CLEVELAND -- Should it have been a penalty and if it were called would it have mattered?
It was a loss that seems to make one play meaningless, because Pittsburgh pretty much thrashed the Browns.
But one key play in the thrashing came midway through the third quarter when Steelers cornerback William Gay blitzed free and blindsided Jason Campbell at the Browns' 47-yard line. Gay forced Campbell to fumble, Will Allen returned it to the 4 and Pittsburgh scored a touchdown on the next play to extend a 13-3 lead to 20-3.
Live and on replay, it seemed clear that Gay hit Campbell in the facemask as he tackled him. The facemask would be the head, which is a no-no in the modern-day NFL.
That was penalized.
The hit to Campbell’s facemask was not.
“I talked to the officials about that,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I felt like he was hit on the head. They didn’t feel that way.”
Chudzinski said the official told him Campbell was hit in the shoulder. But the replay clearly showed Campbell’s head snapping as Gay hit him in the facemask.
What would have changed had the call gone the Browns' way?
Maybe not much. Pittsburgh exerted its will on the Browns from the middle of the second period on, and they had earlier sent Campbell to the sidelines for one play with a rib injury. He returned and had the Browns at the Steelers 39-yard line, down 13-3 with 7:59 left in the quarter.
Gay lined up outside Allen on the defensive right of the formation. Gay stutter-stepped to the line as if he were blitzing, then backed off. As Campbell continued the snap count, Gay lined up alongside Allen -- and looked like he was blitzing.
Browns guard John Greco said the protection was focused to the side away from Gay, the Steelers' left.
“It’s just the kind of thing where we’re working one way and they brought one extra,” Greco said. “Just kind of timing. Didn’t get it off fast enough.”
Which would indicate that in that situation Campbell had to get the ball out quickly to his hot read. He didn’t.
Gay and Allen both blitzed, and running back Chris Ogbonnaya had to block the guy closest to the quarterback -- Allen.
Gay made Campbell pay. But even in making a good play, Gay hit Campbell in the facemask.
Had the penalty been called, the Browns would have had a first down at the 24, with Brandon Weeden at quarterback.
Do they go on to win? Doubtful, considering the way the Steelers played.
Should the play have been flagged? Many less obvious flags have been thrown. It wasn’t a vicious hit. It was just a fast play in which Campbell flinched and Gay got his hand up.
But it also sent Campbell to the sidelines for the game with a concussion, which he could have received on the hit or when the back of his head hit the frozen field.
Either way, the no-call cost the the Browns possession, field position and a quarterback they believed in.
Cornerback Joe Haden said the injury deflated the team.
"You saw it," Haden said. "That's what happened."
It also led to a ton of frustration from a team that two weeks ago had hopes of getting into the mix of the AFC North race, but now is back in last place in the division.
“It’s how the tide turns, right?” said safety T.J. Ward.