It was a day for the defense on both sides of the ball Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, and we're focusing on that area to kick off our 3 Big Takeaways following the Browns' 15-10 loss to the Steelers.
1. Defense played winning football but came up one stop short
Kevin Stefanski wasn't asked many questions about the defense Sunday, but he delivered a definitive answer when he was.
"Did we hold them to 15?" the Browns head coach said. "To hold an opponent to 15 points, you should win a lot of games."
The Browns just didn't win on this particular Sunday, and the defense will look back on the goal-line stand that almost was as the moment the Browns found themselves on the wrong side of a thin margin for error.
Cleveland held the Steelers without a touchdown in the first half but was on its heels a bit in the second. Pittsburgh promptly answered Cleveland's third-quarter touchdown with one of its own and put itself in position to score another when it faced first-and-goal from the 2 early in the fourth quarter. The Browns, though, toughened up and appeared to have the momentum back on their side after stuffing RB Najee Harris on first down and forcing back-to-back incompletions to set up fourth-and-goal.
On any other Sunday, the Steelers would have kicked the short field goal to take a 12-10 advantage. Pittsburgh, though, was without K Chris Boswell for the second half after he suffered a concussion while attempting a fake field goal late in the second quarter.
The Steelers had to go for it, and the Browns needed one more stop. They nearly got it, too, but Pittsburgh rookie TE Pat Freiermuth made a special play to give the Steelers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Guarded tightly by S Ronnie Harrison, Freiermuth corralled the pass after it bounced off Harrison's arm and somehow dragged both of his feet in bounds to secure the touchdown.
"Obviously," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "he made a big-time football play."
The Browns defense kept its opponent under 20 points for the fourth time this season, but it left the field one big play short.
"We did not win so it was not enough," DE Myles Garrett said. "They held us to 10 so they did a better job than us."\
Check out photos of the Browns against the Steelers in week eight
2. Run game slowed
When the Browns ran well Sunday, points followed. The problem was Cleveland's top-ranked rushing attack never really got going against a Pittsburgh defense that entered Sunday's game ranked 12th in the league at stopping it.
The Browns finished with 96 yards on 23 carries, marking the second time in three weeks they've been held under 100 on the ground. Cleveland came into the game ranked first in the NFL with an average of 170.4 rushing yards per game.
Nick Chubb, in his return from a two-game absence, picked up 14 yards on his first carry of the game and 21 yards on his first carry of the second half. He gained just 26 yards on his other 14 touches, as Cleveland just couldn't get into a rhythm against Pittsburgh's vaunted front.
Perhaps the most frustrating sequence came on the last play of the first quarter and the first play of the second. Faced with a third-and-2, the Browns had D'Ernest Johnson take a direct snap and rush to the left. He gained just a yard to set up a fourth-and-1. Chubb got the ball to start the second quarter and went nowhere, as the Steelers swarmed him in the backfield.
"They beat us on that play," Stefanski said. "We got some penetration at the point of attack, and they made a play. When we go for it on those fourth-and-ones, whether we throw it or run it, you have to like your odds on offense. Unfortunately, we did not come through."
3. Another big loss on the offensive line
RT Jack Conklin suffered a dislocated elbow Sunday that forced him out of the game in the second quarter and could keep him out for more. It's yet another blow to a Browns offensive line that has dealt with injuries from the very start of the season.
Conklin suffered what QB Baker Mayfield described as a "pretty nasty" injury on what looked to be a routine rushing play. Blake Hance, who entered the season as a guard but has been forced to play significant snaps at both tackle spots, filled in the rest of the way and was tasked with slowing down All-Pro DE T.J. Watt.
"Jack is a tough dude," Mayfield said. "He was up walking around and asking how everybody was. He is still going to be a leader, be in that room and be a veteran for those guys – we know that. It is just very unfortunate when things like that happen."
The Browns hit a milestone of sorts earlier this week when they had all five of their starting offensive linemen on the practice field for Wednesday's practice — the first such occurrence on the Wednesday of a game week since Week 1. On Sunday, the Browns had all five on the field for the first time since Week 4, a game that saw LT Jedrick Wills Jr. start, but not finish, because of an ankle injury.
Now, they'll press forward again without Conklin for an indefinite period of time.