Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bring Back the Bills

Thank you, sir, may I have another? That’s about the only thing to say these days when the Cleveland Browns face the Pittsburgh Steelers and it was the most appropriate thing to say on this day as the Browns were once again spanked by the Steelers, this time 27-14. It was the Steelers’ 12th straight win against the Browns and 18th in their last 19 tries.

It wasn’t the blowout 31-0 that the Browns suffered against the Steelers at the end of last season, but the Steelers’ victory wasn’t ever in doubt, either. At least there won’t be any talk this week of good losses or bad wins. This was a solid, old fashioned loss. So for those Browns fans still making goofy bets with co-workers that are Steelers fans, wear that Steelers jersey with pride at work this week as you hang your head in faked shame. Maybe next time you’ll learn to keep your big mouth shut.

In some ways the final score isn’t indicative of the kind of game it really was. The Steelers dominated everywhere but on the final score board, although they won by plenty. They ran up over 500 yards in offense, the first time they’ve done that since 2006 when the Browns were also the victims. But three straight turnovers by the Steelers, two of which were greeted with turnovers by the Browns, kept the Steelers from inflicting more damage.

What they did inflict was plenty enough and it was done by the usual suspects, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller. Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards with two touchdowns against his one interception. Hines Ward was the beneficiary of most of that, catching 8 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown. A second touchdown catch was nullified on a replay review near the end of the first half.

Holmes likewise had a big day, catching 5 passes for 104 yards. Miller had 4 catches, most of them at crucial moments, for 80 yards. On the ground the Steelers added another 140 yards, with Rashard Mendenhall leading the way with 62 yards on 17 carries.

On the Browns’ side of the ball, they had a meager 197 net yards on offense. The running game, strong the previous two weeks, was held to 91 yards total, with Josh Cribbs serving as the leading rusher with 45 yards on 6 carries.

Quarterback Derek Anderson was perhaps better than he was against Buffalo, but it’s a matter of degree. He completed more passes, but he had more turnovers. In all he was 9-24 for 122 yards, but fumbled twice and was intercepted once, at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line late in the game. Look for head coach Eric Mangini to note Anderson’s improving quarterback rating. He went from just over 15 last week to 51.04 this week.

Cribbs, demonstrating why he deserves a new contract, in addition to his 45 yards on the ground had a 98-yard touchdown return and was used more liberally on offense than he had been all year in the so-called “wildcat” formation.

After an initial few series by each team that went nowhere, the first break of the game went the Browns’ way when Roethlisberger fumbled the snap and Alex Hall recovered it at the Steelers’ 39-yard line late in the first quarter. Utilizing Cribbs as quarterback with Anderson serving as a decoy receiver, the Browns initially were able to move and perhaps take the early lead. But the drive imploded on the wings of good intentions as head coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll went to wildcat well one too many times with one too many looks. On 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 14-yard line, Cribbs passed low to Chansi Stuckey who couldn’t handle it. Then, on 2nd and 10, Cribbs passed again for Stuckey but was easily picked off by safety Troy Polamalu, who appeared to be hurt on the play.

That seemed to be all the spark the Steelers’ needed. With virtually no pressure being applied, Roethlisberger was able to literally look at every receiving option twice as he picked apart the defense on his way to putting his team up 7-0 with an 8-yard pass to Miller. The key play on the 8-play 85 yard drive was a short pass to Holmes that Holmes turned into a 41-yard gain. In all, Roethlisberger was 5-5 on the drive.

The Browns’ couldn’t respond, but then again they haven’t been able to respond to anyone all season.

The Steelers then pushed it to 14-0 after Roethlisberger hit Ward for a 52-yard touchdown. The pass looked to be for Holmes but Ward stepped in front, apparently fooling the Browns’ secondary. Not to worry for Holmes. Again he set the drive in the right direction with a 21-yard catch a few plays earlier.

Cribbs, who seemed to be touching the ball on every play at this point, made it 14-7 with the 98-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. It was the second kick return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Cribbs’ career. It made the game look closer than it really was but it also gave Cribbs’ agent more fodder for his drive to land Cribbs a new contract. Good luck finding someone on the other end of the line in Berea who’s sympathetic.

It was nice moment that didn’t last nearly long enough. The Steelers were able to hit their “easy” button or so it seemed and looked to have pushed the lead back to 14 points but a 13-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Ward for a touchdown was overruled on review. Hines couldn’t maintain possession through the catch. Then, on third down, Roethlisberger, finally under some pressure, threw recklessly and had it almost picked off. Jeff Reed stepped in and kicked a 32-yard field goal for the 17-7 halftime lead.

That drive also featured a bit of controversy, still unexplained, regarding a very questionable first down call that went the Steelers way and enabled the drive to stay alive. On television, it looked as if the Steelers had come up inches short on 4th and 1 and the first down markers seemed to confirm as much. Oddly, though, and without any further review or discussion, the Steelers were awarded the first down. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could be seen liberally dropping f-bombs at that result and he seem well justified in doing so.

The Browns got on the board to start the second half with an honest-to-gosh offensive touchdown on their most professional drive of the season. After having thrown interceptions on their first possession of the second half in 4 of the first 5 games this season, the Browns marched down the field on the strength of some excellent passes from Anderson to Mohammad Massaquoi, including a 43-yarder that got the ball inside the Pittsburgh 10, and then finished off the drive with an Anderson to Lawrence Vickers 1-yard touchdown pass. The brought the score to 17-14 and at least gave the Steelers something to think about.

But if the Browns were going to be able to make a game of it and really give the Steelers something to think about, the defense had to hold the Steelers on the next drive. It wasn’t close. A 9-yard pass to Miller, a 45-yard pass to Ward and just that quickly the Steelers were back threatening. Then an end around from Rashard Mendenhall to Wallace got the ball to the Browns’ 1-yard line and Mendenhall finished off the drive with a 1-yard carry up the middle. Three minutes, 6 plays, 79 yards and the 10-point lead was restored.

Unlike the Steelers, the Browns’ offense couldn’t respond. A quick 3-and-out clearly delineated the differences between these two franchises, two hours apart by land, two million miles apart in ability.

Then things just got outright sloppy. The Browns tend to bring that out in teams.

Pittsburgh, showing the kind of indifference that can creep in against an inferior opponent, looked to try to level the playing field through a series of interceptions and fumbles. The Browns would here none of it.

First, Roethlisberger was intercepted by Brodney Pool, who returned it to the Cleveland 48-yard line. But on a 3rd and 16 Anderson, under pressure, fumbled and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison recovered. Then Willie Parker returned the favor two plays later by fumbling, with Abe Elam recovering at the Cleveland 16-yard line. Four plays later Anderson fumbled again, this time at the 24-yard line, but again Pittsburgh decided the potato was still too hot as Mendenhall then fumbled on the next play with Bowens recovering at the Cleveland 15 yard line.

After it was all over, Cleveland had the ball, couldn’t move it and was forced to punt. All that really happened was a lot of time was chewed up and the Browns, despite having a superior team almost gift wrapping the opportunities, still found themselves on the wrong end of a 10-point deficit.

The Steelers pushed it further on the strength of a Jeff Reed 39-yard field goal that was the culmination of a drive that started at the beginning of the 4th quarter and consumed over 6 minutes. The Browns and Anderson seemed to be moving it well in what was now garbage time but Anderson threw his obligatory weekly interception that sealed the loss.

It’s hard to know where the Browns will go with this increased use of the wildcat formation. Much of that will likely depend on how Mangini and Daboll view Cribbs’ crucial interception at the Pittsburgh 19-yard line. Still in a game where there weren’t many highlights for the Browns, it was something at least interesting to watch.

With still another loss to the Steelers and another potential one looming later in the season, it’s time to stop calling this series a rivalry. Simply playing a team twice a year doesn’t constitute a rivalry. In this case, it’s more like a semi-annual beatdown. If it’s a rivalry that this team needs, then there’s only one answer: Bring back the Bills.

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