Wild Card Positional Grades: Chiefs vs. Steelers

Well, we’ll always have 7-0 from Sunday night’s 42-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round at Arrowhead Stadium.

We’ll always have No. 7 too.

In the final game of the storied career of Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers went out with a whimper, allowing 35 unanswered points after an inspiring first 15 minutes of play, serving as nothing more than a speed bump to the Chiefs’ high-powered attack.

It was the same old song, difference dance for the Steelers in the loss as the offense left the defense out to dry early on, and by the time the Steelers’ offense found any footing, the defense was on empty as the Chiefs were able to do whatever they wanted offensively.

Now, the Steelers enter the great unknown with the end of the Roethlisberger era staring down a pivotal draft and a potential General Manager change. Change is coming in a big way.

Let’s check out the grades from Sunday’s Wild Card defeat, remember our best Roethlisberger memories, and move into the offseason.

QB — C+

In the loss, Roethlisberger moved into third place all-time in NFL history in playoff passing yards, slipping past Green Bay’s Brett Favre and San Francisco’s Joe Montana on a night in which he went 29-for-44 for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

The offense was in a funk right from the start as it lacked creativity and really didn’t push the football down the field. Roethlisberger certainly missed some throws but was grossly let down by his receivers on the night — namely Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

Roethlisberger threw a dime to Claypool twice downfield. Both times, Claypool couldn’t finish the play, one of which legitimately went right through his hands. Johnson dropped numerous balls on the night, two of which came on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt.

It was a sad way for Roethlisberger to go out, but all good things must come to an end eventually.

RB — C-

For all the talk about Najee Harris’s impressive 381-touch performance without a fumble leading up to Sunday’s Wild Card matchup, you just knew it was going to come back to bite the Steelers.

Well, it did. Harris fumbled the football away early in the second half on a swing route from Roethlisberger, giving the Chiefs the football and allowing them to truly run away with the game. Harris battled through an elbow injury in the game, but he was mostly ineffective, finishing with 29 yards rushing on 12 carries, adding two catches for -1 yard, including the fumble.

Benny Snell Jr. looked promising at times in place of Harris, who took a seat after the fumble with the game well out of hand. Snell rushed for 15 yards on two carries, but he looked solid as a receiver finishing with two catches for 16 yards, running with a lot of power after the catch.

Kalen Ballage also got some work in the game and rushed for 13 yards on four carries. In fact, Ballage’s first carry went for 4 yards in the first quarter and was truly the first successful play of the game for the Steelers’ offense. That should tell you all you need to know.

WR — D

Without James Washington’s impressive play in the air down the stretch, this grade would be even worse.

Washington, in likely his final game with the Steelers, finished with two two catches for 37 yards and a touchdown, hauling in the final TD of Roethlisberger’s career on a pretty play along the left sideline over top of a Chiefs’ defender. He also made a spectacular leaping grab for 22 yards down the far sideline, again over a defender.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud also came to pay as Smith-Schuster made some tough catches in traffic and fought through tackles after returning from a serious shoulder injury, while McCloud again showed toughness hanging onto the ball on a tough catch in traffic in garbage time.

As for Johnson and Claypool, the two were downright dreadful. Claypool had two deep shots fall incomplete, one that clanged off his hands and the other that went right through his hands on a great ball by Roethlisberger. Johnson also had numerous drops that stalled drives and had a false start that was killer.

Johnson did catch a touchdown from Roethlisberger in the third quarter, but it was meaningless in the end, and he celebrated afterwards, down 35-14. Sums things up, huh?

TE — C+

It was too little, too late for the Steelers’ tight ends on Sunday night, through no fault of their own.

When utilized in the passing game, Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry made things happen in the middle of the field. The pairing combined for eight catches for 58 yards, making the tough catches in traffic and making defenders miss in space.

The problem was, they just weren’t called upon until the Steelers were down big. That’s on coaching in terms of personnel used.

They didn’t have any sort of impact as blockers in the run game, and Gentry had a noticeably bad pass protection rep against Frank Clark (never a matchup you want), but overall the tight ends should have been used more as receivers early on. Maybe that would have helped the Steelers’ offense find its footing faster.

OL — D+

There was no run game to speak of, which was par for the course as of late for the Steelers’ offensive line.

The push simply wasn’t there, there were communication issues in pass protection, and it resulted in a really rough day overall for an offense that had just two first downs late into the third quarter.

Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor struggled with the speed and power of guys like Clark and Melvin Ingram off the edge, while I thought left guard John Leglue held his own at times against Chris Jones inside.

On a night in which the Steelers dropped back 46 times to throw, Pittsburgh allowed just two quarterback sacks and four quarterback hits, keeping Roethlisberger relatively upright in his final game.

But once again, it just wasn’t good enough. This group could undergo even more changes in the trenches once again with names like Trai Turner, Okorafor and Joe Haeg all set to hit free agency.

DL — C+

Quietly, this defensive line had a good game overall, even on the night that the Chiefs racked up nearly 500 yards of total offense.

Cameron Heyward was really good early on, but like the rest of the defense ran out of gas late. He was stout against the run early, pushed the pocket into Patrick Mahomes’ lap at times and was really disruptive.

Montravious Adams again impressed, making the case to stick around at least for next year, recording a sack in the loss, while Chris Wormley closed out a really strong year with a sack of his own.

This group just couldn’t win consistently against the run through, resulting in some big plays from the Chiefs. Such is life when you’re playing a street free agent and a reserve defensive tackle in key spots.

LB — C-

Without TJ Watt on this roster, who knows how bad the Steelers’ record is.

He was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half, batting a pass into the air for an interception by Devin Bush, later sacked Mahomes and then recovered a fumble and ran it in for a touchdown, giving the Steelers that brief 7-0 lead that I wrote about earlier.

Watt filled up the stats sheet with three tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, one pass defensed, three quarterback hits and the touchdown. Opposite him, Alex Highsmith had a rather strong game, giving Chiefs’ left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. fits once again. Highsmith recorded a sack, had consistent pressure on Brown and really did a great job landing his ghost rush move over and over again.

Taco Charlton had some decent reps, as did Derrek Tuszka, but the success on the outside came from Watt and Highsmith, who were really good until running out of steam.

Inside, yet another dreadful performance.

Bush had the interception, but then was confused with Cameron Sutton on a pivotal play, resulting in a splash play for the Chiefs. He was bad against the run too, and finished with just one tackle on the night.

Joe Schobert was equally as bad, recording just two tackles and one tackle for loss. He was a no-show and likely played his final game as a Steeler.

Robert Spillane got a ton of run and was just bad; no other way to write that. He finished with five tackles, but he was lost in coverage, was a step slow throughout the game and really just had no answer for what the Chiefs were doing to him. This group needs overhauled in a big, big way.

DB — F

Quite the game to forget for Sutton and Joe Haden, who were both absolutely torched by the Chiefs throughout this one.

Haden allowed the touchdown to Byron Pringle on a stop and go, and Sutton was cooked by Tyreek Hill two plays after Harris’s fumble. Both struggled to tackle as well, which was really tough to see.

For as good as he was down the stretch, Ahkello Witherspoon had a rough game too, which really hindered the Steelers’ secondary. Miscommunications happened in big spots and resulted in big plays for the Chiefs. Tackling was an issue with him too. I hope he’s retained though. There’s some promise.

At safety, I thought Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds did all that they could. But in the end, they can’t cover for everyone. Minkah had a big third-down stop early coming downhill to stick a Chiefs’ receiver short of the sticks, and I thought Edmunds was rather solid on Travis Kelce early.

That all changed though when Tre Norwood, who was outstanding early with two pivotal pass breakups, lost Kelce on a broken play, allowing the All-Pro tight end to shake loose for a long touchdown late in the half, which ultimately was the final nail in the coffin for the Steelers.

Special Teams — B-

The only true wart here for the Steelers on special teams was the 48-yard punt return by Mecole Hardman in the first half. That was a combination of poor coverage and a big punt from Pressley Harvin III that out kicked his coverage.

Harvin III was really good on Sunday night, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt. He really bounced back in a big way and made the Steelers look good with their decision to roll with him again.

That’s truly about all I’ve got with special teams. It was a nightmare for the Steelers overall. Back to the tape I go…

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