The Cleveland Browns were looking for credibility Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But with their 10th straight loss to their former rivals, this time by a score of 10-6, about the only thing the Browns may have gotten was a quarterback controversy.
With Browns quarterback Derek Anderson struggling since late last season, he needed to play well. He didn’t. Though Anderson didn’t play poorly enough to get himself traded to Seattle, he again looked shaky when he needed to be steady. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger just did what he always does, nurse an injury and control the game. He didn’t play spectacularly either, but he made just enough plays to keep his team 2-0 and two games ahead of the Browns just two games into the season.
The first sign that this may not be the same team that was embarrassed by Dallas came on the Steelers’ first series. After the Browns went a quick three and out, a safety blitz by Nick Sorenson on 3rd and 2 put the kind of pressure on Roethlisberger that Tony Romo never saw last week and Roethlisberger went down for the defense’s first sack of the season. And while that play wasn’t necessarily a tease, it didn’t exactly provide the kind of spark the Browns ultimately would need.
With a hard rain and gale-force winds wrecking mostly havoc on both teams, much of the game was reduced to a series of punts, particularly in the first half. Thanks mostly to the foot of punter Dave Zastudil, the Browns were able to escape repeatedly poor field position. It kept them in the game as neither team was able to sustain much of anything, meaning that mistakes were likely to dictate the course.
And mistakes are what ultimately did. The Steelers only touchdown, a 12-play, 70-yard drive started because of a mistake—a critical Anderson interception—was sustained by mistakes—particularly a critical third-down facemask on Roethlisberger by defensive end Shaun Smith—and was finished off by a mistake when receiver Hines Ward found himself wide open in the end zone. The drive was helped, too, by the Browns’ usual problem of not being able to hold a team on third down. It was the only points the Steelers ultimately would need.
On the Browns’ next possession they were able to put together a drive that somehow found them at the Steelers’ 9-yard line with just eight seconds left in the half. It wasn’t exactly a model of efficiency that led them there but there they were anyway, almost in spite of themselves. After Anderson sneaked forward to put the ball at the nine, he called the team’s final time out. Deciding there was enough time to try a pass in the end zone before attempting a field goal, Anderson did the one thing he could ill-afford, put the ball in the hands of the wrong team. Finding no one open, Anderson oddly threw short of the end zone and into the hands of a waiting safety Troy Polamalu who stepped in front of Anderson’s pass at the two yard line for the interception. The only thing that saved all of the life being sucked out of Cleveland Browns stadium was that halfime followed right after.
From there, the Steelers didn’t exactly dominate, but they didn’t have to. After another Zastudil punt seemingly pinned the Steelers back to their own 15-yard line, Roethlisberger connected on a 48-yard pass to Santonio Holmes that put the ball at the Browns’ 36-yard line. It was the best play by anyone associated with Ohio State in the last two weeks. Two runs and an incomplete pass later, Steelers kicker Jake Reed kicked a 48-yard field goal that put the score at 10-0. It might as well have been 100-0.
In spite of the hole, the Browns did respond with another good drive, aided by some hard running by Jamal Lewis and a couple of key Steelers’ penalties—a roughing call on linebacker LaMarr Woodley and a taunting call on linebacker James Farrior. But that drive fizzled too and for the same reason, mistakes. A false start on Kellen Winslow and a bad pass by Anderson forced the Browns to settle for a 31-yard Phil Dawson field goal.
On the ensuing kickoff, it looked like the Browns might finally get the break they’ve been waiting nearly two games for when the wind caused Steelers’ returner Rashard Mendenhall to misplay the kick. Jerome Harrison had the first crack at the free ball but wasn’t able to secure it. From there a scrum forced the ball out on the Steelers’ two-yard line where the Steelers then took over.
Pinned deep, Roethlisberger found Ward on a 31-yard pass on second down, taking the Steelers out of trouble again. The defense did their best to help the Steelers keep the drive going with both Shaun Rogers and linebacker Alex Hall committing neutral zone infractions, but the Steelers weren’t exactly mistake free either. After a holding call put the Steelers at a 3rd and 11, Roethlisberger just missed Ward, who had a step on Terry Cousin, forcing the Steelers to punt.
With the Browns getting the ball at their 12-yard line and with just under 11 minutes left, it may not have been the Browns’ last chance, but it sure felt like it. As it played out, it was. Playing with a sense of urgency, Anderson and the Browns put together another good drive thanks in large part to running back Jerome Harrison, who turned a short swing pass into a 23-yard gain and Winslow, who made a circus catch off of his own deflection to keep the drive alive. But once again, Anderson and the Browns couldn’t finish what they started after Edwards dropped his third pass of the game on a crucial 3rd and 7 play at the Steelers’ 20-yard line. With 3:24 left, head coach Romeo Crennel opted again for a Dawson field goal, this one a 38-yarder. It put the Browns down by four. As they should have a chorus of boos reigned down on Crennel immediately thereafter.
At this point, even the most casual of fans could have scripted the finale. On second down, Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller at the 50-yard line, Willie Parker ground out another first down. Crennel mismanaged his time outs (which became irrelevant when Parker ran out of bounds) and the Steelers essentially held on to the ball for the rest of the game.
Crennel’s odd call for another field goal will be a focal point again, but the real story of the game, besides the somewhat bizarre weather, was the ever present series of mistakes and stumbles by the Browns that deprived them of another chance to win. One drive was snuffed out by an Anderson interception. The other two fizzled because of penalties and bad or dropped passes. A once potent offense is being done in not just by injuries but by an inside job. Anderson can’t sustain any rhythm and Edwards can’t catch a crucial pass. On a team with injuries throughout, those pieces and parts that are playing, like Anderson and Edwards, have to do a better job and they aren’t. For the game, Anderson was 18-32 for just 166 yards and those two critical interceptions. Edwards had another quiet game, catching three passes for 32 yards.
For the Steelers, Roethlisberger put together what is his standard line: 12-19 for 186 yards and one touchdown. Holmes had five catches for 94 yards while Ward had five catches for 59 yards and one touchdown. Parker rushed for 105 yards.
For once, the defense didn’t embarrass themselves, indeed the team didn’t embarrass themselves, but the result is the same nonetheless. The return of safety Brodney Pool made a bigger impact on the psyche and ultimately the performance of the defense than anyone could have fairly anticipated. On the day, the defense sacked Roethlisberger three times. Still, it wasn’t enough.
At 0-2, it isn’t necessarily time for the Browns to do some soul searching even with a schedule that takes them on the road for four of the next five games. But it is time for them to recalibrate their expectations. They aren’t going anywhere until they play better fundamentally. There is a long way to go. Edwards may turn his season around just as the rest of the team might. But it isn’t going to happen just by showing up. The closeness of the game belies what was clear on the field: at this juncture the Steelers are simply more talented than the Browns. It may be hard to know by how much, but one thing that is certain is that the difference isn’t just talent but the confidence born of owning an opponent year after year after year after year.