It seems that the Pittsburgh Steelers took too much time off leading up to their wild card matchup with the Cleveland Browns.
Pittsburgh came out beyond flat and allowed the Browns to capitalize on it all night. Even after a comeback attempt, the Steelers never had an opportunity to actually win the game.
The 11-point defeat now ends the Steelers’ season and sees the Browns earn their first postseason victory since 1995.
While Pittsburgh’s offense ended up scoring 37 points, it did just as much damage to its own defense. The Steelers committed a total of five turnovers, including a fumble recovery for a touchdown on the first play of the night.
Center Maurkice Pouncey, who was named to his ninth Pro Bowl this year, snapped the ball well over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head to put his team in an early hole.
The Steelers never really recovered.
Cleveland went up 28-0 in the first quarter, the first team to score that many points in the opening quarter in the playoffs since 1969.
As the Browns now get the opportunity to knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh ends its season in heartbreak.
Not only is this once-promising campaign over, but there is plenty of uncertainty around the roster moving forward. It’s very possible that the Steelers will have a much different-looking team heading into Week 1 of next season.
Steelers drop wild card game
Even though Roethlisberger threw for over 500 yards and four touchdowns, Sunday’s loss was one of the worst performances of his career. The 38-year-old was picked off four times and didn’t look good for the majority of the game.
On the Steelers’ second drive, the quarterback panicked under pressure and floated his pass over his intended receiver. M.J. Stewart Jr. intercepted the errant ball and took it into Pittsburgh territory.
Three plays later, the Browns scored their second touchdown in just about the first five minutes of the game.
Following a three-and-out, as well as an additional Roethlisberger interception on the next series, the Browns got into the end zone two more times.
Although Heinz Field was practically empty without fans, you could feel that all of the momentum was with Cleveland.
The Steelers got on the board after a 13-play drive when running back James Conner scored from one yard out.
This gave the home side some signs of life; however, it didn’t last long. Cleveland responded right away, scoring its fifth touchdown of the half in just over a minute.
Pittsburgh added a field goal right before the half, but this game felt like it was practically finished with the Browns up 35-10.
Roethlisberger and the offense were much better in the second half, although it wasn’t enough. The Steelers were never within 10 points of the lead.
As usual this season, they weren’t able to run the ball whatsoever. As a whole, the Steelers rushed 16 times for just 52 yards.
Of course, the game flow forced Pittsburgh to pass even more than it would generally like to.
Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson had great showings. They combined for 24 receptions for 274 yards and a score.
While turnovers put Pittsburgh’s defense in a tough bind several times, they didn’t play well, either. The unit didn’t record any sacks and surrendered 390 yards total.
Steelers’ busy offseason
This loss is more difficult than others because things could be very different next year. The Steelers have a lot of question marks regarding their roster heading into the offseason.
Naturally, the biggest concern is about Roethlisberger. Despite him being a Steelers legend who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the near future, he wasn’t good down the stretch.
Including the playoff game, Pittsburgh lost four of its last five meetings. Roethlisberger threw eight interceptions in those contests and hasn’t been nearly as efficient as usual.
It would be incredibly tough to move off the two-time Super Bowl champion, but that’s where the front office might be at this point.
The Steelers also have to make decisions about several other players. Overall, 19 players are unrestricted free agents looking for a new contract.
Among the most notable are receiver Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton and Conner.
Obviously, every team faces similar issues with re-signing its players, but the Steelers are worse off than most. They have a very limited amount of salary cap space and a lot of needs to address.
Even though fans should expect some movement in the next few months, there’s no reason the Steelers can’t be a playoff team again in 2021.
In spite of disappointing their backers at West Virginia sportsbooks last weekend, the Steelers were a profitable team this season.
They went 10-6 against the spread in individual games and exceeded their mark for regular-season wins with 12.
It won’t be easy, but Pittsburgh may look to sign back as many contributors as possible to make one more run. This offseason will prove to be crucial in determining the outlook of the team for the near future.