The Browns BEAT the Steelers! There may come a time, hopefully in the not too distant future, where those five words carry as much weight as the weatherman predicting two to three inches of lake effect snow across Northeast Ohio from November through March. But these days, the Browns beating the Steelers might as well be the Storm of the Century. It's a REALLY big deal and everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened.
However, Sunday's 20-14 win over the hated, yellow-clad, towel wavers from Western Pennsylvania felt more like the type of storm that, while still packing a punch, didn't nearly live up to the hype it was given. After all that build-up and excitement, you're left peering through the window saying, "That's it?" I should preface this by saying a win is a win and Browns fans will gladly take them however they can get them... especially over the Steelers. But one day soon, settling for a win the way the Browns seemed to on Sunday shouldn't be the bar we have set if we ever want to witness greatness from our football team. And I do. Besides, and I can only speak for myself, I would be doing my psyche a disservice if I chose to ignore the things that concerned me as the game unfolded. Be that as it may, the Browns beat the Steelers. It's worth repeating. For now.
The Good...er... Great...
The Browns defense is not just good. They are becoming dominant. This may sound hyperbolic but the Browns are playing the type of defense that hasn't been seen in Cleveland in a generation. No one talks about them because the team is losing but it's hard to ignore the facts.
The Browns held all four of the Steelers running backs to a combined 49 total yards rushing on 20 carries. To put things in perspective, this marks the first time the Browns have held two consecutive opponents (Dallas and Pittsburgh) under 65 yards rushing since 1989. By taking away the run, aided by the Steelers' inability to hold on to the football, the Browns forced third-string quarterback, Charlie Batch, to try to win the game through the air. Fortunately, that also proved to be a disastrous enterprise as Batch threw three interceptions on the afternoon.
The Browns' eight takeaways against the Steelers are the most by any NFL team since the Saints did it against the Rams in 2001. The last time the Browns had that many takeaways in one game, I was 12 and the Browns were on their way to their third AFC Championship game in four years. It was on September 10, 1989 when, coincidentally, they blew out the Steelers 51-0 in Pittsburgh to open the season. That was another one of those moments where I remember where I was and what I was doing. There have only been a handful since.
With five games to go, the Browns have intercepted the ball thirteen times compared to nine all of last season and have recovered twelve fumbles compared to eleven in 2011. The Browns, led by a now-healthy rotation along their defensive line, are also averaging 2.5 sacks a game and are on pace to finish the season with 40 total sacks, which would be eight more than they had last season.
Amazingly, the Browns have been able to register these totals without the services of starters Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong, Phil Taylor, and Joe Haden for much of the season due to injuries and off the field related issues. Rookies like James-Michael Johnson, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Trevin Wade and Johnson Bademosi have all come in and helped fortify the defense when they've been called on. Also, second year players such as Craig Robertson, Jabaal Sheard, Buster Skrine and the aforementioned Taylor are key cogs in defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's scheme.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Browns are perhaps an elite pass rusher and/or a corner away from being one the league's most dominant defenses for the next decade. With the focus on offense in the 2012 Draft and what appears to be another high draft pick in 2013, the Browns have a golden opportunity to add a big piece to an already ferocious defense. The only question that remains is whether Jauron will be around next season to continue to build on what he's started. While much of the staff may be replaced, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Browns to somehow find a way to keep Jauron on board.
The Not-So Great...
Don't get me wrong.... It's great that the Browns beat the Steelers. But in fairness, when an opponent turns the ball over eight times, it's a downright crime that the Browns didn't embarrass the Steelers by a margin of victory larger than the one they did on Sunday. Perhaps it will come across as selfish, or like wanting your cake and eating it too, but for all the times the Steelers have made a living embarrassing the Browns, I guess I expected more. I know beggars can't be choosers. I get it. But the Browns almost did that thing again where they lose a game they should win. That awkward moment when you think you have a game won so you take your foot off the gas... It's happened far too often since Pat Shurmur became the head coach and it has become a cause for growing concern.
"We scored enough points to win the game", Shurmur explained to the media after the game. That statement sums up the Browns in the Shurmur Era perfectly. Far too often, the Browns haven't scored enough points to win the game because they are young and inexperienced and can't overcome the little things that matter during the course of game which often determine the outcome. So when an opponent (not just any opponent, by the way) like the Steelers come in to your house and gift wrap eight turnovers, many of which came deep in their own territory, you have to put your foot on their throat and capitalize. The Browns were unable to do that for much of the game on Sunday. Fortunately, they "managed" to win the game much like a turtle manages to cross a four lane highway during rush hour. I suppose, given our recent history, that's good enough. Right?
There is no excuse to be down at the half after having recovered three fumbles inside Steelers territory. And there is no excuse for fans to have to sweat out the entire fourth quarter because the team is only up by six and can't find a way to create more breathing room in a game the Steelers historically find a way to win. Citing the age and experience or lack thereof for the Browns is becoming an all too convenient excuse for this team and its fan base. At some point, we have to stop and begin to expect better. Perhaps this win is just a necessary stepping stone for the team to the point where the Steelers are... where winning is expected. But the Steelers gave the Browns a golden opportunity to really put a strong foot forward and they almost fell in a ditch.
Browns fans have often longed for type of fiery no-nonsense approach that head coach Mike Tomlin brings to the Steelers. It is reflected in his players and the way they typically play the game of football. The Steelers were playing with their third quarterback in as many weeks and all four running backs fumbled the ball. Still, you didn't hear Tomlin make excuses for his team. "That was an ugly performance. That is ours. We own it," exclaimed Tomlin after the game. "We are not looking for comfort. We were highly penalized; we turned the ball over. When you do those things you are going to lose. I don't care who is playing quarterback."
There are certain expectations and standards to live up to with a coach like that. You are expected to win and to beat inferior opponents, especially when they are handing you the game on a silver platter. You don't simply hope to score "enough points to win the game." The difference in styles couldn't be clearer. The Browns have a young and inexperienced team budding with talent while the Steelers are aging and seemingly playing on fumes. Yet, the Steelers have a winning record while the Browns are enduing their fifth losing season in a row. The time for excuses has just about run out, in my opinion.
Fortunately, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam spent four years in Pittsburgh watching Tomlin's attitude permeate the Steelers' locker room. It came through once again after Sunday's embarrassing defeat. "I am surprised it was that close given the turnover situation," Tomlin admitted. I agree Mike, that about says it all right there. After four months watching Shurmur permeate the Browns, it should be no surprise what's coming to Cleveland after the season. Maybe then, a win over the Steelers won't be as historically significant, but then maybe it won't feel so much like a let down either.