Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals. Time to Give Out F’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher fearing his students are slacking off just when the end of the semester crunch as begun, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F

Running Backs
Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 9 catches for 95 yards on 14 targets while Chase Claypool had 3 on 8 targets for 82 yards. James Washington had 1 catch for 3 yards and Anthony Miller had 1 for 2 yards. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F

Secondary
James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F

Special Teams
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+

Coaching
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.

  • The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.

On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.

  • Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)

It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.

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Devoured! Bengals Shame Steelers 41-10, Signal Changing of AFC North Guard

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paul Brown Stadium hoping to keep themselves in the thick of the AFC North division title race. Instead, they found themselves devoured 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Don’t be fooled:  This contest wasn’t even as “close” as the score suggests.

While the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati while playing at Paul Brown Stadium, this wasn’t their first loss. But there was something different about this one, different because it signaled something deeper.

B.J. Hill, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

B.J. Hill sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Bengals.com

Yes, This Game Was Competitive. For a While

The Cincinnati Bengals are a better football team than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, looking beyond the frame of this game or this season, the Bengals are a team on the rise. The Steelers are not.

But this is the NFL. If Washington can beat the Patriots, the Jets can beat the Bengals, and the Dolphins can beat the Ravens then the Steelers could have beaten the Bengals.

  • And there were times in the first half when this seemed like it might be possible.

The Bengals scored on their first possession and made it look easy, with Joe Mixon accounting for 54 yards on that first drive and Joe Burrow running in untouched for a touchdown. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger would throw inside while Chase Claypool broke outside and Eli Apple snapped Big Ben’s interceptionless streak – and returned it 50 yards to the Steelers 5 for good measure.

Oddly enough, the next sequence proves that the Steelers, with a few plays could have made something of this game.

  • The Steelers stuffed Mixon on 2nd and 3rd and then Chris Wormley dropped Burrow on 3rd down.

Defenses that respond to a dramatic turnover by forcing an offense to settle for 3 typically find ways to win football games. The offense took note, as Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Chase Claypool; this time the sophomore from Notre Dame flipped the field.

  • The Steelers converted another third down, but alas had to settle for a field goal.

The Bengals scored on their next two possessions, which each touchdown coming easier than the first. Things were beginning to look bleak before the half, when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow with just under a minute left to go and returned it 19 yards.

  • Yes, a little bit of Minkah had given the Steelers a lease on life.

37 seconds isn’t a lot of time, but Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have proven field flipping ability. And once you get in the Red Zone, Pat Freiermuth isn’t quite “money” but he’s getting there. So if the Steelers could get a touchdown, get the ball back at the half and find the end zone again, the 2nd half could be quite interesting….

…Instead Ben Roethlisberger threw to James Washington but couldn’t step into his throw and former Steeler Mike Hilton was only to happy to make him pay, returning a pick six 24 yards and improving the score to 31-3.

And that ladies and gentleman, was the game.

Joe Mixon, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Mixon scores a 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Little Analysis Necessary

When it was all over, the Steelers lost the game 41-10. Really, a second half comeback wasn’t feasible. (No, Alex Highsmith’s could have been pick six wouldn’t have moved the needle).

This Steelers squad simply isn’t talented enough or healthy enough. While James Pierre has looked sharp at times this year, he’s got a long way to go to show he’s the next Joe Haden. T.J. Watt was in uniform, but his best play was his post interception scuffle with Joe Burrow. Either Devin Bush‘s heart or his ACL recovery is lagging or perhaps a little of both, but he’s not getting the job done.

  • The Steelers tried moving Cam Heyward to nose tackle, but that proved to be a mistake.

On the offensive, Najee Harris showed he was capable of being truly a special back, but he hath no line to block for him. Fourth string guard B.J. Finney helped remind everyone why the Steelers let him go in free agency, two teams parted with him during 2020 and the Steelers waited until November to dress him.

  • This is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that can’t run and can’t stop the run.

Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t carry this team on his back in 2021 and yesterday proved that. Claypool, Johnson and Freiermuth made some nice plays, but Ben clearly failed to make some throw’s he’d have made as recently as 2018.

Tomlin Promises Changes, but Some Changes Are Beyond His Control

Since he arrived in the NFL during the Steelers 2004 season, commentators have seldom tired of reminding us of how well Ben Roethlisberger has played in his native Ohio. He did it again this fall in Cleveland, but this streak skidded out Sunday in Cincinnati.

That’s an interesting factoid, but the story of this game goes beyond Ben losing what is likely his last game in Ohio. When asked change was coming after the game, Mike Tomlin admitted  “You know, we’re open to doing whatever is required to change what’s trending.”

While there are some changes Tomlin can make, perhaps even ones that will bear fruit next week against Baltimore, the Steelers loss at Paul Brown Stadium signals that the guard has changed in the AFC North.

And there’s no decision Mike Tomlin can make this season to alter that reality.

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Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors: Cam Heyward Wins a Second Time

Thanksgiving 2021 has arrived so it’s time to award this year’s Steel Curtain Risings Steelers Thanksgiving Honors. To understand our what crystalized our choice, let’s return to the tail, tail end of the Steelers tie against the Lions.

On 3rd and goal with 20 seconds remaining all that separated the Detroit Lions from a touchdown going into half time was 8 yards. Here’s the Pro Football Reference stat line for what happened next:

A curious choice for a stat to highlight, especially given Cam Heyward’s twin sacks in 3rd down in the 4th quarter and then again in overtime? Maybe. Not.

It wasn’t the tackle that Heyward made, although his save a touchdown and force a field goal, it was the way that Cam Heyward made the tackle. He wrapped Swift at the 2-yard line and tossed him back like a rag doll a good 3 or 4 yards.

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Heyward Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors winner. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Those kinds of plays are all about attitude. In a goal line situation is the defense’s way of channeling their inner Gandalf the Grey saying, “You SHALL Not Pass!” Those are the kind of plays that define a good defense, and it is with that style an attitude that Cameron Heyward has defined himself as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Normally, we’d look to bestow the award on someone new. But Cam Heyward’s play in 2021 has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The Steelers defensive line is hurting. Stephon Tuitt has yet to play a game or even take a snap on practice. Tyson Alualu was lost, likely for the season, in week 2. Cameron Heyward is responding like any true champion: He’s stepping it up.

He already has 4.5 sacks on the season, one more than his 2020 total. He’s dropped 7 players for losses, equaling his 2020 total. He’s hit quarterbacks 10 times. His batted down 7 balls – doubling his 2020 total. And he’s forced and recovered a fumble and has an interception to his credit.

  • All with 7 games to go.

But like with his tackle of D’Andre Swift, it isn’t what he’s doing, is the way he’s doing it and when he’s doing it.

  • Throughout this season of barn burners, Cameron Heyward is consistently making big plays at big moments.

Case in point: This article was drafted on Sunday, before the Chargers game. In that contest Cam Heyward “only” had two tackles and one pass defensed. What those numbers don’t show is that he ran down Justin Herbert on a 36 yard run and kept him out of the end zone. Then, 5 defensive plays later he batted away a pass, which Cam Sutton picked off, setting up Ben Roethlisberger’s tying touchdown to Pat Freiermuth.

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

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

You think Art Rooney II knew what he was doing at the tail end of training camp in 2020 when he essentially told Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert to get Cam Heyward signed, damn the salary cap consequences?

You only need to register a pulse to know that Cameron Heyward has been a good player since the Steelers drafted him. But during 2021 he’s taken it a step further.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Aaron Smith yield nothing to any other franchise in terms defensive line legacy.

  • During 2021 Cam Heyward has once again proven he belongs in that elite group of excellent players.

And for that, for his leadership in the locker room and in the community of Pittsburgh, Cameron Heyward wins Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Explained

Steelers Thanksgiving honors is a tradition that began here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The idea was to pick a player or member of the Steelers organization who gave Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

Football, while important to all of us isn’t and shouldn’t be our top priorities – that should be family and friends. So the hope here is that everyone reading this has reason to give thanks for the people in their lives.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Chargers: Few A’s for Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed by his students enthusiasm in the face of adversity but nonetheless not inclined to give many “A’s” for effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Chargers.

Chase Claypool, Asante Samuel, Steelers vs Chargers

Asante Samuel Jr. shuts down Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
It happened again. Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week on the COVID-19 list, cleared protocols, flew out on a private jet, and promptly played his best game of the season going 28-44-278 with 3 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. If this were a series or movie franchise we’d have to admonish the writers for recycling plot lines. But its not so instead we’ll admonish any Steelers fan who doesn’t fully appreciate just how special Ben is. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Not a good day for the running game, but the Chargers scoring on their first 5 posessions had a lot to do with that. Najee Harris looked good, given his blocking, but never found a grove but he did find the end zone in earning 39 yards on 12 carries. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage were respectable in spot duty. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron both caught touchdowns and Zach Gentry made some good blocks. The Steelers tight ends did what was asked of them in the running game, but they’re going ot need to do more as run blockers if this offense is to sustain any momentum. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson authored what may have been his finest game as a professional, only falling a few plays short of a dominant performance. He caught 7 passes for 107 yards an a touchdown. Chase Claypool had an “on” night one in what has been an on-and-off season catching 5 passes for 93 yards including a field flipper that set up a score. Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington had 2 catches for 12 yards. Both Claypool and McCloud ran a few reverses, but made little headway. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Rushing room was spare – although the Steelers were in catch up mode most of the night. And although Ben Roethlisberger was hit 6 times, he generally had time to throw. Except on the final drive when the offensive line gave up consecutive sacks. Grade: F

Defensive Line
With the injuries to T.J. Watt it was clear that the Steelers defensive line was going to need to step up and it is equally clear that they were not up to the task. Except of course for Cam Heyward who deflected a pass and ran down a ball carrier from about 30 yards downfield. Grade: D

Linebackers
The story of the game was Justin Herbert breaking off and gouging the Steelers. Which shows that the Steelers weren’t able to neither pressure him nor contain him. That’s on the linebackers as much as the defensive line. Taco Charlton was drafted 2 slots earlier, but people still aren’t forgetting he’s not T.J. Watt. Grade: D

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
That Herbert had to run so many times indicates that he couldn’t find anyone open. And the Chargers were only 7-12 on third downs, a surprising stat. Cam Sutton also delivered what should have been a game-changing interception. Still “no one” had Mike Williams on his 53 yard touchdown pass which cost the Steelers the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a few nice punt kick returns and the Steelers punt return coverage was excellent, stopping the Chargers lone attempt for a loss. Chris Boswell was 3-3. And Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt should have been a game changer. Grade: A

Coaching
While it is tempting to point the finger at Matt Canada for only calling 18 runs against the NFL’s worst rushing defense, the Steelers defense simply could NOT stop the Chargers from scoring. The time to rollout a clock-control game is NOT when you’re down 14 points by the first time you touch the ball in the 2nd half.

  • Canada’s offense put 37 points on the board including converting 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

The Steelers defense had one of their worst nights in memory. In his press conference, Mike Tomlin doubled down on taking blame for the breakdowns of schematics. Honestly, there is probably something to that.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But no amount of scheming can replace the playmaking ability for T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Joe Haden for that matter.

The Steelers were down 17 points the just over 18 minutes left to go, but they continued fighting until the very final gun and almost pulled off a comeback. That reflects well on both them, their coach and the entire organization. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
When team leader goes down those who he leads need to step up, and during the game this player had two sacks, both coming in critical situations, both of which helped keep the game from slipping away from the Steelers and for that Alex Highsmith wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Blocked! Steelers Rally Fizzles as Chargers Win 41-37, while Tomlin’s Remarks were Revealing

The Steelers-Chargers Sunday Night Game had it all:

  • 41 4th quarter points
  • A blocked punt in the Red Zone that set up a 4th down PI call that set up Najee Harris air mail touchdown
  • A 75 yard Ben Roethlisberger touchdown drive ending with a pass to Eric Ebron
  • A pass deflected by Cam Heyward that set up a Cam Sutton interception in the Red Zone
  • A Ben Roethlisberger touchdown to Pat Freiermuth
  • A defense that stopped NOBODY on the ground, coming up with a stop on 4th and 1
  • A 45 yard Chris Boswell field goal with the clock winding to 3:29

Yes, the game had it everything, but in the end everything was not enough as the Steelers fell to the Chargers 41-37 in their first trip to SoFi Stadium. The Steelers first loss in 41 days drops their record to 5-4-1, while Mike Tomlin’s uncharacteristic response reveals a lot about how he sees the rest of 2021 unfolding.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Chargers 2021, Miles Killebrew blocked punt

Miles Killebrew blocks a punt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Can’t Run. Chargers Can, Without Even Trying

The first half ended with a 17-10 advantage for the Chargers. Although a 7-point half time deficit is hardly cause for panic, if it felt like San Diego er um Los Angeles was in charge, its because they were.

On Pittsburgh’s second possession, Chase Claypool had brought the Steelers to the Chargers 5, but Pittsburgh failed to punch it in. An end around by Claypool yielded 3 yards while a rush up the middle by Najee Harris delivered none. Mike Tomlin opted to pass on third and 4th downs and the Steelers misfired on both, getting no points for 73 yards.

  • In contrast, the Chargers responded by going 98 yards and netting a score.

Justin Herbert accounted for 40 of those yards on four unplanned scrambles were just as easy as they looked. The Steelers couldn’t rush the ball while the Chargers could, even when they weren’t trying to.

By the time a Cameron Sutton penalty gave Dustin Hopkins a do over field goal that he converted for 41 yards, the Chargers had a 17 point lead owith just 18 minute left to play.

For all intents and purposes, the game seemed to be over.

Give the Men in Black and Gold Credit for Something

Let’s be blunt. You can talk all you want about professionals football players being paid millions to play a boy’s game. The truth is that a lot of teams facing a 17-point deficit, at night, on the road, with just over a quarter to go would mail it in. The allure of the showers, of getting out of the stadium and on to the plane becomes too strong.

Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, Steelers vs Chargers

Kendrick Green blocks to set up Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers responded to the Chargers field goal with one of their own. On the next drive the Steelers defense did something it hadn’t done all night – force the Charger to punt. For the record, Ray-Ray McCloud returned the punt for 12 yards.

Ah, but off setting penalties forced a re-kick, which Miles Killebrew blocked, igniting the Steelers 24-point 4th quarter explosion. (Note, the Steelers also scored 3 points in the 4th prior to the blocked punt.)

Symmetry within the Number 3 Dooms Steelers

That 24-point explosion was entertaining. It would have been something really special had it not been broken up by 14 points scored by the Chargers. Or by Kyler Fackrell and Joey Bosa book ending the 2 minute warning with 8 and 11-yard sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • The Steelers defense made 3 separate stops the Chargers in the 4th quarter.

Those there the only 3 stops the unit had in them. I suppose that’s an odd sort of symmetry for a Steelers defense missing 3 starters in the form of T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. At the end of the day the Steelers couldn’t get pressure – or containment – of Herbert without Watt.

And if James Pierre did a fine job of filling in for Haden, that forced Tre Norwood out of his slot position and into Minkah’s which is how you get a 53 yard walk off touchdown to Mike Williams with just over 2 minutes remaining.

Factor in Joe Haeg playing for an injured J.C. Hassenauer was in for an injured Kevin Dotson which opened the door to the Chargers final sacks. The Steelers simply didn’t have the players they needed to compete.

Tomlin’s Uncharacteristic Remarks Revealing

Once upon a time, Mike Tomlin would have scoffed at a long injury list with “The Standard Is the Standard.” But after the game he explained, “We have to get back to the drawing board and do a better job of putting them in positions to be successful with the people that we have at our disposal.”

  • Is Tomlin stepping back from “The Standard is the Standard?” Is he, in effect, making excuses?

Don’t bet on it. Mike Tomlin is taking the blame upon himself because he doesn’t want criticism contaminating the spirit and attitude of a promising young crops players.

  • Clearly, he believes that, with a little confidence, this group’s best football lies ahead of it.

The fight they showed in the 4th quarter suggests Tomlin is right. We’ll find out over the next 7 games.

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Frustrated by Devin Bush in 2021? Chill & Remember ACL Tears Are Complicated to Comeback from

Question: Entering the Chargers game, which injures have hurt the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers the most? There’s no definitive answer, but this blogger offers an unorthodox suggestion:

  • The injuries in question have probably never shown up on the Steelers weekly injury reports.

Injuries, as the late, great Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice reminded listeners, are just as much of a factor as talent and coaching. This was true for the NFL during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is even more true today.

  • Where in 2021 have injuries hit the Steelers the hardest?

The Steelers certainly missed Ben Roethlisberger against the Lions and Justin Herbert will force them to miss Minkah Fitzpatrick just as dearly tomorrow. And anyone who has seen the Steelers run defense lapse could and should point to the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

So if those are your answers, you’re in good company, just as is anyone who brings up T.J. Watt’s name. But my two choices are Devin Bush and Zach Banner.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Banner and Bush don’t share a lot in common, but both men suffered ACL tears during the 2020 season.

  • Zach Banner played in training camp and preseason, but had to be put on IR.

The Steelers failure to use him on Sundays has drawn frustrated “Whys” as Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor have had their struggles. Devin Bush has of course played all season, but he hasn’t been the same. This has led even level-minded reporters to go as far as to question the Steelers decision to trade up to get him.

The frustration with Banner and Bush is understandable, but perhaps misguided.

ACL Tears Remain Serious Injuries in 2021

Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell doom for a professional football player. Anterior cruciate ligament sent the legendary Gale Sayers career on the path to ruin. Fortunately, with the rise of arthroscopic surgery, and improvements in rehabilitation therapy, ACL tears stopped being an immediate threat to a player’s career.

In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was the first NFL player to tear his ACL in a season, only to return later that year.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Woodson tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers season opener, but returned to play 12 snaps in Super Bowl XXX. Woodson’s pass defense of Michael Irvin is one of Steelers Nation’s legitimate bragging points from otherwise disappointing loss.

  • In that sense, perhaps Steelers fans got a little spoiled.

Not only because Woodson’s feat remains rather unique, but because it came with a cost. As Woodson confessed to Jim Wexell in Men of Steel, returning for the Super Bowl was “‘not the smartest thing to do'” continuing he adds, “‘I was probably 45-50 percent healthy at that point.'”

Woodson of course returned for the Steelers 1996 season and in the home opener he returned Vinny Testaverde’s first pass 43 yards for a pick six. Woodson made the Pro Bowl in 1996.

  • So of course he was fully recovered, right?

Wrong. Woodson confided this to Wexell, “’In ’96, I was still sore, and then my Achilles started acting up a lot, just from compensating for my knee….’” Woodson left the Steelers after 1996, but went on to play in 7 more years, making 4 Pro Bowls and one All Pro Team will appearing in two more Super Bowls.

  • So surly he was fully recovered by time he left Pittsburgh, right?

Wrong again. While admitting to struggling a bit in San Francisco, Woodson explained, “’I was still trying to recover from the knee a bit, even that second year.’”

And while players like Casey Hampton and Heath Miller returned for a productive seasons after suffering ACL tears late in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, it is easy to forget just how fortunate they were. Shaun Suisham suffered an ACL tear during the 2015 Hall of Fame game that ended his career.

Are Bush and Banners ACL Tears Lingering On?

It is hard to really say how much impact Zach Banner’s absence has had on the offensive line. He won the starting job in 2020, only to tear his ACL in the season opening win over the Giants. Which is to say, he’s largely an unknown commodity.

  • With Devin Bush, it’s a little different.

Bush had a strong, if not fantastic rookie year in 2019 and was playing well early in 2020. So far in 2021 he’s been a non-factor. Is it because he’s still not fully recovered from his ACL tear? It is hard to know for sure.

Some film analysis of the Lions game suggests he was badly out of place on some of those critical runs the Lions used to gouge the Steelers defense. That was only one play, however, and Bush was far from the only person on the Steelers defense out of position (see Joe Schobert and Cam Sutton.)

  • While medicine is a science it remains an inexact science.

People’s bodies heal differently and at distinct paces. Modern medicine has done a lot to make ACL tears more manageable for NFL players, but if something seems not quite right with Devin Bush, just remember that even in 2021 anterior cruciate ligament injuries anything but trivial.

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Steelers Report Card for Tie with Lions: Peaking vs “Learning Experience” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who hopes his students can use this as a learning experience but fears they may have just hit their peak, here is the Steelers Report Card for the tie against the Lions.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Steelers vs Lions

Oh, what could have been. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Anyone still wonder why the Steelers opted to bring back a dismissed Ben Roethlisberger? Mason Rudolph did not play poorly, completing 30 out of 50 passes for one interception and another touchdown. But Rudolph also missed on some throws the Steelers needed him to make. Grade: C-

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 105 yards on 26 carries. While 26 carries perhaps a few more than you’d like to see his four yards per carry average indicates that perhaps they should have leaned on him more. If Benny Snell’s lone carry for four yards is any indicate, he could have been used to spell Harris. Derek Watt actually caught a pass for nine yards. Grade: B

Tight End
Mason Rudolph largely avoided the middle of the field, limited the tight ends a bit. Eric Ebron caught 2 passes for 13 yards while Pat Freiermuth caught 5 passes for 31 yards, but he unfortunately fumbled the ball away in overtime. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The Steelers have done well in combat catches this season, but both Diontae Johnson and James Washington lost contested balls. Ray-Ray McCloud showed why Mike Tomlin kept him after his fumble as he pulled in 9 catches. Johnson showed impressive presence of mind getting out of bounds during overtime, but this happened after he fumbled the ball on a field-flipping play. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was neither sacked nor hit during the entire game, per ESPN’s statistics. And, as mentioned, Harris had good room to run. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
For about 20 minutes, the Detroit Lions ran through the Steelers defense like they were indeed live lions charging through lines of Christians in the Coliseum. That is decidedly NOT the fault of the line, but it starts there. Cam Heyward came up with a monster sack at the end of regulation and another one in overtime. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was awfully quiet in this game until sacking Jared Goff for a 6 yard loss – a play on which he got hurt. Alex Highsmith came up big with two big tackles for losses late in the 4th quarter. Still, the Lion ran at will for a time and Devin Bush and Joe Schobert don’t deserve all of the blame for that, they duo is charged with guarding the middle of the defense. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick symbolizes what this game could have been. His nullified interception should have decided overtime, yet his missed tackles helped dig the Steelers into the hole. James Pierre did well in place of Joe Haden. Terrelll Edmunds overtime sack should have turned the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Kalif Raymond 48 yard punt return awakened the Lions and set up their first touchdown, a 28 yard romp that would get Detroit believing they could win the game. That wasn’t a lone play as averaged over 11 yards on his next returns. Steelers kick coverage was shaky too.

Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals including a 51 yarder in the rain, which pulls the grade for Danny Smith’s group up. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the first time this season, Matt Canada’s play calling led to some head scratching. We can accept that the reads on RPOs in the Red Zone were correct based on 5 Detroit defensive lineman on the field.

  • But does that explain throwing the ball 50 times when Najee Harris is running reasonably well?

Was Canada trying to do more through the air because he thought Rudolph was more capable (with fewer receivers BTW?) Did he want to see Rudolph prove himself? Regardless of his motive, his game plan was questionable in theory and failed in practice.

  • Keith Butler must find a way to coax more consistency out of his rushing defense.

The Lions running game was unstoppable for a quarter. Most of this was due to poor tackling, but that is hardly an excuse.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Lions

Najee Harris in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Finally, this column has credited Mike Tomlin when his players refused to “blink” with the game on the line. In overtime his defense did the same in this game. The offense? Not so much. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers lost four starters in this game, including 2 on offensive line. Yet the unit continued chugging along with backups in the game and for that J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg win the Unsung Hero Award for the tie with the Lions.

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Reality Check: Comedy of Errors Leads Steelers 16-16 Tie with Winless Lions

In one of the ugliest games played in Heinz Field history, the Pittsburgh Steelers fought the winless Detroit Lions to a 16-16 tie in overtime.

  • The story lines coming out of this game are nearly limitless.

You want to talk about injuries? You’ve got it. Questionable calls. Check! Missed opportunities. Yep. And then some. Opportunities to second guess the play calling? You bet. Failure on fundamentals? You can say that again.

In truth, neither team deserved to win this game. But if nothing else this comedy of errors offers a timely reality check for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Diontae Johnson, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Lions, Diontae Johnson fumble overtime Steelers Lions

Diontae Johnson fumbles in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

COVID-19 Strikes Big Ben at the 11th Hour

Less than 24 hours before the game news broke that Ben Roethlisberger had tested positive for COVID-19 and was out for the game. Mason Rudolph had practiced most of the week due to Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, so the backup would at least avoid coming in cold.

  • And Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense started hot.

The Steelers offense opened the game as they have many times this season: By marching down the field for a touchdown. There weren’t a lot of fireworks on this drive, just some solid runs by Najee Harris, some chink and dink short passing to Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington and Eric Ebron.

The Lions pitched in, leaving James Washington wide open in the end zone, allowing the two Oklahoma State Cowboys to hook up for an easy touchdown. With 9:40 left to play in the first half, things were looking very good for the home team at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, this was about as good as it was going to get.

Steelers Run Defense Does Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde Routine. Again.

After 9 games there is one thing you can say about the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 defense: Either it is very good against the run or it is terrible.

  • But there IS no in between.

Early in the second quarter Jermar Jefferson ran 28 yards, going untouched for about his first 24 for a touchdown. Jefferson would suffer an injury on the play, but the Lions running game was about to roar to life.

The next time the Lions got the ball, their running backs ripped off 3 double digit wins, including a 10 yarder on 4th and one that allowed Detroit to kick a field goal to tie the game at the half. The Lions were only sharpening their claws.

Getting the ball after half time, the Lions pounced with:

  • 12 and 16 yard runs by D’Andre Swift
  • 14 and 42 yard runs by Godwin Igwebuike, the latter of which went for a touchdown.

Igwebuike’s touchdown gave Detroit a 16 to 10 lead, there it would stay as Ryan Santoso missed his extra point. But would it matter?

Steelers Defense Remembers to Tackle, Offense Shifts into Low Gear

On their opening drive the Detroit Lions gouged the Steelers for 85 yards and they made it look easy. Then a funny thing happened. During the rest of regulation, they totaled 47 yards, including two drives that ended with negative yards.

When asked to about the manic-depressive nature of the schematics of his run defense, Mike Tomlin begged off explaining:

There was a guy out of place or two initially. But if you had to wrap it in a bow and talk about globally, we had to tackle better. As the game wore on, we did. And we settled it down. But the damage was the damage.

Normally, you wouldn’t think of a defense giving up 16 points with 12:09 left to play in the 3rd quarter as “damage,” but after scoring their first touchdown, the Steelers offense slipped into low gear – and there it remained.

  • It wasn’t so much that Mason Rudolph was playing poorly. He just wasn’t playing particularly well.

Rudolph didn’t have a ton of help from his receivers. Both James Washington and Diontae Johnson failed to come up with key combat catches. Matt Canada’s play calling was questionable. Although Najee Harris was running fairly well, Rudolph threw the ball 50 times. In doing so, he stuck with the safe routes on the side lines, which limited Pat Freiermuth’s role in the offense.

Still, Rudolph played well enough to position Chris Boswell for two field goals, earning a tie in regulation. That set up the most unusual overtime in team, if not NFL history.

Overtime – A Comedy of Errors

Terrell Edmunds, Jared Goff, Steelers vs Lions

Terrell Edmunds sacks Jared Goff in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

It is unfortunate for their sake, that Terrell Edmunds, Cam Heyward, James Pierre, Joe Schobert and Minkah Fitzpatrick made some exceptional plays in overtime, (although Fitzpatrick’s was nullified by penalty.)

Each of those could have been and should have been the proverbial “turning” point in overtime.

  • They weren’t — because the Steelers kept turning the tide back in Detroit’s favor.

On their second play, Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson who flipped the field, moving the Steelers into Lion’s territory. Unfortunately, he fumbled the ball. Detroit recovered. Minkah made his interception but Devin Bush got called for very questionable hold. Detroit got into field goal range, gave up a holding penalty on third down, and promptly missed their field goal attempt. The Steelers had new life.

  • The Steelers answered with a nice 4-yard run.
  • Then Kendrick Green snapped the ball way over Rudolph’s head, bringing up 2nd and 23.

The Steelers punted, and the Lions gained -13 yards on their next drive, thanks in large part to Edmunds’ sack.

The Steelers got the ball back. Rudolph hit McCloud, Ebron and Harris to move the Steelers to midfield. Then he hit Freiermuth, who got them to the Detroit 39 and ostensibly in field goal range – then Freiermuth fumbled.

Detroit got a desperation pass, but they only managed to go 14 yards.

Welcome to Your 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers

Mathematically, a tie is better than a loss. But coming at home, against a winless team that seemed determined to lose the game in overtime?

  • It leaves the Steelers with little to feel good about.

Sure, the Steelers lost two starting offensive lineman, lost T.J. Watt and lost Joe Haden during the game, but the Lions were playing with a skeleton crew at many spots on their depth chart.

  • That, and Jared Goff quarterback was clearly hurting.

After starting 1-3, the Steelers rebounded to win 4 straight. But the result of each of those games has been in doubt until late in the 4th quarter if not the buzzer itself. While no team in the NFL rides “On Any Given Sunday” to four straight wins, the question has been, “How high is the 2021 Steelers ceiling?”

After tying Detroit the answer appears to be, “Not very high.”

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over the Bears: Just in Time Principles Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is just as committed to “Just in Time” principles as his students, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Monday Night Win over the Bears.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an economical night, completing 21 passes in 30 tries for 205 yards including two touchdowns. Most importantly, he completed all of his passes on the game’s final drive, although one must question his decision to kill the clock. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Rookies are NOT supposed to be this good. Pat Freiermuth came up with his second combat catch in two weeks. Kevin Rader had one catch although why he was targeted on the play is a bit of a head scratcher. Zach Gentry was in for 51% of the snaps but not targeted. The running game could have used some blocking help. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wide receivers did little to keep Fantasy Football owners happy Monday Night, but each one came up with a key catch. Chase Claypool’s 3rd down conversion was critical. Diontae Johnson almost single handedly put the Steelers in scoring range with his 22 yard pass on the finale drive. James Washington came back to catch a 42 yard pass set up their 3rd quarter touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 12 yard catch sustained the Steelers final drive. Claypool, Johnson and Washington all made gains on the ground. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The offensive line had its worst outing since September. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times and hit 5 more. The running backs had no room to run. Improvement is needed. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward is a monster. His interception helped the Steelers build an early lead and he hit Justin Fields 3 times. The Bears did run a little better than you’d like to see, but overall, the defensive line had a solid night. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had 3 sacks, two of which came on third down all of which helped force punts. He also deflected the ball on the game’s penultimate play. Devin Bush came up with a key pass deflection late, but he needs to do more. Grade: B

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in tackles while laying in the wood. Joe Haden deflected a pass. The Bears were able to move the ball through the air late in the game and they made it look easy. Some of this had to do with coverage schemes to contain Justin Fields, but rest assured the Ravens are watching. The secondary has a few weeks to get ready. This game shows they’ll need that time. Grade: D

Special Teams
How do you grade an effort like this? A fumbled punt returned for a touchdown – half way through the 4th quarter in a 10 point game no less. A missed extra point. And some wildly inconsistent punting by Pressley Harvin.

On the plus side Chris Boswell made 3 field goals, two from more than 50 yards including the game winner. And he recovered a fumbled kickoff return. The Steelers coverage was also good. Boswell’s heroics bring this grade up. But if Santos makes his kick, the grade goes down. Grade: C-

Coaching

Keith Butler might have contained the damage that Justin Fields did with his legs, but he has to hope he didn’t provide the Baltimore Ravens with a blueprint for how to move at will on the Steelers defense.

The Steelers defense played well in the first half, but gave up 17 points in the second half, and it looked too easy. You won’t beat many teams that way.

Matt Canada continues to improve week on week. His play scripting early on shows he was ready to exploit the Bears weaknesses. And when he couldn’t get the ground game going with his running backs, he improvised – a year ago in this situation the Steelers would sold out to the short passing game.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

While the need for 4th quarter heroics is something we’d all like to avoid, the Steelers never let themselves get caught up in the moment and those moments were never too big for them. That reflects well on Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero
It was a tough night for the Steelers running backs. They had nowhere to run. Yet Najee Harris refused to let that daunt him. No where was that more evident than in his second effort on his successful 4th down conversion on the Steelers 2nd touchdown drive. Najee Harris’ resiliency set the tone for the entire team and for that he wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the Monday Night Football win over the Bears.

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“Marginal” Best Describes Steelers MNF Win over Bears. …But Maybe That’s Good

The Steelers 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football conjures many different descriptions.

  • Intense. Last second. Frantic. Heart Rendering. Barn burner. Lucky.

Do you agree with these descriptions? Good. So do I. But there’s another, better word we can use: “Marginal.” Marginal certainly isn’t as colorful. “Marginal” also holds a neutralish if negative connotation. But Bears win on Monday night shows us that the 2021 Steelers might actually be able to use that to their advantage.

T.J. Watt, Justin Fields, Steelers vs Bears, T.J. Watt Fields Pass Block

T.J. Watt blocks Justin Fields’ pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Canada Sets Offense Up for Strong Start

Given this win’s last second nature, it is easy to forget the Steelers left a lot of positive takeaways in this game, especially early on.

  • One of those is that Matt Canada has a sharp offensive mind.

He’s clearly gaining a feel only for his player’s abilities but he’s also adept at applying those strengths to exploit opposing defense’s weaknesses. On their first possession, the Steelers marched down the field, literally just as Canada had scripted it.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Najee Harris scores a first quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Canada’s formation set up Ben Roethlisberger’s 3rd and 7 conversion to Chase Claypool. Later in the Red Zone put Claypool in motion and deployed Derek Watt to block allowing Najee Harris to march into the end zone untouched.

And if the drive following Cam Heyward’s interception wasn’t quite as smooth, it did only take ten plays for Ben Roethlisberger to find Pat Freiermuth in the end zone for another touchdown to start the 2nd quarter.

Sure, the Bears eked out a field goal late in the second quarter, but as the Steelers entered the locker room at half time, one couldn’t help but imagine Mason Rudolph taking the field in the early 4th quarter….

Failure to Control Line of Scrimmage (almost) Dooms Steelers in 2nd Half

…Instead of seeing Mason Rudolph taking snaps, Steelers Nation got to witness Ben Roethlisberger’s 39th 4th quarter comeback and 50th game winning drive.

  • After such a strong start, these heroics shouldn’t have been necessary. Alas, it was for very understandable reasons.

If the first quarter proved that Matt Canada can scheme with the best of them, the next three quarters proved that his offensive line remains a work in progress. The Steelers offensive line lost the battles up front, leaving Najee Harris no where to run.

Credit Canada for innovating and using jet sweeps to gain yards on the ground. James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Claypool carried the ball 6 times and gained 37 yards in the process. While this helped keep the defense honest, the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away because their offensive line was getitng manhandeled.

To recap, with about 7 minutes left to play, T.J. Watt had sacked Justin Fields. Even if the Steelers run 3 plays for zero yards, Pittsburgh probably burns at least 2 and a half minutes off of the clock. A single first down in that situation could seal victory.

Instead, the Steelers let the Bears right back in the game.

And Chicago was only too happy to take them up on their invitation.

Limiting Fields Carried Costs for Defense

Chicago’s comeback did not happen in a vacuum. Justin Fields, after struggling for much of the first half, played lights out late in the game. The Steelers defense struggled to slow the Bears.

When asked why Arthur Maulet was left in single coverage so often with Minkah Fitzpatrick roaming instead of helping with double coverage, Mike Tomlin explained, “Quarterback mobility challenges you from that standpoint. So, yes, there’s not only Arthur, but a lot of people are in single coverage when dealing with quarterback mobility.”

That’s both good and bad for the Steelers.

  • Its good because it suggests that Chicago wasn’t exploiting a systemic weakness
  • Its bad because the Steelers have to play Lamarr Jackson twice more this season.

Its also worrisome because the Steelers gave up the house to draft Devin Bush in part to have a player capable of containing Jackson. Bush, who left the field on third downs, doesn’t appear to be capable of that at this point.

A “Marginal” Victory? Yes. But History is Made in the Margins

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward and Ben Roethlisberger all admitted that, victory notwithstanding, things must improve. And the hard truth is, that if you take a hard dispassionate look at the struggles at the line of scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger’s difficulty throwing down field and the ease at which the defense gave up points late, its difficult to envision this team sustaining a playoff run, much less hosting the Lombardi.

But if that’s true, then think back to some of the outlying plays that the game turned on:

  • Chris Boswell making not one, but two 50 yard field goals, recovering a fumble, yet missing a PAT
  • T.J. Watt batting a way a pass at the line of scrimmage
  • Cairo Santos 65 yard field goal – at Heinz Field no less – banging off the lower upright

Football is a game of inches. That’s another way of saying that victory or defeat often comes down to which team can master the little things, that fall in the margins.

This Pittsburgh Steelers team might be developing a knack for doing just that. Which is good. Because history is made in the margins.

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