For the third straight Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers played a 1:00 home game at sun-splashed Heinz Field, and while this one lacked the drama of last week’s last-second win over the Oakland Raiders, the storyline was almost as compelling. In an unusual move Mike Tomlin decided to dress Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers backup quarterback even though he was nursing an injured left foot and had been limited all week in practice. It was expected that Landry Jones would be the starter, but the assumption was that if Ben was not healthy enough to start, Mike Vick would dress as the backup. Vick said as much after practice on Friday. Mike Tomlin decided otherwise and when Landry Jones suffered a left ankle sprain on the Steelers’ second drive, it was time to turn to Roethlisberger.
Making only the second relief appearance of this career (the other came in his first NFL appearance in week two of his rookie season), Roethlisberger was outstanding. He finished the day 22-33 for 379 yards and 3 TDs, 1 INT. He also helped draw another 141 yards in pass interference penalties that won’t show up in his numbers. The offense put up 21 points in the first half and added a field goal on their opening drive of the second half making it 24-3 and it was pretty much over. Defensively the Steelers were able to generate a ton of pressure on Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, registering a season-high six sacks and causing three more turnovers. They were stout against the run, but did give up a ton of yards versus the passing game, a season-long concern. The 30-9 final was the Steelers 12th straight home win over the Browns and raises the their record to 6-4 as they head into the bye week.
*Landry Jones suffered a sprained left ankle when it was stepped on just seven offensive plays into the game. It was unclear whether he could have returned if needed, but once Roethlisberger entered the game, it was his to win or lose. Sean Spence suffered a hamstring injury.
James Harrison, Matt Spaeth and Shamarko Thomas were inactive due to injury.
The Steelers put up 30+ for the third time this season, all at home, and the second week in a row. They punted on their opening drive, but that was it. The running game struggled until late in the game, but the passing game with Ben at the controls finally appears to be hitting its stride.
*Seven plays into the game Landry Jones went out with an ankle injury and Ben Roethlisberger rode in on his Arabian Charger to save the day. Number seven authored seven pass plays of 20+ yards and got four more pass interference calls of 29 or more yards. Contrary to conventional wisdom Ben has not always thrown a great deep ball. He consistently underthrew Mike Wallace during their time together and he underthrew Antonio Brown on a would-be TD just last week. But, he is throwing deep better now than at any point in his career and he has developed into one of the best in the game. He threw deep often and exceptionally well yesterday. His 286-yard first half was the second best in career and he finished with a passer rating of 123.2 and a lofty 11.5 yards per passing attempt. He ran the no-huddle fluidly, he moved well in the pocket, particularly considering his physical limitations, and he looked comfortable and in command throughout. Outstanding performance. I imagine Landry Jones is looking over his shoulder.
*After his record-setting 17-catch, 284-yard performance last week Antonio Brown was ready for an encore. He filled the stat sheet again with 10 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Brown also drew back-to-back pass interference penalties of 39 and 38 yards and also drew a 29-yard PI in the end zone before the Steelers knelt out the clock to end the game. With just under eight minutes left in the opening quarter and Ben Roethlisberger having thrown incomplete in AB’s direction on his first two plays guiding the offense, the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-15 from their own 15. Last week AB took a short cross in a similar situation and stiff-armed a Raider defender for a first down. This time he again took a shallow cross, eluded two defenders, set up a block and gained 16. It was the Steelers longest third down conversion of the year. In the fourth quarter he took a quick slant from Ben. The Browns had no safeties in the middle of the field. Good luck with that. 56 yards later, he did this. I imagine a lot of people weren’t thrilled that Brown risked injury with the celebration, but damn, can you imagine attempting that, running full speed? Some kind of crazy athleticism. AB is first in the league in receiving yards, second in catches, yards/game and catches of 20+ yards and third in first down catches. This while having Mike Vick start three of his ten games at QB.
*Martavis Bryant has developed into one of the league’s premiere home run hitters. He’s third in the league averaging 20.0 yards/catch and is averaging 21.6 for his career. Sunday he had 6 catches for 178 yards, both career highs, and a TD. He made an unbelievable back-half-of-the-football catch for 64 yards that was a good as it gets (unfortunately he fumbled after making the catch) and has 13 TDs in 15 career games. It can’t be fun being a defensive coordinator scheming to stop both AB and Martavis. I honestly believe his ceiling is Randy Moss.
*The offensive line got abused in the first half before stabilizing later in the game. The Browns defense has been one of the worst in the league against the run, but they were stout early while Landry Jones was in the game. The difficulties were across the board. Even David DeCastro whiffed on a block when pulling. Hopefully just a blip, but this wasn’t a good day for the boys up front.
*The Steelers offense was only 1-6 in the red zone after being generally very good in that area all season. The stat is slightly misleading because the Steelers knelt out the game on the Browns goal line, and some of it can be attributed to the lack of a running game due to Ben’s injury.
The bend-but-don’t-break defense that we’ve seen much of this season was back after struggling last week against the Raiders when they gave up five TDs. The defense has been great at limiting points because they’ve been able to generate turnovers and they got three more this week. The run defense was solid, the pass defense, not so much, giving up 372 yards. Not many notable individual performances one way or the other.
*9 points. It’s the second time the Steelers have held a team to single-digit points. That is tough to do in the NFL. They are fifth-best in the league allowing just 19.1 points/game. They also held the Browns to 1-4 in the red zone.
*The Steelers got a season-high six sacks against a very mobile QB and generated pressure throughout. They also created three turnovers including their fourth goal line interception in the last five games.
*The defense held the Browns to 15 yards rushing on 14 attempts, the second lowest total rushing output in the regular season series between the two teams which encompasses 125 games.
*I’m not sure Cam Thomas has been listed on this side of the ledger at any point in his Steelers career, but he made a great hustle play in this one. On 1st-and-10 on the Steelers 12, Johnny Manziel avoided the rush and scrambled down to the one. Thomas made an excellent tackle to save the TD. The Browns ended up throwing an INT later on the drive and came away with no points.
*Johnny Maiziel played probably the best game of his career Sunday, carving up the Steelers for 372 yards passing. The Steelers are 27th in the NFL in passing yards against/game. This is a stat that doesn’t bode well for a deep playoff run.
*Kicker Chris Boswell missed an extra point, but made three more FGs and is 14-15 in his career.
*Last week I wrote:
New acquisition Jacoby Jones returned two punts for 2 yards and four kickoffs for 20.8 yard average and looked bad doing it. He also let a punt bounce and be downed when he should have made a fair catch. More of that and he may not be around long.
This week he muffed a kickoff, he muffed a punt, watched another kickoff roll around in the end zone and returned one punt for zero yards. I’d give him one more week, but it looks like a bad signing.
*It was an aggressive and uncharacteristic decision by Mike Tomlin to dress but not start Ben Roethlisberger. It turned out to be a great decision.
*Repeating last week, Todd Haley play design on 2-point conversions continues to be excellent and I continue to like Mike Tomlin’s aggressiveness in going for 2. The Steelers converted their fifth of the season. The NFL single-season record is 6.
*Late in the first half the Steelers went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Browns 1 with 1:35 left. If you read this column regularly or listen to my show, you know I am a huge proponent of going for it on 4th down on virtually every occasion. I liked it here as well even though it didn’t work out.
*Tomlin used his timeouts correctly at the end of the half and it led to the Steelers getting the ball back and getting a late TD.
*While Tomlin did use his timeouts correctly at the end of the first half, he unnecessarily let 6-7 second run off before calling the first one. A small detail, but the process needs to be right. The Steelers already lost one game this year because they ran out of time.
*I try not to often question play calls, but on the 4th-and-1 situation discussed above, I hated the call. The pass to Bryant in the corner seemed like a play with a very low probability of success. The Steelers have been great in that area, that call seemed out of character.
Big Officiating Calls:
*I thought the refs did a reasonably good job in this one although I think the Steelers got a break on the second of the back-to-back pass interference calls on Antonio Brown. I also thought both of the replay calls that were challenged, one by each team, could have been overturned. But, overall the refs were a non-factor.
Up Next: The Steelers are off next week. They return to action against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle, Sunday November 29. Kickoff at Safeco Field is scheduled for 4:25 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.