Case Closed: GroupThink Explains Myles Garrett Winning DPOY over T.J. Watt

The AP has named Myles Garrett as 2023’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year over T.J. Watt, and in doing so makes a mockery of itself and the entire process.

Truthfully, T.J. Watt’s 2023 season might not be worthy of a second DPOY award, because it is perhaps more worthy of an NFL MVP Award. But I digress.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans, T.J. Watt sack Will Levis no helmet

No helmet? No problem for T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

Let’s call a horse a horse here: Voting Myles Garrett over T.J. Watt for the NFL DPOY is an exercise in GroupThink pure and simple. Throughout the season, anyone who was even remotely tied into NFL threads on X (formerly known as Twitter) could see that there was a campaign underway pushing for Myles Garrett as 2023’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Two factors fuel GroupThink here. First is a palpable pro-Garrett sentiment in the press. Second is an infatuation with analytics, largely supplied by Pro Football Focus metrics.

The press likes Myles Garrett. By all accounts he’s a well-rounded person who readily engages with members of the media. That’s fine. Good relationships with the press often lead to positive coverage (see Najee Harris for a contrasting example.) That’s how the game is played.

But relationships shouldn’t trump facts, but when in Garrett’s case it has. Jim Wexell pointed this out on Steel City Insider shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph in the infamous Body Bag Game back in 2019. Reflecting on reactions of many Cleveland based reporters, Wexell offered this:

Listening to Cleveland-area reporters telling me how nice of a guy Garrett is, and how well he treats his dog, made me think of reporters interviewing neighbors of mass murderers. Yes, a bit much, but, honestly, Mason Rudolph could’ve been killed out there. “He was SUCH a nice, quiet guy who never bothered anyone. And what a LOVELY dog!”

While Wexell admits to exaggerating a bit, subsequent events proved his point. After Roger Goodell lifted his suspension, Garrett doubled down on his baseless, debunked claim that Mason Rudolph uttered the N-word during their scuffle.

Garrett’s claim went unchallenged to the point where Mike Tomlin did the unheard of by breaking his off season vowel of silence by joining Stephen Smith on ESPN to defend his quarterback.

  • The analytics nut is a bit harder to crack.

Advanced analytics certainly have their place in today’s NFL. They can be an excellent tool for uncovering contributions and achievements that remain hidden in standard box scores. Kenny Pickett’s quarter-by-quarter splits might offer an example here.

But over-reliance on analytics, either by coaches or the press creates a tail-wags the dog dynamic. Which is what’s happening with Myles Garrett, who apparently does exceptionally better than his peers in penetrating pass coverage.

  • Fine. But the result of what you do after you get past the offensive lineman that drives excellence.

And in that, T.J. Watt wins hands down. Some times raw numbers reveal a truth that advanced analytics can’t obscure:

T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Micha Parsons

Numbers don’t lie: T.J. Watt should be 2023’s NFL DPOY

But of course there are those who try to argue that it’s as much about quality as it is quantity. So let’s take a look at a highlights reveal a little bit about the quality vs quantity debate. Here’s a clip of T.J. Watt’s interception against the Rams this past season:

Now let’s look at a clip of a Myles Garrett interception from the past season…. Oh, wait a minute. He doesn’t have one.

Scores serve as an excellent differentiator when evaluating defenders. So let’s take a look at T.J. Watt’s touchdown from the season:

That wasn’t just a splash play, it came at a critical moment and sealed the Steelers win over the Browns. Now, let’s look at a Myles Garrett scoring play from the 2023 season…. Oh, wait a minute, Myles Garrett didn’t have a scoring play.  (And this was a close game. Garrett had multiple opportunities to make a similar play. He didn’t. Just Saying….)

And this barely scratches the depths of the pro-Garett GroupThink movement. In the eyes of one commentator, Garrett is more versatile than T.J. Watt.

Fortunately, Steelers reporter Mike Frazer wasn’t having any of it.

 

Yes, facts can be stubborn things, but they come up short against GroupThink.

Myles Garrett beat out T.J. Watt because it many felt it was “His turn” and perhaps because Cam Heyward won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and as L.C. Greenwood’s absence from the Hall of Fame attest to, the “too many Steelers” mentality is real.

JJ Watt was right when he stated: “Myles is a phenomenal player, I’m a big fan and he’s had an incredible career so far. I can acknowledge that while also wondering what more TJ could have possibly done.”

T.J. Watt couldn’t have done more, and frankly should have needed to.

But it is what it is.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Browns: Nightmares Like its 1999 Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worrying that he hasn’t seen a quarterbacking nightmare like this since 1999, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 road loss to the Browns.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Too high! Diontae Johnson reaches for a poorly thrown pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 15 of 28 for 106 yards. In this case “…at least he didn’t turn over the ball eh” does not apply. Pickett inaccurate and especially so on third downs. The lion’s share of his 15 completions were safe, check down route. The Steelers haven’t seen type of timid, 3 yard passing plays since the days for Kordell Stewart in 1999. Grade: Fsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren ran for 129 yards, and while the biggest chunk of that came on his 74 yard explosion, he had several other good runs. Najee Harris had 35 yards on 12 carries, with half of that coming on one carry. The Steelers could not afford “Sludge Ball” when Harris was carrying, but that’s what they got. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth’s much ballyhooed return resulted in one catch for 7 yards. Darnell Washington had a catch for 8. It wasn’t that the tight ends were necessarily bad, but they weren’t an asset. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the team with 4 catches for 38 yards. Again this is not a misprint of a Charles Lockett stat line from the 1980s. Allen Robinson was next with 3 catches for 20 yards. Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 16 yards and was misaligned with Pickett on another play. He’s now claiming on social media that he ran the right route and openly griping in the locker room. Ouch. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked 3 times, but the first one set the tone for the game (and should have been a safety) the second one came on third down, and the final one helped force a field goal when a touchdown would have given the Steelers the lead. He was only hit 4 other times, but he was under pressure for much of the game. The run blocking was good at times. Run blocking took a step back. Sometimes holes were there, other times both Warren and Harris were either getting hit behind the line of scrimmage or met walls when they got there. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers limited the Browns running backs to sludge ball of their own with Cam Heyward and Keeanu Benton making their presence known. More pressure on Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been nice. Grade: B

Linebackers
Elandon Roberts stepped up in the absence of the other two members of the starting troika and led the team with 15 tackles including 2 for losses. T.J. Watt only had one sack but that helped get the ball back for the Steelers in a tie game. Mykal Walker didn’t stand out in his first start, which is good. Grade: B

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. and Patrick Peterson both had tipped passes while Chandon Sullivan had two with Sullivan coming down with a very difficult interception. Damontae Kazee looked solid. The Browns were 4-17 on third down conversions – worse than the Steelers, if you’ll believe. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, Calvin Austin was strong as a punt returner, Pressley Harvin had one bad one that went off the side of his foot, but other than that was strong. Punt coverage was a little leaky. Grade: B-

Coaching
The Steelers came into the week starting a raft of practice squanders on defense, and at times early in the game that was painfully obvious. However, once the Steelers defense settled down, they started making Dorian Thompson-Robinson look like a rookie.

One can criticize Teryl Austin’s group for giving up the final field goal drive, but with the game tied the defense delivered the ball to the offense twice in the game’s final six minutes.

  • The Steelers offense, outside of the play of Jaylen Warren, was an unmitigated disaster.

Pressley Harvin punted four times in the first half alone. And if the touchdown to open the second half was good, And although a touchdown to open the second half was nice, it is yet another case of Matt Canada’s offense being able to drop an random a pure big play into a bucket full of raw sewage.

If it is true that Kenny Pickett NEEDED to make some of those passes with the game on the line why wasn’t Jaylen Warren given a carry at clutch time when the Steelers needed to both move the ball and get a score?

Worse yet, sniping started almost immediately in the locker room after the game. Mike Tomlin needs to fix this. Fast. Grade: F

Trenton Thompson, Steelers vs Browns

Trenton Thompson bats away a pass on third down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Going into the game Mike Tomlin made a distinction between practice squad players who were “developmental” and “capable” with Mykal Walker falling into the latter category. However, it was it was the “developmental” guy who kept a lid on the top of the Steelers defense was stepping up twice to bat away passes, once in the Red Zone and once on third down and for that Trenton Thompson wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland.

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Brown Out: Steelers Lose to Browns 13-10 as Offense, Kenny Pickett Stumbles Down Stretch

In so many ways the Steelers trip to Cleveland was like other games earlier in the season as it featured:

  • A slow start
  • A dramatic big play on offense
  • 2nd half defensive fireworks
  • A field goal coming on to the field to settle things as regulation expired

Yet, this one had a different result, as the Browns beat the Steelers 13 to 10 on a last minute Dustin Hopkins field goal. The reason this one was different for Pittsburgh is simple: Kenny Pickett not only failed to find his 4th quarter magic, his performance suggested that the previous examples were mere mirages.

Kenny Pickett, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs Browns

Myles Garrett sacks Kenny Pickett in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Browns Start Strong, Steelers Sputter

The 9 game the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have been a historical aberration. They’ve been outgained in all of their games and collectively outscored. Yet they arrived in Cleveland after having passed the season’s half way mark with a 6-3 record.

  • Were they a bad team hiding behind a couple of three on Any Given Sundays?
  • Or where they a good team struggling to find themselves?

As staff writer Tony Defeo observed on X (formerly known as Twitter):

Could the Browns offer something of a real test?

After all, they’d lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson for the season and were starting rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But the Steelers had lost Kwon Alexander, Kenau Neal and were already missing all Pro Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and forced to start practice squanders Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson at inside linebacker and safety.

Credit the Browns PR staff for selling the “Browns locker room rallies around the rookie story” as the CBS broadcast crew kept touching on threads tied to this story line every chance they got.

  • But credit Kevin Stefanski and his staff for breathing truth into this narrative.

No one would mistake Cleveland for an offensive juggernaut nor did its defense go into shut down mode, but they were clearly the better-prepared unit in the first half, as the Browns scored 10 points while the Steelers spent the first quarter burning time outs on both sides of the ball to avoid penalties.

And while the Steelers defense hung tough in the Red Zone late in the first half by forcing a field goal, with the Steelers offense completely AOWL, Pittsburgh was lucky to be down by only 10.

Meet the Steelers One Man Offense

The Steelers got to the ball to open the second half. On first down Najee Harris got the nod, and ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage, gaining one yard. Another 30 minutes of “Sludge Ball” seemed to be in order.

Warren ripped off a 74 yard run that was even more impressive than his cousin Fast Willie Parker’s 75 yard Super Bowl XL romp. In the blink of an eye, Warren had gained more yards than the entire Steelers offense had gained in the first half and he’d putt Pittsburgh to within three.

Jaylen Warren was literally the only thing about the Steelers offense that worked against the Browns. He followed his touchdown with a 14 yard catch, a 21 yard run and a 12 yard run. Would Warren have been able to “take over the game” had Matt Canada given him a chance?

It is hard to be sure.

But clearly he was out performing Najee Harris behind an offensive line whose run blocking was shaky enough. Hindsight’s 20/20, but the Steelers should have leaned on Warren more.

Defense Delivers 2nd Half Fireworks

Statistically speaking the Steelers 2023 defense ranks near the bottom both against the run and against the past. They’ve made a lot of fantasy football owners happy this season. But they’ve found a way to deliver when the game is on the line.

Sunday’s trip to Cleveland was no exception:

All of that was good enough for the Steelers defense to force punts on 5 punts the Browns six the second half possessions. Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked like a frustrated, clueless rookie through much of it.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to do something Kenny Pickett wasn’t able to do – get his team into field goal range inside the 2 minute warning.

Pickett Regresses

Kenny Pickett finished 2022 with a bang. He started 2023 with a thud. He looked terrible in blowouts to the 49ers and Texans and in the week 2 win over the Browns.

  • In his six wins his MO has been the same: Start slow, finish strong.

Narrative spinners in Steelers Nation have liked to talk about Pickett’s 4th quarter magic as if its been something he turns on at will during the game’s final 15 minutes. But the truth is that he’s gotten progressively better as games have worn on.

Others may disagree, but even in the loss to the Jaguars he seemed to be improving on the “eye test” before he got hurt. Last week’s win over the Packers was a little different. Pickett did get a little better as the game progressed, but his improvement was marginal.

  • Against the Browns it was next to non-existent.

Kenny Pickett converted just 2 of 11 third downs passing. After the Steelers tied the game with 7:44 remaining, Teryl Austin’s defense forced two punts and limited the Browns to just 10 plays. That gave Pickett and the Steelers offense 2 possessions to get 3 points in the game’s final minutes.

Yes, Pickett did start that stretch with a nice hook up to George Pickens. After that he threw 5 passes, completing only one of those. Those incompletions are damning enough, but if you really want to understand how Pickett has come up short look at his completion: A 2 yards pass to Jaylen Warren on third and 15.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Steelers haven’t seen such timid play at quarterback since Kordell Stewart and the dark days of the 1999 season.

For those of you who’ve forgotten or are too young to remember, the 1999 Steelers won just six games. Its no exaggeration to say that if Kenny Pickett doesn’t find a way to pick it up, the Steelers might finished 2023 with a similar total.

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Defense Creates Its Own Destiny in Steelers 26-22 Win over Browns on MNF

It wasn’t pretty.

At times it was actually butt ugly.

It confirmed more doubts that it dispelled, at least on one side of the ball.

What the Steelers 26-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football means for the rest of their season remains very much an open question.

But there’s one thing we do know now: Pittsburgh won because they prevailed in the game’s critical “Reality Football” football moments.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Stats Don’t Win Games, Players Do

“A Most betraying box score,” was the first headline I saw the morning after the game. It was in an email from The Athletic. And let’s agree: the stats don’t paint a pretty picture for Pittsburgh. Consider:

  • The Browns outgained the Steelers 411 to 258 yards
  • Cleveland logged 21 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 9
  • The men from the Mistake by the Lake dominated time of possession 35:28 to 24:32

And no, I won’t go to “So and So made their Fantasy Football owners happy BUT…” again, because it would be flat out wrong. That’s because Jerome Ford, Amari Cooper and Nick Chubb both delivered for their team in multiple key moments.

But the Steelers defense came up bigger in the game’s critical moments. Before we dive into that, let’s discuss the Nick Chubb situation.

Yeah, But What About Chubb, Watson and the Penalties Etc…

First, Godspeed and good luck to Nick Chubb in his recovery whose injury is almost as gruesome as gruesome Joe Theismann’s was.

As it relates to the game, many are saying “The Steelers wouldn’t have won had Chubb not been hurt.” They’re probably right. So are those who argue “Had Deshaun Watson not self-destructed, the Browns would have won.” Or “Cleveland killed itself with penalties.”

All of that is irrelevant.

The Steelers 1-1 record doesn’t come with an asterisk today. Nor will Roger Goodell add one at the end of the season, just as Pete Rozelle never added an asterisk to Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record because Rocky and Franco both got hurt in the 1976 AFC Championship game.

Injuries and errors are both a part of football, and winners are ones who can capitalize on them.

Steelers D Dominates on Weighty Downs

Anytime a defense outscores an offense in football, we tend to describe the defense as “dominant.” Yet, the Steelers defense gave up runs of 69 and 20 yards and passes of 23 and 29 yards. And frankly, Cleveland made it look easy. Just think back to Deshaun Watson converting a 3rd and 13th while standing on his own 3. He made it look so easy Troy Aikman was left in disbelief.

  • Indeed, that was a key moment of “situational football” that the Browns offense won.
  • And it likely would have been a critical moment had the Steelers defense not created bigger moments.
Joey Porter Jr., Elijah Moore, Steelers vs Browns

Joey Porter Jr. tips a pass away from Elijah Moore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith set the tone by picking off a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected and taking it to the house on the game’s very first play. Ten plays later Joey Porter did it again, by batting away a pass and forcing a field goal.

  • The defense didn’t get to rest much.

Kenny Pickett almost gave the Browns a layup, throwing an interception with his third pass of the night on Pittsburgh’s 16. Larry Ogunjobi sacked Watson on the next play. His next pass went for one yard. Ogunjobi got credited for defending a pass on the ensuring third down. Then the Browns missed a field goal.

And that was the story of the night:

  • When the Browns went for it on 4th, Montravius Adams stripped Watson, as Ogunjobi recovered
  • With Cleveland threating to score to close the first half, T.J. Watt forced a field goal by sacking sacked Watson.
  • Cole Holcomb forced another fumble in late in the third quarter
  • Alex Highsmith answered Moore’s third down conversion with a strip sack, that Watt recovered and scored on.

And Joey Porter closed the game the way he opened it, by batting away a ball on 4th down. While it still has its warts, the Steelers defense showed it can create its own destiny.

The Steelers Offense: From Reality Football to a Reality Check

While the Steelers defense made a statement following their awful performance against the Browns, their offense did the opposite.

Sure, Kenny Pickett had a nice connection with George Pickens. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped off a handful of authoritative plays. Calvin Austin came down with a very nice third down converting pass, catching a bullet that Pickett tucked into a tight coverage window.

  • Those were all excellent, highlight-worthy plays.

The problem is they were the only positive plays Pittsburgh’s offense made all night. Thank God the Steelers defense scored on their first and last turnovers. Because the other two resulted in a total of 4 plays that led to a fumble and a punt.

  • How bad was the Steelers offense?

Going into the 4th quarter it needed 2 points to take the lead. Not only did the offense need the defense to score those points, but Kenny Pickett and company actually netted negative 5 yards.

All of the progress the offensive line appeared to make last season seems like a mirage. For once, Matt Canada doesn’t look as bad as his critics say he is. He looks worse. And Kenny Pickett looks lost.

Time for Less Work, More Progress

Against the Browns the Steelers defense showed itself as a unit capable of creating its own destiny. As for the offense? Bob Labriola, fully admitting to being charitable, remains a work in progress.

Fair enough. But next week against the Raider the offense had better start proving it is capable of making that progress.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sad to see summer starting so early, but encouraged by his students 2nd semester spring, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for their win over the Cleveland Browns in the 2022 season finale.

Najee Harris, Grant Delpit, Steelers vs Browns

Grant Delpit can’t stop Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett completed 13 of 29 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Pickett wasn’t perfect. There were times when he tried to force the ball to receivers while others were open, and his deep passes were off target. But the Steelers converted 9 of 15 third downs, with Pickett convert 3 third downs on their final drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 84 yards on 23 carries and his 3.7 yards per carry average doesn’t due justice to the fight he show and his ability to force piles to fall forward. Harris also caught one pass for 10 yards, while Derek Watt ran once for one yard and a touchdown. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had two targets but no catches for the first time in memory. Zach Gentry had on catch, but it was for 23 yards and helped jumpstart the Steelers first touchdown drive. The real star here was Connor Heyward, who 3 catches on 4 targets two of which converted third downs on the final touchdown drive. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens caught 3 passes for 72 yards on six targets and may have gotten screwed out of a completion on the sidelines. But Pickens came up with clutch catches, whether in the end zone or on third down. Diontae Johnson will close the 2022 without a regular season touchdown, but he did catch 2 passes on 10 targets in addition to a two point conversion. Steven Sims had one jet sweep for 16 yards, while Gunner Olszewski and 2 for four yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once and only hit twice, impressive considering the presence of Myles Garrett on the other side. The run blocking could have been a little better, but the Steelers ran the all when they needed to. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Nick Chubb averaged 6.4 yards a carry – but never got into a rhythm thanks in part to the Steelers stuffing him on other carries. Cam Heyward had another age-defying day leading the unit with 8 tackles, 4 QB hits, 1 batted pass and 2 sacks. Actually, it should be 3 sacks, but he was flagged for roughing the passer on a make up call for Larry Ogunjobi’s uncalled face mask on his sack. Grade: B+

T.J. Watt, Myles Jack, Nick Chubb, Steelers vs Browns

Gang tackle! Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith led the unit with 8 tackles apiece, with Highsmith adding 2 and half sacks and 3 QB hits. T.J. Watt had half a sack and while he wasn’t credited for a tackle for a loss, he did have several for no gain. Myles Jack had four tackles while Mark Robinson saw more action but blitzed when he should have stayed in coverage leading to a long pass on a scoring drive. The linebackers did well, but let Deshaun Watson slip through their fingers too many times. Grade: B

Secondary
The Browns were 5-12 on third down with long passes of 38 and 36 yards. Levi Wallace changed the game with his interception before the half, killing Cleveland’s two minute drill and allowing Pittsburgh to take the lead. Damontae Kazee’s interception in the 2nd half confirmed, allowing the Steelers to add 10 points in mere minutes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 10 tackles while James Pierre and Cam Sutton had a pass defense. Grade: A-

Special Teams
The Browns only average 18 yards per kick return but did have one 35 yarder, plus a longer won that negated by a penalty. Chris Boswell hit both of his field goals Steven Sims did a respectable job returning punts, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
Will this be Matt Canada’s last game as Steelers offensive coordinator? Mike Tomlin wasn’t saying at his season ending press conference. If it was Canada’s final game, it will have been the best outing for his offense.

No one would mistake Canada’s offense in the finale for, say, the explosive 1995 Steelers offense that featured “Slash,” but Pittsburgh executed a balanced plan, controlled the clock and despite some early hiccups, finished drives in the Red Zone. “Chunk plays” were still spared, but at they also took shots down field.

Teryl Austin closed the season with a strong effort. The Browns only put 13 points on the board and, while the decision not to handoff more to Nick Chubb is a bit of a head scratcher, the numbers say that Austin’s defense limited his effectiveness.

One thing Austin will have to do in future meetings is scheme better to prevent Watson from breaking out, as he did that far too often.

Mike Tomlin earns some criticism for not challenging the first touchdown run, as a score there could have set up a blowout. Even if the offense did fumble the ball away two plays later, the defense forced a punt, revealing a team that was mentally prepared to execute in the biggest game of the season.

Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Browns

Jaylen Warren wills himself to a 1st down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As Tomlin himself concedes, the Steelers 2022 evolutionary process now comes to a “screeching halt” but his team is peaking as the season ends, which is always a sign of good coaching. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
George Pickens will likely earn ESPN highlights for his catch. Connor Heyward will turn heads. But this player caught the ball — well behind the line of scrimmage — on third down with his QB getting hit, and while he was in a sea of Brown jerseys and yet willed himself a 1st down on a drive that ended with the Steelers touchdown. For that Jaylen Warren win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 season finale win over the Browns.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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A Look @ the 6 Times the Steelers Have Needed Help To Make the Playoffs Since 2013

The history of the Steelers and making the playoffs includes some famous years when they somehow managed to beat the odds and got in after winning their final regular-season game and also getting some outside help.

The 1989 Steelers obviously the most famous example, the Immaculate Reception (if you will) of times that Pittsburgh needed multiple things to fall its way on the final week of the regular season in order to punch its postseason ticket.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

The 1993 Steelers are an underrated example, perhaps because, unlike Chuck Noll’s Cinderella Steelers from a few years earlier, Bill Cowher’s boys, a more talented team that actually underachieved in ’93, didn’t manage to win a playoff game after a few things fell into place which allowed them to sneak into the postseason as the sixth seed in the AFC.

Of course there’s the case of the 2005 Steelers, who also needed help to make the playoffs. They not only got that help (by the final week they were in a “win and we’re in” situation), but won Super Bowl XL, playing all of their games on the road.

There were other times prior to the 2010s when the Steelers went into the final week of the regular season facing a “win-and-need-help” scenario in order to advance into the postseason but did not get the assistance they were looking for.

The Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs by the time their game against the Chargers kicked off at 4 p.m. out on the West Coast.

However, unfortunately for the Black and Gold the Colts, a team also interested in making the playoffs, did them no favors, as they beat up on a Vikings squad that already had its playoff seed wrapped up and had nothing to play for.

The Vikings, actually gave the Colts a run for their money. But then during the game, starter Daunte Culpepper got nicked, and head coach wasted little time putting his starter on ice until the playoffs. Culpepper’s backup was none other than Bubby Brister, who in his final game as a pro, once again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. 

The Steelers didn’t face another such scenario until 2009, the year in which head coach Mike Tomlin said his struggling team would unleash hell in December. Pittsburgh did eventually get around to raising some hell but not before putting its playoff fate in the hands of other devils in the AFC, including Tomlin’s colleagues, Jim Caldwell and Bill Belichick, who chose to rest their starters against teams who were fighting the Steelers for the final wildcard spots in the AFC.

Anyway, it used to be quite rare for the Steelers to go into their final regular-season game needing to win and get some help in order to make the postseason. But while I could only come up with five examples between 1989 and 2009, it’s now a common occurrence for Pittsburgh to head into the final week with its playoff hopes resting firmly in the arms of other teams that may or may not have anything to play for.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers head into Week 18 needing to defeat the Browns at Acrisure Stadium this Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. While that is hopefully taking place, the Dolphins, a team that’s lost five games in a row but is still alive for the playoffs, needs to lose at home to the Jets, a team that has lost five games in a row and is no longer alive for the playoffs.

Also, the Bills, a team that may or may not still be vying for the top seed at kickoff, needs to defeat the Patriots, a squad that’s still alive for the playoffs, at home.

  • I actually give the Steelers more than a puncher’s chance.

Why? Because these things tend to even out over time. Or, at least I’d like to think so. You see, this will be the sixth time the Steelers have faced this exact scenario since 2013, and the Steelers have a “record” of 2-3.

So even though the Steelers beat the odds as recently as 2021 when the downtrodden Jaguars took out a Colts team that controlled its own destiny, I’d say they’re still due to even their “record” at 3-3.

Over the past 10 seasons, the Steelers have been let down by Ryan Succop (2013) and propped up by Sexy Rex Ryan (2015).

They have also been disappointed in Baker Mayfield (2018) and the complacent Titans (2019).

No matter how things shake out, it’s just amazing that the Steelers have faced this scenario so many times over the past 10 regular seasons.

Is that an indictment of Tomlin? Is that just the nature of NFL parity and something the Steelers managed to avoid for far-too-many seasons?

  • I don’t know, but it is kind of crazy.

At any rate, I sure hope the Steelers win their game, get the help they need, and stamp their ticket to the tournament.

A seventh seed and a trip to Kansas City/Buffalo/Cincinnati never looked so appealing.

 

 

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Report Card For Steelers 29-17 Loss To Browns on TNF

Quarterback

Mitchell Trubisky had his best game of the 2022 regular season against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, that might be damning Trubisky with faint praise. Yes, he did look much better in the first half while leading the offense to two scoring drives, including a one-yard run to give Pittsburgh a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter. But the offense was almost non-existent in the second half and was forced to punt on its first three possessions. All-in-all, Trubisky completed 20 of 32 passes for 207 yards and may have had a slightly better night had receiver Diontae Johnson been able to hold onto a pass down the right sideline late in the third quarter with the Browns leading, 16-14. Grade: C

Running Backs

Najee Harris had his best game of the young season, rushing for 56 yards and a five-yard touchdown on 15 carries. Meanwhile, rookie Jaylen Warren had a bit of a breakout game in his own right, rushing for 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately for Warren–and Trubisky and his night–a short pass that resulted in a 35-yard catch and run by Warren early in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty on right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and killed a promising Steelers drive that may have extended their one-point halftime lead. Grade: C+

Tight Ends

Pat Freiermuth didn’t catch any passes until the final moments when he reeled in two for 41 yards with the Steelers desperately trying to claw their way back from a 23-14 hole. Zach Gentry didn’t receive a single target all night. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Rookie George Pickens made the catch of the year when, while falling backward, he reached out with his left hand to snag a pass from Trubisky for a 36-yard gain in the first half. Sadly, Pickens would go on to catch just two more passes for two more yards. Johnson had a decent night, catching eight passes for 84 yards. He may have had an even bigger night had he been able to pull in that aforementioned deep ball from Trubisky late in the third period. Yes, he was covered well on the play and would have had to make a one-handed grab, but he’s the big money man of the receiving corps now and could have helped his quarterback out at that point in a close game. Grade: C

Offensive Line

The line played its best game of the 2022 campaign. But even though Trubisky was only sacked once and hit twice, and even though the Steelers rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries for 4.7, the offense was so impotent in the second half that it’s hard to give the unit anything but an average grade. Throw in the critical penalty on Okorafor that wiped on a huge gain, and that hurts the unit’s cause even more. Grade: C

Defensive Line

To say this Steelers’ defense, the highest-paid in the NFL, is simply average without T.J. Watt would be an understatement, and that starts up front with the defensive line. Cameron Heyward has been invisible since Watt’s injury. Has he faced more double teams? Sure, but that should be freeing up other guys to make plays, and they really have not. Larry Ogunjobi did record half a sack, but the Browns also rushed for 171 yards on 38 carries. Grade: C-

Linebackers

Both Myles Jack and Devin Bush had productive nights at inside linebacker, tallying 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. As for the outside linebackers, Alex Highsmith had a really good night, registering eight tackles, two quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. Unfortunately, Highsmith’s counterparts on the other side–including Malik Reed and Jamir Jones–were sort of just there. Grade: B

Secondary

Not a good night for the secondary, as receiver Amari Cooper–seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown–and tight end David Njoku–nine receptions for 89 yards and a score–dominated the entire game. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had the game of his life in Week 1, failed to come close to that kind of performance for the second week in a row–and the Steelers need him to do that on a consistent basis with Watt out of action for some time. Grade: D

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell proved that he wasn’t automatic from inside of 50 yards, by pulling a 49-yard attempt wide right early in the game. True, Boswell was kicking in windy conditions, but a successful try may have changed how the game unfolded down the stretch. Pressley Harvin III, 42.4 yards per punt on five boots, was solid if unspectacular. The return game was just there. Grade: C

Coaching

I hate to use a cliche and say that Mike Tomlin and Co. were outcoached over the final two periods after the Steelers played their best half to start the game, but it sure felt like it, didn’t it? Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is once again the subject of fan wrath thanks to an uninspired second-half showing. As for Teryl Austin, defensive guru Brian Flores and Tomlin, the brain trust of the defense, why haven’t they been able to scheme up any quarterback pressure in Watt’s absence? Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award

Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. held up quite well against Myles Garrett all night.

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You III: Steelers Sign Larry Ogunjobi, Veteran AFC North Defensive Lineman

The Pittsburgh Steelers have responded to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement by falling back on what has been their off season mantra: Feed the hand that slaps you.

  • In this case this involves signing defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to a one year contract.

Larry Ogunjobi is no stranger to Steelers fans, Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he played for the Mistake by the Lake for four years. Following that he took a cruise down I-71 and sigened with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Browns

Larry Ogunjobi glares at Mason Rudolph after shoving him to the ground. Photo Credit:

Larry Ogunjobi 16 games for the Bengals in 2021, recording 7 sacks, 12 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, for Ogunjobi he injured his right foot in the Bengals playoff game against the Oakland er um Las Vegas Raiders and missed the rest of the post season.

  • The injury unfortunately prevented Ogunjobi from cashing on his “prove it” deal with the Bengals.

In March he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Bears worth a totaling $40.5 million and, if reports are correct, got $26.3 million guaranteed. However, when Ogunjobi failed a physical and Chicago withdrew their offer.

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has pointed out, Larry Ogunjobi has more tackles against the Steelers than against any other teams.

But Steelers fans will undoubtedly remember him from the infamous 2019 “Body Bag Game” at Cleveland Stadium. Shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi pushed Mason Rudolph to the ground. That action earned him a 1 game suspension, which was lenient given that he’d crossed the field of play to interject himself into a fight.

So like fellow new defenders Genard Avery Myles Jack and Levi Wallace, the Steelers signed yet another player who has caused Pittsburgh pain in the past (at least Avery Jack and Wallace did so legally….)

Defensive Line Depth Shored Up

Larry Ogunjobi probably doesn’t alter the Steelers projected starting depth chart for St. Vincents, with Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley expected to begin camp as starters. Assuming he arrives in Latrobe in full health, Ogunjobi could push Wormley or perhaps Alualu for a starting job.

Isaiahh Loudermilk quest for playing time just got more complicated and Montravius Adams’ lease on a roster spot just got looser. As for Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis? None of those men would would be wise to sign long-term leases in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Third round pick DeMarvin Leal remains a lock to make the team, but if he wants to get a helmet, he’d better bone up on his special teams.

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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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