Steelers enter playoffs confident late fade wasn’t an omen

Steelers enter playoffs confident late fade wasn’t an omen

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin offered a very on-brand answer when asked whether he’s comfortable with where his team is at heading into the playoffs.

“I feel comfortable,” Tomlin responded, declining to elaborate as is typical when January rolls around and things start to get serious.

Even if maybe he shouldn’t be. While Pittsburgh’s backup-laden unit put up a pretty good fight in a largely meaningless 24-22 loss to Cleveland on Sunday, the setback was the Steelers’ fourth in their last five games. Only 20 minutes of brilliance in the second half against Indianapolis on Dec. 27 assured Pittsburgh of the franchise’s seventh AFC North title in Tomlin’s 14 seasons on the job.

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That rally against the Colts allowed Tomlin to let quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive end Cam Heyward stay home over the weekend rather than make the short trip to Cleveland. All three should be fresh when the Browns (11-5) visit Heinz Field on Sunday night in the first round of the playoffs.

The Steelers have a decided advantage over Cleveland in postseason experience. What they don’t have a ton of is momentum. Pittsburgh’s offense only scored three touchdowns once over the final six games. The league’s third-ranked defense allowed 318 yards or more in four of the team’s last five games.

If the Steelers want 2020 to be remembered for anything other than its late-season swoon, it needs to win at least one playoff game. Maybe two. For that to happen, Pittsburgh needs its second-half performance against the Colts to be the start of something, not the end.

Roethlisberger insisted last week that taking the regular-season finale off wouldn’t blunt the progress the offense showed against the Colts.

“Only having one week will be just fine,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t foresee that being an issue.”

If Pittsburgh wants to win a playoff game for the first time in four years — a nanosecond for a team such as the Browns, but eons for the Steelers — he better be right.

WHAT’S WORKING

The wide receivers appear to have overcome their case of the drops. Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster were all sharp in Cleveland and over Pittsburgh’s past six quarters have resembled the group that was remarkably consistent during the team’s 11-0 start.

“I feel like myself again,” said Johnson, who caught 88 passes on the season but was briefly benched in a loss to Buffalo last month after a pair of short tosses from Roethlisberger smacked off his hands. “I want to continue to show the world that is what I am capable of each Sunday.”

WHAT’S NOT

No NFL team rushed for fewer yards than the Steelers. Things have grown so dire that third-string quarterback Josh Dobbs running for 20 yards on a couple of run/pass options on Sunday was considered a step in the right direction. Yikes.

STOCK UP

Mason Rudolph’s solid play against the Browns — a career-best 315 yards passing and two touchdowns against one interception — should tamp down any lingering concerns on whether he has stabilized the backup position behind Roethlisberger. Whether Rudolph is a candidate to be the 38-year-old Roethlisberger’s heir is another matter, though Rudolph’s brief postgame exchange with Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett means both players can fully move past the ugly 2019 brawl that damaged both of their reputations and keep the focus on their actions on the field.

STOCK DOWN

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva’s best days appear to be behind him. The 32-year-old is in the final year of his contract and his uneven season finished with another underwhelming performance against the Browns. Villanueva, a West Point graduate, former Army Ranger and a two-time Pro Bowler, struggled against Cleveland’s defensive front and required help at times from a tight end or running back to protect Rudolph.

INJURIES

Cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Eric Ebron were both placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday and it’s unclear whether either player could be available to face the Browns. Kicker Chris Boswell missed three of the last five games because of injury. While Matthew Wright is a perfect 11 for 11 on field goals and extra points, he’s a liability on kickoffs. Only one of Wright’s 15 kickoffs have resulted in a touchback, compared to 44 touchbacks in 73 kickoffs for Boswell.

KEY NUMBER

56 — the number of sacks the Steelers had in 2020, tops in the NFL for the fourth straight season and tying a club record first set in 2017. Eight of those sacks came in Pittsburgh’s two games against Cleveland, including four last Sunday with reserves scattered across the defense.

NEXT STEPS

One of the NFL’s most consistent franchises has won at least one playoff game during every presidential administration going back to Richard Nixon’s first term. That streak will end if the Steelers can’t beat the Browns. Pittsburgh’s previous postseason win came on Jan. 15, 2017, in Kansas City.

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