After Offense Goes South, Steelers Hire Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator

Mike Tomlin wasted little time in dismissing offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner following the Steelers “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff debacle against Cleveland. Fichtner’s bags were not even packed before reports circulated that Mike Tomlin was going to replace him with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

  • Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.

The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Matt Canada Inherits an Offense in Free Fall

A year ago Mike Tomlin opted to re-fill the slot of quarterbacks coach that had been vacated when he promoted Randy Fichtner to offensive coordinator, replacing Todd Haley. At the time, speculation abounded as to Matt Canada’s role.

Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.

He was also widely seen as being brought in to mentor Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and ultimately Joshua Dobbs who returned via the waiver wire.

How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.

Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.

  • Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.

If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.

And Maurkice Pouncey, a perennial Pro Bowler, is said to be ready to retire.

Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach

The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.

The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.

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Attention Steelers Nation: No Need to Let Ben Roethlisberger’s End Mimic Terry Bradhsaw’s Beginning

I have to admit, I’m starting to understand the Blond Bomber’s beef with the Steel City.

It is no secret that Pittsburgh’s prodigal son, Terry Bradshaw enjoys a tortuous, love-feeling unloved relationship with the Steelers and Steelers Nation. There’s a reason why Tony Defeo’s piece “Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Terry Bradshaw Made Up with the Steelers. For Good…” is one of this site’s top performing inbound articles.

To be clear, I have always and will always defend Terry Bradshaw as a player against those who charge that he was “Dumb” or “just an average quarterback lucky to be on a good team” (if you really believe that, Google “60 Prevent Slot Hook & Go” and tell me an “average” quarterback could make that throw.)

But Bradshaw’s whining about how Chuck Noll or Steelers fans treated him has always fallen flat with me.

  • That is starting to change, a little at least.

And you can thank Ben Roethlisberger for that. Or more precisely, you can thank Steelers Nation’s reaction to Ben Roethlisberger approaching his “Life’s Work” for that.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Steelers Nation Turns on Big Ben

There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger is past his prime. Once his signature, he struggles with the long ball. He’s in decline and the only question is can this decline be managed/slowed long enough for the Steelers to squeeze a seventh Lombardi from Number Seven out of his arm?

  • The answer to that could very well be “No.” I get it.

But what I don’t get is the way some fans have turned on him. This tweet provides a perfect taste of what I’m talking about:

So based on his body of work in 2020 Ben Roethlisberger is now “average” or “below average?” Really? Let’s put that hypothesis through a simple exercise.

Can you imagine, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones, Michael Vick, Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges – or all the other quarterbacks that have thrown a pass for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2004 — starting a playoff game by throwing 3 interceptions in one quarter?

I can, particularly if Diontae Johnson is bouncing letting catchable balls off of his hands towards waiting defensive backs.

Now, can you imagine any of those players going 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards for the rest of the game? In his prime, Vick might have, but by the time he became a Steeler? No way. Neither could any of the others.

  • This is a statement of fact.

Moreover, this statement of fact references Ben Roethlisberger’s current capabilities, not Big Ben of yesteryear. That that’s the rub with treatment Ben Roethlisberger is getting from wide-swaths of fans in Steelers Nation.

  • The idea that Ben Roetlisberger has completely lost it, frankly isn’t fair.

Nor are arguments that suggest Ben Roethlisberger has and will continue to sabotage the offense. Here’s a perfect “Ben is hostile to the running game” quote for Steel City Insider’s message board:

As long as he is around they will not have a run game he is the reason why we lost the 2 playoffs game.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble, Steelers vs Titans

Le’Veon Bell in 2017 vs. the Titans. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

True, Ben’s turnovers represented critical mistakes in both playoff losses. But Le’Veon Bell logged 16 rushes against Jacksonville, and the Steelers defense was AWOL at turn-key moments in both defeats. So Ben was hardly “the reason why we lost the 2 playoff games.”

This “Ben hates the run” mentality extends to the regular season as well as evidenced by another comment from the same message board:

I’d only be willing to do this if he agreed to run an offense that DOESN’T throw 600 passes a year with at least 350 of them short of the first down line. I don’t want to watch this ridiculous offense he has insisted on running since 2018.

Objectively, he’s got the numbers going for him. But the key phrase above is “offense he has insisted on running since 2018.” Really? If Ben was “insisting” on running a pass-heavy offense, then why was James Conner was on track to have a 378 touch season until it became clear that the Le’Veon Bell holdout would be permanent?

The Steelers abandonment of the run in 2018, 2018 and 2019 for that matter was driven by necessity not desire. Ben Roethlisberger may not have objected to this, but it certainly wasn’t his decision.

No Need to End Big Ben’s Time the Way Bradshaw Began His

This post began by referencing the rift between Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers. That’s a one sided rift if there ever was one. If Terry Bradshaw ever decided to “come home,” fans in Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large would embrace him with enough enthusiasm to put the Prodigal Son’s father to shame.

  • But it is also true that early in his career, the fans were brutal on Bradshaw.

That brutal treatment left a scar on Bradshaw’s soul that he’s unable heal because he’s unwilling to heal it. But the scar never should have been made in the first place.

  • In contrast, the team, the city and the fans embraced Ben Roethlisberger from the moment he arrived.
  • His early career isn’t marred by scars, but adulation.

The cross roads that Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at is a difficult one. There’s no need to complicate things with criticisms and characterizations that simply aren’t true. Just as there’s no need to end Ben Roethlisberger’s career by adding the type of scars that marked Terry Bradshaw’s beginning.

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Steelers Signing Dwayne Haskins Isn’t as Strange as it Sounds. In Fact, Its Quite in Character.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first attention catching move of the 2021 off season when they signed former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins to a reserve/futures contract. Dwayne Haskins played for Ohio State and was the 15th pick of first round pick of Washington in the 2019 NFL Draft. He was the third quarterback taken in the first round that year.

  • While Haskins draft pedigree and his athleticism are tremendous, his NFL resume underwhelms.
Dwayne Haskins, Pittsburgh Steelers

Dwayne Haskins signs his futures contract with the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Haskins made 7 starts in 2019 and 6 and 2020 and compiled a 3-10 record, throwing 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But Haskins was known to be a project coming out of college, and his high draft status was largely a product of pushing for Daniel Snyder for Washington to take the player over his coaches’ objections.

Growing pains are nothing new for rookie NFL quarterbacks (just look up Terry Bradshaw’s early career passing stats) but Haskins created problems for himself off the field.

As the Washington Post’s Les Carpenter detailed, Haskins was chronically late to meetings, refused to study his playbook, had poor practice habits and was seen breaking COVID-19 protocols by partying maskless.

In a nutshell, he’s the type of player the Steelers normally avoid. So why is he in Pittsburgh?

Mike Tomlin’s Fascination with Athletes, Extra “Camp Arm” Nothing New

To put the Dwayne Haskins in context, remember two things about Mike Tomlin:

  • Superior athletes fascinate him
  • He believes in “camp arms” and in keeping 3 quarterbacks

Quick trivia question: Where was Joey Galloway’s NFL home between New England and Washington? If you guessed the Pittsburgh, you guessed right. The Steelers signed him at the tail end of 2009, although Galloway never played a game in Black and Gold.

Plax ultimately joined the Jets, but returned to Pittsburgh in mid-2012, catching a touchdown for his final NFL pass. Word was that when Mike Vick got out of prison Tomlin wanted to do the same but got overruled by the Rooneys.

  • Like Burress, Vick eventually found his way to Pittsburgh.

When Charlie Batch broke is collarbone at St. Vincents in 2008, he brought former first rounders Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich to Pittsburgh for workouts immediately. Lefwich of course stayed.

A year later, when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a concussion against Kansas City and Charlie Batch broke his wrist, the Steelers worked out (but did not sign) former first round pick Patrick Ramsey.

Although he wasn’t a first rounder, with 10 NFL starts to his name Zach Mettenberger served as the Steelers third string quarterback in 2016. One quarterback who first rounder in the 2016 NFL Draft Paxton Lynch, who served as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback in 2019 behind Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

Devlin Hodges of course came to Pittsburgh as nothing more than a camp arm, and one who earned his shot via the Steelers rookie mini-camp. As Mark Kabloy suggests in The Athletic, Haskins isn’t anything other than a camp arm.

His arrival likely does spell the end of Devlin Hodges time in Pittsburgh, but signals nothing about the Roethlisberger era, the Steelers plans for Mason Rudolph and the 2021 NFL Draft, nor does it preclude Joshua Dobbs’ return.

Mike Tomlin has taken a flier on a “camp arm” albeit with a bit more upside then most “camp arms,” but he’s still a “camp arm.”

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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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Can the Steelers Dress Joshua Dobbs vs Browns? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The Steelers 2020 season finale against the Browns contained an unexpected wrinkle: Joshua Dobbs.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach decided early to “Air Mail” players to the playoffs, including Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds and Maurkice Pouncey. That meant that Mason Rudolph would start.

  • Mason Rudolph indeed started and played very well.
Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But his understudy Joshua Dobbs also saw action, rushing the ball several times and completing a number of passes (OK, they were shovel passes.) This was a wrinkle that no one was expecting, and given that the Steelers offense is desperate to do anything to breathe life into its running game, deploying Dobbs was a welcome sign.

  • When asked if this could continue in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deadpanned: “It’s a possibility.”

Yet most pundits wrote this off as head coach bluster designed to give opposing defensive coordinators a little something extra to think about. The reasoning is that Mason Rudolph clearly earned his stripes as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 going into the playoffs. Ergo, there’s no way the Steelers would give Joshua Dobbs a helmet over Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course, everyone KNOWS, there’s no way the Steelers would have 3 quarterbacks active on game day.

This is one case where the conventional wisdom is probably right. But it doesn’t have to be. Keeping 3 quarterbacks active isn’t the radical notion that it sounds like. In fact it used to be reasonably common. In fact, keeping three quarterbacks dressed and on the active roster was a critical component of the Steelers first serious attempt at 1 for The Thumb.

3 Quarterbacks, the 1995 Steelers and Slash

Dressing 3 quarterbacks was a fundamental and intentional part of the 1995 Steelers offensive strategy. It started rather unintentionally on opening day when injuries to both Neil O’Donnell and later Mike Tomczak forced Jim Miller into the game for one play (where he threw a long pass that was the equivalent of an interception.)

It was one of the rare times when 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game, and it was the only time that phenomenon occurred in that season.

And while Mike Tomczak wasn’t getting a lot of love, Kordell Stewart was enjoy the heyday of the “Slash Era.” At the time NFL game day rosters limited teams to 45 members, plus an emergency 3rd string quarterback.

Whether Jim Miller continued to suit up as the team’s emergency 3rd stringer while Kordell Stewart was a wide receiver is a question best left to NFL archivists. It doesn’t really matter, because today teams are allowed to dress 46 active players.

The game has certainly changed since 1995. Each team’s personnel needs with regards to injuries, substitutions and situational packages is unique. But if the 1995 Steelers could find a way to dress 4 or 5 wide outs, 2 quarterbacks and a “Slash” then it would see that the 2020 Steelers could find a way to dress Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Dobbs.

For what its worth, and for those of you boning up on your Steelers 3rd string quarterback trivia, the last time times 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game came against the Browns, most recently in the 2008 season finale and prior to that in the 1999 season opener.

If the Steelers do defy the odds and dress Joshua Dobbs alongside the other two quarterbacks, let’s hope that there’s no cause for QB number 2 to throw a pass outside of garbage time.

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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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Played Out at Paul Brown? Bengals 27-17 Win Spells Trouble for Steelers, Roethlsiberger

The Bengals beat the Steelers 27-17, but Pittsburgh was far more dramatic than the 10 point margin that Cincinnati inflicted suggests. It not that…

  • They suffered their 3rd loss after 11 straight wins
  • Pittsburgh lost to a 2-10 Cincinnati team
  • The Bengals were fielding a third string quarterback and missing many starters
  • Steelers fumbled their chance to grab a division title

No. All of those factors are symptoms of a far more troubling trend:  The Ben Roethlisberger era appears to be ending in front of our eyes. Yes, we saw a different, better Ben Roethlisberger in the 2nd half. Could that offer hope for the rest of the season?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain right now:  Watching this happen is real time is painful.

Darruis Philips, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals

Darrius Philips deflects a pass aimed at Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP via Benglas.com

1st Half Steelers Nation Suffers its Ali-Holmes Moment

The “Super Steelers” were my heroes growing up in Maryland in the late 70’s. Really. We’d play “Super Steelers” as if Lynn Swann and Joe Greene had super powers. But they weren’t my only heroes

  • Another big one was Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Las Vegas 1980

Muhammad Ali is defeated by Larry Holmes. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Hannibal Boxing.

I’d never seen him fight. Didn’t matter. Popular culture filled the void. Ali could do no wrong. I woke up gleefully on the morning of October 3rd, 1980 expecting good news and still remember my disappointment at hearing my mom tell me that Ali had lost to Larry Holmes.

  • Disappointment wasn’t limited to 8 year old boys.

Veteran boxing correspondent Jack Newfield confessed that he was “… literally crying. I was– there were tears on my notebook as I watched that.” The first half of the Bengals game felt like Steelers Nations’ own Ali-Holmes moment.

  • Sometimes the best way to break out of a slump is to confront your weakness head on.

Credit Randy Fichtner for doing just that. The Steelers have struggled both the long ball and play action this year. So on the very first play Fichtner had Ben Roethlisberger fake the handoff to Benny Snell, rollout of the pocket to his right and target James Washington 40 yards downfield.

  • It was a beautiful sight. It would have been a tone setter
  • It could have even been a game changer
  • Except that the pass was 3-4 yards too short
  • So short that Darius Phillips should have intercepted it

More bad things happened. On the next snap Benny Snell ran the ball for real and only got 2 years. On third down Ben Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson with a pass that was high yet catchable. Diontae dropped it. Not that this really mattered — it was a 4 yard pass when the Steelers needed 8.

Things got worse. On the next possession a four yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster simply set up 2 more deep incompletions and a punt. Next the tried to use “Jet Motion” with Ben Roethlisberger under center – where he promptly fumbled. The Bengals recovered.

Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

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

The Steelers defense did well to limit Cincinnati to a field goal. But the worst was yet to come. Before the 2nd half was over:

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster would get his noodle rocked, fumbling the ball back to the Bengals
  • Ben Roethlisberger would toss an ugly interception to Mackensie Alexander
  • The Bengals would convert both of those into touchdowns

By the end of the first half, Pittsburgh had just 40 yards from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger had 19 yards passing and two turnovers. In other words, the Steelers offense had 3 turnovers and had made just two first downs.

Damning numbers indeed. But they looked and felt worse in real time. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, yet here was Ben Roethlisberger struggling to connect on simple throws. He didn’t look like a two- time Super Bowl winner; he looked like a hapless rookie 4th string quarterback going up against the ’85 Bears.

Indeed, although Ben wasn’t taking a beating, in the first half he looked every bit as out of control as Ali had against Larry Holmes on the fateful night in Las Vegas.

Roethlisberger Redux? Meh, Not Quite

For the first time ever, I honestly thought that Mike Tomlin should consider pulling Ben Roethlisberger for performance. In Latin America, ESPN Deportes commentators thought it might happen, advising that Mason Rudolph had warmed up after half time.

It didn’t happen. Stout play by Cam Heyward, Avery Williamson and Alex Highsmith forced a 3 and out and the when the Steelers offense came out, Ben Roethlisberger was at the helm.

And for a time, the Steelers looked like the team that went 11-0 in September, October and November and not December’s 3 and 0er. Behind a crushing block from Vance McDonald, Chase Claypool transformed a simple screen pass on 3rd and 3 into to a thirty seven yard sideline scamper. One play later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a laser to Diontae Johnson.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell running in the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the next series, it was Benny Snell’s turn to shine as he ripped off runs of 29 and 13 yards. The Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal, but still, it was a 1 score game and 5 minutes remained in the third quarter.

Out Muscled on the Line, Defense Out Foxed by Finley

Before the game, no one in Steelers Nation knew the names “Ryan Finley” and  “Josh Bynes.” We’ll probably never hear their names again. But together the tandem snuffed out the Steelers 2nd half comeback.

  • In the first half, the Steelers mustered their will to convert a 4th and 1. That was a small but symbolic moment.

Symbolism only gets you so far. When the next time the Steelers faced a 3rd and 1 after Chris Boswell’s field goal, Benny Snell got stoned by Josh Bynes. Instead continuing to fight to tie the score the Steelers punted and asked their defense to bail them out. Again.

  • Out foxed by Ryan Finley, the defense couldn’t deliver.

Ryan Finley completed just 7 passes, but he ran for 47 yards. Three of those runs converted 3rd downs and another other gave Cincinnati a touchdown.

T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson all made excellent plays against the Bengals. But the Steelers defense couldn’t prevent Ryan Finley from looking like the 2nd coming of Fran Tarkenton. Disappointing?

Yes, but hardly surprising given that the Steelers were missing 3 of their 4 starting linebackers, their top backup and were forced to play a safety at inside linebacker.

One Last Hurrah?

Christmas is days away, and the Steelers haven’t played a good football game since before Thanksgiving. Yet, as Mark Kaboly pointed out in The Athletic, minus Bud Dupree, this is the same team that tangled with the Titans in the battle of the undefeated and walked away with a win.

  • For weeks now we’ve been waiting for the Steelers to “snap out of it”
  • Instead, their downward spiral is snapping into high gear

The story of a veteran pulling it together and leaving all out on the field for one final hurrah offers a compelling narrative. Sometimes it even happens in real life. See Jerome Bettis in Super Bowl XL.

But for that to happen here, Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to accept his limitations, find a way to succeed within them and hope his offensive line and running game can do “just enough” to get by.

Otherwise, Steelers Nation will be facing a long, cold winter.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Minkah Magic! Steelers Defeat Cowboys 25-19 as Fitzpatrick Helps Pittsburgh Avoid Trap Game

Google “Trap Game” and you’ll get many definitions. Some are better than others. The best had nothing to do with sports and came from the late, great Mr. Jim Baker, my 8th grade World Studies teacher, who would chide the class:

  • This was a ‘gimmie’ and you blew it.

Mr. Baker was talking about blowing assignments that should have been an easy “A.” A trap game is one you “should” win but end up losing.

Mike Tomlin has been unfairly criticized for many things during his tenure, but there’s no arguing that Tomlin teams tend to get tripped up by trap games. On Sunday, against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers almost tripped again. But they didn’t because this time they had Minkah Magic on their side….

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

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

Half Full or Half Empty? How About Just Half a Glass?

NFL teams rarely play 3 consecutive road games. Winning 3 straight road games is rarer yet. Winning two of the three against the a conference and division heavyweight is more difficult yet. But both of those wins came with a half-full/half-empty element to them.

Cam Sutton, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Cam Sutton tries to stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers played a phenomenal first half against the Titans, only to cling on to victory thanks to a missed field goal. Against the Ravens, the Steelers played one of their worst first halves of offensive football in the Tomiln era, gave up tons of yards, yet delivered decisive play after decisive play in the 2nd half to win.

  • And so it was against the Dallas Cowboys.

On paper, the Steelers should have steamrolled the Cowboys, a team that was reeling even before it found itself needing to start its 4th or 5th string quarterback. It should have been so simple. Yet, it wasn’t:

  • James Conner struggled, plodding for 2.4 yards a carry instead of running strong
  • Ben Roethlisberger struggled to connect on the deep ball and couldn’t convert 3rd downs
  • Garrett Gilbert played more like Dallas’ next Tony Romo than its next Babe Laufenberg
  • It was Dallas, and not Pittsburgh that moved the chains and possessed the clock

So instead of dominating Dallas, the Steelers were looking at a 13-0 deficit with 3:50 left to play. Just as they had against Baltimore, and just as they had against Tennessee, the question wasn’t whether the glass was half empty or half full, but rather why the Steelers seemed to be stuck with half a glass.

Steelers Come Alive @ 2 Minute Warning

The key word there is “seemed.” Just after the two minute warning, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee, and almost as if on cue:

Dallas got the ball back, and a quick pass from Garrett Gilbert to CeeDee Lamb looked promising until Cam Sutton knocked the ball loose, regaining possession at the Cowboy’s 39. Mason Rudolph came in to complete a few passes, but those amounted to little more than chump change.

  • Still, it was enough for Chris Boswell to kick a franchise-record 59 yard field goal.

Instead of heading into half time on the ropes, the Steelers had narrowed the score to a very manageable 13 to 9.

Special Teams Snafus Nearly Sabotage Steelers

Steelers fans with long memories know of the team’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship with special teams coaches. Jon Kolb was a legendary tackle for Chuck Noll, but a nightmare as a special teams coach. George Stewart followed him, and his special teams strike force helped craft the 1989 Steelers Cinderella story.

Bobby April gained cult hero status for his special teams prowess during the 1995 Steelers failed Super Bowl run, while Jay Hayes disastrous special teams foul ups paved the way for the Tom Brady era in the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • Many fans in Steelers Nation have felt Danny Smith was on the wrong side of that divide.

I’d argue that wouldn’t have been fair to Smith, but not one can argue that during 2020, special teams have been an asset for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Until they set foot in Jerry’s World, where:

  • Chris Boswell missed his first extra point
  • Boswell then missed his next field goal (although a penalty gave him a re-try)
  • The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during an 83 yard punt return
  • The Cowboys blocked an extra point
  • Rico Dowdle transformed a picture perfect 64 yard “mortar kick” into a 64 yard return

The math is pretty simple, the 83 yard punt return set up an easy Dallas field goal, and the two botched extra points took two points off the board for the Steelers. That’s a 5 point swing against Pittsburgh…

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Cowboys

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers 2nd Half Comeback That Almost Came Up Short

True to form the Steelers fielded a different team in the 2nd half, that featured the following fireworks:

  • 75 and 79 yard drives that ended with touchdown passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron
  • Another 75 yard drive that started at Pittsburgh’s 1 and ended with a field goal
  • A 5-play negative 1-yard Cowboys drive at the 2 minute warning

That Cowboy drive ended with a hellacious Cam Heyward/ T.J. Watt sack on 4th and 8 with 1:45 left.

  • The game should have ended there. Except it didn’t.

The Steelers got the ball back at the Dallas 24. James Conner ran twice for little effect. On third down Ben Roethlisberger connected with Chase Claypool, but Claypool only got 5 yards, bringing up 4th and 1. On 4th and one James Conner got stoned for a 4 yard loss.

Dallas was not only in it, it had a chance to win it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowboys

Minkah Fitzpatrick after saving the day for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Boston Globe.

Minkah Magic = Difference Maker for Steelers

Steelers fans have seen these situations before and suffered from them all too often – just remember the 2nd half of the 2018 season. But Dallas didn’t close the deal here, for the same reason it failed to put Pittsburgh away at two other points in the game: Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • Minkah recovered the Cowboys fumble late in the first half, setting up the Steelers field goal
  • Dowdle’s 64 yard kick return gave Dallas perfect field position, only for Minkah to intercept the ball

And so it was. Dallas got the ball back with 38 seconds left. Gilbert moved the team 58 yards. The prevent defense looked like it was about to prevent the Steelers from winning. Then, on 3rd an 4 from the Pittsburgh 23 with 0:04 left, Gilbert fired at CeeDee Lamb.

  • As he did last week, Minkah Fitzpatrick stepped up and batted away the final pass.

Once again, Minkah Magic put the Pittsburgh Steelers over the top.

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