Steelers Report Card vs. Browns at Cleveland Stadium

From the grade book of a teacher who just watched his star pupil do exactly what he needed to close out the semester, heading into final exams, so comes the Steelers report card for their victory over the Browns.

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger looked shaky early, missing key targets on several occasions. Roethlisberger was under orders to avoid “John Wayne” like heroics, which he did. But on a day when wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour made throwing the ball a challenge, Ben Roethlisberger delivered enough to convert 50% of his team’s third downs, and lead his team to the games only touchdown. Ben will need to improve in the playoffs, but he did a very good job vs. the Browns. Grade: B

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall had 38 yards on 8 carries and looked to be in route to another great game when he was felled by a season-ending ACL tear. Isaac Redman stepped in and did a masterful job, barreling his way to just under 100 yards, although his two fumbles could have put the team in behind had the defense not been so stout. John Clay ran well on his 6 carries which is a welcome sign given the injury to Mendenhall. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
There looked to be some miscues between Ben and his receivers, but the bottom line is that his unit did enough to make plays. One week after questioning whether Antonio Brown deserved the MVP award, Brown showed his value by making highlight-reel worthy catches which have become a staple of his game. Hines Ward got five catches bringing him to 1000 yards receiving, a tremendous accomplishment that sets him in elite company. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Another week, another offensive line configuration for the Steelers. Maurkice Pouncey returned to action, helping anchor the line, and Trai Essex showed off why his versatility makes him such an asset to the team. Marcus Gilbert also returned to the starting line up, and the fact that he was in position to make a grab at the ball after Redman’s fumble is the mark of impressive hustle. Ben Roethlsiberger was only sacked 2 and the running backs averaged 4.5 yards a carry. The line was doing a lot right. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The record will reflect that Peyton Hillis did get some long runs to make up his 30 yards. However, more often than not, there was no where to run. The Steelers defensive line did an outstanding job of collapsing the pocket and containing Hillis. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel both had batted down passes and Keisel forced a fumble. Casey Hampton had one tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Linebackers
James Harrison failed to register a sack, but there were plenty of times that Seneca Wallace had to have felt his footsteps. James Farrior provided solid coverage in the middle and Jason Worilds, well, he didn’t make any critical mistakes. But Lawrence Timmons was all over the field, making tackles, defensing passes, tackling men in the backfiled and sacking the quarterback. The linebackers put in a solid effort, but they did let Seneca Wallace get away from them one too many times, something which they cannot allow Tim Tebow to do. Grade: B-

Secondary
This unit has turned itself around in a way that nobody had a right to predict. The Steelers defensive backs are playing crisp football with confidence. There was simply no way that Seneca Wallace was going to beat them. Every one of the starters made plays, whether it was Ryan Clark getting a sack, Ike Taylor and William Gay batting down balls, or Tory Polamalu knocking away balls, tackling guys in the backfield, or picking off Seneca Wallace. Grade: A

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham missed a long field goal that got caught in the wind, but he made good on his two other attempts. Antonio Brown provided solid, if not spectacular kick returns. Justin Kapinos boomed off four excellent punts. The real story of this game is the coverage units. Joshua Cribbs is a return man capable of hurting you badly, as Steelers fans know all too well. Yet Cribbs was a non-factor in a game where one big return could have been a huge difference maker. Grade: B+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin
made the right move in starting Ben Roethlisberger. If Ben’s shakiness early in the game is any indicator, he needed to get his rhythm back and it was far better for him to do that vs. Cleveland than in the first quarter of a playoff game in Denver. Bruce Arians still needs to figure out a way to have his units do better in the Red Zone, but beyond that he devised a game plan to exploit Cleveland’s weaknesses. Dick LeBeau’s troops likewise made their coach look proud. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero
Two weeks ago he turned in a performance which led to legitimate questions about whether the Steelers had erred in resigning him before the season’s start. Vs. the Browns he was a force, getting an early sack, knocking away several balls, and making a key tackle on the final drive that kept his man in bounds with the clock ticking away. It was those kinds of little, but important plays that allowed the Steelers to leave Cleveland victoriously and for that reason Lawrence Timmons is the Unsung Hero for the game.

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Steelers Show Strong vs. Browns, Despite 13-9 Score

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a weak road team in 2011. Going into the final game, Steel Curtain Rising suggested that contest at Cleveland Stadium would serve as a dress rehearsal for what would likely be a series of tests on the road to a shot at Lombardi Number 7.

In effect, the question was “Is it time to count style points?”

Well, the opponent was the 4-11 Browns, and the outcome was 13-9 with the losing team having at shot at an upset in the game final moments. How do you evaluate the Steelers performance in this dress rehearsal? Given that Baltimore took care of business in Cincinnati, is the glass proverbial half full or half empty?

For Steel Curtain Rising, the glass is half full, the reasons for which we explain below.

Steelers vs. the Browns, Football As It Should Be

Credit, (once again) Tim Gleason of Behind the Steel Curtain. In his capacity as Steeler historian, the author of From Black to Gold has done his part to educate the younger members of Steelers Nation on the nature of the Steelers Browns rivalry.

Gleason’s contention is, that for all of its greatness, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is more about the two biggest dogs on the block fighting for the same bone. I am not sure if I agree completely with Gleason on this front. I have likewise found it difficult to raise my anti-Cleveland ire ever since Art Modell ripped the heart out of his community by moving his team to Baltimore in 1995.
But Gleason was certainly right on one thing, the Browns take this rivalry seriously, and they proved it on the field.

The game at Cleveland Stadium had everything you could want in a classic AFC North match up. Hard hits, players leaving with injuries, timely turnovers, fierce bone-chilling winds, and to top it all off, snow. These Browns had nothing to play for, but neither team left anything on the field.

A 13-9 win over a 4-12 might not seem to be the ideal dress rehearsal for a Lombardi run, until you consider the context laid out above.

Over Coming Adversity

Ben Roethlisberger was played hurt. LaMarr Woodley was out and in the course of the game the Steelers lost Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and worse yet, Rashard Mendenhall.

That’s a lot to overcome, but the Steelers did want they needed to do to win the game and, if you look beyond the scoreboard, they did it in impressive fashion:

  • A week after gouging the Ravens for 112, Peyton Hillis was ineffective vs. the Steelers defense gaining only 30 yards
  • Isaac Redman fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland got zero points off of it
  • Losing the turnover battle (again) the Steelers won the turnover war by converting Polamalu’s pick into gold in the form of the game’s only touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger looked shaky for much of the first half, but was sharp enough to drive the team 70 yards to get Pittsburgh on the board

Meanwhile, on a day when the wind made airing the ball out dicely proposition, the Steelers running backs put up 161 yards rushing, and Ben Roethlisberger managed to connect with nine different receivers.

Strong Secondary

One of the many amazing stories of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers is the turnaround of its secondary.

The defensive backs ended 2009 as a shell-shocked unit who had let two games bounce off of their hands. Led by the return of Troy Polamalu, the unit bounced back in 2010, but ultimately Aaron Rogers exposed weaknesses that were so great, that they became to be seen as lethal liabilities during the 2011 off season.

The Steelers, it seemed, had doomed themselves by not trading up to get a top defensive back in the draft, instead “settling” for Cameron Heyward.

No, the Steelers didn’t get a top corner in the draft, but the did something which might have had more impact – they brought back Carnell Lake to coach their secondary.

13 months ago as the Steelers departed the field in Arlington, Texas, William Gay was considered to be a back up nickel back at best and Keenan Lewis a failed project. Under Carnell Lake’s guidance, both men have grown into being confident, compotent members of the NFL’s number 1 pass defense.

Seneca Wallace had to throw in the same wind as Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace isn’t the quarterback that Roethlisberger is, but also wasn’t hurt. Wallace did however, have the misfortune to throw against the Steelers secondary.

The Steelers defense was all over the Browns receivers, knocking away balls, taking away easy check down routes, and throttling guys after the catch.

  • Troy Polamalu made the defining play of the game with his interception in the third quarter.

The Steelers had just tied the game, after consuming much of the clock, and Polamalu’s pick snuffed out Cleveland’s chance to match Pittsburgh blow for blow.

After that it only took Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, and ultimately Isaac Redman to find the end zone.

The Steeler did leave plenty to find fault with in the Browns game – they lost the turnover battle and struggled to score in the Red Zone.

But even if we accept that from Polamalu’s interception onwards, one thing was clear:

  • The Steelers were going to, and did make whatever plays were necessary to win.

That’s not a bad formula to take into the playoffs.

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Steelers Defeat Browns, Mendenhall Feared Lost

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed out there 2011 regular season with a workman like 13-9victory over their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns.

The victory, however, counts as bittersweet by any measure. The Cincinnati Bengals were unable to upset the Baltimore Ravens, meaning that the Ravens win the AFC North on the strength of tie breakers.

And, perhaps worse yet, the Steelers fear that Rashard Mendenhall has suffered a torn ACL, meaning his season will end.

The torn ACL suggestion was reported by ESPN at 10:23 Eastern Time. The Tribune Review did not report the ACL tear, in a report filed by Scott Brown at 8:23 Eastern time, but they did confirm that the Steelers fear Mendenhall is lost for the post-season.

Check back tomorrow for a Steel Curtain Rising’s full-game analysis.

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Antonio Brown Wins Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 MVP Award

In what amounts to a minor shock, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have elected Antonio Brown as its 2011 MVP. Brown won the award despite not starting until mid-November, and not even leading the team in key receiving categories.

Brown, however, is reputed to be one of the hardest working members on the team, and has shown himself to be an incredible talent during the course of 2011. Brown is learning how to get himself open on key downs, moves well after the catch, and has some of the best hands this team has ever seen.

So congratulations to Antonio Brown.

With that said however, it is hard to argue that Brown really deserved the award, although perhaps its easy to understand how it came to him.

The 2011 Steelers are a team in flux. Veterans like Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Bryant McFadden, and yes, Hines Ward, are waning, and younger players are coming to the forefront.

  • 2010 Steelers MVP Troy Polamalu has had a fabulous year, but has played much of the year at the line of scrimmage, and hasn’t had the interceptions of a year ago.
  • Mike Wallace started the year off gang busters, but saw his production dip on the second half.
  • Both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have raised hell in opponents back fields, but both men have missed large portions of the season to injury.

The only player that really stands out is Ben Roethlisberger, whose play has been consistent throughout the year, and has shown incredible toughness in playing with injuries that would fell a lesser soul. Roethlisberger won the Steelers MVP award in 2009, and in Steel Curtain Rising’s view, deserved it this year.

My guess is that the voting was spilt pretty evenly, with Brown having the fortue to come out on top.

Marcus Gilbert, James Farrior Also Honored

Second round pick Marcus Gilbert, who stepped in to start after Willie Colon’s season ended because of an injury suffered in the Debacle at Baltimore, won the 2011 Rookie of the Year Award. (Now, someone tell me, when did they stop calling it the PNC Bank Joe Greene Rookie of the Year Award? Dropping the corporate sponsorship is one thing, but Joe Greene is Joe Greene).

While Gilbert is not the only rookie to contribute – Cameron Heyward has played well as well as Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, but Gilbert has been the most consistent.

The Pittsburgh press Corps also named James Farrior as the 2011 “Chief Award” winner, given to the member of the Steelers locker room who is most cooperative with the media.

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Browns Game at Cleveland Stadium Gives Steelers Dress Rehearsal for Playoffs

NFL Week 17 finds Steelers Nation not focusing on Cleveland Stadium, where the Black and Gold will conclude their season, but 250 miles or so down I-71 at Paul Brown Stadium.

The reason of course is that the Cincinnati Bengals need to win to qualify for the playoffs, and to do so they conveniently need to vanquish the Baltimore Ravens, who if they lose can cede the AFC North Division championship to the Steelers.

…If the Steelers win at Cleveland, of course.

Steel Curtain Rising is certainly not looking past the Browns, a team who just two years ago gave Pittsburgh the most bitter upset of the Mike Tomlin era on the shores of Lake Eire.

But the Steelers should beat the Browns and probably will. (And if they don’t, they richly deserve whatever early playoff exit awaits them.) Given that, how the Steelers win might be just as important.

Time to Count Style Points…?

“We don’t add style points.” Mike Tomlin’s right. All of the Steelers wins and losses hold equal value. For tie breaking purposes the Debacle in Baltimore might as well have been an overtime loss decided by a safety scored with one second remaining.

True as that is, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde quality to them. At home they’re legitimate Super Bowl contenders. On the road they’re more like a team lucky to be at .500.

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers at Home

Record: 7-1
Avg. Points Scored: 25
Avg. Points Allowed: 10
Turnovers: 8
Sacks: 28

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers on the Road

Record: 4-3
Avg. Points Scored: 15
Avg. Points Allowed: 20
Turovers: 18
Sacks: 5

Certainly, those road numbers are a little skewed by the opener vs. Baltimore which alone counts for 40% of the turnovers. But the Steelers wins vs. the Colts and Chiefs were far like escapes than “victories.” Even the win vs. Arizona got to be a lot closer than it should have been. The Steelers pass rush on the road is a mere shadow of its Heinz Field presence.

And even in the best-case scenario, at shot at Lombardi Number Seven is going to require the Steelers to win once on the road, and quite probably 3 games. And the quarterbacks in question won’t have last names like Painter and Plako, but rather names like Palmer, Flacco and Brady.

The Steelers are sixteen games into the 2011 NFL season and they still find themselves unable to play their best ball while on the road.

Coaches are fond of saying that a team starts a new season when the playoffs begin. For the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers to make good on that old coaching proverb, they must they must excel in the final road contest of their old one.

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Steelers Report Card vs. the Rams

My 8th Grade World Stuides teacher Mr. Baker used to have what he called “Gimmies” meaning, I give you the assignment, you do it, and you get an ‘A.’ More often than giving ‘A’s’ Mr. Baker gave us “This was a gimme, and you blew it” brow beatings. The Steelers game the Rams amounted to the NFL’s equivalent of a “Gimmie” and the Steelers took full advantage. Here goes the Steelers Report Card for their Christmas Eve shut out of the Rams; as always no other report cards have been consulted.

Quarterback
Charlie Batch got his first start in well over a year, and did respectably. He evaded pressure, directed three touchdown drives, and hit 7 receivers. His interception was not “his fault,” but then he also had a couple of other near interceptions. While Batch was certainly “above the line” the Steelers 1-7 third down conversion rate brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall had a career game. Even if you take out his 52 yard run he still had a respectable 3.7 yard per carry average, and he was fabulous on his 35 yard catch and run. Isaac Redman ran hard on his 8 carries, and John Clay hit pay dirt on his first NFL carry. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Mike Wallace gave a plesant reminder of why he’s one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. Hines Ward had four grabs as did Antiono Brown who also turned what looked to be a broken reverse/pass option play into a nice 8 yard run. Health Miller and David Johnson also got into the act. This group did well, but like Batch, they must bear some responsibility for the poor third down conversion rate. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Raise your hand if you held your breath when Doug Legursky got hurt. In spite of yet another line up change, the offensive line did well, with Jonathan Scott subbing for Marcus Gilbert, and Chris Kemoeatu returning to the starting line up without drawing attention to himself. Through it all, the pass protection remained solid and the run blocking crisp. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Ziggy Hood had a nice stat sheet, but had difficulty in run support. Brett Kiesel had two defensed passes. Cameron Heyward got playing time on key downs. The unit did well, but their grade must nonetheless reflect Steve Jackson’s 100 yard rushing performance. Grade: B-

Linebackers
James Harrison was a beast, wreaking havoc in the backfield. Lawrence Timmons also made his presence known, while James Farrior and Larry Foote held up well on the inside. Jason Worilds, however was largely invisible during the game and his run support ability must improve. Still, Harrison and Timmons ability to make impact play save this unit from getting a minus attached to its letter. Grade: B

Secondary
St. Louis signal caller Kellen Clemens was 37.5% pass on the day. In addition to shutting down the Ram’s passing attack, Troy Polamalu, William Gay, registered tackles for losses, while also defending passes. Keenan Lewis also had a key pass defense. An excellent outing for the Steelers secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham nailed a 49 yard field goal when the score was only 10-0, and did well on kickoffs. Justin Kapinos boomed the ball off for a 47 yard punting average, and Antonio Brown made good on his lone kick return by bringing the ball back 30 yards. The coverage units were solid. The Steelers didn’t need any fireworks from their special teams, but got quality play all around, including a fake punt which could have given St. Louis the momentum needed to make a game of it. Grade: B+

Coaching
This game went as scripted, and credit for that in large part goes to the coaches. The Steelers were playing without a number of key starters and injuries took their toll during the game, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the score board. St. Louis success at rushing the ball is the lone eye brow raiser here, but all in all Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff did a very good job. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero
Third round picks are supposed to develop into starters in today’s NFL. And the Steelers certainly had that in mind when they picked this young man. Unfortuantely, the said individual, despite multiple shots, has never been able to nail down a starting job. And maybe that’s for the best, because in his fighting to justify a roster spot year in and year out, this gentleman quietly enabled himself to bring another asset to the table – versatility.

Trai Essex will never be a stud offensive lineman in the NFL, but he’s grown into a player who can, has and does step into any of the five offensive line positions at a moment’s notice, and that versatility was on display yet again this past Sunday, and for that Trai Essex is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers victory over the St. Louis Rams.

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Reflections on the Steelers Win Over St. Louis

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a checkered history playing on Christmas Eve.

In 1994, they lost a seemingly meaningless game to a San Diego Chargers team that would inflict one of the worst playoff losses in franchise history just a few weeks later.

In 1995 the Steelers, playing basically their second team, went toe-to-toe vs. the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau and came within a dropped pass of winning.

The Steelers took care of business against the Rams in fine fashion. Be very clear on one point – shutting out another NFL team is not to be taken lightly.

Yes, the Rams have one of the worst offenses in the NFL. But the Steelers did what they were supposed to – dominate the scoreboard.

This group of Pittsburgh Steelers certainly has a couple of games and, specifically one drive, that they would like to have back. They’ve won ugly at times. But they’ve avoided dropping a game to a manifestly inferior team, which is the mark of a winner.

Steve Jackson of course did gain 100 yards, and I’ll point you to Neal Coolong’s analysis of that breakdown over at Behind the Steel Curtain.

But if the lapse in the run defense is nothing to ignore, nor is it worth tying yourself up in knots over – Steve Jackson is a phenomenal rusher who has had the misfortune to be trapped on some mediocre teams.

With an eye towards the playoffs, several postives stood out:

  • James Harrison makes this defense so much better

Yours truly is of course not the first to say this (the forementioned Neal Coolong did just that), but there is no denying it. Harrison was a force as aways, despite getting held, and his presence as much as anything else contributed to forcing St. Louis to lay eggs in its Christmas stockings.

  • Mike Wallace got back to doing what he does.

Earlier in the week Ed Bouchette had chronicled on PG Plus how this season had broken down neatly in two halves for Wallace, one spectacular, the other pedestrian.

Wallace was back to spectacular Saturday vs. St. Louis. He only had 4 catches, but one of those was for 46 yards, and it iced the game.

Doing it against the Rams is one thing and doing it against New England, Oakland, and Baltimore in the post season is another. But if Sunday was a sign of the way Wallace is trending, then the Steelers can go places in the playoffs

  • Rashard Mendenhall ran like a stud.

When Mendenhall is hot, he’s among the top 6 or 7 rushers in the league. When he’s not its difficult to distinguish him from the rest.

Mendenhall simply tore it up on Sunday, both as a rusher and as a receiver, notching gains of both 35 and 52 yards. It was one of Mendenhall’s career performances, and if Mendenhall is similarly motivated in the playoffs, the Steelers will have a shot at the mountain top.

  • Charlie Batch played well

Charlie Batch did a lot of good things against St. Louis. His only interception was not his fault. He managed the game well, and took advantage of the weapons at his disposal. On the negative side, and perhaps this is why the coaches stubbornly kept Ben in vs. San Francisco, the Steelers were woeful on third down.

  • Welcome to the NFL, John Clay

Clay, according to Neal Coolong, looked bad in practice, but tearing 10 yards through the middle of the defense to score a touchdown on your first NFL touch is a good way tos start….

  • Alert – Lawrence Timmons sighting

Lawrence Timmons played well, at least in the pass pressure game, leading the team for in tackles, making two tackles for losses and registering a sack and two more QB hits. Timmons is most certainly one of the players the Steelers need to see more from in the playoffs, adding more zing to the bounce back.

Of course, unless the Steelers can learn to play better on the road, a lesson they must learn very quickly, few will remember any of the stats and trends to come out of the St. Louis game, but you can’t ask for much more than 27-0 victory on Christmas Eve performance.

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Steelers Shut Out Rams 27-0

The Steelers closed out their home games with a resounding win over the St. Louis Rams. Like many, I had to watch the game while doing preparing for Christmas.

What else can we say, good game for the defnese, good game for Charlie Batch, good game for Mike Wallace, good game for Lawrence Timmons.

Steel Curtain Rising will be back in a few days with a complete analysis.

Until then, Merry Christmas everyone!

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Steelers Report Card vs. 49ers

From the grade book of a teacher whose sorely disappointed that his star pupil squandered term paper that he needed to give him a much needed cushion heading into final exams, so goes the Steelers report card for going splat against the 49ers. As always, no other grades have been consulted.

Quarterback
What were Ben Roethlisberger’s final numbers? Who knows. They are unimportant. The important stat that sticks out is 4 turnovers and 3 sacks. Ben Roethlisberger was playing with an injury that left him unable to deliver the deep ball, unable to evade pressure, and inaccurate much of the rest of the time. Does he deserve credit for sucking it up under such trying circumstances? Yes, and that’s what prevents his grade from being an out right failure. Grade: D

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall only ran for 64 yards, but he did that in just 15 carries against the NFL’s number one rushing defense. Its not his fault that the team chose to run merely 18 times on the night when their quarterback was hurting. Issac Redman seems to have played better than ESPN’s statistics note, but number don’t like. Mewelde Moore had a nice 21 yard run before he got hurt. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Health Miller was the best player in this unit, although he should have caught the ball that ended up being Ben’s second pick – yes the ball was high. Jericho Cotchery did well late in the game. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown also played well on a difficult night. Still, if the Steelers got good play out of their receivers, they needed exceptional play. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The offensive line missed Maurkice Pouncey out there, but nonetheless played well. They did get called for several penalties in the second half, but those were largely academic. The unit actually gave Ben Roethlisberger decent time to throw, but Roethlisberger was unable to take advantage. Likewise, Mendenhall had room to run, but line wasn’t controlling the line of scrimmage with the kind of conviction that was necessary to control this kind of game. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
The San Francisco’s rushers didn’t dominate, but did do enough to keep drives moving. The defensive line did seem to get some pressure on Alex Smith early on, but that pressure was neither consistent nor effective down the stretch. Still, this unit gets credit for forcing two field goals early in the game. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons got burned repeatedly and looked nothing like the dominating player he appeared to be growing into during the first half of 2010. LaMarr Woodley was not effective. Jason Worilds was a non-factor. James Farrior got beaten badly when the Steelers could least afford it. The Steelers had no sacks and one QB knock down against a quarterback that will let you beat him if you apply enough pressure. Grade: D+

Secondary
The effort of the secondary was inconsistent. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark made key tackle after key tackle, and the Steelers kept San Francisco to 4-13 on third down conversions. Still, things could have been better had Alex Smith not missed some wide open receivers. All in all, however, the secondary’s performance was above the line. Grade: B

Special Teams
Keenan Lewis forced what should have been a potentially game changing fumble. Lawrence Timmons got called on a penalty that ultimately made the score 20-3 instead of 16 to 3. Suisham was 1-1 on long kicks – about the best you can expect. Antonio Brown made a few mistakes but put in a solid game. Special teams could have given the Steelers a spark, but it is hard to find fault with their performance. Grade: B-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin coached the worst game of his professional life. Starting Ben Roethlisberger was a good move, keeping him in the game cost the Steelers a shot at home field advantage in the playoffs. Keeping him in the game was inexcusable. With Bruce Arians you have a mixed bag – throwing 44 times against the NFL’s number 1 defense is understandable, throwing 44 times with a wounded quarterback is not. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
To paraphrase Gerry Dulac’s words, there were lots of chances for someone from the Steelers defense to be a hero against the 49ers, yet that hero never materialized.

Nonetheless, on a night when the offense was struggling as bad as it has in recent memory, the defense kept the Steelers in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Absent “splash” plays, that only happens if guys are making quick, smart plays on a down-by-down basis. One man did that through the whole game, registering two tackles for losses and defensing two passes. For his consistent, productive play, Ryan Clark is Steel Curtain Rising’s unsung hero of the 49ers game.

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Steelers Go SPLAT in San Francisco, Squander Opportunity

As coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin has steadfastly deflected credit for his player’s accomplishments. “Coaches simply put players in position to make plays” is one variation of Tomlin’s oft repeated mantra.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a golden opportunity to leap ahead of Baltimore and New England by beating the San Francisco 49ers.

Taking advantage of that opportunity involved many factors, but none bigger than the decision to play Ben Roethlisberger or not.

  • Tomlin mishandled that decision.

“Mishandled,” is generous, Mike Tomlin perhaps made his worst decision in almost 5 years as the Steelers head coach.

Meet Ben Roethlisberger, The Mortal

Ben Roethlisberger is the toughest quarterback in the NFL. Ben’s toughness is both physical and mental. Ben’s ability to excel in the face of injury is legendary, from the Jacksonville game in 2008 all the way to his performance on Thursday night two weeks ago, is legendary.

Ben Roethlisberger is one of the great gamers in league history. And if the medical staff cleared him to play, and if the coaches thought he’d shown enough in practice, then Mike Tomlin made the right decision in start him.

  • It is one thing decide start a wounded quarterback, it is another thing to stubbornly stick to that decision.

And in Yoda speak, stubborn stick Mike Tomlin did.

Yes, the Steelers moved the ball well against the 49ers. But the Ben Roethlisberger interceptions killed the first two drives, which offered promise. That alone should have jolted Tomlin towards considering a switch.

The end of the first half should have clarified the need to switch. Down only by 6, the Steelers had a chance to get on the board.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger was too injured to run the hurry up offense.

During the second half there were numerous times when Ben attempted to evade passers in the way that only he can do, and nearly all of those times he either took a sack, threw the ball away, or couldn’t deliver it to his receivers.

The Steelers have one of the deepest quarterbacking bull pens in the NFL. (No, they do not have the Joe Montana-Steve Young tag team that the 49ers had in the late ‘80’s, but then again, who does?)

But Charlie Batch is 4-2 as a starter and Dennis Dixon is 2-1 as a starter. Why not play one?

If Charlie Batch shouldn’t have started the second half for the Steelers (and he should have) then he certainly should have gone in the game as soon as the 49ers went up 13 to 3 late in the third quarter, making the game a two-score contest.

The Steelers needed to get on the board twice. Shaun Suisham is a crap shoot, and Roethlisberger wasn’t leading any quick strike offense. Yet, Tomlin stuck with Roethlisberger.

Almost on queue, the next series played out like this:

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the Steelers from their 20 to the San Fran 30, where they ran once for no gain, threw two incompletion, and Suisham missed a 48 yarder
  • The defense, responded, forcing a 49ers 3 and out

By this point the 4th quarter had begun with Roethlisberger still under center.

  • After moving the Steelers from the 8 to the 28, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a strip-sack.

That gave the ball to San Fran at the 17 and 6 plays and, get this — a leaping penalty on Lawrence Timmons – later, they went up 20-3.

Scoring 17 points in 9 minutes in the 4th quarter on the road in the NFL is difficult but possible. But it is pure fantasy when your quarterback can’t throw beyond 15 yards and takes 30 seconds to get down field after a gain of more than 10 yards.

Yet Tomlin refused to put in Charlie Batch, which only served to subject Ben Roethlisberger to even more punishment.

A Word About the Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense has played better. Lawrence Timmons confirmed himself as 2011’s tremendous disappointment. LaMarr Woodley was inconsistent and ineffective. The Steelers needed something special from its defense, and did not get it from Troy Polamalu or any of the emerging players in the secondary.

But the defense only allowed 20 points against a San Francisco offense that benefited from 4 turnovers and started drives at its 27, 38, 47 and 47 yard lines in addition to starting two others at Pittsburgh’s 45 and 17 yard lines.

A “splash” play or two from Pittsburgh’s defense could have been a difference maker, and none was forthcoming. Considering the load they were asked to carry, coming down too hard on the defense is unfair.

Just Down or Down and Out?

The Steelers squandered a tremendous opportunity against San Francisco. Players take their cue from their leaders, and Ben’s slow, wounded and ineffective performance set the tone for the rest of the troops.

The 49ers game had a make or break feel to it.

  • The question now is this loss devastating enough to take the wind out of the Steelers sails?

The answer lies with Mike Tomlin. His stubborn refusal to switch quarterbacks cost his team a chance to dramatically alter the AFC playoff calculus in their favor.

With Pittsburgh back to facing Wild Card status, Tomlin’s challenge is to find a way to coax road wins out of a team that plays far better at home.

In meeting that challenge Mike Tomlin must prove to be more flexibile than he was Monday night vs. the 49ers.

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