Written by J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
Yesterday, the Steelers put what was almost assuredly a fatal dagger into the Browns playoff hopes, after defeating their AFC North rival 20-13. Cleveland lost a must-win game to Devlin Hodges and a plethora of young, inexperienced skill position players. Give Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin credit. The Browns dominated most of the first half before Tomlin began making his in-game adjustments that propelled the Steelers to a big second half. This was the perfect example to prove that Freddie Kitchens doesn’t have what it takes to be an NFL head coach. Sure, the Browns are the more talented team, especially when it comes to Pittsburgh missing its top two offensive weapons. But in the NFL that doesn’t always matter, the bottom line here is Kitchens was outcoached by Tomlin and it wasn’t even close.
Offensively, the Browns came out and took control of the game for the first 25 minutes of play, nearly doubling Pittsburgh in time of possession by the end of the first half. But to close out the half, the Steelers went on a 10-0 run to knot the game at 10 apiece. With just seconds to go before halftime, Baker Mayfield suffered a hand injury when his follow-through collided with Bud Dupree’s helmet. Luckily, Mayfield was able to return in the second half and finish the game with tape and a glove. His X-rays came back negative and the team is calling it a right-hand bruise, he should be good to go next week versus Cincinnati. Mayfield finished the day with an underwhelming stat line of 18/32 for 196 yards 1 TD and 1 INT. The offensive line continues to be a problem for the Browns as Baker was sacked 5 times yesterday. T.J Watt and Bud Dupree combined for half of those sacks, on one of which Dupree forced a Mayfield fumble that was recovered by Pittsburgh. Many of these sacks came at very inopportune times including multiple 3rd downs, ending some promising drives for Cleveland.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have been one of the most dynamic running back duos in the NFL since Hunt returned from suspension 4 weeks ago. The tandem is averaging over 4.5 YPC since Week 10, yet Freddie Kitchens decided to give them 6 total carries in the 2nd half of a 1 score game. I’m not sure there’s any explanation for that type of incompetence as a play-caller. Dropping Mayfield back 21 times in the 2nd half compared to 6 carries for your running backs is the definition of predictable and could partially be blamed as the reason the Browns lost this game. Momentum looked like it may have shifted midway through the 4th quarter after the Browns put together a decent drive that ended in a field goal, cutting the Pittsburgh lead to 7. On the ensuing play, Devlin Hodges overthrew his receiver and was picked off by Terrance Mitchell who returned it to the PIT 30, but the Browns were unable to capitalize. Eventually leading to a Joe Haden interception on the final drive with just over a minute left to seal the win for Pittsburgh.
The Browns really missed the presence of Myles Garrett yesterday. Devlin Hodges was well protected and had all day to throw as Cleveland’s only sack of the game came on the Steelers’ opening drive. The Browns generated virtually no pass rush the rest of the way. To start the season, the Browns top 4 safeties consisted of Damarious Randall, Morgan Burnett, Eric Murray, and Jermaine Whitehead. All 4 were not on the field yesterday for various reasons, leaving rookies Sheldrick Redwine and J.T. Hassell, along with Juston Burris to hold down the back end. Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner put together a solid game plan to pound to rock and then go over the top to take advantage of the inexperience in the secondary. His game plan worked and James Washington is thankful for it. Washington finished with 4 receptions for 111 yards and 1 TD. He took advantage of a weakened secondary as 3 of his 4 catches went for 30 or more yards.
All in all, this was a poor performance from Cleveland. Even if it felt like they were in it until the final whistle, Pittsburgh thoroughly outplayed and outcoached them. The Steelers were even able to beat the refs. There were some bad calls throughout the game, almost all of which favored Cleveland and they still couldn’t get it done with the superior roster. The one good thing that may come from the loss is that Freddie Kitchens looks to be on thin ice moving forward as if he wasn’t already. Kitchens is not the man for the job and the last thing Browns fans want is for him to be competent enough to retain his job heading into 2020. With 4 games remaining, the Browns now have a 6% chance to make the postseason. Miracles happen, but the season seems all but over as we sit here in the first week of December.