Lolley's 10 Thoughts: Steelers win another AFC North battle

There are no style points handed out in the NFL, regardless of the power rankings and such that seem to take such things into account at various media outlets.

The bottom line each week is did you win or did you lose? Beyond that, little else matters in the NFL.

Teams don't make the playoffs based off a voting system. They make it on merit.

And when AFC North teams are playing against each other, all of those things are especially true.

The Steelers, Browns, Ravens and Bengals beat the heck out of each other in knock-down, drag-out games, with the winner typically decided by which defense makes more plays on that particular day.

And Monday night's 26-22 win by the Steelers over the Browns was completely typical of such games.

The Steelers offense wasn't great in this game, but it was good enough because it didn't make the mistakes made by Cleveland. Or, perhaps more accurately, it didn't make the mistakes the Steelers defense forced the Browns into making.

"I think that's just the nature of the division. It's hard-nosed football," said Steelers defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, who has spent his entire seven-year career playing in this division for Cleveland, Cincinnati and now Pittsburgh.

"They're going to run the ball. It's going to be a physical game. It's going to be down to the wire. That's just how the AFC North is."

The Steelers won this game, quite frankly, because their stars up front rushed the passer well and affected the game.

T.J. Watt had four tackles, one sack, four quarterback hits and recovered a fumble caused by fellow edge rusher Alex Highsmith that he returned for a touchdown.

Highsmith had seven tackles, two quarterback hits, a sack and forced fumble and an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

Cleveland's edge rushers? Myles Garrett had one tackle and one quarterback hit. Za'Darius Smith assisted on one tackle and had no quarterback hits. Neither recorded either of the two sacks the Browns had on this night.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 2 game against the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium

The Steelers forced Cleveland quarterback into mistakes the Browns' defenders couldn't – or at least didn't – force Kenny Pickett into making.

Watson was intercepted once. He lost two fumbles. He was sacked twice. He had two massive 15-yard penalties for unnecessary roughness for grabbing the facemask of Steelers defenders who were attempting to tackle him.

The Steelers obviously had him frustrated with their constant pressure. And it was that pressure that finally broke the Browns.

"It's a big component. It is," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "It probably always is a major component when these two groups come together. There's familiarity, and kind of our edge guys have done what they did tonight, to be quite honest with you, in the history of this series or in the recent history of this series."

• While the pass rush was affecting things in a negative fashion for Cleveland, the Browns were able to keep themselves in this game with their running game.

Nick Chubb had 64 yards on 10 carries before being lost for the season in the second quarter with what looked like a very serious knee injury after being hit high and low by linebacker Cole Holcomb and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

His backup, Jerome Ford, broke off a 69-yard run in the third quarter, reversing his field to take advantage of overpursuit by the defensive front.

Only a shoestring tackle by Fitzpatrick saved that from being a touchdown. And Fitzpatrick suffered a chest injury making that diving play.

That's now back-to-back games in which the Steelers have allowed runs of 60-or-more yards. That has to get that fixed sooner rather than later. Cam Heyward, who went on IR with a groin injury last week, isn't walking back into the field anytime soon.

"We were still undisciplined in the run game," said Highsmith. "We've got to get that fixed ASAP."

When players have been in the right spot, sometimes a missed tackle is leading to runners getting more than they should. Other times, it's obviously trying to do too much and overpursuing plays.

"First and foremost it's tackling," said Watt. "Secondly, it's just not trying to do too much. And I sat up here and talked about it a lot, not trying to be a superhero and play out of your gap and swim out of gaps."

• The offense is still going in fits and spurts.

Kenny Pickett connected on a 71-yard pass with George Pickens and had a 30-yard completion on a catch-and-run to Jaylen Warren.

His other 13 completions went for 121 yards, which isn't bad, but there are still too many misses to consistently move the ball.

A complete lack of a running game isn't helping. The Steelers finished with 55 yards on 21 attempts, with Najee Harris gaining 43 of that on 10 carries.

"I think it's just the way we're executing," said center Mason Cole. "Game-plan wise, I thought we were great. The runs that were called were great. We're not getting the exact looks we want and we're just not executing. There's not much more to say than that. There's a lot of work to be done on that part. But if (our) defense keeps playing like that, we've got to run the ball and possess the ball."

The Browns ran 81 offensive plays in this game compared to 53 for the Steelers. Unless you force the opponent into four turnovers, as the Steelers did in this game, you're going to have a tough time winning with that kind of disparity.

"It comes down to executing," said Pickett, who was 15 of 30 for 222 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "Hats off to them; good defense. But we have to execute at a much higher level."

• Pickett wasn't the lone option on a third-down run late in the game. It was a read-option that he could have run on third-and-three late in the game with the Steelers trying to run out the clock.

He decided to keep the ball himself, thinking he could get outside of end Ogbo Okoronkwo. Okoronkwo did a nice job of staying with his keys and making a play.

"It was a inside-zone read," said Cole. "Kenny had the option to pull it. Looking at the picture, it looked like they brought pressure off the edge. Kenny thought he could get the first down. But he didn't. Kind of a game-plan situation. It was prudent use of quarterback mobility if they give us a look. We just didn't get it."

That's what a disciplined run-game defense looks like.

"The end spiked it," said Pickett. "They brought the backer around. (I) felt like they were crashing the run. We try to get outside of them. Didn't pan out that way."

• Tomlin was critical of punter Pressley Harvin last week and with good reason. He had some opportunities to flip the field against the 49ers and didn't do so.

But the kicking game was a big reason the Steelers won this game.

Chris Boswell was perfect on his field goal attempts. And Harvin put four of his seven punts inside the 20, all four of which were downed inside the 10 while averaging 45.7 yards per kick.

"Pressley was punting great tonight," said Highsmith. "Putting them on long fields was huge. Shout out to him."

The Browns also missed a 43-yard field goal in this game. Think of how tense the ending would have been had Cleveland been at midfield in the closing minutes, as it was, needing just a field goal to win it instead of a touchdown.

• There are those – mostly Browns fans – saying Fitzpatrick didn't have to go low to tackle Chubb on a hit that resulted in his knee injury.

That's hogwash.

Chubb is a physical runner. And he's a tackle breaker, as he showed several times in this game alone.

You do what you need to do to get him on the ground – legally. And Fitzpatrick's hit on him was legal.

It's unfortunate Chubb was injured. He's a fantastic player. But there was nothing dirty or intentional about it.

To suggest otherwise is ridiculous. It's football. Players unfortunately get injured.

• So, the Steelers are now 1-1 with a win in the AFC and, more importantly, a win in the AFC North under their belt.

A quick look at the AFC standings shows that only two teams, Miami and Baltimore, are sitting at 2-0.

The loss last week to the 49ers was a tough one. You never want to lose a game like that.

But in the grand scheme of things, losing an NFC game isn't the end of the world.

The Steelers didn't make the playoffs a year ago because of their record within the AFC and because of who they lost to. So, getting a win while also handing a loss to Cleveland – even this early – is big.

The Browns were feeling pretty good about themselves after whipping the Bengals in Week 1. Now, not so much.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are feeling good after getting this one.

• That people still argue who is better, Watt or Garrett, is interesting.

They've played the exact same number of times against each other after both were selected in the first round of the 2017 draft.

In 11 games, Watt has 16 sacks. In the same number of games, Garrett has 7.

Now, they don't take the field together. And Garrett's a great player. But he has way too many disappearing acts as he did in this one – at least against the Steelers.

Then again, even though San Francisco won that meeting last week, the Steelers shut out Nick Bosa on the stat sheet much the same way they did Garrett.

"I credit (offensive line coach) Pat Meyer to all of our protection stuff, coming up with a good game plan to make sure we're not putting ourselves in bad spots and not letting these elite pass rushers we've seen the first two weeks of the season ruin a game," said Cole. "And we'll see one next week, as well."

That would be the Raiders' Maxx Crosby. If the Steelers can pitch another shutout against an elite rusher, they should have a good opportunity to win that game.

• Elijah Riley was pressed into service when Fitzpatrick left the game with a chest injury.

He missed Watson for a sack on a second down blitz from the Pittsburgh 47.

But when he got another opportunity, he got Cleveland's quarterback on the ground.

Thing is, Riley wasn't rushing the passer on that occasion. He was dropping into short zone coverage and saw an opportunity when Watson stepped up in the pocket.

"See ball, get ball. I was in coverage," Riley said. " I had some making up to do."

• It's hard to overstate how important an early defensive touchdown like the one scored by Highsmith is to what happens in the remainder of a game.

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

When it happens, it's almost like sharks smelling blood in the water. And it most certainly fires up the crowd.

"I think guys were just playing fast. That first play with Alex getting the touchdown, that really set the momentum," said Ogunkobi. "Then, we just started playing off each other. It was kind of one of those domino effects."

• For Highsmith, it was the first touchdown in a long time. And when we say long time, we mean a long time.

"That's my first one since Pop Warner. It's been a while," he said.

That interception was being in the right place at the right time as the ball was tipped into the air.

As for his strip-sack late, that came from film study.

"Coming into the play, second and long, I got a feeling it could be play-action, so I widened my alignment a little bit and shot up the field," Highsmith said. "I saw him and tried to get the ball out. I was kind of anticipating before the play."

Linebackers begin to get a true feel for the game by the time they get four or five years into the league. And they still have the athleticism to make all the plays at that time.

The athleticism fades over time, but the football knowledge does not.

Both Watt and Highsmith are in the primes of their respective careers right now.