CLEVELAND - The NFL is a week-to-week league. And if you don't bring your best in every game, you'd better play good complementary football to have a chance to win.
Sunday against the Browns, the Steelers rushed for 172 yards. They won the turnover battle, not turning the ball over on their side of things at all. They limited Cleveland to just 259 total yards and one touchdown.
And they lost, 13-10, because they didn't play the kind of complementary football needed to win a game such as this.
AFC North games are often a battle of attrition in the field position game. And early Sunday, the Browns were getting the better of the Steelers in terms of field position.
They turned starting a drive at the 50-yard line into their first – and only – touchdown. Later in the game, the Steelers defense stood on its head twice, stopping Cleveland from scoring on drives that began at the Pittsburgh 48 and 45 in the third and fourth quarters.
The Steelers, meanwhile, had one possession that began at midfield, that coming with the game tied at 10-10 and 5:47 remaining in the game.
"It was a winnable ball game. Tip your hat to them. They got the job done late," said Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward. "We needed one more big play on defense and an extended drive on offense."
It seemed they had it. Until they didn't.
The momentum had swung. With 7:40 remaining in the game, the Browns were called for a penalty – their only one in the game – that backed them up to their own 15. Then, T.J. Watt had a sack and the Steelers got the ball back at their own 48.
Kenny Pickett hit a pass to George Pickens to the Cleveland 40. But they moved backward from there, failing to get into field goal range for Chris Boswell, instead punting from the Cleveland 43.
Even then, the defense again got a stop, forcing the Browns to punt the ball back with 1:42 remaining. But the Steelers went three-and-out on three incompletions, punting the ball back to the Browns with 1:28 remaining in the game.
The door was open – multiple times. The Steelers just refused to kick it down.
Pickett had been so good so often in those situations in his young career, it seemed unfathomable that he didn't get it done this time.
"It was right where we wanted them. It just didn't happen today," Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth said. "In those situations, we feel like we can win the game. The defense did a good job of getting the ball with field position. We just didn't execute.
"They've got a good defense, for sure. But we've got to do that better than we did today."
The Steelers have been great in these situations all season. Really, they've been good in those situations seemingly forever. In this game, however, they were beaten by their own formula.
It was the Browns who played better complementary football. It was the Browns who got the defensive stops they needed when they needed them.
And it was the Browns who got just enough plays on offense to come away with a win.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 11 game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium
"We didn't do enough," said Steelers center Mason Cole. "We feel like we could have done enough to win, but we didn't. We know we have the guys and the game plan to win that game. We just didn't execute. This division is tough. This league is tough. And there are going to be more tough games. We're going to have to fight and come out on the other end."
• Pickett finished this game 15 of 28 for 106 yards. He didn't throw an interception. But he also didn't throw any touchdowns. His long completion was just 14 yards.
There were several instances where he and his receivers just simply weren't on the same page, with Pickett reading the defense one way and the receivers reading it another.
That led to some very errant, ugly incompletions.
"They play a lot of man-to-man, but they didn't play a lot of man-to-man today," said Pickett. "They threw a lot of zone looks at us. We were expecting them to come in and play man. We have to adjust better."
Now that the Browns had success with those looks, Pickett and company had better believe they'll see more of it. Then again, not every team has a defense as good as that of Cleveland.
But days like this are certainly frustrating. When you rush for 172 yards and don't turn the ball over, you're supposed to win.
"Yeah. It's just, we find balance in the running game and then we have trouble throwing the ball," said Cole. "It's unfortunate. That's a good defense, but we had a good game plan. We didn't execute at a high level. Hats off to them."
• All of that said, this team isn't losing confidence in Pickett, who hasn't topped 130 passing yards in each of the past two games.
"I don't know what it's like to play (quarterback), but I do know what it's like to have ups and downs in this league," said Cole. "This league is tough. There are going to be really good weeks and really bad weeks. The bad weeks are the ones you have to try to pull yourself through. Kenny's got a heck of a future. He's a heck of a football player. He's a heck of a teammate. He'll get through it. We'll get through it. And we'll come out on the other end of it."
Perhaps more importantly, Pickett hasn't lost confidence in himself, something that's easy to do when things aren't going the way you'd like.
"(I'm) always confident in myself," Pickett said. "It's the ultimate team game. We have to come together and figure this thing out."
• The bottom line is that this one hurts because it was a winnable game and the kind of game the Steelers have found a way to get a victory in more often than not.
But they're still 6-4. The revamped defense – particularly at inside linebacker, where they've been hit hard by injury the previous two weeks – did a very good job shutting down a very good rushing attack.
The Browns managed just 3.3 yards per carry in this game. Their running backs had 25 carries for just 68 yards. The Browns were 4 of 17 on third downs. They averaged 3.5 yards per offensive play.
And this is a defense that should get Minkah Fitzpatrick back next week in Cincinnati.
The Steelers weren't going to win them all. But this one was definitely there for them to win. And they failed to do so.
• On the positive side of things, the Steelers have really found something with their running game. That's three consecutive games with at least 172 rushing yards. And their output on the ground in this game was more than Cleveland had allowed in a single game this season.
The Browns were allowing 91.6 rushing yards per game. The Steelers nearly doubled that.
And Jaylen Warren posted his second-consecutive 100-yard game, carrying the ball nine times for 129 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown run.
"We need to continue to give it to him, whether it's in the run game or the pass game," said Pickett. "The guy always makes plays."
Warren's touchdown run was a thing of beauty in a game that was certainly lacking in aesthetic value.
Freiermuth and fellow tight end Darnell Washington got a combination block on defensive end Za'Darius Smith. Cole got out and sealed the alley. And Warren made cornerback Greg Newsome miss in the hole. From there, he was off to the races.
"I saw one guy come down," Warren said. "We have a saying that you've got to make one guy miss. I believe that happened. I just ran.
"The blockers made that happen."
• You play to win the game.
Some have suggested the Steelers didn't take enough time off the clock – 14 seconds – when they got the ball back at their own 30 with 1:42 remaining.
Those people are suggesting the Steelers should have run the ball in that situation.
"We had one timeout and a minute and fifty left when we got the ball," Cole said. "In those situations, you've got to look down the field and you've got to look to the passing game. Do we wish we handed the ball off and ripped off a 30-yard run? Of course."
But there's no guarantee that would have happened. And if the Steelers had run the ball in that situation, many of the same people questioning that play sequence would have been suggesting the Steelers were playing scared.
The Steelers took their shots in that situation. They just didn't hit them.
• If the Browns' game plan looked familiar, it's because it's exactly how the Steelers won games in 2019 with Devlin Hodges at quarterback.
Get the ball out of his hands quickly and limit his exposure to make mistakes.
But give Dorian Thompson-Robinson credit. He made the plans on the final drive he needed to win this game.
Prior to that, the Steelers had figured things out pretty well. Going into Cleveland's final drive, had completed 7 of 19 passes for 28 yards in the second half. Now, there were some drops involved with that, but it didn't look like Thompson-Robinson had a game-winning drive in him.
"That was the recipe the whole game," Heyward said. "They were going to try to minimize the exposure to the quarterback. Screens, draws, we've just got to be a little bit more ready for those moments.
"We messed up. We didn't get the job done."
• Sitting at 6-4 at this point in the season isn't the worst thing. Especially when there is considerable room for growth.
If the Steelers were playing as well as they possibly could right now and their record was 6-4, that would be a different matter.
Whether Steelers fans want to admit it or not, the Browns are a good football team. They got the better of the Steelers in this one in a game that was winnable for either team.
You don't like it to happen, but it does.
• Think about this game this way. Elandon Roberts led the Steelers with 15 tackles. Trenton Thompson, Joey Porter, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith all were second with six each.
Raise you hand if you had Trenton Thompson playing critical downs for the Steelers at this point in the season.
That's not meant to disrespect Thompson at all. He played well Sunday, just as he had throughout the preseason. Not only did he have six tackles, he also broke up two passes. He has earned even more looks moving forward.
But it does show how much the Steelers were missing on defense.
They were down two starting safeties and two inside linebackers. They were mixing and matching things on the back end throughout this game.
The defense, for the most part, stood tall, despite all of that.
• How disruptive has wide receiver Miles Boykin been covering punts this season? The Browns started dedicating a blocker deep down the field in this game in an effort to minimize Boykin's ability to beat a double team off the line of scrimmage and force a fair catch.
Boykin should 100 percent be in consideration for a Pro Bowl spot as a special teams player this season.