"It is days like today that give you an indication of what you could be. We'll continue to write that story positively or negatively, but today was a good day."
Sunday was a good day in so many different ways for the Steelers, and Coach Mike Tomlin's words struck at the heart of the matter. The Steelers arrived in Cleveland for a Halloween showdown with the Browns as a .500 outfit on a two-game winning streak competing in a conference where the best team had just one more loss than them. But they were also an afterthought, a mystery in that it defied belief that they possibly could rise to the level of a contender even in the AFC North.
Their 15-10 victory over the Browns on the shores of Lake Erie may not have erased all of their flaws or the doubts those flaws engendered, but it did reveal some continued improvement in some areas as well as a characteristic they might be able to call upon to counteract those flaws.
Just to pick one specific area and use it as an example, let's turn the spotlight onto the most basic of football chores: running the ball and stopping the run.
The Browns are the best running team in the NFL. The statistics say so, and their depth chart backs up those numbers. The Steelers have spent this season fighting their reputation as the NFL's worst running team following a 2020 season in which their statistics justified that reputation. The Steelers finished Sunday's game with more rushing yards than the Browns, and Najee Harris finished with better numbers than Nick Chubb.
The Steelers' 115 net yards rushing, while a modest total, continued an upward trend that has coincided with their three-game winning streak, and a part of besting the Browns in that category on Sunday was the job the defense did in limiting Chubb.
"It was huge," said T.J. Watt about holding Chubb to 61 yards on 16 carries. "We knew the run was going to be the biggest issue and the biggest problem to solve all week. The coaching staff did a great job of getting us in great spots. As players, we did a really great job of mentally preparing for the run and not always being aggressive. For the most part, we played assignment and sound football."
That's their characteristic. An unselfishness born of competitiveness, combined with a resiliency that allows them to stay in the fight.
Against the Browns, their resiliency was tested severely by the loss of placekicker Chris Boswell to a concussion during a fake field goal attempt late in the first half. The Steelers had to play a full half of a close game on the road without a placekicker and figure a way to overcome all of what that meant, from no field goal attempts to going for 2-point conversions after every touchdown to dealing with the field position disadvantage created by kickoffs going out of bounds instead of through the end zone.
"I'm just really appreciative of the efforts of the guys in that locker room there," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Everybody just played a selfless game. They put the collective in front of personal agendas. We fought. That's the only way you get out of those environments, particularly with some of the adversity we faced today – some of which was created by us. Some of which was created by me. The fake field goal was a bad call because we poorly executed it, so I take responsibility for that. I appreciate the guys backing my play and fighting for 60 minutes and delivering a victory and making it a side note."
And as usual, one of the leaders of the "guys backing my play" was Ben Roethlisberger. In what was referred to as Roethlisberger's final game in Cleveland, he was everything the team needed him to be in the critical moments, and his poise, calm, and ability to execute down to that pinpoint pass to Diontae Johnson to start the 50-yard catch-and-run in the final 90 seconds to ice the outcome were the difference in the game.
""I'm not going to say we have the clear answer that we figured it out," said Roethlisberger, "but we came on the road and won a football game against a good team. Hopefully that instills confidence in guys – young guys and older guys – letting us know that we can do this thing."