CLEVELAND – Mike Tomlin saw this coming. He has been doing this long enough to understand that there's no such thing as a finely tuned machine at the start of an NFL season. The structure of the preseason and the way teams actively avoid putting their front-line players in harm's way lends itself to what he has come to refer to as "September football."
"A lot of football in a lot of stadiums at this time of the year is far from perfect … We just have to be better than the Cleveland Browns," said Tomlin some 48 hours before the kickoff of the 2017 regular season.
Or in other words, find a way. Find a way to compensate for whatever elements of the Steelers' game happen to be far from perfect. Find a way to overcome. Find a way to end the afternoon with one more point than the Browns.
To that end, the Steelers were successful, and they left here yesterday with a 21-18 victory that was the embodiment of "far from perfect."
Where the Steelers seemed to be farthest from perfect, especially early in the game, was where they're supposed to be strongest in 2017. Their offense. But even that could've been predicted by anyone who was paying attention during the preseason.
Beyond Le'Veon Bell missing all of training camp and the four preseason games, even the guys who regularly took part in practice and were in attendance throughout the preseason got very little in-game action, and so the trade-off for no season-altering injuries to key personnel was an undeniable degree of rust and sloppiness.
As just one example, Ben Roethlisberger played only a couple of series in one preseason game, and so even though he may have spent a lot of time on the Saint Vincent College grass throwing to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant – to quote Allen Iverson – we're just talking about practice.
It was to be expected that there would be issues with timing and with players not being in sync with one another, which made it curious why so many bubble screens were called early, because those plays require timing between receivers and/or tight ends blocking on the perimeter for other receivers. To say those plays were ineffective for the Steelers against the Browns is an understatement.
And this is the thing about offense: if the unit isn't moving the chains, then it cannot stay on the field long enough to run enough plays to get any kind of a rhythm established. With no rhythm established, every possession is somewhat disjointed, which increases the chances of failure, which perpetuates the cycle. The Steelers were in a bad offensive cycle, and there didn't seem to be anything that would get them out of it.
Find a way.
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 game against the Cleveland Browns.
That's when Antonio Brown asserted himself. Midway through the second quarter, the Steelers had a grand total of two first downs, they had converted 1-of-4 on third downs, they had 4 yards rushing, and they had possessed the football for just over seven of the 22 minutes of game time to that point.
First-and-10 from their own 9-yard line. A 15-yard pass to Brown was nullified by a penalty, but then on second-and-8, Brown held onto a pass over the middle despite intense defensive opposition and turned it into a 50-yard gain. The next play was an 11-yard completion to Brown, and then came another, this time for 19 yards and a first-and-goal at the Browns 9-yard line.
The Steelers already had used a blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich that was recovered by Anthony Chickillo in the end zone for one touchdown, and even though Jesse James would get the official credit for catching the touchdown pass the score was a direct result of Brown's individual brilliance. The Steelers had a 14-7 halftime lead that they really didn't deserve.
And so it continued. More penalties sabotaged their efforts, both offensively and defensively, but different players stepped up in different ways and at different times to keep them on track. A T.J. Watt interception. A Javon Hargrave sack. And time after time, Antonio Brown.
The last time, though, that was the most spectacular one, and it's the one that sealed the outcome.
By this point – in the final three-plus minutes of the fourth quarter – the Browns needed just a field goal to tie, and the Steelers needed to move the ball out from their own 20-yard line in order to make that as difficult as possible. On second-and-2, a 7-yard run by Le'Veon Bell had just been nullified by a holding penalty on Maurkice Pouncey – the Steelers' 13th penalty of the afternoon for a mind-numbing 144 yards – when the NFL's best receiver showed everyone why he deserves to wear the crown.
Depending on one's rooting interest, Roethlisberger either put the ball up for grabs or he put it in a place for Brown to make a play, but the result was a clutch, acrobatic, combat catch that withstood a challenge from the Browns and the subsequent review from NFL headquarters, with the play gaining 38 yards to move the Steelers from their own 18-yard line across midfield to the Cleveland 44-yard line. A 15-yard run by Bell later, and the Steelers were in victory formation.
Find a way.
"Obviously, we've got some work to do, but it's great to do that work with a win in your back pocket," said Tomlin after the game. "I thought our offensive drives got stopped because of penalties. I thought our defensive drives got extended because of penalties, and when you're doing that, you're going to keep people in the game. We're not making excuses. We're not blaming anyone. We've got to perform better from a technical standpoint to stay clean so that we don't stop ourselves. But again, like I said, it's great to make those necessary adjustments and grow while you win.
Which is what September football is all about.