Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) steps out of a tackle attempt by Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jamie Collins (51) during the first half of an NFL football game in Cleveland, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Whatever it is the Steelers have lacked, they didn’t find it at Cleveland.
The Steelers may have halted their four-game losing streak, but were mostly unimpressive in winning, 24-9. The Steelers didn’t put away the 0-11 Browns until scoring a defensive touchdown with 3:36 minutes left to account for the final margin.
The most remarkable thing about Sunday’s game was the absolute and total incompetence of the Browns. No NFL team has gone winless since Detroit in 2008, but these Browns have got the stuff. They are so bad as to terrify.
Typifying Cleveland’s wretchedness was the sequence that ended the first half.
The Browns kept stopping the Steelers at the goal line. The clock kept expiring. But the Browns committed penalties that gave the Steelers two untimed downs. Le’Veon Bell finally got the game’s first touchdown on a 1-yard run, rewarding coach Mike Tomlin for ill-advisedly not kicking a field goal that would have given the Steelers a two-possession lead over a team that was going to be hard-pressed to score at all.
Despite getting those two flags, Tomlin complained about the officiating. Sigh.
The Steelers were better than Cleveland, but certainly no model of efficiency.
To wit, linebacker Lawrence Timmons kept alive a fourth-quarter drive by Cleveland via an illegal use of hands penalty. Not having hands shouldn’t prevent you from defending a third-and-17 against Cleveland. Why use yours illegally?
The Steelers defense put together eight sacks, embarrassingly close to their season total of 13 entering the game. James Harrison got one of those sacks, thus setting the team’s career record. Congratulations. Can he go home now?
Mike Mitchell delivered borderline cheap hits all over the field, displaying the same courage a sixth-grader uses to kick a third-grader in the crotch at recess. It would be great if Mitchell ran a route over the middle just once.
The Steelers delivered a great defensive effort, but playing Cleveland is quite a disclaimer: That’s 14 straight losses for the Browns, and 21 defeats in 22 games.
Here’s another disclaimer: The Browns converted five out of five fourth downs.
The Steelers offense put together its two longest drives of the season in the first half: 82 yards in 9:18 (16 plays) and 68 yards in 9:28 (16 plays).
They resulted in a total of six points. Yikes.
If anything legitimately impressed, it was Bell’s performance. Yes, it was against Cleveland, but Bell’s 201 total yards (146 gained on the ground) enabled the Steelers to control the ball even if red-zone inefficiency left the result in doubt until late. The Steelers haven’t run like that since Rocky and Bullwinkle was still on the air.
Bell hit holes harder than usual, made something out of nothing and made more out of something. It wasn’t Bell at his best, but it was Bell a bit better.
For a change, it doesn’t look like the Steelers sustained any significant injuries, although receiver Cobi Hamilton could have easily torn his rotator cuff via constantly pantomiming the flag-throwing motion. Yo, practice-squad player, calm down.
It was must-win, and the Steelers won.
But, moving forward, tangible progress was made in the standings and nowhere else. Given how the Steelers have played, being tied for first in the AFC North hovers between laughable and disgusting.
But the Steelers did beat a home underdog, and that doesn’t always happen.
Perhaps the Steelers’ defense can muster some confidence, however false, from Sunday’s splashy performance. Belief can be a powerful tool, especially when talent is minimal. Stephon Tuitt has to be a beast in Cam Heyward’s absence, and he was Sunday. Rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis keep getting better.
A win is a win is a win.
The better news: The Steelers play Cleveland again Jan. 1.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).