Deep passing game highlights 5 things learned from Steelers’ win over Browns |
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Joe Rutter

Five things we learned from Steelers 20, Browns 13:

1. Deep thoughts

Starting with a 31-yard pass to James Washington on a free play, Devlin Hodges began taking more chances throwing downfield on the Steelers’ third series.

Hodges finished with 212 yards passing on 14 completions, an average of 15 yards per reception. The biggest beneficiary was Washington, whose four catches spanned 111 yards and included a juggling 30-yard touchdown reception late in the first half.

Given the freedom to throw deep — unlike his first start against the Los Angeles Chargers — Hodges averaged 9.0 yards per pass play. That represented a season high for the Steelers, surpassing the 8.4 passing yards per play in Week 4 against Cincinnati, a figure that was inflated by ultra-short passes that turned into long gains after the catch.

No asterisk was needed against the Browns. Hodges took his shots deep, and he completed just enough of his throws — four for at least 28 yards — to help produce a much-needed win.

2. Block party

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Steelers rushed for 124 yards against the Browns, a week after churning out a season-high 160 yards against the Bengals.

The Steelers usually find a way to grind out yards on the ground when B.J. Finney is in the starting lineup.

Finney made his second consecutive start at center while Maurkice Pouncey served his two-game suspension for fighting. With Finney in the lineup, the Steelers produced their third and fourth 100-yard rushing games of the season.

The Steelers also rushed for 90 yards against Indianapolis when Finney started at left guard in place of Ramon Foster, who was sidelined with a concussion. The next week, Finney was replaced by Matt Feiler in an effort to beef up the offensive line against the Los Angeles Rams. The Steelers rushed for just 42 yards in that game.

Maybe the biggest testament to Finney’s capabilities as a run blocker came Dec. 11, 2016. He was the starting left guard when Le’Veon Bell rushed for a franchise-record 236 yards at Buffalo.

3. Change of plans

In the first three series, while the Browns were taking a 10-0 lead, they relied heavily on Nick Chubb, the NFL’s leading rusher.

On the touchdown drive in the second quarter that produced the 10-point cushion, Chubb carried five consecutive times for 35 yards. At the half, he had 43 yards and he appeared on his way to at least matching the 92 yards he gained against the Steelers in the first meeting Nov. 14.

Then, curiously, the Browns quit feeding the beast. Chubb didn’t get another carry on the Browns’ final two series of the half, and Kareem Hunt received the workload.

In the second half, after the Steelers had taken a 17-10 lead on the opening drive, Chubb was kept in check. He had just 15 yards on six carries in the second half, finishing with a season-low 58.

The Steelers made the necessary adjustments, but the Browns also went away from a run game that was working in the first half. Hunt, a former NFL rushing leader, didn’t get a single carry after halftime.

4. Timely takedown

The Browns were driving for a potential field goal that would have cut the Steelers’ lead to four points midway through the fourth quarter. On third down, though, Javon Hargrave broke through the line and dropped Baker Mayfield for an 8-yard sack.

The play, which defensive captain Cameron Heyward called the most important of the Steelers’ five sacks, pushed the Browns back to the Steelers 38. Austin Seibert appeared set to try a 56-yard, but instead took the direct snap and dropped a punt that was downed at the Steelers 1.

Hargrave finished with six tackles, tied for second on the team, as he continued to show that the defensive front remains in good hands despite the loss of Stephon Tuitt for the season. Hargrave will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he keeps stating his case that a big paycheck will be in order.

5. Timely catch

While Washington’s 30-yard touchdown grab, in which he was yanked to the ground by his shoulder, enabled the Steelers to tie the score, 10-10, it was Tevin Jones’ 28-yard “combat” catch on a second-and-10 that set up the score.

Playing in just his third NFL game, Jones made the catch in traffic and withstood a jarring hit by cornerback Greedy Williams as he got his hands on the ball. It was the type of play that has defined the all-hands-on-deck nature of the receiving room in general and Jones in particular.

Signed to the active roster Nov. 14 after spending more than a year on the practice squad, Jones has chipped in with four receptions — none bigger than his catch that set up Washington’s score.

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