The Steelers finished their turnaround of the 2022 season with a win over the Cleveland Browns. Improving their record to a 9-8 final mark. Their slim chance to make the playoffs was finally snuffed out after weeks of staying alive, but they still showed growth and hopefully are able to build off of this season and keep winning in 2023.
The Steelers scored 28 points on 9 possessions (3.11 points per drive), their best scoring efficiency of the season and the only game to cross the 3 points per drive threshold. No team in 2022 averages 3 points a drive for the season, so today would have been an above average scoring day for any team in the NFL. When you look a step further, the Steelers reached scoring range on six of their nine drives. While the Steelers have been moving into scoring range pretty well recently, they were settling for field goals too often. In this game, they scored three touchdowns on those 6 drives, that’s a good mark.
The real story of this win over the Browns is the Steelers youth leading the way. The Steelers play four rookies on offense, Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Jaylen Warren and Connor Heyward. Looking past Kenny Pickett for a moment, the other three rookies combined for 166 yards and a touchdown in this game. George Pickens led both teams in receiving yards and scored a touchdown while converting three third downs (two catches, one pass interference penalty), Connor Heyward’s 51 yards was third on the Steelers and only Nick Chubb for the Browns had more yards than Heyward. If you add in second year player Najee Harris, 260 of the Steelers 337 total yards and two of their three touchdowns came from players in their first or second season in the NFL.
On the other side of the coin, Diontae Johnson, who at 26 years old is the oldest of the main offensive contributors, was targeted 10 times with only 2 catches and 32 yards. The Steelers tried to go to Johnson numerous times, especially on potential scoring plays, but it wasn’t working out well in this game.
One big winner for this game was Matt Canada’s running game. The Steelers gained 27 yards and scored a touchdown on 5 runs from a wide receiver or an H-back. While there is always criticism of the unconventional runs when they don’t work, they have been a source of above average gains the entire year and four of the five in this game resulted in a touchdown or first down. Whatever you think of his passing plays and strategies, the Steelers are 8th in rushing the second half of the season, the Steelers haven’t finished in the top ten in rushing yards for a whole season since Mike Tomlin’s first season as head coach in 2007 , and did so with Najee Harris decreasing his touches by 17.8% compared to 2021.
Honor Roll: George Pickens, Najee Harris, Connor Heyward, Kenny Pickett.
Demerits: Diontae Johnson, Three fumbles.
Final Grade: A
The defense faced ten Cleveland possessions and gave up only 14 points, a 1.4 points per drive mark that is also better than any team is averaging for the season in 2022. The Browns had six possessions in the first half, and only once had a drive with more than 5 plays. The Steelers sacked Deshaun Watson 7 times and intercepted him twice. They held Amari Cooper to 51 yards. If you compare the stats from this game with the game in Cleveland earlier this season, the Steelers ability to harass Deshaun Watson into making mistakes and capitalize on those mistakes was the main difference in the game.
I’d like to point to the Browns rushing total of 134 yards being significantly lower than in Week 3, but that wasn’t because of the Steelers defense, but the Browns simply choosing not to run the ball. Nick Chubb ran 6 times for 39 yards (6.5 ypc) in the first half, and that inspired his coaches to call on him to run the ball 6 times for 36 yards (6 ypc) in the second half. Deshaun Watson added 44 yards on 6 carries (7.33 ypc). Consider that the Browns gained a measly 4.81 net yards per pass play, and it becomes more questionable why they didn’t really try to establish the run. Even if you count every run by Watson as a scramble and add them into the passing plays, it only gets to 5.17 yards per called pass play, and 5.63 yards per called run play, with 42 called passes and 16 called runs.
The Steelers played a good game, and they clearly focused on attacking Watson, and did so successfully. It’s just that the Browns decided to help them out and leaned into the Steelers strategy instead of attacking the Steelers with Nick Chubb, who despite only 12 carries ran for 77 yards and added 45 yards and a touchdown as a receiver. He was their best player in the running game and the passing game, and only touched the ball 16 times.
Getting back to the Steelers side of the game, Cameron Heyward led the way with 3 sacks, although one was taken away by possibly the worst roughing the passer call of the season, and that’s a hard title to win. He was creating pressure all game and was in on a lot of tackles as well. Alex Highsmith led the Steelers in solo tackles and sacks that count officially with 2.5 in another stellar game for the third year outside linebacker. Larry Ogunjobi was disruptive in the Browns backfield a lot and TJ Watt played another stellar game while avoiding putting many numbers on the stats sheet.
The secondary came away with two more interceptions and almost added a third, they ended the season tied for first in the NFL in team interceptions at 20. The Steelers rank second in the NFL in interceptions since Teryl Austin and Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team in 2019. The Steelers also rank first in completion percentage against and have allowed the least yards after catch in the NFL at that time. The Steelers in 2022 rank third in completion percentage allowed and 8th in yards after catch allowed. Despite injuries and the loss of talent the Steelers cornerback room has seen, the Steelers defensive backs have continued to be solid, for the most part.
Honor Roll: Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kevin Stefanski.
Demerits: Tackling Nick Chubb.
Final Grade: A
Pressley Harvin III averaged 48 yards per punt on his 3 punts, Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Steve Sims did a solid job returning punts. The Steelers punt coverage team was as good as always, while the kickoff coverage team allowed one good return on 6 kicks. All three Browns kickoffs went for touchbacks. It was a solid day overall with nothing to complain or be excited about.
Honor Roll: Derek Watt, Pressley Harvin III, Chris Boswell.
Final Grade: B
The Steelers came into Week 18 needing a win to have any hope of making the playoffs, and they did what they needed to do. They also ensured a winning record for the season and a full split of their AFC North games, winning and losing to each of their division rivals. The team played a good game in all aspects and set their largest margin of victory for the season. More than that, the team completed a turnaround from 2-6 to 9-8, and in the final game of the season the Steelers young offense outplayed the Browns highly paid stars on their offense. That bodes well for the future of the Steelers and is surely sending Browns fans into a tailspin. You never want to end your season before the playoffs start, but if you do, this is about the best way to do it.
Final Grade: A
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