Tim Benz: Resilient Steelers show they might be up to the hype after all
During the Steelers’ season opener at Cleveland, a two-score lead in the second half dissolved into an ugly tie.
It all started with one huge mistake.
In the rematch at Heinz Field, the same potential existed. Except this time the Steelers took a mistake and shoved it right back at Cleveland en route to a 33-18 victory.
“That’s what we want to do as a football team,” linebacker T.J. Watt said. “Make the corrections we need to make. Don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Leading 21-7 in the fourth quarter of Week 1, running back James Conner fumbled. That turnover was followed by a slew of strip sacks, blown coverages, missed tackles, botched blocks, bad routes and missed kicks.
The Steelers came unglued.
Only the Browns’ ineptitude prevented the Steelers from starting 0-1.
On Sunday, the Steelers suffered another epic blunder after the Browns yielded a safety at the 8-minute, 7-second mark of the third quarter. Leading 16-6, the Steelers allowed the ensuing free kick to lie on the field until Cleveland recovered it. Returner Ryan Switzer became confused when Roosevelt Nix called for a fair catch but left him to field the ball.
The Browns recovered. A few plays later, they scored a touchdown. That closed the gap to 16-12 after a missed extra point.
That bad Steelers team in early September crumbled after hitting a pothole. The first-place Steelers in late October rolled right over it.
“In a boxing match, even the best boxer gets hit a few times,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “You never want to put your head down after they made a couple plays. You just have to keep going.”
On the next drive, the Steelers returned to a run game that hadn’t been efficient in the first half. Conner had just 33 yards on 10 carries at halftime. When the Steelers got the ball back, he accounted for 60 yards on four carries, including a touchdown to make it 23-12.
In the first matchup, Conner struggled after his mistake. The coaching staff eventually gave up on the run game, exposing Ben Roethlisberger to lousy weather and an effective Browns pass rush.
On Sunday, the weather was almost as bad, but the results on the ground were remarkably better. Conner finished with 146 yards rushing. He added 66 yards on receptions.
As opposed to the opener, the Steelers defense squashed any life the Browns had after they drew closer. The defense forced three straight punts. Two were the result of three-and-out series.
After last week’s kerfuffle over who should be running the Browns offense, does anyone else besides Hue Jackson or Todd Haley want to try?
The Browns’ perceived return to respectability after a 2-2-1 start now appears to be short-lived. However, the Steelers potential return to AFC playoff contention may be picking up steam.
“Nothing has really changed,” Conner said of the Steelers’ improvement in recent weeks. “We are just doing our jobs, trying to be a team on the rise.”
That “team on the rise” refrain is a Mike Tomlin favorite. His players were fond of parroting it after the win. If it’s true, the timing couldn’t be better with a game in Baltimore looming next week.
A victory there balances out the Ravens’ win in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, and it would go a long way toward putting the Steelers -- who will enter that contest in first place -- on the AFC North throne for a third straight season.
“Oh, man. You already know that’s an important game,” Tuitt said with an ear-to-ear smile. “We have to make sure we do everything we are supposed to do, just like we did this week.”
Coming out of Week 1 in Cleveland, the Steelers looked every bit as bad as the team they had just tied.
Seven weeks later, they appear closer to the club that was getting Super Bowl hype before that game began.