The Pittsburgh Steelers are now gearing up for a postseason run. Their regular season finale meant nothing to their playoff status, so one might argue that they may not have been putting their best foot forward. The effort that they showed to win the game might suggest otherwise, but either way, I don’t see a very good excuse to explain the defense’s overall performance against a poor Cleveland Browns offense.
The Steelers rested four starters on offense—all Pro Bowlers—but the only player who was healthy who sat on the defensive side of the ball, despite dressing, was the 38-year-old James Harrison, who was primarily replaced by Jarvis Jones—who had a sack, a forced fumble, and a batted pass at the line, by the way.
The only other player of note missing was Stephon Tuitt, who has been dealing with a knee injury that he suffered three games ago. So the Steelers have been playing with a thin defensive line. But they performed much better in the past two games against two better offenses than they did today.
Robert Griffin III did not throw a touchdown pass in his first four starts this year. He threw two today, to a pair of tight ends, in the first half. He completed just under 75 percent of his passes, though for just 232 yards on 40 attempts, and the defense did take him down four times—which is below his average, as he was sacked 18 times in his first four starts.
Ryan Shazier did come up with an interception at the goal line, and as mentioned, Jones did force a fumble from just five yards out. The defense came up with two turnovers in the red zone, so that has to count for something.
But the Browns still went three for six in the red zone, and two for four with goal to go, and they converted eight of 15 plays on third down. They totaled 231 yards on the ground on 30 rushes, averaging 7.1 yards per play.
Isaiah Crowell gained 152 yards on his own on 19 carries, including a 67-yard run. Griffin added 32 yards on his own on five carries, and they had a few others contribute to their overall total. The young, thin, and tired defensive line was clearly not at its best against the Browns’ running game today.
There was also the double move that Artie Burns got burned on by Terrelle Pryor for 43 yards that looked to set up a game-winning score, before Crowell fumbled at the three-yard line. And the defense did at least show hustle in recovering the ball on a botched snap late in the first half that set up the offense’s first score.
Overall, this is certainly not the defensive performance that the Steelers were looking to put out on tape in their final showing before the playoffs. Down only two starters, it’s hard to argue that this should have been expected. It was a bit of a disappointing showing, but, given the circumstances, perhaps it should not be viewed as a foreshadowing of things to come.