Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

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

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

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

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

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

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Quarterbacks, the 1995 Steelers and Slash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.
Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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Blame JuJu? If Steelers Go One & Done vs Browns “They” Will Say “Its All Smith-Schuster’s Fault”

The Steelers are set to take on the Browns in an AFC wildcard game at Heinz Field on Sunday night, but if you think Cleveland is in trouble thanks to several players and head coach Kevin Stefanski being placed on the COVID list, guess again.

  • Pittsburgh is the squad in serious jeopardy of going one and done. Again.

Why?

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

Two years ago JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. This time it could be his mouth. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

While speaking virtually with the media during the week, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster infected his squad with something even worse than COVID; he plagued Pittsburgh with negative bulletin board material that the Browns will surely use as an elixir to cure what ails them ahead of their first postseason game in 18 years.

“Nah, I think they’re still the same Browns that I’ve played every year,” Smith-Schuster said in a quote courtesy of CBS Sports.com. “I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple of good players on their team. But at the end of the day … the Browns are the Browns. It’s AFC North football. They’re a good team. I’m just happy we’re playing them again.”

  • Ouch…if you believe in such things.
  • I don’t, of course.

Believing in bulletin board material is cute and all, but I don’t think it has any effect on the outcome of a game. Oh, sure, players and coaches might say it gave them extra motivation after a win, but what about all those times a team has lost despite going into a game equipped with bulletin board material?

Funny how bulletin board material is never mentioned after a loss. I guess that’s because the team that didn’t shut up, put up.

  • Either that, or it’s because bulletin board material doesn’t mean squat.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what I think about bulletin board material, because if the clock strikes midnight on the Steelers’ 2020 season this Sunday evening at Heinz Field, the fans and media will have a convenient scapegoat to blame: JuJu’s mouth.

Just like with head coach Mike Tomlin’s interview with Tony Dungy back in 2017 where he mentioned a possible postseason rematch with the Patriots weeks before he knew he’d have to win a rematch with the Jaguars before even facing New England, folks will point to Smith-Schuster’s comments as the reason Pittsburgh lost to the Browns.

If you talk to someone during the offseason, they’ll bring up Smith-Schuster’s virtual press conference. If you listen to sports talk radio next summer ahead of the Steelers reporting to St. Vincents College for training camp (hopefully), they’ll cite Pittsburgh’s lack of focus and lack of respect for the Browns as to why the franchise came up short in the previous postseason.

Again, I think it’s silly, but it’s low-hanging fruit for the media and the masses, and it’s easy to blame intangibles such as quotes and a player’s social media activity than it is to acknowledge that the opposing team was just better on a certain day.

The Steelers and Browns have spent hours preparing for Sunday’s postseason clash, and to think, the outcome could actually be decided by JuJu Smith-Schuster’s perceived lack of respect for the Browns.

Unless the Steelers win, of course.

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

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

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Comeback over Colts: Roethlisberger Rebound Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

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

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

Avery Williamson, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

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

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

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Roethlisberger Lets It Rip vs Colts Proving Steelers Right All Along

If you are a Steelers fan who is used to “experts” telling you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you may have been confused as to why the team kept on trying to grind it out with an ineffective short-passing game during its recent three-game slide.

  • The Steelers went from 11-0 to 11-3, while the offense went from looking unstoppable to seeming totally anemic.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Colts

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to let it rip against the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The short-passing attack, one that had clearly been figured out by opposing defensive coordinators, was a bone of contention with just about everyone who watched and covered the team the previous month or so heading into Sunday’s game against the Colts at Heinz Field.

Even while head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were stating that execution was the problem, it appeared that scheme and predictability were the real culprits.

Throughout the first half of Sunday’s showdown against the Colts, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to try to execute its short-passing game vs. yet another defense that didn’t seem all that interested in adhering to social distancing.

  • The receivers were surrounded by defenders with each quick pass, and the offense accounted for a measly 98 yards in the first half.

“Why aren’t they changing anything,” you may have been screaming at your television, as the Colts opened up a 24-7 third-quarter lead. In fact, you may have no longer had a television following Pittsburgh’s pathetic four attempts to score after securing a first and goal from the one.

But, just like that, as if the Steelers were Rocky to Indianapolis’s Apollo when the former switched back to a lefty in the 15th round of Rocky II, the passing game began to open up. Roethlisberger started to go for the deep pass and hit receiver Diontae Johnson for a 39-yard score.

There were more deep throws — including one that led to a defensive pass interference penalty — and everything began to feel different. Roethlisberger’s arm didn’t look so lifeless. His supposedly injured knee didn’t seem so injured. In fact, he even moved around in the pocket a time or two.

Tony Romo, the now famed color analyst for CBS’ number one announcing crew, even mentioned that the Colts’ defenders were starting to back off. They could no longer dare Roethlisberger to beat them with intermediate-to-deep passes because he was doing precisely that.

The Steelers’ 17-point deficit had transformed into a 28-24 victory, complete with an AFC North crown that looked like a mere formality weeks ago before that puzzling slide began.

There was much speculation as to why the Steelers were so reluctant to move on from their short-passing attack that had proven to be quite successful early in the year before it no longer wasn’t.

Was it Roethlisberger’s health? Was it Roethlisberger’s reluctance to stand in the pocket behind a once-formidable line that had perhaps seen its best days? With a playoff berth already secure, were the Steelers simply protecting their most valuable asset at the expense of a few regular-season games?

We may never know for sure. But we do know a problem when we see one. NFL head coaches are fond of telling us that football is a simple game, that it’s not rocket science. Maybe that’s why we get so angry when a simple solution isn’t explored.

The Steelers did in the second half of Sunday’s game what so many fans had been insisting that they must do to get the offense moving again–and it worked.

Take a bow if you’re a Steelers fan who is reading this. Football isn’t so complicated, after all, and the answers to problems are often as simple as they seem.

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Rebound: Steelers Comeback, Beat Colts 28-24 as Roethlisberger Recovers Long Ball

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 at Heinz Field to improve their record to 12-3. That descriptive statement is correct. But it is hardly accurate as it fails to capture the decisive nature of the victory, including:

  • The dramatic, 17 point, second half comeback they authored
  • The fact that the win captured the AFC North crown for Pittsburgh
  • The sudden change in the tone and tenor of entire last month

The Steelers already had a playoff spot locked up, and the Browns cooperated by losing to the lowly Jets, thus they were ceding the AFC North to Pittsburgh anyway. But in beating the Colts, the Steelers showed something new, something they hadn’t shown all year.

The question the Steelers still must answer is: Was it just a blip or was it a true take away?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = SOS

If you’ve seen the Steelers last four games in December, you’ve already seen the Steelers first half effort against the Colts.

Jonathan Taylor, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Colts

Jonathan Taylor scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, T.J. Watt forced a fumble that Mike Hilton recovered. And while it was hardly a sure thing that Pittsburgh would convert that fumble into points on the board (see Benny Snell getting stuffed), James Conner did get the Steelers in the end zone to start the 2nd quarter. But by that time Jordan Berry had already punted 3 times and the Colts already had a touchdown.

Other than that it was ugly.

  • The Steelers punted on their next two series.
  • The Colts scored two touchdowns on theirs.

Sure, a penalty negated a Nyheim Hines 68-yard run that almost certainly would have resulted in another touchdown for the Colts, but Indianapolis was getting the ball back to start the 2nd half and a 28 to 7 lead only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “If.”

When in Doubt, Turn to the Terrible Towel…

Sometimes the stars line up. It was on December 27th 1976 against the Baltimore Colts that Myron Cope unleashed the Terrible Towel. The talisman that binds Steelers Nation was born.

Originally, the Terrible Towel was only supposed to be for playoff games or special regular season games where Cope would put out his call for the Towel. Could it awaken the Steelers from their slumber? Without Cope around to put out his “official” call would it help the Steelers “Snap out of it?”

  • There was one way to find out.

So yours truly went to his bottom drawer, opened the ziplock bag that holds the Terrible Towel that my mother bought for me at Pittsburgh’s South Side Hospital just after saying goodbye to my grandfather for the final time. The Terrible Towel was deployed.

Second Half: The Old Mr. Roethlisberger Roars to Life

The Steelers started the 2nd half as they’ve started every other quarter, by throwing it. But this time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting on his short routes. Then after 3 straight completions, Ben Roethlisberger rifled the ball out towards Chase Claypool with a pass that flew 45 yards in the air. For much of the year the best result of pass attempts like this has been to draw a pass interference penalty.

  • This time it was different. This time Roethlisberger was on the money and Claypool hauled in a 34 yard completion.

But the Steelers drive sputtered as Pittsburgh failed to convert on 4th and one. But the defense held and on Pittsburgh’s very next snap, Ben Roethlisberger fired a bullet that traveled 50 yards to Diontae Johnson for a 39 yard touchdown. The Steelers were in it again.

But against the Bills and then against the Bengals the Steelers offense had shown spurts of life only to fall short.

  • This time the Steelers were in it to win it.

    Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

    Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Eight plays (and two pass interference calls) later Roethlisberger was hooking up with Eric Ebron from five yards out to cut the Colts lead by three. The Steelers look a more methodical approach to their next drive, burning 4 and a half minutes off of the clock. James Conner actually got in a double digit run and two double–digit receptions.

But before they reached the Red Zone, Ben Roethlisberger let it rip to JuJu Smith-Schuster from 25 yards out and another touchdown strike. There were seven minutes and 38 seconds left in the game, and the Steelers were up 28-21, enjoying their first lead in 10 quarters…

…Could they hold it?

Steelers Defense Delivers

The revival of the Steelers offense in the 2nd half will dominate the conversation by the virtual water coolers in Steelers Nation Monday morning.

  • But 180 degree pivot authored by Pittsburgh’s defense was just as important.

I’ll let the film review delve into the nuances of the 2nd half adjustments that Keith Butler made, but several players stepped up at critical times in the 2nd half.

Cam Heyward, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Cam Heyward sacks Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Colts had their way with the Steelers defense in the first half, and they began the 2nd half marching down the field again. But once they got in the Red Zone, Stephon Tuitt sacked Philip Rivers on third and 3 forcing a field goal.

Its never good to be down 24-7, but that sure beats 28-7. Particularly when your defense can pitch a shut out. Which is what Pittsburgh’s defense pitched on the Colts next 5 drives:

  • Avery Williamson stuffed Jonathan Taylor and Indy’s 1 to help keep them bottled up
  • Williamson began the next drive with a sack, setting up a 3 and out
  • With the Colts at mid field, Cam Heyward sacked Philip Rivers on 3rd and 5 forcing a punt
  • Next, Alex Highsmith pressured Rivers into throwing a pass that Mike Hilton picked off
  • Finally, on 4th and 8 Highsmith again pressured Rivers into an incomplete pass

The Colts scored on their first drive of the 2nd half. They gained 52 yards in just over a minute on their last. In between they netted 45 yards on 14 plays that amounted to 3 punts and an interception.

Those numbers add up to a Steelers defense that delivered.

Can Steelers Sustain This?

Pittsburgh’s comeback wasn’t perfect. Ben Roethlisberger threw at least two passes that should have been intercepted. The running game remains AWOL. They couldn’t kill the clock. Nonetheless, just like back in like September, October and November it was enough to win.

But it is incorrect to say that in the 2nd half Steelers suddenly looked like their former 11-0 selves. Incorrect for a good reason:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to draw blood with deep balls was something new.

The question is: Was Ben just coaxing the last few long-balls that his arm has left in it or has Roethlisberger reestablished a rhythm with his deep ball?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain today:  If Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his deep ball, then then the Steelers are again legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

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Rebound or Reckoning? Steelers 26-15 Loss Shows Franchise Facing a Critical Crossroads

The Buffalo Bills defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-15, as the Steelers logged their 3rd game in 12 days. This is only the Steelers 2nd loss in 13 games, yet the feeling in Steelers Nation is nothing close to what one would expect for a team with a 11-2 record halfway through December.

  • Perhaps that’s as it should be.

It’s not so much that the Steelers lost to the Bills. It’s the way that they lost. This game hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s pre-half time pick-six. It was, as commentators love to tell us a “momentum changer.” The question now is this: Was this just a momentum changer for just this game or did it change the momentum for the entire season?

Taron Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bills

Taron Johnson’s hauls in his lethal pick six. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Contradicting the Conventional Wisdom: Steelers Strong for First 29 Minutes

Roll your eyes all you want. But in this scribe’s estimation, the Steelers actually looked pretty good for the game’s first 29 minutes. Was Pittsburgh perfect? Hardly.

  • Diontae Johnson promptly dropped the first two passes thrown to him
  • Eric Ebron dropped one thrown at him on third down, no less
  • Jordan Berry had punted five times before the 20 minute mark
  • James Conner had been stuffed for 1 yards, zero yards or negative yards several times
  • The Steelers had failed to turn a Mike Hilton interception into money

Clearly, Pittsburgh’s problems had not gone away. But it was also clear that the coaching staff had taken steps to address those problems. And those measures were working, at least on some level.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Perhaps, best of all, late in the 2nd half Josh Allen brought the Bills into the Steelers Red Zone and some stout play up front by Cam Heyward and Steven Nelson in the secondary helped the Steelers force a field goal. Holding a 7-3 lead while on the road against an all but certain division champion with 1:42 left in the game hardly implies domination.

But when you consider that the Steelers were without Joe Haden, effectively starting their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers and had lost another starter in the first half, a 7-3 lead was a good place to be.

The Steelers had control. Tenuous control certainly, but control nonethless.

  • And Mike Tomlin, to his credit and as his habit, wasn’t content to settle for that.

Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back and proceeded to move the Steelers to midfield with just over a minute left to play. Then Ben Roethlisberger made a bad decision to force a throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster. He made an even worse throw. Taron Johnson took it to the house and put Buffalo up 9 to 7.

The game wasn’t over, but the momentum had changed.

Allen and Diggs Pull Pittsburgh Apart

The Bills got the ball back to start the second half and credit Sean McDermott and his staff for making the ever important “second half adjustment.”

Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs proceeded to pull Pittsburgh apart and in the process they burned 5 minutes off of the clock in their first touchdown drive. The Bills did it again the next time they got the ball, and by time the 3rd quarter was over, Buffalo was up 23 to 15.

Rally, Roethlisberger Fall Short

Things looked bleak. The Bills had scored two touchdowns and the Steelers had done nothing other than send Jordan Berry out to punt twice. But for whatever else you want to say about the Steelers, no one can say they folded.

Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers on the board early in the 4th quarter. Eric Ebron atoned for his previous drop by hauling in a 2 point conversion. Suddenly the Steelers were with in 8 points.
Sure the Bills responded with a field goal, but on paper a win was still within the Steelers grasp.

Alas, that was not to be. On third and long, Ben Roethlisberger tried to go deep targeting James Washington. Washington was wide open, but Ben Roethlisberger put the ball frankly in the only spot on the field were Levi Wallace could get it.

He did, and the Bills nickel and dimed the Steelers by running 12 plays to kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Ben Roethlisberger passes during the Steelers loss to the Bills. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rebound or Reckoning?

After the game Ben Roethlisberger minced no words, explaining “Right now, we’re not playing good football, and it starts with me.” When asked if he and the Steelers had time to right the ship, Ben did not blink, “I hope so. If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.”

The first time Ben Roethlisberger uttered the “R” word was after the Steelers 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. After his 5 interception debacle against the Jaguars in October 2017, he openly mused about “Not having it anymore.”

  • That sounded ominous at the time.

But Ben Roethlisberger responded by playing some of the best football of his life in the 2nd half of 2017 and that saved the season as Ryan Shazier’s loss left the defense reeling.

  • Can history repeat?

It would make for a nice story. But NFL season rarely evolve like movie scripts.

The reality is as simple as it is stark. The Steelers defense is depleted. Pittsburgh lacks both the running backs and the offensive line to field a balanced attack. All of that means that hope for any rebound rests squarely with Roethlisberger.

  • If he can deliver, the result will be worthy of a Hollywood movie.

If not, then perhaps its time for Pittsburgh to begin reckoning with how they will manage the post-Roethlisberger era.

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