CLEVELAND — The Pittsburgh Steelers packed their belongings quickly after Thursday’s 29-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, preparing for what figured to be a somber two-hour bus ride home.
The packing process was probably made more difficult by the Browns shredding the Steelers run defense into pieces for most of Thursday night.
Browns running back Nick Chubb ran the ball 23 times for 113 yards rushing, a 4.9 yard per carry average. That’s nearly as much as he ran in two games against the Steelers in 2021.
In the first half, Chubb hurt the Steelers with a big play, breaking off a 39-yarder on Cleveland’s second offensive play. The Steelers contained that surge, and despite Amari Cooper and David Njoku presenting a thorn in their side, got into the halftime break with a lead.
In the second half, though, Chubb and his running mate Kareem Hunt just ran the Steelers out of the ballpark. On the go-ahead Cleveland drive, Chubb ran four times for 21 yards. Hunt added two for 11.
On the following drive, as the Browns pushed it to two scores, Cleveland came out and started with six offensive linemen. Chubb ran twice or nine yards. After a pass on 3rd and 1, Chubb ran for 16 more. Hunt had two carries for nine and Jacoby Brissett scrambled to the Steelers 8-yard line.
From there, the Browns knew what they wanted to do. Hunt right for five, Hunt left for two, Hunt left for no gain, and Chubb over the pile and into the end zone on fourth down with seven linemen in the game.
“They ran the ball. We got our ass kicked. It’s as simple as that,” Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward said after the game.
While there were certainly other areas the defense fell short — containing Cooper and Njoku, providing pressure on Brissett, holding Cleveland to field goals in the red zone — head coach Mike Tomlin wouldn’t even really consider any other reason for the team’s loss than the failure to contain the Cleveland rushing attack, and especially Chubb.
“Nick Chubb controlled the game,” Tomlin said. “He was running through arm tackles and things of that nature, getting yards after contact. It wasn’t good enough.”
He wasn’t getting some of his yards after contract. Chubb was getting all of his yards after contact. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Chubb had 115 yards after contact. He only ran for a total of 113.
Nick Chubb gained 115 of his 113 rushing yards after contact in Week 3, his second game with 100+ yards after contact this season.
100+ Yards After Contact Games (2022)
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 23, 2022
“We’ve just got to finish,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said. “We had him popping in here or popping in there. We were in position.”
The loss to a division rival — one that would have put the Steelers solidly in the driver’s seat in the AFC North after three weeks — obviously hurts. But more so than that, the Steelers have spent their entire offseason attempting to rectify a league-worst run defense and now have lost two straight games, at least in part because of their defense’s lack of ability to stop the run.
“We just have to be more physical toward the end of games,” linebacker Alex Highsmith said.
“We have to be better with the run,” Heyward said. “We cannot blame anyone but ourselves.”
A CUMULATIVE IMPACT ON STEELERS DEFENSE
Of course, the Steelers defense was on the field a good bit on Thursday Night. The Browns dominated the time of possession, 36:09 to 23:51. Most importantly, Cleveland possessed the ball for 11:18 of the fourth quarter, with the gassed Steelers defense gashed at the end of the game.
The Browns ran 71 offensive plays, with those coming at the end of a three-game stretch over 12 days. The defense played 100 snaps in the overtime opener against Cincinnati and 68 more against the New England Patriots on Week 2. They played a total of 249 snaps of defense between Sept. 11 and 23.
The Steelers defense has been carrying the land for the offense for the first three weeks of the season, and that cumulative load — without star linebacker T.J. Watt — seem to catch up to that unit on Sunday. But don’t expect them to say so.
“That’s our own fault,” Heyward said. “Three and outs, you do that, you’re on the sideline. As a defense, we need to get off the field.”
“You have Thursday games, Sunday games, Monday games, it’s not up to us to set the schedule,” cornerback Cam Sutton said. “Every opportunity is just that. It’s about what we do with it. We fell short of that tonight”
“We talk about the weighty moments,” Ogunjobi said. “You’ve got to look in the mirror, and you’d better come back next week strong.”
OPTIMISM ABOUT OFFENSE?
The Steelers’ offense took some baby steps forward against the Browns. The team moved the ball more effectively through the ground with Najee Harris rushing 15 times for 56 yards, his highest total and best yards per carry average of the season.
Mitch Trubisky threw for his biggest yardage total of the season, and had his best passer rating.
Fourteen points are not going to satisfy any offense, but especially in the second quarter, the Steelers seemed to find some things they can work with going forward.
“We learned from our mistakes in the last game,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “Our wide receivers played well and made some nice catches. We need to keep building on each game and look forward as we have great weapons to use in the offense.”
“There are pros and cons of every game,” wide receiver Chase Claypool said. “We will look at the pros and build on that.”
What kept that strong second quarter from blossoming into a full-blown breakout for the offense was a lack of consistency. Diontae Johnson dropped two deep balls that would have been third-down conversions. The Steelers offense was penalized four times in a three-possession stretch in the second half, sinking multiple drives.
“It was inconsistent and not hitting those plays that we needed,” Trubisky said. “We hit some in the first half, which is why we scored 14 points. Three points in the second half is not going to do it for us.”
That inconsistency is frustrating. But having a good quarter is actually something of a huge leap forward for the offense. They went from not ever being to do anything right to saying “if we could have just kept doing what we were doing …”
Of course, some halftime adjustments from the Browns confounded matters. More on that in Steelers Takeaways Extra, later today.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
So when the Steelers offense was working, what was working? Not surprisingly, the Steelers built off the few successful drives they had over the first two games.
The Steelers used tempo after first downs, ran the ball more effectively and started to stretch the defense by connecting on some deeper shots down the field. Trubisky looked his best in the pocket, stepping up to make throws in pressure and using his legs to gain yardage and a 1-yard touchdown.
“I feel like I was (put in position to make plays),” Johnson said. “It was just executing. Hopefully, we get that turned around coming this following week.”
Steelers offensive lineman Mason Cole said this week that he felt the team’s offense was still searching for its identity. If the Steelers can be an up-tempo running team, with jet sweeps, screen and shovel passes, and other key parts of Matt Canada’s scheme functioning as an extension of that running game, as well as continue to stretch the field vertically, they can start to put some real pressure on defenses. They just need more consistent execution than we saw on Thursday to get there.
NO BLAME HERE — STEELERS O-LINE SHINED
Most of the problems with the Steelers’ offense over the last two seasons have been traced back to the team doing things to attempt to ameliorate deficient offensive line play
It might be time to put that narrative to rest.
All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett was shut down by Dan Moore Jr. for the third straight game. Garrett had two tackles, none for a loss, no sacks and one quarterback hit. Trubisky was sacked once — Harris missed a blitz pickup — and hit just twice more.
Harris and Jaylen Warren enjoyed the most running room they’ve had all season. Of all of the things that held the Steelers offense back on Thursday, the line was not among them.
“The o-line played really well,” Harris said. “The past couple weeks, the o-line has been playing really well. We’re just always trying to find the rhythm and the groove. Tip our hat to the o-line. Some of us skill players, we just have to do better.”