Welcome to the one and done playoff 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: JuJu Smith-Schuster
JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play Sunday night against the Cleveland Browns, and he played with passion and physicality throughout the game. Honestly he really hasn't had a choice this season after making a conscious effort to further his brand through his social media platforms. The biggest problem with placing yourself in the middle of the spotlight is the enhanced scrutiny that accompanies being omnipresent. He placed a huge bullseye on his back with some of his antics that the opposition viewed as disrespectful. Even if that wasn't his intentions, the added intensity and attention directed his way was undeniable. Playing in the NFL is difficult enough without making the process even harder.
The Browns defenders were in his face trash talking from the opening kickoff, and playing through the whistle even on running plays away from the action. They were flying to the ball gang tackling him on his receptions short of the sticks, limiting his trademark displays of power utilized to move the chains. The Browns took exception to his same old Browns comment made during the week of preparation, and they took their intensity up a notch as a result. JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the few Steelers that was able to match that intensity. He played one of his best games in years and showed the big play ability down the field that was underutilized this season. A charitable young man of impressive character, the unrestricted free agent undoubtedly impressed the growing list of possible suitors with his huge performance in a losing effort. That very well could have been his last performance in a Steelers uniform, but you never know.
Steelers stock trending down: Eye of the Tiger
Something was missing from the Steelers roster throughout the season that I just couldn't quite put my finger on. It finally became more than evident during the pregame warmups, and it was blindingly obvious once the game started. The Browns had the eye of the tiger right from the start, and the Steelers appeared unenthusiastic.
The phrase "eye of the tiger" is a famous line from the Rocky III movie and the theme song from the soundtrack. It refers to the primal desire and hunger for success and self validation found in the heart of every fighter. The Browns were highly motivated and honestly desperate to reverse the franchise's long history of ineptitude. The Steelers players made it look like just another day at the office, apparently lacking in intensity. The home field advantage was nonexistent without fans in the stands.
Whether all the Steelers players fully realized it or not, the group of teammates that took the field Sunday night will never do so again. Big changes are inevitable and on the horizon, and a plethora of tough decisions will have to be made. That's what made the Steelers all around flat and unfocused performance so disappointing to all parties involved.
The Steelers offense resembled a unit that was still trying to implement some seldom used play designs in an concerted effort to diversify what had become a stagnant and predictable attack as the season progressed. As far as I can recollect, the Steelers never attempted a trick play on offense during the season. No flea-flicker or halfback option pass even. Trick plays don't win championships actually, but they do bring a certain excitement to practice sessions as players anticipate running them in games. The lack of creativity became more evident as the season wore on.
The Steelers defense apparently lacked communication and cohesion as starters went in and out of the lineup due to injuries and COVID. The defense looked fatigued against the Browns Sunday, especially after rookie edge Alex Highsmith was lost for the remainder of the game with a ankle injury. The Steelers could generate zero pressure on Baker Mayfield, failing to register a single sack or QB pressure in the contest. TJ Watt potentially damaged his chances of winning the DPOY award after failing to really make an impact in the game, although he was far from the only guilty party.
The Steelers need to take a long hard look at their roster and coaching staff after such a subpar performance that looked disturbingly similar to their last playoff appearance, the memorable home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They fell behind early and were unable to get key third down stops at opportune moments. There is always the danger of players struggling to gain inspiration from the familiar refrains of a long tenured coaching staff. Whatever the cause of the struggles, the Steelers front office must figure out the solution.