The NFL is a grinding 16-game schedule played out over 17 weeks. 12 of the league’s 32 teams make the playoffs at the end of the regular season. If you accomplish what you need to over a three month stretch sure to be filled with injuries and other challenges, you’re in. If you don’t, you start focusing on next year. There is no “backing into” the playoffs. On Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers took on divisional rival Cleveland in a road game they had to win. They also needed help in the fashion of a Buffalo win over the New York Jets. Both games went their way. The Steelers defeated the Browns 28-12 in a game where the offense was erratic and the defense performed well enough, while the Bills won 22-17 sealing the Jets fate with three fourth quarter interceptions.
The Steelers final two games weren’t impressive and certainly raised many questions about the team’s ability to make a deep playoff run. But they will get that opportunity. They enter the AFC playoffs as the sixth seed and as such will play all their games on the road. They’ll open with the Cincinnati Bengals this Saturday night in a game sure to be filled with energy and emotion. The two teams split their season series with each team winning on the road. A win will take them to Denver the following Sunday. It’s a clean slate, but the Steelers will have to play better than they have the past two weeks if they want to make any noise.
*The Steelers suffered a potentially devastating injury when DeAngelo Williams left in the second quarter with an injury to his right ankle/foot. Williams did come back out on the sideline before halftime but never returned to the game. He is having an MRI Monday. Flashback to last year when the Steelers entered the playoffs with Ben Tate, signed that week, Josh Harris and Dri Archer as their running backs. They combined for 43 yards on 15 carries in the loss to the Ravens. If Williams is unable to go against Cincinnati it will be Fitzgerald Touissant and Jordan Todman. I don’t expect the team to sign a new back like they did with Tate. They will go with what they have.
An erratic performance by the offense. They weren’t able to run the ball effectively and they turned it over three times, but they averaged 6.9 yards/play and converted three of four times in the red zone. It was a passable performance, but they need to be better to advance in the playoffs.
*Antonio Brown finished a spectacular season on a high note. The Browns tried to stop him every possible way, playing off, playing press, doubling him, nothing worked. He had 10 catches for 150 yards in the first half and basically was the Steelers offense. Six of the ten catches went for 17 yards or more. He finished the day with 13 catches for 187 yards which is only his fourth highest single-game yardage total of the season. For the year he was tied with Julio Jones for the league lead with 136 receptions and was second behind Jones with 1,834 total yards, breaking both Steelers single-season marks he set last year (129-1,698). Brown also received the highest cumulative overall grade that Pro Football Focus has ever given in a single season.
*I’m putting Ben Roethlisberger on both sides of the ledger for Sunday’s performance. You will rarely, if ever, see a QB make as many really good and really bad throws in a single game as Ben did on Sunday. His TD throws to Brown and Markus Wheaton were perfect. On the pass to Brown he threaded the double team up the seam and over the trail defender, similar to the play they scored on against the Broncos. To Wheaton, he scrambled nimbly to his left and led him perfectly, putting the ball where only he could catch it. The overall stat line is impressive 24-36, 349 yards and 3 TDs with the 2 INTs. He had a passer rating of 102.7 and a QBR of 91.8. But the reality is Ben didn’t really pass the eye-test for the second week in a row. Erratic would be the best description. Ben needs to step-up his game Saturday night facing a divisional opponent for the third consecutive week.
*Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey had catches of 40 and 66 yards respectively that set up a TD and a FG. Solid games from both guys.
*Heath Miller only caught three balls, one for a TD, but two could easily have been intercepted if not for Miller’s tenaciousness.
*As mentioned the offense was good in the red zone, converting three of four opportunities into TDs.
*Let’s stick with Ben. Last week he was flat out bad. This week he threw two more interceptions and had at least three others that could have been picked. On the first interception, on a pass intended for Martavis Bryant, there is a legitimate question as to whether Bryant ran the proper route. I’m guessing he didn’t in which case Ben is mostly absolved. The Steelers were lucky on the play because if Jordan Poyer doesn’t fall down after the catch he probably returns if for a TD. The second INT is all on Ben. He was looking for AB on a cross and instead hit Browns linebacker Craig Robertson, floating the other direction, right in the numbers. The larger concern that I now have is Roethlisberger’s (in)ability to exploit the middle of the field against zone defenses. We’ve seen him picked off a bunch of times in this same area (Darryl Smith got him last week in Baltimore). We often talk on the Terrible Podcast about Ben liking his receivers to be “college open” before throwing to them. This rarely happens in the middle of the field against zone coverages and it is something that bears watching going forward. The Bengals are likely to be playing almost exclusively a cover-2 shell this week and Ben is going to have to take the underneath stuff to move the offense.
The other concern is Ben forcing passes to his trusted receivers, which now might be just Antonio Brown and Heath Miller. Two of Miller’s three catches including the TD could just as easily have been picked off if not for Miller’s tenaciousness and three of Ben’s four picks the last two weeks have been when trying to “force” the ball to AB. Make note.
*I wrote extensively about Martavis Bryant in this spot last week. Now you can officially put his mug on a milk carton. I’ve been down on Bryant for a while and unfortunately he continues to make me look smart. After a one catch/six yard performance last week, Bryant turned in a 1-0 this week before being benched. And while Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff probably won’t call it a benching, that’s exactly what it was. He only played 12 snaps. This offense can score without Bryant but they would be significantly better if he returned to the form we saw late last season or in the preseason. The stats look ok, but Bryant’s season has been disappointing and you really have to wonder which direction his career will go.
*While solid in pass protection, the offensive line got dominated in the run game. They finished with 30 yards on 19 attempts. They are going to need to be able to move the ball at least a little bit on the ground against the Bengals.
*For the second week in a row the Steelers were just 2-8 on third down conversions. Like last week, clearly not good enough.
*Antonio Brown did turn it over for the first time this season, fumbling on the team’s opening drive.
*The offensive line had two more pre-snap penalties. Another on Cody Wallace (how does the center have 4-5 illegal motion penalties on the season?) and one on David DeCastro after which Tomlin looked like he was about to blow a gasket on the sideline.
This defense continues to be very transparent in terms of how success and failure are achieved. When they get turnovers they can be successful and keep teams off the scoreboard. But they are not a dominant defense and they are going to give up yards. In Cleveland they struggled until the offense gave them a little breathing room, then the were very good closing things out.
*The Steelers filled up the stat sheet in areas where the numbers count most. They registered a season-high seven sacks and created three turnovers (one was on special teams) including their seventh red zone turnover of the season on James Harrison’s goal line interception. If they do that in the playoffs the Steelers will have a chance to go deep.
*I’ve talked about Lawrence Timmons play taking a step back this season and the Steelers decided about a month ago that they would take him off the field in obvious passing downs. Sunday he played one of his two best games of the season. He led the team with 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks and his spin move, strip-sack early in the fourth quarter with the Steelers up 17-12 was the most significant play of the game. Arthur Moats recovered on the Browns 8 and the Steelers scored on the next play. Big day for Law Dog.
*After the offense fumbled on its opening possession the Browns took over on the Steelers 39. The defense stuffed the Browns stopping them a yard short when they went for it on 4th-and-5. We haven’t seen many 3-and-outs or 4-and-outs from this defense and we didn’t again Sunday, but that was a big one to start the game.
*Reminiscent of his Super Bowl pick James Harrison came up with a huge INT on the goal line. After Roethlisberger was intercepted by Robertson early in the third quarter, Harrison slipped in front of Gary Barnidge making a great play as the Browns were looking to take the lead down 14-9. Along with Timmons strip-sack, the two biggest defensive plays of the game.
*Stephon Tuitt had a very good game, registering two sacks. Arthur Moats had his best game of the season with six tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Will Allen, despite a bunch more missed tackles, had a great first half and a generally good game.
*The defense was excellent this week in the red zone, keeping the Browns out of the end zone on all five attempts and holding them to four FGs.
*Last week on the Ravens first possession Ryan Mallett drove them 75 yards on 15 plays for a TD, converting four third downs. On their next possession they went 61 yards in 11 plays for a FG. On their first two possessions the Ravens had the ball for 26 plays and 11:54 of the first half. This week, in the third quarter, Austin Davis led the Browns on a 17-play, 62-yard drive that took up 9:46 and ended in a FG. You have to be able to get off the field against the Malletts and the Davis’ of the world. It’s only going to get more difficult in the playoffs.
*As it has been off-and-on this season, the tackling Sunday was terrible. I’d list names, but I’d basically have to list all of the guys who played. This has to improve.
*This is where Antwon Blake makes his weekly appearance. In the first quarter Blake got called for illegal contact when he got beat by Travis Benjamin on a double move. (It was a good decision by Blake as it could have been a long TD.) Later in the half on a 3rd-and-8 from the Steelers 20 he tried to jump a sideline pass for a pick. He was late and Jennings gained 9 for a first down. Blake has to know down and distance there. He could have easily just made the tackle and kept the receiver short of the sticks. (He did record his first career sack later on the drive forcing the Browns to kick a FG.) On the Browns last drive of the first half on 3rd-and-19 from the Browns 43, Blake gets beat deep by Terrelle Pryor for a 42-yard gain, although in that situation you can question why he had man coverage with 28 seconds left in the half. Mercifully Blake was mostly benched in the second half.
*The Steelers DBs have been much better at catching the ball this season, but relatively sure-handed Mike Mitchell dropped one that hit him right in the chest in the first half.
*The Browns got five first downs due to penalties. Rough.
*A solid day from Jordan Berry, 3 punts for a 43.7 yd/avg and one downed at the 2.
*In the third quarter Ross Ventrone, special teams ace just re-signed this week, made a great play downing a punt at the 2.
*Anthony Chickillo caused a fumble on a kick return and Brandon Boykin recovered. The Steelers second turnover of the season on kickoff coverage and Chickillo was involved in both.
*Nothing of note.
*The success of the defensive game plan this week just highlights how bad last week’s gameplan was. This week the Steelers did a very good job of disguising their fronts and sending DBs late on blitzes. It led to a season-high seven sacks.
*I loved the read-option play the Steelers ran down at the goal line late in the game. They didn’t execute it well as Ben threw a terrible pass to AB and they had to settle for a FG, but it was a nice wrinkle that would have worked with either the handoff to Will Johnson or a better pass by Ben.
*The clock management continues to be poor. On the Steelers last drive of the first half they took over on their own 20 with 1:56 left and all three timeouts. That is an eternity for this offense. After a 40-yard completion to the Browns 40, the Steelers use their first TO with 1:41 left. At this point time is no longer an issue. They need to “manage” the clock. After a 5-yard completion to Heath Miller, Ben completes an 18-yarder to AB down to the Browns 17. It’s first down, there is over a minute left and inexplicably the Steelers use their second TO. It was a terrible decision. After an incompletion, Ben hits AB for a TD with 0:58 seconds left. The Browns take the ensuing KO down the field for an end-of-the-half FG. Lather-rinse-repeat. The Steelers continue to do a poor job in this area.
*In the first quarter the Steelers faced 1st-and-goal from the Browns 8. Ben completed a 6 yard pass to DeAngelo Williams to the 2. On the play the Browns were called offside. Tomlin had a choice of 1st-and-goal from just outside the 3 or 2nd-and-goal from the 2. The Steelers declined the penalty. They scored, but that seemed a bad decision to me. Give up the 1.5 yards for an extra down.
*I continue to be completely at a loss in explaining Mike Tomlin’s decisions in going for the 2-point conversion. The opening TD seemed the perfect time. They kicked. The third TD seemed like the wrong time already up 11 and possibly making it 12. They went for two. There is no logic to it.
*As I said last week, I have no idea why Antwon Blake continues to see regular playing time.
Big Officiating Calls:
*The illegal contact penalty on James Harrison when he crushed a Browns receiver seemed like a bad call. It appeared contact was within five yards of the LOS.
Up Next: The playoffs. The Steelers will travel to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and take on the Bengals in an opening round wild card game. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15. I will be hosting the pregame show on WDVE starting at 4:15.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on Twitter @DavidMTodd.