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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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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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 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

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

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.
Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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Devlin Hodges Rallies Steelers to 16-10 Win over Bengals after Mason Rudolph Benched

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in a rebound win that  puts them back in the AFC Wild Card race, for the moment.

Although Pittsburgh took a 5-5 record and a 10 game winning streak against the Bengals into Cincinnati, in many ways the odds certainly weren’t stacked in the Steelers favor. On offense against Cincinnati, the Steelers would be:

  • Starting their number 2 quarterback
  • Missing James Conner, their number 1 running back
  • Missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, their number 1 wide receiver
  • Missing Maurkice Pouncey, their best offensive lineman
  • Giving carries two players, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain who were playing for other teams last week

In an ironic twist, the decisive change that sparked the Steelers to victory was Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, a player who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Practice Squad Poaching Products Flash, but Don’t Start

While Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph drew all of the attention during the last week, the impact felt from the Body Bag Game in Cleveland was felt elsewhere. Namely, that it deprived Pittsburgh of its number one running back and number one wide receiver.

Kevin Colbert moved swiftly and out of his comfort zone when did some practice squad poaching by signing Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain from the Bears and Colts practice squads, respectively. Deon Cain, who’d last been seen dropping passes in the Colts loss at Heinz Field, proclaimed himself to be a playmaker upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed that they don’t and shouldn’t listen to me. Deon Cain had a 35 yard catch which flipped the field and was the offense’s only play of substance on their 1st half field goal drive. Kerrith Whyte lost a yard on his first NFL carry, but then rebounded to rip off a 15 yard run on his second try.

  • Not bad. But at the end of the day, both of those plays amounted to simple flashes that failed to spark the Steelers offense.

Mason Rudolph began the afternoon respectably. While no one was forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger was on the sidelines, Rudolph held himself reasonably well, and had moved the team into scoring position when a tipped ball led to a Shawn Williams interception.

  • The Steelers defense held the Bengals to zero yards on the next possession, but Mason Rudolph was never the same after that play.

In contrast, the Bengals, under quarterback Ryan Finley showed that they could muster some roar with their rookie quarterback who hooked up on two picture perfect strikes Tyler Boyd, schooling Terrell Edmunds first and Joe Haden for a second and a touchdown.

The Bengals took a 10-3 lead into halftime, and it was fair to question whether the Steelers could summon enough offense to get back in the game.

Tomlin Sparks Offense with Historic Decision

Football fans love the rallying cry “BENCH THE QUARTERBACK” almost as much if not more than “FIRE THE COACH.” Yet, as an organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers bench quarterbacks only a little more frequently than they fire coaches.

Yet going into the game Bob Labriola entertained a question about Mike Tomlin changing quarterbacks in his “Asked and Answered” and at half time Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell tweeted:

Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph one series which began with a sack ended in a three and out and ended with an ugly pass aimed at Diontae Johnson’s feet. The next time the Steelers got the ball back, Devlin Hodges was standing under center.

  • And Devlin Hodges delivered immediately.

He hit on his first two strikes to Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, and on his third try he found James Washington wide open in the field. Washington stiff armed B.W. Webb and ran 79 yards for the touchdown.

Truth be told, those three passes seemed to be about the only tricks that Delvin Hodges had in his bag, but they were enough on this afternoon.

Defense Delivers. Again.

Defense has carried the Steelers throughout 2019 and the win in Cincinnati was no different. While that’s no surprise, there was an important X factor heading into the game, and that was Joe Mixon against a Steelers run defense that had been leaky at times.

  • For 3 quarters the Steelers defense held Joe Mixon in check.

With 10 minutes left to go in the four quarter, it looked like the Joe Mixon had finally found a chink in the Steelers armor, as he ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards, the first of which looked to be a 5 yard loss. On the next play, Ryan Finley found Tyler Boyd for a 22 yard gain.

  • Cincinnati appeared poised to enter Pittsburgh’s end zone and either even the score, or pull ahead.

Devin Bush had other plans, stripping Boyd of the ball, which was scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick who logged his 8th takeaway for the season, which he returned 36 yards. That was the last drive that ended with positive yards for Cincinnati would earn all day.

Joe Haden and Mike Hilton teamed up to bat away passes, while Cam Heyward helped harass Finley up front setting Bud Dupree to end the day with a strip sack and recovery.

Who Starts for Steelers vs Browns?

After the game Mike Tomlin remained coy over whether Mason Rudolph would return to the starting  role against Cleveland next week or whether Duck Hodges would remain. It says here that benching Mason Rudolph against the Bengals was the right move.

  • But it is also far from clear that Delvin Hodges holds a “Hot Hand.”

Overall, he only completed 5 of 11 of his passes and, on his final pass before Chris Boswell kicked his third field goal, Hodges threw the ball away when Vance McDonald was open for a completion, which at the very least would have kept the clock running.

Outside of throwing the ball with a little more confidence, the main difference between Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph was in Hodges ability to avoid the rush.

Perhaps Tomlin had that tendency in mind when he teased reporters by suggesting he might already have made up his mind as to who to start. We will find out soon….

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Maurkice Pouncey’s Suspension Cut to 2 Games. Steelers Defend Mason Rudolph

It has been over a week since the now infamous Steelers-Browns Body Bag Game yet the contest’s final 8 seconds continues to dominate the news.

Steelers fans got a bit of good news when the NFL’s appeals committee reduced center Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension from 3 games, and unprecedented total for participating in an on-the-field fight, to 2 games. Larry Ogunjobi’s 1 game suspension was upheld and as was Myles Garrett’s indefinite suspension.

Maurkice Pouncey, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns Thursday Night

Maurkice Pouncey slugs Myles Garrett as David DeCastro holds him down. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via the L.A. Times

  • However, the story did not die there. In fact it grew new legs.

During his appeal, Myles Garrett accused Mason Rudolph of provoking him by uttering a racial epitaph. This information was leaked to ESPN reporters Adam Schefter and Josina Anderson. Shortly after the incident Josina Anderson tweeted that a racial slur uttered by Mason Rudolph started the incident. She quickly deleted the tweets and retracted her claim.

In a written statement, Myles Garrett confirmed the leak:

I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension. This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed. I know what I heard….

Gotta love the “This was not meant for public dissemination….” Really? This is from Myles Garrett, the man who everyone extoled for his poetry writing and plans to become a paleontologist expects us to believe this?

If this “…was not meant for public dissemination” then why did he have he or his agent leak the news? (Does anyone really think that Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the men who upheld the suspension leaked the news?)

Speaking both through his agent and through Steelers spokesman Burt Laurten, Mason Rudolph vehemently denied the charges.

  • The NFL also says that they investigated and found no evidence of the charges.

On the latter point, Steelers fans should trust and hope that the NFL did in fact do a real investigation, and that no audio evidence surfaces later. Not Roger Goodell has track record for fishy investigations or anything like that.

However, Steelers who were on the field at the time continue to defend Mason Rudolph. Matt Feiler who was a few feet away during the whole incident told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He didn’t say anything.”

Mason Rudolph did not address reporters, but Cam Heyward described him as “Distraught” by the accusations. Heyward went on to assert, “The kid made a bad mistake, but he never crossed the line when you’re talking about racial slurs.”

Alejandro Villanuava also defended Mason Rudolph, asking “Why wasn’t it said earlier?”

Steelers Injury Update Ahead of Bengals Game

While news that Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension has been reduced was certainly welcome, he will not be available for the game against the Bengals. Nor will other victims from last Thursday’s “Body Bag Game.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and is nursing knee and foot injuries. James Conner has not practiced and is extremely unlikely to play. Artie Burns, another injured player from last week’s game, was a limited participant.

All news was not a bad, however. Diontae Johnson was a full participant in practice, and Benny Snell has practice all week and will likely be available to back up Jaylen Samuels.

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Uneven Suspensions for Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Ogunjobi Display Roger Goodell Hypocrisy

The NFL’s discipline arm swung into action in the wake of the melee that ended the Steelers-Browns Thursday Night game. Justice was swift, severe and, as to be expected under Roger Goodell, inconsistent and hypocritical.

The NFL has suspended Myles Garrett indefinitely for ripping off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and then smashing it on the quarterback’s head. Word is that “Indefinitely” = at least the rest of the 2019 season. So far, so good.

The NFL also suspended Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey for three games for rising to the defense of his quarterback, which included punching and kicking Garrett who’d been thrown to the ground by David DeCastro.

Maurkice Pouncey, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns Thursday Night

Maurkice Pouncey slugs Myles Garrett as David DeCastro holds him down. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via the L.A. Times

The homer in me wants to join the Tribune-Review’s Tim Benz in saying, “Free Pouncey,” as Pouncey certainly didn’t instigate hostilities and was defending a teammate. But two wrong never make a right. Suspending Maurkice Pouncey would send a pretty strong message that if one of your teammates is attacked, the only acceptable course of action is to work to stop the violence.

  • The operative word in the preceding sentence is “would.”

The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for attacking Mason Rudolph from behind and shoving him to the ground. Which seems to be consistent.

  • Until you consider that Larry Ogunjobi’s suspension is only for one game.

So I guess Roger Goodell’s message is: Defend a teammate who has been attacked and get suspended for 3 games. See one of your teammates attack someone from the opposing team and join them in the violence, and I’ll suspend you for one.

  • Yep, that’s typical Roger Goodell.

Kind of brings to mind the time when Roger Goodell fined $25,000 Richard Seymor for cold-cocking Ben Roethlisberger which was the same fine he levied on James Harrison for hits on quarterbacks where justification for punishment was questionable at best.

It says here that the NFL was right to act swiftly to suspend Myles Garrett and also Maurkice Pouncey. It was right to fine both the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers $250,000 a piece. The league office has made clear that other fines and/or suspensions could be coming.

But Larry Ogunjobi wasn’t anywhere near the scuffle that evolved between Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph. He made a point of running across the field and shoving Rudolph to the back. The violence stopped there, but he made an active decision to attack a player who’d already been attacked.

  • If that isn’t just as bad as using violence to defend a teammate, then something is plain wrong.

But of course Myles Garrett and Maurkice Pouncey are the signature faces associated with the melee, they’re who the public is going to focus on, and so that’s where Goodell directs his attention.

“Justice” in Roger Goodell’s Kangaroo Court of the NFL remains as arbitrary as it has always been.

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Defense Dominates, Steelers Defeat Rams 17-12 as Mason Rudolph Matures, Under the Radar

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams 17-12 at Heinz Field and improved their record to 5-4. While their margin was small, the men in Black and Gold very well may have gained something far bigger with this win.

  • Any NFL game where the winning team fails to break the 20 point mark is by definition a defensive game.

Add an exclamation point to that, when the game includes a safety, safety, two defensive touchdowns, follow by a strip sack and an interception on the final drive.

The Steelers defense was elite against the Rams and their play was certainly worthy of the block letter throwback uniforms they wore. And yet for all of the defensive fireworks, the most important development of the game may be the maturation of Mason Rudolph.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Rams

Stats might not show it, but Mason Rudolph made strides against the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Scary Start Leads to Slugfest in the Trenches

When your center snaps that ball above your quarterback’s head on the third play from scrimmage, its not good. When an untouched defender scoops up the loose ball untouched and basically walk into the end zone, its really bad.

That’s how things started for the Steelers as Maurkice Pouncey hiked the ball over Mason Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler got the Rams up 7-0 with less than 15 seconds elapsed. On the ensuring series, the Steelers offense managed just one yard as Jaylen Samuels ran for 3, Tony Brooks-James got stuffed for -2, and Rudolph failed to connect for with JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • Normally a start like that foreshadows disaster; on this day in Pittsburgh, it simply signaled the Steelers defense to snap in to action.

The defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams brought the NFL’s 10th ranked offense into Heinz Field
They left Pittsburgh as a unit that was outscored by its defense

Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp entered the game as the NFL’s number one receiver on third downs. Keith Butler’s boys focused on shutting him down. Mike Hilton had primary reponsiblity for that, but enjoyed help from Terrell Edmunds and/or dime safety Mark Barron.

  • Cooper Kupp left Heinz Field without a catch.

Mike Tomlin told the FOX commentator team that the Steelers game plan was to “Get to Jared Goff before they can get to Mason Rudolph.” The Steelers game plan worked.

Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave helped end Rams drives with third down sacks. T.J. Watt set up another third and long with a sack, and helped rattle him at the end with a strip sack. Vince Williams, Jordan Dangerfield and Mike Hilton also joined the party by registering quarterback hits and, while they weren’t credited, Bub Dupree and Mark Barron met T.J. Watt at the quarterback at least once.

If ESPN’s stats are to be trusted, when the dust cleared:

  • The vaunted Rams defensive front had sacked Mason Rudolph 3 times and hit him 8 times
  • The Steelers defense sacked Jared Goff 4 times and hit him 8 times

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s game plan worked.

Minkah the Man with Magnetic Hands

Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick earns his own section in this game breakdown. The unorthodox trade that brought Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh was questioned by many, including this writer.

  • Yet, there’s been no doubt that Minkah Fitzpatrick has worked magic with the Steelers defense.

Javon Hargrave’s third down sack of Jared Goff in the first half popped ball loose and it landed just ahead the line of scrimmage. To the naked eye, it looked like an incomplete pass. Yet, the referees sounded no whistle.

Minkah Fitzpatrick scooped up the ball and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown giving the Steelers a 7 point lead with 1:56 left to play in the first half.

When the game was on the line with 30 seconds remaining, Minkah Fitzpatrick worked his magic again, as Joe Haden (who had a pick of his own) deflected a pass with Fitzpatrick intercepted again, sealing the win.

The Maturation of Mason Rudolph

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense earned all of the praise being showered on it following the win over the Rams. But Mason Rudolph’s stand up performance is flying just underneath the radar.

  • Yes, the Steelers offense had to punt 9 times
  • Yes, the Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal after reaching the 7 with 2:49 left to play
  • Yes, the Steelers offense couldn’t kill the game with a first down with 1:25 remaining

And no, Mason Rudolph didn’t make any fantasy owners happy with his 22 of 38 for 242 and one touchdown passing day.

But make no mistake about it, Mason Rudolph made important strides against the Rams. He executed the drive that ended with a 3 yard pass to James Washington to perfection. After giving up his 2nd safety in as many weeks at the hands of the almighty Aaron Donald, he stood clam in the pocket and executed a 4th and 1 conversion by connecting with Trey Edmunds.

  • Those objective achievements are important but perhaps Mason Rudolph’s most important achievements came on the subjective side of the ledger.

Against the Rams, Mason Rudolph embraced his role as leader of the Steelers offense in a way he hadn’t done before. Repeatedly during the game, Rudolph stood at the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense, and unhesitatingly changed protections or audibled to a new play.

The Los Angeles Rams might have gotten to Mason Rudolph just a little less frequently than the Steelers got to Jared Goff. But the Rams never got into Mason Rudolph’s head, and that was the difference in this victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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