Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Five thoughts on Steelers, Browns
1. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin took a calculated risk by sitting starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, right guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward for the season finale against the Cleveland Browns.
Rather than risking injury to any of those key starters, Tomlin gave them two weeks' rest instead of worrying if the New York Jets would hand the Steelers the top seed in the AFC playoffs with an upset of the New England Patriots. If you expected a drop-off in play, it would be on offense, where the Steelers also were without All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.
But this was the Browns.
The Steelers put up 28 points against the NFL's No. 12 defense, despite two first-half turnovers and a failure to score from the Browns' 1-yard line.
Landry Jones threw an interception and fumbled, but he also connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster seven times for 127 yards and a touchdown in the first half for a 21-14 halftime lead.
Outscoring the Browns wasn't the problem.
Stopping them was another story.
2. DeShone Kizer had completed one pass of 40 or more yards before the season finale, but the Browns rookie quarterback found the perfect antidote in the Steelers secondary.
Kizer completed a pair of passes for 50-plus yards in the first half alone. A 54-yarder to Josh Gordon early in the second quarter — an apparent touchdown that was ruled down at the 2 after a video review — set up Duke Johnson's scoring run to cut it to 14-7. Kizer added a 56-yard scoring pass to Rashard Higgins to cut it to 21-14 at 7:13.
The Steelers allowed 13 pass play of 40-plus yards, a statistic that became glaring while cornerback Joe Haden was out for five games with a fractured fibula. But Haden started against the Browns, and the Steelers still got scorched.
And you can't blame it on the lack of a pass rush.
3. The Steelers had four first-half sacks and broke the team record for sacks in a season (55, set in 1994 and 2001) in the fourth quarter, when defensive end Tyson Alualu sacked Kizer for a 7-yard loss.
The Steelers were disruptive despite playing without Heyward, who leads the team in sacks with 12. Their depth was evident when his replacement, Alualu, had a pair of pivotal sacks.
The Steelers also got first-half sacks from Alualu and linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Williams and one in the third quarter by inside linebacker L.J. Fort.
If you thought the Steelers would to miss their all-time sacks leader after releasing James Harrison on Dec. 23, you were wrong.
4. The Browns had the top overall pick and Nos. 25, 29 and 52 in the NFL Draft and selected defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku in the first round and Kizer with the 52nd overall pick in the second.
The Steelers settled for Watt and Smith-Schuster.
Who do you think got the better end of the bargain?
On Sunday, it sure looked like the Steelers did.
Watt, taken one pick after Njoku at No. 30, recorded his seventh sack of the season. The Steelers record for a rookie is nine by Kendrell Bell in 2001.
Smith-Schuster, the No. 62 overall pick, solidified his selection as the Steelers rookie of the year with his big first half. He put an exclamation point on it with a 96-yard kick return for a touchdown in the third quarter, immediately after the Browns had tied the game at 21-21.
5. The Steelers have to solve their issues in giving up big pass plays, but the secondary continued to come up with timely turnovers, getting a pair in the fourth quarter while leading 28-24.
When the Browns converted a third-and-15 with a 30-yard pass to Johnson, cornerback Will Gay punched the ball loose for a fumble that was recovered by free safety Mike Mitchell at the Steelers' 31.
When the Browns got the ball back, strong safety Sean Davis intercepted a pass at the Cleveland 47.
But here's another issue the Steelers have to address during their bye week: They allowed the Browns to convert 7 of 14 third downs, including a 33-yard pass to Gordon on a third-and-3 at the 22, before nickel back Mike Hilton stopped Johnson 2 yards short of a first down on a third-and-6 at the 31 with 2:00 left.
Then Kizer escaped pressure in the pocket and found Corey Coleman open on the left sideline, but the former first-rounder dropped the ball at the 11.
This was the Browns.
No wonder they are 0-16.