Browns get lesson from Steelers in how far away from contending they really are

PITTSBURGH – Myles Garrett alternated between whistling and singing to himself as Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” mournfully wafted from the speaker on his cell phone, which sat on the top shelf of his stall inside the visitors’ locker room at Heinz Field.

Garrett, a 6-foot-4, 272-pound 22-year-old chuckled to himself and shook his head while pulling on his T-shirt, reflecting on the King of Pop’s words, and perhaps the irony of the moment. Garrett’s Browns, like MJ, had blown an opportunity and had no choice but to deal with the loss.

Describing the most difficult aspect of the defeat at the hands of the Steelers a short time later, Garrett smiled weakly, sighed and said, “Knowing that we were toe-to-toe with them first time we played, and that we gave them one (this time). Should’ve been a lot closer. There were some plays we could’ve made on all three phases of the game and didn’t take advantage of that.”

Indeed, the rebuilding Browns did scrap to a 21-21 tie against their division rivals in the first week of the season. Garrett and teammates drew encouragement from that outing given the standard that the Steelers have set as consistent AFC North contenders.

But now seven weeks later, the Browns looked nowhere close to Pittsburgh’s level. After a closely contested first quarter, Cleveland collapsed and a the shot at an upset slipped away.

The Steelers, who rolled to a 33-18 victory over the visitors, are trending upward having extended their win streak to three games. The early-season kinks that plagued them during a 1-2-1 start seem distant. Confidence and a keen focus reign supreme within that locker room.

The Browns, meanwhile, seemingly have regressed. Answers remain elusive, dysfunction permeates from the organization and uncertainty looms as players and head coach Hue Jackson continue to face questions about the competency of the coaching staff and job security of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

The midway point of the NFL season drew nigh for the Steelers (4-2-1) and Browns (2-5-1) and Sunday’s contest seemed to reflect the true state of each franchise.

The Steelers, who returned from their bye week without skipping a beat, have begun to “hit their stride,” as members of the locker room put it. They weathered the early-season storm and now look very much like a squad equipped to win their division and contend in the postseason.

The Browns may have made modest improvements during the offseason as Jackson and general manager John Dorsey aim to reverse the course of a franchise that went 1-31 in Jackson’s first two seasons at the helm. But they still have a long, long way to go.

For the Steelers, Sunday’s game played out much like the course of their season thus far.

The offense sputtered at the outset with two punts and an interception in the first three series. But because the Steelers are built to withstand those bleak times, “no one hit the panic button,” offensive guard Ramon Foster explained.

“You can’t fight the negative stuff,” he said. “Football is a game of mistakes more than anything and the team that makes the least mistakes has the greater chance of winning. We really just capitalized on our opportunities. I guess you can say we felt it out a little bit and went with what was working. We just caught a groove. We were in good spots."

Roethlisberger’s first touchdown pass came off of a broken play. Down 6-0 early in the second quarter, he broke from a collapsing pocket to run, then saw Antonio Brown racing up the sideline uncovered and fired off a 43-yard touchdown pass. Later, he orchestrated a seven-minute scoring drive capped by a 1-yard toss to Brown, and Pittsburgh led 14-6 at halftime.

“With the guys we have on this offense, we have the opportunity at all times to score and make big plays and guys realize that,” Foster said.

The lead, and the Steelers’ capabilities on offense enabled them to methodically attack in the third quarter. The Browns had bottled up running back James Conner, limiting him to 33 yards on 10 first-half carries. But the Steelers set out to get the ground game going and Conner gained 60 yards on six carries in the third quarter alone. He finished the game with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

Meanwhile, in a manner indicative of their season, the Browns showed that their promising start wasn’t sustainable. Pittsburgh’s defense exposed the inadequacies of Cleveland’s offensive line.

Chatter about Haley’s status arose last week when Jackson mentioned wanting to get involved with the offensive game-planning in an attempt to fix the Browns’ woes. Speculation of a rift between the two strong-headed figures spiked. But nothing changed when it came to the operation of the offense on a day-to-day basis last week, and Haley remained on the job.

But Sunday’s outing against the Steelers showed that the Browns’ problems go well beyond play-calling. Dorsey and his staff checked off a number of boxes this offseason as they found a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and added play-makers like wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Nick Chubb. They also gave the defense a potential shutdown corner in No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward.

But much work remains, and it must start along the offensive line. The Browns’ best chances for success Sunday came with quick-hitter passes that got the ball out of Mayfield’s hands quickly. But the unit needed to move downfield in big chunks and put points on the board. They couldn’t, however, because Mayfield had little time to let plays unfold. Balance could have helped ease pressure on the quarterback, but the point deficit basically eliminated the run game from the equation. Cleveland struggled mightily while routinely faced with third-and-long situations, going 3-for-13 on third downs.

But questions of coaching competency came up frequently within the Browns’ postgame scrums.

Garrett did question whether the Browns got too cute on defense rather than using a straightforward approach to attack the Steelers like they did in Week 1. But the pass rusher and his teammates – leaders like guard Joe Bitonio and defensive back Damarious Randall – all insisted that they remain confident in the coaching staff.

Good soldiers, they tried to put a positive spin on things.

“We’re a really young offense and we’re trying to work together and execute the best we can,” Bitonio said. “It sucks. We’re definitely down. We wanted to come out better against Pittsburgh and play a divisional opponent well. But we’re only halfway through the season. We’ve got to turn the page, find a way to win.”

The search for answers will continue for the Browns. It’ll extend throughout the remainder of the season and an offseason that could feature more change – a stark contrast from that of the opposing locker room Sunday.

The Steelers largely have figured things out. The uncertainty about Le’Veon Bell’s return and unresolved long-term contract status remains. But there’s no question among players and coaches about their abilities. They’ve been here and know exactly what they have to do in the next eight weeks.

“We’ve just got to continue to hit our stride,” Brown said. “We know once it gets past November, the teams are going to show themselves. We want to play in the postseason, so we’ve got to continue to get better.”

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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