This time, the closet was bare. No late offensive surge. There is no magic in the fourth quarter quarterback. No follow-up football after the defense takes the ball away. No defensive plays directly affected the scoreboard. There was none of the things that had been characteristic of the six wins they had racked up in the run-up to their trip west across the Turnpike for the second of the home-and-home series versus the Browns.
As a result, the Steelers lost. It’s not just a game, it’s an opportunity.
The final score of the game was 13-10, and the deciding points came on a 34-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with 2 seconds remaining, the kick taken over an 8-play, 48-yard drive by the rookie quarterback. Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed 4 of 5 for 39 yards and the only time the ball hit the ground was coming on a spike to stop the clock.
The possession leading up to it seemed to have all the hallmarks of those recent games that were so important to the Steelers’ victories, but now that possession should be pinpointed as a significant reason why the Browns walked off the field as the team that moved their record to 7-3. It’s also important to put this snippet of game time into a broader context, because what we saw next didn’t happen in a vacuum.
The Steelers had set up a 10-10 tie on Chris Boswell’s 28-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, but despite getting within 3 points, it was a disappointing way to end a drive that started at the 28-yard line and went 57 yards. To 1st and 10 on the Cleveland 15 yard line thanks to the strength of Jaylen Warren running and receiving along with Kenny Pickett completing 4 of 5.
But that red zone field goal looked like it might just be a speed bump on the ensuing kickoff when the Steelers defense got the ball right back on a three-and-out followed by a Corey Bojorquez kick that traveled just 28 yards to go. Out of bounds on the Steelers 48-yard line. It started with a 12-yard completion where George Pickens had a big hit on a misplaced punt. Pickett then threw an incomplete on the next play to set up second-and-10. Ron Earhardt was the offensive coordinator on Bill Cowher’s inaugural staff in 1992, and he believed strongly in the concept of running the ball on second down after an incomplete pass on first down to create a controllable third down.
But Najee Harris was blown up as soon as he made the handoff, and a 5-yard loss set up a third-and-15 from the Cleveland 45-yard line. Advantage, Browns defense. On this particular afternoon, this type of situation was a huge advantage for the Browns’ defense because the Steelers ended up converting just 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) on third down. As it turned out, a 2-yard completion on third down and a 29-yard punt gave Cleveland the ball on their 14-yard line with 3:29 remaining. The game was still tied, and the one-score element was both encouraging and inauspicious at the same time.
The Browns at this point also appear to be following the same offensive formula as the Steelers, with both units sticking to a roster that was pass-heavy and mixed in with short passes as necessary. The Steelers’ defense was on plan and the Browns took it out to the 32-yard line before they had to punt.
This time Bojorquez punted 59 yards to the Pittsburgh 9-yard line, but Calvin Austin III stepped up with a nice 21-yard return to improve the starting field position to the 30-yard line. It was 1:42. Thirty-five yards, and you’re in Boswell range. Comfortably in the Boswell range.
The Steelers have worked on this situation regularly during training camp, and the Friday practices of the season have been devoted to what is referred to as “extreme situational football,” first-and-10 from the 30-yard line with one timeout and 1:42 remaining in a tie game that only needs To make a winning field goal is the definition of “extreme situational football.” This special repetition had the added effect of scoring 7-3 on the other side if the “drill” was performed successfully.
At that moment, it was as if the game had been put on a silver platter and handed to the Steelers. It turns out to be a tease.
The frustration of the sequence wouldn’t be limited to the outcome of what would go down as three straight incomplete passes that accomplished nothing and consumed just 14 seconds of game time, as the Steelers became completely uninterested in holding down a third-down pass. He bounced on the grass. But that’s what those incomplete passes looked like.
Double standards warning: Ignoring the results of any “eye test” in favor of the bottom line has been a theme this Steelers season and a recurring theme of these analyses, but these analyzes were surprising given the situation and stakes.
Pickett targeted Deontae Johnson on both attempts — at least that’s how it was designated in the official NFL playoff summary — and each of the attempts was ugly in its own way. Without the full context of the play call, the defensive alignment, and how the quarterback and intended receiver read and adjust coverage independently, it is unfair to assign the foul. But because the incompletions were the result of either faulty route running, miscommunication, inaccurate throws, or a combination thereof, they were blatantly below the line. Again, given the situation and risks.
Because it was Thompson-Robinson who chose that moment to step into the quarterback role, the Browns ended up with the field goal and victory that seemed to be the Steelers’ trademark for 2023 in many ways. The match was lost 13-10.
But what was lost with 13-10 was the chance to get to 7-3, which would have been good enough for at least the No. 5 seed in the AFC while also moving them within a half-game of the AFC North leaders. Baltimore is 8-3, and with them they have the current advantage in playoff wins and division records.
Instead, they are 6-4, sitting in seventh and last place in the AFC, one and a half games behind the AFC North, which leads Baltimore 8-3 and one game behind second-place Cleveland. With Thanksgiving just days away, it’s a missed opportunity at this point in the NFL regular season.
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