Steelers Browns Rivalry Comes Full Circle in Final Week of 2018

Sunday January 30th 2018 closes the 2018 NFL regular season and it also brings the Pittsburgh Steelers Cleveland Browns rivalry full circle.

Few contemporary Steelers fans probably even think of the Cleveland Browns as “rivals” to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s because in many ways the rivalry has been on hold for 23 years. But there was a time when things were different. Oh yes, once things were very, very different.

We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s flash back to night it all changed.

Steelers Browns Rivalry

A Steelers fan and Browns fan in Cleveland, January 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Fansided

The Night Three Rivers Stadium Went Orange

Dateline: Monday, November 13th 1995, on I-95 heading north from the DC suburbs towards Baltimore, en route to watch Monday Night Football at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, then the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore.

  • Yet, this is no ordinary Monday night football game.

A clip on Baltimore’s WIYY aka “98 Rock” illustrates why. “Back goes  Eric Zeier to pass. Andre Rison is open in the end zone. He throws, Rison catches it. Touchdown, Baltimore Browns!”

Less than a week before the unthinkable and once impossible had occurred. After building facilities for the Cavaliers and Indians, the city of Cleveland had shifted focus to building one for the Browns.

Yet, during the summer, Browns owner Art Modell cut off negotiations in the name of focusing on winning a Super Bowl. Little did we know, Modell had secretly begun negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move his team to Baltimore. Municipal officials in Cleveland plowed ahead without Modell, and announced a November 7th ballot referendum to fund a new stadium for the Browns.

  • On Monday, November 7th, Art Modell dropped a bomb: He was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The move sent shock waves through the NFL.

Usually when a team relocates, its because they lack local support. No one could say that the Cleveland failed to support the Browns. Every game was sold out, and television ratings were among the highest in the league.

As Dan Rooney told the AP’s Alan Robinson:

I’m sick about (the move). This is the best rivalry in sports. To go up there to play in Cleveland on that grass field on a gray day – I don’t want to get dramatic, but it really is something. It’s the essence of football.

As fate would have it, the Browns first game after the move came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Steelers fans of that generation were genetically hardwired to hate the Cleveland Browns and their fans.Steelers Browns 1995 Three Rivers Stadium

But as a show of solidarity, Steelers fans wore orange arm bands that night. (Terry Bradshaw even wore one while interviewing Paul Tagliabue about the move.)

  • To understand just how deep of a gesture Steelers Nation made, one must understand just how bitter the Steelers-Browns rivalry flowed.

Just two years earlier, Jerry Olsavsky had blown out all four ligaments in one of his knees Cleveland Municipal Stadium, yet fans at the Dawg Pound threw beer bottles at him as he was being taken away from the field on stretcher. As Tim Gleason recounts in From Black to Gold, cars with Pennsylvania license plates would get their tires slashed if they were parked near Cleveland Stadium during a game.

An old friend of my from college named “Mike” told me of how his father had to protect him from a drunk who tried to attack him at a game in Cleveland in the early 80’s because he was wearing a Steelers shirt – Mike was 6 years old at the time.

  • Yet, on that night, Steelers fans stood in solidarity with Browns fans.

New Chapter for Steelers-Browns Rivalry?

The Steelers-Browns rivalry has never been the same since. And now, 23 years later, the Steelers fans need something from the Browns. Today at Heinz Field, the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conners, Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden to take care of business against the Bengals.

But the Steelers also need the Browns defense to stop Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield to make his magic work for one more week.

  • If the Steelers beat the Bengals and the Browns upset the Ravens, Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs.

But a Browns win at Baltimore would also signify that the franchise is poised to return to contender status next season, transforming games against the Browns into competitive affairs. If that happens, then the Steelers-Browns rivalry will indeed have come full circle.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Bye Bye Boz? Steelers Place Chris Boswell on IR, Sign Matt McCrane

In a stunning development 2 days before their 2018 season finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers placed place kicker Chris Boswell on the injured reserve list and signed Matt McCrane has his replacement.

  • Chris Boswell has had a rough campaign in 2018.

During the Steelers home opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Chris Boswell missed two extra points and a field goal in a game ultimately decided by 5 points. Against the Oakland Raiders, Chris Boswell missed two field goals in a game ultimately decided by six points.

  • Early on the Steelers stuck by Boswell, but after the Oakland loss, Mike Tomlin opted to hold tryouts for replacement kickers.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

The Steelers have put Chris Boswell on IR. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Chris Boswell won the try out, and although he missed a 32 yard field goal in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Mike Tomlin unhesitatingly sent him out to kick a 48 yard insurance field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers win over the Patriots. Against the Saints, Boswell kicked field goals of 49 and 30 yards and made both extra point attempts.

As recently as yesterday, he’d told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler the following:

However, over on 247Sports.com, Jim Wexell is reporting that Chris Boswell entered the game against the Saints with a groin injury. That is certainly possible, but his name has not appeared on the injury report this week or the week before.

The McCrane Record

In the word of Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman: “McCrane has played in four games this season, and his stat line looks like a kicker who would be available in the waning weeks of the regular season.”

4 Games / 5 FG Made / 9 FG Attempts / 8-for-8 in Extra Points

With the way the Steelers luck has run this season, the Cleveland Browns will surprise everyone with a decisive upset win over the Baltimore Ravens, only to have the Steelers Bengals game come down to a last second field goal attempt by McCrane…

Other Steelers Injury Notes

Sean Davis returned to practice for the Steelers reducing the likelihood that Jordan Dangerfield or Morgan Burnett will play in his place. Antonio Brown also missed practice, leaving his status in doubt. If Antonio Brown misses the game James Washington will likely start alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster.

While losing Brown would be a blow, Eli Rogers return and Vance McDonald‘s presence should give Ben Roethlisberger plenty of targets.

Vince Williams also missed practice, and meaning that L.J. Fort will likely start along side Jon Bostic.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Saints: The Teacher is Truant Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is guilty of some Christmas season-laced truancy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to New Orleans Saints.

Antonio Brown, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Saints

Antonio Brown was on fire against the Saints. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Commentators lauded Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Saints. We will not be quite as kind here. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger 3 three touchdowns and avoided any interceptions. He did it facing more pressure than he has most of the year, and in a very tough place to play. But several of Ben’s passes were high early in the game, and he began the Steelers final drive with 3 incompletion. Given all else that transpired, the Steelers needed an A or A+ performance from Big Ben and didn’t quite get one. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels didn’t get many opportunities to run with the ball, but he ran well, and made himself a force in passing game if through nothing other than his touchdown. Stevan Ridley had one strong run and then of course fumbled on 3rd and 2. That hurt, and it brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald gouged the Saints on a 49 yard reception and was the only Steelers tight end to have a ball thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown played like a man possessed and was clearly in playoff from. So was JuJu Smith-Schuster for that matter. Ryan Switzer caught 3 passes for 18 yards. Eli Rogers came down the two point conversion. This game evolved as you’d expect it to, Ben Roethlisberger hitting his top two targets time and time again. While the receivers had a strong day, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble was costly, and brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The New Orleans Saints sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times and hit him on 7 other occasions. That’s a high number, but there’s a reason why New Orleans is a Super Bowl favorite. All things considered, the line provided decent protection to Ben Roethlisberger, but the Saints go through to Ben on the fourth quarter drive that ended with the fake punt, and that brings their grade down. Grade: C-

Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Saints, Mark Ingram

Stephon Tuitt & Vince Williams smother Mark Ingram. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
The new Orleans Saints have a decent rushing attack, yet the Steelers neutralized that into a non-factor. Cam Heyward had a pass defensed, and Stephon Tuitt had a sack, a tackle for a loss, two QB hits (and a tipped pass that wasn’t called….) Grade: B+

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and was followed by Jon Bostic. But the real star of the unit was T.J. Watt who came up with a sack that forced a punt, a pass deflection, a QB hit and a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis came down with the Steelers 2nd Red Zone interception in as many weeks and deflected 2 passes. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and was followed by Joe Haden. Morgan Burnett also added another pass deflection to his resume. When the secondary did a lot of things right, they gave up a 3rd and 20 in the 4th quarter and Haden and Hilton also missed tackles allowing Alvin Kamara to gain 31 yards and get into field goal position at the end of the first half. Those three extra points proved to be costly. Grade: B-

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made all of his kicks, including a 48 yarder. Jordan Berry had a 49 yard punting average and did not have a punt returned.

  • The special teams shining moment was a L.J. Fort’s blocked punt, which could have been a game-changer.

For all the good that play did, the Steelers tried and failed to convert a fake punt. As the upback Roosevelt Nix got 4 of the 5 yards he needed. Which wasn’t enough. Grade: C

Coaching
Critics will second guess Randy Fichtner for going conservative in the 4th quarter after the Steelers took the lead, but if Stevan Ridley holds on to the ball, perhaps that becomes an academic question.

In a playoff like situation, Randy Fichtner had the ball in the hands of his best players on offense and, by any measure, they were above the line.

Keith Butler can and will take heat for giving up yet another late 4th quarter score. This is something that has been all too common this season. However Butler’s defense held the Saints in check, which is not an easy task. And while the Steelers defense wasn’t able to overcome some very bad calls, they went toe-to-toe with the Saints and no one would have imagined that possible back in September.

  • Mike Tomlin will take heat for calling a fake punt, but he won’t hear of that in these parts.

Mike Tomlin made the right decision. It was a risk reward call, and one that is all the more understandable because punting to Drew Brees at that point would have given him the ability to completely kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

In calling the fake punt, Mike Tomlin wanted to ensure that his offense would touch the ball again during the game. He got his wish.

  • Beyond that, this Steeler team has been shaky and inconsistent during this season.

After a big win over the Patriots, one could rightly ask, “Which Steelers team will show up?” There’s no question that the Steelers team that took the field wsa one that not only came to play, but played to win and that was critical. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
He doesn’t get a lot of ink. He doesn’t make a lot of splash plays. You don’t see him much on ESPN highlights. But against the Saints, other than for his two defensed passes, you didn’t hear his name much. And for a cornerback facing Drew Brees that is a good thing. And for that Coty Sensabaugh wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Saints.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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The LA Chargers Have More of a Legit Incentive to “Help” Steelers Make Playoffs Than You Think

Why would the Los Angeles Chargers, an AFC team with Super Bowl aspirations, want to help the Steelers, a conference foe with that same goal, make the postseason, as the title of this article suggests?

Is it because the Chargers defeated Pittsburgh, 33-30, in a Week 13 match-up at Heinz Field and think they’d be able to prevail again in a postseason rematch?

 

Terrell Edmunds, Keenan Allen, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds fails to stop Keenan Allen on a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Could it be because the Ravens, Los Angeles’ opponent this Saturday night, are only a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and would be a much tougher out in a playoff rematch? 

  • Scenario number one is plausible, that is, of course, if Los Angeles didn’t escape with the aforementioned victory over the Steelers after trailing, 23-7, at halftime.

The theory on scenario number two would also hold water, if not for the fact that Lamar Jackson, a rookie, would start at quarterback for Baltimore in any hypothetical playoff rematch against accomplished veteran Philip Rivers and the Chargers.

  • No, the real reason the Chargers want the Steelers in the playoffs has nothing to do with Pittsburgh and everything to do with Los Angeles.

You see, the Chargers (11-3) are tied with the Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC. Los Angeles and Kansas City also play in the same division–the AFC West–and the runner-up would be relegated to the fifth seed and the very real prospect of not only having to play three postseason games to get to the Super Bowl, but playing all three games away from home.

It’s one thing to get to the final few weeks of the regular season knowing that, because of your record, your playoff journey will begin on Wildcard Weekend, regardless of whether you’re a division winner or just an at large wildcard team–such is the fate for the Steelers (8-5-1) and/or Ravens (8-6). It’s quite another to have a chance at the top seed and all the trapping s that go with it–including homefield advantage and a bye– only to drop all the way down to an at-large wildcard team. 

  • NFL history is littered with really good teams who were victims of playing in the same division as other really good teams.
  • More often than not, the former doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl.

Recent history includes the 2008 Colts, who won their last nine regular season games to finish with a 12-4 mark but lost out on the AFC South title to the Titans before falling to the 8-8 Chargers  in the wildcard round; the 2010 Saints, who finished with an 11-5 regular season record but lost the AFC south to the Falcons and had to travel to Seattle where they lost to a 7-9 Seahawks squad; and, of course, the 2011 Steelers, who finished 12-4 but lost the AFC North title (and a bye) to the Ravens before losing the wildcard game against Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos. 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Patriots – Just a Blip or Realizing Their Potential Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher wondering whether he’s just seen another momentary upward blip from his star students or a true ascent towards realizing their potential, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New England Patriots.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the Steelers to prevail in a Brady vs Ben duel, one would think that Ben Roethlisberger would need to have one of his best days as a pro. Yet, Fantasy owners who started Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it, as Ben’s overall numbers were pedestrian. The truth is that Ben didn’t have a banner day against the Patriots, but he made the throws the Steelers needed him to make to win. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Running Backs
Stevan Ridley’s revenge ambitions drew attention going into this game and Ridley did an excellent job of getting the Steelers out of danger with his 12 yard run from Pittsburgh’s one. However, the real star of the show was Jaylen Samuels who rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and displayed incredible instincts by staying in bounds late in the game. Roosevelt Nix wasn’t used often, but as usual he was effective. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the Steelers first touchdown and forced his way to extra yards to earn a third down on the Steelers final scoring drive. Jesse James had one catch for 9 yards. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught the Steelers second touchdown, which JuJu Smith-Schuster help set up with two electrifying catches, and Eli Rogers made his presence known with a couple of key 3rd down conversions. But the real star of the show was James Washington who led the Steelers in both catches and yards and for the first time looked like he really belonged. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than has been the norm this season, but the offensive line provided pass protection when it was needed the most, and Alejandro Villanueva’s block on the second touchdown serves as a great example. But the line’s biggest contribution to the win came in the run blocking it provided as it almost seemed to have symbiotic relationship with Jaylen Samuels. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball, but the Steelers also limited them at key moments in the game. Likewise, while the sack numbers weren’t there, the QB pressures were and a good number of those plays were made by the defensive line, as evidenced by Stephon Tuitt’s 2 QB hits. Grade: A-

Linebackers
In statistical terms,it was largely a quiet day for the Steelers linebackers, although Vince Williams and Anthony Chickillo had success in dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Patriot rushers made it to the second level a number of times, but they didn’t get far when they did, and the Steelers linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Secondary
Where to start? Play-by-play stats would appear to indicate that Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett handled the bulk of the duties when it came to shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the number show that the duo delivered. Those same stats also show that Coty Sensabaugh did his part to shut down the Patriots.

Mike Hilton came in second in the team on tackles, behind Joe Haden, who snatched a throw way jump ball from the air to stop the Patriots cold and get the ball back for the Steelers. The unit did give up an easy touchdown, which brings their grade down, albeit slightly. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had one return for 27 yards. Jordan Berry did not have any returnable punts, and the Steelers attempted no returns. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, but unlike last week, he redeemed himself with a 48 yarder – no small feat at Heinz Field. Grade: C

Coaching
Honesty check: If I’d told you one team would have 14 penalties called on it and the other 4, you’d have guessed the Steelers self-destructed with penalties, again. No worries, I’d have said the same. But it was the Patriots who kept scuttling their own drives with penalties.

Unlike one week ago, Randy Fichnter appears to have gone into the game intent on establishing the run, and he deserves credit for designing plays that maximized Jaylen Samuels unique skill set. The Steelers lined up regularly with empty sets, but still ended up with well over 100 yards rushing.

More importantly, when the coaching staff saw that Samuels could move the ball, they gave him more opportunities to do so which was a difference maker in the game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, and for good reason.

    Steelers locker room, Alejandro Villanueva

    Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Thus far the Steelers defense has been chronically incapable of closing games. Yet the Steelers defense not only ensured that the Patriots didn’t on two Steelers turnovers, it also secured one of their own the Red Zone.

The Patriots reached the Red Zone as time was about to expire, but unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense delivered.

  • Finally, there’s the job that Mike Tomlin has done.

While momentum is often oversold in today’s NFL, losing, particularly in December, can have a snowball effect. The Steelers had lost three tough games and things could have easily spun out of control. Yet Tomlin got his team to stay focused on the Patriots, and doubled down on his investment of trust in his players, which in turn fostered trust within the locker room. The results speak for themselves. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Normally a 1 sack performance indicates a putrid pass rush. Yet the Steelers got in Tom Brady’s face early and often, and while they only brought him down once, they flushed him from the pocket numerous times and forced him to rush his throw.

While the entire Steelers defense deserves credit for this achievement, Tom Brady’s to biggest antagonizes were T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and, for that, they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Defeat Patriots 17-10 as Mike Tomlin Trusts Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the New England Patriots in the 21st century is a miserable. New England has beaten Pittsburgh 11 of 14 contests, and most of those haven’t even been close.

  • Sunday, the story was different as the Steelers beat the Patriots 17-14 in an electrifying win at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin appropriately termed it a team victory. But the essential ingredient to the win came from Tomlin himself: Trust.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

If You’d Have Told Me….

The Steelers came reeling into this game on a 3 game losing streak. And while the Patriots looked vulnerable, the Steelers would need to do a lot of things right to win this game. And if you’d had told me….

…That James Conner would not play
…That T.J. Watt would log the sole sack of Tom Brady
…That Rob Gronkowski would put the Patriots into the Red Zone inside the 2 minute warning
…That Ben Roethlisberger would face the fiercest pass rush of the season
…That Chris Boswell would miss yet another makeable field goal
…That the Steelers wouldn’t see the end zone in the 2nd half

I’d have told you that the Steelers would lose in no uncertain terms. Yet all of the statements above were true, but the Steelers pulled out a win.

How the Steelers Won

The Steelers won the game because at every critical juncture, players stepped it up and made plays. Pittsburgh set the tone for this on the opening drive, highlighted by Jaylen Samuels ripping off a 25 yard run and making each of his other 3 touches count. Eli Rogers stepped up and helped convert a critical first down.

  • Vance McDonald delivered in the end zone putting the Steelers up by 7 at the 8:40 mark in a rare opening drive touchdown.

While the Steelers essentially gifted the Patriots a touchdown on the next drive, no one in Pittsburgh blinked. The Patriots got the ball back four other times in the second half, and each time it ended with a Ryan Allen punt.

The Steelers defense didn’t put on much of a fireworks show in the first half. They didn’t make any “Splash plays.” Yet, each time New England attempted to convert a third down, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton Vince Williams or Joe Haden was there to stop them short, while T.J. Watt seemed to be in Tom Brady’s face, even if he wasn’t bringing him down.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger took a knee to end the first half, the Steelers were up 14-7. Could they hold on…?

Tomlin Trusts in his Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

As the second half began, it looked like the answer was going to be “no.” The Steelers defense opened by forcing a punt after just 5 plays, and the offense marched all the way to the Patriot’s 4 yard line on the strength of two sensational James Washington catches.

  • Yet, it was déjà vu all over again in Pittsburgh as Chis Boswell missed on a 32 yard field goal.

The Patriots advanced to the Steelers 10 where Terrell Edmunds stopped Julian Edelman cold, limiting New England to a field goal. Yet 5 plays into the next drive, the Patriots intercepted a deflected pass to Antonio Brown giving New England the ball at mid field.

  • All of the elements were in place for another Steelers 4th quarter meltdown.

A week ago, Mike Tomlin trusted in his defense and trusted in Chris Boswell, and they let him down. Against the Patriots, the Steelers defense delivered, as the Patriots advanced to the Steelers 16, only to have T.J. Watt force Tom Brady to throw the ball away as Joe Haden beat both Rob Gronkowski and Julian Elderman in a jump ball for an interception.

  • All season long fans have watched interceptions slip through the Steelers finger tips.
  • Finally, when they needed one they got one.

Starting from their own 4 with 7:43 left to play, the Steelers milked 5 minutes and 13 seconds off the clock in a drive that saw them move the chains four times. On third and 6 Ben Roethlisberger tried to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster, but J.C. Jackson played it perfectly and the ball fell to the ground.

Mike Tomlin had a decision to make. New England was out of time outs, and a first down would have iced the game. A field goal would have given the Steelers a 7 point lead.

  • Mike Tomlin trusted in his kicker, and Chris Boswell rewarded that trust nailing a 48 yarder.

Now it was time for the Steelers defense to do what has been unable to do all year – prevent an opponent from making a game winning drive.

Tom Brady moved his team to the Red Zone, but Cam Heyward repeated forced him to rush his throws, and after 5 tries he was unable to connect with anyone in the end zone as Morgan Burnett defected his final pass.

Another Win = More Work to Do

Steelers Nation erupted into celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock with Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee. That’s to be expected, as this is a victory that every fan who bleeds Black and Gold has been begging for.

  • As for the Steelers themselves?

David DeCastro explained to 247 Pittsburgh’s Jim Wexell, “No one’s too overjoyed. We hadn’t beaten this team since I’ve been here, so we’re happy. But we’re not overjoyed.” Given the precarious place Pittsburgh occupies in the AFC playoff picture, that’s exactly the attitude you need to hear out of this locker room.

 

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Loyalty vs Rationality: Does “Finding Room Temperature” = Another Upset for the 2018 Steelers?

Just a week ago you could muse that the Steelers might be on the verge of a breakout without risking being labeled as a hopeless homer. I did just that, asking if the Steelers recent troubles signaled that the team was regressing to the mean or if perhaps, Pittsburgh was primed for a serious playoff run.

“Regressing to the mean” is a nerdy statistical term that doesn’t seem to belong in a football blog. So a more illustrative way to think of what is going on is that the Steelers started the season morbidly cold, got red hot in October and early November, but are now finding room temperature in December.

  • And room temperature in December is pretty darn chilly (even here in Buenos Aires, where spring continues to mercifully hold summer at bay.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit:
Charlie Riedel, AP via PennLive.com

And that’s what’s going on. One could reasonably look at the Steelers performances in September and imagine this team contending for a top ten draft pick. By the time November arrived, they looked like AFC Championship, if not Super Bowl Championship material.

  • Now, outside of something extraordinary, they’re going to finish within spitting distance of .500.

But what does finding room temperature really mean for this group of Pittsburgh Steelers? Does it mean that the Steelers will tease but ultimately lose to the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints only to finish the season with a face-saving win over the Bengals?

  • Or does the process of finding “room temperature” also imply that the Steelers have another upset in them?

The way the Steelers have played, and more importantly, the plays they have chronically failed to make at critical junctures during losses to Denver, the Chargers and Raiders make it near impossible to trust this team.

If the law of averages governed outcomes of football games, what could we conclude? Well, let’s take a look at an interesting stat someone posted on Twitter:

That doesn’t seem promising, does it?

Yet, if already having dropped games to Oakland and Denver, it would almost seem like the odds favor the Steelers beating either New Orleans or New England. The Steelers positive performances would also seem to suggest that Pittsburgh is due for just one more fireworks display during this regular season.

  • And that’s what makes the prospect of an upset remains tantalizing.

And New England would seem to offer the best shot. Yes, the Patriots are the Patriots. And yes New England has owned Pittsburgh for a generation. And the Steelers are going to play the game without James Conners and with Stevan Ridley promising revenge against his former team (oh, I’m sure the threat of Ridley’s revenge has Bill Belichick quaking in his boots.)

Yet just a year ago, absent Ryan Shazier and absent Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell came within a Jesse James replay recalled touchdown of beating the Patriots.

  • And this Patriots team isn’t as good as last years.

But does the prospect of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton replacing Coty Sensabaugh and Mike Hilton inspire confidence that Steelers will finally crack the Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski riddle? No, it does not.

  • And that’s what makes these Steelers so hard to predict.

Aside from their own deficiencies, the ball has not bounced the Steelers way much this season. They seem due for a break. But remember, dice don’t have memories. Call me out for a cop out if you want, but I’m going to fall back on the Joe Gibbs party line that I heard so often growing up in the Washington D.C. suburbs, “I really don’t know what to expect.”

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Steelers Activate Eli Rogers, Place Marcus Gilbert on IR, Possibly Ending his Time in Pittsburgh

His “Questionable” listing aside, don’t expect the Steelers to have James Conner suit up against the Patriots, but Pittsburgh’s offense will welcome back a familiar face after a long absence. In a move that had been anticipated, the Steelers activated Eli Rogers.

The Steelers had until the middle of this coming week to activate Rogers or end his season by putting him on IR. With Ryan Switzer nursing an ailing ankle and James Washington still trying to build a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, activating Eli Rogers makes sense.

While it is unknown what his role will be, Eli Rogers could provide a good number 3 target to help take heat off of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Steelers activate Eli Rogers ahead of Patriots game. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Gilbert Goes on IR, Ending his Season, Possible Career with Steelers

Of course, to activate Eli Rogers meant the Steelers had to let someone go. The obvious candidate would be Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds brother who was recently added from the practice squad. But with James Conner, Edmunds will serve as the emergency back behind Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels.

There are not too many “expendables” on the defensive side of the ball either, with Daniel McCullers or perhaps L.T. Walton being the only candidates.

  • As it turns out the elephant was sitting in the room.

The Steelers opted to put right tackle Marcus Gilbert on season-ending injured reserve to make way for Eli Rogers. Marcus Gilbert opened the season as the Steelers starter at right tackle, missed the Steelers week 3 win over Tampa Bay, returned for weeks 4, 5 and 6 but has been out since then.

Given that Marcus Gilbert also missed 7 games in 2017, and given that Gilbert is set to make close to 5 million dollars in the final year of his contract, one would have to think that the Steelers would consider moving on.

If that do, that will be a real shame, as Marcus Gilbert played a major role in the transformation of the Steelers offensive line from a unit cobbled together with a Plug and Patch approach, to one of the NFL’s best.

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