Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.
T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Straight A’s But Still Imperfect Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher leading a straight A yet imperfect class, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 32 of 46 for 267 two touchdowns plus an interception. These are solid numbers, but the Steelers were below the line a bit on 3rd down conversions, and Ben Roethlisberger’s end zone interception cost the team at least 3 points. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 13 times for 89 yards, ripping off a long run deep in Steelers territory and executing an impressive reverse of field run that could have easily gone for a loss. Benny Snell scored the only rushing touchdown of the day and looked OK in non-garbage time runs. Anthony McFarland was not impressive gaining 3 yards on 3 carries. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was on his own for much of the game, as an injury took Zach Gentry out of the game. Ebron caught 4 of 7 passes thrown his way including the final touchdown. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had another breakout day which at one point saw him hauling in more catches that Jake Luton had made completions. He showed his versitiliy, catching balls at short, medium and long lengths, including an incredible goal line catch. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and an impressive touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 19 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 20 yards and 1 run for 3. James Washington only had one catch, but it converted a third down and set up a touchdown. Grade: A

Diontae Johnson, steelers vs jaguars

Diontae Johnson makes goal line catch. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and was only hit twice. More importantly, the running backs had room to run. No one will confuse Sunday’s performance against the Jaguars with road grading delivered by Steelers offensive lines of yesteryear, but it was and improvement over previous weeks, and enough to make the running game a factor, albeit an erratic one. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line in tackles and while he wasn’t credited for a sack, he clearly pressured the quarterback. Tyson Alualu lone stat is a tipped pass – which helped cause an interception and fuel what was at a minimum a 10 point swing. Henry Mondeaux had one quarterback hit. James Robinson’s rushing average wasn’t bad, but if the Steelers did contain him, and that started with the line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
As usual Vince Williams led the Steelers linebackers in tackles, dishing out punishment as he went along. T.J. Watt went sackless for only the 3rd time in 10 games, but did hit the quarterback 2 times. Robert Spillane had four tackles while Alex Highsmith had 2. The real star of the unit was Bud Dupree who had deflected a pass had one sack and came very close to deflecting another. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Jaguars were 4-13 on third downs. Deep into the 4th quarter Diontae Johnson had more catches than Jake Luton completions. Oh, yeah, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edumnds both had two deflected passes and two interceptions, the first time since 1998 that two safeties have had multiple picks in one game (thanks to Jim Wexell for that stat.) If you’re keeping score, Steven Nelson had an uncredited deflected pass. And if you’re keeping track, Joe Haden had 3 tackles. Grade: A

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Jaguars

Terrell Edmunds nets his 2nd interception in a game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made 2 field goals but missed another, while being perfect on extra points. Jordan Berry had a soild day punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a solid day returning, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Marcus Allen had a heads up play on an on sides kick. Grade: B+

Coaching
While it is true that Jordan Berry did take the field a little too often for comfort, that should not obscure the fact that the Steelers run game was considerably better than it has been for the last several weeks. And if Randy Ficthner’s offense didn’t put together as many long drives as one will like, it did transform 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

  • Keith Butler came into the game with a simple mandate: Dominate a rookie quarterback.

Butler’s boys passed with flying colors, containing James Robinson, creating unmanageable third downs which the rookie was ill-equipped to convert.

Behind it all is Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are riding an unheard of 10-0 record, yet you wouldn’t know that by reading any of his player’s post-game press clippings. This type of “We’re good but we can and will improve attitude” is as healthy as you can get. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at the stat sheet and it says 1 tackle, 1 assist, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 pass defensed and 1 QB hit. Look pretty mundane. But Stephon Tuitt’s play in this game was anything but mundane and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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The “Imperfections” in Steelers 27-3 Win over Jaguars are Feature, Not a Flaw

A downside to going undefeated is that stories predicting your first loss begin to ellipse ones detailing why you’re winning. And so it is with the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. No matter who the opponent was this week, the question was going to be “Has the upset arrived?” Now, stir in a little history and the plot thickens:

  • The Jacksonville Jaguars have a nasty habit of upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That habit started in the first meeting between the two franchises and carries through to Pittsburgh’s most recent playoff experience. Steel workers it would seem, make poor Jaguar hunters.

  • Yet, the men in Black and Gold arrived in Jacksonville with a 9-0 record and left 10-0.

The Steelers 27-3 win over the Jaguars certainly wasn’t spotless, but that’s actually a feature rather than a flaw. Let’s see why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Jaguars

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown for the Steelers. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Some Fine Football Footnotes, Courtesy of Luton and Robinson

The true history of world events is often told through the footnotes. In the NFL? Not so much.

History will little note that Jake Luton completed his first 2 passes for double-digit yardage, nor will it remember that James Robinson began the game by gouging the Steelers defense for double digit runs. Had Jacksonville won, scribes like me would have described this pair of unheralded rookies as “Setting the tone with their decisive play during the game’s opening drive.”

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

  • Instead, people are already forgetting that Jacksonville actually led for game’s first 19 minutes.

That’s because NFL history isn’t written by teams who can make a handful of good plays; it is made by teams who make plays consistently. Or at least make them at critical moments in games. During the first half against the Jaguars, the Steelers fell into the latter category by:

  • Going into bend-but-don’t-break mode to force a field goal after Jacksonville’s early advance
  • Marcus Allen’s attentive recovery of a surprise on-sides kick
  • James Conner tearing off a 25 yard run when Pittsburgh found itself backed up against its own end zone
  • Tyson Alualu tipping a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off in the end zone

Those efforts paved the way for Chris Boswell to make a 44 yard field goal after missing a 45 yarder, for Ben Roethlisberger to hook up with Chase Claypool to give the Steelers the lead and later to connect with Diontae Johnson to set up a one yard Benny Snell touchdown to give the Steelers a 17-3 lead just before the half.

Yet if the Steelers had done some opportunistic playmaking in the game’s first 30 minutes, the last 30 seconds reinforced just how much they’d left on the table.

Terrell Edmunds intercepted Jake Luton with 36 left to play. Ben Roethlisberger brought them within field goal range, yet threw an interception to Daniel Thomas. Instead of taking a 24 or 17 point and 3 score lead into half time, the Steelers were standing pat with just 14.

Jaguars Squander Opportunity

14 points is a healthy yet hardly insurmountable half time lead. And 14 points becomes even less insurmountable when you when start the half by getting the ball and then promptly run 3 plays for negative 1 yards. The worst thing you can do with a young team is to let them hang around, yet here were the Steelers, opening the door for Jacksonville to come roaring back into the game.

  • Would the Jaguars pounce on the opportunity?

For a few moments, it seemed liked they might. After limiting the Steelers to negative one yards, Jacksonville advanced from their own 31 to Pittsburgh’s 41 in six plays. Now, those six plays were hardly worthy of John Facenda narration, but the Jaguars were stalking their way up the field with confidence. Then they blinked:

  • On 2nd and 9, Bud Dupree gifted them 5 yards by going off sides
  • Jacksonville regifted those 5 yards right back with a false start
  • Next, Stephon Tuitt batted away a pass aimed for Tyler Eifert, bring up 3rd and 9
  • 3rd and 9 turned in to 3rd and 14 thanks to another false start
  • Then Stephon Tuitt sacked Jake Luton, forcing a punt

The Steelers gave Jacksonville a chance to get right back in this game, and the Jaguars squandered it. Now all that remained was for Pittsburgh to close the deal.

Dominating Steelers Defense Delivers the Difference

IF the late Steve Sabol were scripting this game, he’d have Stephon Tuitt’s sack sparking a Ben Roethlisberger response that included a few pristine passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and/or James Washington, some road grading run blocking backed by James Conner’s powers rushing.

Bud Dupree Sacks Jake Luton. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • But NFL Films has the luxury of crafting their dramatic narratives after outcomes are decided.

Football games evolve at their own pace and in this case that meant that Jordan Berry would punt four more times during the second half, that the Steelers would have to wait until the 4th quarter to put more points on the board and those next points would come off of Chris Boswell’s leg.

But the offense’s difficulty scoring didn’t matter much, as the Steelers defense dominated the Jaguars en every sense of the word, whether it was Bud Dupree sacking Luton on third down, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward  stoningJames Robinson at the line of scrimmage, or Terrell Edmunds intercepting Luton again, the defense made sure Jaguars never had a chance to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s offensive sluggishness.

Imperfection, a Feature, Not a Flaw

Terrell Edmunds’ second interception sparked the offense, as Ben Roethlisberger only needed 4 plays to find Eric Ebron in the end zone.

  • Was it a perfect afternoon for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Hardly. That final touchdown padded Pittsburgh’s point margin, making the game look more lopsided than the 27-3 score suggests. But it doesn’t matter. In Ben Roethlisberger’s words, the Steelers are “…not chasing perfection in terms of a perfect 16-0. We’re chasing Lombardis.”

  • Mike Tomlin made a similar point offering that the only thing perfect about this team is its record.

So in other words, you’ve got a team with a 10-0 record with both room for improvement AND the self-awareness that they must improve? That’s a pretty good place to be.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: A’s (and not for effort) Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil miss a full week of class due to sickness only to completely ace the exam on his first day back, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt sacks Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week of practice due to COVID-19 restrictions, but he hardly missed a beat against the Bengals. Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect. He’s improving on his long balls but can still improve more. But playing without a running game, Ben Roethlisberger led 7 scoring drives while going 4 four touchdown passes in 5 trips to the Red Zone. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had another rough day, rushing for just 36 yards on 13 carries. Benny Snell did well in garbage time gaining 12 yards on 3 carries. Conner did catch both passes that were thrown to him and did well in pass protection. The Bengals schemed to stop the run, Conner had little room to run before the Steelers gave up altogether. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught two of six passes thrown his way although both catches converted 1st downs and put the Steelers in Bengals territory on scoring drives. Zach Gentry got on the field for 14 snaps. Neither of the tight ends helped much with the run blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson exploded for his first 100 yard game with Ben Roethlisberger, including a field flipper that set up his and the Steelers first touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches and kept the chains moving in short yardage situations while adding his own touchdown. After a quiet few weeks, Chase Claypool had 4 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. James Washington had two catches for 30 yards. Grade: A

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, almost. Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked by the Bengals, although they did hit him 8 times. Still, Roethlisberger had time to throw. The Steelers run blocking is another question altogether as it was AOWL thought the game against Cincinnati. As the weather gets colder, the Steelers are going to need to be able to the ball. They’ve struggled to establish the run over the last two weeks against teams with weak rushing defenses. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu’s return helped the Steelers limit the Bengals rushing attack, although Bengals running backs had some success. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had “quiet” days in terms of the stat sheet but logged 77% and 78% of the snaps on a defense that gave up 10 points. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led Steelers linebackers in tackles and his sack helped force a field goal, following the fake punt. That fake punt was needed in part because of a Bud Dupree sack. Vince Williams did his damage with 4 bone crushing tackles. T.J. Watt logged 4 quarterback hits and registered two sacks helping kill 2 second quarter drives when the score was close and Joe Burrow was earning his “Introduction to the AFC North.” Grade: A

Secondary
There are a lot of stats that you can pull out of the secondary play, but one stands out: 0-13 on third downs. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles, followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Steven Nelson defensed 1 pass and otherwise his name was not heard much – which is a good thing. Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. saw their first real playing time in the secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on 3 field goal and 3 extra point attempts. Jordan Berry boomed off punts. The Steelers kick and punt coverages shut down Cincinnati, clearly benefitting from Derek Watt’s presence. Ray-Ray McCloud gives the Steelers the type of return man weapon that they’ve lacked for a long, long time. The unit did get caught on a fake punt, but its impact was negligible. Still, the grade has to come down. Grade: A-

Coaching
For the past two weeks, Keith Butler’s defense has had to rely on big plays to provide big plays to deliver victory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but against the Bengals, the Steelers defense went back to basics.
Cincinnati did enjoy a little more success than the scoreboard suggests, but you can’t really sustain success when you fail to convert 3rd downs, and the Bengals failed at that 13 times.

The Bengals loaded up the line of scrimmage and dared Ben Roethlisberger to beat them and Big Ben beat them – badly. Let’s be clear, when your offense goes 4 of 5 in the Red Zone and outscores an opponent by 36 points a lot of things are going right.

  • Still, this is the third consecutive week the Steelers have failed to establish the run.

The Steelers tried, from various formations, including their “Jumbo” package and nothing worked. That’s got to be a concern for Randy Ficthner and Shaun Sarrett.

COVID-19 hit the Steelers hard, taking Vance McDonald from the lineup and preventing 4 other starters, including Ben Roethlisberger, from practicing. This came on the heels of a brutal 3 game road stretch. Had you come down from Mars, you’d have never of known that given the way the Steelers played this week, and that is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden after defending a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
Sometimes quarterbacks decide to “pick on someone.” Joe Burrow made his decision early, targeting Tyler Boyd, Brandon Tate and A.J. Green – a legitimate offensive weapons who happened to be covered by the same man. Not only were none of them a factor in this game because of the corner covering them, but this cornerback also batted away 3 pass and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

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Simple Math: Steelers Beat Bengals 36-10, but Number 7 is Key for Pittsburgh

Football is grounded in physics. Chuck Noll opined that the purpose of training camp was to teach players to use their bodies as projectiles. In his book, A Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell argues that success and failure in football often comes down to subtle changes in angles, stances and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fan.

  • Physics is driven by numbers
  • And in many senses, numbers and the measurables they represent determine outcomes on football fields.

But in the Steelers 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh proved two things:

  • All numbers are not created equally on the gridiron
  • And for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one certainly more equal than others

Lets look at how the men in Black and Gold delivered their lesson in math and physics.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger takes the snap. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sometimes Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

Football fans love statistics. Before the age of Direct TV, streaming and even shows like ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime, reading the stats in the paper at the breakfast table was as close as some citizens of Steelers Nation got to the game itself.

  • Sometimes, stats can be revealing.
  • At other times they can be deceiving.

Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard both have better career rushing averages than Jerome Bettis. Who would you rather draft for your all time Steelers team? Case closed. If I grabbed the stat sheet from the Steelers-Bengals game and told you that:

  • James Conner would rush for 36 yards at 2.8 yards a carry…
  • The Steelers would give up a fake punt that went for 39 yards…
  • Samaje Perine averaged 6.9 yards per carry…
  • The Steelers would convert 2 fumble recoveries for 3 points…
  • Pittsburgh would go 6-16 on third down…
  • The Bengals would convert 2 of 3 4th down attempts…

You could easily concluded that Cincinnati came out of Pittsburgh with an upset. But you’d have been wrong, because those numbers just don’t add up.

A Few Numbers that Offset the Ones Above

Football is the ultimate team game and it’s important to remember that because the conclusion of the next two

Cam Sutton, Tee Higgins, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Sutton strips the ball from Tee Higgins. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

sections could suggest otherwise. (Keep reading, we’ll go quick – no skimming down.)

The numbers above are at once accurate and imprecise because they’re counter balanced by statistics like these:

  • T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane, and Bud Dupree combined for 4 sacks
  • Ray-Ray McCloud ripped off a 42 yard punt return to the Bengals 15
  • Cincinnati went 0 for 13 on third downs
  • Joe Haden tipped way 3 passes
  • The Steelers would hold a mere 62 second advantage in time of possession

Take those stats, and look at them alongside the first set of numbers and it paints a picture of Pittsburgh perhaps pulling out another barn burner thanks to a little Minkah Magic magic.

But once again, you’d come away with the wrong image. This game was a blow out instead of a barn burner, and that’s because one number is more important to Pittsburgh than any other.

7 Stands as Steelers Magic Number

The two BIG known unknowns for the Steelers heading into 2020 were how would COVID-19 impact the team, and how well would Ben Roethlisberger rebound from surgery.

  • The confluences of both issues met at Heinz Field this past week.
Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger was unable to practice, due to potential exposure to COVID-19, but it Big Ben’s performance was the definitive difference maker for the the Steelers.

No, Ben Roethlisberger was not perfect. His long passes remain a work in progress. A couple were too short, a few more flew too long, and a few failed to escape the line of scrimmage without getting batted away.

But that really doesn’t matter when you can:

All of that amounted to the Steelers going 4 of 5 in the Red Zone, while tacking on a Chris Boswell field goal on their other trip, in addition to two other Boswell scores from father out. Two other stats help complete number 7’s tale: Zero sacks and Zero interceptions.

7 is the numeral that means so much more than any other number to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Minkah Magic! Steelers Defeat Cowboys 25-19 as Fitzpatrick Helps Pittsburgh Avoid Trap Game

Google “Trap Game” and you’ll get many definitions. Some are better than others. The best had nothing to do with sports and came from the late, great Mr. Jim Baker, my 8th grade World Studies teacher, who would chide the class:

  • This was a ‘gimmie’ and you blew it.

Mr. Baker was talking about blowing assignments that should have been an easy “A.” A trap game is one you “should” win but end up losing.

Mike Tomlin has been unfairly criticized for many things during his tenure, but there’s no arguing that Tomlin teams tend to get tripped up by trap games. On Sunday, against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers almost tripped again. But they didn’t because this time they had Minkah Magic on their side….

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Half Full or Half Empty? How About Just Half a Glass?

NFL teams rarely play 3 consecutive road games. Winning 3 straight road games is rarer yet. Winning two of the three against the a conference and division heavyweight is more difficult yet. But both of those wins came with a half-full/half-empty element to them.

Cam Sutton, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Cam Sutton tries to stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers played a phenomenal first half against the Titans, only to cling on to victory thanks to a missed field goal. Against the Ravens, the Steelers played one of their worst first halves of offensive football in the Tomiln era, gave up tons of yards, yet delivered decisive play after decisive play in the 2nd half to win.

  • And so it was against the Dallas Cowboys.

On paper, the Steelers should have steamrolled the Cowboys, a team that was reeling even before it found itself needing to start its 4th or 5th string quarterback. It should have been so simple. Yet, it wasn’t:

  • James Conner struggled, plodding for 2.4 yards a carry instead of running strong
  • Ben Roethlisberger struggled to connect on the deep ball and couldn’t convert 3rd downs
  • Garrett Gilbert played more like Dallas’ next Tony Romo than its next Babe Laufenberg
  • It was Dallas, and not Pittsburgh that moved the chains and possessed the clock

So instead of dominating Dallas, the Steelers were looking at a 13-0 deficit with 3:50 left to play. Just as they had against Baltimore, and just as they had against Tennessee, the question wasn’t whether the glass was half empty or half full, but rather why the Steelers seemed to be stuck with half a glass.

Steelers Come Alive @ 2 Minute Warning

The key word there is “seemed.” Just after the two minute warning, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee, and almost as if on cue:

Dallas got the ball back, and a quick pass from Garrett Gilbert to CeeDee Lamb looked promising until Cam Sutton knocked the ball loose, regaining possession at the Cowboy’s 39. Mason Rudolph came in to complete a few passes, but those amounted to little more than chump change.

  • Still, it was enough for Chris Boswell to kick a franchise-record 59 yard field goal.

Instead of heading into half time on the ropes, the Steelers had narrowed the score to a very manageable 13 to 9.

Special Teams Snafus Nearly Sabotage Steelers

Steelers fans with long memories know of the team’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship with special teams coaches. Jon Kolb was a legendary tackle for Chuck Noll, but a nightmare as a special teams coach. George Stewart followed him, and his special teams strike force helped craft the 1989 Steelers Cinderella story.

Bobby April gained cult hero status for his special teams prowess during the 1995 Steelers failed Super Bowl run, while Jay Hayes disastrous special teams foul ups paved the way for the Tom Brady era in the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • Many fans in Steelers Nation have felt Danny Smith was on the wrong side of that divide.

I’d argue that wouldn’t have been fair to Smith, but not one can argue that during 2020, special teams have been an asset for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Until they set foot in Jerry’s World, where:

  • Chris Boswell missed his first extra point
  • Boswell then missed his next field goal (although a penalty gave him a re-try)
  • The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during an 83 yard punt return
  • The Cowboys blocked an extra point
  • Rico Dowdle transformed a picture perfect 64 yard “mortar kick” into a 64 yard return

The math is pretty simple, the 83 yard punt return set up an easy Dallas field goal, and the two botched extra points took two points off the board for the Steelers. That’s a 5 point swing against Pittsburgh…

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Cowboys

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers 2nd Half Comeback That Almost Came Up Short

True to form the Steelers fielded a different team in the 2nd half, that featured the following fireworks:

  • 75 and 79 yard drives that ended with touchdown passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron
  • Another 75 yard drive that started at Pittsburgh’s 1 and ended with a field goal
  • A 5-play negative 1-yard Cowboys drive at the 2 minute warning

That Cowboy drive ended with a hellacious Cam Heyward/ T.J. Watt sack on 4th and 8 with 1:45 left.

  • The game should have ended there. Except it didn’t.

The Steelers got the ball back at the Dallas 24. James Conner ran twice for little effect. On third down Ben Roethlisberger connected with Chase Claypool, but Claypool only got 5 yards, bringing up 4th and 1. On 4th and one James Conner got stoned for a 4 yard loss.

Dallas was not only in it, it had a chance to win it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowboys

Minkah Fitzpatrick after saving the day for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Boston Globe.

Minkah Magic = Difference Maker for Steelers

Steelers fans have seen these situations before and suffered from them all too often – just remember the 2nd half of the 2018 season. But Dallas didn’t close the deal here, for the same reason it failed to put Pittsburgh away at two other points in the game: Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • Minkah recovered the Cowboys fumble late in the first half, setting up the Steelers field goal
  • Dowdle’s 64 yard kick return gave Dallas perfect field position, only for Minkah to intercept the ball

And so it was. Dallas got the ball back with 38 seconds left. Gilbert moved the team 58 yards. The prevent defense looked like it was about to prevent the Steelers from winning. Then, on 3rd an 4 from the Pittsburgh 23 with 0:04 left, Gilbert fired at CeeDee Lamb.

  • As he did last week, Minkah Fitzpatrick stepped up and batted away the final pass.

Once again, Minkah Magic put the Pittsburgh Steelers over the top.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens: Flunk Multiple Choice, Ace the Essay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher whose students flunked the multiple choice section but aced the essay part of the exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half, completing just four passes, although he protected the ball. In the second half, Ben Roethlisberger did what he does best – freelancing, and led the Steelers on 3 touchdown drives. Finishing the day going 21 of 32 for an economical 182 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a tough day, only rushing for 47 yards on 15 carries, and added 3 catches for 13 yards. James Conner did score a critical, go ahead touchdown. Anthony McFarland had 1 carry for 1 yard, but he did well in avoiding a loss. Jaylen Samuels was targeted twice and did not catch a pass. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 4 passes for 48 yards, which looks pedestrian, but his touchdown was critical to getting the Steelers back into the game. Later, he made two drive-sustaining catches on series that ended with touchdowns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool made 5 catches for 42 yards, including a picture perfect route on the final go ahead touchdown. Claypool also fumbled the ball, which is becoming a recurring issue. Ray-Ray McCloud and Diontae Johnson each made 1 catch for 6 yards, but he drew a pass interference penalty on a touchdown drive. James Washington was targeted once and drew a pass interference penalty. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice and hit him 6 times, but Big Ben seemed under duress less than he would for a typical Ravens game. The line also gave up several tackles for losses and run blocking remains a challenge. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt was a monster, earning AFC Defensive player of the week for his 2 sack 3 tackles for a loss and 3 quarterback hits effort. Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and had to leave the game twice due to injuries. Tyson Alualu left the game early, and was replaced by Isaiah Buggs who struggled against the run early on. But Buggs made good on the penultimate drive of the game, stoning Lamarr Jackson twice, forcing a fumble on his second try. Grade: B

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane continues to impress, leading the team in tackles, defensing 2 passes, and making a pick six that was a critical difference maker for the team. Bud Dupree had four tackles and a strip sack that wiped at least 3 points off the board for Baltimore. T.J. Watt “only” had a sack and 5 QB hits. Vince Williams had five tackles and recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith made a leaping interception to start the 2nd half, which helped turn the game for Pittsburgh. The linebackers had a part in allowing Baltimore’s massive rushing total, but their critical plays at critical moments were essential. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden had 7 tackles and Steven Nelson had 4, while Cam Sutton and Justin Layne had 2 tackles apiece as did Terrell Edmunds. The real star of the unit was Minkah Fitzpatrick whose pass defense proved once again he was worth every bit of the 1st round pick the Steelers gave up to get him. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a respectable day on kick returns and returned 1 punt for 5 yards. The Ravens kick returns were nothing special, but they did have a 15 yard punt return. Jordan Berry had a spare 42.2 yards per punt, but he did boom off a 48 yard punt and a 56 yard punt. Chris Boswell was perfect on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching
The Ravens have a tough defense that figured to test Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first half, they shut the Steelers down easily. But Randy Fichtner made the necessary half time adjustments. It might not have been the greatest show on turf, but 21 2nd half points on the road after such a rough outing is nothing to sneeze at.

  • The Baltimore Ravens rushed for over 250 yards. Going into the game, teams that do that 215-1-1.Now they’re 215-2-1.

Yardage aside, the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 7 points in the 2nd half. While its probably more of a credit to the players rather than any scheme or strategy, the Steelers defense stopped Lamarr Jackson at every critical juncture that they had to stop him at.

In the last 8 quarters, the Steelers have gone from orchestrating a blow out in their first two tries, getting blown out in their next four, and rallying in their second 2, coming out victorious. Never at any moment has panic been evident in Pittsburgh’s play. That’s a credit to coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster Makes the tough catches against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
He hasn’t seen the end zone since September and he has yet to post a 100 yard or 10 catch game. That didn’t change against the Ravens, but this player make drive sustaining, combat catch after combat catch and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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Batted Away! Steelers Defeat Ravens 28-24, as Roethlisberger Rally Fuels Comeback

During the 21st century, Steelers and Ravens have delivered the very best football that the AFC can offer. Proponents of the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning narrative will protest, but they will be wrong.

  • Steelers vs. Ravens is physical, intense and nasty.
  • Their games ultimately gets decided by who hits the hardest.

The Steelers 28-24 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium lived up to the rivalry’s pedigree. The win improved the Steelers standing to 7-0 alone atop the AFC North. But what’s perhaps most encouraging about the win is that in leading the comeback, the Steelers signal caller showed something that we haven’t seen thus far in 2020.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

1st Half: No, A Win over the Ravens Really Couldn’t Come So Easily

The Steelers have already had marquee showdown with an AFC North Rival, the Browns. That game started with a pick six authored by all-world safety Minkah Fitzpatrick 3 plays into Cleveland’s first drive. And so did this one.

This time the hero was unsung inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who took it to the house from 33 yards out with less than a minute elapsed in play.

  • The Steelers pick-six against the Browns signaled a blowout — could history repeat?
Miles Boyken, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Ravens

Miles Boyken smokes Vince Williams for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Alas, it would not, and could not.

The Cleveland Browns, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, are a pretenders because they think they can gain respect by demanding it. The Baltimore Ravens are contenders because they know how to earn respect.

  • And during the next 30 minutes the Baltimore Ravens flourished instead of flinching.

Following the lead of Lamarr Jackson, the Ravens did everything that opponents haven’t been able to do to the Steelers thus far in 2020:

  • They converted third downs
  • They stitched together long drives
  • They compiled over 100 yards rushing in a single half
  • They forced the Steelers to punt three times and recovered a Chase Claypool fumble

Sure, the Ravens had their hiccups in the first half. Bud Dupree stripped the ball from LaMarr Jackson when the Ravens were in the Red Zone, but 5 plays and a mere 18 yards later, Jordan Berry was out punting it away for Pittsburgh.

Justin Tucker split the uprights from 51 yards away as time expired to close the first half.  The Ravens held a 17-7 lead over the Steelers, but Baltimore was in full control of the game, and nobody held any illusions to the contrary.

Big Ben Delivers on What He Does Best

The Baltimore Ravens had rendered Ben Roethlisberger ineffective in the first half. The Steelers had logged just 20 plays and pass interference penalties seemed their offense’s most potent weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster started the Steelers 2nd half off right with a 24 yard catch but, true to form, the Steelers were punting three plays later.

  • One play later rookie Alex Highsmith rebooted the Steelers 2nd half by intercepting Lamarr Jackson.

After a 1 yard James Conner run, Ben Roethlisberger and Eric Ebron hooked up to take advantage of a miscue by former Steeler L.J. Fort for an easy touchdown. Suddenly, the Steelers were only down by 3, contesting control of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished a lot since his return from 2019’s season-ending elbow surgery.

He’s shown he can still throw the ball with the same zip as before. He’s shown he can adjust his game to focus more on shorter-higher percentage passes. He’s shown that he can eliminate, thus far (and for the rest of the season, God willing,) the “one dumb interception a game” that once seemed obligatory. He’s shown that he can still move in the pocket to make things happen. He’s shown he can take instruction on details like footwork from Matt Canada.

  • But going into Baltimore, he still hadn’t shown whether he could still takeover a game.

During the 2nd half against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner decided to give Ben Roethlisberger a chance to do just that. Ben Roethlisberger just didn’t work out of empty sets. HE didn’t simply run the no hurry up offense and call his own plays. He was MAKING his own plays in the huddle at the line of scrimmage.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As he told Chris Admanski of the Tribune-Review, “I know everybody says, I do well in playground, backyard football. Today it was in its truest form.” And today at least, playground Ben meant Big Ben at his best as he connected with:

  • Eric Ebron twice
  • James Conner twice
  • Ray-Ray McCloud once
  • Chase Claypool 3 times
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster 5 times

That’s 13 completed passes with just 3 incompletions, along with two pass interference penalties, as Ben Roethlisberger authored two drives that retook the lead twice, setting up an epic, Steelers-Ravens end of game stand.

Defense Delivers for Steelers

Statistically speaking this wasn’t the best day for Keith Butler’s defense. He saw his unit lose Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward, which can’t have helped as the Ravens ran up over 265 yards on the ground on the legs of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Willie Snead IV added 106 yards and a touchdown through the air in a game that saw the Ravens convert 8 of 15 third downs.

  • And, if this story were being written according to Fantasy Football rules then owners of the Baltimore Ravens would have been happy.

But this tale is being told in Reality Football terms where outcomes are fought out in the trenches instead of spreadsheets. And so it was, with 3:48 left to play the Ravens reached the Steelers Red Zone.

  • On 3rd and 5 Isaiah Buggs stoned LaMarr Jackson who tried to rush it up the middle
  • On 4th and Isaiah Buggs stuffed Jackson again with an assist from Minkah

James Conner and Diontae Johnson did manage to get the Steelers to 3rd and 1, but the Ravens held. Fortunately, Jordan Berry boomed off a 45 yard punt. With no time outs remaining, Lamarr Jackson moved Baltimore 40 yards in 46 seconds, delivering Baltimore to Pittsburgh’s 23.

Here’s what happened next:

Minkah Fitzpatrck and Justin Layne were perfect on the play, as Fitzpatrick pushed the pass from Willie Snead’s hands while Layne drilled him, delivering Pittsburgh’s first 7-0 start since 1978.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Titans: Learn the Right Lesson Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students don’t learn the long lesson from their experience of starting strong, stumbling badly and still passing, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Titans.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Spillane, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt sacks Ryan Tannehill. And then some. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started this game as he had so many others this year – on fire. By Jim Wexell’s calculation’s Big Ben had a passer rating of 99.4 in the first half, and 17.0 thereafter. His interceptions alone accounted for a 6 point swing. To his credit Roethlisberger manned up after the game, but that doesn’t count as “extra credit for showing your work.” Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner had 82 yards on 20 carries and ran strong in addition to 3 catches for 29 yards. Benny Snell only had 2 carries, but found paydirt on one of them with a touchdown. Jaylen Samuels returned to the offense and got 5 yards on his only carry. Anthony McFarland 6 yards on one carry. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had two catches for 14 yards while Eric Ebron had 6 catches for 50 yards, while Jerald Hawkins sealed the corner on Snell’s touchdown playing as the third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson did something that not easily measured by statistics – they showed that the can and will make opposing defenses pay for double-teaming Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 85 yards and they were combat catches. Diontae Johnson also had 9 catches for 80 yards, but he also scored two touchdowns. Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. The one combat catch that JuJu missed was the end zone touchdown, and that brings this group’s mark down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and he was only hit 3 times per ESPN’s stats. James Conner and the other running backs ran very well in the first half and the line had a lot to do with that. Their rushing average plummeted in the 2nd half, which contributed to two very short drives when clock milking was in order. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Derrick Henry is, daresay, a running back cut out of the Jerome Bettis mold, yet agaisnt the Steelers he only managed 3.8 yards a carry. Certainly some of that is due to the Titans playing from behind, but part of the reason they were behind late was because Henry couldn’t get started early. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt’s stat sheets are slim, but they impact was deep. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and dropped Henry for losses twice the second of which was a key play in forcing a punt. Bud Dupree’s name doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, which is strange, but he was tasked in part with helping ensure Henry remained contained. The real hero of the day is this unit’s work horse, Vince Williams who led the team with 10 total tackles, a sack and another tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Cam Sutton, Corey Davis

Cam Sutton deflects a pass against Corey Davis. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Secondary
Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, and Terrell Edmunds all batted away passes at critical moments. Joe Haden made some critical stops on the final drive. Steven Nelson’s name was seldom heard which is very much a good thing. However, the secondary gave up a 70 yard touchdown which came early enough to allow Tennessee to get back in the game. Minkah Fitzpatrick either slipped or perhaps hesitated and A.J. Brown outran the rest of the secondary. These types of slips hurt. Grade: C

Special Teams
In his return to Pittsburgh Jordan Berry averaged 50 yards on two punts, delivering an immediate improvement. The Steelers kick and punt coverage remained strong. Chris Boswell was 3 for 3 on PATs and hit two field goals. The special teams also quashed an impromptu fake punt attempt. The real star was Ray-Ray McCloud, whose 57 yard punt return gave the Steelers an easy score inside the 2 minute warning. That’s 9 points score by special teams and another 6 directly set up by special teams. Excellent. Grade: A

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense did what it had not done in 24 games, score a touchdown on its opening drive. This immediately knocked the Titans off of their game, which is to ride Henry from ahead. The Steelers offense authored drives of 9, 7 and 7 and a half minutes.

Keith Butler was forced to play without two critical players, in Mike Hilton and Devin Bush, and knew his run defense would be tested by the NFL’s best rusher. The Steelers defense proved to be up to the task, and their early shut downs of the Titans offense were critical to establish and padding a lead which would become quite slim by the end of the afternoon.

  • It is true that Butler’s defense did suffers its share of hiccups, on the long pass play and the goal line, but they delivered.

When a team is on the road, goes negative 3 in the turnover category, gives up a 70 yard touchdown pass and STILL wins to remain undefeated, you suspect the coaching staff is doing something right. But when that team’s players exit the game with a humble, rather than triumphant attitude you simply have to credit head coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
OK. We’ve given the coaches their due. But there’s another reason why a team can turn the ball over so many times, give up long touchdowns and still win. It’s because of plays like this:

Sure, the Titan’s scored two plays later. It doesn’t matter. Good things happen to teams who see their heretofore no-names take on NFL All Pros head on and win and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Titans.

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