Steelers (5-0) play ‘varsity ball,’ wallop Browns

  • Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.

PITTSBURGH — Before facing the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said the team wasn’t focused specifically on targeting quarterback Baker Mayfield’s bruised ribs.

But he did say the plan was to inflict “good punishment.”

And that’s exactly what the Steelers did, sacking Mayfield four times and intercepting him twice in a 38-7 win that gave Pittsburgh just the second 5-0 start in franchise history and first since 1978. It was also the Steelers’ first win against a team with a winning record this season.

“That was varsity ball today,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They stepped up and stepped up big all across the board.”

It wasn’t all good news, though, as inside linebacker and defensive playcaller Devin Bush went out with a knee injury in the second quarter — one Tomlin later said appears to be “significant.”

The 2019 first-round pick played every defensive snap until the injury, and any time without Bush is worrisome for the defensive unit. Bush was replaced by Robert Spillane, who had just one defensive snap before this season.

But even without Bush, the Steelers dominated the Browns (4-2).

“As a D-line and as a defense you want to make sure he’s thinking about the rush,” Heyward said of Mayfield on Wednesday.

There’s little doubt that’s exactly what Mayfield was thinking about throughout the game until he was pulled late in the third quarter for Case Keenum. Mayfield was pressured on 52% of his dropbacks, the highest mark of his career.

The Steelers found early success with their blitz, getting a sack and a Minkah Fitzpatrick pick-six on their first two. Fitzpatrick’s interception and score, his first of either this season, gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead just a few minutes into the first quarter. The Steelers have recorded three or more sacks in six consecutive games, going back to the 2019 season finale against the Ravens. The streak ties the longest in franchise history with the 1994, 2001 and 2004 seasons.

The Steelers are also only the second team in league history joining the 1985 New York Giants with at least three sacks and an interception in each of their first five games of the season. Before he was replaced with Keenum, Mayfield completed 10 of 18 attempts for 119 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 54.9.

The Browns entered the game with one of the league’s best rushing attacks, but it was completely shut down by the Steelers, who managed to balance bringing pressure on Mayfield with slowing Kareem Hunt better than they did a week ago, when they faced running back Miles Sanders and the Eagles.

Hunt averaged 3.1 yards per carry, picking up 40 yards on 13 carries.

Instead it was the Steelers who dominated in the rushing game, taking advantage of Cleveland’s subpar safeties. James Conner racked up 101 yards on 20 carries and scored the team’s first offensive touchdown for a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Receiver Chase Claypool and running back Benny Snell Jr. also managed to score rushing touchdowns in the blowout win.

After posting an anemic offensive performance without Ben Roethlisberger last season, the Steelers have scored at least 26 points in each of their first five games for the first time in franchise history. Last season, the team scored 26 or more points in just four games.

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