The Pittsburgh Steelers are ending their regular season with something of a whimper, at least based on the players they are choosing to sit for the regular season finale. The inactive list includes five players who have earned Pro Bowl honors and a sixth that objectively should have.
Cameron Heyward is the only healthy scratch on defense, and Antonio Brown is injured, but Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and both Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro have been deactivated. The latter is surprising to me because DeCastro had played every snap of the season, and all but two a year ago, and never misses a practice. Meanwhile, the Patriots are playing everyone that is healthy.
JuJu Smith-Schuster fielded the opening kickoff shy of the goal line and ran forward with power across the 25. Landry Jones took the field on a snowy, freezing day. From the 28, he looked for Martavis Bryant deep on first down, but the receiver collided with the defensive back before reaching the ball. On second down, Jones tossed the ball over the head of a defender for Roosevelt Nix, the fullback, for five yards. On third and five, Jones threw a checkdown on a nice pass from the angle to Fitzgerald Toussaint for the conversion.
At the 40-yard line, out of 22 personnel, Stevan Ridley got the first carry of the day, finding room up the middle for 13 yards. He was stuffed for no gain on the following play. The new Steeler found room off the right side for 16 on second down.
Down to the Browns’ 31, Jones connected with Smith-Schuster for a short pass for a minimal gain. Off of the reverse, Darrius Heyward-Bey took the ball from Toussaint around the right end and powered his way from distance for the score. He had a 60-yard rushing touchdown last season.
Chris Boswell’s kickoff was held short of the goal line, and the kick coverage held the return short of the 25. Tyson Alualu, starting for Heyward, recorded a sack on the first play for an eight-yard loss. Back to the 14, Isaiah Crowell was held to two yards around the right side, tackled by Sean Spence. On third and very long, DeShone Kizer, holding onto the ball for far too long, was eventually sacked by Sean Davis, who was in coverage at the line after showing blitz at the start of the play.
Punting from the two on fourth and 30 following a delay of game, Rogers fielded the punt on the Steelers’ 48, and ended up going backwards three yards, playing it cautious.
On first down, Ridley picked up just a yard to the 46. Out of 12 personnel on second down, Jones dropped back and fired down the field looking for Smith-Schuster, the pass intercepted by Jabrill Peppers for his first pick of his career. But the defense forced a quick three-and-out in response, stopping Crowell for a loss after a four-yard gain on first down, and then Kizer throwing his first pass for an incompletion, throwing wide to Josh Gordon. The ensuing punt bounced off a Browns player’s foot and rerouted upfield for a poor net, favoring Pittsburgh.
From the 25, a wide pass to Smith-Schuster was snagged for three yards. Finding Smith-Schuster again, he was able to cut up the sideline for a long gain. Ridley then ripped off a 21-yard again deep into Brown territory. He lost threw on a deep pitch on the following play. From the 20, Jones’ pass was high for Vance McDonald, incomplete. Again to Smith-Schuster, the rookie was three yards short of the first. Chris Boswell connected on his 36th field goal of the season.
Or at least he would have if the Browns had not jumped offside. Now first and goal from the 4.5, Toussaint, following a pulling Ramon Foster, got down to the one-yard line. Ridley was held for only a gain of inches on second down. Now third and goal, the fullback dive to Nix got close, but he was ruled down short. Jerald Hawkins was a tackle-eligible on the play. Now fourth and goal, Nix got the ball again, but he was stopped immediately, resulting in a turnover on downs.
After a stuff for a loss of one on first down, Kizer called a timeout with two seconds left in the first quarter. He threw quickly on a deep pass over everybody’s head on second down. Now third and long, under pressure, again the rookie’s pass was incomplete, this time low and off-line. The ensuing punt hit off Tyler Matakevich’s head and only reached the 28-yard line.
Because of personnel issues, the Steelers burned a timeout to start their ensuing drive, already in field goal range. Jones then tripped with B.J. Finney stepping on his foot dropping back for play action. He stayed down to take the sack for a loss of six. On second and 16, a quick hitter to Martavis Bryant picked up 14. On third and short, Smith-Schuster was left open for an easy touchdown, his seven of the season.
Kizer completed his first pass of the game to Duke Johnson for 11 yards. Another gain by Johnson preceded a blown coverage long gain to Josh Gordon, who outran Mike Mitchell, the safety on his back as he crossed the goal line. Gordon stepped out at the two. Kizer could not get the ball to his fullback facing pressure in his face by Arthur Moats on first and goal. Johnson scored from two yards out and, once again, paused for a moment to pray for Ryan Shazier, who is in the building. Artie Burns gave Johnson a pat after the play. The score now 14-7.
Jones rolled out and hit Bryant for a first down following a touchback. A pass to Jesse James over the middle added seven. A pitch right to Toussaint added five to cross midfield. Another reception for Smith-Schuster added 11 to his total. Toussaint, showing a bit of shiftiness, picked up seven. A face mask penalty added 25 yards, a good call on Joe Schobert.
Now down to the Browns’ 16, Toussaint again showed urgency for six up the middle. On a run right, Finney was wiped out, staying down after the play. Chris Hubbard checked in at center. On third and three, Jones looked for Eli Rogers into the end zone, overhead and incomplete. Yet a roughing the passer penalty on Myles Garrett extended the drive in the red zone. Ridley ran it in from six yards out to make it 21-7.
After setting a new franchise record in scoring for a single season on the extra point, Boswell kicked the ball out of bounds to put the Browns on the 40. Kizer hit David Njoku for a short gain. Rashard Higgins then took a slant 56 yards for the score, their second 56-yard passing play of the day. 21-14 as a secondary fielding all of its starters continues to get burned by the worst passing offense in the league.
Following a short kick return, a pass to Rogers added just one. On second and nine, a pitch to Ridley picked up seven yards. It was initially ruled that he fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Brown, but replay shows that he was down. Now third and two, Bryant could only break one tackle on a quick hitter that went for a loss. Jordan Berry punted 46 yards to the 31, and Peppers ended up going backwards for a loss of two.
Kizer’s first pass following the punt was incomplete, under pressure by Spence. Kizer scrambled on third and seven for the first. Following a false start, Kizer scrambled again for nine, setting up second and six. He tried to get to the edge once again, but Watt was able to trip him up for a loss of one, technically his seventh sack of the year. On third and seven, the rookie’s throw was well short of the mark for an incompletion.
The Browns’ punt beautifully exited stage left at the eight-yard line, setting up Pittsburgh deep in its own end with under two minutes to play in the half. On first down, Jones launched one deep to Smith-Schuster, coming down with a 46-yard contested catch. Bryant picked up about 15 on the following play. From the Browns’ 32, however, Jones was sacked, losing the ball, snatched out of the air by the Browns.
Taking over at Pittsburgh’s 40, Kizer looked down the field and threw a pass far short of his receiver. Vince Williams recorded the team’s fourth sack of the game on second down, his eighth of the season. A checkdown pass to Johnson on third and 17 got just six to set up fourth and nine. Rogers added 14 yards on the punt return to about the 30 with 18 seconds remaining in the first half. Ridley’s two-yard run ended the quarter.