Taken from the grade book of a teacher who remains incredibly proud that his star pupils mastered the critical life lesson of never quitting, not even at the bitter end, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
This will be remembered as the game where Ben Roethlisberger took the field with a separated shoulder and went so far as to adjust his throwing motion to lead his team down the field with about 1:23 remaining. An so it should.
- Roethlisberger’s performance was nothing short of heroic.
Still, Ben Roethlisberger played 3 quarters prior to his injury, and while he left the Steelers with a 15 point lead, the offense only scored one touchdown. In 3 series, Landry Jones helped reinforce the case for bringing back Bruce Gradkowski, and unfortunately Jones brings the grade for the quarterbacks down. Grade: B+
If, prior to the season someone had said, “The Pittsburgh Steelers will play on the road in the Wild Card vs. an AFC North team, and their backfield will account for 183 all purpose yards,” you surely would have thought that Le’Veon Bell recaptured his 2014 form and entered the playoffs in full health. If you’d know Bell would be injured, you’d have thought “DeAngelo Williams had something left in the tank, and maybe Dri Archer made a sophomore leap.” If that someone had said that those rushing numbers had been authored by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman you never would known they were smoking crack.
- But believe it now.
Toussaint and Todman ran with power and authority on a night when torrential rains slowed the Steelers aerial assault. Toussaint also proved he’s a viable target out of the backfield. Clearly these men earned their stripes as Steelers. Grade: A
Antonio Brown lead the Steelers with seven catches on 119 yards and played an excellent game before being taken out by an illegal hit to the head from Vontaze Burfict. The week opened with Ben Roethlisberger challenging Martavis Bryant, and Bryant answered the call. Bryant’s stat line of 29 of 5 on six targets for one TD might not look like much, but his end zone catch revealed incredible concentration. Bryant also looked freakishly good on a 40 yard reverse. Markus Wheaton had 23 yards on 2 catches but he also committed a costly fumble. Grade: A-
It was a surprisingly quiet night for Heath Miller, who’d owned the Bengals in the Steelers previous two meetings, who had 2 catches for 9 yards on 3 targets in this Wild Card victory. When Miller is involved so little in the passing game that’s usually an indication that he’s been kept back to block. Neither of the Steelers other two tight ends were targeted. Grade: B
While Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman deserve every bit of credit and attention their performance earned them, the Steelers offensive line opened up some gaping holes for their running backs and they blocked Bryant’s reverse perfectly. The Steelers did give up four sacks, which isn’t good but overall protection of the quarterback was solid. Grade: B
Looking at the stat sheet, one is tempted to say “The Bengals should have run more,” but if you take out Jeremy Hill’s 38 yard run, the Steelers completely stuffed Cincinnati’s running game. Stephon Tuitt led the Steelers defensive lineman with 4 tackles, followed by Cameron Heyward who had a sack, and Steve McLendon registered one tackle. Cam Thomas also had two tackles while notching a key fumble. This was a strong night for the defensive line. Grade: A-
Next time the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pass over a player who might fill a “need” to take draft someone they think can be special, remember the game that Ryan Shazier had. Shazier led the Steelers with 13 tackles, 2 of which went for losses, 2 passes defensed and one hit of A.J. McCarron. But that doesn’t do him credit. Ryan Shazier forced one Bengals fumble (and was robbed of a touchdown) that ended a probable scoring drive. And of course he forced the fumble in with 1:30 left to play that gave the Steelers one final chance.
Jarvis Jones forced the fumble that set up the Steelers third field goal, while Arthur Moats led the Steelers outside linebackers with 5 tackles, followed by James Harrison who had four plus a sack. Lawrence Timmons had four tackles as well and played well. Grade: A
The much maligned Antwon Blake came down with an interception that got the ball back after Wheaton’s fumble, and set up the Steelers first field goal. William Gay gave up his first touchdown of the season, but led defensive backs with 5 tackles. Ross Cockrell recovered the final fumble of the game. The Steelers secondary’s play wasn’t flawless, but they held A.J. Green in check and got the Bengals off the field on third downs for most of the night. They also secured turnovers when they had to. Grade: B+
Markus Wheaton doesn’t look like he “has it” as a kick returner, but he only fielded one return. Antonio Brown did not make much noise as a kick returner. The Steelers coverage units were shaky, allowing Cincinnati both long kick and punt returns, to wit a 24 yard punt return helped set up the Bengals go ahead touchdown.
- These negatives are real, and must not be repeated in Denver.
But the Steelers special teams grade for the Wild Card game must be balanced out by the efforts of Chris Boswell. Kicking in the AFC North in January is not easy, but Boswell was 4-4, kicking field goals of 39, 30, 34, and 35 yards in a driving rain and sleet and that was the perfection that Pittsburgh needed. Grade: B-
Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley both have a pair. The Steelers offensive backfield had a total of 22 carries entering the Wild Card game vs. Cincinnati, yet Tomlin and Haley rushed the duo 28 times and threw to Toussaint four more.
- And the game plan worked.
One can quibble about why the Steelers had to settle for field goals on two trips inside the Red Zone, but harsh weather did slow the Steelers offense. Cincinnati has a good defense, and the Steelers offensive came in with a good game plan for attacking it and the coaches had their players prepared to execute it.
Keith Butler’s defense did what they need to succeed – pressure the quarterback and secure turnovers. McCarron looked lost for most of the night, and while you can’t let the defense off the hook for allowing those 16 4th quarter points, the Steelers offense helped Bengals plenty by turning over the ball so quickly.
For all of the flack Mike Tomlin has taken over his time management, the fact is that the Steelers still had 3 timeouts left with 1:36 left to play, forcing Cincinnati to run a play.
- But that wouldn’t have mattered had the Steelers mindset and composure been different.
Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble of Jeremy Hill stands right up there with Rod Woodson’s forced fumble of Lorenzo White in the 1989 Wild Card upset at Houston, or Troy Polamalu’s interception of Joe Flacco in the 2008 AFC Championship game. All three were championship-caliber plays that combined athleticism, determination, focus and yes, a little luck, to change the course of the game.
If any sideline had the right to outrage after Roethlisberger’s final pass it was the Steelers, who’d just seen their team MVP KOed on an illegal it. Yet it was the Bengals who launched a raucous while Pittsburgh kept its cool and that cost Cincinnati dearly. Grade: A
Unsung Hero Award
Look at his stat line on ESPN, and you’ll see 3 tackles, 2 solos, and one for a loss. He’s the last of the linebackers in terms of stats, but perhaps that’s more of a reflection on how well his peers played as opposed to being a measure of his efforts. The fact is that while he didn’t record any Splash plays, Bud Dupree helpled set the tone by stuffing Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and he of kept AJ McCarron running for much of the first half, and for that Bud Dupree win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Wild Card win vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.