2021 Steelers Season Recall: Streak ends with struggles against winless Lions

Steel City Underground presents our 2021 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

If there was ever a game for Steelers Nation to complain about during the 2021 season, it came during Week 10’s clash with the Detroit Lions.

The snowball started rolling downhill one week earlier, when Pittsburgh eked out a two-point win over the 3-5 Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Now on a short week, the Steelers would host a winless 0-8 Lions team who was coming off of a bye week.

That short window didn’t help the Steelers whatsoever, as banged up bodies also led to one key inactive. Chase Claypool was already ruled out of this game, but another major player would be lost with short notice.

Around 8pm on Saturday night, everyone’s phones started buzzing with alerts similar to a Code Adam near a Walmart. The news was hot off of the press, as Ben Roethlisberger was placed on the Covid-19 list and ruled out of Sunday’s 1pm kickoff.

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This left backup quarterback Mason Rudolph to start – a move most fans still detest to this day, not understanding the circumstances surrounding Rudolph’s week. (Which didn’t even consist of a walkthrough.)

Imagine finding out that on a short week, YOU would be getting the starting gig in under 24 hours with little to no preparation! Oh, and that Lions team? They are coming off of a full week off with rest.

Still, coming out of Heinz Field that Sunday without a victory haunts a lot of fans, but it wasn’t solely the fault of Rudolph – who was asked to throw 50 times in misty, rainy, 39-degree weather.

That didn’t affect the Steelers from the jump, as they took a rare opening possession all the way to the house, on a ten-play, 54-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard James Washington touchdown reception from Rudolph.

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The Lions would start their first quarter with three separate three-and-out drives, but the Steelers would be unable to capitalize as the mist, then drizzle started to settle in for the day.

The dreary conditions were hampered further by the Steelers going three-and-out, then an interception on a miscue between Rudolph and RB Kalen Ballage.

Fans blamed Rudolph, though the Steelers brass barely played Ballage again all season, acknowledging who was at fault by their actions.

Ballage would only appear in three of the next eight games on the offensive side of the ball, and was pulled from playing running back for the remainder of this game following the play.

As the second quarter rolled around, the Steelers gave up splash plays to the Lions to keep them in the game. A 61-yard Pressley Harvin punt was returned 48 yards and three plays later, RB Jermar Jefferson scooted out for a 28-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 apiece.

A 13-play, 73-yard Steelers drive would end in a 20-yard Chris Boswell field goal, but Lions backup kicker Ryan Santoso would mirror the same as Detroit tied the game at 10-all heading into the locker rooms.

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The Steelers defense would get gashed by the Lions running game, as the opening third quarter drive would end on a 42-yard Godwin Igwebuike touchdown run.

It’s important to note that the Steelers were the walking wounded on the football field throughout the game. They were already down Chase Claypool and then Big Ben to start the game. They would then lose Najee Harris (temporarily) as well as Cameron Sutton and Minkah Fitzpatrick at points throughout the game. T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner would all leave the game and not return by this point either.

The result was a bunch of backups filling the role of starters – the Steelers already had this on their defensive line with Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu replaced by the likes of Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, and Henry Mondeaux, but Taco Charlton and Derek Tuszka would be leaned upon heavily, combining for 44 snaps and more than half of the defensive plays total (71).

The Steelers would knock on the door with yet another sustained drive, this time, 13 plays for 69 yards, but it would once again end with another Boswell chip shot as Pittsburgh trailed 16-13.

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As the fourth quarter got underway, the Steelers attempted to pound the ball with Najee Harris, as four straight runs led to an offensive pass interference call on a deep shot to Washington. Harris would pickup a chunk of yards that gave Mike Tomlin enough confidence to send Boswell out for a 51-yard attempt – which he would nail to tie the game once again.

The Lions would punt four-straight times in the fourth quarter, as Boswell’s last field goal was the only action in the period that would then lead both teams into overtime.

Somehow, despite the leaky defense, Detroit would be forced to punt on their first possession, leaving the game to sudden death victory.

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The Steelers went for the jugular, as Rudolph found Diontae Johnson deep for a 39-yard gain. However, the wide receiver would fumble the ball away, and setup the Lions for an improbable first win of the season.

Detroit, as noted, was operated without their usual kicker. This left an immense amount of pressure, in subpar Heinz Field conditions, for Santoso, who would luckily shank his 48-yard attempt. The Steelers would still have life, and came back only to punt the ball once more.

The Steelers defense would hold through the OT two-minute mark, and get one last crack at winning the game.

Mason Rudolph started to operate with TE Pat Freiermuth almost exclusively through this series, completing a ten-yard pass and an eight-yard pass, before disaster would strike yet again.

Down at the Lions 39 and 15 seconds remaining, the Steelers called for one more play. This one went short to Freiermuth, who uncharacteristically coughed up the football! The Lions would recover, but had no time to further attempt to break the 16-16 tie which would be the game’s final score.

The Steelers defense would give up 229 yards rushing on the day, one of their worst outings of the season – and the worst to date on the season. It would be a prelude to future run game whippings, particularly by the Minnesota Vikings in the coming weeks.

However, the tie both helped and hurt – it wasn’t a loss, and kept the team in playoff contention regardless of the two fumbles and other sloppy play throughout.

Next up would be a Sunday Night Football date with the 5-4 Los Angeles Chargers.

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