Coaching is to blame for Steelers playoff loss against the Browns

Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

They said 2021 was going to be a better year, but the Pittsburgh Steelers started it by establishing and then prolonging a losing streak to the Cleveland Browns.

Nothing went right in the first half of the Steelers 48-37 Wild Card round loss to Cleveland at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

The Browns jumped out to a 28-0 lead immediately. Ben Roethlisberger threw three first-quarter interceptions after a high snap from Maurkice Pouncey gifted the Browns an early six points. The offensive line also chipped in with several boneheaded penalties – Matt Feiler’s name the most commonly called.

It is easy to blame the quarterback after a bad loss. Roethlisberger was not solely to blame here, although his fourth and arguably most egregious interception late in the second half was the final backbreaker. Ben’s demeanor on the bench after the final whistle led to some idle speculation that this may be the end of the road for the 2004 draft pick:

Ben isn’t the problem here, though it is time for the front office and the fanbase to come to terms with the facts that he isn’t the quarterback he used to be and he won’t be around forever. He is coming up on 39 years old, and not every quarterback can be Tom Brady and play well into his forties. Peyton Manning retired at 39.

But, after the abject horror of the first half and a 35-10 deficit going into the locker room, the Steelers looked like a different team in the second half. The deficit was larger, but there were shades of the comeback against the Colts two weeks ago, and that leads to what I believe is the crux of the Steelers problem: offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner.

Against the Colts, the Steelers laid an egg in the first half and came roaring back in the second half to win the game. They looked like two completely separate teams. Did someone take the role of James Farrior at halftime, amping the players up with a motivational speech? Or was there a changing of the guard on the field?

Is it so out of the question that a similar scenario played out against the Browns, only this time the hole Fichtner dug in the first half was too deep for the offense to dig itself out of?

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There have been some head-scratchers in the offensive playcalling department this year. On fourth and 1 against Washington, the chosen play call was to send Anthony McFarland, who is, as we all recall, a running back… out wide and… throw to him. They can’t all be Le’Veon Bell, as the Steelers learned as the pass went incomplete and the ball was turned over on downs.

Last night, once again on fourth and 1 – this time down multiple scores in a win-or-go-home situation – the Pittsburgh brain-trust made the cowardly decision to punt. Instead of getting the ball off quickly, they tried to draw the Browns offside and were rewarded with a delay of game penalty for their trouble.

Now, I’m not 100% in the know on who calls special teams plays, but the whole debacle really gelled with Fichtner’s abandonment of the run game (James Conner’s 11 carries for 37 yards and one touchdown made him the Steelers’ leading runner). I’ve got issues with sitting back and hoping mistakes from opponents will get you the yard you need, but at the same time, I remember that this is the team that couldn’t punch it in from six inches out against Washington.

The offense wasn’t the only issue last night. Baker Mayfield was not sacked once, and the famous ball-hawking back seven did not register a single interception. Still, the Steelers could not score a single point out of the gate to counter the Browns absolutely eating their lunch on their turns with the ball.

Is Roethlisberger washed? I won’t declare that for sure, because I can’t say for certain that the recent failures of an offensive lineup this talented aren’t at the feet of the man who calls the plays.

A rebuild is not needed, because that implies tearing it all down and restarting from scratch. In my view, simply rebuilding the nameplate on the offensive coordinator’s office door will go a long way towards sufficient.

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It shouldn’t be hard to find someone who wants to be the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It shouldn’t be hard to find someone who can succeed with a veteran quarterback and dynamic young pass-catchers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. Sure, the likes of Eric Bienemy might not want to give up the nice gigs they currently have, but there are plenty of fish in the sea if the Steelers just put themselves out there and move on from Randy Fichtner.

Sorry, Randy. You’re a great guy, but it’s not me, it’s you.