By Jeremy Hritz
27 points surrendered in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions last week, and the narrative for the remainder of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers season seemed to be headed back to NFL Draft discussions and potential top ten picks. But when the final seconds of the clock ticked away at Heinz Field, the Steelers earned their fourth victory 37-27, and somehow, put themselves right back in the Wild Card hunt in an unremarkable AFC.
In what has been a season of inconsistency for a team desperately searching for an identity, the bipolar nature of the team flashed itself once again in the first half against the Lions.
Initially, the Steelers came out gangbusters in the first quarter, establishing a 14-0 lead off of two Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown touchdown passes, while the defense held the Lions scoreless. Yet in the second quarter, the confused and seemingly overmatched Steelers from their six losses made an appearance as Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson made light work of the Ike Taylor and company.
When the first half was complete, the Lions were leading 27-20, and the Steelers appeared that they were headed straight to their seventh loss without any hope.
But then a crazy thing happened.
The Steelers defense that looked so pathetically weak in the second quarter suddenly looked formidable and in control, giving up 35 passing yards in the second half and holding Megatron without a catch.
Additionally, Roethlisberger led the longest scoring drive of his career of 97 yards and put together one of his best games as a Steeler, throwing for four touchdowns and making clutch plays in crucial moments. And to credit the offensive line that has been annihilated by criticism this year, they handled the Lions pass rush competently, allowing only one sack of their franchise QB.
With that said, how does a team that has lost to the Titans, Vikings, and Raiders, and that has been blown out by the Patriots, score 37 points against a solid Lions defense and tighten up when necessary against an explosive Detroit offense?
The uncertainty about just what kind of Steelers team this is continues, but after this win, you have to ask the question of whether or not this team is starting to realize its potential.
Was the performance of the defense in the second half, according to what Mike Tomlin said, attributable to what the Lions didn’t do on offense? Or was it a result of dominant effort from the Steelers?
Was it the weather that stifled the Lions offense?
It couldn’t be that the Steelers are actually good, right?
While not a complete game by the Steelers, the win against the Lions was their biggest win to date, and it looks as if they are developing and that their younger players are assimilating the system, offensively and defensively.
Could it be that as the youngsters and the new starters become more and more comfortable, the less and less we will see of the uneven Steelers?
This narrative has yet to play out, but the contest today against the Cleveland Browns could help to provide some clarity to the direction of this team in the second half of the season.
The Steelers have not won more than two games in a row this year, and the only time that they did prior to this, they lost to the Oakland Raiders.
Traveling to Cleveland today, the Steelers have an opportunity to establish their first three game winning streak of 2013, and to take control of second place in the AFC North at 5-6, one step closer to .500. To do so, the Steelers will have to continue to shed themselves of unevenness and to steady their performance throughout an entire game.
Offensively, the Steelers will not be getting a break this week against a Cleveland defense capable of generating pressure. The Browns defense enters this contest ranked 4th overall, 4th against the pass and 8th against the run. Despite these averages, the Browns are still allowing 23.8 points per game; however, they are capable of making big plays, recording eight interceptions and 31 sacks. Rewinding to the Steelers game in Cleveland from 2012, the Steelers turned the football over eight times and dropped the match-up 20-14. In the words of Coach Tomlin, “obviously” the Steelers cannot afford a repeat performance of 2012 if they are to stay in the Wild Card race.
Defensively, the Steelers will be battling against a Cleveland offense that outside of wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, does not have any other weapons. Their running game has been just as challenged as the Steelers, averaging only 83.6 yards per game, and their passing game led by Jason Campbell has been average at its best. Ultimately, an assignment-sound performance from the Steelers defense should be enough to keep the Browns off of the scoreboard. The question is can the Steelers do it?
The Steelers provided some optimism after their wins against the Jets and the Ravens only to let down against the Raiders by giving up big plays, and with six losses, it isn’t difficult to imagine them losing this contest against the Browns.
Last week against the Lions, Roethlisberger stepped up and led his Steelers to a trademark win, and he is undoubtedly arriving in Cleveland with momentum and a 15-1 record overall against the Browns.
These are two teams clawing to stay in the race for a playoff spot which will make for a close AFC North contest.
The Steelers continue their quest for consistency and play a balanced game in all phases.
Steelers 27 Browns 17