I have no idea how this NFL season is going to end. What I do know is it’ll probably be in the least likely way possible.
In a year full of twists and turns, the latest came Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 27-11 to officially move into contention for the AFC Playoffs. The graphic above showing the Black and Gold as the second AFC Wild Card team was valid for about three hours yesterday afternoon. That is, until Tennessee beat Oakland to move ahead of us by virtue of a head-to-head victory earlier in the season. Still, the fact the same team that started out 0-4 and got epically blown out by the Patriots a month back is even in the playoff race is utterly insane.
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Earlier in the season, the Browns and Steelers appeared to be two franchises headed in opposite directions. Cleveland had built a tough attacking hard-nosed defense. Cleveland had the explosive big play weapons on offense. And Cleveland had a solid core of young players poised to take the next step toward becoming a contender.
Yesterday was back to the future as it’s the Steelers who suddenly looked like the Black and Gold of old. Their defense was vicious and relentless. Ben Roethlisberger was getting the ball down field for big plays. And Troy Polamalu was all over the field, creating havoc wherever he went.
While those two wily vets are a big part of the Steelers resurgence, it’s the young guys who are fueling this comeback. Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward had absolutely monster games yesterday. While he finished with only 5 tackles and no sacks, Worilds harassed Jason Campbell all afternoon. He’d finish with a whopping 6 hits on the QB as the Steelers beat the stuffing out of that turkey Campbell. Heyward had one of the team’s season high 5 sacks and also made like his dad Ironhead after recovering one of Troy’s two forced fumbles.
Two of the sacks were credited to NT Al Woods. Woods, who was one of the stars of the preseason, has barely played this year. He was forced into the line-up after Steve McClendon left with what appears to be a significant ankle injury. Woods, Heyward, and Ziggy Hood continually collapsed the pocket around Campbell and his eventual replacement Brandon Weedon. This allowed Dick LeBeau‘s defense to finally function as it’s supposed to with linebackers Vince Williams and Lawrence Timmons free to shoot gaps and make tackles.
Knocking Campbell out of the game was one of many big plays by the Steelers secondary. There were so many notable performances, it’s impossible to fairly identify a player of the game. William Gay was the guy who knocked Campbell – and the ball – out when he obliterated him on a corner blitz. He’d also ice the game with a Pick Six after jumping a Weedon throw. As already mentioned, Troy forced two fumbles and had a sack. Will Allen also forced a fumble and recovered another.
Pretty much the only member of the secondary to have a rough afternoon was Ike Taylor. Budding star Josh Gordon would finish the game with – not a typo – 14 catches for 237 yards and Cleveland’s only touchdown. Almost all of those yards came working against Ike. Granted, they were primarily accumulated after the Steelers went up 20-3 but that’s still an insane number to give up.
It was a bad day to be a cover corner as the Browns’ elite CB Joe Haden also had a tough time. His match-up against Antonio Brown was going to be one of the keys to the game and AB routinely ate his lunch. 6 catches for 92 yards wasn’t Brown’s best performance stats-wise but it may have been his best game ever just by the fact he accomplished that while matched up against one of the NFL’s best corners. His 41 yard TD bomb from Ben is exactly the kind of explosive play big time #1 receivers make.
Ben also didn’t put up monster fantasy numbers but 22/34 for 217 yards and 2 TDs/0 INTs is precisely the kind of quietly efficient game we expect out of our franchise quarterback. It helped that for the second week in a row, the offensive line kept him clean. Facing Cleveland’s formidable pass rush, yesterday was the first game in over a year that Big Ben was not sacked once. They also did a decent job in the running game as Le’Veon Bell (23 carries 80 yards) didn’t crack the 100 yard barrier but had some nice hard runs and helped take some of the air out of the ball once the Steelers got up by two scores.
I don’t know how to explain what’s going on with the Steelers. Every time one of the starters goes down, his replacement ends up playing far better than they were. Without aging Brett Keisel and ineffective LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers’ defense registered five sacks, nine quarterback hurries, forced and recovered three fumbles and had one pick six. With Kelvin Beachum playing LT and Fernando Velasco at center, the offensive line has steadily improved. The only area the team hasn’t improved is the punting. By virtue of uncorking a pooch punt that pinned Cleveland at their own 1, Big Ben established himself as the best punter the Steelers have had this season.
Then again, if this wacky season has taught us anything, we should probably expect the unexpected. Except when it comes to the Steelers and Browns. When those two teams play, it’s the same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.