The Browns outplayed the entire Steelers roster.
The Steelers returned to the top of the AFC North this season, winning the division and forcing the Cleveland Browns to come to Pittsburgh for their first playoff game in 18 years. The Steelers rested a good number of players for week 17, and were largely at full strength for the playoffs, especially on offense.
Offensive players from the start of the season missing in the wild card game? Zach Banner. That is it. That’s the only starter or rotational player that they didn’t have. This Steelers team ended the season with the offense that they intended to have from the start. That offense showed it’s strengths and weaknesses well in the Wild Card loss.
The Steelers threw for over 500 yards once the Browns backed off a bit and let them find a rhythm, they did much better when they could take what the Browns defense gave them. Outside of that, they also showed their incredible reliance on Ben Roethlisberger, and in my opinion, they showed the same disfunction on the line that they did most of the season. The left side of the line, Alejandra Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Maurkice Pouncey weren’t good together. Feiler, in his return, didn’t play a bad game, those three together just don’t work well. Maurkice Pouncey didn’t snap the first ball over his quarterback’s head because Dotson was on the bench, but he was consistently worse in every game Dotson wasn’t on the field. Like he was this week.
But really, that’s the one change I would have made, and it wouldn’t change the result of the game. This offense has run its course. Veteran QBs get solved. Teams figure out their reads, their habits, their strengths beat teams enough that teams design defenses to stop them. At some point the quarterback gets old enough that he can’t just out talent a scheme designed specifically to thwart him. The late career Super Bowl runs we’ve seen have been on teams that don’t need them to win the game. Whether that’s John Elway with Terrell Davis, Peyton Manning and the Denver defense, or Tom Brady with an offense designed around Gronk and running backs. The Steelers offense is built around their quarterback, and we saw in both 2018 and this season that good teams aren’t going to lose to him, especially in the playoffs. An offense built around end of his career Ben Roethlisberger will not win in the playoffs. And that’s what this offense was.
The defense is a different story. Cameron Sutton led the defense in total snaps played again. The Steelers were 0-4 this season when Cameron Sutton played 85% or more of the defensive snaps. He’s a great #4 CB, one of the best in the NFL, but he’s not the guy you want starting and playing all game as your outside corner.
T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane returned, to mixed results. This was T.J. Watt’s first game against Cleveland without a QB hit and his second without a sack, the other being earlier this season. Quite a long way from when he dominated them every game. Spillane led the team in tackles but wasn’t as mobile as he as earlier in the season and the Browns went after him a good bit.
Alex Highsmith leaving the game really hurt, Cassius Marsh looks like a player who could be a good backup, but in a “cheaper version of Anthony Chickillo” way, not a guy we want playing more than two-thirds of the snaps in a playoff game.
If you look at the game in drives, the Steelers defense faced 12 Browns drives and gave up four 50+ yard drives. That’s not bad. Not great, but pretty solid. The problem comes when the other team only needs to go 40, 15 or 8 yards to score. Then you have 7 scoring drives and a defensive touchdown and the Browns have 48 points with 4 drives over 50 yards.
The first half the Steelers started terribly, and when the defense took the field for the first time they were down 7 points, in bad field position and the Browns were hyped up. The negatives that I look at are how long it took to get both sides of the team settled down and productive. It took half the game to get out of the funk they started in, and that is inexcusable, from everyone. The second half the Steelers defense wasn’t good enough to overcome the start of the game. With the players they had on the field, they weren’t going to be.