The Steelers must have victory on Monday Night Football over their division rivals Cleveland Browns was nothing short of a "Win one for the Gipper" moment in Steelers history. I would highly recommend that any young fans that might not be familiar with the story of Notre Dame star player George Gipp and his legendary coach Knute Rockne should google to learn more. There is even a movie starring former actor and President of the United States Ronald Reagan. The Steelers performance to "Win one for Big Ben" in his final home game at Heinz Field was truly inspiring, and speaks volumes about the current state and future of the franchise once Roethlisberger hangs up his cleats for the last time.
The Steelers appeared to have a huge advantage on the Browns defense, at least at first glance, with the majority of the Browns starting secondary missing the game altogether or getting knocked from the game in the early going due to injuries and COVID protocol. Problem is this Steelers passing offense is incapable of exploiting mismatches in the secondary. The Steelers receivers spent the evening catching short throws, dropping passes, slipping on routes, or stopping altogether. I felt like I was watching an episode of the Three Stooges.
The Browns were determined to not let Roethlisberger have a big night against them, but in the process they allowed Najee Harris and the Steelers to run all over them, a beautiful sight that hadn't happened at any point this season. For what felt like the first time this season, Harris had room to roam, and he finally got to show his first round pedigree. He finished the night with 188 rushing yards, and not one but two rushes of over thirty yards, one being of the 37 yard breakaway game clinching variety, plus a couple more devastating Derrick Henry like stiffarms. The Steelers offensive line had their best run blocking game of the season by far, due to the outstanding performance of the newest starter in the group, but more on that to come.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: T.J. Watt, Najee Harris, and J.C. Hassenauer
Thankfully Monday night's game was chocked full of above the line performances by the Steelers, but I have chosen 3 contributors who I feel went above and beyond the call of duty. Each gentleman allowed the Steelers to play their best overall game of the season.
T.J. Watt utilized the primetime stage to stake his claim for the DPOY award. He was relentless and basically unstoppable. He would already have the all time single season sack record, plus the DPOY award locked up, if he hadn't missed two complete games, plus portions of multiple others.
He admirably toughed it out on a couple of occasions, at far less than 100%, because he realizes his importance to the defense. He was unable to compete to his usual standards in those incidences, and it skewed the national narrative of his worthiness for the award, to the point that Cowboys rookie LB Minkah Parsons was considered the favorite to take home the hardware.
Monday night's exploits, plus the Steelers lack of success with him out of the lineup, hopefully has ended any debate. Another solid game on the road against the Ravens should seal the deal.
I already mentioned Najee Harris earlier in the article, but the best performance by far of his rookie season deserves at least another mention. Besides all the aforementioned accolades, Harris showed another attribute required of a workhorse RB. He got stronger as the game progressed, wearing down the Browns defense in the process. He found his rhythm as his carries mounted, maybe for the first time this season. The results speak for themselves.
Lastly, J.C. Hassenauer definitely earned inclusion on this list. He showed exactly what Harris and the Steelers rushing attack is capable of with a functional center, something they have lacked for the majority of the season. Hassenauer didn't do anything spectacular against the Browns, although he had a solid game all around, but he looked like a Pro Bowl level talent compared to Kendrick Green.
Hassenauer anchored well, had multiple impressive combo blocks on the interior, and communicated well with Roethlisberger and his linemates. I readily admit that I was totally wrong about him prior to the season, and about Kendrick Green being the only choice as a starter. While it's never easy to admit when you are wrong, the factual evidence revealed by the reasons behind why I was wrong are actually exciting when it comes to both young men.
Hassenauer improved by leaps and bounds from last year's performance, where he was arguably the worst Steelers offensive lineman. He looked too short, too small, and too weak. What a difference a offseason of hard work and training can do, and keep in mind Hassenauer has extensive experience at playing center throughout his football career.
I said all that to say this: imagine what Kendrick Green, a far superior athlete to Hassenauer, is capable of with a similar offseason of progress. I basically wrote off Hassenauer after last season, and I was wrong. I have a feeling that there maybe plenty of individuals saying the same thing about Green next season.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Chase Claypool
The Steelers are getting mighty close to entering dangerous territory with Claypool; wasted talent. Claypool has impressive size and athleticism, but his game has regressed here in his sophomore season. Hard work trumps talent when talent doesn't work hard. I can only assume that the work ethic is lacking, because he is still plagued by the same issues and weaknesses that he had last season. Some issues may actually be worse.
Claypool still has an extremely limited route tree, and doesn't come close to playing up to his elite size and strength. He still has no idea how to highpoint the football, and he struggles to gain separation, regardless of his above average long speed, due to his poor footwork. It's maddening how often he slows down or completely stops on a route, which makes the possibility of Roethlisberger developing chemistry with him virtually impossible.
Hopefully Claypool was watching the Cincinnati Bengals receivers repeatedly high point the ball against the Chiefs on Sunday. He needs to pay close attention to Tee Higgins, a player with similar size and athleticism.
Regardless of who is the Steelers starting quarterback to begin next season, they will need Claypool to play up to his immense potential if the Steelers passing attack is going to show marked improvements.