Airing of Grievances: Browns exploit Steelers’ numerous deficiencies on both sides of ball

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For a while, things weren’t looking bad in Cleveland for the Steelers on “Thursday Night Football.”

Mike Tomlin’s club had a 14-13 halftime lead. Both touchdowns actually came on offense. They were averaging 5.5 yards per rush. Mitch Trubisky had a passer rating of 94.7, and the defense had “only” given up 79 rush yards to the renowned Browns ground game.

Then the second half happened.

Yes, unfortunately, the NFL still requires both teams to play two additional quarters after halftime. The Steelers really need to petition the NFL to reconsider that thinking.

Because once the second half started, visions of a happy bus ride back to Pittsburgh quickly evaporated.

That’s where we focus our attention for this week’s “Airing of Grievances” after a 29-17 Steelers defeat to fall to 1-2.

Run-game regression: After doing a decent job in Week 1 against Joe Mixon and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers’ much-maligned defense against the run held the Patriots to 74 rush yards through 53 minutes on Sunday.

Since then, the Steelers rush defense has resembled the last-place product it was in 2021.

The Patriots got 50 rush yards on their last possession to bleed out the clock. Then, on Thursday, the Steelers allowed 171 yards on 38 carries to the Browns for an average of 4.5 yards per rush.

The tackling was spotty. The Browns got push off the line of scrimmage. And, after some questionable decisions early in the game, Cleveland actually ended up sticking with the run instead of going to the pass too often, as they did twice against the Steelers a season ago.

Nick Chubb closed with 113 yards on 23 carries. Even more maddening were Jacoby Brissett’s short-yardage quarterback sneaks, as he got 11 yards on three attempts.

Conversely, the Steelers had 104 yards rushing on 22 attempts for a 4.7 yard average, but just 16 yards came on the ground in the second half.

Time is not on their side: As they did the first two weeks, the Steelers lost the time-of-possession battle.

This week, there was no Minkah Fitzpatrick pick-six or Gunner Olszewski muffed punt to skew the stats.

Cleveland held the ball for 36 minutes, 9 seconds. The Steelers had it for a mere 23:51. The Steelers began the night 30th in time of possession, at 24:28 per game, so that number will get even worse now.

The simple fact is Trubisky and the Steelers offense can’t stay on the field. Meanwhile, the defense can’t get off of it.

Coordinator Matt Canada’s offense converted only one third-down attempt in nine tries. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers defense was actually good on third downs, stuffing 10 of 16 tries by the Browns. But Cleveland picked up three fourth-down conversions to balance things out.

With Trubisky at the helm, the Steelers had six second-half offensive possessions. The first four were punts, three the result of drives that were three-and-out. The fifth was a field-goal drive. The sixth was a comically bad attempt at lateralling the ball around to score a prayer of a touchdown, and it resulted in a defensive score for Cleveland to close out the game.

Tame without T.J.: Dating to last year, the Steelers are now 0-6-1 in their last seven games when linebacker T.J. Watt either missed a game entirely or had to leave early becasue of injury.

Via the Prime Video television broadcast, in their last five games when Watt hasn’t played at all, the Steelers are 0-5, allowing 25.8 points per game and accumulating just 1.6 sacks per game.

With Watt in those games since 2017, they are 52-24-2 with 3.5 sacks per game and a points-per-game-against average of 20.4.

In this game against the Browns, the Steelers got two sacks. One was early in the first quarter from Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi. The second was very late in the game from Highsmith with the Steelers down 23-14.

The Steelers had only two other hits on Brissett all night, and he attempted 31 passes. Cameron Heyward was the only other player to register a tackle for a loss besides Highsmith, and he only had one. The defense also failed to force a turnover.

Without Watt, this defense proved, yet again, to be toothless.

More ‘Muth?: Where was Pat Freiermuth?

The Steelers tight end didn’t have a target in the first half. He wound up with only four. He didn’t have a catch until the Steelers’ final drive. He ended up with only two receptions for 41 yards.

To illustrate the offensive struggles of the club, that was still the second-highest receiving total on the night.

After catching five passes for 75 yards in Week 1, Freiermuth has only had six catches for 63 yards combined over the last two games.

Pickens’ paw: In the first game of the season, Diontae Johnson made an unbelievable catch against the Bengals.

I assumed that we had seen the catch of the year in Week 1. Then, on Thursday night in Cleveland, rookie George Pickens had a “hold my beer” moment.

That dazzling reception went for 36 yards and set up the Steelers’ first touchdown. The still shots were somehow even more impressive.

It had a lot of people making comparisons to the famous Odell Beckham Jr. catch of 2014. Beckham even gave his stamp of approval.

Twitter had lots of fun with Pickens’ famous draft night photo too.

Yet, unfortunately for Pickens, continuing a season-long trend, he was barely noticeable beyond that reception. Pickens only had two other catches for a total net of 3 yards. Then he picked up a penalty on an onside kick attempt after the Steelers’ penultimate possession.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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