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Flavell's Five Thoughts: Mason Rudolph Gave Steelers Something to Think About

The Pittsburgh Steelers finish their regular season 12-4 but didn't lose momentum in a loss to the Browns.

Pittsburgh Steelers fans, you’ve made it.

It’s been a whirlwind of a season, but the Steelers finished 12-4 and have a rematch coming up with the Browns next weekend. It will be Cleveland’s first playoff game since the heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in 2002. Pittsburgh is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017 when they allowed 45 points at home to the Jaguars. The Steelers will host the Browns next weekend at Heinz Field.

There will be plenty to come this week as far as coverage. Without looking too far ahead, I have some thoughts on Sunday’s game. Let’s get started, shall we?

Mason Rudolph Gave the Steelers Something to Think About

Pittsburgh was locked into the playoffs heading into this game. There was no incentive to play the big guns, which is why Ben Roethlisberger watched from his couch. This gave Mason Rudolph a chance to start a football game for the first time in a year. He did not disappoint.

Heading into the game, the coaching staff had been saying that Rudolph’s demeanor is much different. The confidence is much higher, and he had been working in practice like he knew this might be his final chance to impress. His performance on Sunday was spectacular.

Rudolph has always had the arm. His lack of pocket awareness and other things were on display today. That is what happens when you don’t get much time with the first-team in practice.

However, Rudolph displayed a cannon of an arm and was allowed the opportunity to sling the ball around the yard. Rudolph hit a plethora of deep passes finishing with 315 yards and two touchdowns. He did toss a short, ill-advised interception that led to Cleveland points and the difference in the game. He’ll kick himself for that one.

Regardless, Rudolph gave the Steelers everything they could’ve asked for today. They went into the game, hoping to just be competitive, and almost had a chance to drive down the field and dash the Browns’ hopes and dreams. The Steelers lost, but it was a massive ‘W’ for Rudolph’s future regardless of if it is in Pittsburgh or not.

Play Chase Claypool More

Steelers fans should get on Twitter this week and petition for Claypool to play every offensive snap in the playoffs.

Claypool is an athletic freak. He presented a huge target for Rudolph to throw to on Sunday and helped out to the tune of five receptions for 105 yards. He made plays often and gave Rudolph a big chunk of his yards.

Heading into the playoffs, you play your best and hottest guys.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has proven he is a hard-nosed guy. Diontae Johnson is the electric, shifty, yards-after-catch guy. James Washington is a great contested ball guy who gets used sparingly. Claypool needs to be utilized as the deep threat and over the middle target.

He has done nothing but produce when given the chance. The problem is, the chances haven’t been there. One has to think that the Steelers were trying to save him for the playoffs and he will be a vital part of what could be a special run for the Steelers. Without Claypool, the Steelers won’t have the same ability to stretch the ball down the field.

Steelers Need to Sure up the Run Defense

I know that Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Joe Haden didn’t play today. You can spare me all of that. However, the rest of the defense was made up of the typical eleven that would be out there. Maybe not for the whole game, but the early Nick Chubb 47-yard touchdown run was on the varsity defense.

It is valid to argue that business decisions were made by some of those guys to mail it in and stay healthy for next week. That is fine. This game was played just to be played, and knocking Cleveland out would’ve been gravy.

Regardless, the toughest Steelers run defense must show up at Heinz Field next weekend. Chubb has been one of the top running backs in the league this season. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the long touchdown run in the first quarter. If he gets going early, he is going to be tough to stop and the Browns can control the tempo.

On top of that, the Steelers must concern themselves with shutting down Kareem Hunt, who posted 800+ yards himself this season. So the challenge has presented itself, and the Steelers have no choice but to find a way to shut it down.

They did well in the first game of the season against Cleveland, limiting Hunt, who was starting in place of the injured Chubb, to 40 yards on the ground in a 38-7 thumping. Chubb had 108 yards rushing Sunday and the Browns had 192 as a team.

With everyone back next week, that shouldn’t happen. But if it does, Pittsburgh will likely find themselves in a familiar spot as of late: watching the remainder of the playoffs from their couch.

Steelers Stayed Healthy, Browns’ Injuries Piled Up

Winning the division last week, the Steelers were afforded the luxury to rest their stars. Watt likely would’ve liked to play to advance his Defensive Player of the Year status and try to break the franchise record for sacks in a single season. That obviously did not happen. Pittsburgh took the safe route and will be close to full strength barring the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak.

Cleveland had everything to play for and, therefore, were forced to play everyone. They suffered a few key injuries.

Donovan Peoples-Jones was drilled from behind by Sean Davis in the first and was diagnosed with a concussion. The hit was a big, legal hit directly to his back. He will be in concussion protocol before he is cleared for next weekend.

Pass rusher Olivier Vernon was helped off the field late in the fourth quarter. He has quietly racked up nine sacks this season opposite Myles Garrett so losing him for this game would be a huge help for the Steelers.

They’ll likely be without Haden next week. However, Eric Ebron, Watt, Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Roethlisberger will all return for the playoff game. Advantage Steelers.

Let’s Make a Prediction for Next Weekend

Week 17 games are usually meaningless, and for Pittsburgh, this one was just that. Outside of Rudolph and a few other minor details, there isn’t a ton to takeaway heading into next weekend’s rematch. So I’ll end my final regular season Flavell’s Five Thoughts with a prediction.

It’s been a whirlwind. After 11 games, everyone thought the Steelers could win it all. Then they lost three in a row and panic had set in. A win against the Colts last week revamped everyone’s belief as Roethlisberger looked young again. Then, they drop a meaningless game to Cleveland.

However, I feel great going into next week.

The Steelers will be hosting the Browns coming off an emotional victory. They needed to win to get in and did so. Roethlisberger, who has a career 23-2-1 record against Cleveland, gets the reins back. He is coming off of rest after one of his best games of the year the week prior.

My money would be on the Steelers.

Pittsburgh’s defense will get after Baker Mayfield early and often while looking to send him back to the familiar disappointment of sitting at home during the playoffs. Roethlisberger will connect with his receivers and hope to push Pittsburgh into the second round of the playoffs. I won’t forecast a blowout, but I really like the Steelers' chances.

Steelers 27, Browns 17.

Cody Flavell is a Contributor with AllSteelers. Follow Cody on Twitter @Cody_625, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.