Ball-hawking Browns have attention of Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger
The Cleveland Browns stop the run with the same efficiency that a Band-Aid fixes a bullet wound. They treat passing yards like frequent flier miles -- the more they allow, the more free perks they think they will accrue.
Only four NFL teams give up more chunks of yardage on a weekly basis, yet the Browns defense is without peer in one important area, which has caught the Pittsburgh Steelers’ attention heading into their rematch Sunday at Heinz Field.
For all of the Browns’ defensive flaws, when it comes to creating turnovers, nobody does it better. They have forced 20 through seven weeks, leading the NFL with 11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
And since the Steelers opened the season by turning the ball over six times in Cleveland, there is ample concern about a repeat performance Sunday.
“We don’t look past that,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said Wednesday. “We take into account that Cleveland’s defense has gotten a lot of turnovers, interceptions, forced fumbles. We have to be more aware of that. Protecting the ball this week is going to be key.”
While the Steelers (3-2-1) were enjoying a bye last weekend, the Browns created four more turnovers in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which led Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to acknowledge what transpired in the season opener was “no lightning strike.”
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles in the opening 21-21 tie, so he is hoping lightning doesn’t strike twice.
“I said going into the (first) game that they might be the best defense we face all year,” Roethlisberger said, “and we’ll still say that.”
Roethlisberger threw all three of his interceptions in the first half, but, despite those turnovers, the Steelers held a 7-0 halftime lead. He also fumbled in the fourth quarter and overtime, with those givebacks also resulting in no points.
The costly turnover was a James Conner fumble midway through the fourth quarter that the Browns recovered at the Steelers 1 and turned into a touchdown that helped them come back from a 21-7 deficit.
“Anytime you turn the ball over, you get disappointed,” Roethlisberger said. “It was one of those games, whether it was elements of them making plays and us not making them, there were a lot of factors involved. At the end of the day, they made the plays and made us turn the ball over.”
The Browns (2-4-1) already have gotten more turnovers than the entire 2017 season when they had 13 while going 0-16. They lead the NFL with a plus-10 turnover margin under veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is in his second year with Cleveland.
“I think it’s the way we work in practice, the things that Gregg has implemented in practice every day,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “Our guys have done a great job of working at it, making it a focus and emphasis of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Providing the pressure up front is second-year defensive lineman Myles Garrett, who has seven sacks. Garrett forced two fumbles in the opener, including the strip of Conner.
In the secondary, rookie Denzel Ward has three interceptions (two coming against Roethlisberger). Damarious Randall and Christian Kirksey also have two interceptions. The Browns have an NFL-high 49 pass breakups.
By comparison, the entire Steelers defense has four interceptions through six games.
“It starts with the pass rush,” Roethlisberger said. “Myles is one of the best in the business. He’s long. He gets after the quarterback, gets a good jump on the snap. In the secondary, they catch the ball. We joke that defenders play defense because they can’t catch. They can catch the ball. They just don’t bat it down. They make plays.”
Since the opener, the Steelers have done a better job of protecting the football, turning it over four times in five games.
Coming off a bye week, Roethlisberger hopes the Steelers don’t fall back into bad habits or get off to a slow start, which was another problem in the early weeks of the season.
“You try to start fast,” he said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing that. We’ve been playing well offensively. We can’t take a half to get going. We have to get going early.”
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