Around the AFC North: Crushing Playoff Defeat Leaves Steelers With Questions

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Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh Steelers: Demoralizing Defeat Leaves Steelers Looking for Answers

Following Sunday's devastating playoff defeat, Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey sat forlornly on the bench, trying to digest how the Pittsburgh Steelers' season ended so abruptly with a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

After starting the year 11-0, they lost five of their last six games, and now the Steelers have plenty of offseason questions to address in the aftermath. Here are some of the bigger ones:

  • Will Roethlisberger, who turns 39 years old in March, return for an 18th season?

Roethlisberger is under contract for next season, but said he would have to think about his future.

"A lot of talking with my family, discussions, decisions," Roethlisberger said via ProFootballTalk, after throwing for 501 yards, four touchdowns, and four interceptions. "I hope the Steelers want me back, if that's the way we go."

Roethlisberger's cap number for next season is reportedly $41.25 million and becomes official March 17. So if the Steelers decide they want Roethlisberger to return, they may also need to reach an agreement on an extension that reduces the cap number.

  • Why did the Steelers nosedive after starting 11-0?

Pittsburgh had a chance to be the No. 1 seed and earn a first-round bye. Instead, the Steelers faded badly down the stretch, losing four of their last five regular-season games, followed by Sunday's defeat.

"We were a group that died on the vine," Head Coach Mike Tomlin said via ESPN.com.

Every team wants to peak late in the season. The Steelers went in the opposite direction and need to figure out why.

  • What happened to Pittsburgh's defense?

The Steelers finished the regular season ranked third overall defensively, and outside linebacker T.J. Watt could win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. But the Browns dominated offensively Sunday night, leaving the Steelers with plenty to ponder during an offseason that began much sooner than they expected.

"We blew it," Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. "I can't sugarcoat it. You look at the score. As a defense, we gave up too many points."

  • Which free agents will return?

The Steelers have 19 pending unrestricted free agents, including up to 10 starters. The list includes wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, running back James Conner, and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton.

"Teams are never the same, whether it's free agents, draft picks, trades, whatever it is. That's the hardest thing about this business," Roethlisberger said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You lose some really good friends. Things always look different. Yeah, we anticipate it looking different."

Cleveland Browns: Brimming With Confidence, Browns Prepare to Face Chiefs

The Browns keep winning games and overcoming obstacles.

With first-year Head Coach Kevin Stefanski (Reserve/COVID-19 list) watching from his basement, unable to coach his team in Pittsburgh, the Browns pulled off one of the biggest wins in franchise history. It sent the Browns into a divisional playoff game against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, while Browns fans celebrated the team's first playoff win since 1994.

"I want to congratulate our fans – I grew up one of them," said Browns Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer, a Cleveland native who served as acting head coach Sunday in Stefanski's absence.

Stefanski is expected to be on the sideline coaching against the Chiefs.

In his first playoff start, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was excellent (21 for 34, three touchdowns, no interceptions) as Cleveland scored 28 points in the first quarter. The Cleveland defense got five turnovers and scored a touchdown on the first snap from scrimmage after an airmailed snap was recovered in the end zone.

The Browns will be underdogs in Kansas City against the top-seeded Chiefs, who had a bye. But Cleveland expects to get some of its key players on back in time to face the Chiefs. Offensive guard Joel Bitonio, starting cornerback Denzel Ward, defensive back Kevin Johnson and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodges all missed Sunday's game on the Reserve/COVID-19 list but hope to return this week. Meanwhile, Mayfield is hot, and the Browns are brimming with confidence.

"We didn't just want to win this game," Mayfield said. "It's a stepping stone to where we want to go. … Nobody here is satisfied yet."

Cincinnati Bengals: New Offensive Line Coach Takes Over

Protecting quarterback Joe Burrow, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during his rookie season, is a key priority for the Bengals. The team announced over the weekend that Frank Pollack had been hired as the new offensive line coach and run game coordinator, replacing Jim Turner, who was let go after the season.

Pollack was Cincinnati's offensive line coach in 2018, and he spent the past two seasons in the same role with the New York Jets. The Bengals hope Pollack can help improve an offensive line that allowed Burrow to be sacked 32 times in 10 games this season.

"Frank will help us make great strides in the run game and protections," Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor said in a statement. "His familiarity with some of our offensive linemen will allow him to get to work right away."

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