CLEVELAND -- The Steelers and Browns had occupied the windswept Ohio lawn for exactly one minute when defensive end Brett Keisel swatted a Brandon Weeden pass into the claws of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who actually seemed to know what to do with it.
He fled 53 yards for a Steelers touchdown, which certainly should have been meaningful, but all it amounted to was a curious suspicion that we were, at that moment, on pace for 60 turnovers.
It was a small miracle that there were only nine in Sunday's AFC North melee, an alleged football game that was just about as grisly an episode as the modern NFL can produce.
There's not much purpose in itemizing the rampant buffoonery that curdled this episode from one of its ratty perimeters to the others, so let's instead just posit that, had there actually been 60 turnovers, the Browns would probably have gotten 59 of 'em.
"We got a big one on that first drive," said Keisel, who tried desperately all afternoon to ignite a defense that keeps playing uphill, "but we still haven't turned a corner on that. You see other teams getting turnovers left and right, and they make it look so easy.
"I wish I had an answer."
The question was this: How can it be that going back to the 2011 season opening in Baltimore, this celebrated and decorated Steelers defense has managed either no turnovers or just one turnover in 22 of 28 games?
That's defense the hard way.
"I don't know," said nose tackle Casey Hampton. "We've got to find a way to get our hands on the ball, get a hat on the ball, and when we do get our hands on it, we've got to catch 'em."
The Steelers haven't had two takeaways in a game since Oct. 7 against the Eagles.
Haven't had three or more since a year ago Tuesday, when they had four at Kansas City.
On Sunday, Cleveland had five in the second half.
If you're shocked that the Browns won, 20-14, you're not alone. I'm shocked because anyone else would have won 200-14.
The Steelers' offensive struggles, now lowlighted by a fourth consecutive week of diving passer ratings (from 121.0 to 98.9, 81.7, 51.3, and Charlie Batch's 38.7), will be the prime suspect when Mike Tomlin's 6-5 team goes hard toward 6-6 next week in Baltimore and ultimately disappears from the playoff picture. But the subtext will be that the Steelers worn and weary defense could not mount a rescue despite its inflated statistical reputation.
"We've just got to go on and make the necessary corrections," said linebacker James Harrison, whose diminished play has helped vacuum the menace from this once-opportunistic unit. "This is not going to shake my confidence, and my teammates are just as strong-minded as me. I don't believe it will shake their confidence. We have to do a better job of stopping them when the ball is turned over in the red zone and keeping them to 3s, not letting them get 6."
Harrison got himself nailed on a short trap by Cleveland center Alex Mack on a running play late in the third quarter, the one on which rookie Trent Richardson sliced 15 yards through the defense for the touchdown that flipped an improbable Steelers halftime lead inalterably to the Browns.
"We were highly penalized [nine times] and we turned the ball over [eight times], and when you do those things you are going to lose," Tomlin said outside a rattled locker room, "I don't care who is playing quarterback."
That's good analysis anytime, but in the special case of this Steelers team, things are just a bit more nuanced. The inescapable truth around here is that this defense might still be good enough to win, but only with Ben Roethlisberger running the attackers, and even then it couldn't save itself in Nashville, in Oakland, or in the season opener against a rusty Peyton Manning.
Without Roethlisberger, it can't get away with taking the ball away about three times a month.
"This was just a hurting team against a healthy team," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who hurt his ankle on Cleveland's second possession and played little thereafter. "I didn't get a chance to see too much of it."
Jason Worilds came on for Woodley and played like a demon, netting 4 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and a pass defensed. In other words, he fit right in on this defense; he did everything but take the ball away.
"You know," said Browns tight end Ben Watson, "we've had a lot of games where we've been very close and haven't been able to finish. Our defense played tremendously. To have eight turnovers, that's tremendous defense."
To rarely get two, and to almost never get three, well, that's the reason the Steelers is not.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published November 26, 2012 5:00 AM