It doesn't matter what an offense does or what team they're playing against—turn the ball over repeatedly and a win gets further out of reach. The Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over an astounding eight times (the most for any team since 2001) on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, making it no surprise that they ultimately lost, 20-14.
Clearly, the Steelers were in for a bit of a challenge in Week 12. Though the Browns were a two-win team heading into the week, they've kept the score close in most of their games this season and aren't the easy out of seasons past.
And Pittsburgh's team would be heading into Cleveland plagued by significant offensive injuries, which forced Charlie Batch into the starting quarterback job and the team to re-sign receiver Plaxico Burress earlier in the week.
But what really led to Pittsburgh's loss this week were turnovers—eight of them, to be exact.
No Steelers running back was immune to turning the ball over—Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey all gave one away—and Batch threw three interceptions. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders also lost a fumble, but a more meaningless one, coming on the requisite series of laterals that come at ends of games like these.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin thought that perhaps benching offenders would help prevent repeated fumbles and send a message to the other backs that turnovers won't be tolerated, but the message was clearly lost.
And the Steelers had little choice but to try to run the ball repeatedly, with Batch, at age 37, showing both his limitations and his rust. He had just 188 passing yards on the day on 33 attempts, with Sanders and tight end Heath Miller the most productive recipients of his throws.
All of Pittsburgh's 14 points came in the first half, first on a Lawrence Timmons pick-six of Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden and again on a one-yard run by Rainey that had a desirable result on a less-than-ideal play call. Rainey was initially scripted to run up the middle in a goal-to-go situation and seemed at first dead to rights, but bounced out for the score to close the half.
That play was also the result of the only positive action out of Burress, who drew a pass interference penalty to get the Steelers into scoring position. Otherwise, he had no catches on six targets. Of course, Burress' biggest draw is as an end-zone scoring threat, and the Steelers found themselves within the red zone just that one time.
Pittsburgh's defense did a solid job, but not solid enough, failing to prevent Cleveland from scoring points when it recovered Steelers turnovers. All but three of the Browns' points were on drives after those turnovers, and their general skill in containing Cleveland running back Trent Richardson (just 85 yards on his 29 carries) also included allowing a 15-yard touchdown run.
It was a stronger game for Pittsburgh's pass coverage, with only receiver Josh Gordon putting up more than 50 yards and Timmons leading the team in tackles with 10. Weeden had only 158 passing yards on 17 completions, a single touchdown and the Timmons interception.
But, ultimately, no numbers mattered in this game more than those eight Steelers turnovers, as they defined this game and the Steelers' loss more than anything else that occurred on Sunday.
It's clear the Steelers need one thing, sorely: The healthy return of Ben Roethlisberger, ideally sooner than later.
That's not to say he needs to be rushed back from his shoulder and rib injuries in order to give the team more of a fighting chance against the Baltimore Ravens next week—that would be both foolish and dangerous, if he's not adequately healed—but the Steelers cannot win with Batch, even if their running backs have better ball security next week.
The shaky play around the entire AFC means that the Steelers' playoff hopes have not been dashed by this loss. However, falling to a divisional opponent at the same time the Cincinnati Bengals put up a win over the Oakland Raiders (a team that defeated Pittsburgh earlier in the year) makes things more difficult for Pittsburgh down the stretch, both within their division as well as in their conference.
This is a wholly different team without Roethlisberger under center. A mere 49 yards off of 20 rushes, fumbles or not, won't get the Steelers a win, nor will a quarterback just two weeks away from turning 38 years old. All of the Steelers' troubles were laid bare with this loss to the Browns, and their solution could still be weeks away from returning to the field.
The Steelers knew this heading into ClevelandGr and needed to make up for not having Roethlisberger (and to a lesser extent, Byron Leftwich, who has rib injuries of his own) and instead fell flat—or whatever is flatter than flat. Pittsburgh's response to adversity was to create more adversity out of it—and no, that's not how to win a football game.