It took a while for the scoreboard to show it, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing a lot of good things Sunday in their 27-11 win at Cleveland.
The Steelers (5-6) had won two straight but entered the game with fragile playoff hopes. Needing a win over the Browns to make the playoffs a more realistic possibility, they were mired in a 3-3 stalemate and losing the field-position battle for most of the first half.
However, the men in the white jerseys weren’t looking like the Fumblegate Steelers who lost at Cleveland last season.
Troy Polamalu had a spring in his step. He made a couple of tackles and broke up a third-down pass early in the second quarter.
Jason Worilds continued to reward the Steelers’ patience with him. He didn’t have a sack, but was in the face of Browns quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden all afternoon. He hurried Campbell into the third-down incompletion that Polamalu defended.
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t in much of a hurry. For the first time in more than a year and for just the fifth time in the last five years, he wasn’t sacked.
Even though the Steelers weren’t moving the ball much in the first half, the offensive line’s work was evident. Instead of escaping pressure, Roethlisberger looked like a classic pocket passer. It was a rare sight.
All these efforts eventually converged to create the familiar sight of the Steelers beating the Browns.
First, the Steelers flipped the field. Starting on their own 10 after a punt, they reached the Browns’ 46 with the help of four passes to Antonio Brown for 42 yards.
The Steelers had to punt, but improved their field position and got the ball back at their own 48-yard line after forcing the Browns to punt.
On the second play of that possession, with 2:41 left in the first half, Roethlisberger threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Brown. The Steelers’ leading receiver caught six passes for 92 yards and leads the NFL with 80 receptions this season.
Polamalu ensured that the Steelers would go into the locker room with a halftime lead when he ripped the ball from Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya and recovered the fumble at the Steelers’ 46.
That set up Shaun Suisham’s 32-yard field goal, which made it 13-3 at the break.
In the second half came a revival of the splash plays that had been gathering dust in the memories of Steelers fans.
Two players unwanted by other teams put the Steelers in position to add to their lead midway through the third quarter.
William Gay, cut by the Cardinals in March, strip-sacked Campbell. Will Allen, cut by the Cowboys last month, picked up the live ball and returned it 49 yards to the Browns’ 4.
Roethlisberger’s pass to Emmanuel Sanders on the next play made it 20-3, and Gay made it 27-3 late in the fourth quarter with a 21-yard interception return. It was the first pick-six of his career.
In between, Polamalu sacked Weeden and induced a fumble that Cameron Heyward recovered.
As decorated as Polamalu’s career has been, he had never forced two fumbles in a game until Sunday.
The Steelers snatched four turnovers in a game for the first time since beating the Browns at home in the regular-season finale last year. The last time they forced four turnovers in a game that mattered was almost exactly two years ago in a 13-9 win at Kansas City.
Those takeaways have to keep coming and the offensive line has to keep Roethlisberger relatively clean, because the Steelers can’t let up.
While Sunday’s win puts them in the thick of playoff contention, the Steelers still aren’t guaranteed a playoff berth even if they win their last five games. That’s how big a hole they dug for themselves when they started the season 0-4.
The Steelers are one of six teams tied for the final AFC wild-card spot at 5-6. Through tiebreakers, the Tennessee Titans officially occupy that spot for now, and they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers because of their Week 1 win at Pittsburgh.
It’s a muddled AFC playoff picture, but unlike last week, we don’t have to wait seven days for it to change. The Steelers’ situation will clear up a little within the next 100 hours after they play at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night.
It would behoove them to win that game. As uplifting as the Steelers’ three-game winning streak has been, all it takes is one loss to make their playoff hopes fragile again.