If Steelers = “Team Turmoil” Then 26-6 Over 2 Year Period Means Pittsburgh Needs More “Turmoil”

On November 13, 2016, the Steelers lost a last-second heartbreaker to the Cowboys at Heinz Field. The loss was not only heartbreaking, it appeared to be backbreaking, as it left the team at 4-5 and without its defensive leader–defensive end Cam Heyward was lost for the rest of season with a pectoral injury.

It was Pittsburgh’s fourth-straight defeat, one that had many wondering if the services of head coach Mike Tomlin should be retained beyond the 2016 campaign.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that period in team history was the darkness before the dawn.

Mike Tomlin, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward

Mike Tomlin and Cam Heyward on the South Side. Photo Credit: PennLive.come

That loss to Dallas sparked an unexpected turnaround that saw the Steelers win their final seven regular season game to clinch the AFC North. They won two more games in the postseason to advance all the way to the AFC Championship Game against, who else? The Patriots at, where else? Gillette Stadium.

The Steelers nine-game winning-streak came to a resounding halt that afternoon amid a 36-17 defeat that, afterward, had everyone questioning the team’s game-plan and ability to adapt.

Unfortunately, the Steelers were unable to get over the hump again in 2017 and even bowed out of the playoffs a week earlier–a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the divisional round.

Despite finishing with a 13-3 regular season record, many again wondered if Mike Tomlin was the man to lead the Steelers organization on the field moving forward. In fact, there were rumors that Pittsburgh’s minority owners were going to demand the 11-year head coach be relieved of his duties after the loss to Jacksonville.

Preposterous? Ridiculous? Idiotic? An overreaction? No doubt all of those things, but those minority owners–if the rumors were indeed true–were reacting no differently than many other people–including the media and the fans–regarding the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Winning championships is all the Steelers and their fans are about. It’s expected. It’s demanded. Therefore, when the organization goes a decade without its next Lombardi trophy, people are going to want to get their pound of flesh.

It’s bad enough to not get the job done on the football field, but when it’s believed that one of the reasons is because the head coach has no control over his players off the field, that emboldens folks even more to want change, to demand that heads–especially the one belonging to the head coach–roll.

2017 was perceived by many as an ongoing distraction, with the headliners such as Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and even Tomlin, himself, leading the way. Whether it was a holdout, a Tweet or a cryptic message about early retirement, the Steelers just couldn’t stay away from the 24/7 news-cycle.

  • They were dubbed Team Turmoil by many, a locker room in constant chaos.

That sentiment carried over to this season, as the holdouts, salty interviews about the holdouts, Tweets and other such distractions continued.

  • But were they ever truly distractions? Were the Steelers ever truly a team in turmoil?

I say this because the Steelers have played 32 regular season games since that infamous meltdown against the Cowboys two Novembers ago, and they’ve won 26 of them. That’s right, 26 victories in a 32-game span.

Furthermore, Pittsburgh has a record of 14-1-1 over its last 16 road games. Think about that. Think about all that goes into playing a football game away from home, and how most teams are at an inherent disadvantage. Yet, the Steelers have only suffered one defeat in their last 16 games away from Heinz Field.

Could it be that Tomlin really is sincere about his familiar refrain of not paying attention to outside noise? Could it be that his players follow suit with that line of thinking? Could it be that we, meaning the fans and the media, care more about Tweets and holdouts than do the people truly entrusted with winning football games for the Steelers?

Could it be that the Steelers, while far from perfect, have a more buttoned up operation than we’d like to give them credit for? Could be it that the man in charge of having his team ready to win really is very good at his job?

The NFL is a tough business, and if the Steelers locker room really was one run amok, I doubt they’d be as consistent on the football field as they’ve been the past two seasons. Every team has talent, but it takes so much more than that to win on a regular basis.

If the Steelers really were a team in constant turmoil, we’d know it by the negative results on the football field.

However, the Steelers results have mostly been positive, a sign that things have always been going in the right direction.

 

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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James Conner Dominates in Steelers 33-18 Win Over Browns At Heinz Field

Running back James Conner rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, as the Steelers quickly shook off their post-bye rust in a 33-18 victory over the Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

  • Cleveland’s first offensive possession resulted in a game’s first points, after an 11-play, 66-yard drive culminated in a 3-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.

Pittsburgh’s offense, meanwhile, netted just seven yards on its first three offensive possessions–including two punts and an interception by Browns’ safety Derrick Kindred. But the Steelers offense wouldn’t stay down for long.

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner stiff arms Myles Garrett during 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Following a 41-yard field goal miss from Joseph early in the second quarter that would have given Cleveland a 9-0 lead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with receiver Antonio Brown on a 43-yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-6.

On Cleveland’s ensuing drive, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was intercepted by cornerback Joe Haden at the Pittsburgh 13.

The Steelers offense went back to work on a 16-play, 87-yard drive that ate up 7:12 of game clock and resulted in a second-straight scoring connection from Roethlisberger to Brown–this time for one yard–and the home team took a 14-6 lead into halftime.

The Steelers got the ball to start the second half and looked poised to take control of the football game on an impressive drive into Cleveland territory. However, on second and 10 from the Browns’ 25, Roethlsiberger found running back Stevan Ridley on a short pass to the 22, and Ridley was stripped of the football by cornerback Denzel Ward, who recovered the fumble and returned it to the 29.

The two teams would then exchange punts, and one play after Jordan Berry‘s boot was downed at the Cleveland five-yard line, Browns’ left tackle Desmond Harrison was flagged for holding Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Since the infraction took place in the end zone, Pittsburgh was awarded a safety and a 16-6 lead.

But just when it looked as if the home team would seize command of things, there appeared to be great confusion on the ensuing free kick, as the return unit treated it as if it was a punt, allowing the Browns to recover at the Pittsburgh 24.

  • Four plays later, the Browns made it 16-12, thanks to a one-yard hook-up from Mayfield to Antonio Callaway.
  • The Steelers answered right back with a five-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 23-12.

From there, it was all Pittsburgh, as Conner proved to be a workhorse on the day, and helped put the finishing touches on a thorough victory, with a 22-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 33-12 lead right before the two-minute warning.

  • James Conner averaged 6.1 yards per carry and added another 66 yards on five receptions.
  • As for Ben Roethlisberger, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Brown was Pittsburgh’s leading  receiver on the day, totally 74 yards on six receptions and the two touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger.

The win improved the Steelers record to 4-2-1, and they have a road date with the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

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The Steelers’ Offensive Line Is Playing In The Zone Right Now

Through the first four games of the 2018 regular season, it was factual to say that the Steelers highly-touted and highly-decorated offensive line wasn’t performing up to its usual standards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was often under the proverbial gun and faced more pressure than he probably had become accustomed to in recent years, once the big guys up front became one of the most formidable units in all of football.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

The Steelers offensive line is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

One month into the season, Roethlisberger had already been sacked nine times, a number that put him on pace for 36 for the year. While such a sack total still wouldn’t have approached the ridiculous number of times Roethlisberger was taken to the turf in the days before the likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro came on the scene, it certainly would have far-surpassed the average of 22.75 sacks No. 7 had absorbed per year since 2014.

  • And then there was the ground game, which seemed to go on sabbatical in the three weeks after second-year running back James Conner rushed for 135 yards in a Week 1 tie with the Browns.

After his magnificent performance in Cleveland, Conner combined for a mere 97 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Ravens, respectively. Sure, you can say the Steelers faced large deficits in two of those games–they fell behind by a combined score of 35-0 in the first quarter of home losses to Kansas City and Baltimore–which necessitated a heavy dose of passing. But the fact of the matter was, Pittsburgh’s hogs got whipped at the line of scrimmage more often than not during that three-week period.

  • But while we’re stating facts, it is worth noting that the Steelers’ offensive line was a bit compromised due to injury over the first month of the season.

Veteran left guard Ramon Foster missed the vast-majority of training camp with a sprained knee and surely wasn’t at full-speed at the start of the regular season. Meanwhile, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro, two of the highest ranked players at their respective positions, missed a combined three games due to injuries.

Like every other portion of the Steelers’ 53-man roster, I guess the offensive linemen–as formidable as they may have been–couldn’t escape the bumps, bruises and lackluster play that was thematic of the first four weeks of the 2018 regular season.

But as we sit here today, those first four weeks seem like a distant memory for the 3-2-1 Steelers, especially for an offensive line that has seemingly taken its play and its reputation to a whole new level.

  • How’s the pass protection been?

In the past two games–both impressive and important victories over the Falcons and Bengals, respectively–Roethlisberger has dropped back to pass a combined 75 times without being sacked once.

  • Forget sacks, he’s barely been touched, while passing for a total of 619 yards and five touchdowns.

How about that ground game?

James Conner has combined for 221 rushing yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry in the process.

If you wish, you can talk about the Falcons’ defense and how it was decimated by injuries prior to its arrival at Heinz Field on October 7. But you can’t say the same thing about a Bengals’ defense that arrived at Paul Brown Stadium this past Sunday equipped with a front-seven that included Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict.

  • The Steelers’ offensive line didn’t just dominate the decimated the past two weeks. It dominated the dominant.

The Steelers’ offensive line is, again, highly-decorated, highly-touted and, as Pouncey showed when he pulled all the way from the center position over to the right edge to throw the key block on Conner’s 26-yard run against the Bengals on Sunday, highly-capable.

The Steelers’ offensive line is also in the zone. If it can stay there for the remainder of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh’s offense–and the entire team–will be pretty hard to dominate.

.

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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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Steelers vs Falcons Week 5 Preview: Pittsburgh At a Crossroads as Atlanta Arrives at Heinz Field

Over the previous four years in-which the Steelers ultimately reached the playoffs — including three where they were AFC North champions — they encountered some rough turbulence at some point during the regular season.

As Pittsburgh prepares for the Falcons to come to town for a 1 p.m. clash at Heinz Field on this afternoon, it, again, is having a rough time of it. At 1-2-1 after four games, it appears the Steelers’ season has already hit a fork in the road.

  • Which route will they take?

Will they take the path many predicted before the start of the season, a path that leads them straight to the postseason for a fifth-straight year? Or will they take the direction that continues them down the road of self-destruction and the first sub-.500 record during the Mike Tomlin head coaching regime?

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

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

If I had to bet money, I’d say the Steelers will win impressively on Sunday against an equally-struggling Falcons team and, at least temporarily, take the more desirable route. But, then again, this adversity has hit everyone — coaches, players and fans – -like an unexpected round-house kick to the temple.

  • Unlike those aforementioned previous seasons that included adversity and strife, I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the struggles of  2018.

When the team was coming through a two-year transition phase, like in 2014, you were prepared for some turbulence. In-fact, Pittsburgh’s AFC North crown was a bit of a surprise four years ago, after the team missed the playoffs the previous two campaigns and was 3-3 after six games.

When the Steelers were hit with a rash of injuries–including the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a combined four games in 2015 and 2016–you weren’t surprised by the struggles and even the mediocre (or worse) records late into both seasons.

  • But, again, who was prepared for the start to 2018?
  • Who was prepared for all the turmoil?
  • Who was prepared for the on-going struggles of Roethlisberger?

Who would have thought Ben Roethlisberger and superstar receiver Antonio Brown would suddenly lose their almost magnetic connection and on-field chemistry?

Yeah, maybe the failure of disgruntled star running back Le’Veon Bell to report to the team for the first regular season game threw everyone for a loop. But with such a decorated and prideful offensive line, did anyone think the lack of a constant running game would become such a harsh reality?

Maybe you were prepared for the struggles of the defense. But were you prepared for the level of incompetence we’ve seen through four weeks, especially the two losses at Heinz Field, in-which the Steelers were down a combined 35-0 before the start of the second quarter?

  • Were you prepared for the lifeless and listless pass rush? How about the hopeless pass defense?

This is a start to a season in-which you really can’t place the blame on unfortunate circumstances. You can’t point to injuries. You can’t point to bad luck.

This is all mostly on a lack of execution and, if we’re being honest, perhaps a little less talent than many realized the Steelers possessed.

But, as I’ve already stated, the Steelers have been in this position before in recent years, and they’ve always come out of it smelling pretty rosy.

  • Can Mike Tomlin work his magic so that Pittsburgh pulls it off again?

If the Steelers are who we thought they were at the beginning of the 2018 campaign, the time to start showing it is this afternoon against the Atlanta Falcons.

 

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How Key Is Joe Haden to Steelers? He’s the Glue Holding Pittsburgh’s Secondary Together

Is Joe Haden a true shutdown cornerback in today’s NFL?

I don’t know what criteria one needs to be labeled as such, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s what Joe Haden does for the Steelers’ secondary, a unit that has already had more ups and downs through three weeks of the 2018 regular season than a drive through Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.

In a Week 1 tie with the Browns on September 9, the Steelers’ defense yielded just 150 yards through the air and recorded 10 passes defensed.

  • Joe Haden recorded one of  them on a nice break-up in the end zone.

Unfortunately, Joe Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and sat out the Week 2 match-up with the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Haden’s loss wasn’t just unfortunate in theory, it was unfortunate in application, as Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s young quarterback, torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss that dropped the Steelers to 0-1-1.

Joe Haden,

Joe Haden is the glue holding Steelers secondary together. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Totday

Pittsburgh’s secondary looked so helpless in the game, it not only failed to record a single pass defensed (defensive end Stephon Tuitt posted the only one on the day on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage), players like Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds spent the majority of the afternoon either totally confused or mostly out of position.

  • After the Kansas City disaster, the confidence in the Steelers’ defense was perhaps lower than it had been since the departure of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

As I said, however, the early portion of the 2018 campaign has been one crazy roller coaster ride for the  secondary; eight days later, in a Monday night match-up with the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Haden returned and so did his great influence on the pass defense.

No, the unit didn’t necessarily look great, as Artie Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh took turns in the Tampa area burn unit, thanks to the plethora of big plays they allowed. However, there was the first half of the game that included four takeaways on four straight possessions. The secondary was responsible for three of those turnovers, as Mike Hilton tallied a fumble recovery and an interception, respectively, while Terrell Edmunds recorded an interception.

What about Joe Haden, the man with the 4.5 speed tasked mostly with covering receiver DeSean Jackson, he of the 4.3 40 time? The veteran corner not only recorded three of the Steelers’ 13 passes defensed, he limited Jackson, who came into the night with nine receptions for 275 yards on the season, to just three catches for 37 yards.

  • How did Joe Haden limit such a potent threat in DeSean Jackson?

I’m no expert, but I’m guessing great technique and veteran savvy had a lot to do with it. As for the technique part, perhaps Haden can spread his influence to Burns, who is obviously younger and a step or so faster.

Regardless of how Burns influences the individual members of the Steelers’ secondary, again, there’s no question the impact he has on it as a whole.

  • Ryan Shazier is said to have been the most important member of the Steelers’ defense.

And it doesn’t take a football Ph.D to know that the Steelers defense hasn’t fully recovered since he suffered that frightful spinal injury against the Bengals late last season.

But Joe Haden was also lost for several weeks in 2017, and it’s clearly no coincidence that it was during this time that the defense was victimized by the big play to the tune of a 46 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play and this stat comes from before Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion.

So, is Joe Haden a shutdown corner? Who cares? He’s a damn good one, and the Steelers defense is better with him in the lineup.

 

 

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Recent AFC Trends Suggest Steelers Aren’t Among Conference’s Best

No matter how people broke things down or what record they may have predicted heading into the 2018 regular season, there’s no question the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were considered Super Bowl contenders.

Even after an 0-1-1 start that includes a tie with the Browns and loss to the Chiefs in-which the Steelers defense was totally embarrassed by Patrick Mahomes, it would be foolish to give up on a true Super Bowl contender this early in the year.

  • But that would only be if we’re talking about a true contender, something recent trends suggest the Steelers are not.

Why do I say that? Because the Steelers have lost three straight games–all at home–to teams that are among the best the AFC has to offer.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

The first loss came last December 17, when the Patriots stunned Pittsburgh with a 27-24 victory that many thought was a miscarriage of justice, thanks to the controversial reversal of a Jesse James touchdown with just seconds remaining.

Had Jesse James touchdown stood, it would have likely given the Steelers a 31-27 victory and the inside track to capture the AFC’s top seed. OK, if the reversal of the Jesse James’ touchdown indeed was a miscarriage of justice, how can I hold that against Mike Tomlin and Co.?

Because Mike Tomlin, former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to panic (or at least failed to communicate properly) during the sequence of plays that followed the reversal, and Roethlisberger wound up throwing an ill-advised pass that was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

  • There’s no way that game should have ended in regulation.

To make things brief, I will just combine the last two games that saw the Steelers defense yield a grand total of 827 yards and 80 points in back-to-back losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs.

The loss to Jacksonville last January 14 came in a playoff game at Heinz Field and put an end to a 2017 campaign in-which the Steelers, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, appeared to be destined for a rematch with New England in the AFC Championship game.

As for Week 2’s defeat to Kansas City, the performance of the defense was so alarming, it made one absolutely dread the regular season rematch with the Patriots this December at Heinz Field.

  • As I said, it is really early, and the Steelers wouldn’t be the first team to start a season slowly before showing its true championship colors.

However, 2017, one in-which they struggled to defeat some of the more mediocre teams in the NFL on a weekly basis, often needing kicker Chris Boswell to bail them out with game-winning field goals in the final seconds, may have been the true colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers–maybe it just took the top contenders in the AFC to flesh them out.

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Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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James Conner’s Fumble Hurt, But Not as Badly as Other Steelers Turnovers 21-21 Tie with Browns

If there’s one positive to take away from the Steelers very disappointing 21-21 Week 1 tie with the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, it’s that James Conner isn’t receiving the lion’s share of the blame.

Perhaps, if he were another running back, such as the one he started in-place of–superstar Le’Veon Bell, who continues to sit out rather than sign the $14.5 million franchise tag–Conner would be more susceptible to criticism.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

After all, when a team is up by two touchdowns and in possession of the football midway through the fourth quarter, the offense is supposed to grind the clock out and go home with a win. And when you can point to a fumble by a running back that jump-started the comeback, why wouldn’t that running back be the goat?

While it is true that James Conner’s fumble, which tarnished an otherwise awesome day in-which he tallied 192 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, was the life-preserver that prevented the Browns from drowning in a game-long downpour, you can also point to some very egregious turnovers earlier in the game that, had the offense executed like the juggernaut it’s supposed to be, could have made Conner’s gaffe meaningless.

For example, how about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 15-year veteran, the future Hall of Famer, the two-time Super Bowl-champion, throwing into triple-coverage and getting intercepted by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward late in the first quarter of what was then a scoreless game?

Following a 27-yard connection to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster one play earlier, Pittsburgh had a first and 10 from the Browns’ 18-yard line and looked poised to get on the board first.

Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger, who has always been known as a gunslinger, wanted to make Antonio Brown his very next connection, hence the ill-advised throw into triple-coverage.

Moving on to late in the second quarter. The Steelers had a 7-0 lead and were on the positive side of the 50-yard line in-search of an even bigger lead before halftime.

Following an incomplete pass, Pittsburgh faced a second and 10 from the Cleveland 37-yard line. During his usual pre-snap maneuverings, Roethlisberger motioned for Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James to switch positions. Roethlisberger quickly found a wide-open James with a short pass that went right through his hands and into Ward’s for his second interception of the half.

  • Like Roethlisberger’s first interception, the Browns failed to capitalize with points, but they once again prevented Pittsburgh from scoring any.
  • That’s two interceptions that potentially wiped out anywhere from three to 14 points for the Steelers.

For the day, the Steelers committed six turnovers, with James Conner’s being the only one that led to points by Cleveland. Again, that makes him an easy target to blame.

But as some critics liked to remind us last December when the Steelers were denied a touchdown against the Patriots thanks to a replay reversal, there are many plays throughout the course of a game that help to shape the outcome.

James Conner had a hand in the Steelers losing a two-touchdown lead, but Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James also made sure Pittsburgh’s fourth quarter advantage wasn’t much, much bigger.

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