The Browns have endured plenty of misery at the hands of the Steelers, particularly in the Ben Roethlisberger era that’s likely about to end. And with Cleveland already eliminated from playoff contention heading into kickoff, Monday night’s 26-14 loss in Pittsburgh will not quite rank among the all-time heartbreaks. But it was still pretty damn miserable!
With the caveat that Cleveland was never going to try as hard as it could in this irrelevant contest—star running back Nick Chubb’s 12 touches are clear evidence of that—this was still a horrific way to almost-end a follow-up season to the most promising year the post-resurrection Browns had ever experienced. On the same field where they gloriously triumphed in their first playoff win since 1994, the Browns allowed themselves to be bullied into embarrassment by their archrivals, as their celebrity QB and pricey offensive line could do nothing to slow a vicious Pittsburgh pass rush that was out for blood.
Here is one of the worst sequences of events I have ever seen in a pro football game. I swear to god that all of these plays happened entirely in succession, with 10 minutes remaining in a 16-7 contest.
For those of you staring at your screen, slack-jawed in your incomprehension of at this awful excuse for a drive, here’s a recap of what the Browns produced: A run for negative yardage, a sack, a holding penalty, a false start, a four-yard rush on third-and-30 from the five, a delay of game penalty amid deafening “Cleveland sucks” chants, and finally a punt that let the Steelers start their drive on the Browns’ 37.
This was just a horrible, horrible night to be Baker Mayfield, who was tormented relentlessly by the Steelers’ league-leading sack boys. Headlined by T.J. Watt and his career-high four takedowns, the Steelers got to Mayfield nine times in the backfield, intercepted him twice, batted down five of his passes, and forced 10 straight incompletions in the first half—a feat not accomplished in the NFL since Sam Darnold was seeing ghosts. Mayfield and Roethlisberger together put up maybe the least efficient passing game in league history, but while half of that duo just played a farewell concert and is therefore in understandably poor shape, it’s a real problem when you’re the guy who’s supposed to be in his prime.
This combination of back-to-back sacks in the fourth quarter was to me the epitome of the Browns’ futility. On the first, Watt just walked by the rookie fourth-rounder James Hudson to swallow up Mayfield, and on the second, Wyatt Teller—Cleveland’s third-biggest contract—was sent on a wild goose chase trying to help Hudson against Watt while Alex Highsmith spun by 2020 first-rounder Jedrick Wills Jr. for the tackle. Noises of disgust were emitted from the ESPN broadcast booth on both of these occasions.
“Do I believe I could play better? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s positions that we, as an offense could have been put in that are better? Absolutely,” Mayfield said after the game. “There’s so many critiques throughout the year. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here at 7-9.”
The difference, however, between an 11-5 team that earns the sixth seed in the AFC and a 7-9 team currently sitting in 12th isn’t all that great, and it’s Mayfield who will be forced to shoulder the blame for this disappointing season. The Browns’ defense, middling last year, is about average this year, with a solid improvement against the pass. The team’s rushing, very good last year, is again quite impressive, as Chubb has cemented himself over the past few seasons as one of the league’s most reliable backs. But Mayfield, particularly in the back stretch of 2021, has seen his ability to contribute totally fall apart as he puts up disastrous games like a four-pick affair in Week 16’s two-point loss to Green Bay. (His interception rate as a whole has nearly doubled since last year, from 1.6 percent of passes to 3.1.) And though his linemen have had no problem clearing the way for the ground game, Mayfield has been punished by opposing defenses, getting sacked on 9.3 percent of his pass attempts. Only Justin Fields has gotten pummeled more often. As a result of all this messiness, Mayfield has seen his QB rating sink from a respectable 95.9 to a bottom-of-the-barrel 83.1. That’s worse than Daniel Jones and Davis Mills!
This season took a huge physical toll on the Browns QB, as he’s played with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder since Week 2, plus issues in his left foot and his right knee, and the hope for Cleveland is that an offseason of recovery is all that Mayfield needs to get back on track. But interestingly enough, Mayfield’s contract only runs for one more year, making 2022 both a high-stakes year for his own bank account and a stressful potential turning point for the Browns. If he gets back to what we thought he was going to be, well, that’s fantastic! Cleveland can enjoy their victories and lock him into a long-term deal. But if Monday night’s nauseating performance, and the generally queasy vibes of the Browns’ season’s final act, are anything like a sign of more struggles to come, then … I’m so sorry. That wild-card win might be the best it’s ever going to get.