For 59 minutes and 46 seconds, the Cleveland Browns won their Thursday night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The final score was 21-7, and it was never really close.
But everything changed on a meaningless 3rd and 29 with 14 seconds left. Instead of gearing up for a playoff push at 4-6, the Browns are now without DE Myles Garrett for the rest of the season, and perhaps longer.
DT Larry Ogunjobi and Pittsburgh C Maurkice Pouncey were also suspended, with QB Mason Rudolph to be fined. Rudolph likely deserved a suspension as well.
There is plenty of good to take away from Cleveland’s victory, but also some bad that, if not improved, would prevent the team from making the postseason, if they’d had their superstar pass rusher.
Offensively, Baker Mayfield‘s decision-making was very up-and-down. He nearly threw a pick-six to Steven Nelson in the second half, and his second touchdown pass to Stephen Carlson really should have been intercepted. A few times Mayfield missed his targets significantly, which could mean he’s still not on the same page as his receivers.
On the flip side, he probably threw the ball better than he has all season — against an excellent defense nonetheless. His near-touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. on the opening drive of the game was perfectly placed. He converted a key third down with a pinpoint drop to Kareem Hunt. Mayfield still isn’t consistently as good as he was a season ago, but he’s getting there. These past two weeks, against good defenses, have been huge steps forward for him.
RB Nick Chubb had a rough day. He carried the ball 27 times, but was held to 92 yards, an average of 3.4 yards per carry, nearly two full yards below his season average. On the plus side, he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, the first NFL player to do that in 2019.
Freddie Kitchens kept running Chubb up the middle for minimal gain. On one hand, it’s good that Kitchens continued to run the ball, since that’s what this offense (sans the line) is built to do. On the other hand, if you keep getting stuffed and aren’t able to open any holes, it’s probably a good idea to find a different way to move the ball.
Another mistake Kitchens made was going conservative after Cleveland scored its second touchdown. The level of opponent could have been taken into account in these decisions (Mason Rudolph was horrible). Still, with the struggles the Browns have had this season on both sides of the ball, a 14-point lead isn’t exactly safe, especially not one over a division rival they hadn’t beaten in five years.
The defense played well as a unit, allowing seven points. The pass rush was effective, and Cleveland was finally able to stop the run. However, they were helped out by the atrocious play of Rudolph, as well as injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Conner.
Pittsburgh’s lone scoring drive wasn’t due to their offense suddenly playing well; it was due to multiple penalties by the Browns. The lack of discipline returned, and showed itself in more than just penalties. Garrett and Ogunjobi were ejected for their roles in the scrum, but earlier on Damarious Randall was also thrown out for a hit on a defenseless receiver, one which concussed Johnson.
Cleveland will face the Miami Dolphins next week, a game they should absolutely win. That would put them at 5-6 with a chance to get back to .500 in Pittsburgh on December 1st. The playoffs suddenly aren’t out of reach anymore, but it will be incredibly difficult for the Browns to finish any better than 7-9 without their best player.