Steelers' sack party in Cleveland might just change season

CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' first win in 42 days felt less like a turning point and more like an exercise in survival.

One way to prove that wrong: Showing that this eight-sack performance on the Cleveland Browns underscores a suddenly revitalized defense ready for a late-season playoff push.

The Steelers (5-5) did just enough on the road in a 24-9 win over the league's worst team to stave off the embarrassment of extending their losing streak to five games.

This game wasn't exactly a clearer portrait of Pittsburgh's talents. The Steelers, who will know exactly who they are after Thursday night's matchup with the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, won't face an offensive or defensive line this bad all season.

"This win is going to pass by us by the time we get back to Pittsburgh," said linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose strip-sack of Josh McCown sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. "We just have to make sure everybody takes care of business."

The fact that the Steelers did everything they wanted -- control the clock, run the ball 28 times for 146 yards with Le'Veon Bell, sack the quarterback -- and the winless Browns were still within one score late in the fourth reminds that this game won't solve all of Pittsburgh's problems.

The biggest impact is undoubtedly the sacks, especially if they do indeed come in bunches, as the cliche promises. Six Steelers recorded a takedown, with Shazier's play that Javon Hargrave recovered in the end zone being one that could have a lasting impact.

The Steelers had a league-low 13 sacks through the first 10 games, but perhaps this game is an indication they're turning the corner. The eight sacks were their most since Christmas Eve 2005, also against the Browns.

When the Steelers look in the mirror this week, they'll still see an offense without a downfield threat on the outside to complement Antonio Brown and a defense that last played a complete game against an above-.500 team in early October against the Kansas City Chiefs.

McCown entered the game early in the fourth quarter, and suddenly the Browns' offense got rolling. McCown completed 7 of 8 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.

But Pittsburgh did what was necessary, and winning can be infectious. Linebacker Arthur Moats said he sensed more urgency from his team during the week, including players showing up early to meetings.

"Guys operated at a higher level today than in previous weeks when guys were trying to do too much or we weren't being accountable as a whole," said linebacker Arthur Moats, who had 1.5 sacks Sunday. "Today, across the board (it was better)...It wasn’t anything formally that needed to be said, guys just being more on the detials. Any time you’re going on the scale we have over the last four games, you have to look at what you can do to make yourself better."

This was the perfect game to limit chances and grind out a road win, no matter how ugly. Consider these first five drives by the Steelers' offense:

Sixteen plays, 82 yards, 9:18

Sixteen plays, 68 yards, 9:28

Eleven plays, 59 yards, 1:51

Three plays, 0 yards, 1:55

Fifteen plays, 71 yards, 8:02

The Steelers were perfectly content running clock and shortening the game, knowing the Browns wouldn't win a shootout. Bell was brilliant on 36 touches for 201 yards and a touchdown. After a string of decisions backfired on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the mostly conservative approach worked in this case.

Ben Roethlisberger (23-of-36, 167 yards) called Bell's performance "awesome," with right tackle Marcus Gilbert saying the Steelers need to get the ball in his hands early and often each week.

Now, a team that struggles on the road must now find a way to win back-to-back games away from Heinz Field. They have momentum, at least for a week.