They simply didn't get enough.
Not enough points or third-down conversions or splash plays from the offense. Not enough sacks or takeaways or negative plays created by the defense. Not enough of anything from special teams to really make a difference, and over the course of three hours and 10 minutes worth of all of that on Thursday night, an air of inevitability rolled in off Lake Erie and engulfed the Steelers during what ended up being a 29-17 loss to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Steelers carted a 1-1 record across the Ohio line needing both a victory and improvement in a couple of critical areas if they were going to be able to continue developing into the kind of team that would be capable of staying relevant through the next couple of months of this regular season.
One of those critical areas was the overall performance of an offense that simply wasn't NFL caliber during the games in Cincinnati or the one the following week vs. the Patriots in Acrisure Stadium. The other area was a softening run defense that had allowed New England to burn the final 6:33 off the clock by running the ball on 10 of 11 plays and then to rub salt into the wound by taking a knee three times to clinch a three-point win.
Through the first half on Thursday night, the Steelers looked to be handling their to-do list quite nicely, and the play of the offense was leading the parade by being both aesthetically pleasing and more effective than it had been so far at any point of this season.
The Steelers had five offensive possessions in the first half, and none ended as three-and-outs. They ran 30 total plays, and because they faced only three third-down situations that showed they were efficient on first and second downs in gaining sufficient yardage to move the sticks. They averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt and scored two rushing touchdowns – on a 5-yard run by Najee Harris and on a 1-yard designed run around right end by Mitch Trubisky. They were 2-for-2 in the red zone, and Trubisky averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt.
"I thought (Trubisky) made some plays, but we all collectively came up short," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That's how we measure performance. Winning is our business, and we didn't handle business. We don't break that apart and look for the feel-good."
That's always how Tomlin reacts to the performance of individuals or specific units within the context of a game that ends in a defeat, but it's also accurate to view what the offense accomplished in that first half as a step forward, and a necessary step forward at that.
Coming into this game, the Steelers offense ranked 23rd or worse in the NFL in seven of nine significant statistical categories, and the only two in which it was better than 23rd was in sacks allowed and interceptions thrown. In addition, Trubisky ranked 32nd among all quarterbacks in yards per attempt (5.1), which screams dink-and-dunk. The team was tied-for-19th in points scored per game.
"We have a lot of playmakers, and we just have to try to get them the ball," said Trubisky. "I think when the ball is moving, everyone is happy. When we are scoring, everyone is happy. So, it's just going to come from everyone sticking together, everyone doing their job and getting the playmakers the ball."
In that first half against the Browns, among Trubisky's 9 completions were a 36-yard circus catch by George Pickens, a 20-yarder to Chase Claypool, and a 16-yarder to Diontae Johnson. And not once was there an example of trying to convert a possession down by throwing the ball way short of the sticks and hoping the receiver could utilize sleight of feet to pick up the necessary yardage after the catch. In addition, nine of the 30 plays were run from the no-huddle.
"We took some shots downfield, and we just needed to come down with it," said Trubisky. "I can throw a better ball. They made some great catches, and we can make some more. We just need to continue to keep (working). It was good, and it is something we can improve (upon) and keep going."
And while the run defense didn't conjure any memories of the Steel Curtain, it is worth mentioning that the Steelers running attack outgained Cleveland's, 88-79, in the first half, and with the exception of a couple instances of breakdowns that yielded a 36-yard run to Nick Chubb and an 18-yard run by Kareem Hunt, the Browns were limited to less than 3-yards-a-carry on their other 10 attempts.
But in the second half, which began with the Steelers holding a 14-13 lead, everything fell apart. The offense finished 1-for-9 on third downs, which was a significant contributing factor in the three straight three-and-outs during which the Browns scored 10 points to take a 23-14 lead. In the second half, the Steelers rushed for only 16 yards, and while Trubisky completed 11-of-19, his yards per attempt dropped significantly to 4.9. Claypool had a chance to make a play down the middle of the field, and Johnson had a chance to make a play down the sideline, but neither was able to complete those catches.
What qualified as the offensive highlights of the game's final 30 minutes were two catches by Pat Freiermuth – one of 26 yards and another of 15 yards – and those came on back-to-back plays in the game's final three minutes when the Steelers were frantically trying to slice into the Browns' 9-point lead.
An even bigger issue, however, was the manner in which the Browns physically dominated the line of scrimmage to allow Chubb and Hunt to take over the game and allow Cleveland to possess the ball for 19 minutes, 24 seconds of the second half, including 11:18 of the fourth quarter. Chubb took advantage to finish with 113 yards rushing, while Hunt added another 47 to help the Browns finish with 171 on the ground.
On their first two possessions of the second half, the Browns put together a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a field goal, and then after a three-and-out by the Steelers offense, followed up with an 11-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown.
"That's our own fault. Three-and-outs, if you get those, you're on the sideline," said Cam Heyward about the disparity in time of possession. "As a defense, we did not get off the field. We lost the damn game. I don't know what else is more demoralizing than that. They ran the ball; we got our ass kicked. Simple as that."
Simple to explain, maybe, but not so much when it comes to fixing the problem. When the Steelers finished the 2021 season ranked last in the NFL in run defense, season-long injuries to Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were thought to be contributing factors as was the play of a trio of slight inside linebackers. But during the offseason, the Steelers made moves to fortify the interior of their defense by re-signing Alualu and adding 255-pound inside linebacker Myles Jack and 305-pound defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi. Getting bullied along the line of scrimmage was supposed to be a thing of the past, but on Thursday night in Cleveland that reared its ugly head again.
"You tell me," said Tomlin in answer to a question about the quality of the Steelers' tackling. "(Chubb) was running through arm tackles and things of that nature, getting yards after contact. It wasn't good enough. I thought they controlled the game, man. They possessed the ball. Nick Chubb controlled the game."
After the loss to the Patriots, it seemed that if the offense didn't pick things up and quickly, the season could be in jeopardy. One week later, the Steelers are staring at a more ominous threat.