Kevin Gorman: Beating Browns more about survival for Steelers than AFC North rivalry
The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing an AFC North arch-rival, the Cleveland Browns, but Mike Tomlin sounded like a coach whose team was in survival mode as much as it is rival mode.
It’s obvious Tomlin takes no comfort in the Steelers’ status in the AFC North standings, despite moving into playoff contention with a winning record and being billed by NFL analyst Peter King as a “charming wild-card team.”
Just don’t get Pittsburgh confused with Charm City.
The Steelers (5-4) remain two games behind Baltimore (7-2) and two ahead of Cleveland (3-6), with their next three games against division opponents. That could change quickly, as the Steelers sandwich a pair of games against the Browns around a visit to winless Cincinnati in the next three weeks.
“We understand how important this game is to them — and us,” Tomlin said of the Browns on Monday at his weekly news conference. “It’s just AFC North football.”
Yet Tomlin didn’t spend much time talking about the biggest story in the AFC North, the rise of the second-year quarterbacks. While Lamar Jackson is looking like an MVP candidate for the Ravens and Baker Mayfield is the buzz of the Browns, it’s too soon to tell what to make of Mason Rudolph other than he won his third consecutive start since returning from a concussion.
“We’re just trying to get in and out of stadiums,” Tomlin said, “and he’s a big component of that.”
But we know this much: Rudolph outplayed Rams quarterback Jared Goff, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, despite facing constant pressure from defensive tackle Aaron Donald. It’s difficult to judge Rudolph, given how often he opts for short passes and how injuries have depleted the backfield. Missing three of their top four backs, the Steelers averaged a paltry 1.6 yards per carry against the Rams.
What struck me about Tomlin’s statement was the sense of survival: We’re just trying to get in and out of stadiums. The Steelers are showing a singular focus for their playoff aspirations by treating each game as if it’s life or death.
If the Steelers want to continue stacking wins — they are at four and counting after a 1-4 start — they have no choice but to remain singularly focused on the next opponent. That’s why Tomlin was more interested in talking about how James Conner would have practiced Monday if there was one. It was a rare lapse by the Steelers coach, who typically is adamant he won’t deal in the hypothetical.
But Conner’s return could be a major boost to the offense, and Tomlin would prefer to focus on that than dwell on the injuries that could sideline outside linebackers Ola Adeniyi and Anthony Chickillo.
It’s the same story for the Steelers, just a different opponent. The rivalry isn’t what makes this Browns game special.
“It’s just like every other game: It’s the most important one because it’s the next one,” Conner said.
The Steelers have little time to recover from Sunday’s game against the Rams or to prep for Thursday’s game at Cleveland, so Tomlin was in no mood to discuss the dropped passes or fumbles by his receivers: “If you spend a lot of time talking to receivers about receiving,” he said, “you’ve got problems.”
That’s what is different about these Steelers. Last year, they had tremendous offensive talent but daily distractions. This year, they are short on offensive star power but focus on finding ways to win games. That starts, of course, with their defense and its knack for sacks and takeaways — and turning turnovers into touchdowns — but it doesn’t end with them expecting one unit to carry the team.
The Steelers haven’t had a losing season in 12 years under Tomlin, so we have come to expect them to win. But the Steelers are winning in most unexpected ways. They are winning with rookies, like inside linebacker Devin Bush and wide receiver Diontae Johnson. They are winning with players who started the season as backups, like Rudolph, running back Jaylen Samuels and right tackle Chuks Okorafor.
They are winning with players who started the season with other teams, like free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and tight end Nick Vannett. They are winning with players who were promoted from the practice squad, like quarterback Devlin Hodges and running backs Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James.
And they aren’t winning in spite of those players. They are winning with them playing pivotal roles. Not only did Edmunds pick off a pass on a fake punt, but he also converted a critical fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 34 by turning a short pass into a 6-yard gain to extend a fourth-quarter field-goal drive.
Tomlin’s opening remarks about the Rams game captured what has become the hallmark for these Steelers, who have gone from chaotic to charming.
“It wasn’t perfect in a lot of fronts,” Tomlin said, “but the will that was displayed was and the grit that was displayed was.”
The Steelers will have to stay in survival mode to get in and out of FirstEngery Stadium with a win. The Browns game is important not for the rivalry but because it’s the next one.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .