From the grade book of a teacher who couches the reality that he has seen his star pupil improve in each passing week against the fact that the level of difficulty will continue to increase from week to week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Browns in Cleveland.
Is it the no huddle? Is it better pass protection? Does the no huddle lead to better pass protection? No one can say for sure. But what is doubtless is that Ben Roethlisberger has been playing better, if far from flawless, football these past three weeks. He’s taken fewer sacks and is not turning over the ball. While Ben must take responsibility for the Steelers poor third down conversion rate as well as repeated Red Zone failures, against the Browns he was an efficient, effective passer on a day when throwing the ball was not easy. Grade: B+
At some point this week commentators will quantify the Steelers lack of a 100 yard rusher and hint that Le’Veon Bell is therefore a bust. The truth is that just as higher passing totals are the new norm (400 yards passing is the new 300 yards passing) lower rushing totals of all measures are also the new norm. The Steelers set out to establish the run and even the combined efforts of Bell, Felix Jones, and Jonathan Dwyer didn’t add up to 100 yards.
Ergo they failed, right? Not quite.
While the Steelers rushing effort will do little to evoke memories of the Cowher era, let alone the heyday of the 70’s, the truth is is that the running back trio had little room to run, but on carry after carry keep their legs moving, when they were often gang tackled. This might not have been efficient, but it was effective, burning precious time off the clock and forcing Cleveland deeper into desperation mode. The running back’s contributions to the passing game should not be short-shifted either. Grade: C+
Heath Miller had five catches several of which helped sustain drives, and his blocking appeared to improve. Neither Paulson nor Palmer did anything of note. Grade: C+
It was a quieter day for the Steelers wide receivers than has been the usual of late, and only Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders had catches. However, both men made their catches count, as both came down with touchdowns, and both managed to make key third down receptions. Brown showed he can play with the best NFL corners. Grade: B+
For the first time since before the invention of the rock, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked a single time. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but what is now the Steelers starting offensive line did not allow a sack, and kept its quarterback clean in front of a tough defensive line. If that is a positive, then the poor run blocking was a negative, although it should be noted that Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is creating Cleveland’s defense in Pittsburgh’s image, and the first premise of the Steelers 3-4 is stop the run. Grade: C+
With each passing week, Cameron Heyward continues to improve, and that impact is being felt in the final results of games. Ziggy Hood, while clearly out shadowed by his fellow first round draft pick, is also playing well. Al Woods looked far better in relief of Steve McLendon that he had a right to look based on spot duty. Grade: A
Who exactly is it that says Jason Worilds was a bust, and a waste of a pick with Sean Lee on the board? Worilds might not live up to Lee, but he clearly is filling his own shoes well, registering six quarterback hits on the day — more than the rest of the Steelers defense combined. Lawrence Timmons continues to make key tackles. Vince Williams was on the field for much of the day and did little to attract attention to himself, which is perhaps for the best. Jarvis Jones played well, but has done anything to make the coaches choice between starting him or Worilds difficult. Grade: B
Three forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, two sacks and a pick six? And this is the secondary that was left for dead after the Patriots Pulverizing? William Gay had what was perhaps his best game of the season. Will Allen was attentive and made his second splash play in as may weeks. Troy Polamalu of course created two turnovers of his own and had another almost interception. The only negative on the day was Ike Taylor, who go schooled badly by Josh Gordon. Granted, some of it was garbage time glory, but a 200 yard receiver is not something the report card can write off, and it brings down the grade considerably. Grade: B
Brown had a 14 yard return which set up a score. Mat McBriar had a hot and cold day, although conditions made punting difficult. Shaun Suisham had a good day under difficult conditions. The Steelers return coverage on kickoffs was adequate. Grade: B
Whether it is because of the maturation of younger players, or the return of more experienced ones to the line up, with each week Dick LeBeau‘s defense is finding ways to make the type of splash plays that change outcomes of games in a way that simply limiting yards does not. Todd Haley’s still must find a way to coax more production in the Red Zone, but his game plan vs. the Browns cannot be faulted. While this remains an on-going challenge, Mike Tomlin has kept his players united, focused and fighting and that is both to his and the players credit. Grade: A-
Unsung Hero Award
He only caught 5 passes for 52 yards, a partly and pedestrian sums by 2013 standards. But if numbers do not lie, too often they do fail to tell the full truth. Each one of his catches went for a first down except for one. That catch of course was a touchdown. The Steelers struggled to convert time of possession on much of the day, yet they dominated in time of possession. They don’t do that if this player does deliver on those key catches, and for the Emmanuel Sanders wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers victory at Cleveland.