These are the TV notes from a sportswriter who has a real creative storm raging on inside of him, but who isn’t really sure where that will lead us today:
n Let’s pray disaster’s not lurking ‘round the corner.
n But is Baker Mayfield really gonna take the field with that mustache? Am I watching a Saturday Night Live skit?
n You know, Jaylen Samuels has either been improving his blocking of late or he’s really ticked off about playing only 21 snaps the previous week with with James Conner out. Samuels belted a blitzing linebacker on third-and-8 like he really — finally! — wanted to.
n Fans, dear, sweet fans, getting off to a slow start is not a product of some low-energy motivational talk in the locker room. It’s not “coming out flat,” either. It’s about getting beat, and that will happen in sports.
n While the Browns were taking an early lead, I’m thinking this Steelers defense is anything but “flat.” In particular, Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds are all over the field.
n Fans really get cranked up for this rivalry, and that’s the basis of any rivalry, the fans. You can talk all you want about the decade-long fight to the finish with the Ravens, and the hatred invoked by Burfict, Pacman and the Bengals, but there’s no other crazy like there is with yinzers when it comes to the Browns. Y’all just crazy, and I’m serious.
n I’ve learned to back the heck away from all of you. This IS your rivalry, and there’s nothing going to change that. Ever. So stop saying it’s dead or was dead or has been revived.
n Wolf mentioned it this morning, but I want to reiterate that Tevin Jones’ blocking downfield on Diontae Johnson’s reverse is some more of that “want to” I’m seeing while reading over texts from friends about “TOMLIN’S TEAM IS (nn) FLAT AGAIN!”
n Don’t send your friends texts laced with profanity. Especially while they’re working — and waiting to use those words himself in a column!
n I really wanted to see Kerrith Whyte get the ball on one of those wildcat/jet sweep options. But in spite of my desires, Samuels “didn’t kill them” as he edged the Steelers closer to their first points of the game and settling down the nuts in duck masks.
n OK, but you don’t have to boo Kerrith.
n Oh. You’re still booing Clay Martin for announcing his officiating presence with his ridiculous illegal procedure call as his line judge was trying to make the proper call of offsides. That should’ve given the Steelers a second-and-2 at the Cleveland 14.
n Deon Cain spent the week of practice dropping easy passes and catching tough ones, but so far in game he’s been terrific. His “want to” was evident, too, when he dragged tacklers a couple three yards to the sticks for a first down.
n Johnson had a couple steps deep on two Browns defenders, but the ball was slightly underthrown and there were no Lynn Swann acrobatics to be made on this play. But I see them coming for Johnson.
n There would be many details to discuss that kept the rookie Johnson from making big plays, but so far he’s more perpetual tease than playmaker. Again, I’m assuming the latter will come. At that point the potential of this offense will be realized.
n Tevin Jones with the combat catch at the Cleveland 30 with 1:05 left in the half, down a touchdown. This, D.J., this is what I’m talking about.
n And Tevin doesn’t give us that lousy body language when the pass is off. Someone get in D.J.’s face at meetings this week, please.
n OK, this play put me into a Time Tunnel. Playing the part of Jim Harbaugh is Duck Hodges, and playing the role of Aaron Bailey is James Washington. Thanks also go to the prop man for putting the correct number, 29, on Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine, who of course is playing the part of ol’ No. 29 hisself, Randy Fuller. This, apparently, was staged to show how a Hail Mary should be done, because Washington caught this 30-yarder from Hodges, whereas Bailey did not haul in that 29-yard, all-your-might heave from Harbaugh back in the 1995 AFC Championship Game that was barely swatted off the chest of Bailey by Fuller.
n Hey, it got JuJu up off the bench. He looked so happy after Washington’s touchdown that I thought he was going to break out into a play.
n Again, and I’ve said this several times over this latest stretch of six wins in seven games, the injuries are allowing new playmakers to emerge. Nothing just pops up from the bench. It’s a process, and guys like Washington, Tevin, Samuels, etc., are improving because they have to. When they are rejoined by the injured players, watch out.
n OK, where was I? Oh, Edmunds and Mike Hilton are smothering Odell Beckham deep. And on the next play — an impressive 70-yard bomb by the mustachioed Mayfield — it’s Cam Sutton over the top of Beckham. I can’t say I’m quite used to this type of lockdown from the Steelers’ secondary. It’s almost like Josh Victorian, Rob Golden, Coty Sensabaugh, Justin Gilbert, Brandon Boykin, J.J. Wilcox, Shamarko Thomas, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Nat Berhe, Ross Cockrell, Curtis Brown, Justin King, B.W. Webb, DaMon Cromartie-Smith and the great Al-Hajj Shabazz never played in the secondary for those stacked teams of the past decade.
n By stacked, I mean stacked as in “HOW COULD TOMLIN LOSE PLAYOFF GAMES WITH THOSE STACKED TEAMS!!”
n Anyway, this secondary is sublime. And it’s the final piece.
n Boomer Esiason blatting at halftime that it’s all about the Steelers’ culture. Hey, I don’t want to diminish the importance of that, but it’s the defense that’s turned this team around. It’s the defense, Boomer. Now settle it down.
n When Conner comes back, and with the improvement shown by Samuels, the innate inside skills shown by Benny Snell, and the outside speed of Whyte, the blocking and savvy of Tre Edmunds, this backfield isn’t in need of help as I thought a couple of weeks ago. Two of them can and should play at a time, and Randy Fichtner should just flat out steal some of the plays Cleveland’s using with Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb out there together. Freddie Kitchens seems to have a good offensive IQ.
n Of course, Kitchens won’t last. Ownership will fire him for wearing a stupid t-shirt or something meaningless like that.
n The first big defensive play by the Steelers was turned in by Bud Dupree. His strip sack on second-and-20 was part of a 4-man rush, and none of the four had his hand on the ground. Only one of the four was a defensive lineman.
n I noted in the preseason that Bud was the Max Starks from 2008. Ownership didn’t love him enough to get a long-term deal done, but they needed Starks to play left tackle and signed him to an expensive tag. They won the Super Bowl and then signed him to a four-year deal ... and released him a year later ... and re-signed him three months after that. But Bud’s been more than just a solid piece on a great team. He’s turned into a legit playmaker and, as I’ve been writing for a while, I expect they’ll find a way to tag him next offseason.
n Now I’ll compare Edmunds to Dupree for a different reason. Edmunds is extremely athletic. We see that again in the second half. He’s still all over the field because he can run and jump and play with power. But he’s not making plays. Yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if that Dupree-like light comes on one day for Terrell.
n There’s Snell’s 14-yard run. There’s Tevin in the middle of it all blocking his (butt) off.
n Excuse the swearing this morning. I’ve been a little worked up of late. “My mind’s aggrieved and my belly’s ablaze,” to quote a great song lyric I just heard.
n I’m really not sure I’ve seen a QB mistake — as bad as the one Duck just made — from Mason Rudolph this season. I mean, that left-handed flip fumble to no one on third down while in range of pushing the lead to 10 points could only be made by Hodges in front of this crowd of duck masks. He can do no wrong; he’s one of those guys. But, man, that was dumb. He’s so lucky that ball got out of bounds.
n Hodges threw a pass so high that Johnson’s 45-inch — or so it seemed — vertical jump was still about six inches short. But, again, incredible athleticism from Diontae that just wasn’t foreshadowed by his 33½-inch vertical at the NFL Combine. Or for that matter, the two steps he had on the deep safety wasn’t promised to us by his 4.53 40 time, either. This guy shows MORE with the pads on. Now, if he would just get his head out of his rear end he can be a star.
n Another free agent they need to keep for next year — after this playoff run salties up this young replacement squad — is Javon Hargrave. I know, there’s no money, but this guy took over the most important third downs of this game’s stretch run. Hargrave was reponsible for both third-down sacks, the first forced a field goal and the second forced a punt, while both well inside Pittsburgh territory. Hargrave only got credit for one sack. There should’ve been at least another half involved.
n Without my trusty remote in the press box, I wasn’t sure who was responsible for Snell’s 11-yard run off the one-foot line, but it went right up the middle so I assumed that our third important upcoming free agent, B.J. Finney, had something to do with it.
n Like a rock, Finney refused to answer for it in the locker room. Here’s how that conversation went (I walked into someone else asking a non-question, so I guess we deserved the non-answer to open):
Q: That run off the goal line by Snell was pretty good.
BJF: “It was huge. The goal is to always get a first down when you’re backed up and that’s what he did. We blocked well and he hit the hole.”
Q: Did you blow that hole open?
BJF: “(Chuckles) The O-line did, sure.”
Q: Let me put it this way: How did you do on that play?
BJF: “My guy didn’t make the tackle, so I did well.”
n I love that O-linemen don’t require media attention. But I had to find out who did what, and it came as no surprise that they all drove their men off the ball. David DeCastro probably gets the first star on that play for getting out and smothering the middle linebacker.
n Finally got a chance to revive “Vanimal” with his third-and-6 catch short of the sticks. He broke one tackle that was attempted by two Browns.
n Turns out Duck was instructed to take the sack instead of throwing the ball away and killing the clock. The Tomlin haters are foiled once again.
n Hey, if you get a chance, read Peter King’s gassy bloviations on how Tomlin is the greatest coach in the world. I don’t have a link. It was e-mailed to me.
n Of course, King’s over the top with his cheese. While Tomlin’s not as bad a coach as the haters pray and say, he’s not as great a coach as the pompous bloviators are now saying. No one is. Can’t anyone ever just look at the talent?
n Minkah Fitzpatrick, pointing to the ground while Joe Haden was returning the interception of Uncle Rico, is what I mean by talent. That’s not Josh Victorian out there.