The Cleveland Browns defense showed a measure of heart and will in their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, noteworthy for a team that needs reason to believe it’s headed in the right direction.
In the wake of the Browns falling to 0-11, much of the discussion has been centered around the Browns being a disgrace with no hope to improve. The Browns are awful; 0-11 doesn’t happen by accident. But this young defense fought for the full 60 minutes and gave the Steelers far more frustration than they anticipated.
Interdivisional games have an added edge, but the fact of the matter is that Browns-Steelers isn’t a rivalry. One team is up and the other team is down and they almost never meet in the middle. The Browns owned the 50s and 60s. Steelers fans don’t acknowledge the existence of football until the 70s, which they dominated. The Browns had the 80s and the Steelers have most of the 90s and everything since.
For this matchup, the Steelers were in the middle of a four-game losing streak. Their defense has been atrocious, relying entirely on their offense to carry them. That was especially the case against a Browns team that’s yet to stop anyone, having the 32nd ranked defense in terms of yardage and the 31st defense in terms of points per game (great job with the San Francisco 49ers Jim O’Neil). The Steelers are 11th in yards on offense and 15th in scoring.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for a season low 167 yards. Yes, there was wind, but it’s nothing Roethlisberger hasn’t faced before. He still threw the ball 36 times in all, averaging a putrid 4.64 yards per attempt.
The Browns didn’t record a sack, but they certainly hit Roethlisberger a few times. Most notable was the hit by Danny Shelton that knocked Roethlisberger in a way no Brown has ever hit the larger than life quarterback. Roethlisberger was fazed enough to where he stumbled a second time when he tried to get to his feet.
The history of the Browns against Roethlisberger is filled with plays where he simply shrugs off, escapes or overpowers defenders as he finds a receiver to make a heartbreaking play. Shelton had none of it and dropped him, showing a mortality he has rarely, if ever, shown in Cleveland. This felt like a genuine body blow to the Steelers quarterback. Unfortunately, it took the Browns until Roethlisberger was 34 years old to land one.
Shelton is the future of the Browns. And he’s been excellent this season and there could be better things ahead for him. The Browns, unfortunately, still got gashed in the running game, but teams avoid Shelton like grim death, opting to attack the alleys where there is plenty of green and little resistance.
Le’Veon Bell ran for 146 yards on 28 carries. He finally found the end zone the one time the Steelers scored a touchdown after two penalties and an untimed down put the Steelers on the half-yard line. Bell was able to crash in, putting the Steelers up 12-0, which would become 14-0 going into the half.
In that half alone, the Steelers ran 43 offensive plays spread over three drives. It’s frustrating that the Browns were unable to get off the field in these possessions, which is how they gave up the 14 points. But they made them earn every inch. The Steelers averaged just 4.83 yards per play and two of the drives that ended in field goals each took 16 plays.
In the second half, the Browns defense allowed just a field goal. That drive took 15 plays. The other three drives were three-and-outs for the Steelers, giving the Browns offense every opportunity to come back and win the game.
Whether it was the consistent criticism of defensive coordinator Ray Horton over the course of this season, an attempt to make a statement, or simply pride, the Browns defense didn’t stop coming. They got stronger as the game progressed. And when they made plays, players showed it. Danny Shelton, Chris Kirksey, Emmanuel Ogbah, Derrick Kindred, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun were players who showed a lot of that emotion.
Those are players that are either significantly important pieces in this defense or rookies that the team hopes can be. The exact players from which this team needs that pride and energy.
The Browns defense has a few talented players. Shelton, Kirksey and Jamie Collins most notably. They need more of them and some of these young players to develop. The defense gave everything it had. It just needs more talent to fuel it.
The Browns didn’t cause a turnover, didn’t record a sack and struggled to get off the field on third down. In that regard, they just don’t have enough defensive playmakers. Nevertheless, the Steelers had 313 total yards for the game, had their third worst yards per play average this season at 4.9 and only scored 17 points on offense.
Without question, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go. But for a team that is 0-11 and is just trying to get through to the end of the season, it was great to see how much this defense gave against the Steelers.
For a fanbase and city asking what there is to be positive about the Browns, performances like this should provide some hope that this team can get better and certainly hasn’t quit. It’s on the organization to keep adding players that can make efforts like these into wins.