Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals – Legacy Defining Anyone?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if he really has seen a “legacy”defining performance from his pupils, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Quarterback
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger was only “OK” in the first half. He also threw a few balls that he was lucky not to have intercepted. But that matters for little, because Ben Roethlisberger the one minute drive to perfection, it did it with the clam, poise and, most importantly, the confidence needed to deliver. Grade: A-

Running Backs
James Conner’s 111 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving might have been lower than last week’s, but by Jim Wexell’s reporting, Conner’s bruising style knocked two Bengals players out of the game. Stevan Ridley continues to get a handful of carries for nominal gain. Roosevelt Nix helped open holes for Conners. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James kept the Steelers offense moving and helped establish the physical tone while the wide receivers were getting in gear. Xavier Grimble had two catches, including a 22 yarder on third and 19. Vance McDonald looked poised to score but fumbled instead, his second in 4 games. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
It took a while for the Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WiFi connection to reach full speed, but when they did, the duo inflicted their damage on the Bengals defense. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 7 yards, while James Washington and Justin Hunter both had targets but no catches, although Hunter’s block was critical on the winning TD. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger did not give up a sack and indeed, the Bengals only touched him once! Add that to road grading done for James Conner and you have excellence in its purest form. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave both had sacks. Cam Heyward didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he’s not doing his job, the other two can’t do theirs. The Bengals did have some success in running the ball, and pass pressure could have been more consistent throughout the game, but it was a good day for the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
You think seeing L.J. Fort light up the Atlanta Falcons maybe didn’t inspire Vince Williams just a big? Williams led the team in tackles, shadowed Joe Mixon in the passing game, and even covered down field. T.J. Watt defensed a pass and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had solid if splash playless games. The linebackers had a good day, but room for improvement remains. Grade: B-

Secondary
Joe Haden had two defensed passes and contained A.J. Green. Both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton had defensed passes, although Sutton had his hiccups. Artie Burns committed a costly pass interference penalty that helped keep a drive alive. The secondary played well, but Cincinnati closed both halves with touchdown drives. That  is not a trend which can continue. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell quietly made all of his kicks which was a welcome change especially in the confines of an opposing stadium during the rain. Jordan Berry boomed off two long punts and landed 3 inside the 2. Ryan Switzer had a long punt return of 15 yards and some decent kickoff returns.

However, Alex Erickson had kickoff returns of 47 and 51 yards, the former of which gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 44 with a minute left. This is the kind of special teams play that can lose a game. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense appears to be finding its rhythm. When the passing game isn’t quite working, the running game is able to pick up the slack. Such balance is necessary for sustainable success in the NFL.

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

That improvement must continue as evidenced by two two touchdowns the Bengals scored at the tail end of each half. However, two weeks ago the Steelers defense was a lost cause. Today it looks like a unit that does some things well, while offering legitimate “upside.”

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

After a big win last week and going into a big game against the Bengals with Ryan Shazier’s recovery as a backstory, it would have been easy for the Steelers to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster.

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

The Bengals 51 yard 2nd half kickoff return could have easily spelled doom. Yet the Steelers defense went out and forced a punt despite giving up a penalty that gave Cincinnati a 3rd an 1.

  • At the end of the game the Pittsburgh’s poise was present for all to see.

There was no panic in the Steelers huddle or on the sidelines as the Bengals went up by one with just over a minute to play. Nor was there any sense of desperation evident when the Steelers found themselves in 2 third down situation on that final drive.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown waited for their moment, and then drove a stake through the Bengals secondary.

That type of calm under pressure requires character. It also requires competent coaching that allows that type of locker room culture to flourish. Mike Tomlin has worked to establish that and the fruits of his labor were evident in the game’s final minute. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Everyone will long remember Antonio Brown’s last minute touchdown, as well they should. Meanwhile JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the afternoon making critical, if less highlight-worthy catches. But he is in this space for two heads up plays.

  • The first came when he out fought a defensive back for a catch at the goal line, and the second came when he recovered Vance McDonald’s fumble.

A turnover in either occasion would have lost the game for the Steelers, but neither were and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Steelers Comeback to Beat Bengals 28-21, Forging Latest Paul Brown Stadium Milestone

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, put them together at Paul Brown Stadium and what do you get? Mayhem. Hard hits. Intense play. Battles in the trenches. Drama. Games going down to the wire. Football contests that Paul Brown himself would have appreciated. Consider a few recent milestones from the rivals’ history in this building:

  • Ike Taylor’s career ended here.
  • Chris Boswell once kicked six field goals AND needed to make a shoe-sting tackle for the Steelers to earn a narrow 4 point win.
  • During the same game, Ladarius Green suffered a hit that ended his career
  • Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble set up the Steelers first post Super Bowl XLV playoff win.
  • And of course, two years later Ryan Shazier suffered a life-changing injury on this very field.

The Steelers went on the road against the AFC North, division leading Cincinnati Bengals still searching for their first conference victory. The contest lived up to the series’ pedigree featuring intense action, late lead changes,  and a Steelers victory at the final gun.

But more importantly, if Mike Tomlin can keep his team focused, the impact of this latest Paul Brown Stadium milestone could be felt well beyond the October afternoon in which the Steelers authored it.

 

Antonio Brown, William Jackson, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown burns William Jackson en route to go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Gary Landers, AP via PennLive.com

Winning in the Trenches, Getting Flanked by the Rear Guard

Old school football commentators love to remind us that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. And very often that is true. Whether you’re playing offense or defense, control the line of scrimmage, and you control what the ball carrier can and cannot do.

  • In the first half the Steelers won the scrimmage battle.

Pittsburgh didn’t dominate Cincinnati the way they dominated at Atlanta, but they kept the Bengals paws off of Ben Roethlisberger, and they opened holes for James Conner to explode through. While Joe Mixon did gouge the Steelers defense for a few long runs, Pittsburgh stuffed him on a number of occasions.

  • Winning in the trenches was critical for the Steelers, because Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at his best in the first half.

Despite having ample time to throw, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still struggled to connect, with the quarterback having his best success hitting Vance McDonald and Jesse James up the middle. And when he did try to find his wide receivers, Big Ben tempted fate, as JuJu Smith-Schuster was forced to go into defensive back mode to prevent an interception at the goal line.

But thanks to the Steelers force up front, James Conner was barreling through the line for his second touchdown one play later. With 1:07 left to play, Pittsburgh seemed poised to take a 14 point lead into the locker room.

  • But winning at scrimmage means little if you leave the rear door unlocked. That’s exactly what Danny Smith’s special teams did.

Alex Erickson not only ripped off a 47 yard return, but an Artie Burns penalty added another 5 yards to the end of it. Suddenly, instead of needing to go 80 yards for a score, the Bengals only had to go 44.

And 44 yards Andy Dalton and crew went, tying up the game at the half.

2nd Half – Steelers Readjust to Bengals Adjustments

The ability of the Steelers offense to compensate for the adjustments made by Marv Lewis and his defensive staff is the story of the second half. Twice the Steelers offense reached the one, and twice Bengals defense forced Pittsburgh to settle for field goals.

But how the Steelers got into the Red Zone was as equally important as the Bengals ability to prevent Pittsburgh from banging it in when they got there. The Steelers 2nd field goal of the 2nd half had been set up by a 48 yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

A bit of old time Ben-to-Brown magic that foreshadowed things to come.

Steelers Defense Does its Part

The Steelers defense has been under fire for much of the season, and a Cincinnati offense that featured Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green figured to offer another stiff test. While Pittsburgh was far from perfect, the Steelers defense did its job.

The Steelers defense broke even with the Bengals offense going 6 for 12 on third downs. And although the defense gave up the final touchdown a little too easily, that set the stage for what was to come.

“This is what legacies are made of….”

4th quarter comebacks are what make football great. Few things are more satisfying – or aggravating – than watching an offense methodically move down the field for the decisive go ahead score. The team that scores enjoys unrestrained glory. The team that fails to hang on fights utter demoralization.

  • Yet, for whatever Ben Roethlisberger’s flaws as a quarterback he might be, he has never succumb to demoralization in those moments.

Think back to Super Bowl XLIII, as Larry Fitzgerald soared to the go ahead score. Ben Roethlisberger simply put on his helmet, buckled his chin strap and was immediately in his element. And so it was, with 1:08 and 77 yards to go, Ben Roethlisberger told his teammates, “‘This is what legacies are made of for all of us. Let’s go out and take care of business.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster a few times, tried to hit James Conner and Justin Hunter.

Then, already inside the outer limits of field goal range, with William Jackson in cover-0 without safety help, Ben Roethlisberger audibled and hit Antonio Brown on the inside up the middle:

With an Usain Bolt like bust of speed, Antonio Brown knifed through the middle of the Bengals defense for the go ahead touchdown.

Another Paul Brown Stadium Milestone for Pittsburgh?

Aside from being dramatic moments, the milestones cited at the beginning of this article all share something else in common:

  • Each represented a critical turning point for the Steelers.

In some cases those turning points transcended in which they occurred. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble in the playoffs legitimized the Steelers as a Super Bowl contender. Less than a month ago, commentators argued with good cause that Shazier’s spinal contusion had closed that same Super Bowl window.

While no one is talking Super Bowl in Pittsburgh this morning, this latest win at Paul Brown Stadium certainly makes the Steelers look like legitimate AFC North contenders, and that’s not a conversation any serious person would have considered started even two weeks ago.

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NFL Fine of T.J. Watt Isn’t for “Roughing the Passer” Its for “Roughing the Grass”

After news broke that Roger Goodell fined Mike Tomlin for… telling the truth, it also came out that the NFL had fined T.J. Watt for… “Roughing the grass.” Of course, the league office isn’t calling it that.
Officially the fine is for T.J. Watt’s supposedly illegal low “hit” on Matt Ryan.

Carlos Ortiz reacted the news by arguing “…esto no fue ‘roughing the passer’ esto fue ‘roughing the grass.’” (Carlos Ortiz writes on Steelers360 and if you’re not fluent enough in Spanish to follow his work, well then maybe its time to give Berlitz a call.)

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt drew a 20,054 fine for this low “hit.” Photo Credit: AP, via Cincinnati.com

If you don’t remember the play from the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, take a look for yourself:

The tweet is of course from T.J. Watt’s brother J.J. Watt. As you can see, T.J. Watt did his best to avoid contact, and barley touched Matt Ryan. An Oscar worthy performance for Ryan followed, because Ryan almost certainly did not fall on his own power.

For his troubles, T.J. Watt is now $20,054 poorer. Clearly Watt won’t have problems buying Christmas presents for his family come December, but a $20,000 dollar fine means a lot more to a player who is still on his rookie contract that it would mean to someone like Joe Haden, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.

  • This wasn’t the only questionable roughing the passer penalty called against the Steelers last Sunday.
  • Jon Bostic also drew a flag when he arrived a second too late on a Cam Heyward sack of Matt Ryan, but was not fined.

Mike Tomlin of course is not happy about any of this, and he too his poor for his words, however truthful the might be. But perhaps Mike Tomlin wasn’t telling the complete truth. Penalizing and issuing fines for plays like these isn’t simply a joke, it is mockery of the game itself.

  • And please spare me any player safety talk about the need to protect players from CTE and head trauma.

Yes, it is imperative that the NFL do all it can to reduce the risk of head trauma. CTE poses an existential threat to football. Thankfully, the days when Terry Bradshaw could suffer multiple concussions, as he did against the Redskins in 1979, and joke about it with reporters after the game, are over.

  • But let’s be clear, the NFL isn’t going to eliminate one future case of CTE by fining players for “hits” like T.J. Watt’s.

In taking the NFL to task a few days ago for fining Mike Tomlin, I conceded that protecting the quarterback was important, but not if those protections altered the essence of the game. T.J. Watt’s words to reporters after learning of this fine underline just how malevolently the essence of the game is being altered.

Before getting to T.J. Watt’s words, let’s recall remarks of former Steelers linebacker, this one a Hall of Famer. And before sharing this Hall of Famers words, let’s politely suggest that if you either don’t understand or don’t agree with him then you should stop watching on Sundays and stick to Madden and Fantasy Football instead.

Jack Lambert once explained:

I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.

Contrast that with implications T.J. Watt’s response when asked if Matt Ryan took a dive:

I don’t know. If I was him I would. Why not? Fifteen yards helps your team a lot. If I’m a quarterback I’m going to sell it too. I can’t blame him for playing the game. [Emphasis added]

Sadly, here in 2018 taking World Cup soccer like dives is becoming part of “playing the game.” But it is not the way the game should be played. And that shows just how show just how grotesquely Roger Goodell is distorting football as we know it.

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NFL Fines Mike Tomlin for Telling the Truth – The Game is Becoming a Joke

News that NFL was fining Mike Tomlin hardly came as a surprise. The NFL has long fined head coaches for criticizing the officials, long before Roger Goodell brought his Kangaroo Court style of justice to the league.

When reporters questioned Mike Tomlin about the officiating after the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, the Steelers head coach didn’t hold back. After conceding that the two penalties called on Bud Dupree were probably legitimate, Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words:

Some of the other stuff, man, is a joke. We gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We gotta get ‘em correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you.

While he doesn’t mention them directly, Mike Tomlin was referring to the penalties called on Jon Bostic who arrived a second too late after Cam Heyward sacked Matt Ryan, and T.J. Watt who barley made contact with Ryan yet still got the 15 yard flag.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

In other words, the NFL is fining Mike Tomlin for telling the truth: The NFL is becoming a joke.

Business Case for Protecting Quarterbacks

Unlike Roger Goodell’s 2010 arbitrary crack down on hits to the head which unfairly targeted Pittsburgh Steelers such as James Harrison and Ryan Clark, controversy about protecting the quarterback is hardly new to Pittsburgh.

While it is hard for a Steelers site to take up for the son of a Cleveland Browns legend, Clay Matthews Jr. got flagged doing nothing other than tackling the quarterback. While traditionalists have cried foul, the NFL’s latest quarterback protection rule has no shortage of apologists.

MMQB’s Andrew Brandt and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Paul Zeise have argued that quarterbacks are a key ingredient to the NFL’s on the field product and that therefore doing what is necessary to keep them in the game is simply a wise business decision.

That line of thinking isn’t new and unlike when Jack Lambert claimed quarterbacks should wear dresses the NFL has a salary cap. So when a quarterback goes down, the NFL is literally seeing money taken off of the field.

Beyond this nerdy, accountantesque line of reasoning, it is also true that allowing passing combos like Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann or Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown to blossom is good for the game.

  • So protecting the quarterback make good business sense, to a point.
  • But when these protections begin to alter the essence of the game, they go too far.

And football, at its core, is a game that is meant to be won by those that hit the hardest, as Jack Lambert argued. And the current movement to protect the quarterback is an attempt to alter that reality.

Fantasy football owners might be happy with rules that cause flags fly after Stephon Tuitt barley love taps Andy Dalton a half second after Dalton releases his pass. But those rules water down the essence of the sport, and that will do far more damage to the NFL’s on the field product in the long run.

  • The difference between coming out on the right side of the fine line that separates winning and losing in the NFL is often defined by who wins a test of wills.
  • That includes the quest to get the quarterback.

If the NFL eliminates that element from the game in the name of coddling quarterbacks, then it will be doing far more damage to its on the field product than whatever damage losing quarterbacks to injury causes.

Mike Tomlin is telling the truth, and because of that he’s $25,000 poorer.

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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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Defeo Demands and T.J. Watt Delivers – Add to Defeoman’s Wish List

One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in football to know that the Steelers defense needed someone to step up in a big way heading into their 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Several Steelers defenders did indeed step up, and perhaps we have Tony Defeo to thank for the defender who made the biggest bang.

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Writing on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo made a simple statement, but one strong enough to merit a game day Retweet:

And just like that, T.J. Watt delivered, leading the Steelers in tackles, tackling 5 players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Matt Ryan 4 times, and sacking him 3 times, including a forced fumble which L.J. Fort recovered in the end zone for a game clinching touchdown.

Articles like that remind me of the days back at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, where I’d jaw with buddies Mike and Todd.

Bill Cowher needs to use Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala to give Jerome Bettis a breather, and while he’s at it, they need to throw more to Mark Bruener, especially when they’re in the Red Zone….”

Then one of us would quip “Yep, and we’ll tell him you said that the next time we see him!”

  • Of course now that the blogesphere exists, it is a lot easier to fool one’s self into thinking an average fan can exert such influence.

We can’t . But it’s nonetheless a little uncanny that our beloved Defeoman would see such a demand transformed into reality in such dramatic fashion. In the event that Tony’s DOES have some sort of mystical connection allows such wishes to be granted, here are a few to add to his bucket:

This list is just for starters. Feel free to add yours, although be judicious because Tony must wield his power wisely….

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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Steelers Soar over Falcons 41-17 as Pittsburgh Takes 1st Step at Removing “September Stench”

The Steelers soared over the Atlanta Falcons in a 41 to 17 win giving Pittsburgh’s starters their first win at Heinz Field since their last second victory over the Ravens in mid-December 2017.

  • Preseason pundits had predicted a Pittsburgh-Atlanta Super Bowl.

Instead, both teams struggled with the Falcons going 1-3 while the Steelers had registered a 1-2-1 mark in September. Instead of a Super Bowl preview, this week 5 Heinz Field matchup served as crossroads for both clubs:

  • Win and gain a foothold on contending.  Lose and dig yourself into a hole.

Despite the score, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers didn’t exactly look like a Super Bowl team, yet way in which Pittsburgh won offers hope that this team is capable of playing winning football against good teams.

James Conner, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Falcons

James Conners goes over the pile to score Steelers 1st touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Take 1st Step at Breaking Vicious Cycle

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been struggling since Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion last December against the Bengals.

  • Since that night, the Steelers have struggled to establish even a modicum of consistency on defense

In 2018, an inability to convert third downs has exacerbated that struggle, creating a vicious cycle. The Steelers defense, with or without the offense turning over the ball, gives up a few quick touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger tries to force the ball to Antonio Brown and fails. Jordan Berry punts. The defense gives up another score.

  • Then Randy Fichtner’s offense has had have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

The best outcome for the Steelers in such a scenario is to transform the game into a shoot out, yet as the Jaguars and Chiefs visits to Heinz Field showed, that is not a recipe for success. The solution to breaking this cycle was simple, and James Conner summed it up in his post-game comments.

“We played Steeler football today” – James Conner

Art Rooney II once defined it as the “foundation of the franchise.” The Steelers President was talking about running the football. The Steelers hadn’t done that consistently in 2018, yet they came out of the gate rushing against the Falcons with James Conner getting the ball on 7 of 8 plays in the opening touchdown drive.

James Conner’s efforts would have counted for a lot less had Steelers defense turned around and allowed a quick score, but instead L.J. Fort dropped Matt Ryan.

The Steelers scored again with a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster strike which was enough to put them up 13-0, and giving Pittsburgh their first multi-touchdown first quarter of the season.

  • But Pittsburgh hardly played a perfect half.

The Falcons scored on a 42 yard touchdown pass, the type of which has been all to common this year. Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And perhaps worst of all the Steelers ran a very efficient two minute drill, only to see Ben Roethlisberger badly try to force the ball to Antonio Brown in the end zone, leading to an interception.

Steelers fans can be forgiven if they were dreading the other foot dropping in the second half.

Steelers Play Complete 2nd Half for the First Time All Year

In the second half of the Falcons game will the Steelers took their first foot forward towards reestablishing themselves as a team that can be counted on to win football games.

  • The Steelers had opportunities to put the Browns away, but squandered them with turnovers.
  • The Steelers hung with the Chiefs for a while, but Kansas City clearly won the shoot out.
  • With a play or two, the Steelers could have taken the Ravens to the wire.

Even the win against Tampa Bay required the Steelers to hold on for dear life as the offense failed to score while the defense gave up touchdown after touchdown.

Against the Falcons, the Steelers played a complete half in all three phases of the game for the first time all season.

  • Roosevelt Nix blocked a punt and then did some road grading ahead of James Conner’s touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger finally connected with Antonio Brown deep
  • T.J. Watt added icing to the cake with his strip sack of Matt Ryan, setting up L.J. Fort’s touchdown

Credit the Atlanta Falcons. At any number of points in the second half they could have folded. They didn’t. But also credit the Steelers coaching staff. Both Randy Fichtner and Keith Butler made sure their boys kept their feet on the gas pedal and, for all their fight, the Falcons never threatened a serious comeback.

Sometimes, the Names You Don’t Hear Are the Most Important

Several Steelers authored impressive highlight reels against the Falcons. But perhaps the most impressive performances came from names you seldom heard mentioned and won’t see on ESPN game highlights.

The Steelers offensive line toiled an relative anonymity throughout the afternoon. You never heard their names because the Falcons hardly laid a glove on Ben Roethlisberger and because James Conner averaged over 5 yards a carry.

For four weeks Steelers fans have watched in anguish as wide receivers either raced through the Steelers secondary or managed to get just enough yards to keep a drive going. The Steelers secondary kept the Falcons passing attack in check the entire afternoon, limiting them to six 3rd down conversions on 14 tries, a stat that includes garbage time.

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers have a lot of work to get that “September stench” out of their noses, but against the Falcons at least, Pittsburgh offered hope that they can do just that.

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Steelers vs Falcons Week 5 Preview: Pittsburgh At a Crossroads as Atlanta Arrives at Heinz Field

Over the previous four years in-which the Steelers ultimately reached the playoffs — including three where they were AFC North champions — they encountered some rough turbulence at some point during the regular season.

As Pittsburgh prepares for the Falcons to come to town for a 1 p.m. clash at Heinz Field on this afternoon, it, again, is having a rough time of it. At 1-2-1 after four games, it appears the Steelers’ season has already hit a fork in the road.

  • Which route will they take?

Will they take the path many predicted before the start of the season, a path that leads them straight to the postseason for a fifth-straight year? Or will they take the direction that continues them down the road of self-destruction and the first sub-.500 record during the Mike Tomlin head coaching regime?

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups and downs in ’18 thus far. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

If I had to bet money, I’d say the Steelers will win impressively on Sunday against an equally-struggling Falcons team and, at least temporarily, take the more desirable route. But, then again, this adversity has hit everyone — coaches, players and fans – -like an unexpected round-house kick to the temple.

  • Unlike those aforementioned previous seasons that included adversity and strife, I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the struggles of  2018.

When the team was coming through a two-year transition phase, like in 2014, you were prepared for some turbulence. In-fact, Pittsburgh’s AFC North crown was a bit of a surprise four years ago, after the team missed the playoffs the previous two campaigns and was 3-3 after six games.

When the Steelers were hit with a rash of injuries–including the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a combined four games in 2015 and 2016–you weren’t surprised by the struggles and even the mediocre (or worse) records late into both seasons.

  • But, again, who was prepared for the start to 2018?
  • Who was prepared for all the turmoil?
  • Who was prepared for the on-going struggles of Roethlisberger?

Who would have thought Ben Roethlisberger and superstar receiver Antonio Brown would suddenly lose their almost magnetic connection and on-field chemistry?

Yeah, maybe the failure of disgruntled star running back Le’Veon Bell to report to the team for the first regular season game threw everyone for a loop. But with such a decorated and prideful offensive line, did anyone think the lack of a constant running game would become such a harsh reality?

Maybe you were prepared for the struggles of the defense. But were you prepared for the level of incompetence we’ve seen through four weeks, especially the two losses at Heinz Field, in-which the Steelers were down a combined 35-0 before the start of the second quarter?

  • Were you prepared for the lifeless and listless pass rush? How about the hopeless pass defense?

This is a start to a season in-which you really can’t place the blame on unfortunate circumstances. You can’t point to injuries. You can’t point to bad luck.

This is all mostly on a lack of execution and, if we’re being honest, perhaps a little less talent than many realized the Steelers possessed.

But, as I’ve already stated, the Steelers have been in this position before in recent years, and they’ve always come out of it smelling pretty rosy.

  • Can Mike Tomlin work his magic so that Pittsburgh pulls it off again?

If the Steelers are who we thought they were at the beginning of the 2018 campaign, the time to start showing it is this afternoon against the Atlanta Falcons.

 

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Should the Steelers Trade Le’Veon Bell? Pittsburgh Faces Gut Check with Talented, Troublesome Running Back

Should the Steelers trade Le’Veon Bell?

Fans have debated the question for weeks, but word from Le’Veon Bell is he’ll return to the Steelers during the bye week changes everything. IF, and that is a big “if,” Bell shows up, he will give Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin one of their biggest gut checks of their time together.

  • The Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera has featured more twists and turns than Glass Run Road.

There’s no need to summarize them here. The only piece of this backstory that potentially impacts Steelers 2018 on-the-field fortunes is the Steelers trading Le’Veon Bell. I’ve avoided writing about a potential Le’Veon Bell trade because it has been an academic question.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble, Steelers vs Titans

Le’Veon Bell in 2017 vs. the Titans. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Adam Schefter’s “League Source” could very well be Adisa Bakari simply making mischief while keeping his client in the news. And nothing would change if the Steelers have leaked the trade rumors because Pittsburgh can’t trade Le’Veon Bell unless he signs his franchise tender.

But if Le’Veon Bell is serious about signing his franchise tender at the bye week, the Steelers will have time to trade him before the NFL’s October 30th trade deadline.

  • The Steelers would still need to find a general manager willing to give up a 3rd round pick or better, and that’s a bit of a stretch.

But it is possible. Who thought the Steelers could get a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant?

One month ago if you’d told me the Steelers could trade Le’Veon Bell and get anything more than a 3rd round pick, I’d have said “Make the deal.” Despite his “I want to retire as a Steeler” claims, Le’Veon Bell’s actions tell us that staying in Pittsburgh isn’t his priority. Therefore, Steelers best course of action was to take what they could get and move on.

  • Ah, but what a difference getting out scored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters can make.

The jury is still out on James Conners, but he looks like he might be a good NFL running back. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell’s resume says he is a great NFL running back (cue previous reminders about Bell breaking Steelers records that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis touched. Also see Tony Defeo’s piece on Bell’s uncanny ball security.)

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense isn’t the same without Le’Veon Bell. A big part of that lies in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown‘s inability to get in synch (or even talk to each other, apparently.)

But in the past, the Steelers have leaned on Le’Veon Bell when the passing game faltered (see the Cleveland road game in 2016 and the Buffalo game in 2016.)

  • When Ben Roethlisberger is playing his A game the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers can hang with anyone.

Yes, I went there. But thus far, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been a 60 minute man in 2018. If he had, the Steelers would be 3-1 now. But instead, they’re 1-2-1 and tied for last in the AFC North.

  • This is why a potential Le’Veon Bell trade equals gut check time for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers goal is to win the Super Bowl. Their chances of winning the Super Bowl this season improve with Le’Veon Bell playing in Pittsburgh. So Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must take long look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really think the Steelers have a shot at Lombardi Number Seven this season.

  • If they do, then keeping Le’Veon Bell is the only option.
  • If not, and they can find a taker, then the Steelers must make the trade.

The Steelers have never been a franchise to play for draft position; see Bill Austin costing the Steelers at shot at O.J. Simpson, which “forced” Chuck Noll to draft Joe Greene instead – and we know how that turned out.

Some might suggest that trading Le’Veon Bell would be abandoning that philosophy. It might. But a Bell trade could bring Pittsburgh another pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and preserve salary cap space.

Everyone expected the Steelers to go heavy on defense in the 2018 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the opposite and displayed incredible self-confidence in their roster in the process.

  • The NFL trading deadline is October 30th.

Regardless of whether Pittsburgh’s record is 1-5-1, 2-4-1, or 4-2-1 at that point, the Steelers decision on trading Le’Veon Bell will reveal how much of that confidence remains.

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