The Pittsburgh Steelers got some ideal preparation for the postseason in the form of a closely contested divisional clash that featured some wintery weather and went down to the last play. Unfortunately, they also got some bad news after the game when it was revealed that running back Rashard Mendenhall had torn his ACL on an innocuous-looking play in the second quarter.
The Steelers hung on to beat the Cleveland Browns 13-9 when a last-second Hail Mary pass fell incomplete and now travel to Denver for a postseason game on the road. Despite losing Mendenhall, they should still be favorites, although a lot will depend on how Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle holds up, because it still seemed to be limiting him here.
The Browns year ended with a spirited effort and they will look to retool in the offseason, especially on the offensive side of the ball, as they only scored more than 20 points once all season and that was back in Week 2.
Let’s look at some of the key performances from this game to consider which Steelers are rounding into form at the perfect time and which Browns will have given the front office something to think about over the offseason:
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
Betting on Red?
With Mendenhall’s injury, the focus shifts to backup Isaac Redman (-0.1) because the Steelers are going to need their ground game to produce if they want to get past Denver on Sunday. Redman did rush for 92 yards and the game’s only touchdown, breaking seven tackles and averaging a healthy 3.4 yards per carry after contact. However, he also lost two fumbles and he can’t afford to do that in the postseason, because playoff teams will punish mistakes like that. Reserve John Clay (+1.0), signed off the practice squad a few weeks ago, also looks set for a bigger role; he gained 38 yards on eight carries after Mendenhall’s injury.
Heaven of Troy
In terms of a player hitting his stride at just the right time, you can’t find a better example than Troy Polamalu (+5.7). Three passes were thrown his way and he broke up two and intercepted the other. However, his most impressive play came on the second snap of the game, as he did his signature move, guessing the snap count and springing into the backfield as the ball was snapped. He hauled Seneca Wallace down by the jersey before he was even able to hand the ball off! We’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, but it never ceases to be amazing – and there are no signs that he is slowing down as he gets older, either.
The emergence of Brett Keisel (+4.1) out of the shadow of Aaron Smith into a top quality 3-4 defensive end over the last year has been quite something. He turned in a terrific all-round performance on Sunday, grading out positively in all three elements – run stopping, pass rushing and pass coverage. He had two stops, two pressures and batted down a pass at the line, but it was particularly impressive to see him drop into coverage and not only make a wrap-up tackle in the backfield on Peyton Hillis, but also to strip the ball loose for a fumble that went out of bounds. That’s the type of play that great veteran players make, which is exactly what Keisel has become.
Cleveland – Three Performances of Note
For Cleveland, their number one offseason priority must be to decide what to do about the quarterback position. With Colt McCoy out for the season, following a concussion sustained at the hands of James Harrison the last time these teams met, the Browns have had an extended look at Seneca Wallace (-1.9). Wallace was only 2-of-13 with an interception when pressured, but he wasn’t that much better when there was no pressure, completing only 50% of his passes. His receivers didn’t help him by combining for three drops, but Wallace didn’t look convincing all day and the Browns likely won’t have been convinced that he’s an option for next year’s starting job. His overall grade would have been much worse if he hadn’t scrambled for 20 and 27-yard gains to account for over half of the Browns’ rushing attack.
Jabaal Hits the Rookie Wall
It’s been an excellent first season for defensive end Jabaal Sheard (-4.3), but he’ll want to forget Sunday’s game, which was easily his worst of the year. Sheard did have a sack and a pressure and added three stops, but he also jumped offside once and was handled in the running game all day, often by the Steelers’ tight ends. He ended up with ten negatively graded plays against the run. Despite this disappointing end to the year, the Browns can feel that they have two at least one building block in place and they’ll hope Sheard can build on his strong rookie campaign in 2012.
Joe Haden: Run Stuffer?
Another of Cleveland’s core pieces is cornerback Joe Haden (+2.3), who is ranked 6th overall and 5th in coverage in our cornerback rankings. However, this game was notable for his rating against the run (+1.8). Haden’s previous highest grade against the run this year had been +0.7. Unfortunately, rather than this being a sign that Haden is becoming a more rounded performer, it’s mainly just a product of one play, where he stripped the ball loose from Redman in the fourth quarter and then recovered the loose ball. He did have four tackles, but no stops. In coverage, he actually had his hands full with Antonio Brown, who caught four passes against him including a 40-yard reception, but he did break up one pass to finish with a positive grade.
- Browns safety Mike Adams missed just seven plays as they Browns rotated defensive backs in and out all game. Those seven plays turned out to be a seven play scoring drive that culminated in the only touchdown of the game.
- Heath Miller (+5.3) entered the game with a negative rating for run blocking, but his performance in the running game here (+4.5) was a key feature of this win and actually vaults him into 6th place in our run blocking rankings for tight ends.
- In the first half, the Steelers dominated the time of possession, running 48 plays on their five drives, but still only managed to score three points.
PFF Game Ball
Miller and Keisel’s grades might have been close, but this was no contest, Troy Polamalu was the best player on the field.
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