Steelers show they could be strong finishers in AFC race with win over Browns

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers returned from their bye week with a 33-18 victory over the Cleveland Browns, extending their win streak to three games.

In so doing, they restored order after a 21-21 with Cleveland in their first meeting of the season and also showed why despite the ongoing absence of Le’Veon Bell, they will cement themselves as one of the top teams in the AFC down the stretch of the season.

Here are three things we learned Sunday at Heinz Field.

1. The Steelers are built to withstand bleak times, but the Browns aren't – This game served as a perfect illustration of where these two teams stand. Pittsburgh didn’t get off to the best start. Roethlisberger had little time to throw, and the ground game struggled to get anything going. The Steelers also had a turnover as well when a tipped pass was intercepted. But Pittsburgh still possess big-play ability that enables the team to remain in games and inflict damage at any time (example: the broken play where Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 43-yard touchdown).

Meanwhile, everything has to go right for the Browns. It’s hard for them to overcome struggles on third downs. It’s hard for them to develop a rhythm because while they’ll rip off a nice play here, a negative play follows. Trading field goals for touchdowns put them in a hole, and made it hard for them to have a balanced attack.

Because the Steelers were able to quickly dig themselves out of holes with some explosive plays, they had the luxury of methodically attacking in the third quarter with a lead at their disposal. After managing just 3.3 yards per carry in the first half, James Conner found his rhythm in the second half and averaged 10 yards a carry in the third quarter alone (he finished with 146 yards rushing and two scores on 24 carries).

But this game was indicative of the Steelers’ season and their capabilities going forward: Rocky start, a little adversity, persistence and then the breakthrough. This season, the Steelers started with a 1-2-1 record but now have won three straight 4-2-1. Pittsburgh may or may not get Le’Veon Bell back very shortly, but this team have the tools to contend for another division crown.

2. The Browns’ problems extend beyond play-calling – Cleveland's offense has been under fire as of late. But a week after Hue Jackson said he might insert himself into the game-planning and play selection, nothing changed leading up to the game. OC Todd Haley went with a lot of quick-hitters to get the ball out of Baker Mayfield’s hands and to help establish a rhythm. But the unit bogged down on that opening possession and had to settle for a field goal.

General manager John Dorsey and his staff have found their quarterback, as well as a potential shutdown corner in Denzel Ward and playmakers like Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb. But their offensive line will continue to hold the Browns back, making it hard to envision them posting a winning record this season. Far too often, Mayfield is running for his life and overwhelmed by a host of defenders. The only chance the Browns had to move the ball in the passing game is through quick hitters. Chubb squirts free for some nice gains, but his front does him few favors. It’s clear, Priority No. 1 of the offseason is to fix the offensive line.

3. Third downs are big downs – Here’s where the third-down woes hurt you beyond the offense. A 2-for-11 showing in that area was pretty much gutting for Cleveland. Not only did that prevent the offense from maintaining possession, but the Browns defense wore down. After doing a good job of containing Conner and the Steelers rushing attack in the first half, the Browns couldn't keep up the effort down the stretch. 

You couldn’t help but wonder what could have been had the offense managed to string together some more drives and give the defense more significant breathers.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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