Steelers hang on to win a wild one with big plays against the Browns

Brian Batko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — The first snap of the game was a pinball pick-six for the Steelers to send their fans into a frenzy, but it wasn’t foreshadowing a dominant win for the home team. Just a weird, momentous, memorable Monday night — and in the end, somehow, yet another win against the Browns, 26-22.

Alex Highsmith’s 30-yard interception return for a touchdown and George Pickens turning a quick throw into a 71-yard score were the early highlights. Highsmith’s strip-sack that resulted in a T.J. Watt scoop-and-score was the climax. In between, the Steelers nearly had too many lapses elsewhere to beat the Browns on an evening they lost star running back Nick Chubb to a gruesome-looking knee injury in the first half.

Once again, much like the season-opening loss to the 49ers, Kenny Pickett’s inconsistency bogged down the offense consistently and Matt Canada’s play-calling was so befuddling late that a loud “Fire Canada!” chant broke out at Acrisure Stadium. The offensive line struggled to establish the ground game while the Browns ran wild even without Chubb, including a 69-yard field-reversing rip by backup Jerome Ford to set up their go-ahead touchdown.

Pickett finished 15 of 30 for 222 yards, one touchdown and a horrific interception on the team’s first possession. He had one or two more other throws that could’ve — probably should’ve — been picked off as he continued a slow start to his first full season as the starter. The defense bent often but didn’t break in the end, and four takeaways were the difference as Watt broke the franchise career sack record and Highsmith found a way to render that a footnote with his own game-changing work.

The Steelers managed to avoid an 0-2 hole to start the season, while the Browns failed to nab their first 2-0 mark since 1993. It’s also an incomprehensible 21st consecutive Monday night victory for the Steelers, who kicked off this streak in 1992.

It was over when: Deshaun Watson’s deep shot down the right sideline for Donovan Peoples-Jones fell incomplete with a minute left, thanks in part to good coverage by rookie Joey Porter Jr. After an atrocious final possession for the offense, the defense had some gas left in the tank to hold down Watson, who also had a night to forget with 235 yards on 22 of 40 passing.


Player of the game: Highsmith. How good does that offseason contract extension look now? Watt is so good that no one will confuse who’s Jordan and who’s Pippen in this tandem, but Highsmith continues to show he might be the best complement No. 90 has had throughout his career here. They couldn’t have been more appreciative of each other in their postgame interview on the TV broadcast after Highsmith filled the box score with seven tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and one humongous interception.

Trending up: George Pickens. At times, the Steelers offense was reminiscent of a high school team with one talented player. Pickens is that guy for this offense, especially when Diontae Johnson is missing, and the passing game tends to click when the ball’s going his way. He had just four receptions but a career-high 127 yards on 10 targets — the first time he’s hit double-digits in his young career — including that touchdown that accentuated his huge-play potential. Canada moved him around the formation, with some looks in the slot and a route tree that saw him operate over the middle. It was the most he’s looked like a complete receiver who can do more than just win 50-50 balls with acrobatic grabs.

Trending down: Gunner Olszewski. After being inactive last week, Olszewski’s night went from bad to worse every time he touched the ball. First, filling in for the injured Anthony McFarland as the kick returner, Olszewski had what could only be described as a brain fart by fielding a kickoff at the 11-yard line and stepping out of bounds instead of letting it go for a penalty. Then, when he caught a short pass from Pickett, he tried to make a quick cut but instead got blown up by Denzel Ward and coughed it up deep in his own territory. That big hit ended Olszewski’s miserable outing, as he was evaluated for a concussion and then ruled out for the game. Best wishes to him, but once he’s healthy, he may have run out of chances when it comes to ball security and special teams utility.


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