Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns


Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+


Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B


The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A


On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit:

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Steelers Backups Survive The Browns, 28-24, In Regular Season Finale

The Steelers were missing several key starters on Sunday, as they took on the hapless and winless Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in the 2017 regular season finale.

However, despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and defensive end Cameron Heyward sitting out Sunday’s finale, Pittsburgh prevailed, 28-24, to finish the regular season 13-3, the team’s best record since 2004.

Starting in place of Roethlisberger, fifth-year backup quarterback Landry Jones marched the Steelers offense 72 yards on a scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown run by veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who scampered 29 yards on a reverse to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-0.

While the Browns were forced to punt on their first two possessions, Pittsburgh had its next two series end on an interception by Jabrill Peppers, followed by a stop on fourth and goal, when fullback Roosevelt Nix was stymied at the goal line.

But early in the second quarter, the Steelers went ahead 14-0 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jones to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster

The Browns answered right back, driving 74 yards on five plays and drew within a touchdown, on a two-yard plunge by running back Duke Johnson to make it 14-7. The big play on the drive was a 54-yard pass from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to receiver Josh Gordon down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line.

Pittsburgh answered immediately, driving 75 yards on eight plays and re-taking a two-touchdown lead on reserve running back Stevan Ridley‘s four-yard score to make it 21-7.

It is worth noting that the drive was kept alive after Browns rookie defensive end Miles Garrett was called for roughing the passer on third and three from the nine.

Cleveland answered right back two plays later, exploiting Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of a 56-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to receiver Rashard Higgins to make it 21-14 midway through the second quarter.

The score would remain the same at halftime, but Cleveland tied things up on its first series of the third quarter, making it 21-21, after Kizer found Higgins on a five-yard touchdown pass.

But the Steelers re-claimed the lead, when the rookie sensation Smith-Schuster took the next kickoff 96 yards to make it 28-21.

After a Zane Gonzalez 51-yard field goal drew Cleveland to within 28-24, the Browns had several chances to take the lead.

But Pittsburgh’s defense held firm down the stretch, forcing a fumble and interception on the Browns’ next two possessions.

On Cleveland’s final possession of the game, a fourth down pass intended for Corey Coleman was dropped by the wide-open receiver, deep in Pittsburgh territory, and the Steelers escaped with a 28-24 victory to improve to 13-3 on the season, while the Browns ended 2017 as the first winless team since the 2008 Lions finished 0-16.

For the day, Jones completed 23-27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and Smith-Schuster pulled in nine passes for 143 yards and a score, while also contributing to the victory with the aforementioned 96-yard kickoff return.

Reserve running back Ridley carried 17 times for 80 yards and a score.

As for the Steelers defense, it set a regular season record with 56 sacks, as reserve defensive end Tyson Alualu pitched in with two of the unit’s six on the day.

Photo credit: Pro Football Focus

The Steelers enter the postseason as the AFC’s number two seed and will enjoy their first playoff bye since the 2010/11 season.

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Steelers Cornerback Mike Hilton – Simply Another Kevin Colbert Gem

You’ll have to excuse me if I seem a little out of sorts, following the Steelers 34-6 victory over the Texans on Christmas Day, a win that clinched at least a bye into the Divisional Round of the 2017/18 postseason.

  • I’m out of sorts because I don’t know if I watched a live NFL game, or a video game, namely Ninento’s old Tecmo Bowl.

You  remember Tecmo Bowl, don’t you? The football video game that emulated NFL teams and players from the 1990’s.

Like I’m sure most young Pittsburghers during that era, I often picked the Steelers as my team when going against the computer or, more enjoyably, my little brother.

As is common with most video games, you could choose a player to control on your own, and I often picked Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.

  • Why? Because, much like in real life, there was nothing you couldn’t do with that guy–including rush the opposing passer as often as you liked.

As I watched Steelers newly-minted slot corner sensation Mike Hilton rush Houston quarterbacks time-and-time again on Monday (eight times, to be exact) and record three sacks, I couldn’t help but think back to my youth as a bit of a gamer.


mike hilton, Steelers cornerback mike hilton, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Taylor Heinicke, steelers vs texans

Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton after sacking Texans quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But while Hilton became just the third Steelers defensive back to record three sacks in a game–tying safeties Troy Polamalu and Carnell Lake for the franchise mark–he did something in real life that no other cornerback in NFL history–including Woodson–has ever done outside of a video game.

That’s right, Hilton became the first cornerback in league history to post three sacks in a game since the NFL began recording it as an official statistic in 1982. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has long had a knack for finding gems as Undrafted Rookie Free Agents and street free agents.

  • And Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton is the latest example. Hilton, who, like 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson, played his college ball at Ole Miss.

However, unlike Golson, who never played a meaningful down for the Steelers due to battling various injuries, Hilton took advantage of the chance the Steelers gave him.

After signing with the Jaguars as an UDFA in 2016, Hilton soon found himself on the Patriots practice squad, before winding up on Pittsburgh’s by the end of the season.

Coming into the 2017 training camp, there was great buzz about Hilton and what he could possibly bring to the Steelers secondary.

But isn’t every training camp filled with young unknowns with low pedigree who excite fans that are forever in-love with the underdog?

  • Yet, that buzz never subsided, and even Hilton’s coaches and teammates couldn’t help gushing over him.

And it didn’t take long–about a quarter into the Steelers first preseason game, actually–before it became apparent that, not only was Hilton likely to land on his first NFL roster, the Steelers had huge plans for him to be their starting slot corner, a position once earmarked for his former college teammate, Golson.

Not only did Hilton earn that starting corner slot, through 15 games of his rookie season, he has excelled at the position, with a total of two interceptions, five passed defensed, a forced fumble, 39 tackles and a total of four quarterback sacks.

Nobody’s draft record is perfect–including Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. And it’s clear he missed on Golson, if not in-terms of assessing his talent, then, perhaps, in assessing his durability.

  • But if you’re going to miss on a high draft pick, you better make up for it somewhere else.

After years of struggling to find the right pieces, the Steelers now appear to have a secondary that’s close to being complete.

The unit now includes a young and promising safety in Sean Davis, playing alongside veteran Mike Mitchell, a calculated free-agent signing in 2014. The corner position is comprised of young, aggressive and also promising Artie Burns, along with accomplished veteran Joe Haden, a gift of a free-agent acquisition who miraculously fell into Pittsburgh’s lap right before the start of the season.

And, to round it all out, the Steelers now appear to have Mike Hilton as their very promising slot corner, a formerly unknown UDFA who excited fans at the onset of training camp, and is still leaving them giddy, just weeks away from the start of the postseason.

I love it when a plan comes together.


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The Bright Side to the Steelers Loss To The Patriots? Was It Wasn’t A Playoff Game

You’ll have to forgive me for my sour mood, but I haven’t been this angry after a Steelers loss in a very long time.

  • In fact, the last time I was angry–really angry–after a Steelers loss, Pittsburgh wasn’t even playing.

I’m talking about the Ryan Succup missed field goal at the end of regulation during the Chiefs/Chargers 2013 regular season finale that, had it been made, would have put Pittsburgh into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

Steelers vs Patriots, Tom Brady, Jacob Hollister, Sean Davis

Tom Brady Jacob Hollister celebrate a 1st quarter touchdown over the Steelers at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Nancy Lane, Boston Herald

If I had to think of another time I was this angry, we have to go back almost 15 years, to the moments after Tommy Maddox‘s Steelers lost in overtime to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the 2002 playoffs, thanks mostly to a running into the kicker penalty on Steelers cornerback Dwayne Washington, who ran into Joe Nedney, after Nedney missed a short field goal, thus affording the kicker with the great acting skills another shot at sticking the dagger into the heart of Steeler Nation (he did).

  • After the game Nedney himself even joked about his “Oscar winning performance” if memory serves.

Anyway, in-case you’ve been living under a rock, the source of my current anger is the Ben Roethlisberger to Jesse James 10-yard touchdown catch with 28 seconds left that would have clinched a bye for the Steelers, a touchdown that was ultimately overturned due to the NFL’s ridiculous idea of what a catch is.

Was it the right call?

  • By the letter of the law, yes, yes it was.
  • Is the catch rule a stupid one that totally insults the intelligence of anyone with two good eyes?
  • Yes, yes it is.

But there’s nothing you can do about it. Fortunately, however, unlike those previous anger-inducing moments I referenced, the Steelers can actually step up and do something about this clear miscarriage of justice.

The 27-24 loss to the Patriots, Sunday night, didn’t end Pittsburgh’s season; it merely dropped the team to 11-3 and took the control of the number one seed out its hands and placed it firmly into the Patriots’ with just two games left.

But the Steelers still control their own fate with regards to the number two seed and a bye, which, while not the perfect scenario, isn’t exactly chopped liver.

And guess what?

If the Patriots lose one game, while Pittsburgh wins two, the black and gold could still get the top seed in the AFC playoffs. And wouldn’t that be delicious? You lose-out on the head-to-head tiebreaker to both the Patriots and the Jaguars, who came into Heinz Field in Week 5 and had their way in a 30-9 beat-down, but it doesn’t matter, as you some how finish ahead of both in the win/loss column.

I would relish that, because I would welcome the opportunity to see both or either team have to come crawling back to loud and crazy Heinz Field for a playoff game, which, believe me, Heinz Field in a playoff setting is so much different than it is in the regular season.

But regardless of how the playoff seeding ultimately shakes out, the Steelers will actually be in the dance, and that angry feeling I have right now? That won’t last an entire offseason, and there’s still a chance for redemption.

The Steelers 2017 story isn’t over yet, and the final chapter can still go many different ways.



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Give Steelers Tight Ends Jesse James & Vance McDonald an “A” For Their Performance vs Ravens

OK, not really.

For the record, I’m not the regular Report Card marker for Steel Curtain Rising, so its really not my place to suggest that Jesse James and Vance McDonald get “A” for their efforts in the Steelers win over the Ravens.

But, the position, particularly Jesse James and Vance McDonald, certainly deserved to win the Steelers Report Card’s Unsung Hero Award as they did during the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens for playing a much-bigger part of the game-plan than anyone could have possibly envisioned.

Jesse James, Eric Weddle, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers tight ends ravens

Eric Weddle tackles Jesse James in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via

With JuJu Smith-Schuster sidelined while serving a very-controversial one-game suspension for his block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict last week, and with Martavis Bryant continuing to baffle with his inability to get open–this despite Antonio Brown drawing constant double-teams–one wondered who would pick up the slack in the Steelers air-attack.

  • The answer became clear, early on, as James and McDonald combined for four receptions for 45 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two offensive series.
  • Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Steelers first two drives ended in touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.

Speaking of Vance McDonald, he’s sort of been this year’s version of Ladarius Green, who was an athletically gifted tight end the Steelers signed as a free agent prior to the 2016 campaign, but, thanks to concussion-related problems, only played in a handful of games in his lone season in Pittsburgh.

Vance McDonald may not have come to Pittsburgh with the same physical gifts as Green, but when the Steelers acquired him in a trade with the 49ers this past summer, he certainly possessed the size, speed and athleticism Pittsburgh had been searching for at the tight end position for many years.

  • Unfortunately, McDonald has been battling the injury-bug for most of 2017, and he was even forced to leave Sunday night’s game with a shoulder ailment.

But, before Vance McDonald exited the game, he tallied four receptions for 52 yards. This might not seem like much, but considering Eli Rogers and Bryant combined for a mere 66 receiving yards, Vance McDonald’s contribution as welcome as it was necessary.

Speaking of contributions, what about the night Jesse James had for the Steelers on Sunday?

James may have even come up with the night’s most-crucial reception.

  • Trailing by two points with just 1:57 remaining in the game, the Steelers faced a third and 13 from their own 14-yard line.

If Pittsburgh didn’t pick up at least a good chunk of yardage on the play, the game would most-likely be over.

However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found James 16 yards downfield, and the tight end managed to hold on to the pass in traffic, which laid the groundwork for what would become the game-winning field goal drive.

  • All-in-all, James and McDonald combined for 14 catches for 149 yards on the night.

Enough to make the fans stop chanting “HEATH!!!!!” (in honor of legendary tight end Heath Miller) each time a caucasian tight end catches a pass at Heinz Field?

  • Perhaps not anytime soon.

But, in a nip-and-tuck, prime-time affair with the AFC North title on-the-line, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly needed everything Jesse James and Vance McDonald could give them, Sunday night.

And their contributions should not go unnoticed.

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The JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension Highlights the NFL’s Inconsistency & Hypocrisy

The JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension highlights the NFL and Roger Goodell’s inconsistency, hypocrisy and blatant double standards. 

For his illegal block on linebacker Vontaze Burfict, along with his subsequent taunting penalty in the Steelers 23-20 victory over the Bengals Monday night, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been suspended for the upcoming game against the Ravens.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals, yDavid DeCastro, yVontaze Burfict

Other notable suspensions this week have also been of the one-game variety, and they’ve been handed down to Bengals safety George Iloka for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter; and to Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski for his flagrant elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White on Sunday.

But hold the presses!

Obviously, Smith-Schuster’s appeal on Tuesday was heard, but the suspension was quickly upheld, which begs the question: Does the NFL think an act as blatant as Gronkowski’s–one that could be seen as downright criminal–is the same as Smith-Schuster’s super-aggressive block, which has been considered by many people to be just a tough football play?

Yes, as you can see there was contact to Burfict’s head, which may have actually been what drew the initial penalty:

But you can also see there was even more contact to Brown’s head, and, as I just stated, Iloka’s suspension has been reduced to a fine:

(Momentary aside: Notice that the JuJu’s hit on Burfict is embedable but we had to find go to someone’s Twitter feed from outside the US to get an embedable video of the hit on Brown. Kinda sorta like you videos of the helmet-to-helmet hit that James Harrison took in 2011, the one that broke his orbital bone got taken down from YouTube fast, while the NFL YouTube police let his hit on Colt McCoy stay up for a long time.)

  • You might say, “But Smith-Schuster also stood over Burfict and taunted him after the hit.”

OK, fine, but is that as bad as intentionally elbowing a totally prone and defenseless player in the back of the head, simply because you were angry that he held you right before intercepting a pass from Tom Brady

  • Immediately after the hit, White was put in concussion protocol.

Smith-Schuster’s and Iloka’s fouls were football plays; Gronkowski’s was akin to a heel wrestler hitting someone in the back of the head with a folding chair.

  • And this is why so many people think the NFL front-office is a joke.

If you want to suspend Smith-Schuster for what he did, fine (although, for a rookie receiver to draw a one-game suspension for that is like putting a kid in jail for six months for underage drinking), but then you should have also upheld Iloka’s suspension.

  • And if you want to suspend both of those players for a game, shouldn’t the superstar tight end get at least two (if not more)?

What message are you sending, when you claim to be a league that cares about head injuries, but you’re going to treat a football act the same as, again, a criminal act?

  • It makes no sense, but, then again, it is the NFL, and not much the league does these days makes any sense.

The 10-2 Steelers head into a potential division-clinching match-up Sunday night without one of their best young players, while the 5-7 Bengals will head into their Week 14 match-up with their starting safety.

Seems about right.

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A Tale of Two Field Goals: Steelers Win over Packers Turned on Green Bay’s Failed Field Goal

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a 31-28 victory over the Packers at Heinz Field, Sunday night, thanks to a 53-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell on the game’s final play.

  • It was certainly one of the greatest finishes in the history of the Steelers franchise.
  • And hats off to Boswell, who tied the the mark for the longest field goal in Heinz Field history.
Steelers vs Packers, Chris Boswell

Steelers hoist Chris Boswell after kicking the game winner against the Packers at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Daily Caller

Of course, if Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s third quarter gamble had paid off, his kicker, Mason Crosby, would hold the Heinz Field record at 57 yards.

Midway through the third quarter, mere moments after the two-touchdown underdog Packers had taken a 21-14 lead on a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Hundley to receiver Davante Adams, Green Bay linebacker Blake Martinez corralled a tipped screen pass that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was tyring to get to Le’Veon Bell that set the visitors up just 45 yards away from another score and a commanding lead.

  • But after driving to Pittsburgh’s 31-yard line, the Packers were pushed back to the 39, thanks to sacks by defensive ends L.T. Walton and Cameron Heyward.

Facing fourth and 18, surely McCarthy, one of the better head coaches in the NFL, would send out his punting unit and force the Steelers offense to start from deep within its own territory.

  • Surprisingly, however, McCarthy, a Pittsburgh-native, sent out Crosby to attempt a 57-yard field goal.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Crosby’s kick wasn’t even close, and Pittsburgh took over from its own 47.

Six plays later, the Steelers tied the game at 21, thanks to a one-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown

It’s impossible to say if Pittsburgh would have still scored a touchdown had it been forced to start the drive from even its own 20, but it’s likely Todd Haley’s play-calling approach would have been different.

  • It just goes to show you that all NFL coaches–even highly-respected one–are susceptible to lapses in judgment.

It’s likely McCarthy, given Green Bay’s health issues (Aaron Rodgers missed his fifth-straight game with a broken collarbone) and precarious playoff positioning in the NFC, was frustrated with his offense’s inability to capitalize on Roethlisberger’s second interception of the night, and he wanted to give his team a boost (along with a two-score lead).

  • Instead, McCarthy gave the home team a boost and allowed the Steelers to quickly get back into the game.

When it comes to kicking 50-plus-yard field goals at Heinz Field, perhaps the toughest place to kick in the history of modern football, there’s a time and a place for everything.

With just four seconds remaining in regulation, it was a no-brainer for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin to send Boswell out to attempt a 53-yard field goal.

  • Worst-case scenario: The kick is blocked and returned for a game-ending touchdown.
  • Likely scenario: Boswell’s kick falls short, and the game goes into overtime.
  • Best-case scenario is what actually transpired, as Boswell’s kick sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.

A head coach can often be his own worst enemy.

If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had to do it all over again, he probably would have played it safe and not allowed Chris Boswell to fire the last salvo of the night.


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Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.


The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.


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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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