I decided to wait until the other AFC North teams were well and truly booted from the playoffs before I wrote my “Final Thoughts” on this Steelers season; in part because I was feeling too bitter to reflect on 2020. Much like the season itself, my feelings are obfuscated by the hopefulness of being 11-0, and the bitter, resounding disappointment of the following 1-4 regular season record, and of course the one and done-ness of our playoff performance.
There’s a lot to cover and I don’t expect anyone to read my vent in full, so I’ll break it down into key moments we all enjoyed… and then endured, and what I expect to see this off season now that it seems this corvette is finally starting to head in another direction (I had to). Scroll all the way to the last segment to skip my season recap.
Losing? Never heard of her
At the surface, being undefeated for 11 uninterrupted weeks felt like a dream come true. We had been getting used to slow starts: the 2018 Steelers started the season 1-2-1 thanks to that repugnant tie with Cleveland, and no one will forget going 1-3 in 2019 with Mason Rudolph stepping in after Ben’s season-ending injury. But this was 2020, and stranger things WERE happening; each win piling on top of the next, lulling us all – players included – into a false sense of security. Yes, on the surface… we were thriving. But hindsight is 20/20, and now that we’ve had time to reflect I’m sure even the most dedicated fan of the Black & Gold can see that some of those wins were the “close your eyes and hope for the best” types. The Titans win came following a missed field goal, and both the first Ravens game and the Cowboys matchup were dropped into the W column no thanks to poor clock management, but all kudos to one Minkah Fitzpatrick.
But a win is a win is a win (x11) and the train rolled on through Cincy, Jacksonville and back through the ratbirds until a nameless football team came to visit, and left triumphant. The streak was over and with it -many would argue- our good luck.
The Stagnant Season Ending
Bad news comes in threes, and, so it would seem, do bad losses. If the Washington defeat didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, the Bills one certainly did. 9-3 at the time and staring at their first unimpeded run into the playoffs since 1994; the Bills were a prime example of what kind of adversary the Steelers would need to be able to beat in the postseason. They couldn’t: a glimpse of what was to come.
Shall we just skip the Bengals game? I think that would be for the best.
The Colts win was like coming up for air. Sure, we were coughing and spluttering, but at least we had life. Ben’s elbow sustained through 49 attempts and 3 passing touchdowns, while Conner’s 1 yard rush on 3rd and goal proved we CAN score in the red zone. The second half Steelers were built different, and Ben calling plays was as welcome as the win itself. The AFC North was ours, and we were back.
Now, in time the Browns game will prove more important than some might first think; particularly for those who are vying for Colbert to select the likes of Trask in round 1 of the 2021 Draft. Mason Rudolph certainly didn’t play bad football (22/39, 315 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT that mirrored a couple Big Ben has cursed himself for throwing this season), and Coach Tomlin’s statements on his QB2 following the game were largely positive “He took a step in growth and development […] we expect that trajectory to continue”. This is a topic for the not too distant future, but I can’t say the final game of the season damaged Mason’s potential future as QB1, albeit as a bridge while we wallow in cap space hell.
The Browns is the Browns?
Actually, this is exactly true. The Browns really are the Browns when it comes to their involvement in the success of the Steelers since Baker Mayfield joined the team. There’s that ugly tie that we’re forever having to include in our record reminders to Browns fan trolls on twitter. Then, we watched them lose to the Ravens in the final game of 2018 which kept us out of the playoffs. I present our 2019 matchups without comment. So really, given the last few meetings, it would be very “Browns” of them to play some of their best football in their first playoff game since 2002 against Pittsburgh at Heinz field. Very Browns indeed. You could pick either the high snap mishap or the ridiculous 4th and 1 punt as the worst moment in the game and you’d be right. Brutal, abysmal, embarrassing; it was without doubt the last way my week 1 self expected this season to end. But let’s not give Cleveland all the credit here: this loss was very much in conjunction with a downward spiral on offense that we’d only managed to overcome for one half of a game since week 12. The defensive blunders (don’t get me started on Spillane on Landry and the usage of TJ Watt) were really the only true surprise.
My Rambling Final Thoughts
This is a tough one for me as a fan because I really did let myself believe this was the year; Ben’s return after what should have been a career ending injury, the same “Undefeated Teams Remaining” graphic posted by the NFL each week, Chase Claypool and his sideline toe taps, TJ Watt sacking QBs carrying 3 linemen on his back, the Spillane Train I never expected to board, the Ravens sweep; it was all right there with the promise of a 7th Lombardi.
But it’s over now; what’s done is done, and we have to face the reality that going 11-0 meant nothing save for the eleven weeks we were there basking in being undefeated. Another colossal meltdown at the end of the season and no new playoff wins to add to Tomlin’s stats, and so those who were already disenchanted with him continue to be so, but now with fresh disgruntled yinzers joining their ranks; their cries for new management cannot be ignored. While I think the Steelers will press on with Coach T, that seat has got to be feeling like a heated car seat in the middle of a Florida summer right about now.
We’ve learned in recent days that the Steelers have parted ways with Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner and plan to offer the job to QB Coach Matt Canada. As far as pleasing the most people at once, I think an in-house hire of a guy who’s only been in the system one year is about as good as you’re going to get. I’m personally excited about this hire for two reasons: hiring an outsider for the OC position has typically been a bad move for the steelers in the past (just ask Ian and his many informative stats on this topic), and also because going with a guy who has at least a year’s experience with the Steelers makes it feel less of a rebuild and more of a rejuvenation. I guess it remains to be seen if Big Ben will be willing to get more creative in what will likely be his final year in the ‘Burgh.
The biggest concern this off season is the cap space and how little wiggle room we have in terms of being able to resign, well, anyone. We’re facing the loss of big names on both sides of the ball, and since the monetary value of all involved is of course important, the tiebreaker comes down to who is most valuable in talent? In short, who is replaceable? Would you let Juju walk to keep Bud knowing Alex Highsmith is waiting in the wings? Who do you trust to continue their upward trend as defensive playmakers most: Hilton or Sutton? I don’t envy the organization this offseason at all for it seems just as the team is complete, someone prices themselves out of Pittsburgh and into the arms of the enemy.
And finally; how will we ever feel safe during any length of win streak ever again? That’s what the 2020 season stole. It took the ability to feel like there is a single “ok game to lose” and banished it forever for us fans. Every win will feel like it could be our last, and every loss will feel even more monumental. But I know that no matter what, the 2021 season will roll around and I’ll be there, and so will you; wearing our hats and jerseys and convinced that this year will be The Stairway to Seven.
P.S: draft O Line Najee Harris is not a miracle worker ok bye.