PITTSBURGH — Dominate and demoralize.
That’s what the Browns allowed Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt to do to them in a 26-14 loss on “Monday Night Football” at Heinz Field.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield took nine sacks, four of which were credited to Watt.
Now Mayfield is considering sitting out the regular-season finale Jan. 9 against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals because he’s “pretty damn beat up,” will undergo surgery on the left, non-throwing shoulder he injured in Week 2 and the Browns were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday.
Watt excelling against the Browns (7-9) is one thing. He’s a four-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro selection. He’s going to make plays for the Steelers (8-7-1).
But coach Kevin Stefanski and his assistants not giving rookie right tackle James Hudson III adequate assistance against Watt is another thing.
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Mayfield was frustrated enough after the game to criticize the game plan and thereby the coaches who devised it.
“Obviously their front’s pretty good. It has been for years,” Mayfield said on Zoom. “But when you’ve got T.J. Watt over there and we’re not giving our rookie tackle a whole lot of help, it’s not going to be good.”
Hudson is a fourth-round draft pick who started for just the third time in the NFL. Mayfield made it clear his intent was not to rip Hudson. Mayfield’s point is the coaches should have known they needed to slide the protection toward Hudson and assign tight ends and running backs to double-team or chip Watt more often.
Mayfield’s future with the Browns isn’t certain largely because of his poor play during the 2021 season and his unresolved long-term contractual situation. Yet his relationship with Stefanski and the coaching staff doesn’t seem to be great, either. After the Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens 24-22 on Dec. 12, Mayfield lamented the Cleveland offense becoming too conservative. And in his postgame media availability Monday night, Mayfield didn’t completely shy away from a question about whether he feels the offense has been put in positions to succeed this season.
“I’m not going to get into too many details about that as a full-season evaluation,” Mayfield said. “We’ve obviously been pretty banged up. I believe in James. I pray to God that you guys [in the media] don’t spin this into something where I’m criticizing James Hudson. That’s not what I’m doing. We’re talking about an All Pro that he’s going up against, and he hasn’t had very many starts. So I’m proud of James. He kept swinging. He kept fighting.
“Now when it comes to what we’ve had to deal with all season, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Do I believe I could play better? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s positions that we as an offense could’ve been put in that are better? Absolutely. There’s so many critiques throughout the year. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here at 7-9. So it is what it is.”
Part of the Browns being banged up is All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin being out of the season with a ruptured patellar tendon he suffered in his right knee Nov. 28.
The Browns have started Blake Hance in place of Conklin six times this season, but offensive line coach Bill Callahan has said Hance’s natural position in the NFL is guard, and the organization obviously wants to accelerate Hudson’s development because it keeps turning to him despite other options.
“James had good moments for us this season,” Stefanski said. “Felt like he was getting better. Obviously, I know what the stat line looks like, but I’m not going to put all that on him. He’s a young player that we expect to continue to get better.”
Hance had started the previous two games after Hudson went on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but the coaches went back to Hudson on Monday. Four-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio had moved to left tackle for the previous two games because the team’s COVID-19 outbreak last month also forced Jedrick Wills Jr. to miss two games.
Last week, Stefanski immediately shot down the notion of continuing to start Bitonio at left tackle, where he had been playing well, and moving Wills to right tackle, where he played his entire life until the Browns drafted him 10th overall out of the University of Alabama in 2020.
“You don’t want to give up nine sacks,” Bitonio said. “We didn’t perform well enough as an O-line, as an offense.
“[Watt is] a great player. He had a bunch of sacks and was making plays for their team. It’s something that you try and red dot him during the week and eliminate him, but he made plays for them today.”
Remember how poorly the Chicago Bears game planned for Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett in Week 3? Rookie quarterback Justin Fields took nine sacks, led by Garrett’s single-game franchise record 4½.
Well, the Browns looked like the Bears in Week 17.
“That many sacks, that’s on me,” Stefanski said.
Watt isn’t complaining about setting a new career high in sacks — both for a single game and a season. He did it in prime time, too, strengthening his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an award Garrett has been chasing since Cleveland drafted him first overall in 2017. Watt leads the league with 21½ sacks. Garrett is tied for third with 15 sacks.
“He was a great player out there,” Garrett said. “He’s been balling all year, and he continued his success.”
The Steelers were credited with 11 quarterback hits, led by Watt’s five.
“You have to be able to adapt mid-game,” Mayfield said, “and we didn’t do a good enough job, as you could tell.”
Mayfield is under contract through next season because the Browns exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie deal for $18.858 million.
Still, whether his partnership with the Browns can survive what has become a mess of a season is a legitimate question.
The nine sacks were far from the only rough aspect of Mayfield’s night.
He went 16-of-38 passing (42.1%) for 185 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions for a rating of 53.1, with five of his passes batted or deflected near the line of scrimmage.
“Sometimes when I can see them blatantly just waiting for a pass to put their hands up, I can kind of change my arm angle,” Mayfield said. “There’s a few times that I had to put the ball a little bit behind these guys just to get it around them. Some of them, these are timing throws. I have to be on time. I have to put the ball in the right place and let it fly. So a lot of those [batted balls] were due to that.”
Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward each had two deflections. Rookie defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk had one.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to always be thinking about your eyes and those type of things,” Stefanski said. “If the guys jump, offensive line-wise, we’ve got to make sure that we keep their hands down and hit them when they jump up.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort