Steelers fumble away important game in road loss against Browns
CLEVELAND — Three Steelers interceptions, four fast-shuffling running backs and five fumbles added up to eight turnovers in a dismally played, stupefying game that probably had the NFL wondering by halftime if it could disown all rights to it.
The Steelers have seen it all against the woebegone Browns, all levels of incompetence, ineptitude and inadequacy that explain why Cleveland hasn't raised a championship flag since the first full year of the Lyndon Johnson administration. And why the Steelers had won 16 of 17 in a rivalry that really isn't one.
But for one role-reversal afternoon, the Steelers transformed themselves into the bad-news Browns — fumbling, bumbling and stumbling their way from one misadventure to another, a full 60 minutes of football follies. All that was missing was a laugh track.
But there was no it-was-just-a-joke punch line at the end, only a 20-14 loss Sunday to the Browns — the Browns! — at Cleveland Browns Stadium that left the Steelers (6-5) in a precarious position playoff-wise.
"I don't think they were ready to play," Browns defensive lineman Phil Taylor said. "Baltimore kind of beat them last week, and they were down to their third-string quarterback, and we just (had) to take advantage of what they (gave) us. And we went out there and did it."
Now the Ravens (9-2) can effectively eliminate them from the AFC North race by winning next week in Baltimore, and the Steelers' two-game cushion in the AFC wild-card race is long gone now that the Bengals (6-5) have tied them.
The playoffs probably seem as far away to the Steelers as the end zone did to the Charlie Batch-led offense during a scoreless and, it almost seemed, clueless second half.
"You know that was an ugly performance," said coach Mike Tomlin, who was in high school the last time the Steelers played a comparably dreadful game against Cleveland.
That was in 1989, when the Steelers last had eight turnovers in a season-opening 51-0 loss to Cleveland. The most the Steelers have had in any game since the 1970 NFL merger was nine.
The Browns' four scoring drives began at the Steelers' 10-, 31- and 44- yard lines and the Cleveland 42. All those short fields made for a long day for the Steelers, who might be ready to ask Ben Roethlisberger if he can play left-handed.
"Things like that happen," the newly returned Plaxico Burress said. "They just don't happen very often."
Especially to the Steelers against the Browns, who had lost 10 of their last 11 to Pittsburgh on their home field.
"You can't turn the ball over eight times and expect to beat anybody, I don't care if it's Pop Warner or high school," said Burress, who was targeted twice and drew a pass interference call but didn't make any catches in his first Steelers game in eight seasons. "You don't give yourself a chance to win the game.
With Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich injured and out, Batch (20 of 34, 199 yards) made only his second start in 2½ seasons and, at times, was as rusty as an abandoned Cleveland steel mill.
Batch, who turns 38 in less than two weeks, became the oldest quarterback to start a Steelers game. This didn't make him feel any younger, as the offense struggled for a third consecutive week without wide receiver Antonio Brown (ankle) and with a different starting quarterback.
"Coach (Tomlin) kept saying all week, 'We need to be quarterback friendly. We need to find ways to help him,' " safety Ryan Clark said. "Turning the ball over at the running back position doesn't help him, and not getting turnovers (on defense) also doesn't help him."
Tomlin, desperate to find a running back who wouldn't fumble, tried Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey, but they averaged a fumble and about 10 yards apiece, as the Steelers ran for only 49 yards.
"It was crazy," Chris Rainey said. "I wasn't even planning on playing running back, but my name was called so I was ready."
The Steelers, who have managed a single touchdown offensively in each of their past three games, put together only one drive. They drove 84 yards in the final 1:51 of the first half for Rainey's 1-yard TD run in which he bounced off three defenders up the middle and into the end zone.
But their eight second-half drives ended with three interceptions, three punts and two fumbles as they never crossed the Browns' 44-yard line. As a result, the Steelers have lost consecutive games in the same season for the first time in nearly three years.
"I don't know if I'd use word disorganized, but we didn't play up to the line we needed to play at," Mendenhall said.
The Browns' only second-half score came after, of course, a turnover.
Batch tried to force a pass to Burress that Sheldon Brown intercepted. Starting at the Steelers' 31, the Browns (3-8) needed only three plays and a penalty to score as rookie Trent Richardson powered in from the 15.
"We know Ben's not out there and we know it's going to be a struggle, but obviously it's tough to overcome that many turnovers," Clark said.
He added, "We don't know when Ben's coming back, until then we have to do more, help the offense out a lot more than we did today."
The defense forced only one turnover, a Brandon Weeden interception, as the Steelers' takeaway margin for the season dipped to minus-10. Weeden was 17 of 26 for only 158 yards but became just the second rookie quarterback to beat Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in the 16 times his defenses have opposed one.
Roethlisberger, recovering from his dislocated rib and upper chest/shoulder injury, is expected to do some light throwing early this week to see where is physically. He still hasn't been ruled out of the Ravens' game.
"We don't him to rush back because of this situation. We want him to rush back because he's healthy," lineman Max Starks said.
On this day, the Steelers weren't rushing. Or passing. Or winning. On this day, the Steelers became the Browns, and it couldn't have felt more out of character. Or much worse.