PICK YOUR POISON
Pick your adjective. Steelers fans experiencing an array of emotions. Disbelief, anger, sadness, grief … the list can go on. The Steelers were not overwhelming favorites. But consider, the Browns barely beat the Steelers in Cleveland to end the regular season. In that game the Steelers rested Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt among others. Backup quarterback, Mason Rudolph came within a failed two-point conversion if tying up the game and sending it to overtime.
There was reason for Steelers fans to be optimistic going into the Steelers first playoff game since 2017. Key starters rested and coming back to the line-up. Several players like Robert Spillane and Matt Feiler came off the injured reserve list. The Steelers roster was stronger going into the rematch with the Browns.
In Cleveland, the Covid-19 hit knocking out their best offensive lineman in Joel Bitonio. Denzel Ward Cleveland’s best defensive back is out along with other key players. Their roster diminished coming into the game. Plus, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski along with several other coaches unavailable due to the virus.
How could fans not favor the Steelers to win this home playoff game?
Yet, the Browns rolled out to a 28-0 first quarter lead. The closest the Steelers would come is within 11 points after their final score with just over a minute to play in the game. 48-37. The Browns overcame the adversity and performed admirably.
WHERE TO POINT THE FINGER
Pittsburgh did not lose this game due to a single point of failure. Maurkice Pouncey’s snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head only gave the Browns a 7-0 lead.
POOR PLAYER EXECUTION
The very key personnel that Mike Tomlin rested in week 17 contributed to the disaster. Pouncey’s botched snap along with being shoved back into the backfield to blow up a third and short attempt by Derek Watt. Ben Roethlisberger throwing four interceptions. T.J. Watt schemed out of play. The defense failed to pressure Baker Mayfield a single time in 34 pass attempts. Pouncey had more tackles than Cam Heyward who could not dominate the third string and then the fourth string guard.
The players coming off injured reserve did little better. Matt Feiler penalized twice. Robert Spillane incapable of shedding blocks and getting burned by Jarvis Landry. Terrell Edmunds had an opportunity to level Baker Mayfield at the sideline but instead meekly pushed him out of bounds in a Pro Bowl game style tackle.
The defense failed to hold Browns allowing touchdowns. In one play, defenders did not contact Nick Chubb until he was already 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. Some point to Ben Roethlisberger’s 500 passing yards and play by the wide receivers especially in the third quarter. With the Browns team that was out there, the Steelers should have been able to score at will all four quarters. The defense should have been able to dominate the line of scrimmage and stuff the Browns attack. At the very least, hold them to field goals instead of 40+ yard scoring plays.
The coaching was no better. Punting on fourth and one when the team is way behind. Trying to draw a team offside from a punt formation. Linebackers put into a position to fail by covering wide receivers. Robert Spillane has potential but is no match trying to cover Jarvis Landry. But this was not something new. The Baltimore Ravens exposed the Steelers short passing offensive scheme back in week 12. Other teams copied their tactic and the Steelers never really adjusted. Fans complained about linebackers consistently put into position of covering wide receivers all season. Yet the coaching staff stubbornly refused to adjust.
The salary cap is going to force some personnel changes this offseason. It is hard to imagine the roster being stronger than this year. While the Steelers will continue to voice their team mission to win Super Bowls. It will not be achievable without some type of change.
From my perspective as an average Steelers fan, the organization is complacent. If the team is going to prove that the current situation is unacceptable then the Steelers require changes.
Art Rooney II must consider the future of head coach Mike Tomlin including setting conditions for continued employment in Pittsburgh. He must also consider a succession plan for Kevin Colbert who is now year to year.
Kevin Colbert and Omar Kahn must scramble to re-sign key free agents on the roster and determine how to fill the holes created by players departing the team.
Mike Tomlin, I believe Pittsburgh retains him at least one more year, must consider what staff changes he must make. A couple position coach changes is not going to accomplish much. The Steelers must replace one or both coordinators. The offensive line underperformed badly and players even veterans could not accomplish basic run blocking or in the center’s case provide clean snaps to the quarterback. So, Shaun Sarrett’s job as offensive line coach in jeopardy.
Ben Roethlisberger and other senior veterans like Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward must decide whether they want to continue playing. If so, he must be willing to work in an adjusted offensive and defensive schemes. As team leaders, they need to set the tone for the rest of the players in terms of what is and is not acceptable among the players. If player’s actions are not helping the team win in-season, they should consider adjusting their behavior. The buy-in must come from the players and effective team leaders can foster a focused locker room.
MAY NOT BE ENOUGH
Unfortunately, even if the team takes all these actions, the Steelers may come up short. The fact is the team is aging and the other team’s in the division have been improving their rosters as Pittsburgh’s is past peak. Many younger fans have never endured a Steelers team in a decade’s long stint of mediocrity. The Steelers organization is facing that possibility if they do not address the issues with alacrity.
Regardless, I’ve been a Steelers fan since 1972 when a young teenager. I’ll be keenly watching what the Steelers do this offseason. Here we go.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
The Browns showed the Steelers the door. Here is The End by the Doors.