Steelers Represented Well in The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. Troy Aikman? He Got Screwed

With the Steelers bye week upon us let’s delve into something that there simply wasn’t time for during the off season, namely The Athletic’s NFL Top 100.

The Athletic kicked off their series on July 8th with Derrick Brooks at 100 and closed it on September 8th with, you guessed it, Tom Brady at number 1.

  • Overall, the series was an interesting and ambitious effort.

And like most Steelers fans my focus was to see how well (or poorly) the Black and Gold fared. Fortunately, the Steelers did well, landing 8 players on the list:

98. Dermontti Dawson
71. Mel Blount
69. Terry Bradshaw
57. Mike Webster
52. Jack Ham
37. Jack Lambert
26. Rod Woodson
14. Joe Greene

(Technically you could argue the Steelers have 9, as Bobby Layne made the list at 89 and Layne played 5 seasons in Pittsburgh.)

Sure, one can quibble (as many did) over Troy Polamalu not making it while Ed Reed did. One could also protest Franco Harris’ absence. (Few did, even though Franco still owns several Super Bowl records and of course authored the Immaculate Reception, greatest play in the history of the sport.)

  • On the flip side, naysayers could (and did) object to Bradshaw’s inclusion.

But no matter how you cut it, the Athletic’s writers clearly give the Steelers the respect they’ve earned.

The same cannot be said, however, for Troy Aikman.

Levon Kirkland, Troy Aikman, Kevin Greene, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30,

Levon Kirkland after sacking Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A Steelers Fan Takes up for Troy Aikman? Yes.

Troy Aikman remains only one of four quarterbacks to win 3 Super Bowls having pulled off that feat in 4 years failed to make The Athletic’s NFL Top 100 list.

This is insane.

It might seem odd for a Steelers fan to take up for Troy Aikman, let alone one who insisted that the ’89 Steelers would should regret not having a shot a drafting Aikman because “we’ve got Bubby Brister.”

  • Six year later, Aikman would show that same 23 year old just how naïve his 16 year old self had been.

Against the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Troy Aikman played better than any other Dallas Cowboy on the field. As the legendary Will McDonough argued, he should have been the game MVP. True, Aikman’s Super Bowl XXX stats might not knock you on your ass.

Emmit Smith, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX, Super Bowl 30

Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd tackle Emmitt Smith in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But he played a mistake free game, and he did it against the Blitzburgh defense. Sure, that Steelers secondary was stuck together with spit, duct tape and bubble gum, but that same defense made Emmitt Smith look like a mere mortal (OK, like a mere mortal except for when he was in the Red Zone – but there’s a reason why they called it the “Emmitt Zone” back then.)

  • Troy Aikman didn’t do it just once against the Steelers, but he did it two other times in the Super Bowl.

“Ah, but performance in Super Bowls only goes so far….” Frankly, I’m not sure of that. A quarterback’s success or failure to get it done on the game’s biggest stage is one of the most critical metrics of his mettle. Terry Bradshaw would have zero justification for a place on this list had he not played so well in his Super Bowls.

  • But a “Stats not Super Bowls” argument falls flat when applied to Aikman.

Dan Marino’s (No. 18) career passer rating was 86.4. Brett Favre’s (No. 22) was 86. By comparison, Troy Aikman’s was 81.6. So maybe The Athletic used a passer rating of 85 as some sort of cut off? Nope. John Elway (No. 15) was 79.9. Roger Staubach (No. 78) had a career passer rating of 83.4.

It says here that all of the other quarterbacks discussed here as well as others not mentioned deserve a spot on The Athletic’s NFL Top 100. But if they do then Troy Aikman certainly does as well.

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Steelers Report Card for win over Seahawks: Pulling All Nighters, Again Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worried his students are falling into the nasty habit of doing things at the last minute, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Seahawks.

Ben Roethlisberger, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs. Seahawks 2021

Ben Roethlisberger drops back as Zach Gentry blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Shaky. On the surface Ben Roethlisberger’s 29-40-229-1 look solid. And to his credit, he moved the offense in the first half when the running game was stalled. But in the 2nd half the offense netted 2 field goals in regulation. All of those stalled drives are not Roethlisberger’s fault, but he couldn’t close the game in regulation or in overtime. HE also put the ball on the ground. Again. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 81 yards on 24 carries for a 3.4 average. Kalen Ballage tacked on 2 for 15 including an 11 yarder when the Steelers needed it. The exciting thing about Harris’ performance isn’t in the numbers, its in how he made those numbers. He got stronger as the night wore on. That’s what the great ones do. Grade: B+

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 7 passes thrown his way and his impact on the Steelers offense deepens week-to-week. That has come a bit at the expense of Eric Ebron, but Ebron converted a 3rd down and ran for a touchdown. Zach Gentry was on the field for about 1/3 of the time as a blocker and did his job well. Grade: B+

Wide Receiver
That Diontae Johnson would author the group’s best play with a 25 yard field-flipping run is a bit telling. Johnson caught 9 of the 13 balls thrown his way compared to the 2 of 7 hauled in by Chase Claypool. IT is true that in several cases, Ben Roetlisberger didn’t deliver the ball accurately enough to expect a catch. But its also true that where were times when both wide outs needed to make a play and didn’t. James Washington had one catch for 9 yards then disappeared, while Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. Grade: C-

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Seahawks

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
The offensive line continues to grow. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit one other time. More importantly, the running game got better as the night wore on – a clear sign that the offensive line was winning the battles up front. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Alex Collins ran for 100 yards in just over 1 half and made it look easy. That’s not all on the line, but it starts there. The Steelers are clearly missing Tyson Alualu. Nonetheless, Cam Heyward had an outstanding night, pulling the grade up for the group. Grade: B-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt did nothing less than take over the game in over time. Devin Bush had a shaky night, including his initial return of the ball the wrong way, but scooping up a fumble in OT is always critical. Tackling was a chronic problem in the 2nd half, and that brings the linebacker’s grade down. Grade: B+

Secondary
For the second straight week, James Pierre ended regulation with a splash play. The secondary shut down Geno Smith in the first half, yet they took struggled with poor talking. Tre Norwood came up big on third down a few times. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers gave up a 38 yard kickoff return which set up the Seahawks 2nd touchdown and got them back in the game. Ray-Ray McCloud turned in a 37 yard punt of his own on the opening kickoff but regressed after that. The real story once again was Chris Boswell going 3-3 on field goals including a 52 yarder. Grade: B

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense continues to move in the right direction. Certainly, the Steelers weren’t going up against the ’85 Bears defense, but the unit committed to establishing the run, and that commitment paid dividends late in the game.

  • The Steelers defense pitched a perfect shutout in the first half, only to coast badly in the second.

While that is not good, Keith Butler’s boys were able to shut out the run late in the game when it counted, effectively forcing Geno Smith. It oversimplifies things to say that overtime was a 1-1 between Geno Smith and T.J. Watt, but Watt clearly vanquished the backup quarterback.

Alex Highsmith, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahawks

Alex Highsmith sacks Geno Smith. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers have a young team that is finding its way, and this group of men responded to adversity with authoritative playmaking while the game was on the line, which is to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His counterpart on the other side is getting the ink, and deservedly so, but helped seal the edge on several rushing plays and he registered two sacks on third down, the second of which came in the Red Zone during the 4th quarter that forced a field goal and for that Alex Highsmith wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers win over the Seahawks.

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Watt’s a One Man Defense? As Steelers Defeat Seahawks in Overtime 23-30

Moments after the Steelers 23-20 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s head coach Mike Tomlin drew this conclusion:

We’ve got a lot of improvements to make, obviously, but boy, it’s good to win a game like that, to get to know yourselves individually and collectively when faced with dire circumstances at times, and seemingly when it’s not going your way.

Tomlin is right. Games like this do reveal a lot about a team. The 2021 Steelers certainly learned a lot about themselves Sunday night? But did we learn anything about them?

The answer is we learned a lot, some of which offers hope for the future, some of which signals caution.

T.J. Watt, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahwaks

T.J. Watt strip sacks Geno Smith. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Evolution vs Reaching a Plateau?

Coming out of training camp, Ben Roethlisberger was the first person to remind everyone that the Steelers offense would be a work in progress. The first month of the season proved that the Steelers quarterback should have been taken at his word.

  • The win over the Seahawks revealed a lot about that evolution, both positive and negative.

The Steelers spent the first quarter trading punts with the Seahawks, reverting the slow starts that plagued them in September. But if Matt Canada panicked, it wasn’t evident in his play calling as the second quarter saw the Steelers stich together two clock consuming drives that ended in Najee Harris and Eric Ebron touchdown runs.

On the plus side, this happened despite Najee Harris rushing for partly 28 yards on 13 carries. On the minus side, the Steelers got the ball back at their own 41 with 36 seconds left yet only managed 3 yards and had to punt it back.

  • Those might sound like odd threads to use to weave an “unfortunately/fortunately” narrative, but they’re apt.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Seahawks

Najee Harris catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Najee Harris finished the game with 81 yards, which means he averaged close to 5 yards a carry in the second half. Getting the ball at their own 26 yard line with the game tied and 5 minutes remaining, the Steelers fed the ball to Harris 5 times.

Last year or even last month, such a slow start to the running game would have resulted in Ben Roethlisberger tossing 50 times. That didn’t happen, which shows the Steelers offense is taking a step in the right direction.

And it is a step the Steelers need it to take, because the Seahawks game confirms that Big Ben can no longer carry this team. For all of the sound and fury generated by clock management, one of the trade marks of the later part of the Tomlin era is to use the final minute of the first half to tack on a field goal. The Steelers tried, but didn’t sniff field goal distance, which foreshadowed things much of the 2nd half.

With 9 minutes left in the 4th, the Steelers got the ball at their own 20. With the game tied, a score was necessary. The Seahawks stuffed Harris on first, Roethlisberger overthrew Diontae Johnson on 2nd and underthrew Chase Claypool on third and the Steelers had to punt.

The game didn’t turn on that play or that series, but those weren’t isolated examples of throws that Roethlisberger would have made prior to his injury.

Watt’s a One Man Offense?

Dealing with the loss of a playmaker is never easy. When the Steelers hit the dark days of 1998 and 1999 Dan Rooney explained that his team needed playmakers, offering Rod Woodson as an example.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger’s days as a playmaker are fading, then T.J. Watt’s star gets more brilliant with each passing week.

To be fair to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers second half struggles are hardly all on him. Both Johnson and Claypool left critical catches on the field. And, not to put too fine point on things, the defense “forgot” how to tackle for much of the second half.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Seahawks

T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward pile on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With no disrespect to Alex Highsmith and Tre Norwood – who’d stepped up with some critical third down plays — one can be forgiven for thinking the Steelers defense needs no one other than T.J. Watt.

Let the record reflect that during regulation, T.J. Watt failed to record a sack. In the elder days of ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime one can imagine Chris Berman and Tom Jackson extolling “Hats off Seattle offense. You can’t hope to stop T.J. Watt, you can only hope to contain him, and contain him they did.”

  • So what did “containing” T.J. Watt in regulation look like?

How about 3 defensed passes and two tackles for losses, both of which came in the 4th quarter, stoning Alex Collins after he’d steamrolled the Steelers offense. All four of those possessions on which Watt made those plays resulted in punts.

  • And he was only getting warmed up.

Seattle won the toss in OT, and T.J. Watt droped Collins for a loss on first down. Cam Heyward made another tackle for a loss, but that was sandwiched by 21 and 10 yard passes to Tyler Lockett and D.J. Dallas.

It was 3rd and 4 at the Steelers 45. A conversion and Seattle can start thinking about kicking a field goal. Instead, T.J. Watt dropped Geno Smith for a 14 yard loss. The Steelers got the ball at their 20 and could only get 9 yards when they needed 10.

Fortunately, Presley Harvin answered the call by booming a 56 yard punt out of bounds.

Pete Carroll had learned his lesson. On first down he put 3 defenders on T.J. Watt. It didn’t matter:

Devin Bush avoided his “running the wrong way” highlight reel and two plays later, Chris Boswell was splitting the uprights to pull the Steelers back to .500.

Steelers Reach Equilibrium @ Bye Week

As Mike Tomlin admitted, the Steelers still have a lot to improve upon. The defense must find a way to play more consistently and the offense must find a way to balance Najee Harris’ evolution against Ben Roethlisberger’s declining skill set.

But thanks to T.J. Watt’s heroics, the Steelers can at least do that from a .500 perch, which is as close to a clean slate as team that suffers a 3 game September losing streak is going to get.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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Quiet Takeaway after 5 Games? Chris Boswell’s Steelers Career Keeps “Kicking Along” (pun intended)

The one thing that was annoying about the Steelers’ 27-19 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday was the vantage point during extra point and field goal attempts at one end of the stadium.

I don’t know if it was because the game was on Fox, which prevented me from enjoying an HD viewing experience, but whenever Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a kick and the kick was broadcast from a camera in the opposite end zone (or behind Boswell), I had a hard time finding the ball once it was launched toward the goalposts.

With each kick, I had to wait an extra second or two for the in-stadium crowd to react. If I heard cheers, I knew Boswell’s kick was true. If I heard nothing, I knew he had missed his mark.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Fortunately for me, I had already assumed I would hear cheers as soon as Boswell connected with foot to ball. Why? The man’s been money for most of his career as the kicker for the Steelers, that’s why.

  • He certainly was on Sunday, as he connected on every single kick.

Chris Boswell may never be placed in the same category as Gary Anderson or Jeff Reed as an all-time great Steelers kicker, but he actually is the best to have ever done it in a Steelers career that began during the 2015 campaign, when he was a midseason replacement for the struggling Josh Scobee, who was a training camp replacement Garrett Hartley who was himself an injury replacement for the injured Shaun Suisham.

Boswell connected on 29 of 32 field-goal attempts during his inaugural season with the Steelers and even made the game-winning kick in the final seconds of the wild wild-card win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

One year later, in the divisional round of the 2016 postseason, Boswell was the only scoring the Steelers could muster, as he kicked six field goals in an 18-16 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

  • The 2017 season may have been Boswell’s finest.

Even though receiver Antonio Brown won the award, you could make a case for Boswell as the Steelers MVP in 2017, as he connected on 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including several game-winners down the stretch to help Pittsburgh win 13 games and the AFC North crown.

Boswell earned a trip to his first Pro Bowl following the 2017 campaign and a new, multi-year contract right before the 2018 regular season was about to kick off.

Unfortunately for Boswell, 2018 would be the worst year of his career; in fact, things immediately started to fall apart in Week 1 with a missed field goal in overtime in a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 rain-soaked tie at Cleveland.

I don’t know if that missed kick against the Browns affected Boswell’s psyche, but he would go on to miss seven field goals and five extra points in 2018 and repeatedly failed to pull the Steelers out of the same close jams that he did one year earlier. Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason with a 9-6-1 record. Was Boswell dealing with some sort of injury all throughout the 2018 campaign? We do know he was placed on Injured Reserve prior to Week 17 after reportedly suffering a torn groin muscle in a game against the Saints.

After some talk of releasing Chris Boswell and his contract during the 2019 offseason, the now veteran thankfully returned to his old form and connected on 29 of 31 field-goal attempts during the regular season.

Boswell remained consistent in 2020, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts and even set a franchise mark with a 59-yard boot against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Speaking of records, Boswell kicked the longest field goal in Heinz Field history earlier this season when he made one from 56 yards in a Week 2 game against the Raiders on September 19.

  • That field goal was one of eight Boswell has made so far in 2021 with his only miss coming in Week 3.

Unlike in the days of Gary Anderson, it’s much harder for kickers to distinguish themselves these days, and most are expected to have an accuracy rate at or close to 90 percent.

Chris Boswell may not get talked about or celebrated in the same fashion as less-accurate Steelers kickers from the past, but he’s clearly the greatest one to ever boot balls for the organization.

That speaks volumes.

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Una breve reflexión sobre Big Ben

Como buen culposo que soy me preocupa ser injusto con Big Ben.

  • Debo admitir que, como muchos, he pensado y dicho, públicamente, que Ben Roethlisberger estaba acabado.

Que antes que exponerlo inmóvil, lanzando pases a los números de los rivales, vetusto e impotente, vendiendo a precio vil el brillo de su busto en Canton, sería mejor sentarlo y ver qué hay en Mason Rudolph o Dwayne Haskins.

También he de decir que siempre creí que el problema de la ofensiva de los Steelers de las pasadas semanas no solo involucraba al QB.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger launches a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser

He escuchado argumentos sólidos, hay que admitirlo, en favor del desplazamiento de Ben del equipo titular, y muchas veces los he compartido. De todo lo que se dijo en estas últimas 2 ó 3 semanas hay verdades y verdades a medias.

De que el tiempo pasó dejando sus marcas en él y de que ya no es el mismo de antes, creo que ya no quedan dudas y estaremos todos de acuerdo.

  • Pero no creo tampoco que esté acabado.

Solo que su capacidad física no es la misma. El cuerpo ya se siente tan maduro que no quiere obedecer a nadie. Ni siquiera a su cerebro.

Parece ser que su juego es más dependiente del desempeño del equipo que lo que lo era antaño.

Por eso sostengo que Ben está llamado a tener otra función dentro del equipo. Que por ahora, a falta de un reemplazo mejor (que no tenemos) es irremplazable. Por su experiencia, por su mente.

Pero claro, no cumpliendo cualquier función. Y el partido de ayer frente a Denver Broncos lo demostró.

La clave para Big Ben y el equipo se encuentra dentro de estos números

60

15-25-253

35-147

Son los números del balance del equipo. De cómo su administrador manejó el negocio en un día de oficina. Es simple. Eso que muchos piden a voz en cuello: “Lo que el equipo necesita, hasta hallar al próximo QB franquicia, es un gestor del juego. No se necesita un Hall of Famer para ganar un Super Bowl…”  Pues bien, visto lo visto ayer Ben Roethlisberger puede ser ese gestor, con el agregado (y por el mismo precio) de que es además un Hall of Famer, un lujo que no tuvieron los Eagles en Nick Foles o los Ravens en Trent Dilfer cunado ganaron sus respectivos Super Bowls. Y ojo, que no estoy diciendo que  a la luz del resultado de ayer nuestro equipo ya es contendiente a jugar en el Super Domingo. Estoy diciendo que en él hay un beneficio extra potencial. Necesita confianza, un juego terrestre, una línea ofensiva decente que lo mantenga libre de madrazos y que facilite ese juego terrestre y la defensa que tenemos, sana. Vamos! Un equipo!

  • Pero una vez aquello, además y fundamentalmente, se necesita consistencia y regularidad.

Pero insisto: Big Ben no está acabado.

  • No puede hacer lo que hacía antes. Puede otras cosas.
  • No hay que dejarlo sólo.
  • Ahora puedo verlo.

Estoy un poco más tranquilo porque no quería ser injusto con él…

El Dr. de Acero

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos: Offensive Line Stops Skipping Class Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who was just as truant as the offense during the season’s first month, here is the Report Card from the Steelers win over the Broncos.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 15-25 for 253 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions in what was easily is biggest day of the season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had 3 “almost interceptions” but he was right on the money with his two touchdown strikes as well as the deep balls that set up the rushing touchdown. But Ben put the ball on the ground, which brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught 2 passes for 20 more. Harris exploited holes and moved piles forward. Benny Snell dropped a pass early on and found himself on the bench, but ran hard when Harris had to leave with cramps. Kalen Ballage got several carries but had no yardage to show for it. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
All three tight ends got involved in the passing game as Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron caught two passes a piece while Zach Gentry caught another that set off a scoring drive. The run blocking was improved, the tight ends helped with. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool owned the Broncos, burning them for 130 yards on 5 catches and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson opened the scoring with a 50 yard scamper and had one other catch for 22 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had two carries for 3 yards and no catches before leaving the game with a season ending shoulder injury. Ray-Ray McCloud only had one catch, but made an interception saving hit. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
After spending a month mired in a morass of something worse that mediocrity the offensive line turned in a fine performance. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit on one other occasion. What’s more, he had time to throw all afternoon long. Najee Harris also had plenty of room to run. This unit must continue to improve, but if it does a lot of other good things can happen. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III might not be the NFL’s 2021 equivalent of Franco and Rocky, but they’re a solid duo. Williams torched the Steelers for a 49 yard game, but that was the lone highlight of the Denver rushing attack. That starts with the line who had a solid day including Henry Mondeaux who got his first sack.

Linebackers
As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out, you didn’t hear Joe Schobert’s name much, although he did register 5 tackles, and that’s because he was doing his job in the middle of the field. Devin Bush had the lone sack of linebackers against a Denver time that was max protecting, while T.J. Watt did work in two pressures. A solid afternoon for the linebackers. Grade: B+

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 10 tackles and was disruptive all over the field. But the real hero of the group is James Pierre. Pierre stopped a would-be touchdown in the first half by coming from behind to tackle Javonte Williams. His interception saved another touchdown and sealed the game. Yes, he gave up a touchdown and a long gain before that, but the ability to bounce back is critical sign of a quality cornerback. Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds had passes defensed, quietly logging solid games. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made field goals of 48 and 43 yards and was 3-3 on PATs – that’s 9 points in an 8 point game for those of you at home. Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick returns were average at best and the Steelers kick coverage was sound. After getting called out by Tony Defeo, Pressley Harvin III responded with his best day punting, including a 63 yarder late in the game. Grade: B

Coaching
The Denver Broncos came into the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, yet Matt Canada managed to piece together a game plan that saw the Steelers score early and add to that lead all while controlling the clock.

One defense Keith Butler was missing Cam Sutton and rather than put the job of replacing him on one person, he managed to divide the load and do it effectively. The fact that the Steelers went 1-3 on fourth downs is a bit disturbing, but the unit delivered when the game was on the line.

Cam Heyward, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

Cam Heyward pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP

Three game losing streaks are ugly in their very essence in the NFL. And any the pressure to hit the “panic” button is tremendous, even if a coach denies it. Mike Tomlin refused to do that, and continued to trust in his men and his methodology and that trust paid off. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The stat sheet tells us that he might not have made any “Splash” plays. But 4 of the 5 figures on his stat line directly correlate to scuttled drives and for that Cam Heyward wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Broncos.

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Steelers Beat Broncos 27 to 19 with +100 Yards from Najee Harris & James Pierre Late Interception

The Denver Broncos opened the season with 3 straight wins, until losing last week to Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a win, and then lost their next 3 games.

  • Pittsburgh prevailed in the battle of 3-1 vs. 1-3 to the tune of 27 to 19.

And the irony of it is, the Steelers were successful because, for once, things went as they were scripted.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Broncos

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

How Things were “Supposed” to Work for the Steelers

In mid-August my wife asked what the Steelers prospects were for the coming season. I assured her that, despite a fairly strong showing in preseason, the Steelers still “Needed a lot of things to go right.”

So what were those things that had to go right?

  • Ben Roethlisberger needed to throw less than 40 passes a game, his ’20 average
  • Najee Harris needed to revive the Steelers rushing attack
  • The offensive line had to to improve
  • Gambles on players like James Pierre had to pay off
  • Players like Chase Claypool would need to make that “2nd year leap”

Almost nothing has gone according to plan for the Steelers in 2021.

The last three weeks saw Ben Roethlisberger thr0w 40, 58, and 40 passes. In week one Ben got it done with 32 passes. Funny how that one ended in a win. The offensive line struggled, and if it hadn’t been worse than it was in 2020, it wasn’t showing signs of getting better.

Injuries hobbled the defense and young players whom the Steelers were counting on performance spanned from, “He might be taking a step back” to “he’s improving, but only marginally.”

Tried and True Yields a Fresh Start

“Throw to score, run to win” was the credo of Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt. In today’s pass-happy, Fantasy Football driven NFL such thinking is passé.

  • Winning is never passé and relying on your running game remains a winning formula.

And so it was that the Steelers opened with two straight runs to Najee Harris. One 3rd and 1, with the defense forced to respect the threat of another Harris rush, Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for 23 yards. The Steelers followed with a Jet Sweep to JuJu Smith-Schuster and two plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson on a 50 yard touchdown.

  • Opening drive touchdowns have been spare for the Steelers for a long, long time.

So an early TD was welcome, but as the loss to the Packers proved, how you begin isn’t nearly as important as how you finish. But by sticking to a tried and true formula for “Steelers Football,” Pittsburgh had given itself a fresh start.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Broncos

Najee Harris hits the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Harris Grinds it Out

The next two drives saw the Steelers run 19 plays. The first drive ended in a fumble, the second one in a field goal. Pittsburgh rushed the ball on 11 of those 19 plays. While you’d like to see a little more from you offense, the Steelers were accomplishing something important:

  • They were establishing the run.

The offensive line might not have been engaging on road grading quality run blocking, but they were opening holes and Najee Harris was exploiting them. That allowed plays like Chase Claypool’s 59 yard hook up from Ben Roethlisberger, that got them into the Red Zone and paved the way for Najee Harris air mail express 1 yard touchdown leap.

The trend continued in the second half, as the Steelers set themselves up for success by creating manageable third downs and stitched together a 14 play 88 yard drive that consumed 7 minutes of the clock and ended with Chase Claypool going over the top to put the Steelers up 24-6 with 2:41 left to play in the 3rd quarter.

By that point, Najee Harris had logged his first 1 yard game and the Steelers first 100 yard rushing effort in 16 games.

But the game wasn’t over yet.

Defense Corrals Broncos Offense for 3 Quarters

The Steelers defense dominated the Broncos offense for 3 quarters. Their efforts early in the game were critical to victory. After an early Ben Roethlisberger fumble gave the Broncos the ball at Steeler 29 yard line.

  • It was early in the 1st quarter and a Broncos touchdown would tie the game and fundamentally alter its dynamic.

Vic Fangio called Javonte Williams number on 3 straight plays. And on three straight plays Minkah Fitzpatrick, Isiah Buggs, T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds ganged up to neutralize him. Denver was forced to settle for 3.

Two possession later, Javonte Williams torched the Steelers offense for 49 yards as James Pierre barley saved a touchdown. That set up Denver at the Steelers 5 yard line, but Devin Bush dropped Teddy Bridgewater for a 12 yard sack, effectively forcing them to settle for 3 again.

But as the third quarter ended the Broncos offense found their stride and gave the Steelers defense a run for its money.

Defense Finally Bends, Breaks but Bounces Back in a Big Way

When the Denver Broncos got the ball with 2:14 left in the 3rd quarter they were down 24 to 6 and things looked pretty hopeless. But they stitched together a 14 play, 76 yard touchdown drive that saw them convert 3 fourth downs.

While you never want to see something like that happen, the Steelers don’t have the shut down defense they had in 2019 or 2020 and such efforts are to be expected, if not accepted 2021 in the NFL.

  • But the Steelers had to punt on their next drive and worse yet, they lost Najee Harris.

This gave Denver the ball back with 7:40 left to play and it was in those seven minutes and 40 seconds that the Broncos would test one of the Steelers biggest gambles of the season to the limit.

First, Denver reached midfield by picking on James Pierre for a 15 yard completion. Two plays later Pierre bit a little too hard on the inside to Courtland Sutton as Sutton burned him for a 39 yard touchdown pass.

The Steelers defense nixed the 2 point conversion and the offense tacked on a field goal to keep it an 8 point game, but Denver got the ball back with 2 and a half minutes to play. As soon as he got in scoring range, Teddy Bridgewater wasted little time in picking on James Pierre. Pierre deflected it but could have ended things with an interception.

  • Two plays later he did hook up with Kendall Hinton to bring Denver to the 9 yard line.

Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds knocked away passes on 1st and 3rd downs with Joe Schobert tackling Melvin Gordon short of the goal line on second.

One 4th and 9 Bridgewater again tried to pick on Pierre. Here’s Pierre’s response:

The story of the first three quarters was that, for one game at least, the Steelers offense functioned the way it was “supposed to.”

The story of the fourth quarter was that, when the game was one the line, the gamble the Steelers made in James Pierre paid off in spades.

No NFL team wants to start the season at 2-3, but 2-3 beats the hell out of 1-4. As Mike Tomlin reflected: “Time will tell the story. We are appreciative of the efforts and the win we got today, but those type of perspectives and things of that nature will be revealed to us as we continue to play.”

Amen to that.

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Steelers Fall to the Packers, 27-17, at Lambeau Field to Drop to 1-3

At least the Steelers finally ended that pesky streak of not scoring on their opening drive. Unfortunately, other than that, there wasn’t much great you could say about Pittsburgh’s 27-17 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

Photo credit: Packers Wire

It was the third-straight loss for the Steelers after starting out 1-0. It was the fourth straight week in which the offense looked bad-to-mediocre (and that might be kind). Even the defense looked inept for the second game in a row, despite both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith being back in the mix at outside linebacker.

The Steelers’ offense did start strong and marched 75 yards on the opening drive and took a 7-0 lead on a 45-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Diontae Johnson.

Pittsburgh’s defense did stop the Packers’ offense on its opening possession, a series that ended with a Devin Bush sack of Aaron Rodgers. Unfortunately, Green Bay’s subsequent punt was downed at the four, and after a quick three and out, the Packers’ offense had the ball again at its own 36.

Green Bay promptly marched 64 yards and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown run by Rodgers early in the second quarter.

The Packers got the football right back when defensive back Kingsley Keke stripped Roethlisberger and recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 23. Green Bay took the lead four plays later on a 23-yard touchdown strike from Rodgers to receiver Randall Cobb.

The Steelers offense again showed life on its next possession and seemed poised to tie the score. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster on a play that would have gone for a 32-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh ultimately had to settle for three points on a Chris Boswell 52-yard field goal that hit the uprights before going in.

The Packers again marched right down the field and were set up with a first and 10 from the Pittsburgh 13 with 31 seconds left in the second quarter. A touchdown would have given Green Bay a 21-10 lead at the half and may have been the final nail in the Steelers coffin. Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and ultimately forced a field goal attempt by kicker Mason Crosby.

But just when it looked like the Packers would take a seven-point lead, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick crashed through the line, blocked Crosby’s field goal attempt, scooped up the loose football and raced the length of the field for what appeared to be a 17-14 lead for the visitors.

Sadly, cornerback Joe Haden was called for being offsides, a very questionable and disputed penalty that nullified the momentum-changing touchdown and gave Crosby a second chance to convert on his field goal try.

The Packers scored 10-straight points to open up the third quarter–including a 29-yard field goal by Crosby and a one-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Cobb–to take a commanding 27-10 lead.

The Steelers offense continued to struggle over its next three possesions–two of which ended when Pittsburgh failed to convert on fourth and four and fourth and five, respectably.

The Steelers drew to within 10 points on a one-yard touchdown dive by running back Najee Harris with 4:40 remaining in the game, but by then, it was too little, too late.

Roethlisberger completed 26 of 40 passes for 232 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Quite indicative of Roethlisberger and his play dating back to last season was the fact that 21 of his completions went for four yards or less.

Next up for the Steelers is a 1 p.m. matchup with the Broncos next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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The Steelers Fall To 1-2 After Lifeless Loss To Bengals

That 1-0 start to the 2021 regular season sure does seem like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

Photo credit: Trib Live

Just two weeks after the Steelers buoyed everyone’s spirits with an unexpected 23-16 Week 1 win over the Bills at Highmark Stadium on September 12, those spirits couldn’t be any lower after Pittsburgh dropped its second-straight game at Heinz Field on Sunday–24-10 to the once-lowly Bengals–to fall to 1-2.

Much like the first two games of the regular season, the Steelers’ offense couldn’t effectively move the ball early on, as promising drives were stymied by penalties to various offensive linemen.

Pittsburgh did catch a huge break midway through the first period when a pass from Joe Burrow was tipped high into the air and intercepted by safety Terrell Edmunds, who returned it 15 yards to the Pittsburgh 44. Unfortunately, the Steelers could do very little with the gift and actually gave the ball right back when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hit by defensive lineman Sam Hubbard while attempting a pass, and the errant throw was picked off by linebacker Logan Wilson, who returned it to the Steelers 42.

The Bengals took advantage and drove right down the field and took a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to receiver Tyler Boyd, who broke a tackle by outside linebacker Melvin Ingram and scampered into the end zone.

Ingram, along with Jamir Jones, started Sunday’s game, thanks to groin injuries suffered by both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith over the first two weeks. With Watt and Highsmith both out, Pittsburgh’s great pass-rush was reduced to ashes, as the team failed to record a sack for the first time in 76 games.

The score remained 7-0 into the second quarter when Pittsburgh’s offense appeared to come to life and drove 86 yards on 15 plays to tie the game after Roethlisberger hit tight end Pat Freiermuth on a shuttle pass, and the rookie pounded his way into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown with 1:04 left in the half.

But the Bengals, who were set to receive the ball in the second half, were not content with running out the clock. Cincinnati immediately caught a break on its next possession when Ingram was called for a questionable roughing the passer penalty that set the Bengals up at their own 47. Two plays later, Burrow found rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was one-on-one with cornerback James Pierre, for a 34-yard touchdown pass to re-establish the seven-point lead for the visitors.

The Bengals took a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter following a 10-play, 55-yard drive that culminated in a 43-yard field goal by Evan McPherson.

The Bengals offense was back on the field just three plays later after Roethlisberger was picked off for the second time by Wilson, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 19.

Three plays later, Burrow and Chase hooked up for their second touchdown of the day, this time from nine yards out, to give Cincinnati a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 left in the third quarter.

The Steelers marched 52 yards on their ensuing drive but could get no closer than the Cincinnati 24 yard-line. Kicker Chris Boswell then missed a 42-yard field goal, his first-ever miss against the Bengals, to really take the air out what was left of the Heinz Field crowd.

Those still in attendance used their lungs to vehemently voice their displeasure when Boswell was brought on again to attempt a field goal following an 18-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 9:03 of game clock; Boswell’s kick was true from 26 yards out to pull the home team to within two touchdowns with 8:09 remaining.

The Steelers last chance to make things interesting came up infamously short when a first and 10 from the Cincinnati 11 quickly went up in flames and culminated in a questionable swing pass to running back Najee Harris on fourth and 10; the rookie was quickly swallowed up by several Bengals defenders.

For the day, Roethlisberger completed 38 of 58 passes for 318 yards, one touchdown and two very costly interceptions.

Harris gained just 40 yards on 14 carries, but he did set a Steelers rookie record for running backs by catching 14 passes for 102 yards.

Next up for the Steelers is a trip to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers this Sunday at 4:25 p.m.

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