Well guys, the Pittsburgh Steelers made it through the 2021 regular season and somehow squeaked into the playoffs. It went down to the last possible second of the regular season, literally with a game-winning field goal being kicked in overtime with time expiring in the final game, but they made it.
With all the adversity that the team was facing heading into the season, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a year older, basically a brand new/inexperienced offensive line, losing multiple key free agents, etc., it is amazing how resilient they were.
They also dealt with all the issues that popped up during the season (Stephon Tuitt never making it onto the field, Tyson Alualu getting hurt in Week 2, JuJu Smith-Schuster having a season-ending injury, etc.), that make it that much more impressive they were able to get through the season with a Super Bowl trophy still in sight.
And yes, I know while still in sight, it is like looking through a peephole. It’s there, but not the best view. But the important part is, it is still there.
Getting through all the adversity they faced, there are some players that experienced more criticism than others, as well as some that received more praise. People have been critical of players currently struggling like Devin Bush, rookie Kendrick Green, and others, but people have also been praising some players for their play. That includes some usual names like Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Someone who has definitely been getting more criticism than they deserve this year is Raymond “Ray-Ray” McCloud III. He actually has been a rather productive player this season for the Steelers, and doing so with an increased workload that not many people expected coming into the season.
Earlier in the year, I wrote an article about McCloud having a successful start to the season as a returner, which I don’t think caught anyone totally off-guard after a solid 2020 showing while wearing the Black & Gold from the fourth-year wide receiver.
That success as a returner was mostly sustained throughout the season. He finished the year as the sixth best punt returner in terms of yards per return and 14th best as a kick returner in the same statistic.
Some fans have criticized that while getting consistent yardage on returns, he hasn’t had any big plays this year such as a long punt return for a touchdown like we have seen from either Diontae Johnson or Antonio Brown in the past. But that seemed to be a trend this season that wasn’t limited to just McCloud. Compared to the prior two seasons which resulted in seven and eight punt return touchdowns respectively, there were only two across the entire NFL this year. So a lack of big plays on punt returns likely wasn’t something due to just McCloud.
So while a scoring play didn’t happen on one of his returns this season, the consistency on his returns was and still is something that Steelers fans should honestly be praising instead of criticizing.
Even though McCloud has been a pretty good returner for a second straight season for the Steelers, that isn’t why he has been an unsung hero for the team. That, would be due to his role as a receiver this year for the Steelers’ offense.
Now, I am not going to be advocating that at times it wasn’t questionable how heavily the team was feeding McCloud targets vs. getting the ball to their other playmakers. What I am saying is that he was put into an extremely tough scenario and gave it absolutely everything he had every single week.
He also came up with some clutch plays in big moments. Two of which came up in the last game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens to help the Steelers make it to the playoffs.
On 3rd and 9 with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, McCloud catches a pass across the middle for 20 yards to keep the most critical drive of the game to this point alive, while also getting hit hard on the play. That play helped set up Roethlisberger’s lone touchdown pass of the game to Chase Claypool to give the Steelers a lead.
In the same game, in overtime, McCloud came up big again catching a 10-yard pass across the middle again, but this time on 4th and 8. This play helped get the Steelers into field goal range with less than three minutes left. If he doesn’t make this catch on a ball thrown down by his ankles, the Steelers very likely lose or end the game in a tie, which keeps them out of the playoffs.
These two plays alone would be enough to be worthy of giving McCloud praise for the job he has done helping the team this season. But leading up to those plays, he was tasked with replacing one of the Steelers biggest names in Smith-Schuster from Week 6 on.
No matter what the task has been, McCloud has tried to complete it with maximum effort. Whether it be asked to handle the routes over the middle from the slot getting hit hard, being asked to block opposing teams’ defensive ends on screens and outside runs, or even chip pass rushers like a tight end before breaking out into his route, McCloud has never complained and never sacrificed his effort.
The fact that a player standing at 5’9″ and 190lbs was asked to do all of that and never even blinked, says all you need to know about him. Steeler Nation and it’s fans have always praised and adored players like this, that embody the Steelers’ way, and never shied away from physicality or completing the task at hand.
But instead of praising him, he has absorbed a lot of criticism this season and never let it effect the way he has played or acted.
All of these reasons I listed are why Ray-Ray McCloud is one of the unsung heroes from the Steelers’ 2021 season.
Let us know how you feel about McCloud and his role as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers below!