Labriola on the win over the Browns

By now, it should be carved into the memory of each and every follower of these Pittsburgh Steelers.

About how the team started the 2022 season by winning just two of their first eight games before rebounding after its bye to win seven of its final nine to come within a whisper of qualifying for the playoffs. About how the rookie quarterback played a big part in facilitating that turnaround by bouncing back from a two-touchdown-eight-interception line in his six starts before the bye to a five-touchdown-one-interception line during the 7-2 record after the bye.

Then when the Steelers committed some resources during the offseason to strengthen and reinforce the offensive line, and their rookie quarterback became a second-year pro, and they found a 6-foot-7, 264-pound specimen with surprisingly soft hands available for the 93rd overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft to play tight end, and they cruised through a preseason that looked like they were characters in a video game, well, the offense seemed to have the ingredients on hand for a breakout season.

All of the aforementioned are verifiable facts, and yet two games into the season the most kind description of this offense would be to label it a work in progress. But what’s also verifiable fact now is that they can win with their defense.

Steelers-Browns was the headliner for the Week 2 programming of Monday Night Football, and coupled with Sunday’s Ravens-Bengals dust-up in Cincinnati, the AFC North was in the spotlight. When all the results were tabulated, the Steelers’ 26-22 victory had them in second place in the division and sitting as the No. 6 seed in the conference (which would qualify them for the playoffs). Yes, citing division standings and conference seeding in mid-September is wildly premature to the point of being meaningless, and just as true was sticking a fork in this team after it stunk it up a week earlier against the 49ers.

The moral of the story is that an NFL regular season needs to be recognized as a football version of long journey through Western Pennsylvania during pothole season. You never know when you’re going to blow a tire, or lose an All-Pro defensive lineman plus your most productive receiver to IR during the first of 17 games.

The Steelers successfully navigated their most recent leg of the journey thanks to their tandem of outside linebackers – T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, who have evolved from Batman and Robin into a more equal partnership, say, something closer to Batman and Batman’s close relative. Watt made the history, and Highsmith provided the fireworks to celebrate the occasion.

On the first play of the game, Deshaun Watson short pass toward tight end Harrison Bryant bounced off his tight end’s hands, was tipped by Minkah Fitzpatrick, and ultimately claimed by Highsmith, who high-tailed it 30 yards for a touchdown to provide a 7-0 lead nine seconds in. And it set a tone.

The offense would very much live up to its work-in-progress status, with things such as a pass delivered accurately and on-time to George Pickens giving him enough space to turn it into a 71-yard touchdown, and a few nice holes for Jaylen Warren, and a couple of manufactured chunk runs from Najee Harris counter-balanced by throws that came up short in the accurate and/or the on-time categories, and too many occasions when there was no hole for the runner and/or he couldn’t create his own.

And while the defense was far from blameless – there was a 69-yard run helped by over-pursuit and failure to wrap-up the running back, and too many other missed tackles from a group coming off a training camp where there was hitting and tackling most every day – but the compensation coming back was of the spectacular and/or the difference-making variety.

Six sacks, four takeaways, eight passes defensed, and as many touchdowns scored as allowed. Among the sacks was the one Watt had with 1:03 left in the first half to make him the franchise’s all-time leader in the category with 81.5 while also making the Browns settle for a field goal; and the game’s decisive touchdown came when Highsmith strip-sacked Watson to send the ball on a perfect hop to Watt with open grass between him and the end zone. That’s the video you’ll see repeatedly, but there also were enough instances of guys making the kind of plays that are the difference between winning and losing to have the Browns’ final five offensive possessions of the game end: punt, fumble, fumble, punt, turnover on downs.

There also was support from special teams, particularly the specialists. Pressley Harvin III dug the team out of a hole with a 61-yard punt and pinned the Browns at the 5, 9, 1, and 6-yard lines, respectively, with four others. Chris Boswell drilled field goals of 52 and 50 yards and sent all 6 kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.

Today, the Steelers wake up as a team with an offense that remains a work in progress to the degree that only continued improvement/development in every facet will allow for more days to end as Sunday’s did, but with a defense that did enough to be the difference in Sunday’s final score and displaying the potential through continued improvement/development to be able to be the difference in the final score in any game against any opponent.

Next up is a visit to Las Vegas and a Sunday night game against the Raiders, who will present a team dangerous enough to open with a win in Denver to spoil the opening act of the Sean Payton-Russell Wilson Show but sufficiently flawed to be minus-3 in turnover ratio and allow Buffalo to go 5-for-7 in the red zone to lose by four touchdowns.

We’ll find out next Sunday night which versions of each team will take the field, but Watt and Highsmith serving as “bringers of pressure and wreakers of havoc” give the Steelers the kind of defense that can take over the game and win it. The offense will have become able chip in more for the streak to grow beyond one-in-a-row, no question, but the Steelers now know the kind of splash the defense delivered against the Browns can get them out of a stadium moving forward.

The victory over the Browns had meaning because it was an AFC North matchup, and it was sweet because it was the first of the season and, you know, because it was Cleveland. But it was still just one. It’s absurd to even consider the possibility of having to plan the menu for the pregame tailgate during the playoffs, but it’s also premature to ponder draft order positioning for April 2024.

Life in that middle ground maintains relevance, and it’s a sense of relevance that’s really what September in the NFL is all about. It’s staying relevant that allows a team to continue to work on itself all the while knowing the fruits of that labor could lead to meaningful games in December and the opportunities that would come from winning those games.

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