Kenny Pickett's struggles doom Steelers as Browns grind out 13-10 win without Deshaun Watson

The Pittsburgh Steelers have leaned on a ball-hawking defense to overcome poor quarterback play from Kenny Pickett en route to playoff contention.

On Sunday, it wasn't enough. The Browns' defense swarmed Pickett as Cleveland ground out a 13-10 win over the Steelers despite playing with rookie backup Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback. The win was critical for the AFC playoff race as the Browns improved to 7-3 while dropping their AFC North rivals to 6-4.

Both teams struggled to move the ball on a day when defense dominated. But Thompson-Robinson was able to generate a late drive for a game-winning field goal from Dustin Hopkins, as Pittsburgh came up empty on its final three possessions that generated 22 total yards.

Pickett finished the day completing 14 of 27 passes for 93 yards. He took three sacks and failed to find the end zone. The Steelers' offense largely consisted of a single 74-yard touchdown run from Jaylen Warren that kept Pittsburgh competitive. It wasn't enough to overcome a stagnant attack throughout the rest of the game.

This performance exacerbated a trend that's plagued the Steelers through Pickett's second NFL season. After showing promise in moments as a rookie, the 2022 first-round draft pick has regressed in 2023 while leading a Steelers team that ranked 28th in yards and 26th in points per game entering Week 11.

Pickett entered Sunday completing 60.1% of his passes for 6.4 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and four interceptions in nine starts. Sunday marked a new low as he managed a meager 3.8 yards per attempt against an elite Browns defense.

Cleveland threatened to put the game away in the first half despite playing without inured starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who's done for the season with a fractured throwing shoulder. All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett set the tone early with a sack of Pickett on Pittsburgh's first possession that nearly led to a safety.

Myles Garrett tallies the first of his two sacks of Kenny Pickett on Sunday. (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Myles Garrett tallies the first of his two sacks of Kenny Pickett on Sunday. (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Instead, the Steelers punted after losing 2 yards on the possession, setting Cleveland up with a short field and a 50-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard Jerome Ford touchdown run. The Browns added a second-quarter field goal to take a 10-0 lead into halftime as five first-half Steelers drives produced 59 yards, four punts and the end of the half.

Warren gave the Steelers hope with his 74-yard scoring scamper that cut Cleveland's lead to 10-7 on Pittsburgh's first possession of the second half.

The Steelers then tied the game 10-10 with a 62-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended with a Chris Boswell field goal. Garrett's second sack of the day of Pickett stunted the drive, setting the Steelers up with a third-and-22 that they had little hope of converting.

The two Steelers scoring drives accounted for more than half of their 249 yards of offense on the day. After tying the game, the Steelers generated 9 yards on seven plays on two ensuing drives that ended with punts.

Pittsburgh's seventh punt of the day set Thompson-Robinson up for a chance to lead the Browns to victory after they took possession of the ball at their own 35-yard line and 1:18 remaining. The rookie quarterback completed all four of his passes on the game-winning 48-yard drive before spiking the ball to set up Hopkins for the go-ahead field goal.

For the most part, Thompson-Robinson likewise struggled against a stout defense while completing 24 of 43 passes for 165 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. But where Pickett failed to generate a late drive to take the lead, the rookie quarterback led Cleveland on a game-winning drive in his second NFL start.

The Steelers are still very much in playoff contention despite the loss and would make the postseason if it started next week. But without improved play from Pickett to match their stout defense, their hopes of finding success if they reach the postseason look slim.