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Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Browns

In the span of a couple of minutes Sunday, the Steelers went from being elated after beating the Cleveland Browns, 28-14, to disappointed.

Looking up at the scoreboard, they could see the Miami Dolphins had held off the New York Jets, 11-6, to claim the seventh spot in the AFC playoffs.

The reality hit this young Steelers team that their season was over, despite winning seven of their final nine games.

Even when this team was 2-6 at its midseason bye, it didn't quit. The Steelers kept working.

It didn't end with the playoff berth they wanted, but that doesn't take away from the learning experience.

And that's exactly what head coach Mike Tomlin would have wanted.

Sure, he's disappointed like everyone else. But he's also seen the continued growth of his team.

"I think I've been pretty consistent all year," Tomlin said. "We lack experience in some areas, but we're good enough to win and good enough to win while we grow, good enough to win while we gained experience.

"We did not grade this group on a curve. We did not grade Kenny Pickett on a curve. We don't function like that."

That expectation to win and win with an offense that included a rookie quarterback in Pickett, an emerging star at wide receiver in rookie George Pickens, second-year starters at running back, tight end and left tackle, that all falls on Tomlin.

Say what you will about this team's now 19 consecutive seasons of not having a losing season, but it speaks highly of the job the coaching staff does.

"It's Tomlin man. He just keeps us in it," said center Mason Cole. "We never felt that we were out it. He always preaches to go back to work and get better. Each week, we did that. Each week, we went back and tried to get better. We just kept pushing forward. It's special. We're not in the playoffs, so it really doesn't matter. But for the young guys on this team, it was cool to see them grow."

That growth didn't end in the playoff berth the Steelers would have wanted. And that's too bad. If given another shot at the Buffalo Bills – the team the Steelers would have faced in the opening round of the playoffs if they had gotten in – it would have been a good measuring stick for this young offense.

After all, the Bills had beaten the Steelers, 38-3, back on Oct. 9 in Pickett's first career start. It would have been interesting to see not just how the young quarterback had grown since then, but the Steelers offense as a whole.

"We always knew what we were capable of, but it was good to see it come true right in front of our eyes and find a way to win week-in and week-out," said Pickett. "No one really caring how it gets done, just find a way to get it done. That's what it's all about, getting wins. It was really good to see."

To Pickett's point, Sunday wasn't his best day by far. He missed on some throws and finished 13 of 29 for 195 yards and a touchdown.

But the win was what it was all about. And Pickett finished his rookie season with a 7-5 record in games he started.

Pickens, in his rookie season, showed he can be a handful, finishing with 52 catches for 801 yards and four touchdowns. 

And the much-maligned offensive line, which began the season as the team's biggest question mark, continued to progress to the point where the Steelers once again outrushed their opponent, this time a Cleveland team that had outrushed the Steelers 171-104 earlier this season. This time around, it was 148-134 in favor of the Steelers.

It's all for naught in terms of competing for a championship this season. In the future? Who knows. But if it does happen down the line for this team, they can point to the way they kept fighting in this season as a starting point.

Yes, the overall numbers don't bear out the strides this team made. But the second-half results certainly do.

"I'm proud of the guys and the way they kept working," said Cole. "I mean, we were 2-6 at the bye. We didn't make the playoffs, so none of that stuff matters. Just the progress we made, I'm proud of the guys."

• Everyone knew this would be a transitional year for the Steelers offensively after Ben Roethlisberger's retirement.

It was supposed to be a season where the Steelers took a step backward. But this doesn't feel like that.

This feels like a team that figured a lot of things out during its 2022 journey and should be better for it in the long run.

"We have a good mix of young guys who want to work and old guys who want to show the way," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "I think that's very key to what we want to build here as the Pittsburgh Steelers. I think it's been important all season long. Coach (Tomlin) has brought back alumni, just to show what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. I'll keep on saying on repeat, I feel very confident in young, old, whoever is in that locker room, players and coaches."

• Welcome to the Steelers-Browns rivalry Deshaun Watson.

The Browns quarterback missed the first Steelers-Browns game while serving an 11-game suspension.

After the way the Steelers tossed him around in this game – sacking him seven times and hitting him 10 times total while also picking him off twice – he might have wished he missed this game, as well.

• It should have been eight sacks of Watson, which would have likely led to one less touchdown pass for him – he had two in this game – and one less touchdown for the Browns

Cam Heyward was penalized for roughing the passer after a second-down sack of Watson that would have put the Browns in a third-and-15 situation.

Instead, they got first-and-goal at the 6.

Heyward, who got a pair of sacks in this game, including one on the final play, was more than a little upset about that call.

"It took away my 10th sack right then and there," said Heyward, who finished the season with 10.5 sacks. "I understand we're trying to protect quarterbacks, but he had been running through tackles. What am I supposed to do? It's not like they blew it dead early. I don't know how to change up my game accordingly. If you're going to do that, blow the whistle earlier. I'll let up. I would've been pretty ticked if I didn't get another sack in that game and I was left at 9 or 9 ½."

In the big scheme of things, whether Heyward finished the season with 9 or 9 ½ sacks doesn't matter. But, for him, it certainly did.

"It's very important to me, some little goals I set every year," Heyward said. "That's the game right now. We have these mobile quarterbacks. What am I supposed to do when they're trying to shrug off tackles? If you don't try to get him on the ground, he's running through tackles."

• Who stays and who does not off this team is always a focus from year to year. Suffice it to say, things always change.

Typical turnover is about 15 to 20 new players on a roster. So, the lessons taught by Tomlin to this team will be taught all over again to the group as a whole next year.

But the foundation of this group appears to be strong.

And it starts with the belief that the Steelers have found a quarterback in Pickett.

"I felt like the offense started to become more my own the more I played in it," Pickett said. "(I was) taking real ownership in it instead of just kind of playing catch-up when I got thrown in there a little bit earlier, and I was just worried about executing the plays. Now, I feel like I had everything at my disposal when I was coming to the line of scrimmage. I felt like I made a good jump there in the learning curve, and I want to make that leap into Year 2."

• The Chicago Bears lost on Sunday, while the Houston Texans won. That means the Bears have the No. 1-overall pick in the NFL Draft.

It also means the Steelers, who own Chicago's second-round pick thanks to the mid-season trade of Chase Claypool to the Bears, will be picking first on Day 2 of the draft.

And this year, because the Miami Dolphins forfeited their first-round pick for tampering, that means the Steelers will have the 32nd pick in the draft, as well as their own first-round selection.

That's some nice ammunition early in the draft.

"We were a young team this year," Watt said. "It will be nice to be able to keep a good core group of guys here."

And add some potentially quality pieces to that.

• This running game has a chance to be something that definitely carries over from one season to the next.

Najee Harris was being ridiculously compared to former Alabama and Browns draft bust Trent Richardson early in the season.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

People making that comp for Harris should be eating a lot of crow right now.

Harris had 84 or more rushing yards in six of the team's final nine games and rushed for 677 yards in that period to get to 1,038 for the season.

The team also found something in rookie backup Jaylen Warren, who is a nice complimentary back to Harris.

Together, that duo outrushed Cleveland's Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, 120-90 on Sunday.

Yes, it was a slow start for the Steelers running the ball this season. But the line, Harris and the play-calling grew over the course of the season.

• Rookie defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal looks like a keeper, as well, so it's not just offensive playmakers the Steelers added this season.

On one play in the second quarter Sunday, Watson broke out of a potential sack and rolled to his right, hoping to escape containment. But Leal sprinted out there with him, forcing Watson to throw the ball away.

Leal is a very athletic big man who is only going to continue to get better.

Same goes for rookie linebacker Mark Robinson, who started his second-consecutive game Sunday.

• Yes, this was a really good rookie class for the Steelers. And just imagine how good they might be in Year 2 after getting a chance to take a step back and maybe take a breath.

Pickens, for example, went from tearing his ACL in spring ball in 2021 to full-bore rehab to get himself back in time to finish his final season at Georgia. Then, he had to start training for pre-draft workouts before heading on to Pittsburgh, learning a new offense and playing a 17-game regular season.

"I'm going to take some time to really just debrief," Pickens admitted. "I was really in a mindset of proving to everybody, ACL, is he going to be this? Now, I'm here and showing the whole country. I just kind of want people to open their eyes a little bit."

• Few will want to admit it, but Pressley Harvin III had a solid second season. Harvin justifiably took some heat during his rookie season. He just wasn't consistent as he worked his way through the loss of both his father and grandmother last season.

Once again, he was a reason why the Steelers won a field-position game on Sunday, averaging 48.0 yards per punt with a net of 46.3 yards.

Over the Steelers' final nine games, Harvin had four games where there were no returns against him. Overall in that span, he had eight punts returned against him for 54 yards, an average of 6.0 yards per return.

The Steelers give up some distance to punt directionally, and Harvin has become pretty good at that.

If you're going to play field-position games, that's critical.

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