Steelers start off sluggish in stormy stalemate against Browns


Phil Masturzo/Beacon Journal/TNS

Cleveland Browns Denzel Ward (top) and Joe Schobert take down Pittsburgh Steelers James Conner during overtime Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. The game ended in a 21-21 tie.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

The Steelers tied with the Browns after a miserable game in miserable weather to end what amounted to a miserable weekend for the city of Pittsburgh Sunday. Overtime came to a close with the division rivals locked up 21-21, both teams having squandered several chances to win the game. Against the Browns, the Steelers should have played better than they did. It was a woeful — yet fitting — end to a weekend that started off with Penn State absolutely demolishing Pitt.

Conner time!

Second-year running back James Conner was the unquestioned high point of Sunday’s contest. Conner finished his first career start with 31 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and also added five catches for 57 yards. He looked spectacular filling in for the still-absent Le’Veon Bell, making big plays running the ball and receiving, finding lanes and leveling Browns that dared stand in the way of his season-opener debut. His only real blemish was a fourth-quarter fumble, which was simply a great play made from behind by former No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett.

This surely puts pressure on Bell to return if he wants to prove to the Steelers he is worth the money he’s asking for. If Conner continues to perform this well, Bell’s leverage in Pittsburgh will begin to dwindle. The Steelers already aren’t budging on their reported five-year, $70 million offer, so seeing they can still have success without Bell will only strengthen this stance. It’s tough to say for certain after one week — especially one that ended in a tie — but if Conner’s success continues and the Steelers find themselves winning games, Bell will likely have to choose between taking less money than he wants to remain a Steeler or getting the contract guarantees he so clearly desires with a new team.

Big Ben’s blunders

Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty, to say the least. He was responsible for five turnovers compared to one touchdown, throwing three picks and losing two fumbles on the day. Three interceptions never look good on the stat sheet, but they weren’t as bad as one might think. The first was an errant throw into traffic, but rookie corner Denzel Ward made a diving play on the ball. The second was a deep ball to Antonio Brown that the wind and rain took off course and the third was a catchable ball that went through the hands of Jesse James.

Roethlisberger’s two fumbles were unacceptable. As a quarterback, it’s a must to take care of the ball no matter what the weather is like. His fumbles also came at crucial times in the game, especially the fumble in overtime on a drive that could have won the game.

He almost never plays well on the road, and this pattern continued in Cleveland. His throws looked off, and he and the receivers didn’t appear to be on the same page numerous times. This can definitely be attributed to the conditions and also to offseason rust that he needs to shake off. However, he needs to pick up his play if the Steelers want to be title contenders. It’ll be much more clear what the 36-year-old QB has to offer this year when the Chiefs come to town Sunday.

Watt a play

T.J. Watt had himself a monster season opener, recording four sacks and 11 tackles in total. He also blocked the field goal at the end of overtime that would have put the Steelers at 0-1 rather than 0-0-1. Even his appearance was fierce, as Watt simply looked like a stronger and faster player than last year.

Watt played aggressively the entire game, getting to the quarterback and making big hits every time he got the chance. It was particularly encouraging since Watt has been bothered by a hamstring injury and didn’t get any reps of playing time in during the preseason. He was also moved from the right side of the field to left outside linebacker for this season — and change is almost never easy, even for the pros. To see him have so much success, even against a mediocre Browns team, is exciting.

The Steelers defense needs leadership in the absence of Ryan Shazier this year, and the potential to fill the position lies in Watt. Watt is a fast, energetic and enthusiastic player who could be poised to step into that role. If he keeps up the play and continues to improve, one day he could even have a reputation as fearsome as his older brother J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans.

Defense all around

In general, the defense didn’t look too bad, recording seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss, an interception, and nine deflections. It gave up 21 points, but one of the touchdowns was an impressive catch by star receiver Josh Gordon that only a receiver of his caliber could muster.

Gordon’s score and a 43-yard catch by Jarvis Landry are the only notable downfield plays the Steelers gave up Sunday. Joe Haden defended Landry well, making sure he didn’t get behind him. Brown’s quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s throw was short, though, and Landry simply made a great grab while falling to the ground. The secondary played the ball well throughout the day, making several key deflections on throws that would have gone for big gains.

The Steelers’ run defense also looked stout, holding Cleveland’s primary rusher Carlos Hyde to a meager 2.8 yards per carry — however, Taylor managed to acquire 77 yards. Missed tackles and failure to force him out of bounds led to a 20-yard Taylor TD scramble that should have never reached the end zone. It is worth noting that Taylor is one of the better rushing QBs in the league, but the total yardage and scoring plays were still unacceptable.

Although Sunday didn’t really show it, the Steelers’ prolific offense is going to put points on the board. We need the defense to make stands and make sure that the opposing offense doesn’t do the same.

The defense needs to do a better job of getting to the QB and collapsing the pocket so he can’t escape, especially if the Steelers wants its secondary to remain confident. Nothing is worse for defensive backs than playing the pass well on second and third downs, only for the quarterback to scramble for first downs and keep the defense on the field.

Watt, defensive end Cam Heyward and company will have a much tougher task this week. The Chiefs’ offense is host to a wide range of dynamic weapons, such as Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. QB Patrick Mahomes showed out against the Chargers, throwing for four scores and looking more like an accomplished veteran than a player in his first career start. The Steel Curtain will really have to step up to the plate if it hopes to stop the young upstart and his surrounding squad.