CLEVELAND — The formula had been working so well for the Pittsburgh Steelers that it almost became fool-proof, dependable.
It failed them on Sunday. Miserably.
For the first time this season, the Steelers, who had somehow found ways to win close games despite an offense that’s both inefficient and deficient, lost a tight one — 13-10, as the Cleveland Browns rallied behind rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in just his second NFL start.
The Steelers (6-4) came in 9-0 in their last nine games decided by one score, including a 6-0 mark in 2023.
But with the outcome up for grabs in the closing minutes, it was the Browns (7-3), led by their young QB filling in for the injured Deshaun Watson, who came through on a day when first downs were at a premium and explosive plays almost nonexistent.
“We just came up a play or two short, but that happens,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, delivering his usual candid assessment. “That’s what happens when you compete in this league on days like today. We own that. We compliment them for doing enough to win.
“We’ll go back to the lab and continue to work.”
There’s a lot to address, including a puzzling decision not to give running back Jaylen Warren more carries; quarterback Kenny Pickett’s inability to connect with receivers down field; and more criticism aimed at embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
This time, the Browns seemed to out-Steeler the Steelers.
And in Pittsburgh’s locker room, frustration was palpable.
The Steelers had been winning by the skin of their teeth, leaning on superstar T.J. Watt and their defense to make plays or getting a momentum swing from special teams to offset an offense that has spent the better part of two seasons spinning its wheels.
Sunday, though, started ominously as Pickett (15 of 28 for 106 yads) was sacked at the goal line on Pittsburgh’s first play by Myles Garrett, who burst through the line and flattened the QB.
It didn’t get a whole lot prettier on offense for the Steelers other than when they gave the ball to Warren. He broke off a 74-yard touchdown run in early in the second half that seemed to finally get Pittsburgh moving.
But while Warren’s run — the team’s longest since 2014 — sparked the Steelers and he finished with a career-high 129 yards, he only got nine carries and there was a stretch in the second half when he wasn’t even on the field.
Tomlin wouldn’t second-guess Warren’s usage by Canada, who has been under attack by fans all season.
“When you’re unsuccessful, you can look back and make a lot of those types of judgments,” Tomlin said. “We don’t live like that. We don’t live in our fears. We don’t second-guess. We live. I stand by whatever decisions, or play selections, or ball distributions we had.”
Despite the struggles, Pittsburgh was still in position to pull out another nail-biter when the Steelers got the ball back with 1:42 left.
However, Pickett threw three straight incompletions, including one on second down when he and wide receiver Diontae Johnson were in different playbooks. The Steelers were forced to punt after a possession that lasted just 18 seconds.
“Yeah, we had a couple of miscommunications,” said Pickett, who had to get his eyes washed out when his helmet got knocked off on a sneak earlier in the fourth. “Something like that can’t happen. We have to get it ironed out, obviously, especially in a moment like that.”
There was enough time to give Warren a touch on that last drive, but the Steelers chose to put the ball in Pickett’s hands.
“In a 2-minute situation like that, obviously you want to throw it,” Pickett said when asked if he thought about giving Warren the ball. “There’s always times with the stoppage of the clock you could pop a draw, you could pop a run to start back up, but in that moment, no.”