By Brendan Ward
The Cleveland Browns went into their first playoff matchup in 18 years Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. If inexperience wasn’t enough to set back a team, Covid-19 running rampant through the coaching staff, forcing head coach Kevin Stefanski to miss the game would certainly add to the strain.
Despite the odds seemingly stacked against them, the Browns came out like they were the experience-driven team. Using big turnovers on defense to capitalize into points on offense, the Browns found themselves up 28 points after one quarter, then holding onto a 35-10 halftime lead. The lead slowly diminished throughout the third as the Browns struggled offensively. However, a big drive led by Baker Mayfield to open the fourth would spark the offense, leading the Browns to a 48-37 playoff win over the Steelers.
It took less than 10 seconds for the first score of the game, luckily for the Browns, the ball fell their way on the play. With the Steelers opening the game offensively, the quarterback looked to set the tone early by dropping back to pass, but a very high snap from center Maurkice Pouncey rocketed over the signal caller’s outstretched arms. A scramble for the ball ensued before Browns safety Karl Joseph recovered the ball in the endzone to give the Browns an immediate touchdown lead.
Following the score, the Steelers offense rode James Conner in both the run and pass game for two first downs to their own 37. After getting stuffed on second down following a nine-yard first-down run, the Steelers faced a short third down to convert from the 46, doing just that with fullback Derek Watt to keep the drive alive. With life back on the Steelers sideline, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on first down, overthrowing Benny Snell after being chased out of the pocket on the play. The overthrown ball would fly right into the arms of M.J. Stewart for the Browns second turnover of the game.
Another turnover lit a spark in the Browns offense, which took only three plays to extend their lead. A first down incompletion followed by a six-yard connection from Mayfield to Austin Hooper brought up a quick third down. The Browns would convert, however, as Mayfield found Jarvis Landry short across the middle, who then weaved through defenders all the way to the endzone for a quick 14-0 Browns lead in the first quarter.
Desperate to move the ball offensively, the Steelers offense took over after the score looking to establish the run. Conner would put in nine on the ground combined from first and second down to bring up a short third and one. To no avail, as the Browns defense would stuff Watt on the third-down run to force a three and out.
Nick Chubb started the next drive on fire for the Browns offense, running for 17 and 20 yards on the first two plays of the drive to immediately threaten the Steelers defense. Two plays later the offense faced a third and five, converting on the play with Mayfield finding Rashard Higgins at the 11-yard line for a first down. On the next play, Kareem Hunt would burst through a hole before being met near the three-yard line by Steelers defenders, powering his way through the lot to find the endzone for a 21-0 Browns lead.
Down big early, the Steelers offense looked to chip away at the Browns lead. Roethlisberger opened the drive finding Diontae Johnson for a quick 11-yard first down. An offensive holding penalty on the ensuing play would halt the drive, however, forcing Roethlisberger to try and force a ball downfield. After an incompletion on first and 20, a forced throw across the middle to Johnson would fly into the arms of Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine for the second interception of the game. Redwine would return the ball 30 yards on the play to set the offense up in the red zone.
Being gifted another turnover, the Browns offense once again extended their lead. Chubb would be stuffed on first down, before catching a pass for seven yards on second down to bring up a quick third down. Hunt did the rest, finding a lane outside for an eight-yard touchdown to put the Browns up four scores still in the first quarter.
The Steelers offense found themselves in unfamiliar territory, looking for anything to keep themselves on the field. Roethlisberger found some success in the passing game after converting an early long third down. The Steelers found themselves with a first down near midfield a minute into the second quarter before Roethlisberger found Washington for 14 one play later to finally threaten the Browns on defense. The Browns defense stood tall there, however, forcing two straight incompletions after a one-yard first-down pass to force another punt.
Backed up at their own 10 after the punt, the Browns failed to get anything on offense to immediately kick the ball back to the Steelers offense. Fortunately for the offense, the Browns defense would give them another turnover on the next drive. Forcing the Steelers into a quick third down, Vincent Taylor would tip a pass intended for Vance McDonald that would flail into the arms of a diving Porter Gustin.
A 12 yard run from Chubb would quickly move the chains, before a second down holding penalty would force the Browns into a backed-up situation. An incomplete pass on the second down do-over forced the Browns to opt for the safe running play on the long third down. Hunt would find 13 yards on third down, before a Jamie Gillan punt pinned the Steelers back at the 11.
After the punt, the Steelers put together their best offensive series of the half. Roethlisberger found Washington on three straight plays for a combined 54 yards to set up a first down at the Cleveland 24. Roethlisberger followed that up with four more straight completions to four different receivers to set up a short third and one at the two-yard line. Roethlisberger’s first incompletion in his last eight throws brought up fourth down before Conner found room for the first down up the middle to the half-yard line. Finding the endzone on the next play for the first time in the game on another one-yard Conner run.
With the defense surrendering its first score of the game, the offense needed to respond to continue to set the tone. Facing a long third down early in the drive, Mayfield used his legs to find six yards, stretching for the first down before falling out of bounds. With time winding down in the half, the passing game needed to be sharp, and it was. Mayfield connected on six straight passes to lead the Browns down the field before finding Hooper wide open in the endzone for seven yards to put them up 35-7 with 37 seconds to go in the half.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had two timeouts stashed away, opting to use one after Snell found some room on first down for 11 yards to the 43. After a first down incompletion, Roethlisberger found Johnson and Chase Claypool for 11 and 15 yards respectively to set up a 49 yard Chris Boswell field goal with five seconds to go. Boswell put the ball through the uprights to make it a 35-10 Browns halftime lead.
After the break, the Browns looked to keep things going, converting two first downs to near midfield before a false start penalty on second down halted the drive. A two-yard scramble out of trouble by Mayfield would bring up third and 13 before an incompletion forced a quick punt to open the second half.
Roethlisberger began to catch fire on the Steelers’ opening drive of the second half, completing eight straight passes. The final pass being a 17 yard over the top touchdown to Eric Ebron. Roethlisberger’s only incompletion on the drive would come on the two-point attempt, trying to zip one across the middle between two defenders to Conner.
With the lead slowly diminishing, the Browns needed to get things going offensively. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense had other plans, forcing another three and out of the Browns offense.
Roethlisberger found more success in the air on the next drive, this time combining big plays to Juju Smith-Schuster to lead his offense down the field. Facing a goal to go situation, the Browns defense stepped up to force three straight incompletions and bring up fourth down. Down big, the Steelers opted to go for the conversion, as Smith-Schuster found a seam in the endzone to cut the Browns lead down to 12 after a Chris Boswell extra point.
After the score, both teams would trade three and outs before the Steelers would open the fourth quarter punting down 12 points.
Despite the primary objectively seemingly being to run out the clock, the Browns opted to look for success in the air. Mayfield would find that success with Landry, his veteran playmaker, and Chubb out of the backfield. Facing a quick third down, Mayfield found Landry for 17, only to follow it up with 14 more for the two stars. A one-yard run brought up a long second down at the Pittsburgh 40, before a perfectly executed screen to Chubb found a seam for 40 yards all the way to the endzone to bring the score to 42-23 early in the fourth quarter.
Despite the Browns’ score, the Steelers’ offense stayed hot to score quickly to once again draw close. Taking only four plays put themselves within two scores. A 25-yard pass to Smith-Schuster set up a first down from the Cleveland 29 before Claypool found some room over the top for the 29-yard touchdown. M.J. Stewart would break up a pass to Smith-Schuster on the two-point attempt to keep the lead at 13.
The best part about the Browns’ next drive would be the near seven-minute they bled off the clock, the only downfall would be settling for a field goal to keep it a two-score game. Interim play-caller and Browns’ offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt kept the Steelers guessing, perfectly mixing the run and pass down the field. The play calls led the offense all the way down to a goal to go situation before the Steelers tightened up to force two straight incompletions and a field goal to keep themselves within two scores being down 16.
Roethlisberger grinded out a first down through the air to open the following drive, taking over with just over four minutes to go in the game. However, the first down play would fall in the favor of the Browns, as Sione Takitaki intercepted a pass from Roethlisberger, taking it all the way back to the Pittsburgh 25.
After the interception, the offense couldn’t produce a first down on the Steelers defense, taking a 19 point lead after a 37 yard Parkey field goal.
The Steelers would not go down quietly, once again finding success through the air on the depleted Browns secondary. Roethlisberger opened the drive with big passes on 19 and 18 yards to put the ball at the Cleveland 40, before three straight incompletions brought up fourth down and a long 10 with the game in the balance. On the fourth-down play, Roethlisberger heaved a prayer to Smith-Schuster for 33 yards to the seven-yard line. After the big play, Roethlisberger would find Claypool outside to pull within 11 after a successful two-point conversion to Conner through the air.
After the score, an onside kick would be the only drama to unpack on the way to the Browns’ first playoff win in 25 years. Fortunately for the Browns, tight end Stephen Carlson found himself right where he needed to be to recover the kick.
After the recovery, three Mayfield kneel-downs put a seal on a magical night for the Cleveland Browns, a 48-37 victory to send the division rival Pittsburgh home for the offseason. With the win, the Browns set up a mid-afternoon Sunday matchup with the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL divisional round playoffs.
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