PITTSBURGH — The Browns ended their 2022 season with a 28-14 loss Sunday to the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.
Here are three takeaways from the Week 18 defeat.
1. Browns grapple with disappointment of ending season with loss
Even though the playoffs have been off the table for the last two weeks, the Browns still had a lot to play for against their AFC North rival — the chance to avoid finishing last in the division and completing their first season-sweep of the Steelers since 1988 were among them.
So was the simple opportunity of ending the season with a win (and two-game win streak) to head into the offseason on positive vibes.
The Browns didn't get the job done and instead placed a disappointing stamp on a year that already featured several instances of let-downs and missed opportunities. Not clinching a playoff berth was disheartening enough, and losing to a division rival to end the season amplified those emotions even more.
"The next two weeks are probably going to be frustrating as hell," defensive end Myles Garrett said. "Watching someone else live those dreams and those goals that you want to achieve, whether it's individually or as a team, going on to big games or the Super Bowl, is frustrating to watch."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski said he'll reflect on the season as a whole Monday but acknowledged that it was "very disappointing" for the Browns to take a step back in their record from a year ago.
Cleveland finished with one less win this season than it did in 2021, when the Browns went 8-9.
"Those big picture thoughts will be for tomorrow," he said. "But today, we just didn't get it done."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Steelers in Week 18
2. Watson barraged with pressure from Steelers D
Similar to his five other starts this season, Deshaun Watson showed glimpses of his elite potential with two touchdowns and a handful of other throws and runs that highlighted his talents as a starting quarterback. The performance, however, still lacked consistency from the offense as a whole.
One thing that was constant all game was the Steelers applying pressure to Watson.
Watson was sacked a season-high seven times for 57 yards, including two sacks on the final two plays of the game. Two Steelers defenders — DE Alex Highsmith (2.5) and DT Cam Heyward (2) — had multi-sack games, and the sacks often made it difficult for the Browns to find favorable third-down situations and stay on the field.
Watson also threw two interceptions in the game, his first game with multiple interceptions this season.
"You've got to give them credit for the games and the stunts and things they were doing to create pressure, and you've got to give the secondary credit for doing their best to hold their disguise as much as they can and try to disrupt the passing game."
Watson finished the game 19-for-29 with 230 yards. He also rushed six times for 44 yards, the most rushing yards he's had in a game this season.
The majority of those rushing yards happened on plays that broke down, where Watson was able to scramble out of the pocket and still turn the play into a positive gain.
But too many of those broken plays were unsavable and resulted in Watson being tackled in the backfield.
"You have to give the Steelers credit," Watson said. "They did what they needed to do to create some pressures, some turnovers and capitalize on that. It didn't go our way, and we just have to watch the tape and get ready for this offseason."
3. Offense prioritizes getting building chemistry with Watson in offseason
Watson said after the game that he knew going 6-0 in his six starts this season and playing similarly to the Pro Bowl level he excelled at his first four seasons of his career was an unrealistic scenario.
"I knew it was going to be challenging," Watson said. "I knew I wasn't going to walk in and just be the MVP of the NFL. I've got a lot of work to put in. I've put in a lot of work, and I have a long way to go … I knew there were going to be some challenge, and I knew there was going to be a learning curve."
The priority for him and the offense this offseason, however, will be to do everything possible to be a clean and efficient unit in 2023. The flashes of that potential this season have to show on a much more consistent basis next season, and Watson is ready to do all the work necessary to build more chemistry with receivers and doing whatever is necessary to increase cohesion in with the offense.
"The biggest thing really, like (WR) Amari (Cooper) said, is the receivers getting used to playing with me," Watson said. "There's certain things that I do differently than what they're probably used to. I've got to get used to the timing and how they run routes in different situations. Some guys are better at certain routes than others.
"So to spend some time in the offseason and not have that long break between working in the offseason and going back and forth with quarterbacks and not playing with each other for 12 weeks, that's not in the future, so now having a full season and a full offseason of just focusing on what we can do better as an offense and quarterback and receivers, that's the challenge for us."