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Labriola on the Wild Card loss to the Browns

So often, he has been the reason they won. Games, division titles, championships. But the nature of the position he plays and the level of competition – quarterback in the National Football League – dictates that no other individual on a team is more likely to be singularly responsible for a loss in what often is described as the ultimate team sport.

That's what happened on Sunday night at Heinz Field in the Wild Card Round against the Cleveland Browns. Protecting the football is paramount in the NFL, and the significance of protecting the football is amplified in the playoffs, but in the first half of that game Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and Maurkice Pouncey airmailed a snap on the first play after the opening kickoff well over his quarterback's head and into the end zone where Cleveland safety Karl Joseph finally corralled the ball for one of the easiest and quickest touchdowns in postseason history.

Blaming Roethlisberger for this loss, and by extension, blaming him for ending the Steelers' season is too simplistic, because there certainly were more fingerprints over this stinker of a performance than just his. But a case easily can be made that the volume of early turnovers prevented the Steelers from having a chance to win.

As previously mentioned, Pouncey's bad snap – and it seemed as though Roethlisberger and/or James Conner had a chance to fall on the ball and mitigate the damage to a loss of yardage or maybe just a safety – staked the Browns to a 7-0 lead one play and 14 seconds into the game. From there, Roethlisberger threw his first interception seven plays into the Steelers second offensive possession, which the Browns turned into another touchdown in just three plays for a 14-0 lead. Cleveland pushed its lead to 21-0 with a 65-yard drive through a Steelers defense that looked nothing close to its reputation as one of the best units in the league, and then the Browns took advantage of another Roethlisberger interception with a three-play drive that made it 28-0 at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers didn't quit, but the deficit already was too much to overcome because in the process of the offense turning the ball over three times in the first quarter, with a fourth to come before halftime, the defense had become toothless.

The unit that led the NFL in sacks during the regular season with 56 and supplemented that with 136 hits on quarterbacks didn't sack or even hit Baker Mayfield at all during the game. And with a sizable lead, the Browns never found themselves in the kind of situation where they were compelled to take the type of chances offensively that would play into the hands of a defense so reliant on pressuring the quarterback and forcing him into situations where the Steelers could take the ball away.

"You know, you look back to this game and you think as a defense, you didn't control the rushing, you didn't get off the field, you didn't get any turnovers, any sacks, and we weren't playing complementary football to the offense," said Cam Heyward. "If (the offense) turns over the ball, at least surrender (only) three points. And we didn't do that today. If we had a checklist of how to play the worst game possible, we did that."

Exacerbating the frustration of playing giveaway were the limitations the Browns had to overcome just to put a representative team on the field. They were without Coach Kevin Stefanski, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters, all of whom had tested positive for COVID-19. As for the list of Cleveland players sidelined by COVID-19, it included their best defensive back (Denzel Ward), their starting slot cornerback (Kevin Johnson), and their best offensive lineman (Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio).

Since Stefanski is the play-caller and therefore the voice in Mayfield's ear throughout the game, that significant assignment fell to Alex Van Pelt, who hadn't called plays in a meaningful game since 2009 when he was the offensive coordinator for a 6-10 Bills team, and who never had called plays in a game this meaningful to any of the NFL franchises for whom he worked. But it went off without a hitch – no delay of game penalties, no burned timeouts, no turnovers, only two offensive penalties – largely because the Browns were playing with a significant, early lead that was built by capitalizing on Steelers turnovers.

"You know, I wasn't worried about them being focused, trying to come back in terms of our urgency and things," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the impact of the turnovers on his team. "But it does change the climate of the game in terms of opportunities, opportunities for splash (plays on defense), the nature in which they play (on offense), the nature in which we have to play. You lose balance, you miss opportunities for splash from the (defensive) side because they hide the ball, etc. … When you spot them points, man, you miss opportunities for splash. It changes the climate of the game, if you will. They have to take less risk. It's all rolled into one. It's multi-layered."

And multi-layered is a good way to describe the Steelers future following this unexpectedly decisive defeat and early exit from the playoffs. It's now the offseason, and for the Steelers it's an offseason containing what looks now to be a grim reckoning with the salary cap combined with an aging roster that looks to need significant reinforcement in more areas than a single draft class could provide.

During his weekly media session in advance of the Wild Card Round, Roethlisberger, a 17-year veteran and looking at a 39th birthday in March, was asked if he gave any thought to the possibility that this could be his last playoff run.

"I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever," said Roethlisberger. "We've used examples of players and coaches who have been in this league for a long time who have never been in the postseason, never been to a Super Bowl, whatever it may be. I think it's prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am, because nothing is guaranteed in this game, or this world."

When Roethlisberger spoke those words, it came off as an attempt to motivate his teammates for a run at a championship. Today, it feels like an epitaph.

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