One win against a thoroughly wretched opponent does not make up for the past 42 days. But it is a start.
The Steelers’ road to redemption began Sunday with a fairly convincing 24-9 win over the Cleveland Browns, ending a four-game losing streak that threatened to derail this season of great expectations. Although not aesthetically pleasing, it was a necessary victory.
If the Steelers are to somehow work their way back into the Super Bowl-contender conversation, they displayed Sunday how they will have to get there.
It goes like this: Run Le’Veon Bell and run him some more. Failing that, throw to Bell.
After rushing for a combined 89 yards the past two weeks in losses to Baltimore and Dallas and looking lost in the process, Bell broke through against Cleveland in what was easily the star running back’s best game this season.
In fact, it was a vintage performance from Bell, circa 2014, back when he was first-team All-Pro, pre-suspensions and pre-knee injuries. On Sunday, Bell reminded everyone of how great he can be. He accounted for 201 yards from scrimmage with 146 rushing and 55 receiving yards. His 28 carries were the second-most in his career and his eight receptions were tied for his third-most.
“That guy’s one of the best backs in the league, and he comes in and shows what he did today, it’s encouraging,” said guard Ramon Foster. “Coach Haley kept calling it and we kept running it.”
“Encouraging” is what Sunday was for the Steelers, who are again tied for first in the AFC North. On both sides of the ball, they turned in their closest thing to a complete performance since Week 5. Of course, everything that happened in a game against a 0-11 opponent needs to be kept in the proper context but, yes, it was encouraging, particularly for Bell.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the season is, especially this late in the season when it starts to get cold and you have to be able to run the ball,” Foster said.
The Steelers will have to run the ball because their once-vaunted, now-depleted receiving corps has devolved into a triple-teamed Antonio Brown and not much else. Until Sammie Coates’ fingers mend or Ladarius Green is up to speed, Ben Roethlisberger has few weapons to work with. But the Steelers still have Bell.
In 2014, the worry had been that Tomlin would run Bell until the wheels fell off, and eventually they did. This time there should be no such reservations. On Sunday’s first possession, a clock-chewing 9:18 drive that resulted in a field goal, the Steelers ran Bell eight times and threw his way twice. At 5-5, the Steelers have little margin for error.
“I looked up and I saw 28 carries and I had not realized I carried the ball so much,” Bell said. “The offensive line did a great job of getting me clean through the holes. I think this is some of the best blocking they have done all season.”
It was their best blocking in over a month. Overlooked in the talk of accountability during the Steelers’ recently-concluded slide was the play of the line.
“He was awesome, but he’s only as good as the boys in front of him,” Roethlisberger said of Bell.
Save for their red-zone woes, Sunday should be the Steelers’ blueprint for the rest of the season, and it starts up front. In the first half, the Steelers held a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession (20:37-9:23). With a defense that is without its best player and still gives up big plays, the Steelers’ best defense is a good offense, one that possesses the ball and scores touchdowns.
“Down the stretch, our goal, I’d like to see us get the ball in his hands,” tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “This guy is very dynamic, one of the best. If we take care of business up front, we know he’ll have a good day.”
Indeed, the Steelers had a good day in frigid Cleveland. Now they have to put about six to 10 more together. Consistency, not accountability, has been the Steelers’ biggest problem.
“Winning’s kind of a cure-all and that’s where we are now,” Foster said. “We’re on the plus side of this thing. What we have to do is build off it and be the team we know we are.”
Chris Bradford | thetimes.com | November 21, 2016