1. Damarious Randall’s near pick-6 symbolizes game of inches, details that matter in division games
The way Damarious Randall thought about it as he stood by his locker after Sunday’s game, maybe he knew the play too well.
The Browns defense was 10 seconds away from keeping the Steelers out of the end zone on a pivotal drive at the end of the first half. Pittsburgh went to the line of scrimmage for the 16th time on the possession as it faced a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown trotted in motion as the ball was snapped.
Randall liked what he saw. His memory was triggered.
“I thought it was a touchdown,” Randall said. “When I saw them come out in the formation, it was the same play New Orleans scored on us. Our offense actually put that in the playbook and they ran that against us in practice this week.
‘I’m just like, ‘no way they’re running this play.’ I was probably a little too excited.”
Randall charged toward the only place Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger intended to throw. The ball might have even deflected off his helmet as it went through his arms and into Brown’s. It was the All-Pro wide receiver’s second touchdown of the quarter, and it extended a lead Pittsburgh would not relinquish.
Randall said Roethlisberger said something to him after the play, acknowledging just how close Cleveland’s free safety was to a game-changing pick-six.
“I saw something I saw on film. I tried to go make a play and it looked like I was a little faster than they were,” Randall said. “The ball was a little bit behind me and I couldn’t grasp it.”
After a game that got out of hand in the fourth quarter, Browns players were lamenting moments that could have not only prevented the lopsided result, but completely flipped it on its head.
For the offense, it was settling for field goals rather than scoring touchdowns in a first quarter the Browns essentially dominated. For the defense, it went beyond a potential play of the year from Randall. After Cleveland closed to within 4 midway through the third quarter, Browns defenders missed a few tackles, left a few running lanes open and Steelers running back James Conner capitalized in a big way.
At the midpoint of the season, and especially against division foes, every last detail matters.
“When you play good teams, the margin for error is really small,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said. “You can’t beat yourself, you can’t commit penalties, you can’t have missed assignments, can’t be out of your gap, can’t have missed blocks. You have to be on point, especially in games like this when there’s a lot riding on it.”
The Cleveland Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 8.
2. For 2nd straight time, Browns can’t stop James Conner -- and this time he made them pay
James Conner came close to cracking 200 yards of offense when the Steelers and Browns met Week 1. His 22-yard touchdown run, which put an exclamation point on Pittsburgh’s dominant second half Sunday, put him well over the mark in yet another tough day for Cleveland’s rush defense.
At the half, Conner had just 33 yards on 10 carries and one reception for 12 yards. He finished with 146 on the ground and 66 through the air after a second half in which the Steelers pounded and pounded the Browns with the run and dominated time of possession in the process.
Cleveland’s two worst games against the run -- Sunday’s and the Week 6 loss to the Chargers -- are the only two this season that featured a final margin in the double digits.
“It’s more of what we did rather than him just being that explosive,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He’s a good player and he’s going to make those plays if we give it to him, especially when we open it up for him.”
3. A play you rarely see nearly changed the game
The Browns nearly turned the game around by, essentially, recovering an onside kick they didn’t intend to make.
Following a Steelers safety -- which was ruled after left tackle Desmond Harrison was flagged for holding in the end zone -- Britton Colquitt launched a safety kick from Cleveland’s 20-yard line. It sailed 56 yards, and Steelers returner Ryan Switzer appeared to camp underneath it. At the last second, he moved forward and let the ball bounce, seemingly unaware the ball was live. A horde of Browns, led by defensive back Denzel Rice, pounced on the ball, securing possession at the Steelers 24-yard line. Cleveland found the end zone a few plays later, and the Browns were right back in the game.
“We screwed it up,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
“That was a cool rule,” offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said. “It’s good to know now.”
Per NFL rules, the Browns were not permitted to advance the ball when they recovered it. Much like a typical onside kick, the ball is dead once a member of the kicking team recovers it.
The Browns just couldn’t seize the momentum beyond those few moments. Pittsburgh’s offense got the ball back, immediately scored and rattled off 17 unanswered points en route to the lopsided victory.
“We just couldn’t finish,” Bitonio said. “We started better, it wasn’t like Tampa last week. We came out and did some good things to get going. We had a nice eight-, 10-play drive. We just have to find a way to play well the whole game.”