CLEVELAND — It’s harder to find a more clear message that a team doesn’t really care about winning a football game than voluntary electing to keep its starting quarterback, most experienced offensive lineman and top two defensive players at home on the couch.
That’s what the Steelers did before Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, with Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt watching the game in sweatpants back in Pittsburgh.
But for the 53 players that did suit up in black and gold on Sunday, winning was very clearly at the forefront of their minds.
“We weren’t in rest mode,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “The guys that we wanted to rest, we left at home. The guys that got on the bus to come over here were ready to play.”
Twice, the Steelers fell behind the rival Browns by multiple scores, and both times, the Steelers nearly came all the way back. Cleveland started out with a 10-0 lead before three true field goals from practice squad kicker Matthew Wright brought the team back to a one-point deficit at 10-9.
Once again, Cleveland pulled ahead, 24-9, but backup quarterback Mason Rudolph led to the team to two late touchdowns, surrounded by a fourth-down defensive stop. The comeback ultimately fell short, with Rudolph misfiring on a two-point conversion try to Chase Claypool and the Browns able to gain the one first down they needed to run the clock out.
In the end, the result mattered about as much to the Steelers as it did when the team waived goodbye to its starts back in Pittsburgh.
But the resiliency showed by the team’s backups has them feeling pretty good about the prospect of facing the same Browns with a full Steelers roster at Heinz Field next Sunday night.
“Whoever takes the field, we have to take the field no matter who the guys are,” veteran reserve linebacker Jayrone Elliott said. “We knew we were going to have a workload today, and that is what we asked for. …
“I think it gives confidence for the younger guys who got a chance to finally get on the field and show their talents to the NFL. All of us getting more reps, it will just continue to help us build as a team.”
Elliott recorded his first sack since 2016 and added four tackles, one for a loss and a quarterback hit, showing that he can still be a presence on defense as well as his usual special teams role.
Without Watt, fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith got plenty of attention from the Cleveland pass blockers, but the rookie had one of his best games, coming up with a team-high nine tackles, one for a loss, a sack and a quarterback hit.
Tomlin called Rudolph’s fill-in performance “gritty” and backup center J.C. Hassenauer praised Rudolph’s leadership.
Elliott, Hassenauer and Rudolph are likely to return to backup duties this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Highsmith will be “the other guy” in the Pittsburgh pass rush. But the toughness and dependability showed by the Steelers’ depth in Cleveland can still provide a boost.
“I think us fighting and clawing in that game shows the resiliency of this team,” Highsmith said. “We are a fighting team. We are going to fight to the end of the game. That is what I am excited about with going to the playoffs. We just have to fight, and we have seen that. It is just going to be awesome to see this team work at the challenge ahead.”
Report: Ben Roethlisberger Wants JuJu Smith-Schuster to Return to Steelers for 2021
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return to the team, according to a report by NFL Network, and he apparently also wants wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to return to the team with him.
NFL Network’s Mike Garafalo reported that Roethlisberger has communicated to the team that he wants Smith-Schuster back for the 2021 season.
Roethlisberger has one season left on his contract, which carries a $41 million cap hit, including $19 million of salary. Smith-Schuster is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career after making $1.04 million in 2020.
Roethlisberger’s contract is a big part of a money crunch that has the Steelers as much as $40 million over the 2021 salary cap entering the offseason.
Smith-Schuster is expected to make as much as $15 million per year on a market-value contract.
It’s not clear how the Steelers would be able to fit both Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster under the 2021 salary cap. Roethlisberger would almost certainly have to take a significant pay cut.
Report: Steelers to Promote Matt Canada to Offensive Coordinator
The Steelers are expected to promote quarterback coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, according to a report by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.
Randy Fichtner, who had held the job since 2018, was not retained as the team’s offensive coordinator the team announced, the team announced on Thursday.
The #Steelers are expected to promote QB coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, sources tell me and @TomPelissero. A creative mind originally from the college game, Canada also interviewed with the #Dolphins but now stays in Pittsburgh.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 16, 2021
Canada, 48, spent his first season in the NFL with the Steelers in 2020 as quarterbacks coach. He had also been a candidate to become offensive coordinator at Miami.
A native of New Palestine, Indiana, Canada has been a coordinator at multiple stop at the collegiate level. He was most recently Maryland’s offensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2018, guiding the Terrapins to 5-7 record after the firing of D.J. Durkin following the death of a player in an offseason workout.
Before that, Canada was a coordinator at LSU, Pitt, NC State, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Butler.
At Pitt in 2016, Canada was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach after leading the Panthers to a program record in points scored. He coached NFL quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett at NC State and Nate Peterman at Pitt. Steelers running backs James Conner (Pitt), Anthony McFarland (Maryland) and Jaylen Samuels (NC State) all played under Canada.
Canada is the sixth offensive coordinator hired by the Steelers in the last 20 years and all but one of them have been internal promotions.
The Steelers will need to replace Canada as quarterbacks coach, as well as tight ends coach James Daniel, who retired, and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett, who was not retained, on the offensive staff.
Report: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger Expected to Return for 2021
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return for the 2021 season, according to a report by Mike Garafolo of NFL Network.
Roethlisberger, 38, said after the season that he would take time to consult with his family and think about whether he wanted to return for an 18th NFL season.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that the Steelers would welcome a return by Roethlisberger.
In 2020, Roethlisberger started all but one game for the Steelers, as he was rested in the regular season finale against Cleveland. In 15 regular season games, he threw for 3,803 yards while completing 65.6 percent of his passes, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Roethlisberger pushed the ball downfield less in 2020 than he has in the past, which his 6.3 yards per attempt the lowest full-season mark of his career. Pro Football Focus rated him as the 25th-most effective quarterback in the NFL this season and the worst of the four starters in the AFC North.
In Pittsburgh’s postseason loss to Cleveland, Roethlisberger set an NFL record for completions in a game while racking up four touchdowns and 501 passing yards, but also threw four interceptions.
His contract is a potential sticking point, as he is set to earn $19 million in salary in 2021 in addition to a $22 million deferred signing bonus from the last time he signed a contract that must be paid out, whether Roethlisberger plays or not.
Depending on the final salary cap figure, the Steelers could be as much as $40 million over the salary cap entering the 2021 offseason.