By Joe Starkey
Butter up the Cleveland Browns all you like — goodness knows, the Steelers have tried — they're still the Cleveland Browns until further notice.
Granted, further notice could come as early as 4 p.m. Sunday. That is true. And that would be terrible news for the Steelers, who would then find themselves alone in last place in the AFC North if the Baltimore Ravens win at Tampa Bay.
Spend enough time in the basement — the Steelers were there midway through last season, too — and people will start talking. They might even start calling the Cleveland Browns a better team, and for all the Steelers' struggles of late, that is one ignominy they have avoided.
If this feels like a watershed moment for the Browns, it's not far from that for the Steelers. Their mystique is fading fast, though it still plays in Cleveland, where they are 14-3 in their past 17 trips.
A win would make the Steelers 4-2 and possibly tied for first in the division. It might also restore some faith in Mike Tomlin, just 19-18 in his past 37 games and coming off a career low point: his rubber stamping, just days after bristling at the players' coach label, of “The Immaterial Reception,” a needless pass to Antonio Brown aimed at extending an obscure and arbitrary “record” when all the Steelers had to do was kneel.
Tight end Heath Miller, for one, knew nothing of Brown's “record” of 21 games with at least five catches and 50 yards receiving. The Jacksonville announcers couldn't believe the Steelers lined up in a shotgun instead of a victory formation, but maybe we should cut Tomlin a break there: His team hasn't had much practice in the victory formation over the past few years.
In Cleveland, it's Super Bowl week. The Browns are 2-2. Their bandwagon is overflowing after a historic comeback win in Tennessee. It even includes a couple of Steelers' linemen.
Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, before the season, claimed the Browns were the “team to beat” in the division. Defensive end Brett Keisel labels the Browns “the best team” the Steelers have played (we'll remind the Ravens of that next month).
With apologies to John McEnroe, these guys cannot be serious.
Admittedly, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer is a surprise. He even prompted a never-heard-before phrase from Steelers cornerback Brice McCain, who told me Hoyer is “like vintage Alex Smith.”
Is that like vintage Boone's Farm wine?
The Browns offense is good. It will at least match the 27 points it scored at Heinz Field. But the defense is bad. Banged up, too. The only team that can prevent the Steelers from scoring 30-plus again is the Steelers.
It was the Steelers who stopped the Steelers last weekend in Jacksonville, where they put up 10 points against the league's worst defense.
And it was the Steelers who stopped the Steelers in Week 1, when they hung 27 first-half points on the Browns and then crawled into the fetal position.
Year after year we talk about how this team leaves too many points on the field. That was the complaint with Bruce Arians, right? The Steelers would roll up yards but not enough points — mostly because they were inept in the red zone.
Todd Haley was brought in to fix the problems. So fix them. It's time. This team has an elite quarterback, a top-five receiver, a top-five running back, a quality tight end and a healthy line in which the club has invested significant picks and money.
Score more. Impose your will. Take what this lousy Browns defense gives you, sure, but take what you want, as well. Run the ball on first-and-goal from the 4 instead of winging it around the yard like last week (and if that means telling Ben to stick with the play call, so be it). That's why you built this line. That's why you drafted Le'Veon Bell and brought in LeGarrette Blount.
Listen to Blount, who told KDKA-FM on Friday, “I want the football.”
Wide receiver Lance Moore, an alumnus of those pinball-machine offenses in New Orleans, believes this group has that capability. I wondered if getting there would require a shift in mentality, to where you're saying, “We're going to score 30 every time out.”
“Yeah, well, that was the mindset we had (in New Orleans), but outside influences also create that,” Moore said. “Pittsburgh's a place always known for defense. The offense hasn't really gotten much praise around here even when they had decent offenses.”
Decent won't cut it anymore. The Steelers offense needs to be great. It needs to start fast and never let up. It let up in Week 1 and still finished with 490 yards. This time, it must press to the end — unless, of course, it has the chance to kneel on the ball late. I'm guessing Tomlin would happily accept that option this week.
It sure beats a trip to the basement.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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