When does a win not feel like a win?
There is certain to be some of that type of sentiment coursing through Steelers Nation today, what with the giddiness of a 27-3 halftime advantage melting under the bright sunshine of a picture-postcard early September afternoon in Pittsburgh, what with the Steelers staring down the barrel of their first loss to the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field since 2003, what with the events of the second half seeming to confirm every doubt about this particular team.
In the minutes leading up to Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field, the perception of the 2014 Steelers was tinted either with the optimism for an offense that seemed to have the potential to become a dominant unit, or through the pessimism over a defense that's young and inexperienced and therefore in transition.
The Steelers are 1-0 today thanks to the combined efforts of some players in all three phases who turned 27-27 into a 30-27 victory in front of 64,598 at Heinz Field who sent them off the field in the first half with an ovation for their performance and then booed them late in the second half for what was looking like an epic collapse. And just to be clear, the crowd got it right both times.
There is no denying the rampant imperfection on display by the home team, just as there is no denying the Steelers will be one of 16 in the NFL to come out of Kickoff Weekend with a 1-0 record. Their flaws are real, and those flaws will turn out to be fatal ones if they persist. Teams just cannot expect to play the kind of first half the Browns did, or the second half that the Steelers did for that matter, and expect to win consistently in the NFL.
But right now, just a little about how the Steelers could play so poorly in the second half and still win.
The knee-jerk reaction to the above sentence is to point to the opponent and offer up a simple, "it's because the Browns stink." It's because the opponent was a Browns team that had no idea of how to win at Heinz Field, a team that was without Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon when the game started and then starting running back Ben Tate before halftime. But while the Browns haven't won more than five games in a season since 2007, and they can't seem to hire the right coach, or identify quarterback talent in the draft, they don't quit.
For some years now, the Browns have been a tough nut, especially early in a season. And expecting them to quit as early as the first half of the opener, and with the Steelers being the opponent, and with the Steelers not exactly lighting it up themselves over the past couple of years, that was a mis-read for sure.
Either you believe the Browns wouldn't quit, or the Steelers opened the door, and whatever it was and in what combinations, it had the strength to flip the game. For example, the Steelers offense had five plays of 30-plus yards in the first half, and the Browns offense had four plays of 20-plus yards in the second half. The Steelers scored on five-of-seven possessions in the first half, and the Browns scored on four-of-six possessions in the second half.
Back-and-forth is not a proper description, because the reality was more like a race where only one person could run at a time, and with a little bit more than half of the fourth quarter to play, the game was tied. It still was tied with two minutes to play and the Steelers were about to punt for the fifth time in the half.
It was time for somebody to do something to help his team win, and over the course of those two minutes each of those somebodies was wearing a Steelers uniform.
Cam Heyward bulled his way into the backfield to sack Brian Hoyer on first down, and then nickel back William Gay made plays on successive snaps – he broke up a pass on second down and then tackled the receiver for a 5-yard loss on third down. After the Cleveland punt, Ben Roethlisberger completed two passes to Markus Wheaton – the first an 11-yard pass on second-and-8 only to be followed by a 20-yard hookup on the next play to get the ball to the Browns 24-yard line. Shaun Suisham then made it official with a 41-yard field goal.
The Steelers run defense looked awful. They hurt themselves with penalties in all three phases. The red zone offense was below the line, and the red zone defense was worse. Instead of one unit picking the other up, the Steelers played a second half in which their defense allowed three touchdowns and a field goal on the first four possessions of the same half in which their offense was 0-for-6 on third downs.
All of that is true, as is this: when the game was tied with two minutes to play, the Steelers were the team that made some plays and came away with the win.
There's a lot of work to do, but they can work with that.