“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.
No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.
Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.
“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.
Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.
For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.
The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History
If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.
I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.
Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.
Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.
The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.
Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.
Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.
I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.
To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.
That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.
You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.
Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.
However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.
Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again
In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.
Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.
Are you sensing a theme yet?
Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.
Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.
The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.
This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.
The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.
This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.
- 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
- 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
- 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
- 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
- 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
- 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
- 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.
Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.
Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.
Where are the Takeaways?
I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:
Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.
Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.
But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.
Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).
Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:
It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.
This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.
However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.
Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.
When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.
Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.
There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.
So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.
By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.
There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.
Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.
If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.
Is This the End?
Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.
Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.
His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.
The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.
If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.
Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.
I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.
Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.
Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.
C’est la vie.