PITTSBURGH -- Much has been made of the Cleveland Browns' secondary, and how the priority to strengthen the unit took center stage this offseason.
On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the defensive backs needed major assistance from their pass rushing teammates in slowing down the Steelers offense. And in the second half, they got it.
The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times when the third quarter began, and four total, cooling down the red-hot veteran quarterback. Running lanes were now stuffed up, too, led by defensive end Billy Winn.
"Man we just went out there and busted our butts," said Winn after the game. "It ended up not being enough, but we showed people what this defense is capable of."
As the game wore on, Pittsburgh utterly lost their identity on offense. In a nearly 20 minute stretch of the game, the only first down the Steelers mustered was through a pass on a fake punt.
Why? What happened to the offense that put up 27 quick points in the first half? The answer: The Browns started winning the war in the trenches.
For Steelers offensive line, everywhere they turned, there was a player lurking with an orange helmet. Trailing 27-17 in the third quarter – but clutching all the momentum – the Browns unleashed rookie Chris Kirksey on a blitz up the middle. Roethlisberger eluded the linebacker for a second, but Kirksey stayed with the play and crunched the Steelers quarterback to the turf, securing his first NFL sack.
On the very next third-down play, Armonty Bryant literally body slammed Roethlisberger, assassinating another Pittsburgh drive with the potent pass rush. In the fourth quarter, Jabaal Sheard got involved in the sack party, and on an important third-down, too.
More so than any other pass rusher, it was Paul Kruger who the Steelers couldn't handle. Kruger produced his second multi-sack game as a Cleveland Brown, echoing his dedication to improvement.
In the locker room after the game, Kruger said everything changed once the Browns stepped out on the field for the second half.
"I think the coaches did a good job of making the adjustments we needed to make," said Kruger. "We had to change our attitude and things we were doing. It was nice to come back and show what we can do. But I am really disappointed about the loss."
The teaching techniques of defensive line coach Anthony Weaver coupled with Mike Pettine and Jim O'Neil's scheme showed on Sunday. Kruger and company are using their hands more violently. And with all the rotations, stunts and confusion, Cleveland was able to free their athletes to beat Steelers offensive linemen one-on-one. It was a matchup that nearly overwhelmed Pittsburgh to the point of defeat.
Like the rest of the team, it'll be the pass rushers job to make sure their second half dominance is a full game effort against New Orleans.