Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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Ryan Shazier’s Interception Against the Colts Came at Critical Moment in Steelers Win Over Indy

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, one of the first things head coach Mike Tomlin said about the young lad out of Ohio State was that he was “splash-play capable” (or whatever “Tomlinism” the coach used at that moment).

Maybe that’s why it was no surprise that Ryan Shazier made splash play after splash play in the very exciting and memorable wild card victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season–including a miraculous forced fumble in the final two minutes, which came just one play after it appeared backup quarterback Landry Jones threw the season away to villain linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Ryan Shazier, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts, Ryan Shazier interception Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception against the Colts was a clutch play that came at a critical moment. Photo Credit: Joseph C. Garza, CNIH Indiana

Which brings us to the 2017 campaign, specifically this past Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, where the Steelers were struggling mightily against a 3-6 Colts squad that came into the day having only beaten one team that had beaten other teams (the Colts other two victories came against the winless Browns and the at-the-time winless 49ers).

  • Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was essentially one Colts score away from dropping yet another road game in-which it was a very heavy favorite.

With the offense struggling once again, the Steelers defense not only needed to shut Jacoby Brissett and the rest of Indianapolis’ offense down, it needed to come up with a huge splash play that put the offense in premium field position.

  • No. 50 did just that.

With the Colts facing a third and eight from their own 13, a quick pass from Brissett bounced off  the hands of tight end Jack Doyle, before Shazier, in a Troy Polamalu-like display of otherworldly hand-and-eye coordination, quickly corralled it before being tackled at the 10.

If you were skeptical that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant et. al. would fail to parlay this gift into a touchdown, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, with the help of Vance McDonald they cashed-in to the tune of the maximum eight points and a tie game, before going on to win, 20-17, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell

Speaking of the legendary Polamalu, after he and the rest of Dick LeBeau‘s defense got old in the early-2010’s, there was a very noticeable lack of splash plays, the kind that could ultimately change the course of a game (how many times had No. 43 done so in his prime)?

It’s hard to win in the NFL without an opportunistic defense, and it’s even harder when you don’t have a player who can often come up with a clutch interception, fumble recovery or just a timely hit that forces one.

  • Ryan Shazier has a knack for doing all three, and he has done all three at crucial moments in recent Steelers history.

After a rather-impressive rebuilding of the defense under new coordinator Keith Butler, the unit is full of young, fast defenders who are capable of making a splash play at any time.

But Ryan Shazier, with his unique blend of speed and explosiveness, is often the one who makes the biggest splashes of them all.

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Hold Down the North – Steelers in AFC North Poll Position Coming out of Bye Week

Are you wearing your Pittsburgh Steelers “Hold Down the North” AFC North Division Champions T-shirt (or, if you’re in Pittsburgh, long-sleeve shirt) today?

I realize “Hold Down the North” was last year’s slogan. I also realize we’re only halfway through the 2017 campaign, and things are far from decided in this season’s version of the notoriously rugged and hotly-contested AFC North Division.

  • But are things really far from decided?

As Pittsburgh, 6-2, enjoyed its bye week on Sunday, both the Ravens and Bengals, what’s left of the competition in the division (the Browns are 0-8), lost to fall to 4-5 and 3-5, respectively.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens Christmas, Tavon Young

Steelers Antonio Brown makes a first down in Pittsburgh’s Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

What that means is the Steelers have a three-game advantage in the ever-important loss column with just a half-a-season to play (less than that for Baltimore). That’s a lot of ground to make up in such a short window, and if there’s anything the first half of the 2017 NFL campaign has taught us about the Ravens and the Bengals, it’s that they probably don’t have what it takes to make up so much ground in two months.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s a departure for the AFC North, as it’s notoriously been one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, with the winner often having to play the runner-up in either the wild card round, the divisional round or even the conference championship.

Even nine years ago, when the Steelers went 6-0 on the way to capturing their second-straight AFC North title, two of those victories were nail-biters over Baltimore, a team that would ultimately clinch a wild card spot, and then navigate its way through the first two rounds of the postseason and back to Heinz Field for the conference title game.

Yes, the Steelers vanquished Baltimore on the way to a record sixth Super Bowl title, but not without plenty of anxious moments that weren’t quite alleviated until legendary safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a fourth quarter pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and raced 43 yards for a game-sealing score.

Even Pittsburgh’s last two division titles were contentious until the bitter-end, and one could argue that the team entered the postseason each time more battle fatigued than battle ready having lost Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for stretches of those playoff runs.

You have to go all the way back Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie year in 2004, when the Steelers finished with a 15-1 regular season record and clinched the North title by early-December, to find a time when the home team had such a clear-cut edge over everyone else in the division.

Speaking of that 2008 season that saw them go undefeated in the North, with a 3-0 divisional record currently through eight games, the Steelers have set themselves up nicely to repeat history; furthermore, two of their final three divisional games are at home.

And even if they lose one game and it happens to be against the Ravens, Baltimore would have to find a way to, again, make up three games in the loss column in less than two months–and even then it would come down to a third tiebreaker, as head-to-head and division records would be out the window.

The Steelers are far-and-away the best team in the AFC North, and unlike in previous years, there doesn’t even appear to be an annoying little brother that will hang around until the end of the season (or even the playoffs) and make their lives a little uncomfortable.

The Steelers will hold down the AFC North Division again in 2017 (and everyone else in it).

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Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix Has Put the “Full” Back in Fullback in Pittsburgh

About 10 years ago, when Dan Kreider‘s best days were behind him, and Carey Davis took his place in the Steelers backfield, the fullback was seen as a dying breed in the NFL, a dinosaur on-par with the rotary phone.

  • Bruce Arians in fact, liked to insist that his offense “didn’t have a fullback.”

True enough, while Davis did actually play the fullback position, he was known more as a receiver out of the backfield and a special teams ace, than as a true chauffeur for Fast Willie Parker, the team’s top tailback in the late-2000’s. One get the feeling that Arians designating Cary Davis as a “fullback” was more of a way of humoring factions within the Steelers organization that favored the fullback.

Cary Davis was gone by 2010, and the keys to the fullback position, when they weren’t collecting dust in some drawer on the South Side, were often handed off to tight end David Johnson, who certainly needed to find a way to make himself more useful while third on the depth chart behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

  • When the situation demanded a blocker out of the backfield, Doug Legursky would also do double-duty as a fullback.

But more often than not, one-back sets were the norm on most plays, especially after all-world running back Le’Veon Bell became a star and the team’s workhorse in 2014.

  • Besides, with passing becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL, why would anyone really need a fullback anymore?

But if you’ve been following the Steelers in 2017, while Antonio Brown shows no signs of slowing, the Ben Roethlisberger of today certainly isn’t the Ben Roethlisberger of 2014. As for Martavis Bryant? Well, there’s a reason why Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant.

  • All of this translates into a reliance on Le’Veon Bell, as well as utilizing him more as a true tailback, and not as a tailback who wants to be paid like a wide-receiver.

This leads us to Roosevelt Nix, one of the Steelers 2014 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents out of Kent State, who played defensive line in college, tried to switch to linebacker in the pros, only to switch sides of the ball and become a fullback in-order to make his NFL dreams come true.

Roosevelt Nix, Rosie Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Bengals, Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix

Steelers Fulleback Roosevelt Nix paves the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rosie Nix made the Steelers in 2015; in two-plus years in Pittsburgh, he doesn’t have a  single carry to his name, with his only offensive contributions coming on a combined four receptions.

  • But Roosevelt Nix, who is also a special teams demon, seems to be relishing his role as a blocking fullback.

And he’s already started two games this season, as Pittsburgh is now opening up in more run-oriented alignments.

Obviously, one-back sets and hand-offs to Le’Veon Bell out of the shotgun formation are still very-much en-vogue in Todd Haley’s offense, but the sight of No. 45 acting as the chauffeur or bodyguard for No. 26 is becoming more and more familiar.

And, as I said before, Nix doesn’t seem to care about his number of carries or any other offensive stats, than the ones that belong to Bell and the other tailbacks he seems to love escorting on long runs downfield.

Roosevelt Nix, Rosie Nix, Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix

Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix leading the way. Photo Credit: MSN Sports

Take last Sunday’s Steelers win against the Bengals, for example, and how Rosie Nix seemed to make it his personal mission to protect Bell from the very dangerous and factually dirty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who began the game by kicking Nix in the facemask, but ended it with just four tackles and certainly didn’t do much to slow Bell down on his way to 134 yards rushing.

Unlike some previous match-ups against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bell ended the day healthy and ready to do battle again. With Ben Roethlisberger slowly taking a backseat to Le’Veon Bell as the main cog in the Steelers offensive attack, the latter’s health is of the utmost importance.

  • The Steelers offense may go only as  far as Le’Veon Bell can take it in 2017.

It’s nice to know he’ll have his own personal bodyguard in Roosevelt Nix protecting him on his and the team’s journey.

 

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Le’Veon Bell Returns to Form in Steelers Defeat of Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium

Running back Le’Veon Bell continued his mastery of the Chiefs, rushing for 179 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, as the Steelers improved to 4-2 with a very impressive and important 19-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

Pittsburgh notched its first points of the afternoon courtesy of Kansas City’s center, who sailed a shotgun snap high and wide of quarterback Alex Smith, who vainly chased it out of the back of the end zone to give the visitors a 2-0 lead early in the first quarter.

Le'Veon Bell, Derrick Johnson, David DeCastro, Steelers vs Chiefs

Le’Veon Bell races by as Derrick Johnson can only watch while David DeCastro looks on. Photo Credit: Denny Medley, USA Today

However, on the Chiefs subsequent free kick, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster treated it  like a punt, allowing Kansas City to recover at the Pittsburgh 32.

  • The Steelers defense held firm, and Kansas City had to settle for a Harrison Butker 46-yard field goal and a 3-2 advantage.

Bell and the Steelers answered immediately, marching 75 yards on 12 plays and taking a 9-3 lead on Bell’s three-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

The defense continued to hold firm throughout the first half, including after an interception by Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters at a 48-yard line that came after Antonio Brown stopped running on what should have been a slant-pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Following the pick, Pittsburgh limited the Chiefs to four yards which Kansas City controversially downed at the Steelers one.

Starting from his own one-yard line, Roethlisberger found tight end Vance McDonald for a 26-yard gain, that not only gave the Steelers some breathing room, it jump-started their most impressive drive of the day.

Eight plays later, the Steelers had it first and goal from the two, following a 17-yard scamper by Bell. Unfortunately, the red zone woes continued, as Pittsburgh had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal and a 12-3 halftime lead.

Just how dominant was Pittsburgh’s first half performance?

  • Le’Veon Bell had 102 rushing yards, while  the Chiefs had a minus-five total yards on offense.

Le’Veon Bell continued to dominate in the second half, as did the Steelers defense, allowing just 14 yards on Kansas City’s first two offensive series of the third quarter.

However, on the Chiefs’ third second half possession, they put together an impressive drive and eventually had a first and 10 from the Pittsburgh 12-yard line at the start of the four quarter. After three plays, Kansas City faced a fourth and two from the four. But rather than kick a chip-shot field goal to make it a one-score game, head coach Andy Reid decided to go for it, and a pass into the end zone intended for tight end Demetrius Harris was broken up by safety Sean Davis, who ripped the ball out of Harris’ hands just before he could get full possession.

When the Chiefs got the ball back, they made things interesting, when Smith found a wide-open DeAnthony Thomas, who alluded potential tackles by both Artie Burns and Mike Hilton, on the way to a 57-yard touchdown to make it 12-10 with 6:13 left in the final period.

Antonio Brown was the hero on Pittsburgh’s following drive, when he pulled in a tipped pass from Roethlisberger on third down and raced the rest of the way for a 51-yard touchdown and a 19-10 advantage for Pittsburgh with 3:24 remaining.

  • The Chiefs wouldn’t go away, however, and drew to within six points on another Butker field goal.

And following a quick three-and-out by the Steelers, Kansas City regained possession at its own 44, after a 32-yard punt return from the dangerous Tyreek Hill.

Just 1:42 remained, however, and the Steelers defense stiffened at its own 40. On third and 10, the veteran James Harrison sacked Smith for an eight-yard loss, and one play later, inside linebacker

  • Ryan Shazier broke up a Smith pass to preserve the victory for the Steelers.

For the day, Roethlisberger was 17 of 25 for 252 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while Brown pulled in eight catches for 155 yards and a score.

After allowing 231 rushing yards to Jacksonville in Week 5, the Steelers defense limited Kansas City to just 28 yards on the ground–including just 21 on nine carries by rookie sensation Kareem Hunt.

Next up for the Steelers is AFC North action, as the Bengals come to Heinz Field next Sunday afternoon at 4:25.

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Ben Roethlisberger Throws 5 Interceptions as Jaguars Maul Steelers at Heinz Field, 30-9

If last week’s impressive showing by the Steelers in a 26-9 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium seemed like a dream to many fans, the Steelers gave their fans the ultimate nightmare in this week’s performance against the Jaguars.

In perhaps the worst performance of his 14-year career, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions–including two that were returned for touchdowns–as the Steelers fell to visiting Jacksonville, 30-9, before a stunned and displeased Heinz Field crowd on Sunday.

  • Pittsburgh jumped out of gate strong, when Roethlisberger found receiver Antonio Brown for a 49-yard pass on the team’s first offensive play of the day.
Ben Roethlisberger throws 5 interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Jaguars, Barry Church

Barry Church takes it to the house as Ben Roethlisberger can only look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

However, as has been a theme for the Steelers supposed high-powered unit so far this season, the offense reached the 13-yard line and had a first and 10, but ultimately could only muster a Chris Boswell 29-yard field goal and a 3-0 advantage.

On Pittsburgh’s next offensive series, Roethlisberger tried to find tight end Vance McDonald on a pass down the seam, but he was intercepted by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 46.

Speaking of themes, the Jaguars started what would become a theme on the day, by marching 47 yards and converting Roethlisberger’s miscue into a score, when running back Leonard Fournette skied over the Steelers defensive line and into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown to make it 7-3, visitors.

The teams traded punts over the next three series, but with less than a minute left in the second quarter, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier made a heads-up play, when he ripped a pass from the grasps of tight end James O’Shaughnessy and intercepted it at the 39-yard line with 41 seconds left in the half.

  • The Steelers converted  this into points, by driving 45 yards on six plays, setting up Boswell’s second field goal of the day–this time from 34 yards away–and headed into the locker room trailing 7-6.

Pittsburgh received the second half kick off and produced its best offensive series of the afternoon, by methodically moving the football down to the Jacksonville five-yard line. Unfortunately, after facing a first and goal,  the Steelers elected not to hand the football to All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell and instead passed three-straight times and failed to hit pay-dirt. Boswell trotted out for a 20-yard field goal, and the Steelers now led 9-7.

  • It was all downhill from there.

After T.J. Watt ended the Jaguars first offensive series of the second half with a sack of quarterback Blake Bortles, Pittsburgh faced a second and 11 from its own 22. But a short pass intended for Brown was deflected at the line-of-scrimmage and fell into the waiting arms for of linebacker Telvin Smith, who galloped 28 yards for a touchdown and a 13-9 Jaguars lead.

Just six plays later, another Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Brown was tipped by Ramsey and intercepted by safety Barry Church, who raced 51 yards for another score and a 20-9 lead for the team from Florida.

Early in the fourth quarter, following yet another disappointing drive by the offense, the Steelers defense had a chance to get the momentum back in the home team’s favor, when Jordan Berry pinned Jacksonville down at its own four-yard line with a 51-yard punt.

However, the Jaguars marched 67 yards on 13 plays–eating up 8:07 of game-clock in the process–and effectively put the game away, when kicker Jason Myers connected on a 47-yard field goal to make it 23-9 with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter

Photo credit: Jacksonville.com

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What followed would be two more interceptions by Roethlisberger, the second pick setting up a 90-yard touchdown scamper by Fournette to put the icing on the cake for the Jaguars.

  • For the day, Roethlisberger completed 33 of 55 passes for 312 yards, zero touchdowns and those five interceptions.

Brown pulled in 10 passes for 157 yards, while Bell carried just 15 times for 47 yards against a Jaguars rushing defense that came into the game last in the NFL.

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it kept the game close through two-plus quarters, but in the end, Jacksonville became the second team in three weeks to rush for over 200 yards against it (231), with Fournette accounting for 181 yards of his own.

Next up for the Steelers is a 4:25 match-up against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Week 4 Road Victory over the Ravens

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who was very satisifed with his student’s performance, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Le'Veon Bell, Tony Jefferson, Steelers vs Ravens

Le’Veon Bell steam rolls ahead as Tony Jefferson can only look on. Photo credit: NFL Spin Zone

Quarterback 

It seems as if Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been at his best so far this season, but he did look a little better on Sunday, completing 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and an interception that was entirely out of his control. There was the failure to see a wide-open Antonio Brown on a play in the first half that would have been an easy touchdown (the blame for this has been disputed). And there was the hurried throw to a wide-open Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter that would have led to a 60-yard score. But Roethlisberger also made the throws he needed to make. The word being thrown around by the local sports media regarding Roethlisberger’s performance is “game-manager,” something not heard since his rookie year. Grade: B-

Running Backs 

What more can you say about the performance of Le’Veon Bell? Thirty-five carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Bell looked like the All-Pro running back everyone was used to, and the Steelers offense looked much like it did during its nine-game winning-streak a year ago. As for rookie James Conner, he had just four carries for 26 yards, but he provided a spark on the offense’s first drive, when he rattled off a 23-yard run on second and 18, one play after Roethlisberger suffered his only sack of the day. Fellow youngster Terrell Watson only carried one time for one yard, but it came on third and one, as he did the job in his apparent new role as a short-yardage specialist. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends 

Jesse James turned in a Jesse James-like performance, catching three passes for 40 yards. As for the newly-acquired Vance McDonald, he dropped the only pass thrown his way, a pass that would have gone for a fairly-large gain and would have perhaps lessened the worry about his quarterback’s performance. Unfortunately, it didn’t lessen McDonald’s reputation for dropping passes. However, he did a pretty decent job blocking, and given the effectiveness of the ground-game, that cannot be discounted. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

The Ravens effectively took Brown out of the game, limiting him to just four catches for 34 yards. As for Bryant, for the second week in a row, he could have been the deep threat consequence to the opposition putting too much focus on Brown, but for the second week in a row, he wasn’t and contributed just 48 yards. However, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, getting the start in the slot for the healthy-scratched Eli Rogers, had himself a bit of a day, pulling in three passes for 47 yards and an 11-yard touchdown late in the first half that broke the game open. Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The line finally seemed to develop the kind of chemistry needed to mesh with Bell’s unique running-style. As for the pass-protection, Roethlisberger was only sacked once and was only hurried a few times. However, the Ravens front-seven was a bit decimated due to injuries, and there was the matter of those six penalties that stalled more than one promising drive. Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Man, what a day for this crew, specifically defensive end Cam Heyward, who registered two sacks, along with a forced fumble and a recovery of said fumble. Again, Heyward looked like a man among boys, and it sure helped that Stephon Tuitt played his first full game of the season, after injuring his biceps in Week 1. Javon Hargrave did his job clogging up the running lanes, which helped limit the Ravens to just 82 yards on the ground. Seventy-three of those yards came on two runs, which is either extremely impressive (only allowing nine yards on the other 13 rushes) or a bit worrisome (will teams like the Jaguars and Chiefs be able to exploit the Steelers ground-game much better than the offensively-challenged Ravens)? Finally, a shout-out to L.T. Walton, who pressured Joe Flacco on a fourth quarter pass that was intercepted by Ryan Shazier. Grade: A

Linebackers

Shazier was the proverbial beast at inside linebacker, recording 11 tackles (10 solo), the aforementioned interception and a tipped pass that led to a second pick. Bud Dupree looked explosive at outside linebacker and was credited with half a sack. And if you’re going to give the defensive line credit for containing the run much better than the previous week, you must also credit the linebackers. Rookie T.J. Watt, back in the lineup after missing Week 3, was in on four tackles and did a really good job of setting the edge on running plays, something Anthony Chickillo was criticized for not doing at Chicago. Grade: B+

Secondary

After struggling a bit over the first three weeks, safety Sean Davis had his best game of the season, posting five tackles and a pass defensed. As for J.J. Wilcox, filling in for an injured Mike Mitchell, he was steady. Same could be said at cornerback for both Joe Haden and Artie Burns, who were barely noticeable, as Mike Wallace led the Ravens in receiving yards, with 55. And what more can you say about Mike Hilton, who has become the slot corner from Mississippi that Senquez Golson never was?

In addition to registering a sack early in the second half, Hilton also had a pass defensed and a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: A

Special Teams 

Brown was reinserted as the punt returner, but only tallied 15 yards on two returns. Chris Boswell missed a 44-yard field goal. As for the kick-return coverage, it was spotty, allowing 96 yards on four returns, but it certainly wasn’t a detriment to success. Grade: C+

Coaching

Given the backdrop of the anthem drama as well as having to travel to a place in M&T Bank Stadium, where he hadn’t won since 2012, Mike Tomlin had his team focused and prepared. The team players were business-like and methodical in their approach to the game and really didn’t let emotion become a factor.

Todd Haley’s game-plan was undoubtedly to feature Bell against Baltimore’s injury-riddled defense, and the offense didn’t deviate from that plan very much. There has been some criticism in the team’s apparent decision to take the air out of the ball in the second half, but given the Ravens offensive woes, the only way they were going to get back in the game was with turnovers.

On defense, not much you can say about Keith Butler’s unit that isn’t glowing. The defense was fast, relentless and very disciplined, given that it was only called for one penalty on the day. Grade: A

Unsung Hero

Fullback Roosevelt Nix. If there’s ever an unsung hero, it’s a back who doesn’t register one carry in a game in-which his team rushes for 173 yards. But Nix is there to block, and it’s kind of hard to argue with the results.

 

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Steelers Dominate Ravens 26-9 in Critical AFC North Road Victory

In a performance that must have seemed like a dream to many of their fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into M&T Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon and dominated the Baltimore Ravens in a 26-9 victory.

For starters, the defense returned to its sound ways against the run. After allowing 220 yards on the run in an overtime loss to the Bears in Week 3, Pittsburgh limited Baltimore to 82 yards on the ground. Also, the pass-rush applied pressure to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco all afternoon and recorded four sacks–including two by defensive end Cameron Heyward and one by slot corner Mike Hilton

Photo credit: Laredo Morning Times

As for the offense, while there is still work to be done, running back Le’Veon Bell seemed to shake off whatever rust was left on his body, by rushing for 144 yards on 35 carries and scoring two touchdowns. Bell also added 42 yards on four receptions.

  • After forcing the Ravens to punt on their first possession, Pittsburgh’s offense had to start with its back to the wall after punter Sam Koch pinned it down at the three-yard line.

However, the Steelers put together their most impressive drive of the season, by marching 84 yards on 16 plays and eating up 10:23 of game time. Unfortunately, after reaching the 12-yard line, penalties reared their ugly head, as right tackle Chris Hubbard was called for a false start, guard David DeCastro was called for holding, and the team had to settle for a Chris Boswell 30-yard field goal.

  • Mid-way through the second quarter, the Steelers extended their lead on another Boswell field goal–this time from 49 yards away–and went ahead 6-0.

On Baltimore’s subsequent possession, Heyward stripped running back Alex Collins of the football and cleaned  things up rather nicely by falling on the fumble at the Baltimore 28.

  • The Steelers took advantage on a six-play drive that ended with a one-yard score by Bell to make it 13-0, visitors.

Following another three-and-out by the Ravens, Pittsburgh seized total control of the game with an  eight-play, 70-yard drive that ended when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for an 11-yard touchdown pass to go ahead 19-0 with 45 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers decided to go for two, but came up short, when Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with receiver Antonio Brown.

The Steelers received the ball to start the second half and immediately gave Baltimore life, thanks to a controversial interception at the 20 yard-line by safety Eric Weddle. On a third down pass to Brown, the receiver appeared to be down by contact after making a short catch. However, as he hit the ground, the ball popped right into Weddle’s hands. Since the whistle blew, the play was blown dead. However, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh challenged that Brown never had full possession when he was taken to the ground, which would have made Weddle’s pick possible. After a brief review, the call on the field was reversed, and Baltimore got its  first break of the day.

  • However, the Steelers defense held firm, and Baltimore lost six yards on three plays and had to settle for a Justin Tucker 42-yard field goal.

The Steelers answered with another impressive drive and marched 53 yards on 11 plays. But a 44-yard field goal by Boswell sailed wide-left, and the Ravens took possession at their 34.

On Baltimore’s first play of the next drive, Collins gashed the Steelers defense with a 50-yard run down to the 16. Two plays later, Flacco connected with former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace on a 16-yard touchdown pass, and Pittsburgh’s lead was cut to 10. The Ravens went for two to make it a one-score game, but a run by Terrence West came up short, and the score was 19-9.

The Steelers defense was simply impressive the rest of the way, limiting Baltimore to a punt and two interceptions–including one by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and one by Hilton–on its next three offensive possessions to effectively ice the game.

Following Hilton’s pick late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers put the finishing touches on the victory by marching 49 yards on a seven-play drive that ended with a one-yard score for Bell to make it 26-9.

  • For the day, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Smith-Schuster ended his day with four receptions for 2 yards and the score, while Brown was held to just 34 yards on four receptions.

Next up for the Steelers is a Week 5 match-up against the Jaguars next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings = A Man Against Boys

If you visit any online box score pertaining to the Steelers 26-9 Week 2 victory over the Vikings at Heinz Field on Sunday, star defensive end Cameron Heyward‘s stats that include six tackles may not stand out to you.

But if you had the pleasure to be in the stands at Heinz Field like I was, you knew Cam Heyward was simply the best defensive player on the field.

If you ever wanted to know how Pittsburgh’s defense, a unit that actually started to play better a season ago, after Cameron Heyward was lost for the rest of 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, could have performed any better down the stretch, it would been with Heyward in the starting lineup dominating.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings was a men among boys @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

In other words, just because the defense actually improved down-the-stretch during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning-streak, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done better.

That’s the thing about difference-makers:

  • You sometimes don’t know how much of a difference they can make until they’re back in the lineup doing  their thing.

And that brings me to the current state of the Steelers defensive line. Sure, it is still a fine unit with veteran Tyson Alualu filling in for an injured Stephon Tuitt and second-year man Javon Hargrave providing quality play, alongside Heyward’s dominance. Yes, L.T. Walton gained some valuable playing time a year ago as part of a rotation that had to make up for the loss of Heyward, and that valuable time should come in handy this year, when Walton has to do what he’s doing now, and that’s provide quality depth in Tuitt’s absence.

  • But what happens when Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave play an entire game together?

Thanks to injury, we haven’t seen that since the game against the Cowboys last November 13, when Heyward was lost for the year.

Can you just imagine how awe-inspiring this unit will be?

As a Steelers fan, I certainly can’t wait, but until Tuitt comes back, at least I have Heyward’s singular dominance to look forward to.

  • Again, if you weren’t at Heinz Field on Sunday, Cam Heyward’s box score does him no justice.

You really had to see that dominance for yourself.

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Steelers Open Up 2017 Campaign With Narrow 21-18 Victory Over Browns

They say a win is a win, but after watching his team’s sloppy performance in a 21-18 Week 1 victory over the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, I’m not so sure Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would agree with that sentiment.

Just how sloppy was the performance? In addition to posting just 290 yards in total offense, the Steelers committed 13 penalties for an astounding 144 yards–including several personal fouls on the defense and three holding calls on offense that wiped out what could have been momentum-building drives.

With the way the game started out, however, it looked like it would be a cake-walk for the visitors.

After the Steelers forced a quick three-and-out, second-year inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich raced up the middle virtually untouched to block the Browns punt, and it was recovered in the end zone by outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo to give the Steelers a quick 7-0 lead.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Browns, T.J. Watt 1st interception

T.J. Watt after his first interception in his rookie debut. Photo credit: The New York Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the Steelers offense struggled right out of the gate, netting minus-six yards on its opening drive.

Cleveland quickly responded, by marching 68 yards on 12 plays and tying the game on a one-yard touchdown run by rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who made his first start on Sunday.

Pittsburgh’s vaunted offense, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, seeing his first action after holding out all of training camp, continued to struggle, only gaining 41 yards through a quarter-and-a-half of action.

However, facing a second and eight from the 11-yard line, late in the second quarter, Pittsburgh’s offense got a bit of a spark, when Brown managed to hold on to a deflected pass and raced 50 yards down to the Browns’ 39.

Five plays later, the Steelers took a 14-7 lead on a four-yard strike from Roethlisberger to third-year tight end Jesse James. 

The Steelers offense continued to go backwards on the opening drive of  the second half, netting negative eight yards, following a sack on Roethlisberger.

The Browns responded by driving 53 yards on seven plays and cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to four points on a  Zane Gonzalez 24-yard field goal to make it 14-10.

The Steelers then drove 75 yards on six plays and went ahead 21-10 on James’ second touchdown catch of the day, this one for two yards.

The drive was aided greatly by a 41-yard pass interference penalty on Browns’ cornerback Jamar Taylor, who was called for grabbing the arm of Brown on a deep sideline pass.

Pittsburgh’s defense appeared to stymie the Browns on their next offensive possession. However, after an incomplete pass on third and 18, cornerback William Gay was called for unnecessary roughness on a hit to receiver Ricardo Louis.

As for the flag, it came in very late, and even though Louis was forced to the sideline for a medical evaluation, replays seemed to show Gay contacted the receiver with his shoulder and didn’t lead with his helmet.

Later in the drive, following yet another unnecessary roughness call–this time on rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt following a sack by Chickillo–Kizer lofted a short pass down the left sideline that was picked off by Watt, who jumped high in the air to corral the football, before returning it 17 yards.

Unfortunately, despite the offense marching to the Cleveland 29-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers couldn’t salt the game away, and a Roethlisberger pass intended for receiver Martavis Bryant was intercepted by Browns’ safety Derrick Kindred.

Late in the game, the Browns drove 73 yards on eight plays and inched to within three points, thanks to a three-yard strike from Kizer to receiver Corey Coleman on fourth and two, followed by a two-point conversation by running back Isaiah Crowell.

But facing a second and 12 from their own 18-yard line, the Steelers were able to put the final nail in the coffin, thanks to Brown, who, while being triple-teamed, jumped up to secure a 38-yard pass from Roethlisberger at the 2:28 mark.

Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson challenged that Brown didn’t maintain possession of the catch all the way through the tackle and lost said challenge, leaving his team with zero timeouts, and Pittsburgh ran out the clock to start 1-0 for the second-straight year.

For the day, Brown caught 11 passes for 182 yards, while James pulled in six passes for 41 yards and those two touchdowns.

Roethlisberger completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

As for Bell, he carried 10 times for just 32 yards 10 times for just 32 yards, as  10 tiems for Pittsburgh could do very-little on the ground.

On the defensive side, the Steelers allowed a respectable 237 yards and recorded a rather robust seven sacks–including two apiece for Watt and Chickillo.

Next up for the Steelers is their 2017 Heinz Field debut against the Vikings next Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.

 

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