Fighting to the End: Chiefs Beat Steelers 42-21 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Finale, but Big Ben Gives It His All

The record will reflect that the Ben Roethlisberger Era ended with the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card at Arrowhead Stadium on January 16th 2022.

  • Disappointing? Yes, absolutely. Surprising? Absolutely. Not.

IF the 2021 Steelers’ erratic nature led to eerie feelings about the franchise’s future, the Ben Roethlisberger era appeared destined to end on a bright note. The emotional farewell at Heinz Field against the Browns, the comeback win over the Ravens on the road and the surprise playoff slot all seemed to be building up to something.

The 2021 Steelers believed in themselves. JuJu Smith-Schuster came off of IR adding his momentum. Surely, even if the Steelers couldn’t upset the Chiefs, they’d take Kansas City to the wire, perhaps just falling short on the final play, Friday Night Lights fashion.

  • That didn’t happen.

That didn’t happen because as the game unfolded, it became clear that adrenaline and not belief was the Steelers secret weapon, and when the adrenaline wore off, the Chiefs’ superior talent took over. And it wasn’t pretty.

Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, 2021 AFC Wild Card, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Ben Roethlisberger, fighting to the end. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

Hines Ward once likened the difference in the intensity between the playoffs and the regular season to the difference between the regular and preseason. Things move faster. Hits get harder. Mistakes magnify.

  • While it will quickly be forgotten, the Steelers defense actually started this game strong.

On the Chiefs first series the Steelers forced a punt. Cam Sutton blew up a screen to Mecole Hardman for a loss and Tre Norwood followed by breaking up a pass to Travis Kelce. On the second series Chris Wormley broke up another pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, while Minkah Fitzpatrick stopped Byron Pringle a cold yard short of the 1st down marker, leading to another punt.

Really, if players like Wormley and Norwood could make plays in what Mike Tomlin calls “Situational football” alongside the likes of Minkah and the Cams, the Steelers’ defense could hang with the almighty Chiefs, right?

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card Game, Ben Roethlisberger last game

T.J. Watt returns a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

On the next series, the heavy hitters got into the act, with T.J. Watt tipping a pass which Devin Bush intercepted and returned 10 yards. Sure, the Steelers offense could only do what it had already done all night – punt.

But it didn’t matter. Tacho Charlton and Tre Norwood made key stops to force yet another Chiefs punt as the 1st quarter ended. As the second quarter began, the Steelers offense showed some shades of life – it advanced 20 yards before punting. The defense took its cue.

Cam Heyward forced a fumble which T.J. Watt recovered and returned 26 yards for a touchdown as the Steel Curtain seemed poised to rise….

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

…Alas, T.J. Watt’s touchdown didn’t signal the Steel Curtain’s rapture, but rather its swan song. Watt’s touchdown used up whatever opening quarter adrenaline the Steelers had left, and after that Patrick Mahomes owned the Steelers the rest of the way, and it wasn’t even close.

Mahomes answered with a touchdown drive, that included a 23-yard scramble and some devilishly clever trickery to use T.J. Watt’s aggressiveness against him. Less than a minute later he was at it again, this time taking the Chiefs into the Red Zone and scoring just under the two-minute mark.

  • After yet another Steelers’ one-minute drive, Mahomes was back at it again, and scoring again before the half.

Did the Kansas City Chiefs show that their offense is better than the Steeler defense during those final five minutes of the first half? Yes, it did, but during the same time span the Steelers’ offense showed it had no business being in the playoffs.

Diontae Johnson couldn’t hold on to a 2-yard pass on 3rd and 2. Ben Roethlisberger badly misfired on a deep pass to Chase Claypool. The two failed to connect another time deep, but it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback or wide out was at fault. Perhaps it was both.

One in 381….

One of the few bright spots of the Steelers’ 2021 offense has been Najee Harris. Except for a few games in October, Harris has been basically on his own, rushing the ball with no blocking support and getting hit in the backfield more often than not.

Despite that, he rushed for 1200 yards with a 3.9 yard-per-carry average that doesn’t even hint at how hard he had to work to earn those yards. He also caught 74 passes in the air, doing plenty of damage there.

So when the Chiefs opened the second half by taking took the half opening kickoff and driving 68 yards for yet another touchdown (this time on Nick Allegretti tackle eligible play) the safest player the Steelers could look to was Najee Harris.

  • Because not only is Harris the offense’s most talented player, he’s their most reliable one.

He touched the ball 381 times in the regular season without a single fumble. Ben Roethlisberger hit Harris with a pass to start the Steelers 2nd half possession, Willie Gay hit him, Harris fumbled, Frank Clark recovered for the Chiefs, and two plays later Tyreek Hill romped 31 yards for a touchdown.

Any chance the Steelers had of making a comeback ended then.

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

Down 35-7 in a playoff game is a grim place to be. But you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Steeler offense responded. For whatever else you want to say about them, and you can say a lot, this group showed no quit.

Ben Roethlisberger last sack, Michael Danna, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card

Michael Danna earns the honor of making the final sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via The Athletic.

Working in the no huddle, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7 straight passes to Claypool, Harris, Smith-Schuster and Pat Freiermuth before finding James Washington for a toe tapping, combat catch for a touchdown.

The Chiefs added another touchdown, and Roethlisberger responded again. This one featured some incompletions as well as an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer call. It also saw Benny Snell make the most of his shot at garbage time glory. After converting a 4th and 2, Diontae Johnson caught another Roethlisberger pass for a touchdown.

The Steelers actually forced the Chiefs to punt thanks to a T.J. Watt sack, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last drive. He made the most of it, converting 3 third downs, taking advantage of the underneath routes to Benny Snell and Ray-Ray McCloud that the Chiefs were giving him.

Finally, with 11 seconds left to go and no time outs, Ben Roethlisberger hit Zach Gentry for an 11- yard pass that would see Gentry tackled 3 yards short of the goal, ending the game.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his career by giving his all to the very last second. What a fitting farewell.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns for Steelers vs Chiefs! Plus Pittsburgh Must be Cautious with Najee Harris

The Pittsburgh Steelers uphill battle to upset the Kanas City Chiefs tomorrow night just got a little more level. In move that was totally unexpected as recently as five days ago, the Steelers have activated wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuter from the injured reserve list.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith Schuster. Photo Credit: Twittter

On Wednesday JuJu Smith-Schuster suddenly appeared in practice, with teammate Diontae Johnson confirming that he had idea this was coming until he saw JuJu putting on his cleats. Still, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would sit this game out.

The Steelers have confirmed their decision to activate Smith-Schuster from IR while releasing backup punter Corliss Waitman.

JuJu also shared this Tweet with followers:

It is huge move by JuJu Smith-Schuster. He could have very easily opted out of playing, eyeing the calendar and his next contract and no one would have thought any less of him. Instead, JuJu opted to prove his commitment to winning.

One might ask, with the emergence of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and to a lesser extent Ray-Ray McCloud, can JuJu Smith-Schuster, who only had 15 catches for 129 yards before injury, really help the Steelers after not taking a snap in over a month?

The answer is yes, he can.

As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly explained:

His return would be most noticeable on third downs. With Smith-Schuster in the lineup, the Steelers converted 46 percent of their third downs. Without him, they fell to 36 percent. A year ago, he was tied for second behind Keenan Allen with 24 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.

Defenses will be forced to respect Smith-Schuster and even if that doesn’t directly translate in to catches for Number 19, it will allow Ben Roethlisberger to hit targets like Pat Freiermuth

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return also yields intangible benefits. Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver, as Vontaze Burfict found out when JuJu decked him as a rookie, forcing him from the field on a gurney.

While Smith-Schuster isn’t going to transform this team’s running game into well-oiled, road-grading machine, his physicality will help set the tone for blocking at the second level.

Harris Expected to Play, Steelers Must be Cautious

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return isn’t the only bit of good injury news coming out of the South Side. It was also announced that Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were both…

…Got you, didn’t I? Alas, the Steelers aren’t getting either defensive lineman back this week, although Lord knows either man would be an instant upgrade alongside Cam Heyward.

The good news that the Steelers did get comes on the other side of the ball and involves Najee Harris. Harris of course injured his right elbow in the Steelers 2021 season finale against the Ravens. His participation was limited throughout the week and when asked about his status for the game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted he was “Concerned.”

As of Friday Harris was listed as questionable, but the Steelers have removed him from the injury list and will play him against the Chiefs.

The reality is simple – with Harris, the Steelers have a chance against the Chiefs, without him they do not. Najee Harris is clearly the most talented player on the Steelers offense and his 188 yard performance against the Browns in Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field signified a changing of the guard.

  • Still, the Steelers need to be careful here.

A decade ago RGIII led Washington to the playoffs en route to earning rookie of the year honors. However he was injured during that first playoff contest, but was put back in the game. Whether this was due to Mike Shanahan’s mistake or Daniel Snyder’s meddling the world will never know. It matters little now, as RGIII never the same.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff must avoid a similar mistake at all costs.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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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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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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Report Card For Steelers 36-10 Loss To The Chiefs

From the grade book of a part-time, substitute teacher who’d really prefer to have stuck with his day job, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chiefs

Quarterbacks
It was another frustrating performance for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as the 39-year old, who is presumably on his way out, completed 23 of 35 passes for 159 yards, an ugly interception early on that helped to kick off the Kansas City onslaught and a touchdown late in the game when the onslaught was official. Things were so bad for Roethlisberger that he actually gave way to backup Mason Rudolph following the aforementioned garbage-time touchdown, a 15-yard connection with receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running backs
The ground game was actually healthy enough for a win, as the team gained 130 yards on 25 carries, but one will never know if that was because the Chiefs were playing a softer defense thanks to jumping all over Pittsburgh or if it was legit. For what it’s worth, rookie Najee Harris ran hard as usual and gained 93 yards on 19 carries, while backup Benny Snell Jr. spelled Harris with 20 yards on five carries. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
It was another subpar day for the Steelers receivers. The beleaguered Chase Claypool did have a series in which he made some impressive combat catches, but he only tallied 41 yards on four receptions when all was said and done. As for Johnson, who was the team’s leading receiver on the day with six catches for 51 yards and a score, he pulled an Emmanuel Sanders by fumbling without being touched early in the third quarter. The only other receiver of note was Ray-Ray McCloud, who made people notice how ineffective he was while being targeted eight times. Grade: D+

Tight Ends
|Without Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, this unit was about as effective as you’d expect with Zach Gentry catching four passes for 31 yards and Kevin Rader pulling in one pass for seven yards. Oh well, at least the running game was somewhat effective. I don’t know how helpful these guys were with that, but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt by not totally failing them. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Another rocky and inconsistent day for the unit, especially rookie center Kendrick Green, who was benched during the game for J.C. Hassenauer. Grade: D

Defensive Line
With Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu out for the year, it was another frustrating day for Cam Heyward and his understudies. The Chiefs rushed for 127 yards which wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. While Heyward did record one of the team’s two sacks, the pass rush was mostly ineffective. Heyward even made a mistake early on, when he jumped offsides on third and 11 and kept the Chiefs first touchdown drive alive. Grade: D

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith recorded the defense’s other sack on the day. As for inside linebacker Robert Spillane, he was the leading tackler in the game with 13. However, both Highsmith and Spillane set the tone early on (in a bad way) when they teamed up to stop Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire from the one-yard line, only for Edwards-Helaire to escape their clutches for the game’s first score. T.J. Watt was actually invisible in this game unless you count the times the camera spotted him on the sidelines nursing his injuries. Grade: D+

Secondary
Not much good you can say here, as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 23 of 30 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Nobody in the secondary really did anything of note, not Joe Haden, not Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: D

Special Teams
Kicker Chris Boswell was one for two on field goals on the day with his miss coming from 36-yards out in the first half when the Steelers were trailing, 17-0.

As for emergency punter Corliss Waitman, who was filling in for rookie Pressley Harvin III following the sad news that his father had passed away, he didn’t do too bad, averaging 60.5 yards on two punts.

McCloud averaged 20 yards on three kickoff returns and the same amount on his lone punt return. Grade: C+

Coaching
This was Pittsburgh’s second blowout loss in less than a month and the fourth time since November 19 that the team found itself down by three scores or more in a game. Just like with the 41-10 loss to the Bengals, the team looked uninspired and unprepared. I realize that the Steelers are mostly a young team, but good, young teams improve as the season goes along. This bunch looks like it’s waiting for the offseason to begin. One begins to wonder if head coach Mike Tomlin has finally lost the locker room. As for offensive coordinator Matt Canada? It was another fine mess. Grade: F

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: Passing by Guessing Right Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who understands all too well that his students passed by guessing right on a multiple choice test, here is the Steelers Report card for the win over the Titans.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Titans, Joe Haden

Minkah Fitzpatrick recovers a fumble in the 2nd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 16 for 25 for an economical 148 yards and no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for one touchdown. Roethlisberger faced a lot of pressure and the running game was AOWL. The Steelers transformed 4 turnovers into 12 points. If this was Ben’s penultimate game at Heinz Field, he didn’t go out with a bang. Grade: C+

Running Backs
There have been days when Najee Harris hasn’t had good rushing numbers but got good grades nonetheless. The Titans game is not one of those. Harris had no room to run, what else is new, but made bad decisions and lacked the flash that he’s shown thus far this season. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches but as usual made each of them count until leaving with a concussion. Zach Gentry had a 17 yard catch on the Steelers touchdown drive, Pittsburgh’s 2nd longest pass of the game. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 catches for… 38 yards. No, that’s no misprint. James Washington had 3 catches for 36 yards although his 19 yard grab came in garbage time. Chase Claypool had one rush for 12 yards that was credited as a reception even if he’s listed as having zero receptions. Yep, it was that kind of game folks. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The Steelers feature back averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit another three times. The Steelers offensive line is what it is, and “is” is terrible. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Whew. The Titans “only” ran for just over 200 yards and “only” averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Chris Wormley did have a sack on the Titans opening possession and Cam Heyward’s half sack did force a field goal and take 4 points off the board. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a half and both were impact plays. Devin Bush had a deflected pass which he could have and should have intercepted. He continued to be blocked in run coverage. Joe Schobert intercepted a pass deflected by Taco Charlton. Grade: C

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered a fumble caused by Arthur Maulet that set up the first score. Joe Haden was the game’s MVP recovering a fumble caused by Cam Sutton and icing the game with a textbook tackle on 4th down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job returning punts and his kick returns were OK. Punt return coverage was awful, at one point giving up a 55 yard return. That 55 yard return came after Pressley Harvin III’s 51 yarder which was an outlier as Harvin “booted” punts of 27 and 32 yards (his other punts were either OK or well-placed.) More consistency is needed.

Chris Boswell remained “Mr. Consistency” Knocking in field goals of 36, 28, 46 and 48 yards. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Titans have a talented defense, no doubt and the Steelers offense has its liabilities. Still, Matt Canada’s offense accomplished nothing, outside of a lone touchdown drive. No sticking with the rush until Harris ground out yards, no Jet Motions, no no-huddle. Given four turnovers and quality field position, the Steelers offense should have come away with more than 12 points.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Titans

Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers Titans game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It is true that the Steelers effort on defense had more to do with stars like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden making or taking advantage of big opportunities than scheme or out executing your opponents. But it is also true that before the turnover carnival began, the Steelers were only down 10 points.

  • That’s not bad given how poorly the offense and special teams played.

Overall, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is one that features a number of All Pro caliber men playing along side either green rookies or retreads that are, at best, roster-bubble babies on any other NFL team.

The fact that playoffs remain a possibility this late in December is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s maligned by both fans and the professional press alike and has been since the day he was drafted. And if he hasn’t lived up to his draft position he’s been consistent since arriving in Pittsburgh and he’s also been delivering steady play under the radar. Against the Titans he made a couple of critical plays behind the line of scrimmage and for that Terrell Edmunds is the Unsung Hero of the week.

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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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