Sunday was certainly a bittersweet day for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh handled its business by recording a 28-14 win over the Browns, but was eliminated from playoff contention after the Dolphins kicked a late field goal to defeat the Jets.
While they won’t be playing this postseason, the Steelers’ late surge should be a sign of good things to come for Mike Tomlin’s team. The Steelers, who ushered in a new era this season with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, finished the season with a 9-8 record after a 3-7 start. The Steelers increased their NFL-best streak of non-losing seasons to 19, while Tomlin extended his record of 16 straight non-losing seasons to begin a coaching career.
The Steelers’ resilience this season was again on display on Sunday. Pittsburgh fell behind early before scoring 20 unanswered points against the Browns, who finished last in the AFC North for a second straight year. Cleveland cut its deficit to 20-14 in the second half before Derek Watt’s touchdown run and Diontae Johnson’s two-point conversion catch gave the home team an insurmountable 14-point lead with under five minutes left.
George Pickens’ 31-yard touchdown catch tied the score after David Njoku’s 10-yard touchdown catch gave the Browns a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The Steelers took their first lead just before halftime when Levi Wallace’s interception of Deshaun Watson set up Chris Boswell’s first of two field goals.
Pittsburgh’s lead swelled to 13 points when Damontae Kazee’s interception set up Najee Harris’ 3-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Watt’s game-clinching score occurred moments after Nick Chubb caught Watson’s second touchdown of the game from 2 yards out.
Here’s a closer look at what transpired in Pittsburgh.
Why the Steelers won
The Steelers overcame an early miscue when Harris fumbled just before reaching the Browns’ goal line on Pittsburgh’s first drive. Harris responded by running for 84 of the Steelers’ 148 yards on 37 carries. Harris finished the season with 1,038 yards while becoming the first Pittsburgh running back to run for 1,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons.
Pittsburgh’s success on the ground helped open things up for Pickett, who finished the season with a 7-5 record as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. Pickett completed several clutch third down passes as the Steelers went 9 of 15 on third down.
Pittsburgh’s defense, one of the league’s best during the season’s last two months, sacked Watson seven times. Alex Highsmith recorded 2.5 sacks of Watson while increasing his season total to 14.5 sacks, which is tied for the fifth-highest single season total in franchise history. The Steelers’ defense, which tallied an NFL best 20 interceptions, recorded two interceptions on Sunday that led to 10 points.
Why the Browns lost
Once again, the Browns failed to fully utilize their greatest asset: the running game. Chubb finished the game with 77 yards on just 12 carries. Kareem Hunt had just four carries, while the majority of Watson’s 44 rushing yards came out of desperation.
Cleveland’s defense had its moments, especially in the first half. But their inability to stop the run allowed Pickett to find his rhythm in the second half. The Browns’ defensive futility on third down also loomed large in Sunday’s outcome.
Neither team had separated itself from the other until Kazee’s pick of Watson late in the third quarter. Pittsburgh’s offense capitalized on the short field after Harris punched it home for his 10th total touchdown of the season.
Play of the game
The game was still in doubt after Watson hit Chubb five minutes into the fourth quarter. The Steelers’ offense, however, ended any thoughts of a Cleveland comeback after Pickett and Co. drove 75 yards on 14 plays on their ensuing drive. Pickett made two clutch third down conversions on the drive: a 17-yard completion to Pickens and a 27-yard completion to rookie tight end Connor Heyward.
Heyward’s catch helped set up the Steelers’ final touchdown of the year while serving as our play of the game. Heyward, Pickett, Jaylen Warren and DeMarvin Leal are among the Steelers’ promising rookies who will be charged with helping bring the Steelers back to a championship contending level in the coming years.
“We were an evolving group. And that evolution continued even into today. I’m just appreciative of the collective. I’m appreciative of the men, not what they’re capable of but what they’re willing to do in the face of adversity. … Hopefully, we learned something. Hopefully, we taught others something in the mind of our journey.” — Tomlin on the 2022 Steelers
Both teams will quickly turn the page to the 2023 offseason. The Browns enter the offseason looking to improve a roster that needs upgrades at several positions, including receiver, defensive line and linebacker. Cleveland handicapped its ability to strengthen its roster given Watson’s sizable salary and the draft picks given up to acquire him.
Pittsburgh will look to build off what was a strong finish to the 2022 season. Cornerback and inside linebacker are two positions the Steelers will likely look to strengthen during Omar Khan’s first full offseason as the Steelers’ general manager.