CLEVELAND – Sometimes, no analytics are necessary, because sometimes the statistics are so clear-cut as to not need any interpretation. Six turnovers leading to a minus-five in turnover ratio is just such an example.
Somewhere there has been an analysis done by somebody about the likelihood of an NFL team winning a game in which it turns the ball over six times and is a minus-five in turnover ratio, and rather than search for the actual numbers, we'll just leave it at "just this side of never."
That's what the Steelers did here yesterday in their opener against the Browns in rain-soaked Northeast Ohio, with the six turnovers coming in the form of three interceptions and three lost fumbles, and the minus-five can be traced to the Steelers compensating with only one takeaway of their own. So powerful are those kinds of numbers that they allowed a Browns team that had gone 1-31 over its two most recent regular seasons to escape FirstEnergy Stadium with a 21-21 tie against the Steelers.
Five of the turnovers – the three interceptions and two of the fumbles – will be laid at the feet of Ben Roethlisberger, and the other lost fumble belonged to James Conner, who otherwise had a spectacular afternoon with 192 yards from scrimmage – 135 rushing plus two touchdowns and another 57 receiving – on 36 total touches in his first NFL start.
There were a lot of things to like from the Steelers season-opening performance, and there were some things they showed that could point to improvement in areas that were deemed weaknesses as recently as the day they reported to Saint Vincent College for the start of training camp.
Conner's productive performance was one of those things to like, and the overall play of the defense sure felt like the overriding positive development of the afternoon. The run defense that had been gouged regularly in the games that followed Ryan Shazier's injury last Dec. 4 was much more formidable. Not including quarterback Tyrod Taylor's scrambling, the Browns ran the ball 30 times for 100 yards, with starting tailback Carlos Hyde managing 62 of those yards on 22 attempts for a 2.8 average.
The Steelers sacked Taylor seven times with outside linebackers T.J. Watt (four) and Bud Dupree (two) accounting for six of those, and the defense turned in an excellent performance when it came to the "sudden change" situations that developed as a result of those turnovers.
Mike Tomlin always reminds his defense that while it cannot control when it must take the field, it has total control of when it gets itself off the field. On the six times the Steelers defense was sent onto the field following turnovers by the offense, the unit forced the Browns to punt three times, it dumped running back Duke Johnson for a 6-yard loss and then sacked Taylor for an 8-yard loss on the two-play drive tht ended the first half, and then the final Steelers turnover ended with Watt blocking a potential game-winning field goal by Zane Gonzalez in overtime.
The only time the Browns were able to capitalize on a turnover with points came when Conner's fumble was scooped up by Jabrill Peppers and returned 16 yards to the Steelers 1-yard line. Hyde smashed the ball over the goal line from there for the touchdown that served as the catalyst for the Steelers' bizarre collapse.
Maybe the most disappointing aspect of the exercise is that Tomlin preached to them all week about what was necessary to get back on the turnpike heading east with a 1-0 record.
"Games are going to be won and lost in man vs. himself-like ways this weekend across the National Football League," said Tomlin in repeating the message he delivered to his players. "Teams that are tough to beat are teams that win. You have to take care of the ball. You can't be highly penalized – Thursday night was the first regular season game in the National Football League, and there were 28 called penalties, and 26 of those were accepted. If you do a good job of taking care of the football, if you're not highly penalized, if you have detail in your work – beyond knowing what to do – if you have that quality detail in your work that will allow you to win when it's good vs. good, those are the things that define a winning performance particularly at the early stages of the year. And so that's where our focus is."
That focus wasn't maintained for the entirety of Sunday afternoon, and so the Steelers wake up today at 0-0-1 instead of 1-0-0. In addition to the six turnovers, there were a dozen accepted penalties (the Browns committed 11 of their own), and despite knowing and being told of the importance of restricting Taylor's escape lanes when rushing him, he nevertheless escaped eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown.
And the offense that entered the season with a reputation as one of the NFL's best had seven possessions that included more than one kneel-down snap over the final 17 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime used those possessions to produce three turnovers, three punts, and getting into position for a 42-yard field goal that was missed at least partly because of a snap that was up and in on holder Jordan Berry.
In the aftermath, players and coaches from both teams were left unable to sort out their feelings about a game that was neither a victory nor a defeat, at least officially.
"Hell yeah it feels like a loss," said Cam Heyward. "I'm sorry for using that kind of language, but if we settle for those, we're going to be an awfully (ticked) off bunch. We didn't get the job done. I credit T.J. for getting that block (on the field goal attempt), but the outcome was already decided. It just gives you a sick taste in your mouth."
Yep, it feels like a loss. And it should.