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QB Deshaun Watson's second straight rough start raises more questions about if he can carry Browns

CLEVELAND (AP) — Deshaun Watson doesn't look elite, composed or anything close to resembling a $230 million quarterback or franchise savior at the moment.

Not even close.

Two games into his first full season with the Browns, there remain major questions about whether Watson can be the same player who led the NFL in passing three years ago for Houston or make Cleveland a Super Bowl contender.

Right now, Watson isn't even an average QB, ranking near the bottom in most major statistical categories.

And with Browns star running back Nick Chubb suffering a season-ending left knee injury in the 26-22 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night, Watson has lost an indispensable playmaker. He may have to do even more to get the Browns offense on track.

Trouble is, he's not doing much of anything.

Watson was off the mark from the start against the Steelers.

His short pass on the game's first play bounced off tight end Harrison Bryant's hands and was tipped to Pittsburgh's Alex Highsmith, who returned it 30 yards for a TD. The score gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead just 9 seconds in and set the tone for one of the rivalry's weirdest games.

His final pass sailed over Donovan Peoples-Jones.

Watson finished 22 of 40 for 235 yards with a touchdown, the pick-6, six sacks and two lost fumbles. He was also called for two facemask penalties, and Watson had a heated exchange while brushing into an official, leading to speculation he might be disciplined by the league.

The 28-year-old Watson is getting heat from reporters and fans about his plodding prime-time performance.

When he returned from an 11-game suspension last season for violating the league's personal conduct policy after being accused by women of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions, Watson blamed a long layoff — he also sat out 2021 — for his rust.

A full training camp was supposed to fix that.

It hasn't.

He was indecisive and off target i n Week 1 against Cincinnati (16 of 29 for 154 yards), and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski cited wet weather as the main culprit.

It was bone dry in Pittsburgh. He wasn't much better.

Watson shouldered the blame after the Steelers loss.

“Not enough,” he said. “Put it on me. I can take the full blame. I can take the criticism and I’m going to do that. And I told everyone in our offense, the whole team, I’m going to do better for this team, for this organization so we can win games like that. And I’m fine with taking the criticism and I will be better.”

Watson has been saying all the right things for weeks.

But like the offense he's leading, his words and actions aren't in sync.

WHAT'S WORKING

Cleveland's defense looks legit.

For the second straight game, the line created pressure, the tackling was crisp and except for a communication breakdown that resulted in a long Pittsburgh TD, coordinator Jim Schwartz's group did enough to win.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Stefanski's play-calling and strategy don't always seem aligned with the team's offensive strengths.

Watson was in an empty backfield on the first snap, and despite there being numerous other options, Bryant appeared to be the first read. A better throw and the play works, but handing the ball off to Chubb would have been safer and not allowed the Steelers to get early momentum.

STOCK UP

Jerome Ford came through after replacing Chubb and will be Cleveland's featured back going forward in 2023.

A fifth-round pick last year from Cincinnati, Ford gained 106 yards on 16 carries, breaking off a 69-yard run with a nifty cutback. He added three catches, including a 3-yard TD on the first play after Chubb's horrific injury.

STOCK DOWN

Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. had the night's biggest mistake.

Wills was late getting off the ball and whiffed while trying to block Highsmith, who came around the right edge untouched and caused Watson to fumble. The loose ball was scooped up by T.J. Watt, who ran it in for a touchdown to put the Steelers up 26-22 in the fourth.

“Jed had some moments that were really good,” Stefanski said. "We know he’s a good player. Didn’t get off the line clean on that rep. It was unfortunate.”

INJURIES

Chubb will soon undergo surgery on the same knee he injured in 2015 and had reconstructed while at Georgia. Stefanski didn't have any specifics on the severity of Chubb's new injury or a timeline for his return. ... CB Greg Newsome II injured his elbow and is “day to day,” Stefanski said.

KEY NUMBER

3 — Cleveland's wins in 25 regular-season visits to Pittsburgh since 1999. The Browns haven't won a regular-season game in the Steel City since 2003.

WHAT'S NEXT

No time for sympathy and little time for sleep. The Browns have to regroup quickly from losing Chubb and get ready for the Tennessee Titans (1-1), who are coming to town on Sunday.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL