The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonaldthis offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?
Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters
A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.
At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.
The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups
Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader,Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.
The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End
Again, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)
With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.
After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.
No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High
Ben Roethlisberger took one for the team. Making good on his pledge to do what was necessary for the Steelers to field a competitive team in 2021, the veteran starting Steelers quarterback agreed to a pay cut to the tune of about 5 million dollars and in doing so he is saving Pittsburgh 15 million dollars in salary cap space due to “voidable years.”
Ben will be back. The biggest question of the Steelers off season has been settled.
Now, what does it mean and what have we learned? Let’s find out.
Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
1. Big Ben is a Team Player After All
While this wasn’t the “Ben put his money where his mouth is” and take the veteran minimum salary to return scenario outlined here a few weeks ago, but this is nothing to sneeze at.
“Oh, but wait, he’s already cashed $253 million checks from Dan and Art Rooney.” Yes he has.
When was the last time you gave up $5 million dollars? Perhaps better yet, when was the last time you went to your boss and said, “You know what? I’ll take 5 thousand dollars less this year so that you can give raises to the rest of the team. ” Yeah, I’ve never done that either. Enough said.
Ben Roethlisberger gave back 5 million dollars, 5 million that almost certainly go to resigning other players in the Steelers locker room. Ben does have his faults, he might not be a perfect team player, but he’s a team player.
2. The Steelers Relationship with Roethlisberger is Changing
One of the more interesting and disturbing narratives circulating around Steelers Nation has been that Ben Roethlisberger is somehow hostile to running the ball and insists on running an offense that sees him throw the ball 50 times a game.
What says more is that the contract contains voidable years, which in pure business terms means this is a one year deal.
3. Salary Cap Hell Likely Becomes Salary Cap Purgatory
Between the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward’s restructure and Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, the Steelers now are under the projected salary cap of 280 million dollars.
That’s good, but the team only has 33 players under contract for 2021.
More work, in the form of restructures, or perhaps moves to waive veterans such as Vince Williams, remains to be done. Resigning Bud Dupree likely means that other teams will shy away form his torn ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be back either.
2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.
While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.
So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:
“There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.”
The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.
Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.
But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.
Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.
Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:
2021 Unrestricted Free Agents
Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle Danny Isidora, Guard Jordan Berry, Punter
With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.
That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.
Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?
The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.
J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the NFL and the best player in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise, was released by the team on Friday per Watt’s request.
If you’re a Steelers fan, that likely means you want Pittsburgh to bring Watt to town so he can be reunited with his younger brothers, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt.
Would it make sense for the Steelers to sign Watt? Duh.
He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and while he’s clearly already played his best football, at 31, Watt is the same age as Cam Heyward and appears to have some good years left. But would it work schematically? I don’t know much, but I do know that any defensive coach worth his salt BETTER make Watt fit into his system. Otherwise, he probably shouldn’t be a defensive coach in the NFL.
Of course, J.J. Watt would be a great fit for the Steelers defense.
For that matter, the eldest Watt brother would be a great fit for Pittsburgh and would arguably be the biggest sports star in town the moment he arrived.
J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today
In terms of charisma, T.J., someone who seems to be more James Harrisonthan he is Joey Porter, pales in comparison to his big brother. No, J.J. would be great for the Steelers and Steeler Nation…in theory.
But there is the matter of finding the creative financing to make such a deal work. As you know, the Steelers find themselves firmly in salary cap hell and are still millions above the projected number for 2021, this despite only having 30-plus players under contract.
Team president Art Rooney II has already stated that the Steelers can’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back for 2021 under his current deal. At first, it appeared that a simple restructuring, something the Steelers’ executives have become experts at, would be the compromise between team and player. Now, it appears that the smart money is on Roethlisberger agreeing to take less money if he wants to come back next year.
If the Steelers figure all that out with their aging franchise quarterback and are able to free up enough cap space to sign J.J. Watt, why not use that money to address more pressing areas of the team?
For example, if the Steelers could get J.J. Watt to sign with them for $10 million a year, couldn’t they convince Tyson Alualu, a pending free agent, to stay in Pittsburgh for much less? The Steelers would still have a more than formidable defensive line and, oh yes, they could perhaps use that extra money to sign slot corner Mike Hilton.
What about signing another tight end in free agency following the retirement of Vance McDonald?
Speaking of retirements, long-time center Maurkice Pouncey finally announced his on Friday after 11 mostly glorious years. Pouncey’s departure weakens an offensive line that was already in decline. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use that J.J. Watt money to shore up the center position?
There could be other factors involved, don’t get me wrong. Maybe Pittsburgh feels the need to lure J.J. to town just so it will be easier to lock T.J. into a lock-term deal when the time finally comes.
Finally, I hate to call a player of J.J. Watt’s caliber and legacy a luxury signing, but I think his addition to the team would be just that.
The Steelers have more pressing needs than another great defensive lineman. If they’re going to open up a new line of credit in the form of contract restructurings and player releases, perhaps they should use it more responsibly.
Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.
The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.
Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.
How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.
Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.
David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.
Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.
If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.
Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach
The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.
The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.
Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.
Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-
Tight Ends Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-
Wide Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+
James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F
Defensive Line Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B
Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com
Secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-
Special Teams Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.
Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.
Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B
Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.
However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.
Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.
Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.
Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.
Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B
Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.
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Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review
The emergence of George Kittle, a fifth-round pick in 2017, made Vance McDonald expendable to the 49ers, while less-than-desirable performances by their tight ends during that summer’s training camp made McDonald desirable to the Steelers. It also didn’t hurt that McDonald had just recently inked a deal with the 49ers and would be under Pittsburgh’s control for a few years.
Unfortunately for McDonald and the Steelers, he never quite realized his full potential during the entirety of his eight-year career but especially his four seasons in Pittsburgh.
Sure, he showed flashes, like on Monday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2018 campaign when he stiff-armed Buccaneers’ defensive back Chris Conte into retirement in the Steelers MNF win. Here it is again:
Steelers TE Vance McDonald has announced his retirement from the NFL. His stiff arm of Chris Conte will live on forever.
After an injury-plagued first season with the Steelers, McDonald’s stiff arm actually signaled his best year in 2018, as he caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be developing the kind of rapport that the veteran quarterback had been longing for from a tight end since his buddy, Heath Miller, retired a few years earlier.
Sadly for McDonald, Roethlisberger’s elbow injury prevented the on-field relationship with his quarterback from developing further in 2019. As for 2020? With only 15 catches for 99 yards, McDonald was barely a factor in the passing game, even with a returning Roethlisberger, who seemed to fancy a new tight end, free agent pick-up, Eric Ebron.
For his career, McDonald caught just 181 passes for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns.
It’s sad for the Steelers that McDonald never morphed into their version of Gronk, but kudos to him for beating the odds.
That’s what any NFL player who lasts in the league for nearly a decade does, ya know?
McDonald never made his mark in the NFL. He wasn’t an all-time great. He wasn’t even an all-time Steeler. But he’s now 30 years old and, assuming he makes sound financial decisions moving forward, is set for life.
It’s hard to say what motivates NFL players when they first get into the league, but it’s the kind of business that is always looking to replace them if they can’t meet a certain standard. It’s highly competitive. It’s dog-eat-dog. Most don’t last. Even fewer profit from it.
Vance McDonald did both during his eight seasons in the NFL. Good for him. Good for any player who has that kind of career.
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 and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.
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: F
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-
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
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
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 puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com
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 Perlescombined 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.
The Pittsburgh Steelers closed their 2020 season with a last-minute 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The loss left the Steelers regular season record at 12-4 and sent the Browns to the playoffs.
As a franchise, the Steelers subscribe to the philosophy that nothing good comes from losing.
Throughout his tenure, Mike Tomlin has refused to claim “moral victories” even if they may have been justified. Nonetheless, there are some definite positives Pittsburgh can pull out of this loss heading into the playoffs.
Chase Claypool scores a 4th quarter touchdown on fourth down. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com
First 45 Minutes Evolve as Expected
The storylines were set heading into this game. For the Steelers very little was at stake. Cleveland, in contrast was playing for all of the marbles, as a win meant the playoffs, but a loss would keep them out. Knowing that, Mike Tomlin opted to “Air Mail” his players to playoffs, keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey, Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell out.
Oliver Veron sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Playing against a team fighting for its post-season life, the game evolved pretty much as you’d expect it to for the first 45 minutes.
Nick Chubb gouged the Steelers for a 47–yard touchdown run
The Steelers offense was limited to 3 Matthew Wright field goals
Mason Rudolph threw and ugly interception that the Browns quickly converted into a touchdown
The Cleveland Browns touchdown came on the first play of the 4th quarter, which gave them a 26 to 9 lead. At that point, with 15 minutes separating the Steelers from a playoff rematch, the smart money says pull the remaining starters and hope to avoid injury.
But Mike Tomlin chose to live in his hopes and not his fears.
Steelers Play to Win
Mike Tomlin once declared, “As long as we’re keeping score, I play to win.” It’s one thing for a coach to state such a credo; it is an entirely different thing for players to meet the challenge. The scoreboard says the Steelers didn’t meet the challenge, but they certainly didn’t flinch.
James Conner rushes for tough yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Chase Claypool converted 4th and 10 by catching a 28 yard pass from Rudolph
Next the defense got into the act. One of the keys to the Browns’ second half success was Baker Mayfield’s scrambling. But on 3rd and 3, Stephon Tuitt stepped up and sacked Mayfield, setting up a 4th and 7. The Browns went for it, but came up short.
On the next drive Mason Rudolph did it again, lighting up the Browns with a 47 yard completion to Diontae Johnson. A six yard run by Anthony McFarland and a 2 yard shovel pass from Joshua Dobbs to Vance McDonald set up Mason Rudolph’s 2 yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster, narrowing the score to 24-22.
The Steelers failed on the two point conversion. Just as their on sides kick failed. Just as the Steelers defense failed to keep the Browns from running out the clock.
Positive Take Aways from Pittsburgh
As Mike Tomlin declared following the game, the Steelers simply “didn’t make enough plays” to win. However, there were any number of positives that Pittsburgh can pick out of this game:
Alex Highsmith had another strong game, including a sack that scuttled Cleveland’s two minute drill
The Steelers contained Cleveland’s rushing attack
Pittsburgh’s rushing attack showed signs of life
Vance McDonald affirmed he can be a threat in the passing game
The Steelers played with intensity
Some of the take aways above might raise an eyebrow at first glance. Even if you take away 47 yard run, he still had a 4.7 yard average. While that’s not an average the Steelers can allow in the playoffs, his remaining 61 yards and Kareem Hunt’s 3.7 suggest that the Steelers can contain Cleveland’s running game.
Pittsburgh’s own running game hardly authored anything to write home about, but each of the running backs showed they can make plays when holes are there.
And what’s most encouraging about this game is that the Steelers played with an intensity that suggested that they were fighting for a playoff spot — which is exactly attitude this team needs.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.
Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F
Running Backs Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B
Tight Ends Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+
Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
Wide Receivers Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.
Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-
Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B
Special Teams Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.
Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.
It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.
Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F
Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.