Updated: Jan 14
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Steelers got bounced out of the playoffs in an embarrassing, 48-37, loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night in the wild card game. The game wasn't as close as the final score indicates.
The Browns got off to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter and led 35-7 at halftime. The Browns basically played a prevent defense in the second half and gave everything underneath to the Steelers, so Roethlisberger finished the game with 501 yards passing and four touchdown passes, but he also threw four brutal interceptions, three of those coming in the first half. The Browns' offense went on to score touchdowns after two of Roethlisberger's three interceptions in the first half. On the first offensive snap of the game, Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Roethlisberger's head and strong safety Karl Joseph recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown to give the Browns an early 7-0 lead. The game was really over before it even started.
The game was eerily similar to the Steelers' 2017 divisional-round game to the Jaguars when they spotted Jacksonville 21 points in the first 18:29 minutes. Much like last night's game, the Steelers battled back against the Jaguars but ultimately lost, 45-42. In both losses, they came out flat and dug themselves into a deep hole, and when the offense got going, the defense couldn't come up with a huge stop. In the Steelers' last two playoff games, they have given up 93 points, the offense was responsible for 14 of the 93 points, so the defense allowed 79 points. That's abysmal for a defense that is considered one of the best in the league.
The defense also had no sacks against the Browns, who were without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio due to testing positive for COVID-19. Ironically, the last time the defense didn't record a sack in a game was the 2017 divisional-round game loss to the Jaguars. The defense led the league in sacks this year with 56 and had their worst game of the year when it mattered the most. The Steelers were also minus-5 in turnover differential and didn't force a single takeaway. In four of the Steelers' last six games of the season, they didn't have a single takeaway. All four games they lost.
The Steelers were at home and were at least 6-point favorites or more in both playoff losses to the Jaguars and Browns. Since the 2011 season, the Steelers are 3-6 in the playoffs. Their three wins came against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2015 wild-card game, the Miami Dolphins in the 2016 wild-card game and the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2016 divisional-round game. The three opposing quarterbacks in those games were A.J. McCarron, Matt Moore and Alex Smith. Two backups and a decent quarterback. Nothing to write home about.
The Browns didn't have their head coach Kevin Stefanski since he tested positive for COVID-19. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer served as the acting head coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt took over play-calling duties with Stefanski out. The Browns had just one practice this week and were missing four key starters, and Tomlin still got outcoached.
The Steelers haven't won a playoff game since the 2016 season and have collapsed late in the season in the last three years. They lost four of their last six games in 2018 and missed the playoffs, lost three straight games to end the year in 2019 and missed the playoffs, and then this season they started off 11-0 and lost five of their last six games. Tomlin was asked how he can be accountable for the late-season collapses in the last three years after last night's loss to Cleveland.
"It is what it is. Our record is our record," Tomlin replied. "Our performances are our performances. Don't run away from that."
Expectations were high for fans after the Steelers got off to a franchise-record 11-0 start. Many were thinking Super Bowl, but it all came crashing down on Sunday night when they lost to the Browns, who had not won a road playoff game since 1969 or beat the Steelers at Heinz Field since 2003.
"You know, we didn't do enough," Tomlin said. "We didn't position them in enough good circumstances. We didn't make enough plays, particularly in the critical moments. We were a group that died on the vine."
Dying on the vine as been a common theme for Tomlin coached teams. A pattern has been developed, and it's not a good one. Tomlin has underachieved with the kind of talent he has had at his disposal in the last 10 seasons. To win just three playoff games during that span is well below the standard.