to end, if I was going to get the ball back or anything like that.”
The Browns ran the ball. They threw screens. They threw slants. And they basically never made Thompson-Robinson make a tough throw or stay in the pocket for an extended period all game.
“Really, exactly the type of game that we anticipated,” Tomlin said. “We knew they’d do some things to minimize his exposure to our defensive unit. They weren’t going to take a lot of risk and so we had to get stops the traditional way.”
The Steelers largely did that. Over one stretch, the Browns went a dozen offensive snaps between positive gains. They gained just 259 total yards. Thompson-Robinson had a passer rating of 54.9.
But it’s impossible to stop the Browns’ dink-and-dunk approach entirely. Cleveland scored on a drive that started at midfield after a short punt. The Browns scored on a 17-play drive just before the half. It was a field goal. Another field goal won the game.
“We have to stop him,” T.J. Watt said. “If he’s able to just convert five-yard throws all day, that is an issue as well. Teams have been doing that this season and it’s just a matter of stopping it, so they are not able to continue to do it. That’s the issue right now.”
It is, and it isn’t. The Steelers aren’t built to defend every blade of grass all game long. That’s also really, really difficult for even the best defenses to do.
What happened on Sunday was that the Steelers’ offense let down the defense. The Steelers allowed just 13 points. Even against a backup quarterback, and a backup running back and two backup tackles, that’s a low point total.
But they never got Thompson-Robinson uncomfortable, because the Steelers’ offense scored so little that even those 13 points were enough to win the game.
In order for the Steelers’ defensive plan to work, they need teams to feel like they have to take risks. If the Steelers’ offense continues to be so inept, the defensive game plan is at risk, and it doesn’t seem to matter who is directing the opposition.
Optimism for the Steelers’ season lifted this week when Watson and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow were ruled out for the season with injuries.
But even the likes of Thompson-Robinson, Jake Browning, Gardner Minshew and Mac Jones can lead their teams to victory against the Steelers, if the offense can’t hold up its end of the bargain.