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Browns used JuJu Smith-Schuster's words but don't let that sideshow hide Steelers' profound problems

·Senior NFL writer
·5-min read

The Cleveland Browns couldn’t wait.

To celebrate. To talk trash. To win.

They weren’t holding back. Not against this team. Not after nearly two decades of misery in Pittsburgh, where, until their 48-37 wild-card playoff victory on Sunday night, they hadn’t won a road game since 2003.

Not after Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had apparently, as Michael Jordan would say, “added another log to their motivational fire” before the game. He had the gumption to — gasp! — say “the Browns is the Browns.”

Nevermind the fact Smith-Schuster was not trying to disrespect the Browns. Nevermind the fact he was essentially trying to repeat a Mike Tomlin-ism.

The Browns, as most teams tend to do in the playoffs, took the perceived slight and ran with it, ridiculous as it was. And God bless them, it appeared to work.

Baker Mayfield shouted the phrase as he skipped to the locker room after the game. Myles Garrett said “we definitely did not appreciate it.” Kareem Hunt said something similar.

Good for them.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) greets Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) after defeating them in an NFL wild-card playoff football game, late Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) greets Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) after defeating them in an NFL wild-card playoff football game, late Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

But Cleveland didn’t win this game because of those words, and this isn’t a column about Cleveland. This is about Pittsburgh, and how a Steelers team that started the season 11-0 for the first time in team history ended so meekly as losers of five of its last six games.

It’s easy to blame the talking or their “off-field” antics for some of the Steelers’ issues, as the genial Smith-Schuster has found himself in the midst of a pair of “controversies” this season, with the other being his pregame TikTok dances at opponents’ midfield logo that eventually drew the ire of opponents (he would knock it off later in the season).

The truth is, his “Browns is the Browns” comment, or fellow receiver Chase Claypool saying the “Browns are going to get clapped” by Kansas City, don’t really matter.

Yes, the Browns are rubbing the Steelers’ faces in the loss, but let’s face it: Cleveland didn’t need motivation to win this game and end its streak of playoff futility. The Steelers lost on Sunday night because they got their butts handed to them up front on both sides of the ball by a team that has essentially been their little brother in the AFC North for decades. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin should be more concerned about that — plus the status of his 38-year-old Hall-of-Fame quarterback who threw an absurd 68 times Sunday — than whatever his young receivers are doing to fire up the opponent. That’s not even close to the biggest problem Pittsburgh’s offense has, with the league-high 31 drops easily usurping that on the list of Steeler issues, right behind the complete lack of a running game.

For Tomlin, that has to be the biggest disappointment of this season. He believes in physical football, which matches the city’s blue-collar ethos. Steelers fans were born and bred watching Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, Barry Foster and Franco Harris wearing black and yellow dodge, duck and truck defenders.

This year, even with James Conner in a contract season, the Steelers failed to establish the run necessary to boost an aging quarterback who should have been getting the Tom Brady-in-2018 treatment: Hand the ball off to this grinding rushing attack, manage the game and make a few big throws when needed.

Had the Steelers done that all season, they could have saved some of the wear-and-tear on Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow. Had the Steelers done that, Roethlisberger might have had more juice in his arm when they needed it most.

Pittsburgh failed to do so, either because it fell in love with the pass — which might be the notoriously pass-happy Roethlisberger’s doing — or because its aging offensive line couldn’t do it anymore.

Steelers fans should hope it’s the former because fixing an offensive line on the fly won’t be easy, especially for a team heading into 2021 with salary-cap issues.

Maybe this will be the wake-up call the coaching staff — and yes, Roethlisberger — needs to change their offensive style. Maybe they’ll commit to playing the way Indianapolis did with Philip Rivers, who was roundly deemed washed entering this season but did a hell of a job managing games and, though they lost against Buffalo on Saturday, he had one of his better outings in the season’s 17th game. That’s more than you can say for Roethlisberger, who threw for four touchdowns on Sunday but also tossed four brutal picks.

And hey, maybe Pittsburgh eschews all that – of doubling down on Ben, reconfiguring its offense and hoping a once-elite defense seven weeks ago returns to form after it gets healthy in 2021. Maybe the Steelers move on from their starting quarterback, who is slated for a $41 million cap number next season.

I don’t know what they’ll do, but I know this: The Steelers’ decision makers — general manager Kevin Colbert and Tomlin — have some tough questions they need to ask themselves about what they want this team to look like.

Those are the questions that should be taking precedence in the Steel City — not whether anything JuJu Smith-Schuster is saying or doing is motivating opponents.

If the offense was built a different way — if the o-linemen were run blocking better and the quarterback was playing better — then maybe it wouldn’t have finished 22nd in DVOA and the Steelers would have been good enough to hold off the Browns at home on Sunday night, misconstrued Smith-Schuster trash talk and all.

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