Steelers at Browns: 3 things we learned


Le’Veon Bell and a sack-happy defense helped the Pittsburgh Steelers grind out a 24-9 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 11. Here’s what we learned about both teams.

Bell was at his workhorse best as the Steelers turned back the clock on both sides of the ball. Offensively, it was ground and pound stuff with Bell leading the way.

This also looked a lot more like the old Steelers on defense. Linebackers blitzed at will from multiple spots, as Pittsburgh routinely punctured the pass pocket.

Browns quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Josh McCown were the unfortunate victims, suffering through eights sacks. Yet neither was helped by the lack of a credible running game to slow pressure and provide balance.

Here are the three main lessons from Cleveland’s 11th-straight loss this season.

Browns pay the price for offensive line cull

When you give up eight sacks you know your offensive line had a bad day. When you manage just 33 yards rushing against one of the NFL‘s weakest run defenses, you know the problems up front go deeper than just one day.

Of course, the Browns issues in the trenches do go beyond this week’s failings. The irony is the deep-seated issues are all of the Browns’ own making. In particular, the making of dubious front office decisions. None more so than the decision to let two quality linemen bolt in free agency this offseason.

Center Alex Mack was allowed to join the Atlanta Falcons. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz left to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Those were two obvious building blocks for any competent offensive front. It’s no wonder tragically miscast holdover left tackle Joe Thomas is feeling lonesome.

He summed up the right sentiment when asked about the ill-advised culling of the O-line after losing to the Steelers, per Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

Le’Veon Bell drives the Steelers offense

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is one of the league’s best. Antonio Brown is the premier wide receiver in football. But the success of the Pittsburgh offense ultimately depends on Bell’s production.

He offered ample proof of his importance by shouldering an awesome workload in Cleveland. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley dialled Bell’s number early and often and never went away from him.

Haley designed a clock-eating attack around Bell’s rushing skills and chops as a receiver. His dual-threat skills meant he accounted for most of the touches and yards for an offense that put together several long marches.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlined Bell’s significance by detailing his contribution to the Steelers’ second scoring drive:

The Steelers rely on Bell and aren’t afraid to put the burden on him, as Dulac noted at the half:

Of course, it makes sense for Haley to have put the game in Bell’s hands this week. After all, the Browns have been soft on the ground all season.

Bell’s also a dynamic runner, slippery between the tackles and deceptively quick around the corner. Yet not many backs boast his talent as a receiver.

Bell finished with 28 carries for 146 yards and eight catches for 55. Now he’s back and up to speed, he should remain the focal point of this offense.

Bringing back the blitz the best thing for Steelers defense

If you didn’t know better, you could have believed it was the mid-nineties Steelers defense or the 2005-’11 unit. Back then, it was all about the blitz for Pittsburgh.

Things have been different this season with head coach Mike Tomlin and coordinator Keith Butler content to rely on a more passive brand of defense. But Butler turned back the clock this week, dialling up the Steelers once trademark brand of fire-zone pressure all day.

The Steelers swarmed on the Browns for eight sacks. They knocked quarterback Cody Kessler out of the game and punished backup Josh McCown.

Yet it was the manner of how the Steelers brought pressure that stood out. Butler had linebackers rush from all over formations.

He disguised pressure pre-snap, by showing an overload on one side, before actually bringing the rush from the opposite side. Butler also regularly moved his linebackers around.

It meant lining up outside ‘backers such as James Harrison and Jarvis Jones on the inside. Meanwhile, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons wrecked the game blitzing off the edge.

The Browns had no answer for all these moving pieces. Kessler and McCown tried audible after audible, but no adjustment worked. They just added to the confusion and panic pre-snap.

Next: NFL Playoff picture 2016: After Week 11 early games

In all, Steelers linebackers accounted for 4.5 of the team’s eight sacks. Shazier’s hit knocked the ball loose from McCown, and rookie Javon Hargrave recovered for the decisive touchdown.

This was vintage zone-blitz stuff from the Steelers. It’s how Butler’s defense should play every week.