Steelers Report Card for Loss to Raiders: Sobering Reality of Stumbling into Mediocrity Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher struggling with the sobering sight of once star students stumbling toward mediocrity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the (latest) loss to the Raiders in Oakland’s Black Hole.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was 25 for 29 for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, although he had some close calls. But Ben moved the offense at will in the 4th quarter and did well in the first half. Joshua Dobbs saw his first extensive work, and he disappointed. While his passes weren’t wild they were also a little off. Dobbs best play was a run, which is never good for a quarterback. Dobbs led the offense to two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. Not good enough. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin can claim that rushing the ball is an 11 man job, but we know that neither Jaylen Samuels or Stevan Ridley will be a threat on the ground anytime soon. As a positive, Roosevelt Nix made a great block and Ridley hit the hole perfectly for the first TD, Jaylen Samuels looked really good coming out of the backfield. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Jesse James made a number of key catches up the middle on an afternoon where Steelers offense put a premium on those short and medium passes. McDonald, however could not convert on the 4th and one, and he missed his block on Darrius Heyward-Bey’s reverse. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a slow afternoon but still caught 5 of 7 balls thrown his way. But one of those set up a score and another sparked the 4th quarter rally. The real star of the Steelers offense was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who literally is budding into a super star before our very eyes with 8 catches for 130 yards. James Washington caught two passes for 28 yards. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Raiders only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and kept the Steelers quarterbacks clean, but Oakland’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the league, yet the Steelers offensive line could do nothing to take advantage of them. Even a smidgen of rushing offense could have made a difference in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made another splash play, while Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns stoning Raiders runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. This was nice, but the Steelers really needed someone to make a stop on 4th and 1. That’s not all on the line’s shoulders, but it starts with them. Grade: D

Stephon Tuitt, Derek Carr, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Stephon Tuitt sacks Derek Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
T.J. Watt tipped a pass and looked stout in run support as did Bud Dupree who added a sack. L.J. Fort saw extensive time at inside linebacker, and most frequently the back of his jersey was seen chasing down wide receivers or tight ends. The fact is that Oakland was able to complete passes down the middle when it needed to, and while that’s not all on the linebackers they must do their part. Again, where was the drive-ending 4th quarter splash play? Grade: D

Secondary
Mike Hilton came up with a key sack and recovered a fumble. However, he had his hands on a pick that got away, as did Sean Davis. Mike Hilton also blew the coverage on the game winning touchdown. Morgan Burnett came up with a nice pass deflection in the end zone, but that was only after he and Terrell Edmunds got burned for the Raider’s 39 yard pass that set up their final score. The Steelers played the Raiders tight at times, but when it counted, in the 4th quarter, Oakland sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary as if it were Swiss cheese. Grade: F

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had some decent punt and kick returns, and the Steelers return coverage was solid. None of Jordan Berry’s punts were returnable. All positives.

That’s two missed field goals in a game decided by 3 points. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers offense was bound to be one dimensional, and yet Randy Fitchner came up with a solid game plan given the limitations and his players executed it well enough.

  • As for Keith Butler’s defense, 13 games into the 2018 season what you see is what you get.

When the Steelers get pressure on the quarterback this defense is capable of playing with just about any offense in the league. And, as compared to a year ago, the Steelers defense isn’t giving up big plays in droves the way they were.

But the Steelers pass rush is only solid when it needs to be relentless. And that reality, along with coverage lapses and inconsistencies against the run adds up to a brutal truth:

  • This is a defense that simply cannot be counted on to salt a game away.

While a lot of fans are ready to scapegoat Keith Butler, it is entirely possible that Butler is doing well with the talent he has at hand. Hum, “The talent he has on hand” that’s an interesting concept to take into account when evaluating Mike Tomlin’s performance in this game.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin is taking heat for his use of time outs when the Raiders were in the Red Zone, but this scribe strongly suspects that Tomlin was giving his defense a chance to “Grow up” so to speak. If that’s the case, then its hard to fault his motive, even if his defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • The same cannot be said about Mike Tomlin’s other gamble, namely keeping Joshua Dobbs in the game.

Per Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger was “medically cleared to play” when he reached the sideline. Tomlin also conceded that Ben could have come back in the game a series earlier.

Who knows why Mike Tomlin kept Joshua Dobbs in when Ben was ready to return? Really, it doesn’t matter because it was the wrong choice, a choice that will carry consequences far beyond dooming the Steelers to a loss to a 2-10 team. Grade: F-

Unsung Hero Award
Being asked to step into James Conner’s shoes cannot be easy, but that is what the Steelers asked of Jaylen Samuels. And while Samuels struggled running the ball, he did quite well as a pass catcher, and really impressed with his second efforts and determination to grind out extra yards. And for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Reverse Grand Slam: Offensive, Defensive, Special Teams and Coaching Failures Fuel Steelers 24-21 Loss to Raiders

Gripe all you want about Oakland’s Black Hole. Yes, the venue has been cursed the Steelers for a generation, but don’t blame the Black Hole curse for this loss. The Steelers arrived in California reeling from 2 game losing streak.

  • A match up against a 2-10 Raiders team appeared to be just what the Dr. ordered.

As individuals, some of the members of the Steelers made some spectacular plays on both sides of the ball. But isolated outbursts of outstanding individual efforts don’t equal success in a football game, instead every member of the team must execute whenever called upon.

And the Steelers 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders happened because the Steelers offense, defense special teams and coaches each failed to execute at critical junctures.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell slips while attempting a game winner. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Above the Line First Half

To descend into Mike Tomlin speak, the Steelers were “Above the line” in the first half. Yes, the Raiders scored a touchdown on their first drive, and they did so making it look easy. But the Steelers forced a field goal the next time the Raiders threatened to score.

Better yet, the Steelers defense forced two other Raiders punts thanks to stout run defense by Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and T.J. Watt, sacks by Mike Hilton and Stephon Tuitt along with a generous helping of penalties committed by Oakland.

As promised the Steelers split carries between Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley but neither man proved to be a threat on the ground. And, with James Conner out, that forced the Steelers offense to become one-dimensional.

When a team is missing a key player the remaining members carry the burden of stepping up.
The Steelers offense did that in the first half. For whatever he lacked rushing the ball, Jaylen Samuels proved to be an effective threat coming out of the backfield, showing extra hustle time and time again. Vance McDonald and Jesse James made several tough catches over the middle. Roosevelt Nix and the offensive line did an outstanding job of paving the way for Stevan Ridley’s touchdown.

  • And JuJu Smith-Schuster made an incredible touchdown catch at the end of the first half and had to be seen on replay to be believed.

Sure, the Steelers had left 3 points on the board in the form of a missed Chris Boswell field goal, but the arrow appeared to be pointing up for Pittsburgh at half time. The Steelers offense seemed to find its rhythm, held a 14-10 lead and were set to get the ball back to start the second half.

The Dobbs Decision

The second half would start with a surprise for Steelers Nation as Joshua Dobbs an not Ben Roethlisberger came out under center. Not only was Ben Roethlisberger not playing, he was not on the sidelines.

Beginning with the 2-6 start in 2013 there’s been a contingent of Steelers Nation who has advocated going into “Suck for Luck” mode, and embracing the idea that the Steelers should jettison Ben Roethlisberger and start over.

  • The first 25 minutes of the second half serves as living proof as to why Art Rooney II is NOT inclined to do that.

Joshua Dobbs might grow into a fine backup quarterback. He might even make a serviceable starter. Perhaps he’ll even mature into a quality NFL signal caller. But he is far cry from a franchise quarterback. Dobbs made some decent throws – one could even argue that Antonio Brown should have caught the ball on Dobbs lone interception.

  • But Dobbs best plays of the afternoon came when he was running, which is not what you want to say of a quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the sideline late in the 3rd quarter, yet Joshua Dobbs remained in the game. It was only after the Raiders took the lead with around 5 minutes left to go, that Ben Roethlisberger returned.

After the game, Mike Tomlin confirmed that Ben Roethlisberger had been medically cleared to play as soon as he reached the sidelines. Why didn’t Mike Tomlin play him immediately? It only took Ben Roethlisberger 5 plays to lead the Steelers to the go ahead touchdown?

Since becoming head coach, Mike Tomlin has long preached that doctors know best, and if a player is medically cleared to play, he’s going to play him. Yet Tomlin held him out. This was one Mike Tomlin decision whose repercussions will reverberate for some time to come.

Steelers Defense Fails to Deliver

Let the record reflect that the Steelers defense did make a few plays in the 2nd half. Bud Dupree stoned Doug Martin at the line of scrimmage on a number of occasions, and he sacked Derrick Carr to help force a punt. Mike Hilton recovered a fumble, while Morgan Burnett deflected a pass in the end zone.

  • Those were all nice individual efforts, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

Sean Davis had his hands on an interception and couldn’t come up with the ball. The run defense, which had stifled the Raiders on the ground almost all day, let Jalen Richard get 5 yards on 4th and one. That drive ended in the Raiders first go ahead touchdown.

Burnett and Terrell Edmunds got burned on a 39 yard pass that brought the Raiders to the 7 with 1:16 to play. Mike Hilton, after making so many plays earlier in the game, blew the coverage on Derrick Carr’s walk-off game winning touchdown to Derek Carrier.

  • Mike Tomlin is taking a lot of heat for not using his time outs after the Raiders reached the Red Zone.

Fair enough. When you lose this type of second guessing happens. However, it was hard not to get the sense that he wanted to let his defense prove it could save the game.

Instead, the Steelers defense proved they are not good enough.

The Boswell Factor

Chris Boswell started the season in a slump, worked his way out of it for the most part, but he’s back to missing kicks again. Boswell missed a kick in the first half, then slipped and missed what could have been the game winner.

  • Mike Tomlin now has a kicker quandary on his hands.

The Steelers invested big money in Boswell during the off season and for both financial, and perhaps football purposes cutting him outright would be imprudent.

  • But the Steelers can’t trust Chris Boswell now nor will they be able to trust him for the balance of 2018.

Can the Steelers find a competent replacement kicker and allow Boswell to mysteriously have pulled a muscle because of his slip so he can go on IR? That’s not a decision you want to make, but the fact is, if Chris Boswell makes either kick, neither the Steelers coaching mistakes nor their offensive and defensive failures matter.

Steelers Don’t Deserve Playoffs

Eight days ago the Steelers still had a shot at an AFC playoff bye. Now the Steelers playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. Yet, as a friend reminded me, the Baltimore Ravens also lost, which helps the Steelers cause.

But does that really matter?

No it doesn’t. When you lose to a 2-10 team in mid-December you quite simply don’t deserve to make the playoffs. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

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Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

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

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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Steelers Still Have Shot At AFC’s No. 3 Seed, and That’s A Worthy Prize

The Steelers pretty much blew their last realistic chance at earning one of the AFC’s top seeds and the accompanying bye with their late implosion in a 33-30 loss to the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

With a month to go in the season, the Steelers (7-4-1) trail both the Texans (9-3) and Patriots (9-3) in the race for at least the number two seed (I think it’s safe to forget about the top overall seed, what with the Chiefs (10-2) showing no real signs of slowing down).

Pittsburgh is reeling a bit after two-straight defeats, and with the Ravens breathing down their necks, only a half-a-game out of first place in the AFC North, just as many people are worried about the Black and Gold making the playoffs at all, as they are about seeding.

  • As for those worried about seeding, most have already accepted the reality of  the No. 4 seed and a first-round rematch with the Chargers at Heinz Field.

But while a one-and-a-half deficit in the standings with four weeks left is a rather large one to overcome, especially when you’re chasing two teams, it’s not totally impossible when you still have one of those teams remaining on your schedule.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds sacks Philip Rivers in Steelers 2018 loss to Chargers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClarie, USA Today via MSN.com

That team would be New England, who comes to town in less than two weeks for yet another mid-December showdown to determine AFC playoff positioning.

Let’s say both the Steelers and Patriots hold serve this week (with Pittsburgh traveling to Oakland to take on a very bad Raiders team, holding serve is the only acceptable outcome), New England would arrive at Heinz Field with the same one-and-a-half game lead on December 16.

  • If Pittsburgh can do something it hasn’t done in seven years and defeat the Patriots, that would obviously shrink the deficit down to one half of one game.

From that point on, it’s a matter of New England stumbling one more time and the Steelers winning-out in-order to earn that third seed.

You might say, “Big deal. What’s the difference between the third and fourth seed?” To that, I say, “There’s a big difference–at least this season.” Assuming everything stays the same–both the Chiefs and the Texans remain hot and lock up the first and second seed, respectively–the Steelers would take on the sixth seed in the wildcard round–the way things stand now, their opponent could be one of five contenders: the Ravens, Broncos, Titans, Colts or Dolphins.

That’s a heck of a lot more attractive of an option than the prospect of Philip Rivers and Co. riding into town on a lightning bolt of confidence after storming back from a 16-point deficit to win the regular season match-up on December 2.

  • Let the Patriots deal with the those red-hot and very-capable Chargers in the four vs. five wildcard match-up.

Back to the Steelers.

If Pittsburgh handles its business in Round 1, it’s off to Houston to take on the Texans in Round 2. Yeah, sure, you’d have to face Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and a bunch of other hungry Texans just chomping at the bit to make it to their first AFC title game. But while Watson is one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, while T.J. Watts older brother is one of the game’s most feared defenders, while Hopkins would present a match-up nightmare for a secondary that often wakes up in a cold sweat, none of those guys are Tom Brady.

I rest my case.

I’d say a postseason route that includes taking on the last seed in the wildcard round and the Texans in the divisional round seems a lot more manageable than having to deal with a couple of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks….just to make it to the conference championship round.

  • No, a number three seed isn’t nearly as coveted as a bye, but it isn’t chopped liver, either.

As they try to hang on and win their third-straight AFC North title, it would be in the Steelers’ best interest to understand there really is a huge difference between a third seed and a fourth seed when it comes to mapping out a route for Super Bowl LIII.

 

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James Conner’s Injury Puts Steelers Success Squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s Shoulders

Cue the “tape” from past posts, but this is one time when a blogger begs to be wrong. The injury that James Conner suffered against the Chargers is worse than expected, and Mike Tomlin has already ruled out Conner for the Raiders game.

In early September, Jaylen Samuels‘ roster spot was seen as somewhat of a luxury pending the return of Le’Veon Bell will likely start for the Steelers this Sunday in Oakland’s Black Hole. Stevan Ridley will back him up, with Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds’ brother, joining the active roster from the practice squad.

Coming off of a two game losing streak, this is the last thing the Steelers need.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner

Ben Roethlisberger hands off James Conner. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Lockhaven.com

Steelers Success Now Rests with Roethlisberger

The irony here is that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichnter may very well have been trying to avoid this situation.

Three years ago with Le’Veon Bell out and DeAngelo Williams carrying the load, Tomlin was asked if he would try to work Jordan Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint into the lineup to prepare them. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, arguing that such a move might backfire if production suffered.

  • Well, DeAngelo Williams did get injured, and the Steelers started Todman and Toussaint in the playoffs.

As noted in our review of the meltdown against the Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger has now thrown 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. James Conner has touched the ball less than 20 times in 4 out of those same 5 games.

While Steel Curtain Rising has exactly ZERO inside information to back this up, this shift happened just as it was becoming clear that Le’Veon Bell was going to sit out the entire year. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have been trying to reduce Conner’s work load by passing more.

  • How does the saying about “Best intentions of Mice and Men” go?

While Jaylen Sammuels has shown promise, he’s never been a number one back before.

Mike Tomlin talked about taking a running back by committee approach, but the fact is that the success of the Steelers offense rests squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington.

One of the takeaways from the Chargers game should have been that the Steelers needed a more balanced approach on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger seems to be trying to do too much. Now the Steelers have no choice but to air it out.

Steelers Shuffle Roster Due to Injuries

Up until now, the Steelers 2018 roster has been fairly stable with very few in season moves. That changed today as the Steelers put Justin Hunter on injured reserve making room for Trey Edmunds.

Not taking any chances, the Steelers signed former New England Patriots running back Ralph Webb to their practice squad and cut linebacker Farrington Huguenin.

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Steelers Report Card for Meltdown to Chargers – Tripping Instead of Leaning In Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher depressed to see his students tripping instead of leaning in as the finish line approaches, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the meltdown against the Chargers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Justin Jones, Joey Bose, Steelers vs Chargers

Justin Jones & Joey Bose sack Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Nowak, Chargers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s stat line of 19-45 for 281 for 2 TD’s and 1 pick looks respectable. And the Steelers signal caller looked sharp at times. Yet his interception was costly and likely took points off the board. He also failed to connect with an open WR, although the WR may be responsible, nonetheless that also took points off the board. That brings Ben below the line. Grade: D

Running Backs
James Conner had two touchdowns and 60 yards on 15 carries including a long run and a key 4th down conversion. Roosevelt Nix looked strong blocking. Jaylen Samuels had two carries for 5 yards and looked good scoring Pittsburgh’s last touchdown through the air. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s Gronk, but he can catch tough passes over the middle, more importantly, he can move DB’s to gain extra yards. Jesse James had one catch for 7 yards and blocked well. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
The WiFi was on as Antonio Brown looked every bit the Steelers number one wide receiver as he caught 10 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.  JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quieter night, going 6 for 49. Ryan Switzer had two catches for 9 yards and Justin Hunter got open for a sure TD that he either under ran or Roethlisberger over threw. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Running backs had room to run. Ben Roethlisberger had a ridiculous amount of time to throw on many occasions. The Los Angeles Chargers only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and only touched him 2 other times. But on the first series of the 4th quarter a holding call put the Steelers back, followed by a sack, which in turn set up a punt return for a touchdown. On this page, grades are earned based on performance and results. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave got the only pressure of the second half with his sack of Philip Rivers. Stephon Tuitt deflected a pass forcing a punt early on. Cam Heyward got pressure in the first half. However, the pressure was absent in the 2nd half, and Justin Jackson broke through to the second level too many times during the meltdown. Grade: D

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, L.J. Fort, Steelers vs Chargers

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and L.J. Fort gang tackle. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
L.J. Fort played for most of the night and led the team in tackles. Vince Williams was next. T.J. Watt got some good pressure in the first half. Bud Dupree played injured, splitting time with Anthony Chickillo and Ola Adeniyi. The linebackers had a lot of responsibility and to their credit the Chargers got very few after catch yards. They made some strong plays in the first half, but couldn’t come up with a big play in the second half. Grade: C-

Secondary
Philip Rivers is as hot as a quarterback can be right now, and the defense contained him in the first half, not so much in the second half. Terrell Edmunds had some nice plays and made the only splash play of the night for the defense. Joe Haden would have had an interception in the end zone but got KOed by Sean Davis instead. That could have been the difference in this game. Again, the Steelers defense needed a take away in the 2nd half and didn’t get one. Grade: D

Special Teams
Sure, the Steelers had a partially blocked punt that was nice. Jordan Berry boomed off some nice punts. But Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And the Steelers special teams seemed to commit penalties on each return.  Again.

  • And of course there’s the punt returned for a touchdown.

YES, it should have been called back and wasn’t. But that one illegal block in the back didn’t prevent the other 10 guys from not touching the returner. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Chargers

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Whenever a team suffers such a catastrophic 2nd half meltdown, the easy out is to point the finger at the coach for allowing complacency to set in.

  • The Steelers however, showed no lack of hustle or focus in the 2nd half.

No one can be accused of mailing it in. And nor can Mike Tomlin be faulted for the critical plays where officiating wasn’t at the issue. Tomlin didn’t throw the pick, miss the PAT or collide with his fellow defensive back to break up an interception.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger has now attempted over 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. While the results are not universally bad, a more balanced approach would be welcome, particularly because the Steelers have shown they can run the ball.

  • Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin need to take a long look at a run defense that suddenly seems to be gouged with double-digit yard runs with alarming regularity.

However, perhaps these last several games have revealed the truth that the 2018 Steelers defense is a unit that is capable of playing well for stretches, but one that simply doesn’t have the talent to do all it needs to do during a 60 minute football game. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Had the Steelers won, this space would consider several candidates for the award. But critical failures in all three phases contributed to the second half meltdown and trying to award an Unsung Hero Award feels a little bit too much like the pro version of giving out a participation trophy so we won’t do it here.

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Steelers 2nd Half Meltdown vs Chargers Makes Pittsburgh Look More Like Pretenders than Contenders

Good teams define themselves with December football. No hardware is awarded in December, but that is when the cream rises to the top, and teams prime themselves for championship runs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a chance to do that on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.

  • And for 30 minutes, Pittsburgh played the part of a team readying for a championship run.

Yet, 30 minutes later, something very different happened and, when it all ended, the Steelers had lost 33-30. The hard truth behind their second half meltdown may be that Pittsburgh is simply a pretender and not a contender.

Terrell Edmunds, Keenan Allen, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds fails to stop Keenan Allen on a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Open Game in Championship Form*

Everyone knew the stakes when the action started at Heinz Field Sunday night. The Steelers held a narrow lead in the AFC North, while the red hot Chargers were chasing a Wild Card slot.

  • And for 30 minutes, there was no doubt as to which team was stepping up.

The Steelers wasted little time starting the fireworks, as Ben Roethlisberger struck Antonio Brown on a 46 yard pass that ended at the one. One play later and James Conner put Pittsburgh up by a touchdown.

On Pittsburgh’s next possession, the Chargers helped the Steelers out with a blatant pass interference penalty on Ryan Switzer. Again, this set the Steelers up for another James Conner one yard touchdown plunge.

The Chargers responded with a touchdown of their own, thanks to an uncalled false start penalty, but the Steelers responded with a field goal.

  • The Steelers closed the half with another one of their trademark 2 minute drives that included a 16 yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and another touchdown to Antonio Brown.

On the other side of the ball, Philip Rivers was completing passes, but the Steelers defense was yielding no quarter : A sack by Terrell Edmunds, a deflected pass by Stephon Tuitt, pressure from Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt along with stout coverage by L.J. Fort led to four Chargers first half punts.

  • The Steelers first half hadn’t been flawless.

But they’d left some points on the board, but they entered the locker room holding a 23-7 lead, and those missed plays looked to be little more than footnotes as another Carolina like rout appeared to be in the making….

Steelers Suffer Epic Meltdown in 2nd Half

The LA Chargers left both Steelers coaches and amateur film reviewers with a lot of tape to dissect from the worst meltdowns in franchise history. I’ll leave it to others to dig into the root causes and adjustments that the Chargers made and that the Steelers failed to counter during the implosion.

Terrell Edmunds, Justin Jackson, Steelers vs Chargers

Justin Jackson stiff arms Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers could have put the game away with a score on their opening drive, but instead had to settle for a punt plus 5 minutes burned off the clock.

  • The Chargers response was telling.

Conventional wisdom says that when you’re 16 points behind, on the road, and you’ve only got 25 minutes left on the clock, you rollout your hurry up offense. San Diego didn’t do that. Instead, they methodically moved down the field and scored a touchdown, in a drive the consumed 8 minutes.

At that pace, the Chargers didn’t seem to stand a chance of mounting a comeback, even if their defense could force the Steelers to punt, as they did.

  • But a Desmond King punt return for a touchdown changed everything for San Diego in a heartbeat.
  • After their second successful two point conversion, the Chargers had tied the game.

The Chargers responded with another touchdown to take the lead, but only after Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden taking away a near-certain Haden interception. Ben Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers for a touchdown, this time by connecting with Jaylen Sammuels, but San Diego had enough time on the clock to get in field goal position.

After three tries, thanks to Steelers special team penalties, the Chargers won it at the closing gun.

Who Not to Blame for the Loss

Citing a desire not to send any more money to New York, Mike Tomlin stopped short of blaming the officials for the loss. Others have taken up his cause.

  • An uncalled but blatant false start should have nullified the Charger’s first touchdown
  • An illegal block in the back should have nullified their second touchdown
  • The Steelers got screwed on a spot and were forced to burn a time out
  • A couple of questionable holding penalties scuttled Steelers drives in the 2nd half
  • The off sides penalty that allowed a Chargers re-kick as time expired looked questionable

Poor officiating certainly hurt the Steelers, but pointing the finger at the zebras for this loss might feel good, but it only papers over some deficiencies that Mike Tomlin and company need to address quickly.

Mirror Shows Steelers Tripping Instead of Leaning In

Bad calls are part of the game. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they do not. Some bad calls have greater impact than others, but when they do occur, good teams must stay focused to overcome those.

Poor officiating didn’t force:

  • Chris Boswell to miss an extra point
  • Ben Roethlisberger to throw an interception trying to reach Vance McDonald
  • A failed connection between Roethlisberger and a wide open Justin Hunter in the end zone

If the Steelers make two out of those three plays, they have the points they need to win the game.

And all of those plays came in the first half, when the Steelers were playing well. Bad calls didn’t keep Philip Rivers clean, as Javon Hargrave’s sack seemed to be the only time the Steelers defense touched him in the 2nd half.

Poor officiating also didn’t allow Justin Jackson to run rampant in the Steelers secondary throughout the second half with runs of 18, 19, 18, and 11 yards. There were any number of occasions in the 2nd half when a sack, a forced fumble, or an interception would have shifted momentum back to the Steelers.

  • Yet, the Steelers defense failed to make a play.

December football is the time when true championship contenders “lean in” towards the finish line. Against the Chargers the Steelers started by leaning in, only to trip over their own two feet.

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.
James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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Steelers Activate Ola Adeniyi, Cut Matthew Thomas

Heading into their critical Sunday night show down with the San Diego er um, Los Angeles Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers made personnel moves, one expected, the other a bit of a surprise.

  • First, the Steelers have activated outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi off of injured reseve.

This move was expected. Bud Dupree’s participation in practice was limited this week, and T.J. Watt also suffered a minor injury in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. Anthony Chickillo also suffered some sort of ankle injury in the Steelers win against the Chargers, although he has practiced since then.

  • So it was not a surprise to see the Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi off of the injured reserve list.

During the preseason Ola Adeniyi, whose full name is Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, was one of the stand out players for the Steelers defense as he recorded 3 sacks, and was a regular presence in the offensive backfield.

Ola Adeniyi, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi

Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi for Chargers game. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

However, their move to make room for Ola Adeniyi does count as a bit of a surprise, as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert chose to wave inside linebacker Matthew Thomas. Matthew Thomas joined the Steelers as part of their 2018 undrafted rookie free agent class, and had a stand out effort in preseason.

In fact, just prior to the opener, Jim Wexell reported some Steelers coaches were considering the possibility that Matthew Thomas could be splitting time with starters Vince Williams and Jon Bostic by the end of the season.

That role for Matthew Thomas never materialized, as the Steelers have turned to L.J. Fort as their primary backup at inside linebacker. The Steelers can of course resign Matthew Thomas to their practice squad, but he would have to clear waivers first.

Other Steelers News Heading into Chargers Game

In other injury-related news, safety Morgan Burnett is also likely out against the Chargers, paving the way for rookie Marcus Allen to see his first playing time of the year taking over the role of dime linebacker.

Starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out leaving Ben Roethlisberger’s protection in capable hands of either Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor. Cornerback Cameron Sutton is listed as questionable.

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