Steelers' playoff hopes dwindle after failed comeback vs. Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sitting at the dais after the Pittsburgh Steelers' emotional one-point win against the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger considered a question.

Could a win like that be the springboard the Steelers needed to give their offense and defense momentum into the final five games of the season?

"We'll see," he said Sunday. "I would like to think that it will help to say, 'OK, listen, this is what we can do, this is what we need to do,' but you never really know until you get going."

Thursday night, the Steelers didn't get going until late in the third quarter. By then, it was too late.

The team that beat their division leader came out flat and couldn't finish digging themselves out of a 29-point hole, losing 36-28 to the Minnesota Vikings.

“We’re getting beat in the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “I’m not going to make it more complex than what it is. Football is a complex, yet simple game. You’ve got to whip blocks, you got to make tackles, you’ve got to sustain blocks. You’ve got to make sure your pile is falling in the right direction. We’re not doing those things. We’re not doing those things nearly consistently enough to hang our hat, and find the type of footing to have consistency in performance.”

The momentum from their previous win died on the vine and the team's playoff chances, already on life support, slipped further away. With the loss, the Steelers' odds of making the playoffs dipped to 10% from 19%, according to ESPN's FPI.

Trailing 23-0 at halftime, Tomlin assessed his team's performance as junior varsity. The Steelers trailed by 29 in the third quarter before trimming the lead to nine, only to give up a quick three-play drive capped by a 62-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins to K.J. Osborn.

The Steelers scored once more after Ahkello Witherspoon's second interception to cut the lead to eight, but they couldn't finish a game-winning drive. After marching 84 yards down the field, a would-be touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Pat Freiermuth was knocked out of his hands as time expired, thwarting the Steelers' comeback hopes.

“Stop spotting points. I don’t know,” Cam Heyward said. “We just, first half was horrendous. Guys weren’t filling. We weren’t getting off blocks, we weren’t tackling. You name it, we did it wrong.

“You look at the score, it’s 36-28. Our offense is putting up enough points, and we’re not getting the job done.”

The Steelers scored 28 points in the second half, tied for the second-most under Roethlisberger, but no team in NFL history has ever won a regular-season game after trailing by more than 28 points, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

“In a sense, it is frustrating,” left tackle Dan Moore Jr. said, “but it’s also, I wouldn’t say encouraging, but if we come out and start like we finished, there should be no reason why we were on the other side at the end of the game.”

Good Chase, bad Chase: Receiver Chase Claypool is the physical embodiment of the 2021 Steelers season. With 2:05 to go, Claypool came down with a massive 38-yard catch to keep the Steelers' comeback hopes alive. Claypool then made a big catch on fourth down during the final would-be game-winning drive. Instead of hurrying to give the ball back to the official to spot, Claypool signaled first down as more than 10 seconds ran off the clock.

“Definitely got to be better," Claypool said, explaining the celebration and delay giving up the football. “I got tackled near the hash. Did my little first-down point. Went to hand the ball to the ref. He just got there. So, even if I got right up and looked for him, he wasn’t there. He ran down the field to come get the ball, and the ball got knocked out of my hands. That’s what cost us time. But I definitely do have to be better. I knew the situation, I know I’m near the hash. I know the ball is placed on the hash. I’ve got to be better. The ball shouldn’t get knocked out of my hands.”

The second-year receiver's first quarter was a rough one. He was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty after retaliating against Bashaud Breeland, putting a finger in the cornerback's helmet after he was shoved at the end of a play. Then, he nearly fumbled stretching out for extra yardage on second down, saved only because on review he was ruled down by contact before the ball came out. Then, he missed a block that led to Najee Harris getting tackled in the backfield on third-and-short. Tomlin said he benched Claypool, and he played sparingly in the third quarter. He returned late and made a crucial 14-yard combat catch on third-and-9 to put the Steelers in the red zone. A few plays later, Harris found the end zone.

Did Claypool get the message from his benching?

“We’ll see,” Tomlin said.

Cook run amok: The Steel curtain looked more like a cheese cloth. The group, who lost T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith during the game to a groin injury and knee injury, respectively, allowed Dalvin Cook to put together a benchmark night in his return from injury.

“Dalvin definitely did his thing today, you have to give him his respect,” Witherspoon said. “We’ve got to be better on the run, no matter who’s at running back.”

Cook finished with two touchdowns and 205 rushing yards, and in the last 25 seasons, the only team to rush for 250-plus yards on the Steelers are the 2020 Ravens (265), according to Next Gen Stats, but the Vikings came close with 242.

“We’ve got to be better than we were,” Tomlin said of his line play. “We’ll turn over every stone to do that. … We’ll assess what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with.”

QB breakdown: Roethlisberger was sacked five times Thursday night, including four in the first half -- the most in a first half since he was taken down five times by the Buccaneers in Week 4 of 2014. Roethlisberger finished 28 of 40 for 308 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

For the second week in a row, Roethlisberger’s second half was improved from his first. The offensive line had better protection in the second, allowing him to complete 4-of-5 attempts at least 15 yards downfield for 134 yards and a touchdown, according to ESPN Stats and Info. In the first half, he had just one completion of at least 15 yards. Roethlisberger also completed six passes into a tight window, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- his most in a game over the last three seasons. Five of those completions came in the second half.