The Steelers did more than win their last home game of the 2021 season, they did more than secure a sweep of the Browns and keep the possibility of a playoff game alive, they secured a win for Ben Roethlisberger in his last home game, a Monday night game at Heinz Field.
Let’s look at who they used to pull it off.
Ben Roethlisberger played 100% of the snaps this week, something he’s done 14 times this season, missing only the Detroit game and the last ten snaps of the Chiefs game. Three of his offensive lineman joined him, with Chukwuma Okorafor missing one snap and Trai Turner missing the last 14 snaps. With Kevin Dotson still out and Kendrick Green on the bench, it was John Leglue and J.C. Hassenauer joining Trai Turner and later Joe Haeg in paving the lanes for Najee Harris.
Zach Gentry played just over half the snaps, his highest snap count with Pat Freiermuth healthy since the Week 8 matchup with Cleveland. Pat Freiermuth played the most total snaps of his career in his return from injury, and while no receiver had a good stat line Freiermuth came in second to only Najee Harris with a paltry 3.7 yards per target.
And that brings us to the star of the win over Cleveland, Najee Harris. Harris played the vast majority of the snaps in Week 17, amassing the second most snaps of his season, and he touched the ball 31 times, the most he has this 2021 regular season. His 206 yards from scrimmage is the highest output of his rookie season by a good margin.
Only Le’Veon Bell, Willie Parker and John Henry Johnson had a game with 25+ rushes and at least 6.5 yards per carry for the Steelers before this week. Najee Harris joined that list this week. Parker and Bell did it with some of the best offensive lines the franchise has seen, and John Henry Johnson is in the Hall of Fame. Najee Harris got good play from a patchwork offensive line, but when only 7 of his 188 rushing yards came before contact, you have to give the vast majority of the credit to Harris.
I’m not going to comment on the wide receivers, they were out there on the field, but they didn’t do anything worth mentioning. I will bring up Derek Watt’s 4th down conversion run, the receivers and backup running backs...nah.
The last time the Steelers saw Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, and Joe Haden all play 90%+ of defensive snaps the Steelers were 5-3 at the end of a 4-game win streak. An interesting change in the defense showed up this week, with Akhello Witherspoon coming in for nickel packages to play outside and Cameron Sutton sliding in to the slot. Arthur Maulet missed the game on the Reserve/COVID-19 List, but with the play of Witherspoon, it is worth watching to see if Maulet gets his job back if he returns next week.
Witherspoon recorded his third interception of the season among his three passes defended against the Browns, putting him in the lead in interceptions on the team, and tying Cameron Heyward for the most passes defended. Akhello Witherspoon ranks 7th in snaps played among Steeler defensive backs for this season. Pretty good run for him.
With both Devin Bush and Joe Schobert out this week, Robert Spillane led the inside linebackers, and did his usual solid, but not that great, job. He’s a valuable special teamer and backup, not a starter. Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III both played a good amount of snaps, with Gilbert III setting a career high for snaps played. The Browns attacked the linebackers early with success, but in a game where the Browns had a lot of very questionable game strategies, they went away from that approach and away from the run game, voluntarily giving the linebackers a pass for this week. Very nice of them.
The defensive line also benefitted from the Browns decision to run Nick Chubb only 12 times. Chubb ran for 58 yards on those 12 carries, the rest of the Browns offense gained 174 yards on 55 plays. That’s 4.8 yards per play for Chubb, 3.2 yards per play for the rest of the Browns’ offense. It is truly rare that you see a team put up bad enough numbers that three average downs would put them in fourth down, but that was the Browns this game, outside of Nick Chubb.
A big part of that defense was the work of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Those three accounted for 7 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 4 passes defended and 9 total QB hits. That’s how you wreck an offense. T.J. Watt recorded 4 of those sacks, moving into sole first place in Steeler single-season sacks ahead of Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb’s 17.5, and only 1.5 sacks behind the single-season NFL sack leader, Al Baker and his 23 sacks from 1978. Or if you, like the NFL, hate 1970’s football, Watt is only one back from Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sacks that is official because it happened after 1982.
Either way, T.J. Watt shouldn’t be the defensive player of the year, he should be the NFL MVP. It’s hard to show any player having the direct impact on his team Watt does, and if Watt plays and the Steelers win next week a 9-3 record when Watt plays 50% or more of snaps versus 0-4-1 when he doesn’t is ridiculous. That and the sack record is an MVP season. Let’s hope he pulls it off so we can complain about the NFL giving the MVP to whoever threw the football best this season, and not the Most Valuable Player.
Derrek Tuszka and Henry Mondeaux also got in on the sack party, while Isaiahh Loudermilk played the second most snaps, and played well in Chris Wormley’s absence. That’s another position battle to watch next week. Loudermilk is a much better run defender than Wormley, and facing the Ravens that could be more valuable than Wormley’s pass rush.