Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow is the new sheriff in the AFC North after leading the Bengals to the division crown in his second season. (Associated Press)
Browns’ season reduced to spoiling Big Ben’s home finale after playoff hopes extinguished
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Four downs on Browns (7-8) v. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)
First down: It’s over.
The Browns were eliminated from the postseason on Sunday when two games went against them. First, the Bengals claimed the AFC North title when Joe Burrow led a gutty, 34-31 comeback win over the Chiefs. Then, miniscule AFC wild-card hopes were extinguished when the Chargers defeated the Broncos. There will be plenty of time – trust me -- to lament how the Browns squandered the most talent they’ve had in their expansion era and underachieved legit expectations for a second straight postseason appearance. For now, their only motivation over the final two games is sending out Ben Roethlisberger a loser in his final appearance in Heinz Field on Monday night and dropping the Steelers into the division cellar. And then the Browns could beat the Bengals in the Jan. 9 finale in FirstEnergy Stadium and finish with a winning record (9-8) for the second year in a row. In any case, with the air let out of their balloon, the only drama left is to see if the Browns go through the motions or play to win.
Second down: Myles’ last chance.
Can we be frank about Myles Garrett? It’s time for the defensive end to deliver a big game against Roethlisberger. Garrett promised to “chop him down” the night he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Browns in 2017. The next offseason, Garrett shredded a picture of Big Ben in a hype video parodying “The Office.” This year, Garrett decorated his lawn with Roethlisberger’s name inscribed on a tombstone. And then Garrett arrived at the Halloween day game in Cleveland masquerading as the Grim Reaper with a long black cape bearing the name of Roethlisberger and other quarterbacks that he’s sacked in his Browns career. Truth be told, that’s far more hype than production on the field. Garrett has played five games against Roethlisberger. Garrett’s numbers – 5 sacks, 10 pressures (sacks + hurries), and 2 forced fumbles – are not bad, but they’re less than what was promised. Roethlisberger is 3-1-1 against Garrett. The only Browns win was the biggest one – in the 2020 wild-card game – but Garrett’s impact that day was limited to chasing after the ball when the opening snap sailed over Roethlisberger’s head and was recovered in the end zone by Karl Joseph. There have been mitigating circumstances that have limited Garrett – COVID, etc. But Garrett’s best game against Ben came in a 21-21 tie in the 2018 season-opener. Garrett’s best overall game against the Steelers came in 2019 when Roethlisberger was out. That’s the only time Garrett has chopped down a Steelers quarterback and it was Mason Rudolph, not Roethlisberger. “I like the challenge of it going against a guy of his caliber and a guy of his prestige,” Garrett mused this week. “I will just try to keep it cordial and send him off with a bang.”
Third down: RUN THE DAMN BALL.
John Johnson’s Tweeted plea after Baker Mayfield’s second interception in the Green Bay game was not received with amusement by Kevin Stefanski. In fact, the coach indicated he had words with the inactive safety and would keep them “internal.” It’s doubtful the coach will heed Johnson’s words, anyway, because Stefanski is at heart still an offensive coordinator. He has not fully grown into the position of head coach, whose only job on game day is to do whatever it takes to win the game. Offensive coordinators tend to justify play-calls through the prism of their job to produce offensive numbers. Handing off to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is unglamorous and doesn’t showcase a coordinator’s scheme. Once Stefanski gets over that, he’ll be better as a head coach. The Steelers traditionally are difficult to run on. But not this year. They are last in the league, yielding 142.7 rushing yards per game. Yet, Stefanski sees the ghosts of past great Pittsburgh defenses instead of the injury replacements Pittsburgh has been forced to field. “I know what the statistics say and I understand that, but I have a ton of respect for that defense and that run defense,” Stefanski said. In the Oct. 31 meeting in Cleveland, Stefanski set the wrong tone when he gave Chubb the ball only six times in the first half. Mayfield threw 17 times and was sacked four times, helping to keep the game tied, 3-3, at halftime en route to a 15-10 Pittsburgh win.
Fourth down: Turn up the Juice.
Can we be frank about Jarvis Landry? The veteran wide receiver has labored through his second consecutive “worst-ever” season in four with the Browns. An MCL knee injury cost him four games and COVID cost him another. Once back from the knee sprain, Landry re-injured the knee on two occasions lunging for wayward passes. The nadir was in the Oct. 31 meeting with Pittsburgh when, in the last 6 ½ minutes of the 15-10 loss, Landry lost a fumble after a catch and had two drops at the Steelers’ 20- and 10-yard lines. Landry owned up to the drops after the game. A few days later, friend Odell Beckham Jr. was released by the Browns. Landry has not spoken with the media since. His game-by-game receiving yardage totals since the Pittsburgh game: 11, 26, 26, 111, 41, 55. He has one receiving touchdown all year and has caught only 60.9 percent of passes targeted to him. If Stefanski is stubbornly insistent on throwing the ball against the Steelers, then Landry has to be a positive factor for the Browns.
The pick: Browns 23, Steelers 16.
My record: 8-7.