Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?
Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.
- These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.
Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?
Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.
These types of images have a way of conveying finality.
And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:
- Antonio Brown and his Christmas extension
- James Harrison with the ball in Super Bowl XLIII
- Troy Polamalu in the preceding AFC Championship
- Jerome Bettis heading off Brian Urlacher
- Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X
Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.
Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.
That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:
- That was Witman’s last game before beginning a deeply troubled post-NFL life
- The day also saw Kordell Stewart throw his final NFL playoff pass
- The Brady-Belichick dynasty was born that day
Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.
None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.
First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds
As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”
Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.
Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:
- Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
- Or light up the opposition with a big play
The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.
- 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.
Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.
- 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.
Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.
- 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.
That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.
As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal
As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.
- But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.
Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.
- The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.
Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker. “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.
Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.
A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.
- None of those were to be had.
Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.