Steve Doerschuk’s Browns-Steelers Snap Judgments: A stunning start has Cleveland leading big

Steve Doerschuk

| The Repository

I am working Monday but am guessing some of you are taking the day off.

The Browns’ 48-37 victory over Pittsburgh, with all of its twists and turns, came in somewhere between an epic punch in the mouth and an incredible thing of beauty.

It added up to the Browns’ first playoff win since New Year’s Day 1995, and their first road playoff win since 1969 — just their fifth playoff win in the last 51 years — while also snapping a 17-game losing streak at Pittsburgh.

Baker Mayfield delivers in playoff debut

The early cameos got acted out.

The monster lead provided by a who’s who of who’s he underwent excruciating meltage.

It was time for the big dogs to show up.

And when one of them did (Baker Mayfield), the Browns scored the touchdown that launched the celebration.

The 2018 No. 1 pick’s drives late in the first half and early in the fourth quarter became critical for the payoff to an early 28-0 lead.

Mayfield maintained poise and fire under nasty circumstances.

And Nick Chubb did his thing, too, turning a screen pass from Mayfield into a long TD play, as the series that produced a 42-23 lead all but eliminated any need for 2017 No. 1 pick Myles Garrett to show up with a big play.

– No one objected for another hero cameo.

Sione Takitaki, already possessing one of the great names in franchise history, provided one of the most joyous plays, a tremendous read and athletic leap for an interception.

With three minutes left, the Steelers were dead.

The Browns are on their way to Kansas City for a divisional playoff game at 3:05 p.m., Sunday.

More: Big Ben getting old. Night is young for Baker Mayfield, Browns as they launch playoff era

– Ben Roethlisberger had too much time to throw through much of the game. Neither Garrett nor anyone else came close to him while wide-open wideouts closed the lead to 42-29 with 11 minutes left.

– Analyst Cris Collinsworth marveled as the offensive line kept losing players and Mayfield kept a knockout drive alive.

“You don’t have your head coach. Your top two offensive line coaches are missing. You have players in there who probably have not practiced with the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers are sure the Browns are going to run, and Alex Van Pelt keeps calling play action, and Baker keeps putting it right on the money.”

– A third-and-goal pass that would have provided a 49-29 lead was on the money, too, but bounced off tight end Austin Hooper’s chest. Pittsburgh stayed alive, down 45-29 with 4 1/2 minutes left, after a Browns field goal. The Takitaki interception, though, soon followed, as did another field goal to help seal the win.

– Browns fans had two good reasons not to assume a 28-point lead late in the first half was safe.

One was an Oct. 4 game at Dallas. They took a 41-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but led just 41-38 after the Cowboys scored with nearly four minutes left.

Another was a Dec. 6 game at Tennessee. The Browns led by 31 points at halftime and by just 6 when the Titans scored with a half minute left.

– Actually, there were more than two reasons.

In the only Browns playoff game of the expansion era, they led by 17 midway through the third quarter at Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 36-33.

On Sunday night, Pittsburgh closed to within 12 late in the third quarter.

– Mike Tomlin has stuck around longer than any head coach not named Belichick partly because he is good at halftime adjustments.

The Browns’ first two series of the second half ended with punts. Pittsburgh’s first series produced a touchdown.

Pittsburgh guessed right on a Mayfield bootleg and shut off a pass that might have produced a key gain. After the second punt, Roethlisberger anticipated a third-and-9 blitz and timed up a sideline completion.

– Adjustments aside, Roethlisberger lucked out when he threw a would-be interception right into a cornerback’s chest. Terrance Mitchell couldn’t secure the ball. Pittsburgh soon scored and trailed 35-23.

– Speaking of luck, Jack Conklin’s second-quarter injury helped Pittsburgh tremendously. Defensive calls that were getting the Steelers burned with Conklin on the field worked with replacement right tackle Kendall Lamm just trying to stay afloat.


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Browns defense steps up vs. Ben Roethlisberger early

Joe Woods’ defensive game plan had Ben Roethlisberger’s seeing ghosts for a while.

Trailing 28-0, Pittsburgh badly needed a first down on a third and 8. Roethlisberger scrambled away from an initial hit and had plenty of time to throw. He used to make a living on such plays. In this case, he sensed pressure that wasn’t there and threw the ball away. Punt.

The 2020 Browns were 10-0 when leading at halftime and 1-5 when not. That wasn’t a reason for them to despair if they didn’t take a lead into Sunday night’s third quarter.

It was a reason to become better at intermission adjustments with a goal of growing as a second-half team as the new regime tries to build on Kevin Stefanski’s successful first season.

– Rashard Higgins backed off with a cornerback bearing down and dropped a pass. Making that play might have helped the Browns to a first-round knockout, but any complaint seemed like nitpicking given the 28-0 lead.

Porter Gustin’s big Browns moment

– In keeping with the series of monster plays made by “down-the-line” Browns, defensive end Porter Gustin made an astonishing, diving pick shortly after the Higgins drop.

Gustin went to the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2019 and has been with the Browns since last November. Gustin was once regarded as a major player before a series of injuries hit.

Gustin had seven sacks in six games for USC in 2018 before suffering a nasty ankle injury. After that game, against Colorado, head coach Clay Helton said, “We are all kind of numb about Porter. He’s a force of nature. You think of him as a superhero, as Thor, as we say.”

– The last series of the first half was big, because it burned the clock and not only protected a 28-7 lead — it increased it to 35-7 — even without right tackle Jack Conklin. The first team All-Pro, a stunningly good offseason pick-up, left with a hamstring issue.

Kendall Lamm was the right tackle. Baker Mayfield had one of his better series as a Brown in driving the Browns to a touchdown and 35-7 lead. He managed an offense down two offensive linemen

– It’s not inconceivable that Alex Van Pelt went from interim play caller to head coaching candidate in a bit more than an hour.

– Woods’ defense got too conservative at the end of the first half. For Browns fans who haven’t seen (or heard of, for the young) a playoff win since 1994, 35-10 at halftime seemed too close.

Browns’ first quarter for the ages

– The Browns arrived in Pittsburgh with issues enough to fill three rivers.

The roar from houses throughout the Lake Erie region made the issues seem a moonshot away when Maurkice Pouncey sailed the opening snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and Karl Joseph recovered for a touchdown.

Anybody remember a big Browns game EVER starting that way?

– M.J. Stewart’s interception on Roethlisberger’s second possession was a pretty play, a much tougher catch than the one that got away from Dennis Northcutt in 2002 (ask an older person about that one).

Stewart made a good read on a Big Ben floater, reached back to stop the ball with his right hand, and reeled it in.

The Joseph play. The Stewart play. A Browns game has NEVER started like that.

– What do you say when Karl Joseph scores a touchdown and then blitzes Big Ben into the Stewart pick?

Maybe not “pay the man.” But definitely buy him a beverage.

– Jon Gruden said not paying a fifth-year option to Raiders 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph was a tough call. The “no deal” enabled the Browns to secure him, and it didn’t take much, a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

Signing him in advance of drafting safety Grant Delpit proved to be a pretty big deal.

– Neither Joseph nor Stewart played up to their draft status with their previous teams.

Stewart was a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2018. The Buccaneers cut him in August. Call it Bruce Arians’ gift to his favorite NFL city Cleveland.

– It was 21-0 when radio voice Jim Donovan said, “Mike Priefer had the Browns ready to play tonight.”

Among the astonishing aspects of the score was the fact Kevin Stefanski was watching on a big screen back in Ohio, and special teams coordinator Priefer was head coach on the field.

– Sheldrick Redwine, who made the pick that led to a 28-0 lead, might be a keeper.

The lowest point of the 2019 draft pick’s 2020 was a 38-7 loss at Pittsburgh. He played all but one defensive snap and, like most of the team, had a rough day. His role soon all but disappeared. Even with the defense short-handed in the regular-season finale, Redwine was assigned only six defensive downs.

His interception reminded us how much the John Dorsey regime liked him even among his struggles in 2018. Dorsey and Company projected him as a starter-quality safety, if cultivated. His Sunday night pick was just one play, but it was a big one.

– Planning to win a shootout might have seemed like setting into an iceberg with a blow torch, given Pittsburgh’s ability on defense.

During a seven-game stretch in the meat of the season, Steeler foes scored less than 20 points five times.

Yet, Stefanski planned for the possibility of a high-score win while coaching from quarantine during the week. It was only fair to imagine a rested Roethlisberger hitting the Browns with a “best of Big Ben,” and scheme up options for turning loose Baker Mayfield.

Scoring big wasn’t out of the question. Pittsburgh got leaky during a 1-4 stretch to close the year. Opponents scored 23 points (Washington), 26 (Bills), 27 (Bengals), 24 (Colts) and 24 (Browns).

– Bruce Arians planned for a shootout when he was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator for a wild-card-round game at Pittsburgh in 2002. The Browns scored 33 points and looked good doing it. Kelly Holcomb passed for 429 yards. The plan worked.

The Browns quit playing defense after taking a late 17-point lead.

Keith Butler, now Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, was a linebackers coach for the Browns in 2002. Butler and others on the Browns launched into a major argument about whether to go to a prevent after rolling to a three-possession lead. Head coach Butch Davis vetoed coordinator Foge Fazio and, as Butler has told the story, basically fired Fazio before the game was out.

– High score. Low score. Either way, Baker Mayfield needed to be accurate. For that to happen, protection needed to be adequate, and Mayfield needed to make some plays with his feet.

With Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio out, it was a given inside pressure would be an issue against a Pittsburgh defense that led the league in sacks.

– Browns fans tried to laugh rather than cry about playing without difference-making left guard Bitonio. The joke was that replacement Michael Dunn had fresh legs, at least.

Bitonio’s career log encompasses 6,260 snaps at guard. Dunn had never played an offensive snap in an NFL game, his experience limited to 23 plays on special teams.

– Dunn’s deal reminds you that even NFL replacements were strong players somewhere along the way. Dunn was one of Maryland’s better players the year the Terrapins joined the Big Ten (2014). He was part of a 52-24 loss to Ohio State that season, but also was the left tackle in wins over Iowa, Penn State and Michigan.

Sunday wasn’t his first experience in an underdog role.

Before the Ohio State game in 2014, quoted him as saying, “Until we reach our goal of a Big Ten championship, we’re going to have to keep proving everybody wrong. Nobody believes we even have a shot to make anything special happen.”

– In going 11-5, the Browns beat four teams that reached the postseason. Pittsburgh was the only one still alive by Sunday night. Washington, Indianapolis and Tennessee lost their wild-card games.

Beating the Colts 32-23 in Game 5 stands as the best indicator of what the Browns can become going forward. Indianapolis played some of the league’s better teams tough, beat Green Bay, and took Buffalo to the limit on a playoff thriller Saturday.

The Browns led the Colts start to finish and won 32-23. Their wideout and tight end groups were at full strength, but they didn’t have Nick Chubb. It wasn’t as if the win was a fluke fueled by Rodney Harrison’s pick six. The Colts scored on the kickoff return after the pick 6. The Browns simply outplayed a good team in all phases.

– Radio analyst Doug Dieken recalled his favorite game against Pittsburgh from his days as a Browns left tackle.

“It was the last game of 1983,” Dieken said. “It was Brian Sipe’s last game as our quarterback. Robert Jackson, our left guard, got hurt during the game. On the ride to the hospital, he had them stop at Pat Joyce’s so he could enjoy a six pack.”

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