Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has now seen his star pupil pass the four part final qualifying exam and has great hopes for coming playoffs, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.
Ben Roethlisberger finished the season in strong form, hitting 7 different receivers, (8 if you count Maurkice Pouncey), throwing for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns. Still, Roethlisberger threw an interception that proved to be costly, and gave Cincinnati the chance to start the 4th quarter by pulling within 3. The price of such costly mistakes gets higher starting Saturday vs. the Ravens. Grade: B+
After having rugshot run over them just three weeks ago, the Bengals committed to stopping Le’Veon Bell on the ground, and they were quite successful. Bell however did his damage through the air showing he’s just as dangerous in the flat as he is between the tackles. Josh Harris got 7 yards on five carries which doesn’t looks so good, unlike the 50 plus yard burst that got called back on a penalty. Dri Archer had -1 yard on 1 carry, but he did catch two passes in two targets. Will Johnson caught one pas thrown his way. Grade: B-
Matt Spaeth was back, and he appeared to help with the blocking. That stat sheet says that Heath Miller had 3 catches on 7 targets for 41 yards. That doesn’t reflect that he again came with the ball when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B
It is hard to say enough about Antonio Brown. Yes, he did have some drops early, but once again he showed off his ability to make catch after catch, and come up with the big play when the Steelers needed him to. Newly minted Steelers rookie of the year Martavis Bryant simply catches touchdowns. Markus Wheaton might not get the ink that Brown and Bryant get, but he continues to play well. Grade: A
Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked the entire night and per ESPN’s stats, he was only hit once. That’s quite an accomplishment. Still, the Steelers struggled to run the ball, and with Bell injured the Steelers are going to need some road grading from their front five. Grade: B-
Stephon Tuitt, after a moster game, struggled against the Cincinnati line, and Jeremy Hill had success running his way. Steve McLendon had 3 tackles. Dan McCullers had 1 and Cam Thomas had 1 QB hit. A solid night vs. the defensive line, but the Steelers must play the run better vs. Baltimore in the playoffs. Grade: B-
James Harrison had a though time vs. the Bengals Andrew Whitworth who kept Silverback away from his quarterback. However, Harrison’s loss was Sean Spence’s and Jason Worild’s gain as both men had sacks, and Worilds in particularly looked strong all night. 93 is one player who is peaking at the right time. Ryan Shazier split time with both Spence and Vince Williams, and actually finished 5th in tackles on the night looking like he knew what he was doing. And of course there was Lawrence Timmons, who lead the team in total tackles with 11. Grade: A-
What do you get when you take 4 cast aways and a widely perceived under performing big free agent signing and ask them to win you a Sunday Night Football game? You get two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a hellicious (and totally legal) hit that takes out the opponents wide receiver.
Brice McCain might not remind anyone of Rod Woodson, but he now has three turnovers in two Prime Time games vs. AFC North rivals. Antwon Blake also drew blood forcing a key fumble that ended Cincinnati’s comeback. 2 decades from now few will think the words “Will Allen” when you say “Steeler safety” but no one’s talking Troy Polamalu’s absence. While the big plays fueld the Steelers victory, so did the ability of the secondary to keep the Cinncinati defenders in front of them, and deliver punishment after the catch. Just ask A.J. Green. Grade: A+
Antonio Brown’s punt return was a thing of beauty and, while forgotten, a key difference maker in the game. While a special teams touchdown normally leads to an “A” in the Steelers Report Card, Brad Wing’s interception on the fake punt was costly. He’s paid to kick not throw, but still must deliver. Markus Wheaton is not flashing signs of being the next Mel Gray, but his returns getting more respectable by the week. Coverage units were strong, although Cincinnati had one 29 yard return. Shaun Suisham was 2-2 kicking field goals and 3-3 on extra points. That’s 7 points in a 10 point game. Grade: B-
Credit Dick LeBeau for coaching getting his players to execute on tackling after the catch. The Steelers defense delivered, and keep Andy Dalton on his toes all night, capitalizing on his mistakes. Such play leads to good things in “January football.”
Todd Haley’s game plan was a winning one, although the Steelers running game was shut down for the second straight week. That’s not to nitpick, as his players compensated elsewhere, but he’s going to need to be creative to avoid his offense becoming too one dimensional. The Steelers offense is much more dangerous when the threat of play action is real.
The time to assess Mike Tomlin’s 2014 performance will come later – hopefully several weeks later. But the fact is that the Steelers are playing January football because they rose to the challenge of playing strong December football. Tomlin has his team playing focused, smart, and hungry. Can’t ask a coach for more than that heading into the playoffs. Grade: A
Fantasy Football owners will look at this game and rave about the exploits of Brown and Bryant and even Bell. You’ll see plenty of the former two on highlight reels, and lots of talk about the impact of losing Bell (assuming he sits.) But on the other side of the ball, there was another man who morphed into a monster getting a sack, tackle for a loss, QB hit AND a pass defense. He also came in second on the team in tackles, not an easy feat for a defensive lineman in a 3-4. For that, Cameron Heyward is Steelers Unsung Hero for win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.