This time, the cupboard was bare. No late offensive surge. No fourth quarter magic from the quarterback. No complementary football after the defense takes the ball away. No defensive plays that directly impacted the scoreboard. There were none of the things that were characteristics of the six wins they had posted in the run-up to their trip west via the Turnpike for the second of the home-and-home series vs. the Browns.
And as a result, the Steelers lost. Not only a game, but an opportunity.
The final score of the game was 13-10, the deciding points came on a 34-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with 2 seconds remaining, and the kick was made possible by an 8-play, 48-yard drive during which rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed 4-of-5 for 39 yards with the only time the ball hit the ground coming on a spike to stop the clock.
The possession preceding that one seemed to have all the hallmarks of those in recent games so important to Steelers' victories, but now that possession has to be identified as being a significant reason why it was the Browns who exited the stadium as the team that raised its record to 7-3. It's also necessary to put that snippet of game time into a broader context, because what we saw then did not unfold in a vacuum.
The Steelers had forged a 10-10 tie on Chris Boswell's 28-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, even though settling for 3 points there was a disappointing way to end a drive that began at their 28-yard line and moved 57 yards to a first-and-10 at the Cleveland 15-yard line on the strength of Jaylen Warren's running and receiving combined with Kenny Pickett completing 4-of-5.
But that red zone field goal looked like it might just be a speed-bump after the ensuing kickoff when the Steelers defense got the ball right back with a three-and-out that was followed by a Corey Bojorquez punt traveling just 28 yards before going out of bounds on the Steelers' 48-yard line. A 12-yard completion where George Pickens made a great catch on a mis-placed throw got things started. Pickett then threw incomplete on the next play to set up a second-and-10. Ron Erhardt had been the offensive coordinator on Bill Cowher's inaugural staff back in 1992, and he believed firmly in the concept of running the ball on second down after an incomplete pass on first down to set up a third-and-manageable.
But Najee Harris was blown up as soon as he took the handoff, and the 5-yard loss set up a third-and-15 from the Cleveland 45-yard line. Advantage, Browns defense. On this particular afternoon that kind 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 downs. As it turned out, the 2-yard completion on third this down and a 29-yard punt gave Cleveland the ball on its 14-yard line with 3:29 remaining. The game still was tied, and the one-score element of things felt both heartening and ominous at the same time.
The Browns at this stage also seemed to be following the same offensive formula as the Steelers', with both units sticking to a menu that was run-heavy and mixed with short passes as necessary. The Steelers defense was onto the plan and the Browns slugged it out to their 32-yard line before having 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. There was 1:42 on the clock. Thirty-five yards, and you're in Boswell's range. Comfortably in Boswell's range.
The Steelers had worked on this exact situation regularly during training camp, and in-season Friday practices are devoted to what is referred to as "extreme situational football," and first-and-10 from the 30-yard line with one timeout and 1:42 left in a tie game needing just a field goal to win is the definition of "extreme situational football." And this particular repetition had the added juice of a 7-3 record on the other side if executing the "drill" was done successfully.
At that moment, it was as though the game had been placed on a silver platter and handed to the Steelers. It turned out to be a tease.
The frustration of the sequence won't be limited to the outcome of what will be recorded as three consecutive incomplete passes that gained nothing and consumed just 14 seconds of game time the Steelers had become not at all interested in preserving once the third-down pass bounced on the grass. But it was how those incomplete passes "looked."
Double-standard warning ahead: Ignoring the results of any "eye test" in favor of the final outcome has been a theme of this Steelers season and a frequent subject of these analyses, but these were head-scratchers given the situation and the stakes.
Pickett targeted Diontae Johnson on each of the attempts – at least that was how it was assigned in the official National Football League Game Summary – and each of the attempts was ugly in its own way. Without the complete context of the play-call, the defensive alignment, and how the quarterback and the intended receiver read the coverage and adjusted independently, it's unfair to assign fault. But with the incompletions being the result of either faulty route-running, miscommunications, inaccurate throws, or some combination, it was flagrantly below-the-line. Again, given the situation and stakes.
Because it was Thompson-Robinson who chose that moment to step into the role of clutch quarterback, the Browns ended up with the field goal and a victory that had seemed to be the 2023 Steelers trademark in so many ways. The game was lost, 13-10.
But what was lost along with 13-10 was the opportunity 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 AFC North-leading Baltimore's 8-3, and with them holding current advantages in the head-to-head and division record tiebreakers.
Instead, they are 6-4, sitting as the seventh and final AFC seed, 1-and-a-half games behind the AFC North leading Baltimore's 8-3 and 1-game behind second-place Cleveland. With Thanksgiving just days away, that's a lost opportunity at this stage of an NFL regular season.