KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The 2021 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers will not go down in the history books as one of the franchise great successes.
In the final season for star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the team dealt with maddening inconsistency, a lack of talent at key places, a bevy of crucial injuries, and simply did not seem able to execute what the coaches had in store for them on a week-in, week-out basis.
But they never gave up, either on the season or on each other, as shown by tight end Zach Gentry taking a punishing blow on the final play of Sunday’s Wild Card playoff loss, with the clock ticking under 10 seconds left and the Steelers trailing by three touchdowns.
More than anything, that’s the legacy of this 2021 team, a unit that was not nearly talented enough to meet the lofty goals of the franchise, but put itself in position to do so anyway with pure guts, heart and grit.
“I am really proud of the way our guys fought,” Roethlisberger said. “We had guys, whether it was linemen, backs, receivers or tight ends, step up and literally fought to the end. Tonight, guys just never quit and literally to the last second, even when it is out of grasp, guys don’t quit. We are line changing receivers. We were just fighting, and linemen are fighting their butts off. I am just so proud to call these guys brothers and to play for them.”
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fought through injury to get back to the club. T.J. Watt played through cracked ribs earlier this season. Najee Harris had an enormous padded contraption on his right arm in an attempt to protect the elbow he injured a week before.
“Just a bunch of guys who fought for each other and fought their butts off and just competed,” Roethlisberger said. “It wasn’t always pretty. There were a lot of games where we found a way and like I said tonight, fought until the end. I will just say that I am so proud of this group of men and the way they fight for each other, the black and gold and the fans. It has been an honor to play with them.”
At the end of the day, though, the talent disparity became obvious, as the Chiefs ran away from the Steelers for the second time in a month, making their absolute advantage in terms of personnel obvious.
“I am very proud to be a part of this team and the resiliency and the grittiness that we have been able to show,” Watt said. “In this locker room, we never have given up. it is very raw right now. You just have to give it up to the Chiefs. They played a good game.”
That was also the assessment of head coach Mike Tomlin, who made the usual step of making the opening of his press conference following the loss about what the Chiefs did instead of what his team was unable to do.
“I think the classy thing to do is to compliment the Kansas City Chiefs,” he said. “They’ve got a really good football team. They’ve got an explosive football team and they did a good job tonight. There were some things that we didn’t do obviously, but I don’t want to diminish what they did. I tip my cap to those guys.”
Of course, recognizing the fight of the Steelers and the superior talent of the Chiefs will not go far to assuage the sore feelings from Steelers Nation at another season gone by the midpoint of January.
The Chiefs aren’t going anywhere, and the franchise’s well earned mandate of competing for the Super Bowl annually will mean finding a way to level that playing field going forward.
“If we want to carve out a niche in this thing, a push through the AFC, we’ve got to deal with the likes of that bunch,” Tomlin said. “Moving forward, we understand that.”