I just finished watching the conclusion of the Las Vegas Raiders vs. Los Angeles Chargers game on Sunday Night Football. While I have never been a conspiracy theorist like some within our BTSC community when it comes to the NFL, the series of events that went into shaping this postseason, and the timing of said events, could have easily been viewed as scripted if the results weren't completely unbelievable.
When one of the network announcers starts setting up the highly unlikely scenario where both teams can gain playoff entry by simply agreeing to end the game in a tie by mentioning if repeatedly by the middle of the third quarter, something seems strangely staged. Especially when the same announcer is almost giddy with excitement and anticipation, and seems downright disappointed when the Raiders upheld one of the unwritten codes of competition by playing to win the game. While I will always despise the Raiders, I honestly now do a little less.
If the timing of certain penalty flags was indeed scripted, to keep the game competitive and the outcome of a tie possible, it was a brilliant move by the NFL. It will be interesting to see the ratings for the game, because the whole football loving nation was sitting glued to their television screens fully invested in the results of the most impactful game of the season. Few fully invested fans felt comfortable enough to turn the game off and go to bed.
Every card carrying member of Steelers Nation, plus everybody else who hates us and would have loved nothing more than getting to witness a unheard of tie score knocking the Steelers out of the hunt. That is the definition of a captivated audience. That single game was a roller coaster ride of emotions for millions of vested viewers. The NFL couldn't ask for anything more.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Ben Roethlisberger, Minkah Fitzpatrick
Although multiple players deserve mention in this portion of the article, I have decided to focus on these two performers.
The legend of Big Ben Roethlisberger continues to grow, and his NFL story isn't over yet. Looking back at all the doom and gloom predictions from the national sports media, and many in the Steelers own fanbase, seem rather humorous today. Especially those prognosticators who deemed Roethlisberger finished and that the Steelers would miss the playoffs.
The Steelers hardly resemble a playoff caliber roster, and haven't performed like one on many occasions this year. So how did the Steelers manage to navigate this often overmatched roster all the way to the playoffs? A roster featuring only two Pro Bowl players. The truth is a three part answer: Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, and a winning culture.
Having a winning culture doesn't mean that your franchise will win every game, or that you will hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the conclusion of every season. What it does mean is that some teams find ways to win games they have no reason to be winning, while other teams continue to find creative ways to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. I am in no way willing to argue the point, but I would merely suggest looking at the histories of some of the most successful and unsuccessful franchises in the NFL for clarity.
Winners win, and Ben Roethlisberger is a winner. He now has the second most game winning drives by a QB in NFL history. When the stakes are the highest, he has more often than not risen to the occasion. Throughout his HOF caliber career, he has followed ho-hum first halves with spectacular second halves to lead the Steelers to comeback victories. It's the never say die will to win that permeates through the franchise and has been perfectly exemplified throughout the 18 year career of Ben Roethlisberger.
After a first half where Ben appeared to have little idea where his throws would end up, he went in at halftime, took off the glove on his throwing hand, and displayed incredible accuracy when the stakes couldn't be higher in the second half and overtime. Trust me, Steelers Nation, we are all going to miss that unique ability when it's gone. That clutch quality is not common or easy to find.
Minkah Fitzpatrick failed to produce as many game changing turnovers during the 2021 regular season as we Steelers fans have become accustomed to, but the Steelers weaknesses on defense insisted that his vast talents be utilized differently this season. While his contributions weren't as flashy as years past, they were just as crucial, if not more so. The lack of flash resulted in Fitzpatrick missing the Pro Bowl, but I would argue he has had his best season. This is one of those situations where the statistics and the highlight reels hardly tell the whole story.
I am not one prone to hyperbole, but his perfectly timed pass breakup on the sidelines of a accurate throw intended for Ravens WR Marquise Brown quite possibly saved the Steelers postseason hopes.
Even on a Steelers defense featuring a deserving DPOY candidate T.J. Watt and Pro Bowl DL Cameron Heyward, nobody has as many responsibilities, or fulfills them more faithfully, than Fitzpatrick.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Defensive personnel usage
As every faithful member of the BTSC community and family already knows, I value individual effort more than anything else on the football field. It is the only thing that any player can control actually. The player on the other side of the line may prove to be more talented than you, that is often the byproduct of genetics. However, it is unacceptable for the individual across from you to simply want it more than you do.
That is the mindset of any champion, the personal commitment to never let an opponent out work you. I have seen rosters with average talent achieve greatness, and I have seen superior collections of talent fail to meet expectations due to a lacking work ethic. The 2021 Steelers season has been an unique mix of talent shortcomings in depth areas at certain positions, and a lack of growth and development with some supremely talented players. Thankfully over the past couple of weeks there seems to be a renewed dedication from the collective group to send Ben Roethlisberger out a winner, so no effort issues detected.
What continues to be a puzzling issue is the defensive personnel usage. Specifically the insistence to start DE Chris Wormley and inside linebackers Joe Schobert and Devin Bush. This trio are a huge reason that the Steelers run defense get regularly gashed on early downs, when the majority of running plays occur. Wormley struggles to consistently win one on one matchups against the run, and is easily moved out of position. This inability greatly impacts the interior linebackers, who have struggled mightily against the run all year as a result.
I am still shocked that the Steelers haven't went with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Robert Spillane as starters in an effort to at least try to limit the early down damage. What could it hurt? The Steelers already possess the worst run defense in the NFL this season. The only direction to go is up, or home. No Steelers fan is ready for that. Go Steelers!