The Pittsburgh Steelers started slowly in Week 18 but ended with a win over their divisional rival, the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh overcame early blunders and played exceptional defense in the second half to win convincingly, 28-14. The team picked off Browns’ quarterback Deshaun Watson twice and sacked him seven times in the winning effort. The Steelers finished the year with a winning record of 9-8 but just missed out on the 2023 playoffs. They defied preseason predictions and finished just outside the playoff picture, something totally unexpected. Despite making tons of early-season mistakes, Pittsburgh finished 7-2 in their last nine. Now, they look to the offseason and the 2023 season where they’ll look to make some noise.
Pittsburgh Steelers Get Big Week 18 Win Over Cleveland But Fail to Clinch Playoff Berth
Scoreless First Quarter
The Browns started with the ball but struggled to do anything on the opening possession. The Steelers rode four 6+ yard runs as well as a 32-yard catch by Diontae Johnson to get to a goal-to-go situation early. On first down, Najee Harris took the carry and seemingly took it in but was ruled short; on the next play, Kenny Pickett’s sneak was also ruled short. On third down inside the one, Harris tried to go up and over but the ball was punched out by Deion Jones and the Browns recovered. Both teams punted on each of their next two drives and the game remained scoreless with 11:30 left in the second quarter.
Second Quarter Brings First Scores On Chunk Plays
The Browns rode big plays on their first scoring drive, getting three 10+ yard passes and a 12-yard run to get down deep in Pittsburgh territory. On a first-and-goal from the ten, Deshaun Watson found David Njoku for the game’s opening score. But the Steelers had an immediate answer, as Kenny Pickett found Zach Gentry for a gain of 23 and George Pickens for a touchdown from 31 yards out on a deep strike; this evened the game up at 7. On the second play of the next drive, Watson was picked off by Levi Wallace who got Pittsburgh to start on their own 44. A quick drive before halftime gave the Steelers a 49-yard field goal, knocked through by Chris Boswell, to give them a 10-7 lead at halftime.
Steelers Extend Lead Before Fourth Quarter
The Steelers opened the second half with a six-minute field goal drive that extended their lead to 13-7. Pinned deep on a third-and-18, Watson threw another interception, this time to Damontae Kazee. He returned it to the Browns’ 25 and gave the Steelers exceptional starting position for their next third-quarter drive. They rode Najee Harris who rushed for 22 of the 25 yards en route to a four-yard score from Harris, his seventh of the year. Each team exchanged punts on the next possessions and with just the fourth quarter left the Browns started their next drive, one that would make the game interesting for the moment.
Pittsburgh Pulls Ahead After Brief Scare
The Browns struck quickly, going 77 yards in seven plays with the key play being a 36-yard completion to Amari Cooper. Watson found Nick Chubb from two yards out for the former’s second passing touchdown of the day. But the Steelers answered right back and effectively ended the game. They took a 14-play, 75-yard drive to ice the game away, with Connor Heyward having two big catches for 36 yards and Derek Watt punching it in from one yard out to make the score 26-14; a two-point conversion pass to Diontae Johnson made the score 28-14. The Browns’ final desperation drive lasted 13 plays but only netted 23 yards overall thanks to four sacks on the closing drive. The Steelers finished the year with a 9-8 mark while the Browns fell to 7-10 to close the 2022 regular season.
Offense Has Solid Second Half, Overcomes Early Mistakes
Kenny Pickett Struggles But Does Enough
Pickett had one of his least productive games this year where it didn’t turn out to be too bad. Pickett got the Steelers a big win and didn’t turn the ball over but still suffered quite a bit. He finished the day 13/29 passing (44.8%) for one touchdown. His stats look rough and he looked really uncomfortable early on but eventually settled in and played decent enough. He’ll have the whole offseason to prepare for next year and hopefully, he’ll be a lot better; as of now, Pickett has solidified himself in the starting role come next September.
Running Game Works Well In Finale
Najee Harris turned in another successful game to close out the year but it wasn’t without its negatives. Harris ran the ball 23 times for 84 yards and a touchdown and also had a ten-yard reception. Early in the game, he fumbled at the goal line and was stopped a few times behind the line. But overall, he had a nice game picking up good chunks of yards on first and second down. Harris finishes the year with just over 1,000 yards, which marks his second consecutive year running for 1,000+ yards.
Jaylen Warren also ran the ball six times for 36 yards and the team finished with 148 yards total. It marked the fourth consecutive game in which Pittsburgh ran for 100 or more yards.
Most Receivers Struggle But Some Have Productive Days
George Pickens led the receiving group, hauling in three of six targets for 72 yards and a touchdown. Connor Heyward was also pretty impressive, catching three passes for 45 yards and helped set up a touchdown drive. Pat Freiermuth failed to catch a pass for just the second time this season; the second-year tight end had two targets but left early with a knee injury. One of the bigger storylines, is the rather lousy line from Diontae Johnson: two catches for 38 yards on ten targets. Johnson struggled with a few drops and a few bad passes from Pickett, and overall it was a poor day for the receiver.
Defense Forces Big Plays But Spotty at Points
The defense dominated the Browns, forcing two turnovers and sacking Deshaun Watson twice. Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee each recorded key picks and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with ten tackles. Overall, it was a rather successful day for the secondary, which allowed 230 yards. The Browns had multiple gains of 15+ yards and that demonstrates the unit’s potential to be leaky at times.
The defensive front allowed 134 yards on 22 carries (6.1 yard average) which was surprising for this group who has tidied up recently. Nick Chubb ran for 77 yards on 12 carries but Cleveland was forced to abandon their successful run game once the Steelers got up by enough. In the passing game, the front seven got to Watson seven times as team leader in sacks, Alex Highsmith, recorded 2.5 sacks. Cam Heyward also got two sacks and finished with 10.5 on the year, his third straight year of 10+ sacks. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, a longtime Brown, had one sack and a tackle for loss against his former team. As you can see, the defense was very spotty and leaky at times but only allowed 14 points on the day.
Why Didn’t Pittsburgh Make It This Year?
The obvious answer would be that the 9-8 Steelers finished below the seventh seed Miami Dolphins. Miami also finished 9-8 but held the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, as they beat them 16-10 early in the year. The Steelers had four games (and probably more) where they had good chances to win but failed to execute. The team fell to the Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, and Ravens earlier in the year, each by one score or less. The common theme in those games: turnovers. Pittsburgh turned the ball over 2+ times in each of those games and any one of those could’ve made the difference.
Plus, the team struggled to get the offense going until later in the season and that cost them some wins as well. It was a rather impressive 9-8 finish given the team was slated to go around 7-10 and there is definitely a bright future in Pittsburgh; now, they must look to a big draft in April and try to address some of their needs.
Pittsburgh has a nice young core that deserves some recognition for their performance this year and will likely replicate that production in 2023. But they will need to address some issues before they are “officially back.”
The Steelers will have a lot of free agents and it is crucial to re-sign the most important guys. Pittsburgh obviously has needs around the offensive and defensive lines, and also at the cornerback and interior linebacker position. Pittsburgh holds three picks in the top 50 and four picks in the top 80, so they’ll look to make a splash and be contenders next year. The Steelers will have the 17th overall pick, as well as picks 32 and 48 on Day 2 to get some big names. With a slight improvement in the roster and an offseason to develop the younger players, Pittsburgh could very well be a contender as soon as next year.
It is very early to say this but with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2023 opponents being announced, it’s hard not to speculate what their record may be. Looking at that opponents list, 11 or 12 wins is very plausible especially if the team steps up earlier in the year. The 2022 Steelers dug themselves in a hole early but finished strong; with a more complete year in 2023, Pittsburgh could be amongst one of the best teams in the AFC.