PITTSBURGH — The game was there for the taking. All Deshaun Watson needed to do was lead the Browns down the field in the final three minutes.
Watson got the Browns halfway there Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, reaching the Steeler 47 with two minutes remaining. However, that’s as far as he would go, as his fourth-down pass fell incomplete with a minute remaining in the Browns’ 26-22 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Every time we step on the field, you have to feel positive,” Watson said. “You have to have that confidence. You know, even when the momentum is not going our way, we to change that. We have to find ways to flip that momentum, especially being on the road in a hostile environment. So you just have to go out there and just try to make plays, and the plays didn’t go our way towards the end.”
The bad break that will hang over the Browns for the remainder of the season came on the second play of the second quarter when running back Nick Chubb sustained a season-ending knee injury. However, the bad breaks started on the very first play from scrimmage.
That’s when Watson threw an out route to the left to tight end Harrison Bryant, only the pass was just a touch high and outside. The ball initially hit Bryant’s hands and deflected toward Steelers safety MInkah Fitzpatrick, who also couldn’t handle the pass.
Unfortunately for Watson and the Browns, linebacker Alex Highsmith could handle it. Not only that, he returned it 30 yards for a 7-0 Pittsburgh lead.
The last bad break came with just over seven minutes remaining and Cleveland nursing a 22-19 lead. The Browns were at their own 20 when Highsmith came roaring past left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and hit Watson, stripping him of the ball.
Highsmith’s teammate, T.J. Watt, picked up the ball at the Browns 16. From there, he ran untouched into the end zone to give the Steelers a 26-22 lead with 6:58 remaining.
“The first play, we can get into the tactics of receiver running out and putting the ball out and, you know, this, that, and there, but I have to give him a better ball,” Watson said. “The forced fumble for a touchdown for them, we can say this guy can do this, but I’ve got to protect the ball. We’re not going to put it on everyone else. You put it on me. I can take the full blame. I can take the criticism, and I’m going to do that.”
Watson was 22-of-40 for 235 yards passing, throwing a touchdown to Jerome Ford and the interception that Highsmith returned for a touchdown. He lost a pair of fumbles, although one came on a fourth-down replay challenge by Pittsburgh which would’ve resulted in the Steelers getting the ball regardless of if he fumbled or not.
After showing his legs off in the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Watson ran six times for 22 net yards. He was also sacked six times by the Steelers, and has now been sacked 11 combined times in the first two games.
For the season, Watson has completed 38-of-69 passes for 389 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 69.1. It’s a season now where, with Chubb out, more will likely fall onto the quarterback’s shoulders.
“I just have to just keep doing what I’m doing,” Watson said. “Just keep trying to get better, 1% better each and every week. Every week is different and things like that. … I can’t force the issue. I can’t force any deep balls or throws, things like that. I just have to keep trying to do what the coaching staff is asking me to do. Going through my reads and checking it down when I need to and try to make plays with my feet. That’s all I can really do.”
AFC North showdown leaves Browns, Steelers beaten up
The ferocity of Monday night’s game was evident well beyond the injury to Chubb. That’s because there were a laundry list of injuries that went beyond him, for both teams.
“The rivalry games always have a different aspect to it,” defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said of his first Browns-Steelers game. “Tonight guys, we was hitting to say the least. This is the NFL, I feel like the injury rate is at 100% and you just got to make sure you can be able to bounce back and be available. The guys who got banged up throughout the game, get some treatment tomorrow and just take this week cautiously and just keep working.”
The most significant injury the Browns may have suffered came to cornerback Greg Newsome II, who injured his right elbow with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter. He never completely departed the game for any significant length of time.
Newsome called the injury a “little hyperextension” after the game. He didn’t believe it would keep him out of next Sunday’s home game against the Tennessee Titans.
Cornerback Denzel Ward went to the locker room at the same time Newsome was injured. The Browns announced those as cramps, and he did come back.
So, too, did defensive end Za’Darius Smith. Smith needed help walking to the sideline initially after injuring his ankle on the third play of the second half, but he would return to the game on the next defensive series.
“I think I stepped on Ogbo (Okoronkwo’s) foot during that play,” Smith said. “You know me man, I’m one of them guys that’s going to tape it up and just get right back out there. Hopefully I’ll be good in the morning, but I know for sure I’ll feel it in the morning.”
‘Loss is a loss’ for Browns defense despite strong showing
The Browns have allowed just one offensive touchdown to their first two opponents. They’ve giving up 198.5 total yards per game, and 130 total net rushing and 133.5 net passing yards per game through two games.
However, as they stood just moments after Monday’s loss, the Browns defensive players saw no validation in the performance. The numbers they were most interested in was 1-1, which is what their record stands at after losing to Pittsburgh.
“I mean, a win is a win,” said safety Juan Thornhil, who played after missing the opener with a calf injury. “A loss is a loss. It hurts. … We just got to continue to build each and every week and just keep lifting each other up. Don’t put your head down. I mean, defensively played a decent game and I just have full trust in (head coach Kevin Stefanski) to fix everything on the offensive side.”
The Steelers netted 255 total yards on 53 plays. Quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 15-of-30 passes for 222 yards with a 71-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens Jr. but also an interception to safety Grant Delpit.
Pittsburgh netted just 55 yards on 21 rushing attempts. Najee Harris led the Steelers with 43 net yards on 10 carries.
Quick thoughts on Grant Delpit, Jedrick Wills Jr., punting
- Grant Delpit had a fantastic opener against the Bengals. It was so good, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz even thought it was his best performance ever. So what did Delpit do as a follow-up? Get an interception on the first Steelers possession and a fumble recovery on the third. He finished with six combined tackles, the pick, the fumble recovery and a pass defensed.
- Jedrick Wills Jr. didn’t have a great night in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t the only one, but it was clear the Steelers targeted the fourth-year left tackle as someone they could beat. Wills was the player beaten on the go-ahead strip-sack touchdown, one of several times he found himself struggling with the Pittsburgh defenders. “It was just full blame on me,” Wills said of the strip sack. “I had trouble with the snap count on that play. … I got to be better than that aspect.”
- Corey Bojorquez had an up-and-down performance. Bojorquez seemed to alternate good punt with bad. He finished up with a 47.8 average on five punts He had a net of 40.8 yards a punt.
Chris Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/browns. Follow him on Twitter at @ceasterlingABJ