For the second year in a row, the Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns in a meaningless Week 17 game by using a bunch of backups—and for the second year in a row, it was an interesting game. The Browns actually had a number of opportunities to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but each of their three drives was progressively more Brownsian than the last. No play, however, encapsulated the Browns 2017 season—and, to be perfectly honest, nearly the entirety of their post-1999 rebirth—quite like the one that sealed their 0-16 fate.
Down 28-24 and facing a 4th-and-2 from Pittsburgh’s 27-yard line, DeShone Kizer dropped back to pass and was immediately flanked by what appeared to be all 53 members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Inexplicably, though, Kizer Eli Manninged his way out of the collapsing pocket and found a wide-open Corey Coleman downfield. Coleman did this:
Corey Coleman locks up 0-16 for the Browns pic.twitter.com/r54jBHUaPy— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweetss) December 31, 2017
OH GAWD WHY.
Now, as a fan of the Steelers, my interests generally lie in them, you know, winning games, so I’m happy about Sunday’s result. But as a human being, I am empathetic toward the Browns’ plight, and I would’ve liked to see this team avoid an 0-16 record. Perhaps no team in the NFL—or in North American professional sports—is as bafflingly snakebitten as the Cleveland Browns, and yet their fans still pack stadia on a weekly basis. These people deserve better.
Anyway, it’s kind of hard to write a pre-postseason stock report based on the performance of a junior varsity squad, but that’s exactly what we’re gonna do:
Stock down: The secondary
And we’re gonna start by offering the secondary, a unit that finished the season ranked fifth in the league in pass defense, its requisite skewering. Pseudo-quarterback DeShone Kizer—DeShone Kizer!—torched the Steelers for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a pair of 50-yard completions. In total, the Steelers allowed 13 passing plays of 40 or more yards this season, which is the third-worst mark in the NFL and the kind of distinction that isn’t befitting of a top-flight secondary. Granted, Sunday’s game was a wholly purposeless endeavor as far as the Steelers were concerned, but you would’ve liked so see a more inspired effort from a group that’s had its ups-and-downs this season.
Stock up: The Pittsburgh Engineering Community
John Sherman Smith, aka Juju Smith-Schuster, is the greatest athlete in the history of Pittsburgh sports. He punctuated a wildly-successful rookie season with what turned out to be a game-winning kickoff return for a touchdown, which made his nine-catch, 143-yard receiving effort seem like somewhat of an afterthought. Despite making just seven starts and playing in just 14 games, Juju finished his inaugural season with 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns and became the youngest player in league history to break the 1,000 all-purpose yards threshold. He’s been an integral part of Pittsburgh’s success this season and will likely be leaned on heavily in the weeks (and years) ahead as the Steelers chase their elusive seventh championship. Ideally, local sculptors and architects are planning to unveil Juju’s statue or a bridge named in his honor during the Wild Card round.
Stock up: New(ish) acquisitions
Last season, the Steelers started the following players in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots: Cobi Hamilton, L.T. Walton, Jarvis Jones, William Gay, and Ross Cockrell. Not surprisingly, New England absolutely rolled Pittsburgh on their way to Tom Brady’s fifth championship.
Things are better this time around. Juju Smith-Schuster is already a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. Martavis Bryant is contributing. Cameron Heyward, who missed last season’s AFC Championship game with a triceps injury, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. T.J. Watt is among the favorites to secure Rookie of the Year honors on the defensive side of the ball. Joe Haden has been by far the best defensive back on the Steelers this season. Mike Hilton, who is, like, the first player the Patriots have ever mis-scouted, has turned into an exceedingly productive slot cornerback.
The Steelers could’ve easily been the second-best team in the AFC by simply keeping last season’s core more or less intact, but by hitting the lottery with their first two draft picks, finding a diamond-in-the-rough in Hilton, signing Haden and backup defensive end Tyson Alualu as free agents, and lucking into a fitting Lawrence Timmons proxy in Vince Williams, the Steelers have constructed a roster capable of beating the Patriots in Foxboro.
Stock up: History!
The Steelers entered Sunday’s contest needing six sacks to break the franchise single-season record, and they did just that. Maybe its just me, but Pittsburgh’s ability to get after opposing quarterbacks has really felt like an underrated aspect of their defensive approach this season—they finished first in the NFL in sacks, setting a franchise record in the process, but only one member of the front seven made the Pro Bowl. While this is obviously indicative of the talented, absurdly-athletic defense the Steelers have built, I think it’s also a testament to the stride Keith Butler has made in his fourth season as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator.
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
0. Ben continues to love beating the Browns, even though he’s technically only done so twice over the past two seasons.