Already Think Steelers Coaches Are Dumb? Well, They’re About to Get Dumber…

The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.

On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.

On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)

Steelers 2020 Assistant coaches, Mike Tomlin, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky, Keith Butler

Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.

  • Let’s talk about Keith Butler.

It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.

I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.

With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.

  • As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.

The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.

Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.

  • The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.

Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.

Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.

I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.

Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.

Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”

  • No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.

Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.

  • Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.

My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.

Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.

Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?

I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.

Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau

In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:

“I just became a better coach.” 

Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….

 

 

 

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Steelers (Late) Report Card for Playoff Loss to Chiefs: F’s Aren’t for “Farewell” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who will miss the man who has been his star pupil for 18 years, here is the Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card Loss to the Chiefs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Okafor, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Alex Oakfor’s commits a roughing the passer penalty on Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger was 4 of 11 (or something like that) at the half and frankly had not played well. He finished the game going 29 of 44 for 215 and two touchdowns. Sure, his last two touchdown drives started from 35 points behind, but you’d never have known that given the way Ben was working the huddle. Grade: C+

Running Backs
Najee Harris did not have a good night, going 29 yards on his 12 carries. Worse yet, his fumble extinguished any chance a Steelers comeback. Benny Snell got work in garbage time and made the most of it. Kalen Ballage got some work too, but didn’t look quite as good. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught four passes for 25 yards but ran the wrong way on a critical route early in the game. Zach Gentry caught 4 passes, including Ben Roethlisberger’s final toss. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
When asked if his wide receivers could have stepped up and made more plays, Mike Tomlin’s response was, “Ya think?” Such candor is as brutal as it is uncharacteristic. And it is accurate. Diontae Johnson had several drops, including 1 on third down. Chase Claypool also did not distinguish himself. Sure, some of the passes were not catchable, but reading Roethlisberger’s body language the WR’s were just as much at fault. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Kansas City Chiefs defense got 7 hits on Roethlisberger and sacked him three times. There looked to be a little push in the running game early on, but that dissipated quickly. A junior varsity performance. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, helping force the fumble and while the unit didn’t get gouged on the ground, it did help give up containment on Mahomes several times and got out foxed in the goal line. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt deflected a pass that Devin Bush intercepted and returned fumble for a touchdown. He also sacked Mahomes to save a final score and allow the Steelers to end the game with the ball in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands. Alex Highsmith had a sack. But those Splash plays on that stat sheet mask a unit that got fooled at in the Red Zone once and then gave up touchdowns on two more gadget plays. Grade: D

Secondary
It took Patrick Mahomes 20 minutes to warm up, but then he basically did want he wanted, when he wanted. And the Steelers were powerless to stop him. After the Chiefs scoring run started, Kansas City didn’t punt until there was 4:35 left in the Roethlisberger era. Grade: F

Special Teams
Mecole Hardman had a 48 yard kick off return, but that amounted to nothing as the Steelers intercepted the next pass. Beyond that coverage units were solid and Ray-Ray McCloud did a respectable job of returning. Presley Harvin III punted often and punted well. Chris Boswell was perfect. Honestly, special teams really had no chance to make an impact. Grade: C

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s response to the first question of the night said it all: “Game plans are irrelevant man. We didn’t execute nearly well enough.”

  • It says here that talent and not coaching drove the Steelers to defeat.

IT also says here that this game shows that the Steelers did not belong in these playoffs to begin with, confirming that the 3rd Wild Card slot is all money and zero competition.

James Washington, Charvarius Ward, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger's Last Game

James Washington makes a combat catch against Charvarius Ward. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But the Report Card grades on performance and results, and both of those were terrible. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He was invisible for almost 3 quarters. He was only targeted 3 times and made two catches yet still led the Steelers receivers in receiving yardage. While that says more about the rest of the receiving corps that it does him, James Washington was giving his all, making combat catches till the very end and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Ward for the 2021 AFC Wild Card Playoff Loss to the Chiefs.

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Regardless of Result, Pittsburgh Right to Prioritize Playoffs Over Draft Picks

In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.

  • But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.

That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.

I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.

  • If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.

That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)

  • Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.

There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.

  • You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.

The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.

You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.

  • Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.

But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.

The Perils of Playing for Draft Position

Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).

Then Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Marvel Smith, and Willie Parker getting old happened. That was a problem because rebuilding around a franchise quarterback is difficult, because a franchise QB gives you a couple of three wins per season.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Switch Ben Roethlisberger for Kordell Stewart on the 1998 and 1999 Steelers squads and they probably both finish at least at 8-8 instead of 7-9 and 6-10.

  • But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.

Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?

  • Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.

Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.

The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”

That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.

Oh, and by the way, Noll also got himself his own Hall of Fame running in 1972. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Franco Harris.

As Jimmy Psihoulis assured us in the Western Pennsylvania Polka, “…Good things come to those who work and wait.”

Jimmy Pol was right. The Steelers face long odds against the Chief and face even longer odds in their quest to win Super Bowl LVI.

But they are damn right to do everything in their power to try.

Go Steelers!

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Houston Texans Fire Dave Culley, Another “Sour Apple’ on the Bill Cowher Coaching Tree? Not Quite

Scratch one more from the “Bill Cowher Coaching Tree.” After a 4-12 inaugural campaign the Houston Texans have fired head coach David Culley. Cully’s roots to Pennsylvania run deep but they are decidedly shallow on the Pittsburgh side.

Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher coaching tree

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Jamie Mullen, Getty Images, via BTSC

After Super Bowl XXX, Bill Cowher fired Ron Erhardt as his offensive coordinator, promoting wide receivers coach Chan Gailey to take his place. The Chin then hired David Culley to take Chan Gailey’s place as Steelers wide receivers coach.

David Culley served in that capacity from 1996 to 1998, and this was hardly the golden age of Steelers wide receivers. Yes, Yancey Thigpen flourished during the Steelers 1997 season, but his tenure is more notable for the failed development of Charles Johnson, Will Blackwell and to a lesser extent Jahine Arnold.

  • Takeaway Number 1:  These disappointments say more about the deterioration of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s relationship than Culley’s coaching ability.

Charles Johnson was a first round pick, Will Blackwell a second and Arnold a 4th. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe put together some good drafts early on, but as communication broke down between the two, the Steelers misfires on draft day became more severe — these three flameouts at wide receiver aren’t even the most egregious example.

After leaving Pittsburgh, Culley hopped on the Turnpike to Philadelphia, where he spent several years on the staff of Andy Reid, before following Reid to Kansas City, and then going on Buffalo and Baltimore. A year ago the Houston Texans hired him, and today he is without a job.

  • Takeaway Number 2: This highlights how “Coaching Trees” are overrated.

I don’t follow the Houston Texans so I can’t comment on Culley’s performance, but pulling the plug on a coach after one season seems a bit harsh. But fair or not, it makes Culley the latest former assistant of Bill Cowher to fail as a head coach.

Dom Capers was Cowher’s first assistant to get a head coaching job, and was followed by Chan Gailey, Jim Haslett, Dick LeBeau (indirectly), Mike Mularkey, Marv Lewis, and Ken Whisenhunt. All of them had their moments with Whisenhunt coaching against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, but none of them could sustain success.

And while critics might seek to use that as ammunition against Bill Cowher, they should not. While the “Bill Walsh” coaching tree is successful (although not as successful as it is made out to be), that does not make him a better coach. Indeed, Joe Gibbs won the same number of Super Bowls in the same era, with lesser talent.

No, the fact that this latest and perhaps last apple from the Bill Cowher coaching tree had a sour experience as a head coach says more about impatient, irrational owners and underlines how difficult it is to succeed in the NFL.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Steelers Report Card for Overtime Win over Ravens: Ben in a Blaze of Glory Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher beaming that his star pupil is going out in a blaze of glory, here is the Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Baltimore in Ben Roethlisberger’s last game at M&T Stadium.

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt sack record. Tyler Huntley, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt ties the NFL sack record. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had a 49.2 passer rating for the first three quarters. By the end of overtime, it was 80.1. So it’s a glass half full, glass half empty situation right? Wrong. Five 3rd or 4th down conversions, one lead scoring 4th quarter drive and another overtime score fill the glass every time. Grade: A+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 56 yards total yards from scrimmage, to the horror of Fantasy Football fans. To the delight of Reality Football fans, he started overtime off with a one handed catch – with his left hand – and finished it with a 15-yard romp that made the final field goal a gimmie — while carrying the ball with his left arm. (Still wonder why we drafted him?) Benny Snell better than his numbers but the drop off was noticeable. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth missed a 3rd down conversion in regulation, but boy did he make up for it in overtime. He also did well blocking. Zach Gentry quietly caught 4 balls on 5 targets while blocking well. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool might have had his best day as a Steeler, and this is for a guy who had 3 TDs as a rookie. No, Claypool didn’t score a lot of points for Fantasy Football owners (see the trend), but he made hard gritty plays on the ground, catching the ball and blocking. Diontae Johnson had a good day catching 7 of 51 passes. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 4-37 might not seem like much, but boy, those catches counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked once – when can you say that after a Ravens game. While that was good, the run blocking wasn’t quite as solid has it had been against Cleveland. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward lead the team in tackles had a sack and another tackle for a loss. Chris Wormley got a sack and batted down a ball. Yet the Ravens still gained over 150 yards rushing with a 45 yard run and two plus 20 yard runs. Grade: B-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a hand in another that he wasn’t credited with. However, highly amateur film analysis suggests that linebacking lapses were at fault for the run defense woes. Grade: C+

Secondary
The Ravens were 3-14 on third downs and Tyler Huntly completed no passes in overtime. Cam Sutton’s interception in the end zone was a game changer, and Terrell Edmund’s pick, lucky though it was, positioned Pittsburgh for its first points. Arthur Maulet continues to come up strong in run support. Minkah Fitzpatrick pass defense of Marquise Brown with 31 seconds remaining is the season’s most underrated play. Grade: A

Coaching
Again, the Steelers offense remained stuck in third gear for 3 quarters and again did not find away out until Ben Roethlisberger took over. Is Roethlisberger just an adrenaline junkie? Have his skills eroded to the point where it takes a pressure cooker for him to deliver? Or is Matt Canada’s offense not suited for him? Or do the Steelers simply lack too many people in the trenches? Or is Canada just in over his head?

Outside of a few exceptions in October, the Steelers offense has only ever been effective late in games. Sixteen points in 5 quarters isn’t going to win you a lot of post season games in the NFL, but it was good enough to get Ben Roethlisberger to the playoffs.

With that said, credit Canada for using Chase Claypool to get the offense moving, which was critical on the touchdown drive.

  • On defense the Steelers played solid football.

Yes, the run defense lapses were real, but the Steelers coaches managed to make the right adjustments to neutralize that advantage down the stretch.

Beyond the X’s and O’s the attitude and the resiliency of this group of players is phenomenal. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was the one throwing those 3rd and 4th down passes, but it takes a focused and ready receiver to catch them.

Ray-Ray McCloud, Steelers vs Ravens, Ray-Ray McCloud 4th down catch Ravens

Ray-Ray McCloud comes down with it on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It doesn’t just take special talent to learn how to carry — and catch — with your left arm in the middle of a season finale with the playoffs on the line, it takes a special attitude. The Steelers “smiled in the face of adversity” to use Mike Tomlin’s words, and he deserves the credit for setting that tone. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
How did the Steelers rally start? With a big Ben Roethlisberger pass? No. With a defensive “Splash play?” No. With a running back ripping off a run? No. It was actually Ray-Ray McCloud’s 23-yard punt return that set the Steelers up at midfield. Steelers special teams also defended a fake punt attempt early that could have been a game changer. And of course Chris Boswell went 3 for 3 and for that the Steelers Special teams win the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Playoff Bound! Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads Overtime Comeback

Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.

  • Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.

The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form

If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap,  a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.

A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure  penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.

The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.

  • But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.

The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

That four point differential would come in handy later on….

Run Defense? What Run Defense?

One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.

  • Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.

The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.

  • By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.

In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.

A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback

Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.

But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.

Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.

  • But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.

Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.

Overtime Atonement

The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:

  • Author a game winning drive at the gun.

 

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.

Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.

  • This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.

The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.

  • Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.

One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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Rally Around Roethlisberger: Steelers Defeat Browns 26-14 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Game @ Heinz Field

Citizens of Steelers Nation: It doesn’t get any better than this. In Ben Roethlisberger’s (likely) last game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh rallied behind their leader as the Steelers defeated the Browns 26-14.

It was an emotional night for Roethlisberger, the City of Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation and the team’s global fan base. In the end it was special, not just because of the win, but because of the way the Steelers secured victory: Hollywood could not have scripted it better.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

Ben Roethlisberger built his career at going against the grain. Quarterbacks are supposed to go down easy. Roethlisberger never relented. Defensive contact with a quarterback is supposed to disrupt his passing. Not Roethlisberger, especially early in his career, when he became more accurate after being touched by a defender.

  • And so it is at the end.

It’s easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that precious few football players get to leave the game on their own terms. Yes, a finite few like Jerome Bettis go out hoisting the Lombardi. Others pick their own time. But of the few that choose when they leave the game, fewer yet choose how they leave the game.

  • As he has throughout his career, Roethlisberger proved he stood apart from most other football players.

Which isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger dominated against the Browns. He did not. Yes, he hit Diontae Johnson with laser like precision to get the Steelers their first, first half touchdown in 4 games. Yes, he helped connected with Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud to convert Ahkello Witherspoon interception into a Chris Boswell field goal late in the first half.

But on this night, Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passes were either off target or his receivers just couldn’t hold on to them (see Chase Claypool – although credit Cleveland’s DBs.)

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

When asked about how his horrendously and historically bad run defense shut down Cleveland’s potent rushing attack, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained, “…we played a lot of people and everybody put their hand in the pile and made the necessary plays.”

The key phrase above is “everyone put their hand in the pile.” Everyone did, but the usual suspects struck first.

Cam Heyward helped end two Browns drives by deflecting passes when the score was 0-0. Later, ended the Brown’s first drive of the second half with a sack.

After the Steelers tried and failed to convert on 4th down, T.J. Watt sacked Baker Mayfield for a 10 yard loss on third down (oh, and Watt deflected a pass on the previous play.) Later, when the Browns were sniffing scoring range at the end of the first half, Watt sacked Mayfield on 3rd and 2.

  • Chris Boswell knocked in field goals of 30, 50 and 48 yards.

All excellent plays made at critical moments from the players you’d expect to make them. But they got plenty of help.

  • Corliss Waitman boomed off punts and staked a claim to pushing Pressley Harvin off the team
  • Alex Highsmith came up with 2 sacks and tackled Nick Chubb for a loss on a critical drive
  • J.C. Hassenauer stepped in at center and the Steelers saw their best line play since October
  • Derek Watt converted a 4th and 1
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk batted down a pass
  • Forgotten players like Ulysees Gilbert III came off the bench to contain Cleveland’s rushing attack

Alex Highsmith, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Alex Highsmith sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The rushing attack? Yes, you might remember that. It once provided the foundation for 5 Steelers Super Bowls and  formed a potent part of the “Killer Bees.” After making guest appearances in fits and starts during October, the Steelers rushing attack has been AWOL since.

Reestablishing the run was one of Art Rooney II’s chief goals this season, and the Steelers have struggled to comply. But even at its bleakest moments, rookie Najee Harris has shown that, behind a competent offensive line, he can be special.

Najee Harris was special against the Browns, turning would-be losses into gains, and ripping off runs of 13, 14, 30 and 10 yards, and he was only getting warmed up – and this was on a night where he rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries.

And Ending to Treasure

When the Steelers went up 19 to 7 with 5:28 left to play in the 4th quarter, the game seemed to be well in hand. When the Steelers hit Baker Mayfield with back-to-back sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, it seemed to be official.

But then the Browns got a pass interference penalty called against Joe Haden. Another one in the Red Zone brought them to the one. The Browns scored, but Minkah Fitzpatrick collected the on-sides kick.

  • The Browns had two time outs, but the Steelers only needed one first down.

Najee Harris ran for 4 yards on 1st and 4 yards on second. Cleveland could not stop the clock and a first down would seal the game for the Steelers. Harris cut to his right, it was clear he would get the two yards. But then he broke out to the second level and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s last play would be a handoff for a touchdown….

…Except it wouldn’t. The Browns got the ball back, only for Baker Mayfield to bounce a pass off of Austin Hooper that Tre Norwood intercepted.

Ten seconds remained on the clock, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to step on to Heinz Field one last time, taking a knee in the Victory Formation.

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: Passing by Guessing Right Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who understands all too well that his students passed by guessing right on a multiple choice test, here is the Steelers Report card for the win over the Titans.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Titans, Joe Haden

Minkah Fitzpatrick recovers a fumble in the 2nd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 16 for 25 for an economical 148 yards and no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for one touchdown. Roethlisberger faced a lot of pressure and the running game was AOWL. The Steelers transformed 4 turnovers into 12 points. If this was Ben’s penultimate game at Heinz Field, he didn’t go out with a bang. Grade: C+

Running Backs
There have been days when Najee Harris hasn’t had good rushing numbers but got good grades nonetheless. The Titans game is not one of those. Harris had no room to run, what else is new, but made bad decisions and lacked the flash that he’s shown thus far this season. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches but as usual made each of them count until leaving with a concussion. Zach Gentry had a 17 yard catch on the Steelers touchdown drive, Pittsburgh’s 2nd longest pass of the game. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 catches for… 38 yards. No, that’s no misprint. James Washington had 3 catches for 36 yards although his 19 yard grab came in garbage time. Chase Claypool had one rush for 12 yards that was credited as a reception even if he’s listed as having zero receptions. Yep, it was that kind of game folks. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The Steelers feature back averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit another three times. The Steelers offensive line is what it is, and “is” is terrible. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Whew. The Titans “only” ran for just over 200 yards and “only” averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Chris Wormley did have a sack on the Titans opening possession and Cam Heyward’s half sack did force a field goal and take 4 points off the board. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a half and both were impact plays. Devin Bush had a deflected pass which he could have and should have intercepted. He continued to be blocked in run coverage. Joe Schobert intercepted a pass deflected by Taco Charlton. Grade: C

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered a fumble caused by Arthur Maulet that set up the first score. Joe Haden was the game’s MVP recovering a fumble caused by Cam Sutton and icing the game with a textbook tackle on 4th down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job returning punts and his kick returns were OK. Punt return coverage was awful, at one point giving up a 55 yard return. That 55 yard return came after Pressley Harvin III’s 51 yarder which was an outlier as Harvin “booted” punts of 27 and 32 yards (his other punts were either OK or well-placed.) More consistency is needed.

Chris Boswell remained “Mr. Consistency” Knocking in field goals of 36, 28, 46 and 48 yards. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Titans have a talented defense, no doubt and the Steelers offense has its liabilities. Still, Matt Canada’s offense accomplished nothing, outside of a lone touchdown drive. No sticking with the rush until Harris ground out yards, no Jet Motions, no no-huddle. Given four turnovers and quality field position, the Steelers offense should have come away with more than 12 points.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Titans

Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers Titans game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It is true that the Steelers effort on defense had more to do with stars like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden making or taking advantage of big opportunities than scheme or out executing your opponents. But it is also true that before the turnover carnival began, the Steelers were only down 10 points.

  • That’s not bad given how poorly the offense and special teams played.

Overall, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is one that features a number of All Pro caliber men playing along side either green rookies or retreads that are, at best, roster-bubble babies on any other NFL team.

The fact that playoffs remain a possibility this late in December is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s maligned by both fans and the professional press alike and has been since the day he was drafted. And if he hasn’t lived up to his draft position he’s been consistent since arriving in Pittsburgh and he’s also been delivering steady play under the radar. Against the Titans he made a couple of critical plays behind the line of scrimmage and for that Terrell Edmunds is the Unsung Hero of the week.

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