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Steelers get well against hapless Cleveland, gain playoff ground

The score: Pittsburgh 24, Pittsburgh 9

The bottom line: The Steelers did just about everything they could (field goals instead of touchdowns, dropped interceptions, missed tackles, dumb penalties) to lose to the hapless Browns (except turn the ball over), but Cleveland just would not be denied, utilizing a sieve-like offensive line and putrid quarterbacking (the more things change…) to propel themselves to a 9-24 loss that kept their imperfect season alive at 0-11. Seriously though, in the ultimate week-to-week sport, Pittsburgh not only kept their one-track playoff hopes alive, but made considerable hay in the AFC North as Baltimore and Cincinnati both lost, meaning the only things that matters now for the Steelers is how they play on Thanksgiving night at Indianapolis.

It was over when… After pummeling poor Cody Kessler into yet another early exit, the Steelers defense got after Josh McCown similarly until he finally coughed up the clincher with 3:49 remaining, stripped of the ball at his own 2-yard-line by Ryan Shazier to set up rookie Javon Hargrave for every lineman’s dream.

Play of the day: Lost among the wreckage in this one is that the Steelers supposed high-octane offense, touted by coordinator Todd Haley as a 30-points-per-game unit, recorded just one touchdown on the afternoon against the Browns’ terrible defense and that one was basically a gift from the terrible officials, who granted Pittsburgh not one, but two, untimed downs on defensive penalties at the end of the second quarter, culminating in Le’Veon Bell’s one-yard scoring plunge that staked the visitors to an insurmountable-as-it-turns-out 12-0 lead.

Hot topics:

+ A win is a win in the NFL and Pittsburgh needed that one to keep themselves in the AFC North race, which looks like their only path to the payoffs. The Ravens cooperated by losing at Dallas and, as noted last week, they face a brutal schedule the rest of the way. The Bengals were already in a deep hole before A.J. Green went down early Sunday with an injury and the loss to the Bills that followed almost certainly means 3-6-1 Cincy needs to win out (@BAL, PHI, @CLE, PIT, @HOU, BAL) to have any shot.

+ In all seriousness, we think the Steelers dropped five interceptions in that game. Artie Burns did actually catch one, his second on the season and sadly the team’s second.

+ We’re not sure if Sammie Coates is in the doghouse or just can’t catch because his hand is mangled (or some combination of both), but man that guy had a day on special teams with three solo tackles on returns.

+ Speaking of special teams tackles, that’s how James Harrison made his bones in Pittsburgh, once recording five return tackles and responding famously to a question about how he did that with: “Want to.” That kind of drive, a weight-room work ethic like no other and a gladiator mentality made him our favorite Steelers player of all time and on Sunday it rightly earned him the franchise’s career sacks record.

+ Speaking of sacks, Bud Dupree made his season debut for Pittsburgh but if you blinked you might have missed it. We had Dupree on the field for two plays Sunday. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

+ Speaking of sacks some more, the Steelers got eight Sunday against as bad an offensive line as we’ve seen in the NFL to get themselves out of the basement in the league in that category. Stephon Tuitt, finally looking like the best we expected all year, led the way with 2.5 sacks.

+ Perhaps no stat better illustrates the depths the Browns franchise has sunken to that this one from ESPN Stats: Ben Roethlisberger now has as many wins at Cleveland (10) as ANY BROWNS QUARTERBACK who’s played since 1999. As the kiddos say: Wut?

Zebra hunting:

+ We speculated in the pregame blog that that might be the worst crew in the NFL and we have no doubt about that now. Mike Tomlin, a member of the league’s competition committee and someone who rarely comments on officiating, publicly criticized the crew post game and likely earned himself a fat fine.

+ The most grievous error was the bogus hands-to-the-face call on Lawrence Timmons that gave the Browns a first down on a 3rd-and-17 play. The contact on the play was standard on every NFL rush with Timmons hand barely touching the bottom of Duke Johnson’s facemask. To give a team a first down on such a garden-variety play merits suspension for the guy who called it.

+ More incompetence was displayed during the first five plays of the second half, calling a deflating hold on Pittsburgh’s first play on #86, who doesn’t exist, eliminating a big Le’Veon Bell gain and putting Pittsburgh in an immediate hole. After the inevitable three and out, Cleveland tried a flea flicker that was headed for disaster when Browns tackle Joe Thomas tackled James Harrison right in front of the umpire, who was looking directly at the play and swallowed his whistle. Instead of being in a deserved hole, the Browns went for a big gain on the next play and scored their first points of the game on the drive that never should have happened.

+ Timmons also drew an undeserved roughing-the-passer call in the game, but it’s hard to blame the officials on that one as they’re just trying (futilely) to enforce the NFL’s fuzzy rules on protecting quarterbacks. Just as we saw last week when the Cowboys were victimized by a similar bad call, Timmons was lining Cody Kessler up for a shoulder-to-sternum hit when Ryan Shazier pulled Kessler down from behind, putting his head, not his chest, in Timmon’s path. Timmon’s is a 300-pound object on that play, already in motion. How in the world is he supposed to pull off?

Game mismanagement:

+ Trying to get two shots at the end zone in 10 seconds is aggressive but doable, you’d think doubly so in the hands of a veteran quarterback, but Ben Roethlisberger once again displayed how tone deaf he is in these situations, taking too long to throw the ball away on first down then way too long on the next play, allowing the clock to run from :05 to :00. Only two defensive penalties bailed Big Ben out.

+ Even though Pittsburgh converted it, we would not have gone for two on the last play of the first half. Although Mike Tomlin probably figured, at 0-for-4 last week, the odds were heavily stacked in his offense’s favor.

In the booth:

+ We know it’s hard to prepare for a game in three or four days and know as much as people who watch the teams every week, but Rich Gannon contending the Steelers “are such a great screen team” and they employ “a variety of exotic and unusual pressures” is just lazy, cliche-fueled garbage.

+ Kevin Harlan was uncharacteristically sloppy on the afternoon, miscalling IDs, missing the Browns missed XP and then doing the same on a couple penalties. As one Twitter prankster noted, “he’s watching a better game on his phone.”

And now a word from our sponsors: That FedEx Santa Clau spot, you know, “all by myself…,” still holds up in a second season. Great ad.

Sweet tweet: @15MinutesBlog: After Ben’s in the league a few years, he’ll learn how to handle these end-of-half situations.

Next week: And in the NFL’s main course on Thanksgiving evening: The movable force meets the resistable object as the Colts, who’ve allowed more sacks than any team in the league, square off with the Steelers, who’ve recorded fewer sacks than anyone in the league (if you omit games against the Browns offensive line, which you probably should). Something’s gotta give, right? Seriously, these might be the two teams doing the least with the most in the league. It’ll probably be a classic.

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