The Steelers finally got a chance to unveil the defense they'd been envisioning this season.
They wasted little time unleashing it on Cleveland.
A Browns' offense that countered with four rookies proved to be no match for the new-look Steelers' 'D' in a 33-18 Steelers victory at Heinz Field.
"We're constantly evolving as a defense," outside linebacker T.J. Watt maintained. "We're just going to keep growing."
Sunday afternoon's evolution included safety Morgan Burnett back in the lineup for the first time since the Steelers' 42-37 loss to Kansas City on Sept. 16. He was joined among the ranks of available defensive backs by cornerback Joe Haden and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton, both of whom had likewise missed time this season.
Hilton was added to the mix with the starters in the secondary (cornerbacks Coty Sensabaugh and Haden and safeties Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis) when five defensive backs were required (the "nickel"), as usual. Burnett came on for the six-defensive backs package (the "quarter"), as did inside linebacker L.J.Fort, who replaced Vince Williams as the lone inside linebacker in the "quarter" (Fort had missed the Steelers' 28-21 win on Oct. 14 at Cincinnati).
Cornerback Cam Sutton even appeared on the few occasions the Steelers went with seven defensive backs and no inside linebackers (the "dollar").
"We ran that probably about two, three times," Haden said.
All of a sudden options abound.
Those included Sensabaugh playing cornerback opposite Haden (Sensabaugh had been rotating with Artie Burns, the starter at right cornerback at the outset of the season, since the Steelers' 30-27 win on Sept. 24 at Tampa).
Sutton replaced Sensabaugh (foot) at right cornerback in the fourth quarter.
"Morgan definitely helped us being able to be so versatile at playing 'nickel,' 'dime,' safety, whatever," Haden said. "As long as we have that many bodies, coaches can run those personnel groups as much as they want."
Burnett can contribute in "coverage, stopping, the run, communication-wise," Haden continued. "It's just being another vet out there that understands the whole picture of what we have going on. He's very, very helpful on the defensive side."
Burnett considered himself much more of a contributor than the missing link.
"I feel like guys were locked in all week," he said. "I feel like each week we're growing as a team, growing as a unit.
"We did a lot of good things out there and there are a lot of things we can learn from, that's the positive part about it."
It all added up to the Steelers allowing season-low totals in first downs 17, third-down conversions (3-for-13, 23 percent) and total net yards (237).
The Browns accounted for 75 of their yards and six of their points on a possession that commenced with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers leading, 33-12.
"That's what we practice for," Haden said. "Yes, it should look like that."
Added Hilton: "Now we just gotta settle in and keep it going."
MEETING OF THE MINDS: Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin started making halftime adjustments with the defense before entering the locker room at halftime.
Tomlin lingered on the Steelers' sideline for a few moments at the conclusion of the second quarter for a quick discussion with inside linebacker Jon Bostic, outside linebacker Bid Dupree, Watt, Williams and defensive end Cam Heyward.
"He said we needed to control the pocket a little bit more," Heyward reported. "Everything the quarterback (Baker Mayfield) had gotten was broken, scramble plays. We tried to clean that up in the second half."
The tweaks included "not getting past the quarterback and just being smarter, having better awareness," Heyward said."You can't just run up the field and do a speed rush and rip through because they're looking for lanes like that.
"On this guy you had to be a little bit more of a power rusher because it was harder for him to look up and see down the field when guys were in his face. I thought we did a better job in the second half."
UNIMAGINABLE GAFFE: The mistake of the game, and perhaps the season, occurred on the free kick following the safety that had given the Steelers a 16-6 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Steelers deployed wide receiver Antonio Brown deep with punt and kickoff returner Ryan Switzer but neither one of them fielded Britton Colquitt's punt.
Cleveland cornerback Denzel Rice fell on the loose ball at the Steelers' 24-yard line.
The Browns eventually scored a touchdown that sliced the Steelers' advantage to 16-12.
"There was a lot of miscommunication but ultimately we gotta come down with the ball," Switzer explained. "Obviously I was completely wrong, but I was thinking that punts were dead if he punts the ball and kickoffs were alive. Ultimately a bonehead play by me but I'm fortunate, man. I'm fortunate that the defense, I'm fortunate that (running back) James (Conner), the O-line, I'm fortunate the team had my back and we came out with a win.
"I was running to catch it. 'Rosey' (fullback Roosevelt Nix), the guy in front of me, was waving for a fair catch, 'A.B.' (Brown) was running to catch it and we didn't know who was grabbing it. It's a miscommunication but ultimately none of that matters. We gotta fall on the ball. I gotta fall on the ball. We gotta run after it. 'A.B.' and I didn't really understand the rule in terms of punting it and kicking it off."