Discussing which Steelers players or positions are trending up, trending down, or simply treading water.
Welcome to the latest edition of the Steelers Stock Report of the 2020 NFL season: Cleveland Browns edition. I have been granted the distinguished opportunity to attempt to determine which direction individual players, or units, are trending after each weekly matchup, to the best of my ability. I will attempt to make each determination without the use of my Black-and-Gold glasses, but admittedly I can make no promises.
Let’s get started…
Steelers stock trending up: Infusion of young talent
With the Pittsburgh Steelers honestly having little to gain in the standings but plenty to lose health wise heading into Sunday’s game in Cleveland against the highly motivated Browns, my hopes hinged first and foremost on the Steelers exiting the contest without further debilitating injuries. I was unusually calm about the outcome of the game, with my singular focus being on the overall effort and performances of the young men actually playing in the game. Mission accomplished all around.
Multiple inexperienced and seldom used players were granted the opportunity to participate in a playoff like pressure packed contest, at least for the win or more-than-likely miss the playoffs yet again Browns. Turns out the Steelers will face the Browns again in the first round of the playoffs on Sunday Night Football. The performances of multiple young Steelers contributors throughout Sunday’s hard fought loss definitely bodes well for the playoff rematch, and beyond.
The Steelers offense steadily improved throughout the day as they settled into their often unfamiliar roles and responsibilities. Mason Rudolph performed like a third year backup QB with limited experience, but his play was above the line of my own expectations as he shown real improvement from last season with a performance that should lessen the angst of Steelers Nation concerning his ability to effectively relieve Roethlisberger temporarily due to injury. More on that later in this article.
The Steelers young receiving core showed up and showed out throughout the game. With the Steelers running game being what it is, the Steelers chances of sustained playoff success hinges on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to utilize his talented young receivers to their full potential. Each young man flashed glimpses against the Browns of their probable playoff usage. With Eric Ebron missing the game due to COVID protocol, the young talented trio was going to see an uptick in targets for certain.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the old man of the group at 24 years young and a four year veteran. He has evolved this season into a possession receiver who Ben can trust to move the chains on tough third down completions in the middle of the field. JuJu continued doing the dirty work against the Browns, racking up the tough YAC yards after more relatively short receptions working the middle of the field, plus the clutch fourth quarter TD. His toughness and experience will prove invaluable during the playoffs.
Diontae Johnson has rebounded nicely from his season long bout with inconsistency and dropped passes. He has been locked in over the past few games, and has suddenly shown an impressive ability to get on top of opposing defenses. His short area quickness and ability to gain instant separation is well known and ranks amongst the best in the NFL, but he is starting to utilize those abilities to get open deep with regularity. He struggles with contested catches due to his diminutive stature, but he is achieving some startling separation and making that a non issue. Excellent bounce back from a vital contributor through hard work and attention to detail.
Last but certainly not least, Chase Claypool finished out his rookie season in style. The sky is the limit for the young man, and he can be as dominant as he wants to be. It will all depend on how badly he wants to be great, and how much he is willing to sacrifice to achieve that objective. He dominated his matchups going against third and fourth string cornerbacks against the Browns, as should be expected for a potential superstar in the near future. He is interfered with on basically every target by completing overmatched defenders, resulting in an unbelievable amount of no calls from officials obviously resistant to flagging every altercation. He has to fight through the contact to complete the catch, relying far less on a flag that may never be thrown.
Other standouts deserve mention. Alex Highsmith was excellent yet again. He lead the team with nine tackles, six solo, with one for a loss. He picked up a sack, and he influenced two others. He also set a mean edge against the run throughout the game. Kevin Dotson continued his tendencies to move large men against their will, and his physicality is already superior at the position. His presence gives the Steelers some semblance of a running game on occasion. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention K Matthew Wright after he made not one, but two 46 yard field goals during the game. Nice job, young man.
Steelers stock trending down: Backup QB concerns
Mason Rudolph enjoyed the best performance of his NFL career in my opinion. He displayed the confidence of a third year QB to trust what he was reading and act accordingly. His functional arm strength looked better than ever as he was fully committed to stepping into his throws with improved mechanics. It was more than evident that he has utilized his opportunity to lead the Steelers starters in practice every Wednesday, when Ben Roethlisberger sits out as a scheduled rest day, to it’s fullest.
Many of my fellow colleagues were upset that the Steelers basically stayed with “Ben’s” offense against the Browns, instead of utilizing the rare opportunity to implement rarely used aspects of the Randy Fichtner/Matt Canada playbook. I for one understood the Steelers approach because they wanted to get a closer look at what Rudolph could realistically handle, how much growth he has achieved in his practice reps, and what level of adjustment would be necessary if Ben Roethlisberger would be heaven forbid knocked from a playoff game for any substantial amount of time. Based on what we witnessed on Sunday in Cleveland, I feel far more positive than I did prior to that performance from Rudolph. Hopefully we don’t have to find out the hard way. Here’s hoping for some mop up duties during a blowout if absolutely necessary.
Steelers stock frustratingly oblivious: NFL officiating
The level of NFL officiating during the 2020 NFL season has fluctuated like the waves on the ocean. Early in the season it became more than apparent that there was resistance to calling offensive holding. The Steelers and their ferocious pass rushers were regularly victimized by this resistance. Eventually; around the mid way point of the season, offensive holding penalties were starting to be called with increased regularity, but only in the most egregious situations and circumstances. The enforcement of this rule remains maddeningly inconsistent at the moment.
Now it appears that NFL officiating crews are swallowing the whistle so to speak when it comes to pass interference penalties. At times it appears that ulterior motives and circumstances are influencing the frequency and suspect timing of the penalties called. I serious doubt that any honest football fan can clearly decipher or recognize what actually constitutes pass interference in today’s NFL.
Chase Claypool is regularly mugged and physically assaulted on what amounts to contested catch opportunities every single game, but the pass interference calls are coming far less frequently as the season has progressed. The third down desperation attempt to Claypool on the Steelers final drive against the Cincinnati Bengals was both egregious and game changing. Go back and watch that play, then tell me that wasn’t clearly pass interference. Problem is nobody really knows what constitutes a penalty anymore. It basically comes down to the eye of the beholder, and the officials opinion on each instance is all that really matters. Sounds like a situation destined for disaster.