Tim Benz’s airing of grievances: What Steelers must fix vs. Browns | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz’s airing of grievances: What Steelers must fix vs. Browns

Tim Benz
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Los Angeles Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman punches the ball out from Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Washington in the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019 at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates a sack on Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

Fittingly, Bob Dylan was just in town performing in Moon Township on Sunday. Because, “times they are a-changin’”!

The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone from 1-4 to 5-4. So things are looking up.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, though. And a lot of it must happen fast. Because the Steelers have a quick turnaround for the Thursday night game in Cleveland.

Here’s our weekly “Airing of Grievances” as we get ready for a huge AFC North showdown this week.

The return game

Ryan Switzer has become Jack Johnson in cleats.

No matter what he does, the fans are all over him. And he has done even less in a positive fashion to sway opinion than Johnson has.

Switzer’s decision to field a punt inside his own 10-yard line — subsequently gaining nothing — helped set up a safety that almost cost the Steelers the game.

For as little as Switzer has done to deserve keeping his job, there are few options to use instead. Given Switzer’s back injury he suffered during the game, those options may be forced into action anyway.

Diontae Johnson gave it a shot. Clearly, he has more burst and shake than Switzer does. But he fumbled. Luckily, the Rams didn’t recover.

Currently, the Steelers rank fifth from the bottom of the NFL in average return yards per punt at 5.17.

At some point, the Steelers could really use a spark from the return game. And I have no idea when, if or how it will come.


Whether it’s drops or fumbles, the Steelers need to hold onto the ball better in Cleveland.

Luckily, Los Angeles couldn’t pounce on Johnson’s fumble. But James Washington lost one.

And they had a slew of drops. Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels each had one.

Mason Rudolph’s task of replacing Ben Roethlisberger is hard enough. When he throws catchable passes or connects on big plays, his skill-position guys can’t put the ball on the turf that often.

Third-down conversions

The Steelers were great in this category defensively against the Rams, holding them to just 1-for-14 on third-down attempts.

But they struggled in that department on offense, failing 11-of-16 times. In fact, they only converted three of their first 11 before hitting on a few third-down snaps on that pivotal eight-minute fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a Chris Boswell field goal.

So far, the Steelers are converting third downs at a frustrating 36%. That’s good for only 23rd in the NFL.

Fortunately, the Browns are even worse at 31%, that’s 28th in the league.

Over the last three games, the Steelers have allowed third downs to be converted at a 23.5% rate. Only San Francisco has been better during that span.

For the season, Cleveland’s third-down defense is quite good actually. It allows first downs only 33.9% of the time, sixth best in the NFL.

The run game

The Steelers’ run game was rotten Sunday. It totaled just 42 yards and averaged a scant 1.6 yards per carry.

It wasn’t good the week before against Indianapolis either when the team amassed all of 90 yards on the ground and 3.6 yards per attempt.

James Conner did have 145 yards on the ground against the Dolphins two weeks ago. And it looks like he should be returning against the Browns, after missing the last two contests with a shoulder injury.

“I’m making a lot of progress on it,” Conner said Monday. “I think I’ll be good to go. But I can’t make (any) guarantees.”

The Browns are yielding 4.9 yards per carry. Only four teams are worse. There are yards to be had for the Steelers’ offense on the ground. They need to exploit that, especially since Cleveland is seventh best in terms of stopping the pass at 221 yards per game.

Sloppy play in Cleveland

Their last two trips to Cleveland, the Steelers’ offense hasn’t been good. They tied the Browns 21-21 in 2018, committing six turnovers and allowing four sacks.

In 2017, they won a close 21-18 game, going 5-for-13 along the way on third downs.

Plus, Mike Tomlin’s club has committed a total of 25 penalties over the last two games in Northeast Ohio.

The Steelers were hit with 13 flags last week.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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