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

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

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

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

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

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

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

  • And so it is at the end.

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

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

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

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

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Ending to Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Vikings: Follow the Right Leader Edition

Taken from the grade book of a disappointed teacher who hopes his students learn from this by following the right leader, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Thursday Night Football failed comeback against the Vikings.

Dalvin Cook, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Schobert, Vikings vs Steelers

Not good when your safety and inside linebacker are looking at the running back’s number…. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some vicious hits and endured high, erratic snaps to lead a rally that put 28 points on the board in 17 minutes. In doing so he went 28 of 40 for 3 touchdowns and one interception for 308 yards. His final pass was perhaps one of the best he’s ever thrown. Grade: A

Running Backs
Early on their was so little room to run that Troy Aikman credited Najee Harris with the “best 3 yard run in history.” But Harris was excellent on the night, going 94 yards on 20 carries and catching two 3 passes, while running and catching a touchdown. Benny Snell had one carry for -2 yards. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 2 passes for 32 yards plus a two point conversion, but dropped an incredibly difficult one on the game’s final play. The tight ends could do more in the blocking game. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson bailed on a throw that got intercepted. But he atoned by catching a field-flipping 37 yard pass. Later, he had incredible presence of mind to get out of bounds to set up the final throw. Such efforts were necessary due to his counter part. Chase Claypool’s taunting penalty was bad. The catches he made on the final drive were fantastic. But his post-4th down conversion pose was inexcusable, costing the Steelers at least 1 play. Ray-Ray McCloud caught 6 of 8 balls thrown to him. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Yes, the line protected Ben better in the second half. Yes, it opened up hole in the running game. But pass protection the Steelers suffered in the first half hasn’t been so bad, since… The Steelers loss to the Vikings in London. Better play in garbage time neither excuses nor negates the offensive line getting manhandled during the game’s first 40 minutes. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, everyone else did not. Grade: F

Linebackers
Dalvin Cook ran for 205 yards on 27 carries averaging 7.6 yards per pop; with a separated shoulder. Alexander Mattison averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Kirk Cousins converted a key 3rd down running. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Secondary
Believe it or not, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds actually stopped Cook from doing even more damage and Minkah came up big on several third downs. Cam Sutton got burned on the Vikings last touchdown pass. Ahkello Witherspoon had two interceptions and knocked away 3 passes. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell’s missed extra point might be a footnote, but it is a footnote that put the Steelers in the position of needing two-point conversions to get ahead once something got going. Pressley Harvin III had a few OK punts, but laid several eggs. Kick coverage was OK as were Ray-Ray McCloud’s returns. Special teams could have been a positive difference. It wasn’t. Grade: D

Coaching
Getting a team ready to play on the road on Thursday night is hard. It is even harder after an intense, emotional win over a division rival. And it says here that the Steeler core problems lie with talent, rather than coaching or schemes.

  • But it is also clear that Pittsburgh was not prepared to face the Minnesota Vikings.

Not even close. Matt Canada’s offense was steamrolled by the Vikings defense for the game’s first 40 minutes or so. They punted 5 times and turned over the ball before putting a single point on the board.

  • Pittsburgh’s run defense is a picture of pure disaster.

At first, efforts against the run were erratic. Then teams exploited them a little more. Then that exploitation became systematic. Against the Vikings it became choric as Dalvin Cook ran like some combination of Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Walter Payton in their primes.

Yes, the Steelers defense made key stops in the 2nd half, but as Mike Tomlin acknowledged, that is easier to do against a team has a 29 point lead.

James Washington, Steelers vs Vikings

James Washington catches a bomb. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers showed a lot of heart in the second half rally. But we can’t and won’t credit to coaches for that. The men were responding to Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership, and it is up to the coaches to ensure they follow his example, and not that of the Chase Claypools on the team. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
This man’s season and in fact entire Steelers career has been a bit of a disappointment. But if you look at the Steelers rally, it started with a 29 yard pass that bring Pittsburgh into Minnesota territory. Then he drew a taunting penalty in a 2 yard loss. Then the player had an 8 yard pass that set the Steelers up at the 2. Later he caught a 30 yard touchdown pass. And for those efforts, James Washington win Unsung Hero honors for the loss to Minnesota.

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Manic-Depressive: Steelers Lose to Vikings 36-28, But Failed Comeback Proves Pittsburgh’s Pride

It was fun while it lasted. The Steelers responded to their dramatic, comeback win over the Ravens with a 36 to 28 loss to Minnesota Vikings, their most manic depressive performance of a bipolar season. After the game Mike Tomlin minced no words, confirming:

“Just to be blunt, we’re getting manhandled on both sides of the ball… We were JV again tonight.”

Mike Tomlin may have never spoken truer words. But Tomlin’s remarks don’t capture the whole truth, and that’s something to remember.

Ben Roethlisberger, Harrison Smith, Steelers vs Vikings

Harrison Smith sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Worst Half of Football in the Tomlin Era? Yep.

Have the Steelers ever played a worse half of football under Mike Tomlin? I argue that the first half vs Minnesota was worse than the putrid 31-3 first half against the Bengals. At least Chris Boswell made his field goal attempt against Cincinnati and Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass late in the second quarter.

  • The Steelers did NOTHING well in the first half against Minnesota.

You want a stat to drive this home? Dalvin Cook averaged 16.7 yards per carry on his first seven carries. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times in the first half and 5 times in the games first 32 minutes. But those numbers don’t do justice to the piss poorness of the Steelers offensive line. This does:

Arguably Eric Kendricks’ sack of Roethlisberger was worse, but you get the point. Joe Mixon’s 165 yards against the Steelers? Rather pedestrian compared to Davlin Cook’s 205 yards, 29 of which he logged on an untouched trip to the end zone.

Steelers Show Heart in 2nd Half Rally

Say what you want about the Steelers first half. You’ll get no argument here. Nor will you find here any talk of “moral victories” because of what transpired next. But also be clear:
The Steelers showed incredible heart in the second half.

Football is brutal. Chuck Noll once described training camp as the process of acclimating yourself to using your body as a projectile. That’s unnatural. Such a sacrifice demands a reward.

  • That’s why it gets so easily to mail it in after hope is lost.

And that’s why Rocky Bleier and Ryan Clark’s words stung so sharply. In the comeback against the Ravens, the Steelers seemed to earn some redemption, but that redemption appeared a mere mirage for the 42 minutes of the Vikings game.

Then a field flipping catch by James Washington, stout running by Najee Harris and an idiotic taunting penalty by Kris Boyd moved the Steelers into the Red Zone. Ben Roethlisberger and Najee Harris then hooked up to get the Steelers on the board. So, it was 7 to 29, window dressing had been added to the debacle.

  • It took one play for Ahkello Witherspoon to pry that window open a little bit, intercepting a deflected pass.

The Steelers moved down the field, but appeared to stall on 3rd and goal, only to have Minnesota commit pass interference. The Steelers got 3 more downs, but Najee Harris only needed one of those to score.

Thanks to deep penetration by Cam Heyward and some Minkah magic with a third down pass deflection, the Steelers forced a 3 and out. Roethlisberger responded with bombs to Diontae Johnson and James Washington in the end zone.

The two point conversion failed, and the Vikings answered with a quick touchdown. Minnesota forced a Steelers three and out. Ahkello Witherspoon struck again, this time returning a Kirk Cousins interception 41 yards. It took Ben Roethlisberger 1 play to hit Ray-Ray McCloud for a touchdown. Pat Freiermuth made the two-point conversion.

  • Pittsburgh forced a Minnesota punt giving Ben Roethlisberger 2:16 and no time outs to score.

Long passes to Chase Claypool and smart running by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers one shot with 2 seconds left from the 12 yard line. Here’s what happened next:

  • Yes, Ben Roethlisberger did more than thread the proverbial needle.

In the end, it wasn’t enough thanks to some incredible play by the Minnesota Vikings. The Steelers failed to pull off an improbable comeback. The “almost comeback” doesn’t excuse their awful first half performance and likely cost them a shot at the playoffs.

But at the very least Pittsburgh proved it had not lost its pride.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Rebound with Force Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher unabashedly proud of his student ability forcefully rebound, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Heinz Field win over the Ravens.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
The “Bench Ben” calls look silly now, don’t they? Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his finest game of the season, going 21-31-1-0 for 236 yards and he had a perfectly thrown touchdown ball dropped. You don’t lead 51 comeback wins by accident, and you don’t earn your 51st against the AFC’s leading team if you’re washed up. Grade: A

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his best night on the ground in weeks gaining 71 yards on 21 carries and he banged out his best ones with the game on the line. He also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Benny Snell came in late and while he only had two carries for 13 yards, he ran strong and sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and 3 catches for 26 yards including two that set up the Steelers first score. And he came through with a very difficult 2 point conversion catch. Zach Gentry had 2 catches on the final Steelers scoring drive, one that converted a 3rd down and another than brought them to the 2. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of 11 passes thrown his way for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He is developing into something special. Chase Claypool was having a relatively quiet night, until he opened the 4th quarter by flipping the field, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud had one catch for 7 yards and was robbed of a 32 yarder. James Washington had one pass thrown his way. Diontae Johnson’s dropped TD lowers the group grade. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit 3 other times which might be some sort of record low for the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The biggest difference however was the run blocking. When John Leglue entered the game following B.J. Finney’s injury, he became the 5th player to man the left guard position for the Steelers. Instead of contributing to the downward spiral of the line, he delivered improvements to the run blocking and that, quite frankly, was the difference in this game. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual disruptive self, dropping players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Lamar Jackson and sacking him to help set up the Steelers first score. Montravius Adams walked in off the street and batted down a pass on his eight play as a Steeler. The Ravens came in to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number one rushing attack and barely cracked 100 yards. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt was this good after having COVID how explosive would he have been at full health? Watt’s 3.5 sacks and forced fumble get the attention, but ability to set the edge in the running game and stay disciplined in pursuit of Jackson were equally important. Watt’s first pressure of Jackson forced an interception. His last force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion. Alex Highsmith had struggled against the run but made two tackles for losses. Joe Schobert had a pass defensed. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s end zone interception set the tone not only took 7 points off the board for the Ravens, but it set the tone for the evening. Ahkello Witherspoon got his first start and deflected a 3rd down pass that set up the Steelers final scoring drive. The Ravens converted several third and longs, but the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 19 points. Grade: B+

Special Teams
It was an on and off night for the Steelers special teams. They gave up a long kick return that set up the Ravens 3rd quarter score. Chris Boswell’s mortar kick was well-placed but rolled out of bounds giving the Ravens 15 free yards and untold seconds on the clock. That may not have been his “fault” but the missed extra point was. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK on punt returns but added nothing on as a kick returner. Tre Norwood was perfect on the on-sides kick recovery. Grade: C

Coaching
Matt Canada dialed back some of the bells and whistles of his offense, but remained committed to the run. The Steelers rushing totals weren’t impressive, but it opened up the passing game.

  • Keith Butler had his work cut out for him on defense.

The Steelers defense had gone from suffering quarterly lapses in the running game, to something far more systemic. And they had the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback to defense. Yet Butler managed to find the perfect mix of pressure, containment and coverage.

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But neither Canada’s nor Butler’s schemes wouldn’t have mattered an iota had the Steelers been pushed around at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers instead won those battles after several weeks of losing them. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for snapping that trend and keeping his players positive and focused. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Jersey numbers mean a lot to Steelers fans. Sometimes new players live up to the pedigree. Most often they do not. Since Greg Lloyd retired 22 years ago, 9 different players have worn Number 95. All were either forgettable or disappointing. But against the Ravens number 95 exploded for 2.5 sacks, 3 more QB hits and several stops for no gain, and for that Chris Wormley wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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