In his first game in Pittsburgh with the Browns, Deshaun Watson was sacked seven times and intercepted twice. (Steelers.com)
Consequences of another Browns season-ending loss in Pittsburgh expected to be felt soon
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
So many times the Browns leave this wretched burial ground after a season-ending loss not knowing whom their head coach or general manager will be.
That’s not the case this year after the Browns were laid to rest again by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-14, with rookie Kenny Pickett this time administering last rites.
Pickett was held to 13 of 29 passing, but he stood tall in the fourth quarter while his expensive counterpart, Deshaun Watson, was crumpling for four of his seven sacks and another that was negated by a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty.
Even though the Browns’ final record worsened to 7-10 in the second consecutive year out of the playoffs, it is fairly certain the Kevin Stefanski-Andrew Berry partnership will see a fourth season.
Moments after securing their 16th consecutive non-losing season under coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers, 9-8, were eliminated from the playoffs when Miami edged the Jets, 11-6, for the seventh AFC playoff seed. The win also prevented the Steelers from their first last-place finish in the AFC North. The Browns have finished last 14 times in 21 years since the AFC North was created in 2002.
Season-ending exit media interviews with Stefanski and Berry were scheduled for Monday afternoon – the latest sign that they will remain on the job. But there will be consequences for the sixth double-digit loss season in 10 years of the Haslam ownership and the fourth in seven years of the unorthodox reign of chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta.
While there was no apparent anger in the losing locker room, there certainly was the smell of change in the air.
And at the top of the list of casualties looms defensive coordinator Joe Woods, whose unit allowed Pickett to convert 9 of 15 third downs and contributed four key penalties to his cause.
“There might be changes. Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s the NFL. That’s part of the business,” said Watson.
“I think every season a team assesses that. I’m not sure. I guess we’ll see,” said safety John Johnson.
“I have no idea what the future looks like. I’ll always roll with the punches,” said defensive end Myles Garrett.
Stefanski brushed aside a direct question about Woods’ future.
“I'm not going to go there on really any of our coaches,” he said. “This is about today, and I know we'll talk tomorrow about the season, all those things.”
Woods was unsure about his job status when questioned at his last weekly media session of the season on Thursday. His day started with a terrific goal-line stand that resulted in a Najee Harris fumble inside the 5-yard line and then a Denzel Ward punch-out of the ball after a Diontae Johnson catch. That turnover was overturned as an incompletion, however, after replay review. Woods’ defense then went into reversal as well.
Pickett had his share of wildly errant throws. But on his five scoring drives, Pickett converted 7 of 9 third-down plays and two others on pass interference penalties. The clincher was a 75-yard march after Watson’s short TD pass to Nick Chubb closed the Pittsburgh lead to 20-14.
One defensive stop on that possession that began with 10:11 remaining would have set up a chance for Watson to score his first come-from-behind victory for the Browns – in Pittsburgh, of all places.
But Pickett completed passes to George Pickens for 17 yards on third-and-10, to Connor Heyward for 14 yards on third-and-8, and to Heyward again for 9 yards on third-and-8. A shoddy pass interference call on M.J. Emerson against Pickens in the end zone set up a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Derek Watt that probably sealed Woods’ fate as the first major staff change made by Stefanski in his three seasons as head coach.
“The third downs, yeah, you’ve got to get off the field, as we know,” Stefanski said. “Something we were able to do in the first game versus them. Just didn't do it enough today on some longer distances.”
Besides Woods’ fate, the game gave another glimpse into the future of the Browns with Watson at the helm. He was underwhelming with his two interceptions offsetting two short touchdown passes. His seven sacks were almost as bad as the nine suffered here a year ago by Baker Mayfield. And it’s never a good thing when Nick Chubb leads the offense in receptions (five) and receivers Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones combine for four catches in seven targets for a 93 yards.
Watson completed his six-game starting stint after his 11-game suspension with a 3-3 record, including 1-2 against division foes. In Watson’s 24 quarters of football, the Browns’ offense scored a total of eight touchdowns.
“All six games were significant,” Watson said. “I haven’t played football in two years. This is a new system, new offense, everything is new for me to just get back out there and play football again. The future is definitely bright for the Cleveland Browns. Regardless of what people say or think, I’m here for a reason. We’ve got to focus on what we can do better to get better so at this time next year we’re in those playoffs.
“I knew it was going to be challenging. I knew I wasn’t going to walk in and be the MVP of the NFL. I’ve got a lot of work to put in. I knew there would be some ups and downs and some mixed emotions. I was expecting me to learn this offense, get the feel of the game, and put us in position to win these games. For me to come here and say that, yeah, I was going to go 6-0 and all this stuff, no. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that. And that’s just the truth.”
Watson said he intends to meet with Stefanski, review the tapes of his six games together, and formulate plans for what is certain to be a different offensive identity next year.
That will also be the case for the defense, too. Who will be running it appears to be the biggest offseason question this year, which is a lot less uncertainty than usual after these traditional beat-downs in Pittsburgh.