You've heard of statement games. This wasn't a statement game. This was more of a message game, and it was the Steelers who delivered the message.
When the sixth weekend of the 2020 NFL season began, the (4-0) Steelers were one of three undefeated teams in action but it was the Browns being viewed as the main attraction for the 1 p.m. showdown at Heinz Field. The (4-1) Browns came in as winners of four straight and having scored at least 32 points in each of those. The Browns were the ones with the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, with a former first overall pick in defensive end Myles Garrett who carried a reputation as the baddest pass rusher east of Aaron Donald.
Sure, the Steelers were undefeated, but they hadn't dispatched anyone of note, with their four victims bringing a combined 3-15-1 record into the weekend; their third-down defense was allowing conversions at the rate of 50 percent; and their starting quarterback is so old that when Ben Roethlisberger started his first NFL game there was no such thing as Twitter and people still read newspapers.
On Sunday at Heinz Field, there was no changing of the guard, no passing of the torch, no upheaval of the traditional pecking order in the AFC North Division. The Steelers dominated all three phases of the game and punished the Browns physically while they were doing it. The numbers on the scoreboard told a 38-7 tale, and the statistics behind that final score hinted at how bad it really was.
One week ago, the Philadelphia Eagles converted 71 percent on third downs, were a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone and trailed by two points with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Last Sunday, the Browns converted 1-of-15 on third and fourth downs (6.7 percent) and after allowing the Steelers a field goal on the game's opening possession, that was as close as the score would be.
"We are not into (making) statements," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We'll let you guys make the statements. We'll just line up and play against those we are scheduled to play, and they were next. I'm glad we were able to get the job done, but you know, we've got a significant challenge in the form of the Tennessee Titans coming up this week. That's life in this game. We're appreciative and more importantly we're really excited. You can't take anything for granted in this environment. We appreciate all the sacrifice that everybody is making in an effort to keep that ball rolling, man, and it just needs to continue."
For the Steelers defense, it started on the Browns' first third down situation of the game, a third-and-3 from the Cleveland 28-yard line. When Baker Mayfield thought he could convert it with a pass to tight end Harrison Bryant, Minkah Fitzpatrick had a different idea and the resulting pick-six turned 3-0 into 10-0, and to use Tomlin's words, the ball was rolling.
Cleveland's next attempted third-down conversion ended with a sack by Bud Dupree, then an incomplete pass on the next one, then another incomplete pass thrown by Mayfield under pressure on the fourth, and on the fifth Cam Sutton intercepted Mayfield's pass to set up another Steelers touchdown, and it was 24-0 with 5:43 remaining in the first half.
"Part of being good in this league is identifying problems and eliminating them, hopefully before they happen, but once they happen you have to eliminate them quickly," said Tomlin. "We acknowledge that third down was an issue for us last week defensively (against the Eagles). I thought they answered that challenge well and emphatically today. It was necessary to slow down a dangerous Browns attack, one that had been ringing up a bunch of points per game. Just can't say enough about the effort all the way around in all three phases of the game."
As the game progressed, there was more of the same on Cleveland's possession downs, and in between those the Steelers exacted a physical, punishing toll on their opponent. The NFL's best rushing attack was held under 100 yards on the afternoon, and more telling was that it was unable to gain a significant yard in situations where that was necessary. On a pair of fourth-and-1s in the second half, Browns running backs lost 1 yard on the first and 2 yards on the second, which led to an attempted pass on a fourth-and-2 that fell incomplete.
In those situations, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, and Robert Spillane took turns either defeating attempted blocks or simply driving blockers into the backfield to destroy the play before it had a chance to get underway. At every significant moment in the game, the Steelers won the battle of the hitting and controlled the line of scrimmage, and as a result it wasn't too long afterward that the scoreboard told everyone who could see it that there would be no more significant moments in this game.
And then came the icing on the cake. Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski pulled Mayfield, who was sacked four times and hit another half-dozen times, and replaced him with Case Keenum, not as a result of a performance issue but because he determined his starting quarterback had absorbed enough punishment for one afternoon.
"I just did not want to see him get hit one more time, and I put that on myself," said Stefanski. "Went into this game knowing we had to keep him clean, and we did not do a good enough job so that starts with me obviously. He is a very, very tough player and I know he wants to fight, but it is a long season, we have a game next week, and I did not feel like it was the right thing to put him back out there."
During the week, Kareem Hunt had said about the upcoming game at Heinz Field, "This one's for Myles," which was an attempt at bravado concerning the six-game suspension Myles Garrett had to serve at the end of the 2019 season for battering Mason Rudolph with his own helmet during a November game in Cleveland vs. the Steelers.
Hunt turned out to be prophetic, but not in the way he intended, because 38-7 was for Myles, and for Mayfield, and for Odell Beckham, and for everyone else who believed Sunday's game at Heinz Field was going to be the launching point for a substantive change in the AFC North.