Mark Madden: Without benefit of takeaways, Steelers get exposed by Browns
Let’s get this out of the way: Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett bashing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with his own helmet was egregious and merits his indefinite suspension (which lasts at least through year’s end).
I’d hate to see the courts involved because that accomplishes little and continues a bad (if rare) precedent.
Garrett’s act reflects an extremely undisciplined Cleveland team that leads the NFL in penalties and clearly was headhunting Thursday night.
But otherwise, the story from the Steelers’ loss to the Browns is that the Steelers (and several of their components) got exposed.
In each of their five victories, the Steelers got multiple takeaways. That alone has been the foundation for surviving without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
But the Browns protected the ball in pristine fashion. The Steelers got zero takeaways. Rudolph had to drive the offense down the field and earn points.
Rudolph had “heavy legs,” as Fox analyst Troy Aikman said. Rudolph looks lost in the pocket. His passing is scattershot. His reluctance to throw downfield can be absurd.
Rudolph has done little in his seven starts to suggest he’s capable of making a positive difference in difficult games. Rudolph’s signature moment to date is an eight-minute drive against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday that resulted in a field goal. Huzzah.
Excuses are plentiful. So are drops. James Conner, Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster left Thursday’s game hurt. Rudolph was sacked four times and frequently knocked to the turf. (Why is the offensive line struggling so?) Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner seems to have little confidence in Rudolph. The result is a haphazard gameplan.
But Rudolph didn’t even give the Steelers a chance Thursday. The Steelers were never in danger of winning, not even when they trailed by just 14-7.
The Steelers’ longest play was 22 yards. Even at the end, down by 14, Rudolph was flipping short passes.
Rudolph is rotten. But he has to play. Devlin Hodges is worse.
That’s how you beat the Steelers: don’t commit turnovers. That’s advisable against any foe, but it leaves the Steelers floundering and desperate. There’s no Plan B.
Other truths are becoming self-evident:
• The Steelers must move on from Conner at year’s end. He’s a borderline No. 1 back when healthy, and he can’t stay healthy. When he’s out, the running game has no power.
• Smith-Schuster isn’t a No. 1 receiver. His stats have plummeted, and he’s got the dropsies. He should change his name to Smith-Moncrief.
• The offensive line is inconsistent at best. It’s hard to believe the departure of offensive line coach Mike Munchak is the reason. Have those linemen somehow un-learned what Munchak taught? But the whole isn’t what it was last year, nor are any of the parts. Ramon Foster is a turnstile. Alejandro Villanueva isn’t much better.
The problems revolve around the offense. The defense played OK, though allowing a touchdown on Cleveland’s opening drive was disappointing and damaging.
The hunt for a playoff spot took a hit at Cleveland. Beating Cincinnati is a given. But on Dec. 1, the Browns will arrive at Heinz Field full of courage (but without Garrett). Just about any team could beat the Steelers if it protects the ball. (But not Cincinnati.)
Pouncey got banned three games for retaliating against Garrett. Pouncey merits praise for defending his quarterback, but being a good teammate won’t make up for his absence. (It should be noted that Rudolph was trying to wrench off Garrett’s helmet. Garrett beat him to the punch. Rudolph was the victim but not blameless.) The NFL is right to not justify or ignore what Pouncey did. His actions were understandable but can’t be tolerated.
The defense has to win games for the Steelers. It won’t win enough. The Steelers will just miss the playoffs. Rudolph isn’t good enough to get them there.