Trenton After Thursday- Week 11
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
The 5-4 Pittsburgh Steelers faced off against the 3-6 Cleveland Browns in a bitter AFC North rivalry game. This marked the first of two times the teams would meet this season, with the second being in 17 days. Both teams have had their share of struggles this season, with the Steelers losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Browns failing to live up to a star-studded roster on paper. With only two games separating the two, it was a chance for the Browns to begin creeping towards a chance to pass by Pittsburgh for second place in the division. It was a tight defensive game throughout but the Browns defense would ultimately force four turnovers from the Steelers that allowed them to ultimately win 21-7. Of course, nobody will remember this game as the moment the Browns might have turned around their season and relit the spark of playoff hopes for their fans. The wild brawl, possibly unlike anything seen in the history of the sport, made sure of that.
Defenses Lead the Way, Offenses Struggle
The key for the Steelers in this game was to lean on the run game, which had been inconsistent throughout the season. With running back James Conner returning to the lineup after being out due to injury, a solid run game would have allowed young quarterback Mason Rudolph to play a game with less pressure from the Browns pass rush. At least, that was the idea. Instead, Conner only managed five carries for ten yards and a reception for six yards before he was ruled out of the game, injured once more. The rest of the running back depth combined for eight carries for 37 yards. With no threat of a run game, the Browns went after Rudolph and picked up four sacks and 11 hits. The result was Rudolph having the worst game of his young career, throwing four interceptions. He completed 23 of his 44 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown, but 14 of his completions were within five air yards, or behind the line of scrimmage. Of the eight passes he threw between 10 air yards and 20 air yards, five were completed and the other three were intercepted. All of his passes thrown 20 air yards or deeper were incomplete or intercepted. The offense only converted two of their 11 third downs, and failed on all three of their fourth down attempts.
The Browns offense avoided turnovers to a Steelers team that thrived on creating opportunities throughout the last few weeks. Nonetheless, Cleveland struggled to move the ball into scoring range. Running back Nick Chubb contributed with 27 carries for 92 yards while Kareem Hunt added 12 yards on the ground along with six receptions for 46 yards. Quarterback Baker Mayfield spent most of his time on the run and avoiding the pass rush, spending an average 3.16 seconds after the snap before he threw the ball. He completed 17 of his 32 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns and was clearly trying to avoid throwing the ball in the middle of the fast Steelers defense. Of his passes past the line of scrimmage, only five were thrown in the middle of the field. The other 17 were thrown to the left or right of the field, mainly near the sidelines. The Browns only managed three touchdown drives of 65, 77, and 4 yards while missing two field goals and punting eight times.
Physical Game Devolves Into Chaos
Rivalry games are often intense, emotional matches for the teams and fans. There is a certain amount of craziness that happens during rivalry games that can result in legendary upsets and outstanding efforts from players despite a lost season with no postseason hopes. The Browns have spent a long time as underdogs and the Steelers have enjoyed a lot of success in recent memory, often at the expense of the Browns. This game held even greater importance, with the Browns only two games behind the Steelers. A win over Pittsburgh would go a long way towards giving the Browns a chance at knocking the Steelers out of second place in the division and allowing the Browns to jump ahead for a playoff run. But who could have predicted the way this game would end?
Perhaps some may have called it when Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was motionless on the field after being sandwiched by defensive backs Morgan Burnett and Greedy Williams, and was shortly ruled out of the game with a concussion. Maybe some said the game could only get uglier after defensive back Damarious Randall was ejected from the game for making full helmet-to-helmet contact to the side of the head of Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson that left him bleeding from the ear and out with a concussion. And those people would be right.
Backed up at their own 17, losing 7-21, and facing a third-and-29 with 14 seconds left in the game, there was absolutely no way the Steelers could come back to win. At that point, it was simply going through the motions and padding stats as much as possible. Rudolph dumped off to the left to running back Trey Edmunds as Browns defensive end Myles Garrett came unblocked off the left edge and wrapped up Rudolph, taking him to the ground. From what the replay shows, Rudolph appeared to attack Garrett’s helmet after being taken to the ground, getting a hand under the helmet in an attempt to pull it off. It is not clear if Rudolph’s hand was caught in the helmet, or if he was upset about being taken down despite getting rid of the ball.
Both options are believable. Whatever occurred, Garrett responded by dragging Rudolph to his feet by the facemask and ripping the quarterback’s helmet off. As Steelers lineman David DeCastro put himself between the two players to try and restore at least some sense of professionalism, Rudolph got up and took another run at Garrett, who responded by clubbing the quarterback in the head with his own helmet. At this point, chaos ensued as Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey began throwing punches and kicks at Garrett, and Rudolph was blindsided by Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi as the benches of both teams cleared and more players joined the brawl.
It was an incredibly bad look for both teams, the league, the fans, and the viewers, as the primetime game brought excessively violent hits during the game and ended with a blatant assault with a weapon to end the night. For the Browns, the important win over the Steelers is now overshadowed by Garrett’s actions in a game that also featured helmet-to-helmet hits by Browns players that directly led to the concussions of two Steelers players. It also happens to be only one week prior that the Browns cut safety Jermaine Whitehead following his threatening social media posts on Twitter. While Garrett’s actions have put him and the Browns organization under much scrutiny, Rudolph has had the benefit of being a feel-good story after being knocked unconscious earlier in the season and has thus been ignored by some in their responses to the fight. However, others have also rightfully highlighted Rudolph’s role in the incident as he not only appeared to spark the violence initially, but continued it by taking a run at Garrett even after DeCastro succeeded in defusing the situation by separating them.
The NFL announced Garrett has been suspended without pay indefinitely for at least the rest of the season and postseason. Ogunjobi, who hit Rudolph in the back after he was hit with his own helmet by Garrett, has been suspended for one game. Pouncey, who had punched and kicked Garrett after he was taken to the ground by DeCastro, has been suspended for three games. The three of them had been ejected from the game after the fight. The Browns and Steelers have been fined $250,000. Rudolph has not been suspended or fined as of yet, despite his prominent role in the skirmish. On the bright side of things, DeCastro has been praised for initially breaking up the fight, and then bringing Garrett to the ground after temper reignited to prevent the situation from escalating further and preventing Pouncey and other Steelers players from further attacking Garrett.
Coming out of this game, the coaches of both organizations will have the spotlights on them as to how they address the lack of discipline moving forward. The NFL will have a spotlight on how they handle the penalties of the various players involved. Furthermore, the two teams face each other in two weeks, on December 1. There will almost certainly be grudges and ill will, and both the organizations and officials need to make sure the game goes on without any further issues, not only for the sake of the NFL’s image, but more importantly the safety of the players.