Who are the Steelers at 3-3?
We may be about to find out.
Offensively, at least, Sunday’s game at Cleveland looms as revealing if not defining.
Statistically, the Browns boast the NFL’s No. 2 total defense (No. 2 against the run and No. 7 against the pass). But they haven’t been that consistently.
Cleveland’s defense has been sliced and diced by franchise quarterbacks and high-octane offenses, and has dominated against QBs and attacks that are less than that.
The averages per game through seven games: 295.6 yards against, 215.1 passing yards against and 23.6 points against (Cleveland is 18th in scoring defense).
But against Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Justin Herbert (Chargers) and Kyler Murray (Cardinals) the numbers per game are significantly higher: 414 yards against, 304.3 passing yards against and 39 points against. Not surprisingly, Cleveland is 0-3 in those games.
Against QBs down the evolutionary food chain (Tyrod Taylor, Justin Fields and Teddy Bridgewater) the numbers are, on average, 190.7 yards against, 134.3 passing yards against and 13.7 points against. Again, not surprisingly, Cleveland is 3-0 against the Texans, Bears and Broncos).
There was also a very credible effort against Kirk Cousins and a Vikings offense that ranks No. 5 this week (255 yards, 190 passing yards and seven points against) in a 14-7 victory on Oct. 3 in Minnesota.
That’s the outlier in a Browns’ body of work that suggests offenses able to do well against Cleveland are very good and those that don’t are sub-par.
The suspicion heading into Sunday is Ben Roethlisberger has aged out of the franchise quarterback category and the Steelers’ offense is still much more in a state of development than it is dependable.
But if Roethlisberger and the Steelers can ignite Cleveland’s defense like the Cuyahoga River, as Mahomes, Herbert and Murray have done, it’ll change the way Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense are perceived.
And the expectations of what they may be capable of as the season progresses.
POOL REPAIR: Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ No. 27 offense would be more highly thought of had wide receiver Chase Claypool been better than he’s been through his first five games.
Claypool, it could be argued, has been the most disappointing player on offense this season (unlike the offensive line, he entered the campaign with great expectations).
Wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard didn’t go that far last week, but he acknowledged the gap between the number of deep balls the Steelers have thrown Claypool’s way and the number Claypool has been counted upon to catch.
“Every play is different,” Hilliard emphasized. “Every ball placement can be different. We work really, really hard in order to try to manufacture plays. Chase is unique with his size and speed and ability to adjust. And then sometimes in situations you just have to make the play as a guy. We haven’t clearly done enough of that for everybody’s liking, including ours.
“It’s been talked about and addressed. We’ll continue to work and more of those plays will come. He’s too talented individually and he’s counted on by everybody in this building, including himself, to make those plays and he will.”
Head coach Mike Tomlin maintained Claypool’s 2021 story is yet to be written.
And if Claypool emerges over the final 11 games, what’s transpired to this point will be little more than the precursor to a great story.
But Sunday wouldn’t be too soon for such a transformation to being taking place.
“Stepping up on stages like the one we're about to go to on will be a significant component of it,” Tomlin acknowledged. “Divisional road game play is big.”
Run that through the “Tomlin Translator” and you’ll get this: Time to ante up and kick in.
Here’s one more observation from Hilliard that emphasizes the need for Claypool to be at his best much more than it takes Claypool to task for not having been that yet:
“Again, we need those plays and he knows that, we know that. But he’s not the only guy that’s been in those situations. Chase is obviously a talented dude. We’re counting on him to take that second-year jump.”
COMFORT SEEKING: A narrative that’s seemingly gaining some momentum of late recognizes the Steelers’ three losses have occurred against the Bengals (5-2), the Raiders (5-2) and the Packers (7-1).
“They must not be that bad,” the theory suggests. “Look who they’ve lost to so far.”
As if those three teams’ combined record of 17-5 somehow justifies losing those games.
Left out of such a school of thought is the acknowledgement the Steelers could have realistically beaten one of those teams.
They could have, possibly should have and maybe even would have beaten the Raiders had one or two things not worked out the way they did.
But the Steelers were thumped at home by the Bengals and on the road by the Packers (the bad call on the blocked field goal returned for a touchdown altered the score at halftime but would have had little or no impact on the final result had it gone the other way; Aaron Rodgers simply would have inflicted more damage in the second half).
You are what your record says you are.
Beating Cleveland and getting to 4-3 would say more about the Steelers than any of their three losses possibly could.