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The Pittsburgh Steelers used defensive touchdowns in the first and fourth quarters to defeat the Cleveland Browns 26-22 on Monday night at Acrisure Stadium, leaving the Browns winless in Pittsburgh in the regular season since 2003.
But the score wasn’t the most painful loss for the Browns (1-1), as running back Nick Chubb suffered a significant left knee injury in the second quarter and was carted off the field. The Steelers moved to 1-1 with the win.
The Steelers’ offense couldn’t score, but that didn’t stop their defense from finding the end zone to beat the Browns.
Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith scored nine seconds into the game, returning an interception 30 yards for a score when Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected Deshaun Watson’s first pass of the game. Then, as the Steelers trailed by three in the fourth quarter, Highsmith made another big play by forcing a Watson fumble, which outside linebacker T.J. Watt recovered and returned for the winning 17-yard touchdown. The touchdowns marked the first time since 2010 the Steelers had two defensive touchdowns in a game, and the first time the Steelers recorded a fumble return touchdown and an interception returned for a touchdown in the same game since 2009. They racked up 6 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles and 11 quarterback hits in the victory.
Quarterback breakdown: Kenny Pickett was erratic in his second start of the season, but the struggles were partially the playcalling and partially Pickett’s own decision-making and mechanics. Pickett, who completed 15 of 30 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown and one interception, threw the pick on the first drive of the game and had a series of other first-half throws that missed the target. But he settled down midway through the second quarter when he hit Jaylen Warren in space for a 30-yard gain and then connected with George Pickens in stride for a 71-yard score. Though there were more encouraging moments from Pickett, he still lacked the consistency the Steelers need from their second-year quarterback. Like last season, Pickett and the offense struggled to sustain drives.
Troubling trend: The Steelers spent the offseason proclaiming that the run game would be more involved than it was a year ago. Yet, they recorded only one rushing yard in the first half against the Browns, the Steelers’ fewest rushing yards in the opening half of a game for the past 45 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Midway through the third quarter, Najee Harris had gained just 4 yards on six attempts before breaking off back-to-back first-down runs of 21 and 17 yards. The runs were a significant boost for Harris, who was booed earlier in the game when he tried jumping the line and fumbled short of the goal line on a 2-point conversion. The Steelers finished with 55 yards rushing, with Harris gaining 43 yards on 10 carries while Jaylen Warren added another 20 yards on six carries.
Eye-popping Next Gen Stat: Steelers wide receiver George Pickens gained 56.8 yards after the catch on his 71-yard touchdown in the second quarter, per Next Gen Stats. Pickens was expected to gain only 21.4 yards after the catch. The score — the longest touchdown play by any Steeler since an 84-yard Chase Claypool touchdown in Week 2 of 2020 — was Pickens’ longest of his career, more than doubling his second longest of 31 yards, which also came against the Browns in Week 18 last season. During training camp, Pickens said he wanted to emphasize his speed and prove that he was capable of more than highlight-reel catches, and he more than did that with his touchdown.
The Browns lost to the Steelers. They lost one of their most important players, as well.
All-Pro running back Chubb had to be carted off the field in the second quarter after Fitzpatrick collided with Chubb’s left knee.
The Browns’ offense struggled for much of the rest of the game. And Watson’s last-ditch drive came up well short. A season that once looked so promising no longer feels that way.
Describe the game in two words: Gut punch. Cleveland has suffered poor luck in Pittsburgh over the years, but Chubb’s injury has to rank up there among the worst moments in recent Browns history.
Troubling trend: Watson continues to be a shell of the quarterback who led the NFL in passing in 2020. He committed two costly face mask penalties, turned the ball over twice, which resulted in Pittsburgh touchdowns, and failed to make any key plays in the fourth quarter. With Chubb’s injury, Cleveland’s season hinges on Watson carrying the offense, and there is no sign he is capable of that right now.
Buy on a breakout performance: Jerome Ford gained more yards (69) on a second-half run that set up a go-ahead TD than he had his entire career combined (54 yards) coming into the game. Chubb is irreplaceable, but Ford showed the Browns can still run the ball going forward, as he finished with 106 yards on 16 carries.