ReFo: Browns @ Steelers, Week 17
This game was never really as close as the final score makes it look, and it ended a 13-point game. The Steelers were up 14-0 at the half and should have been further ahead. They added to that tally with a pair of field goals that ended drives that perhaps should have ended in touchdowns, and all this while the Browns were showing very little signs of life themselves on offense.
Only a late score from them with the game long out of reach brought an air of respectability to the scoreboard, but this game was a tale of a side with something to play for against one with nothing. The Steelers needed to win and hope things broke their way elsewhere, and they did just that. Only San Diego refused to play ball and snuck into the playoffs in the final Wild Card spot while the Steelers were left to rue earlier losses.
Cleveland — Three Performances of Note
Struggling Left Side
It’s not often there is much heat coming from the quarterback’s left with Joe Thomas locking down the left tackle spot, but he had an unusually iffy performance in this game, surrendering a sack (just his second of the season) and three further hurries as well as being flagged twice during the game. His relatively poor performance was exacerbated by rookie LG Garrett Gilkey getting his first start and struggling inside him. Gilkey surrendered a sack also, along with two further pressures, but was also poor in the run game where he was routinely bullied at the point of attack, as well as being blown up in the backfield by Troy Polamalu on a run blitz early in the game. The right side of the line had an easier time of things in this game, but if the Browns can nail down their guards, this is a promising line for a new quarterback to do his work behind.
AWOL Pass Rush
The Browns were supposed to have revamped their pass rush this offseason. They spent big on Desmond Bryant on the D-line as well as Paul Kruger on the edge and drafted Barkevious Mingo in the first round. That is three big investments in one area, and not one of them has really repaid yet. Cleveland’s leading sacker this season is holdover Jabaal Sheard and he is the only rusher really with a positive pass-rush grade. This game the only one to show up was DL Billy Winn, who notched a sack and three hurries. Kruger was the only other defender with multiple pressures on the day and neither he nor Mingo were really threats against the Steelers’ passing game that was taking shots deep and holding the ball for plenty time for them to influence the play.
D’Qwell Does Not Enjoy Blockers
Most games in a season D’Qwell Jackson does OK, but when he has a bad game they tend to be very bad, and are often because the Browns D-line can’t keep offensive linemen off him at the second level. This has always been the book on Jackson, and was why he was originally so poor in a 3-4 but better as a 4-3 linebacker. This game was a great example of Jackson just being controlled by blockers whenever they got near him. He made just a single defensive stop and really failed to influence the game in a positive way at all, despite it being set up for him to do so. Jackson isn’t a bad linebacker, but the Browns might need to look at adding a bit more steel up the middle going forward. If they don’t then they need to do a better job up front keeping him clean.
Pittsburgh — Three Performances of Note
Le’Veon Bell ran the ball well in the game and did a lot of the heavy lifting himself, but for the most part the Steelers’ blockers helped him out pretty well too. Only Kelvin Beachum at LT failed to grade in the green for his run blocking and he made up for that by keeping a clean sheet in pass protection. Marcus Gilbert was the one to fall short of a green grade overall thanks to surrendering a sack and four hurries while the interior trio of Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace and David DeCastro all had fine games in both areas. It’s perhaps telling that the Steelers are able to put together this kind of performance without Maurkice Pouncey in the middle.
It took them far too long to do it, but the switch from Ziggy Hood to Cameron Heyward has most definitely improved the Pittsburgh defensive line. Heyward’s performance put him above +10.0 in grade for the season, which is a full 20 grading points better than Hood ever managed in a full season, including this one. Heyward has actually outshone Brett Keisel too this season, though the more experienced veteran remains capable of impressive games. This was one of his better, notching a sack and three hurries by displaying the consistently surprising speed off the snap he has to good effect. There was a certain section of Pittsburgh fans who maintained for years that Hood’s role in the defense just didn’t translate well to grading, and yet in a direct swap Heyward seems able to grade perfectly well in it.
We’ll Miss Him When He’s Gone
Troy Polamalu has always been a polarizing player. He has also been a player that relies on gambling and educated guesswork at times in games. It’s what leads to most of his big plays, but can also lead to him getting badly caught out when it doesn’t work or when he gets it wrong. The point, however, is that it’s exciting either way, and so unusual that it really is great to watch. He was in fine form in this game, flying all over the field and making a nuisance of himself, confusing the Browns’ offense and getting involved in run plays. He also recovered the onside kick late in the game to seal the win once and for all. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that defense is more interesting to watch when Polamalu is on the field.
– Ben Roethlisberger went deep (20+) seven times in the game, completing none and tossing an interception.
– The Steelers QB was pressured on just eight drop-backs, which is just as well, because his passer rating on those plays was 7.5
– Kruger and Lawrence Timmons led the game with five defensive stops each. Timmons made his from just five tackles, while Kruger took seven.
PFF Game Ball
This was a game without many true standouts, but Le’Veon Bell ran hard all game, forcing five missed tackles and gaining 60 of his 90 yards after contact.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam