Even though the numbers on the scoreboard told the tale of a decisive victory for the Steelers yesterday at Heinz Field, your eyes disagreed. There were mistakes, both of commission and omission. There was a brain cramp on a free kick after a safety that began the process of gifting the Browns the touchdown that brought Cleveland within four points late in the third quarter.
Mix in some untimely penalties, especially on special teams, a minus-1 in turnover ratio, and a pass rush that while consistently energetic often lacked whatever was necessary at the time to prevent Baker Mayfield from making his escape. But none of that really matters as much to this particular group of Steelers as winning the battle of the hitting, and yesterday against the Browns the Steelers won the battle of the hitting.
It wasn't exactly a new occurrence – these Steelers winning the battle of the hitting –
because it in fact has been something they've been doing for the past several weeks now, which not surprisingly coincides perfectly with the three-game winning streak on which they currently find themselves.
In that 33-18 victory over the Browns, the Steelers had to play without starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was sidelined with a knee injury that prevented him from practicing at all during the days leading up to the game. Having no Gilbert turned out to be no problem for the Steelers, specifically because Matt Feiler held his own in his second start at the position this season, and generally because the other four offensive linemen combined with Feiler to put together a body of work that largely was dominant.
James Conner continued to be the favorite son of the "Le'Veon who" fan club, what with becoming the first back in franchise history to score at least two rushing touchdowns in three successive regular season games, while also posting his third straight 100-yard game and fourth overall this season, but a lot of the heavy lifting was done by Al Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Feiler, plus an assortment of tight ends and wide receivers who were mixing it up with defenders down the field and on the perimeter to help Conner turn 5-yard gains into 15-, 20-yard gains.
Against a Browns defense good enough to have kept that team in one-score games six of the seven times they had taken the field leading up to yesterday at Heinz Field, a defense good enough to arrive here as the NFL leaders in takeaways with 20, the Steelers ran the ball 31 times and averaged 5.4 yards per attempt, while the pass protection allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked just once on the 36 occasions he dropped back to pass.
From the perspective of the Steelers defense, it wasn't so much the statistical evidence as it was the visual of the difficulty the Browns had in operating over the course of the afternoon. Nick Chubb broke off a couple of decent runs, but in the end he finished with just 65 yards and a 3.6 average.
And if Baker Mayfield was maddeningly elusive at times, that was because he rarely was permitted the luxury to stand in the pocket and search for the holes in the Steelers coverage. The Steelers sacked him twice, ended up with seven total hits on the quarterback, and Bud Dupree's pass rush drew a holding penalty in the end zone that netted the Steelers two points on the safety.
This type of play has been more the norm than the exception lately, and that's a timely development, because in a few days the Steelers will be making a trip to Baltimore for rematch of a game in which they were pushed around on both sides of the ball.
Calling this victory over the Browns the Steelers best performance of 2018 would be a stretch, but labeling their loss to the Ravens on Sept. 30 at Heinz Field their worst performance of 2018 could be classified as stating the obvious. It might be unfair to label the Steelers timid in Round 1 of the annual home-and-home bar brawl with the Ravens, but it's also accurate to make the case that they weren't physical enough on either side of the ball to do anything but lose that game to that team.
The Steelers currently sit atop the AFC North with their 4-2-1 record, with the 5-3 Bengals in second place, and the 4-4 Ravens currently in third. A victory in Baltimore would give the Steelers a chance to get some separation in those standings for themselves, while simultaneously inflicting a potential mortal wound to the Ravens' chances.
Dealing with the Ravens is a rather unique experience for many teams in the NFL, but the Steelers are quite familiar with the formula for winning those matchups. There is no place for a turn-the-other-cheek mentality, which is the just way they've been playing for the past few weeks.