Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Browns

On what was his final game at Heinz Field in likely his 18th and final season in the NFL, Ben Roethlisberger went out the right way for the Pittsburgh Steelers: a win over the Cleveland Browns.

It certainly wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and it wasn’t the type of performance that they make movies about, but the Steelers got the job done at home, remaining in the playoff hunt thanks to a career night from rookie running back Najee Harris, and a dominant defensive performance that featured nine sacks and two interceptions, taking the Browns’ offense out of the game early, both through the air and on the ground.

In front of a raucous crowd on a cold, blustery night in Pittsburgh, the Steelers turned the clock back to a bygone era one final time, sending Roethlisberger out in style.

Let’s get to some grades and turn the attention back to 7.

QB — C-

Yes, Monday night was all about Roethlisberger, but if we’re being totally fair and objective here, he wasn’t very good in his final showing at home.

On a cold night, Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ passing attack struggled to get going as Roethlisberger finished 24-for-46 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Granted, the Browns’ defense stayed in two-high all night defensively taking away anything over the top, but Roethlisberger missed one some underneath throws.

It’s not entirely his fault though as the passing attack just lacks so much imagination and the receivers are struggling overall. Guys are struggling to create separation, everything is underneath and short of the sticks, and when the ball does arrive, guys are struggling to catch it.

Regardless of how he performed individually though, it was great to see Roethlisberger celebrated in the fashion that he was in his final home game of his illustrious career.

RB — A+

What a performance by Najee Harris. Talk about carrying a team.

On a night where all the attention was on Roethlisberger, Harris stole the show, rushing for a career-high 188 yards and the game-sealing touchdown on 28 carries, bludgeoning the Browns’ front all night long, consistently falling forward on successful run after successful run.

With the passing game struggling to get going, Harris become the workhorse running back the Steelers needed on the night, taking advantage of light boxes and two-high safeties to cut up the Browns on the ground.

Pretty impressive night overall for the rookie, especially when you average 6.7 yards per tote, and add a highlight-reel stiff arm to your resume.

WR — D

Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with eight catches for…31 yards and a touchdown. That right there should tell you all you need to know about the passing game struggles Monday night.

Johnson had a couple of drops in big spots once again, but did rebound to make a great catch in traffic with the the ball thrown slightly behind him on his touchdown catch in the first half.

Ray-Ray McCloud showed some toughness handing on to a catch before taking a big pop from Cleveland’s M.J. Stewart over the middle, but much like Johnson there just wasn’t much there from McCloud, who finished with four catches for 35 yards.

Then we get to Chase Claypool. He has had a disastrous sophomore season. He can’t stay on his feet in routes, struggles to make even the routine catches and really just looks lost on the field at times. When he is in a contested-catch situation it’s almost like he’s being attacked by the football with the way he reacts to it with his hands. He’s a mess and desperately needs to reset in the offseason.

TE — C+

I was pretty pleased with Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry as blockers on Monday night, but the pairing was underutilized through the air.

Freiermuth was targeted just six times and finished five catches and 22 receiving yards, while Gentry had one catch that went for zero yards. He should have had a touchdown in the win if Roethlisberger would have seen him streaking over the middle wide open in the red zone.

Though the numbers might not be there every week, this feels like a really solid 1-2 pairing at tight end for the next two years, at the very least.

OL — B

What a performance from the big men up front.

After really struggling in recent weeks, the offensive line looked like a completely different unit on Monday night, largely due to the insertion of veteran JC Hassenauer in at center. Hassenauer was terrific against the Browns, opening up a number of rushing lanes for Harris, while also getting the Steelers into the right protections.

In the run game, he really got some great push on inside zone and duo runs, clearing the way for Harris.

Guards John Leglue and Trai Turner were solid as well, getting going in the run game, which helped the Steelers grind out the win in AFC North fashion.

At tackle, I was rather pleased with Dan Moore Jr. against Myles Garrett. Sure, Garrett was dealing with a groin injury, but Moore kept him away from Roethlisberger and largely off the stats sheet as Garrett recorded just one tackle and two quarterback hits on 65 snaps.

Right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor struggled a bit, allowing two sacks to Jadeveon Clowney in pass protection, but I thought he was pretty solid in the run game, having Mande significant improvements there this season.

DL — B-

Cam Heyward played like a man possessed on Monday night and really set the tone for the Steelers’ defense. Heyward again continues to be a factor at the line of scrimmage, batting two passes — one of which resulted in a turnover on downs — and also recorded a sack of Baker Mayfield in the win.

He was paramount to the Steelers’ success defensively, which played a huge factor in the Browns being out of sorts. Granted, Cleveland ran the ball well early and then shockingly abandoned it against a depleted Steelers’ front seven, but Heyward was a monster throughout the game.

Henry Mondeaux even got in on the action, recording a sack of Mayfield in the win, while Isaiahh Loudermilk continues to flash, recording two run stops and batting a pass of his own at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers may have found a solid rotational depth piece there.

LB — A-

Much like Heyward, T.J. Watt was a man on a mission Monday night. Watt may have locked up the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his performance, sacking Mayfield four times, batting two passes at the line of scrimmage, recording five total quarterback hits and three tackles for loss in the win. It was puzzling to watch the Browns try and block him 1-on-1 with rookie James Hudson all game long.

Opposite Watt, Alex Highsmith had a terrific game as well, sacking Mayfield twice and recording three tackles for loss. He was outstanding against the run and showed some great backside pursuit throughout the game, making a tackle for loss in the process.

Derrek Tuszka even got in on the sack parade, crushing Mayfield on a blindside sack, igniting the home crowd. He’s turning into quite the rotational outside linebacker and special teams player for the Steelers.

Inside, it was a bit choppy for the Steelers as Robert Spillane flashed some moments against the run, but he’s still an absolute mess in coverage. The Browns rightly went after him in the first half, putting receivers and tight ends on him, allowing them to run option routes which spun Spillane like a top.

Ulysees Gilbert III and Marcus Allen were mostly fine in the win, combining for nine tackles, though nothing of impact overall.

DB — B-

Ahkello Witherspoon has been quite the find for the Steelers, credit to Kevin Colbert.

Witherspoon has been nothing short of spectacular since being inserted into the lineup. He’s making plays left and right. He picked off Mayfield in the first quarter, broke up multiple passes and is simply taking away whatever side of the field he is on.

Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton were mostly average on the night, combining for just six tackles and a pass breakup in the win. That may very likely have been Haden’s final game at Heinz Field as a Steeler. He was a sound tackler and has really helped the secondary with communication since coming back from injury, but that’s about it for him at this point. His lone pass breakup did save a potential touchdown on Monday night though, which deserves a ton of credit.

Tre Norwood recorded an interception late off of a deflection that will look good in the stats sheet, but he mostly struggled in coverage throughout the night. It could have been way worse if Mayfield were accurate on the night.

At safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds were rather quiet, which says more about how well the Steelers’ defense played in front of them. The duo still combined for nine tackles and Fitzpatrick broke up a pass, but it was nice to see the Steelers’ defense not need both to act like linebackers on the night.

Special Teams — B+

I am really intrigued by punter Corliss Waitman. He has a big leg, seems to be rather consistent and is really, really punting the football well. Waitman somehow avoided a punt block for touchdown in the second quarter, booming a 53-yarder from his own end zone and finished the night averaging just under 49 yards per punt, with one of his five punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Keep an eye on him.

Once again, Chris Boswell did Boz things. The elite-level kicker drilled all four field goals on the night, making his kicks from 50+ yards look rather easy at Heinz Field (they aren’t). He’s just so dang good.

McCloud performed rather well as a punt returner against the Browns, averaging nearly 9 yards per punt return, giving the Steelers solid field position throughout the night.


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