The Steelers played a rough game on Sunday, managing to only come to a tie against perhaps the NFL’s worst team.
Still, there’s some takeaways to be had:
1. An ugly game with uglier conditions
I don’t have much to say about the worst parts of the Steelers’ game on Sunday. They looked absolutely terrible against the Lions, with even their most reliable players uncharacteristically making bad plays. It was an ugly game with plenty of fumbles, drops, missed tackles and blocks, and injuries.
Although most of the blame falls on the players and coaches, understandably, Heinz Field’s awful conditions certainly didn’t help. The overused turf had to literally be spray-painted green to cover its many imperfections as the rain and sleet further worsened any semblance of a field that was left. The poor footing likely contributed to the countless injuries throughout the game, while the weather may have played a factor in the terrible ball-handling.
The point is, while the Steelers should have played better, you know a football is hard to hold onto if even Pat Freiermuth is having a difficult time hanging onto it.
The Steelers’ next game is at SoFi Stadium, the Chargers’ domed field. Hopefully the change of scenery alone spurs Pittsburgh to a better performance across the board.
2. Mason Rudolph’s solid game
For a while it was popular to say that Mason Rudolph, not Ben Roethlisberger, should be the Steelers’ starter. Now, it seems better to say that Rudolph is an awful quarterback following his performance against Detroit.
As with many things, the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle.
Mason Rudolph has had chance after chance to prove himself to be starting quality, but he’s only ever proven himself to be a solid NFL backup. And his game against the Lions seemed to further prove that. Rudolph managed to keep his team in the game, avoid too many costly mistakes, and complete some nice passes, but he wasn’t able to rise above the circumstances and make the plays necessary to lead his team to victory.
Still, Rudolph’s play becomes even more impressive given the aforementioned poor conditions he was playing in, all while being without two of the team’s top receivers and dealing with poor snaps and offensive line play the entire game. And it’s not his fault Matt Canada made him throw 50 times.
It’s still clear that with Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers beat the Lions, but given the circumstances Rudolph played a solid game as a backup. And at this point it’s a very reasonable expectation for the rest of his career.
3. A confusing performance
Ray-Ray McCloud’s days as the Steelers’ return man may be numbered. Only a week removed from his costly fumble against Chicago, he again made questionable decisions against Detroit. McCloud almost gave the ball back to the Lions when he tried to catch a bouncing punt while surrounded by defenders, and he juggled another in the fourth quarter.
But despite his poor play on special teams, McCloud enjoyed a career day as a receiver, recording nine catches for 63 yards as Mason Rudolph’s most reliable target. He displayed speed, quickness, and surprisingly good hands throughout his time on offense.
It’s about time the Steelers look to someone other than McCloud to handle the team’s return duties, but the struggling gadget player may have still saved himself a roster spot thanks to his impressive performance on offense.
4. The future at cornerback
It’s no secret that Steelers’ cornerback Joe Haden is nearing the end of his impressive career. However, the Steelers have consistently struggled with developing any type of depth behind what has often been a thin secondary.
Thankfully, they finally seem to be forming a somewhat deep room at the position.
Most notable against the Lions were young cornerbacks James Pierre and Tre Norwood. Pierre continues to be one of the team’s most physical players, recording a few big tackles near the line of scrimmage against Detroit. Tre Norwood, not usually known for his physicality, recorded a big third down stop as well. Both corners recorded pass breakups in the 4th quarter to add to their impressive game.
Both Pierre and Norwood still have rough edges, but they both have an undeniable talent and feel for the game of football. There’s still some development that needs to happen, but as of right now both look like they could be stars in Pittsburgh’s secondary in the near future — a surprisingly bright possibility to arrive from such an ugly game.
5. An overrated defense
The Steelers have enjoyed good performances here and there from different starters on their defense, but Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt are the only two defenders playing with the star power the Steeler defense supposedly boasted entering the season.
The Steelers allowed 229 rushing yards against Detroit, and constantly had receivers running open in the secondary. Poor tackling, which had been an issue throughout the season, somehow sunk to an even worse low, with Devin Bush turning in perhaps the worst game of his professional career.
To their credit, the Steelers defense rebounded as the game went on, and in the end they only allowed 16 points, but it was far from the elite performance expected against one of the NFL’s worst offenses. There’s still plenty of improvement to be had, from not only coaching and personnel, but in the simpler aspects of the game like tackling fundamentals and even effort.
Pittsburgh’s defense still has a lot of potential, but it has yet to come close to reaching it with a dangerous slate of opposing offenses remaining in the final half of the season.
It’s fitting that there’s so few takeaways from such a terrible game. Perhaps it’s best just to forget this one and move on.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.