2021 NFL season, Week 17: What we learned from Steelers' win over Browns on Monday night

Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 · 8-7-1
Cleveland Browns
2021 · 7-9-0

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  1. Big Ben's sendoff wasn't exactly stellar. Pittsburgh's offense took on the appearance it has maintained for much of 2021, one of short, often incomplete passes and a steady dose of Najee Harris touches. The difference Monday night: Harris exploded, rushing 28 times for 188 yards (with 37 coming on one final touchdown run to ice the game) and a trip to the end zone. He saw and caught three targets for 18 yards, passing Jonathan Taylor for the NFL lead in total touches. Without him, the Steelers might have been looking at a different result, because Ben Roethlisberger wasn't sharp. The quarterback play was ugly on both sides, with Baker Mayfield once again struggling (more on that later) and the two quarterbacks combining to complete just 40 of 84 pass attempts, and Roethlisberger certainly didn't light up the scoreboard in a fairy tale departure. But he did get a chance to kneel out the remaining clock, which certainly satisfied the national television stage's desire for a Hollywood ending. A lap around the field followed a teary interview, closing with a series of embraces with his family near the Steelers tunnel. A Hall of Fame career will soon end, and Roethlisberger closed out his time at Heinz Field with one final triumph over a team he's long dominated.
  2. Monday night felt like an audition tape for Baker Mayfield. The Browns have little else to play for in the final two weeks after being eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday, but they didn't exactly lay down on prime time. Mayfield struggled again, missing throws and getting a little gun-shy following his fifth interception thrown in the last five and a half quarters of football. But instead of turning to Nick Chubb, Kevin Stefanski opted to have Mayfield throw the ball 38 times. He put his already beaten-up quarterback in the line of fire, resulting in nine sacks, including four for T.J. Watt, who turned rookie tackle James Hudson into a human turnstile by the final quarter. Mayfield predictably had a rough go, and his receivers certainly didn't help him, dropping at least five passes (by my count), with the final drop resulting in Mayfield's second interception of the night. He had at least four additional passes batted down at the line by Pittsburgh's defensive front, prompting Browns fans to beg for some designed rollouts (which also didn't work well when called). The whole scene felt a lot like a test in an otherwise meaningless game, with Stefanski sending Mayfield out to prove his worth to the franchise near the end of a massively disappointing season and essentially throwing him to the wolves without much support from Chubb, who finished with 12 carries for 58 yards. Stefanski said afterward Chubb was dealing with a rib issue, explaining his series-long absences, but Stefanski did something similar with Chubb a week earlier in Green Bay. The whole situation has grown from disappointing to strange, and with one week left, it could get even stranger.
  3. Kevin Stefanski should take a few weeks off, then commit to a long, critical look at his own performance in 2021. As alluded to in the previous point, Stefanski's consistently perplexing decision to repeatedly drop an injured Mayfield back to throw on first and second down set the Browns back plenty on Monday night and gave Pittsburgh all the reason in the world to pin their ears back and hunt the quarterback on third down. It's the latest development in what has frankly been a subpar play-calling season for Stefanski, who was hailed as an creative mastermind a year earlier en route to winning AP NFL Coach of the Year and has since proven to be a coach who's often too in love with throwing the football, neglecting his star running back to the detriment of his team. His situational play-calling has been curious at times and downright bad in others (see: Week 16 at Green Bay), and while Mayfield certainly deserves criticism for his poor play in 2021, so does Stefanski for his in-game ability. He can fix that with an offseason of reflection and self-examination. He just has to be willing to do so.
  4. Harris has a bright future if he doesn't have to carry the Steelers by himself. Harris runs hard, and he rumbled through plenty of Browns defenders on Monday night, fighting through multiple tacklers for extra yards to keep an otherwise stagnant Steelers offense moving. He's a stud, the same star runner he was at Alabama, and he'll continue to develop into a key playmaker for Pittsburgh with time. The only massive hurdle the Steelers still need to clear is finding a way to not put the entire offensive load on his shoulders and eventually running him into the ground. That starts with improving offensive line play -- it played well Monday night, providing some hope -- and then the responsibility will shift to offensive coordinator Matt Canada (if he's still around), who has far too often been content with dialing up passes well short of the sticks on third down and has played the perimeter too much for the Steelers fans' liking. Pittsburgh has playmakers beyond Harris, but it needs to use them better than it has in 2021. Roethlisberger's declining play hasn't helped at times, of course, but it's not just an aging quarterback's fault. Harris' future could depend upon it.
  5. Turn your eyes toward T.J. Watt, NFL record keepers. Watt went off on Monday night, capitalizing on a favorable matchup with rookie right tackle Hudson by repeatedly beating him around the edge with power and strength, crushing Mayfield three times and chasing him down to force him to slide for a total of four sacks. He boosted his already high sack total to just one shy of the all-time single-season record and gets one more game to try to pass Michael Strahan's mark of 22.5 for the most in one year. Yes, purists, Strahan hit his total in 16 games, while Watt will have a chance to do so in a 17-game season, but consider this: Watt has only played in 14 games this season. How's that for your asterisk?


Next Gen Stat of the game: Najee Harris rushed seven times for 57 yards and one touchdown against stacked boxes, averaging 8.1 yards per such attempt.


NFL Research: In three prime-time games this year, T.J. Watt has 9.0 sacks. Aaron Donald (7.0 in six games) had more in prime time this season entering Monday night, but Watt's explosion for four sacks (including one credited to him on a Baker Mayfield slide) propelled the edge rusher past the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

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