Turn off the lights. The party is over.
Ben Roethlisberger’s run as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback was a great one. Two Super Bowl wins, vast numbers of great plays and games, a career that will be forever memorialized in Canton in a few years.
Perhaps the most notable part of Ben Roethlisberger’s career is that it never felt like the Steelers were out of it with No. 7 at quarterback. Perhaps this season was the best testament to that, as a team that was short on talent and in massive turnover was picked to finish last in the AFC North, but instead improbably ended up with a winning record and a playoff berth.
It’s a very true thing in sports that most improbable good seasons end with your team earning the right to get pounded by a much better team in a game they never should have been in. The Steelers put together a great run just to make the playoffs, and they earned a matchup that ended with the Steelers getting pounded.
First, look at the line. Look at the names on that offensive line. A rag-tag group of rookies, re-treads and backups called into service were the men in front of Ben Roethlisberger in his final games. A far cry from the line he had from 2012 to 2018. Seven straight years of Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert ended with Marcus Gilbert leaving after the 2018 season, and the rest were gone two years later.
While this line can not compare to the above five when they were healthy, they were just good enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs.
At wide receiver it is great to see JuJu Smith-Schuster’s name on the list. Ben Roethlisberger has supported the young wideout his entire career, and lobbied to bring him back for this season. I’m glad Smith-Schuster got to play with Roethlisberger in his last game. It stands out again that James Washington only shows up when things are their bleakest, but on a day where the passing game was in shambles, Washington showed up late and made the longest play of any Steeler, and led the team in yards from scrimmage.
It will be interesting to see what changes are made to this receiver room in the offseason, and how these receivers perform with a new quarterback.
The tight ends played a lot early, and the Steelers rotated running backs quite a bit. It was clear the Steelers knew they had to establish the run to win this game, but the Kansas City Chiefs interior line and speed to the ball didn’t allow that, and in the second half the Steelers threw 34 times and ran it only 9 times. The tight end snaps dropped and the RBs really didn’t matter as much.
Overall, this game will be remembered more as Ben Roethlisberger’s last game. It is a testament to the Steelers that, despite their talent and Roethlisberber’s declining skills, they got their quarterback to the playoffs one last time.
Minkah Fitzpatrick was the only member of the 100% club on defense in the Wild Card game, but some other players had really high snap counts. Alex Highsmith at 91% of snaps stands out, but his 59 snaps is only his 7th highest total from this season. Cameron Heyward was subbed out a lot, especially in the second half.
Akhello Witherspoon again was playing in nickel and dime situations, and the trade off of better coverage but less aggressive defense showed up as the Chiefs began to run more and more screens. The Steelers rotated linebackers a lot in this game, with Joe Schobert, Robert Spillane and Devin Bush Jr. all close together in total snaps. The Chiefs had clearly studied the Steelers inside linebackers and were ready for them in this game. They attacked the interior run defense more when Devin Bush was in, and when Robert Spillane was in they would maneuver Travis Kelce into a matchup with Spillane.
Tre Norwood did a great job on Travis Kelce for a lot of the game, but once the Chiefs got rolling, the rookie was unable to contain one of the best receivers in the NFL.
The Steelers defense held up well at the beginning of the game, but with the offense also struggling the Chiefs were the first to break through and were dominant. While the score looks bad for the defense, it is important to note that there were eight drives in the first half alone. That’s the same number of drives the Chiefs had in their 2020 Wild Card win over the Browns.
Part of the problem was the sheer number of times the Chiefs were able to head to the sideline and draw up adjustments to how the Steelers defense was protecting it’s far too many weak links. Against a team with great offensive coordinators and loaded with top tier talent, you can’t hide rookies, backups and struggling players forever.
If this game showed anything, it is that despite an improbable winning record and playoff berth, there is a lot of work left to do to rebuild this roster. Stick with Behind the Steel Curtain and we’ll dig deep into that process with you throughout the offseason.