Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.
Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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All Steelers Playoff Exits Don’t Result from Bad Locker Room Culture…

The Steelers were bounced in Hindenburg Meets the Titanic fashion from the wildcard round of the playoffs in a 48-37 loss at the hands of the Browns last Sunday evening at Heinz Field.

  • Naturally, the fans and media being who they are, heads immediately had to roll and certain folks had to be held accountable.

The first heads to be handed to the public on a pike were offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and secondary coach Tom Bradley.

Randy Fichtner had long-since worn out his welcome with Steelers fans, many of whom have never met an offensive coordinator that they wanted to like for more than a year. As for Sarrett and Bradley? Likely collateral damage.

But coaches aren’t the only ones to blame for the Steelers’ quick and painful playoff exit. No, folks want the players to be held accountable, as well.

Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Still Curtain.com

Namely, receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Chase Claypool, both of whom had some less than flattering things to say about the Browns before and after the postseason matchup.

Smith-Schuster made headlines for stating that the “Browns is the Browns” in a press conference with the media in the days before Cleveland came to town. This was seen as ripe bulletin board material and something to really rile those Brownies up something good. As for Claypool, following the Browns’ victory over Pittsburgh, he took to TikTok and said: “Bad loss, but the Browns are going to get clapped next week, so it’s all good.”

  • Considering Cleveland is playing the Chiefs in the divisional round, Claypool is probably right.

Doesn’t matter to many. Claypool is being labeled a sore loser and, like with Smith-Schuster, some are suggesting he’s showing signs of becoming the next Antonio Brown–if not in terms of talent, certainly in terms of being problematic.

Most of all, the Steelers’ talkative young receivers are seen by many as a symptom of a poor locker room culture.

  • Isn’t that always the case when Pittsburgh loses in the playoffs?

Isn’t it always about a lack of leadership and/or a toxic culture? Many fans and media members can’t wait for Smith-Schuster, a pending free agent, to leave town. In case this sounds familiar to you, they were just as eager to see Brown and Le’Veon Bell exit Stage Left.

I’m sure it won’t be long until Claypool wears out his welcome in Pittsburgh, thanks to one too many social media posts that don’t show total dedication to the game of football.

  • Why can’t the Steelers ever just lose because it wasn’t good enough?
  • Why does it always have to be about culture, attitude and a lack of leadership?
  • How many players must a team part with before there’s a perfect locker room dynamic that’s conducive to winning?

I’ll tell you how many, an infinite amount because there’s really no such thing as perfect locker room chemistry.

  • Do you really think attitude and a lack of dedication were the problem for Pittsburgh in 2020?

Of course, you do, that’s why I’m writing this article. OK, fine, but if that was the case, how do you explain the total dedication both Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner displayed in the weight room all offseason? You remember the social media posts from the summer where they seemed to be all about improving their bodies so they could be better players in the fall and winter.

How about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who not only spent the entire spring and summer rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow, but he also appeared to lose about 20 pounds of Big Ben fat in the process?

  • If those three instances, alone, aren’t great examples of total dedication to one’s craft, I don’t know what are.

People must remember that this Steelers organization has employed many interesting characters throughout its illustrious history. Jack Lambert once said that quarterbacks should wear skirts. Greg Lloyd was called the meanest guy in football. Joey Porter used to prance around with his abs exposed before games and pick fights with any opposing players who were willing. Guess what? All three played for teams that won Super Bowls or were at least contenders.

The post-Brown and Bell Steelers were seen as a bunch of great guys, especially when they started out the 2020 campaign 11-0.

  • Funny how that all changed once they started to lose.

The Steelers didn’t lose to the Browns because they had a cultural problem. They lost because of a talent and/or game-plan problem.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier for the fans and the media to accept the former than it is the latter.

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Does Randy Fichtner’s Firing Foreshadow Change for Ben Roethlisberger?

When asked about staffing changes at his post-season press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was coy:

We haven’t had any of those discussions. Change is a part of our business. I’ll acknowledge the possibility of that. We are just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. And so, it is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.

Apparently “pretty soon” must have meant “as I speak,” because less than 24 hours later news broke that the Steelers would not be renewing the contracts of (read firing) offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.

Steelers tight ends coach James Daniels also announced his retirement. None of these moves are a shock, but one might foreshadow far bigger changes to come.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger during happier times. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

Randy Fichtner first worked with Mike Tomlin in the late 1990’s when they both coached at Arkansas State University. He joined the Steelers staff in 2007 as wide receivers coach and kept a low profile.

After the 2009 season, when Tomlin resisted pressure to fire Bruce Arians, he shifted Randy Fichtner to quarterbacks coach. At the time, he was assumed to be the offensive coordinator in waiting. But Mike Tomlin passed over Fitchner in favor of Todd Haley when Art Rooney II forced Bruce Arians out in 2011. Fichtner again faded into the background.

  • Yet in the middle of the 2017 season, an unfamiliar face appeared on the Steelers sidelines.

Who was that bearded man talking to Ben Roethlisberger when the defense was on the field? It was none other than quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner who’d come down from the booth. Word was he was there to serve as a buffer between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley.

Whether it was because of Fichtner’s presence or not, Ben Roethlisberger went from playing the worst football of his in the first half of his career to playing the best football of his career. When the season was over and Todd Haley was fired, Mike Tomlin immediately promoted Fichtner

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Under Fichtner, the Steelers 2018 offense took some time to find its stride then enjoyed success in the middle of the season, only to falter when James Conner got injured. In 2019, Fichtner was forced to play Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges along with other 2nd line players and the unit struggled.

In 2020, the offense started strong, but the running game faltered during October, allowing defense to suffocate the short passing game.

Conspicuously enough during both 2019 and 2020 the Steelers offensive line began the season doing reasonably well in run blocking, only to see that part of their game slip well below the line by mid season.

  • That is likely the reason why Jason Sarrett also got a pink slip.

Jason Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive line assistant. In 2013, the Steelers offensive line had a horrendous start to the year, but steadily improved during the season. When offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired at season’s end Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it was Sarrett, and not Bicknell who’d mentored the young line along.

Sarrett didn’t get the offensive line coaching job during that off season, which went instead to Mike Munchak.

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

Based on performance, Tom Bradley’s dismissal is the only surprise. Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake who left after the 2017 season and the Steelers secondary has improved since his arrival.

Certainly, his tenure had its share of disappointments – Sean Davis’ shift to free safety was OK but he never recovered his rookie form; Artie Burns continued to regress and Terrell Edmunds, while improving, still hasn’t lived up to his first round potential.

But Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have blossomed under his guidance, and Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been difference makers for this defense.

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

It is no secret that the Steelers fired Todd Haley in large part to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. Nor is it a secret that he has a close relationship with Randy Fichtner, just as he had a close relationship with Bruce Arians.

But the fact that Randy Fichtner is gone indicates at the very least that the Steelers as an organization won’t bend over backwards to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy and to entice him to keep playing. Beyond that, this move could help hasten Roethlisberger’s retirement decision.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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Rapid Reaction to Steelers Loss to the Browns

The Cleveland Browns eliminated the once Pittsburgh Steelers to the tune of 49-37 on a bleak night at Heinz Field.

The game ended at just before 2:00 am here in Buenos Aires, and with a long work day looming I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get the post-game analysis up. Those are always a challenge following night games, and other events could over take us.

So here is some Rapid Reaction:

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns

Ben Roethlisberger can do nothing after the opening snap flies over his head. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

  • The Steelers didn’t play that badly after they spotted the Browns 28 points

Seriously (well, not really), after that the Pittsburgh out score Cleveland 37 to 20. And after the Browns went up 35 to 7, the Steelers held the the Browns to just 13 points. So remember that boys and girls, if you get into an NFL playoff game, its probably not a good idea to spot your opponent four touchdowns.

  • Where was the defense?

This game hinged on turn overs, make no mistake about it. But those turnovers were one sided. The Browns got them (or were handed them) in droves, while the Steelers came up with none. The Steelers have been a take away machine for much of the past two seasons, but when it counted the most they came up with naught.

And it wasn’t just lack of turn overs. T.J. Watt made some nice plays behind the line of scrimmage, but never really got to Baker Mayfield. Minkah Fitzpatrick couldn’t work any of his magic. It is amazing to think that Nick Chubb only had 76 yards, because he seem to run at will.

  • COVID who?

This was the 2nd came where the Steelers supposedly enjoyed an unfair advantage due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the opposition. But you’d have never have known it watching the game. Well, maybe you’d have known it a little, the Steelers could have used Joe Haden.

  • Thank you JuJu, Thank you James

Unless there is a major off season surprise, this was JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s final game with the Steelers. It was also likely James Conner‘s final game with the Steelers. Both players left all they had on the field. James Conner only had 60 total yards, but he scored the team’s first touchdown and willed in the 2 point conversion.

JuJu Smith-Schuster led the Steelers receivers with 13 catches for 157 yards and 1 touchdown. It is a shame that JuJu’s first and fourth seasons with the team are book-ended by bad playoff losses. This is one player who deserved more.

  • Has midnight arrived for Big Ben?

Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions. One bounced of Diontae Johnson‘s hands and most certainly should have been caught. Another was tipped at the line of scrimmage — a chronic issue all season long — and perhaps isn’t quite his “fault.”

But the other two were ugly. And there was another “should have been intercepted” ball.

Beyond that, Ben Roethlisberger’s arm looked good. He threw better downfield than at any other point in the season. He’s indicated he wants to keep playing, but he’ll count upwards of 40 million against the salary cap next year.

It will likely be Ben’s choice as to whether he returns or not, but one has to wonder if Art Rooney II isn’t going to be tempted to “officially” begin rebuilding.

That’s all for now folks. Check back in a day or so for our full analysis. Thanks to everyone who came and read this season.

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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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Browns Beat Steelers 24-22, but Pittsburgh Still Takes Positives into Playoff Rematch

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed their 2020 season with a last-minute 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The loss left the Steelers regular season record at 12-4 and sent the Browns to the playoffs.

  • As a franchise, the Steelers subscribe to the philosophy that nothing good comes from losing.

Throughout his tenure, Mike Tomlin has refused to claim “moral victories” even if they may have been justified. Nonetheless, there are some definite positives Pittsburgh can pull out of this loss heading into the playoffs.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Browns

Chase Claypool scores a 4th quarter touchdown on fourth down. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

First 45 Minutes Evolve as Expected

The storylines were set heading into this game. For the Steelers very little was at stake. Cleveland, in contrast was playing for all of the marbles, as a win meant the playoffs, but a loss would keep them out. Knowing that, Mike Tomlin opted to “Air Mail” his players to playoffs, keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey, Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell out.

Oliver Veron, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns

Oliver Veron sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Playing against a team fighting for its post-season life, the game evolved pretty much as you’d expect it to for the first 45 minutes.

  • Nick Chubb gouged the Steelers for a 47–yard touchdown run
  • The Steelers offense was limited to 3 Matthew Wright field goals
  • Mason Rudolph threw and ugly interception that the Browns quickly converted into a touchdown

The Cleveland Browns touchdown came on the first play of the 4th quarter, which gave them a 26 to 9 lead. At that point, with 15 minutes separating the Steelers from a playoff rematch, the smart money says pull the remaining starters and hope to avoid injury.

But Mike Tomlin chose to live in his hopes and not his fears.

Steelers Play to Win

Mike Tomlin once declared, “As long as we’re keeping score, I play to win.” It’s one thing for a coach to state such a credo; it is an entirely different thing for players to meet the challenge. The scoreboard says the Steelers didn’t meet the challenge, but they certainly didn’t flinch.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner rushes for tough yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the ensuring drive:

Next the defense got into the act. One of the keys to the Browns’ second half success was Baker Mayfield’s scrambling. But on 3rd and 3, Stephon Tuitt stepped up and sacked Mayfield, setting up a 4th and 7. The Browns went for it, but came up short.

On the next drive Mason Rudolph did it again, lighting up the Browns with a 47 yard completion to Diontae Johnson. A six yard run by Anthony McFarland and a 2 yard shovel pass from Joshua Dobbs to Vance McDonald set up Mason Rudolph’s 2 yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster, narrowing the score to 24-22.

The Steelers failed on the two point conversion. Just as their on sides kick failed. Just as the Steelers defense failed to keep the Browns from running out the clock.

Positive Take Aways from Pittsburgh

As Mike Tomlin declared following the game, the Steelers simply “didn’t make enough plays” to win. However, there were any number of positives that Pittsburgh can pick out of this game:

  • Alex Highsmith had another strong game, including a sack that scuttled Cleveland’s two minute drill
  • The Steelers contained Cleveland’s rushing attack
  • Pittsburgh’s rushing attack showed signs of life
  • Vance McDonald affirmed he can be a threat in the passing game
  • The Steelers played with intensity

Some of the take aways above might raise an eyebrow at first glance. Even if you take away 47 yard run, he still had a 4.7 yard average. While that’s not an average the Steelers can allow in the playoffs, his remaining 61 yards and Kareem Hunt’s 3.7 suggest that the Steelers can contain Cleveland’s running game.

Pittsburgh’s own running game hardly authored anything to write home about, but each of the running backs showed they can make plays when holes are there.

And what’s most encouraging about this game is that the Steelers played with an intensity that suggested that they were fighting for a playoff spot — which is exactly attitude this team needs.

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Steelers Report Card for Comeback over Colts: Roethlisberger Rebound Edition

From the grade book of a teacher crossing his fingers that his struggling students are rebounding as finals approach, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
At the half, Ben Roethlisberger had completed just over 50% of his passes for less than 100 yards. After intermission Roethlisberger let it rip 23 of 29 passes for 244 yards, including touchdown passes of 25, 34 and 39 yards. Those deep balls fueled a stunning turn around that lifted the entire team and, if sustained, will make the Steelers a championship contender. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Twenty yards rushing. That was the Steelers total for the game. That includes two victory formation kneel downs, a 2 yard sweep, six Benny Snell rushes for a net zero yards and 5 James Conner runs for 20 yards and a touchdown. As has been the case too often this season, there was nowhere to run. James Conner did catch 5 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, completions which sustained drives. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 5 of seven balls thrown to him including the Steelers 3rd touchdown. Vance McDonald caught one pass for 5 yards and could be seen throwing quality blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to be a work in progress dropping a pass early and running the wrong route just before the first half ended. But he atoned, burning the defense for a spectacular 39 yard touchdown and turning in a strong day. Chase Claypool re-emerged, coming up with a big catch that stretched the field and changed the tempo. James Washington had two catches for 20 yards. The leader of the group JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 96 yards on 13 targets including the go ahead touchdown. Grade: A-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Colts

Ju-Ju Smith Schuster scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Offensive Line
So the Steelers rally included a return to road grading for the running game an diary writing for the quarterback, right? Not quite. During the first half the running blocking was atrocious. There was some improvement, on Kevin Dotson’s side, but nothing to rave about. Both of Roethlisberger’s deep strikes came out fast but he did have time to throw in the 2nd half. The line was above the line. Grade: C

Defensive Line
The Steelers rally started with Stephon Tuitt’s sack of Philip Rivers. Cam Heyward ended their first drive of the 4th quarter with a sack of his own on a drive when he and Tyson Alualu set up the 3rd and long by stuffing Jonathan Taylor. The stats for this group were fine, but what stands out is the plays they made when it counted. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt set up the Steelers first score with a strip sack and added another tackle for a loss and two more QB hits for good measure. Vince Williams returned and logged 5 tackles. The real star of the unit? Avery Williamson. He stuffed Johnathan Taylor at the goal line for a 1 yard loss and then sacked Philip Rivers on the Colts next possession after the Steelers touchdown. Grade: A

Avery Williamson, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Avery Williamson closes in on Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick not only led the team in tackles, his coverage also set up Heyward’s sack and he deflected a late ball. Steven Nelson had a strong game although a PI penalty converted a 4th down for the Colts. Joe Haden gave up a touchdown while Terrell Edmunds and 5 tackles. The real star of the show was Mike Hilton who returned a fumble to the 3 and picked off Philip Rivers. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was fine in relief of Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry punted well. Ray-Ray McCloud return averages weren’t exceptional, but he seem to recover some of the confidence he was lacking since his fumble against Washington. The Steelers kick coverage was OK but punt coverage was a bit shaky. This trend cannot continue in the playoffs. Grade: C

Coaching
At this point in his tenure, what you see is what your get from Randy Fichtner. You’re not going to see hand-crafted Joe Gibbs-like game plans nor will you see Kyle Shanahan’s innovations. His play calling might be predictable. Generally that’s a bad thing.

  • But you know what? Tom Moore’s play calling was plenty predictable.

Against the Colts it did not matter as the Steelers were able to out execute. The turn around authored by the Steelers defense was just as important. Every time they had to, Keith Butler’s boys step up and made plays in situational football. They were able to do so because guys were where they needed to be.

Facing the most punishing losing streak of since the four game skid of mid-2016 many were calling for Mike Tomlin to make changes. After a putrid first half change had to be tempting. But at halftime Mike Tomlin told CBS his plan was to “get the guys on the grass going.”

Alex Highsmith, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Alex Highsmith pressures Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, Herald Bulletin

  • In doing so Tomlin stuck to one of his core coaching principles: But the game in the hands of your best players.

Tomlin did that, and those players delivered, snapping a 3 game losing streak in the process. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Splash plays. Bit hits. Stats. Those drive conversations about defensive football. But defensive players often make impact that isn’t covered on the stat sheet. Twice Philip Rivers faded back to pass in attempting a comeback and twice his pass flew errant due to pressure. Both times it was Alex Highsmith on the pass rush and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Colts.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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