Both teams are currently on the outside of the AFC playoff-picture. The Steelers are 11th in the conference and the Browns are 12th. Both could qualify by winning their final two games but would need considerable help. One thing is certain: the loser of this game can start planning for 2022.
The Baker Mayfield Conundrum
The Baker Mayfield Conundrum sounds like the name of a middling late-60s rock band that opened a few gigs for Jefferson Airplane and The Kinks. In reality, it represents both the root of what has gone wrong in Cleveland in 2021 and the impending decision that looms over the franchise.
As disappointed as Steelers’ fans are with how this season has transpired, imagine being a Browns fan. The Steelers have had the excuse, at least, of diminished expectations. Objective fans knew heading into the season that this team was flawed. The line was weak, the quarterback was at the end of his career, the offensive coaching staff had turned over and there were holes on defense. While it was noble to hope the Steelers could pull things together and make one final run under Roethlisberger, reality suggested this would be a season of regression.
In Cleveland, though, expectations were sky-high. The 2020 Browns had qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and had won their first playoff game since 1995. They returned the core of their roster and had bolstered it with some splashy free agent signings, including Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson and Takk McKinley. Cleveland was the consensus team-to-beat in the AFC North and was promoted by many as a Super Bowl contender.
Now, at 7-8, it will take a minor miracle for them to simply make the playoffs. While the culprits for their failures are many, including a slew of injuries and internal dysfunction, the root of their problems center around Mayfield.
The best thing about Mayfield’s performance in 2021 may be his acting in a string of commercials for Progressive Insurance. Nation-wide commercial campaigns are usually reserved for superstars, however. Mayfield is a superstar in name only. While Mayfield had a break-out 2020 campaign, throwing 26 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions and logging a career-high 65.5 QBR, his 2021 season has been plagued by injuries, inconsistency and drama.
On the field, Mayfield is on track for career lows in touchdown passes, passing-yards-per-game and QBR. He has been inaccurate, impatient and prone to crucial mistakes. Last week, against Green Bay, Mayfield threw four picks, including a fatal one with :50 remaining and the Browns near midfield while trailing by two points. Cleveland fans will contend defensive pass interference should have been called on the play, and they have a good argument in that case. They cannot, however, defend Mayfield’s three prior interceptions, which included this one that derailed a potential scoring drive late in the first half:
This play demonstrated two of Mayfield’s biggest flaws as a professional quarterback. First, while rolling to his left, and away from the line of scrimmage, he attempted to throw a wheel route 30 yards up the sideline. Without the ability to properly set his feet, Mayfield does not have the arm strength to locate this throw. As a result, it was behind receiver Jarvis Landry, who could not come back to make a play on the ball before defender Rasul Douglas swooped in to claim it.
While I hesitate to use the term “hubris” to describe Mayfield’s decision-making on this play, there’s no question he often makes throws he believes he’s capable of that reality suggests otherwise.
The other issue for Mayfield has been his ability, or lack thereof, to read a defense. Mayfield has been susceptible throughout his career to being fooled by coverage disguises. On the play above, Douglas (29) aligned on the outside receiver while nickel corner Chandon Sullivan (39) was positioned over Landry in the slot. Mayfield believed he had man-coverage, and Douglas sunk far enough with the in-route to goad Mayfield into thinking he would run with it. Mayfield took the bait. Once Douglas and Sullivan switched responsibilities, it was an easy pick:
Off the field, Mayfield has been both a source and target of criticism. His capabilities have been questioned by several teammates (and their fathers). Mayfield himself has claimed that internal division exists within the franchise. He’s even received death threats from Cleveland fans. Mayfield has probably been made too much of the scapegoat for Cleveland’s shortcomings. Such is life in the spotlight, however. One way or another, his play has not justified the attention.
With Mayfield’s contract up after the 2022 season, the Browns have a tricky evaluation to make on him. It’s likely they’d prefer to get him fixed so they can extend him rather than cut him loose and start over at the position (again). Cleveland has been the league’s least-stable franchise for starting quarterbacks this century. They would love for Mayfield to become their Roethlisberger. But Mayfield’s season, and his tenure in Cleveland overall, has been shaky enough to question whether that will happen. How things transpire the next two weeks could impact Cleveland’s decision.
Big Ben’s last stand?
As for Roethlisberger, Monday night looks to be the veteran QB’s final start at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger seemed to confirm as much on Wednesday, telling the media it would “likely” be his finale. While he could have a change of heart, retirement seems imminent for the future Hall of Famer.
If this is Roethlisberger’s final start in Pittsburgh, it’s worth reflecting on what he’s accomplished here. Roethlisberger has 91 career wins at Heinz Field, which is 82 more than the next closest quarterback, Kordell Stewart, since Heinz opened in 2001. He won two AFC championships here, with the January, 2009 win over the Ravens perhaps the greatest game in the history of the stadium. He has thrown for more than 500 yards in a game four times at Heinz Field, the most of any quarterback in NFL history. In short, Roethlisberger is as synonymous to Heinz as Brady was to Gillette, Montana to Candlestick and Elway to Mile High.
As far as opponents are concerned, there is no better foe for Roethlisberger’s final home start than the Cleveland Browns. While Pittsburgh-Baltimore has been the defining rivalry of Roethlisberger’s career, the fact he grew up just two hours from Cleveland, that he attended college in Ohio and that he has flat-out owned the Browns for the better part of two decades makes this game special.
To what degree has Roethlisberger dominated Cleveland? Counting last season’s playoff loss, his career record against them is 25-3-1. A victory on Monday would tie him with Brett Favre, who defeated the Detroit Lions 26 times, for the most wins by a quarterback not named Tom Brady over a single opponent in NFL history (Brady, as you may have guessed, decimated the AFC East as a member of the New England Patriots, including a record 31 wins over the Buffalo Bills).
Roethlisberger has thrown 46 touchdown passes against Cleveland. His first one at Heinz was a 37-yarder to Plaxico Burress in a 34-23 win in 2004. His most recent was a 7-yarder to Chase Claypool in the playoff loss last January. Besides Buress and Claypool, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Juju Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Nate Washington and Leonard Pope have all caught touchdown passes at Heinz Field from Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger has never lost to the Browns at home in the regular season. While some of those games have been close, like the 2014 contest that ended 30-27 on a Shaun Suisham field goal as time expired, many have been blowouts. 38-7 in 2020. 30-9 in 2015. 31-0 in 2008. 27-7 in 2006. The Steelers in general, and Roethlisberger in particular, have simply been too good.
Of all the great plays Roethlisberger has made against the Browns at Heinz Field over the years, two stand out as particularly memorable. The first was a 30-yard scramble for a touchdown that gave the Steelers the lead in a 2007 game they would win, 31-28. The Roethlisberger of recent memory, who gets rid of the ball almost immediately after receiving the snap and who can barely move about the pocket, skews our memory of the player he once was. Watching him rumble down the field before throwing himself into the end zone is a beautiful reminder of how dangerous he once was at extending a play and making something out of nothing:
The other is from a Thursday night contest in 2011 which ended in a 14-3 Steelers’ victory. Roethlisberger took an ugly hit just before halftime on which one Cleveland defender went low and another went high, causing Roethlisberger’s left knee to buckle awkwardly:
Roethlisberger limped to the locker room, and when play resumed in the second half he could barely put pressure on his left leg. Still, he gutted through the remainder of the contest, throwing the ball sparingly and relying on Pittsburgh’s run game and staunch defense to carry the day. With just over three minutes remaining, though, and the Steelers leading 7-3 and in need of a first down to run out the clock, he uncorked this gorgeous back-shoulder throw to Antonio Brown. Brown did the rest, and the result was a 79-yard touchdown that put Cleveland away:
These two plays remind us that Ben Roethlisberger is one of the great warriors to ever play the quarterback position. Whether he can summon one last heroic performance at Heinz Field in front of the Pittsburgh faithful remains to be seen. The fact he’ll have a chance to do it against the Browns is perfect.
What to expect
Who knows? These have been two of the least predictable teams in the league. Both are sub-.500 against the spread. Both have pulled off upset wins (Pittsburgh over Buffalo, Cleveland over Cincinnati) and both have suffered blowout losses (Cincy and Kansas City for the Steelers, Arizona and New England for the Browns). The Steelers should have the advantage, however, of a raucous home crowd pouring out its love for Big Ben. That should mean something to Roethlisberger, who has made his appreciation for the fans well-known in recent years. I wouldn’t take it to the bank, but I’m anticipating a hero’s send-off for No. 7 as the Steelers rally around their leader to keep their playoff hopes alive.