1. Baker Mayfield bruised, sore but offers no excuses for performance vs. Steelers
Baker Mayfield didn't want to come out of the game. He understood and respected the decision Kevin Stefanski made late in the third quarter, but the competitive side of Mayfield wanted to finish what he started — even if it wasn't pretty.
Alas, Mayfield's Sunday in Pittsburgh came to an end one quarter early with the Browns on the wrong side of a 24-point deficit. It was a tough day for multiple reasons, as Mayfield threw two interceptions and took a number of hard hits one week after suffering a chest injury late in the action against the Colts.
Stefanski said he couldn't bear to see Mayfield take another hit, prompting his decision to insert veteran Case Keenum for the final part of the game. The coach wants Mayfield as healthy as possible for next week's game against Cincinnati — another division matchup Mayfield will start if he's medically cleared.
"I just did not want to see him get hit one more time, and I put that on myself," Stefanski said. "Went into this game knowing we had to keep him clean, and we did not do a good enough job, so that starts with me, obviously. He is a very, very tough player and I know he wants to fight, but it is a long season, we have a game next week and I did not feel like it was the right thing to put him back out there."
Mayfield was under constant duress from the very first series, and the Steelers took quick advantage of his mistakes. His first throw of the game went back the other way for a touchdown when he didn't spot Minkah Fitzpatrick lurking near his intended target, TE Harrison Bryant. Fitzpatrick snatched it in stride and ran it back 33 yards untouched for a touchdown that staked Pittsburgh to a double-digit lead it would not relinquish.
Mayfield's second interception came in the second quarter after he rolled to his right and heaved a pass intended for Rashard Higgins down the right sidelines. The ball didn't have enough on it, and Cameron Sutton leapt to make the interception. The Steelers turned the turnover into another touchdown, and the Browns fell into a 24-0 hole.
Asked if the injury affected his performance, Mayfield said it did not. He finished 10-of-18 for 119 yards with a touchdown pass to Higgins and the two interceptions.
"I do not know about the rankings and whatnot, but it obviously wasn't good enough to win," Mayfield said. "I have to take care of the ball.
"A couple of basic things that I will be looking back on and need to fix it."
Along the way, Mayfield faced unrelenting pressure from Pittsburgh's front seven. He took numerous hard hits, was slow to get up after a couple of them, but never looked to come out of the game. It's the kind of toughness Mayfield's teammates respect so much from him.
"He was a little bit beat up, but when he came in the huddle, he was fine," G Joel Bitonio said. "We have a long season. This counts as one. It is not the way we wanted to play, but I know he is a tough guy. He wanted to do what he could do. We just did not give him enough time."
Stefanski said Mayfield was medically cleared to play in the second half but grimaced when he took another hard hit on the second play of the third quarter. After the Browns failed to convert a fourth-down conversion near the end of the period, Stefanski made his decision.
"I know this, I did not do a good enough job allowing him to be put in those positions," Stefanski said. "It is something that I have to do way better. I can't let him get hit like that."
2. Running game grounded against Steelers' top-ranked defense
The Browns were out-rushed for the first time in 2020 and posted just one double-digit run — a 10-yarder — while the game was still in balance.
It was a stark contrast to the previous five weeks, when the Browns rose the ranks as the NFL's top rushing team. They finished Sunday with just 75 yards, 29 of which came from Dontrell Hilliard in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh entered Sunday's game allowing just 64 rushing yards per contest.
"From play to play, there was a guy that got beat," Bitonio said. "It wasn't one guy every play. It was just play to play a guy got beat or someone missed their gap, and that is how you lose to a fundamentally sound team like Pittsburgh. They have a guy in every gap, and if you don't win, they are going to make a play. I can't pinpoint exactly what happened, but I think once every play, someone was messing up. We didn't play well enough today."
3. Third downs hurt Browns on both sides of the ball
Cleveland's offense couldn't extend drives and the defense couldn't get off the field. That's probably the simplest way of explaining how the Browns fell to the Steelers on Sunday.
The Browns converted just one of their 12 third downs and were 0-for-3 on fourth downs. The Steelers, meanwhile, converted 5-of-14 third downs and were 2-for-2 on fourth downs.
A sequence near the end of the third quarter symbolized the day, as Kareem Hunt was stuffed on fourth-and-1 inside the Browns' own 30-yard line. Just a few moments later, Pittsburgh converted a fourth-and-1 on a Ben Roethlisberger sneak to extend a drive and eventually score a touchdown.
Cleveland has yet to stop an opponent on a fourth-down attempt this season.
"Name it. I did not do a good job there," Stefanski said. "We did not get people open. I need to figure out a way to get some easy ones for the Q. We just did not have people open."