Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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Played Out in Pittsburgh? Chiefs Defeat Steelers 42-37 at Heinz Field in 2018 Home Opener

There’s no sugar coating this: Pittsburgh has problems. The Steelers 37-42 opening day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs included a multitude of milestones, none of them good:

  • Kansas City won in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986
  • Mike Tomlin suffered his first home defeat to Andy Reid
  • The Steelers suffered their 1st home-opening loss in 5 years
  • Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Chiefs for the first time since 2009

But those milestones, however unpleasant, tell us more about the Pittsburgh’s past than its present. The Kansas City Chiefs victory a Heinz Field exposed several fundamental weaknesses of the 2018 Steelers, weaknesses which Mike Tomlin will be hard pressed to paper over.

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches a pass as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

One of the Worst Quarters of the Tomlin Era

The simple take away from the Steelers 21-21 against the Browns was that without 6 turnovers from the Steelers, Pittsburgh wins fairly easily.

  • While far from flawless, that analysis is largely accurate.

The simple take away following the loss to the Chiefs is to point to the offense’s 37 points and lay the blame on the shoulders of Steelers defense. That would be a mistake, however.

The Steelers first two drives netted negative yardage, as a hurried Ben Roethlisberger’s passes flew high and off target. By the time the Steelers offense got out of the red, the Kansas City Chiefs had already scored two touchdowns, and the only answer the Steelers offense could muster was a missed Chris Boswell field goal.

  • Credit Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense for not panicking and keeping sharp enough focus to come back and tie the score at 21-21.

With feeding the ball to James Conner a non-option given the score, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to make anything more than piecemeal connections with Antonio Brown, Ryan Switzer Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up.

But as it did during the 4th quarter against Cleveland, the Steelers offense sputtered during the 4th quarter. By this point in the game it had become painfully clear that Pittsburgh’s defense could do nothing to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense.

  • In his 2017 season postmortem, Steelers President Art Rooney II quipped that “Its become difficult to play defense in this league.”

While Art Rooney II’s words may hold some truth, if you’re MO for winning games is to score 50 points a game,  then your offense cannot take a quarter to warm up, nor can it sputter in critical moments late in the game.

Steelers Defenseless Against Chiefs

Of course the Steelers goal never was to simply make every game a shootout and count on the offense to prevail. During the 2018 off season the Steelers went through a whole sale house cleaning of their secondary and made moves to bolster its linebacking corps.

  • Last week, against a re-tread quarterback in Cleveland, the Steelers defense had a reasonably strong showing for itself.
  • Against an emerging elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers defense came out flat footed.

One of the key new pieces the Steelers added in the off season was Jon Bostic. The scouting report on Jon Bostic was that he was fairly strong against the run, but struggled in coverage. And against the Chiefs, Bostic defended the run well enough, but looked clueless in coverage as Travis Kelce burned the Steelers down the middle all afternoon long.

The Steelers doubtlessly missed Joe Haden, but on one in the rest of the secondary did anything to suggest things would be different had Haden played.

  • Artie Burns thus far failed to translate any of his summer magic from St. Vincents to the regular season.
  • Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle and looked out of place early and often.
  • Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were forgettable in first starts for the Steelers.

The same can be said for the Steelers front seven. Cam Heyward did force a key incompletion and later a fumble. So did T.J. Watt, but that was his sole highlight of the day. The answer to an ailing secondary is to pressure the passer, and the Steelers front seven barely touched Patrick Mahomes.

Played Out in Pittsburgh?

Furious fans took to social media to draw comparisons to the Jacksonville playoff debacle. That’s understandable, but perhaps the 2002 season opener against the Patriots provides a more accurate comparison.

Following the same script that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick used 16 years ago, Andy Reid and Patrick Maholmes essentially abandoned the run in the second half.

  • And once again, the Steelers were powerless to stop them.

That 2002 Steelers team started 1-3, yet clawed its way to a division championship. Only a bogus roughing the kicker call kept Pittsburgh from an AFC Championship appearance. But that rebound required Bill Cowher to spark the team with a quarterback change, and the Steelers pass defense remained a liability all season long.

  • Mike Tomlin will not and should not bench Ben Roethlisberger.

Nor does the Steelers head coach have any equivalent, dramatic personnel change to make on defense. Which means that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter must find a way to coax better performance out of their defense

Otherwise, the Steelers will continue to fall hard this autumn.

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Artie Burns Added to Injury List as Patrick Mahomes Looks to Test Steelers Secondary

Artie Burns appearance on the Steelers injury report prior to their 2018 home opener promises to put Pittsburgh’s secondary depth to the test.

There’s a certain symmetry about these things, as just Thursday this site suggested that the Steelers might have turned a corner at cornerback. The thinking was, that with Joe Haden out with a hamstring injury, the Steelers were in good hands with Cam Sutton starting in his place. Such is the life of a blogger.

  • Contrast that the panic that ensued when Joe Haden broke his leg last year.

And that panic was justified. Coty Senasbaugh started in Haden’s place, and the Steelers sieve like secondary started giving up 50 yard plus touchdown passes roughly once a half. All of that wasn’t Coty Sensabaugh’s fault, but he certainly marked a step down from Joe Haden.

Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers injury report chiefs game

Joe Haden & Artie Burns at Steelers practice. Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

With the Steelers potentially sitting their number one and number two corners, it is not hard to image Andy Reid licking his chops at having Patrick Mahomes send Tyreek Hill.

Tyreek Hill specializes in long touchdowns, although per Gerry Dulac’s research in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steelers defense has done a good job of containing him. In three games against the Steelers, Hill has just 14 catches for 85 yards and 5 rushes for just seven yards.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily in their secondary this off season, in part with an eye towards eliminating those big gains.

Sean Davis has moved to from strong to free safety, while Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds are splitting the strong safety duties. The Kansas City Chiefs figure to put Keith Butler’s new dime, quarter, and dollar alignments to the test.

Other Steelers vs Chiefs Injury News – Big Ben Back, DeCastro Out

Ben Roethlisberger missed the first several days of practice leading to speculation that Joshua Dobbs might get his first NFL start against the Chiefs.

  • However, Big Ben practiced on Friday and will start against the Chiefs.

David DeCastro, who broke his hand in the 21-21 tie against the Browns, however will miss the name. The Steelers will start B.J. Finney in his place. The Steelers also got some good news on the injury front as Vance McDonald practiced for the first time since the beginning of training camp, although it is unclear whether McDonald or Jesse James will start.

Mike Tomlin holds a 4-2 record over Andy Reid, and the Steelers overall record vs the Chiefs is 23-11, with Pittsburgh holding a 11-7 edge at home. The Steelers have won the last three meetings, and Kansas City has not won in Pittsburgh since 1986…

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Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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James Conner’s Fumble Hurt, But Not as Badly as Other Steelers Turnovers 21-21 Tie with Browns

If there’s one positive to take away from the Steelers very disappointing 21-21 Week 1 tie with the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, it’s that James Conner isn’t receiving the lion’s share of the blame.

Perhaps, if he were another running back, such as the one he started in-place of–superstar Le’Veon Bell, who continues to sit out rather than sign the $14.5 million franchise tag–Conner would be more susceptible to criticism.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

After all, when a team is up by two touchdowns and in possession of the football midway through the fourth quarter, the offense is supposed to grind the clock out and go home with a win. And when you can point to a fumble by a running back that jump-started the comeback, why wouldn’t that running back be the goat?

While it is true that James Conner’s fumble, which tarnished an otherwise awesome day in-which he tallied 192 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, was the life-preserver that prevented the Browns from drowning in a game-long downpour, you can also point to some very egregious turnovers earlier in the game that, had the offense executed like the juggernaut it’s supposed to be, could have made Conner’s gaffe meaningless.

For example, how about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 15-year veteran, the future Hall of Famer, the two-time Super Bowl-champion, throwing into triple-coverage and getting intercepted by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward late in the first quarter of what was then a scoreless game?

Following a 27-yard connection to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster one play earlier, Pittsburgh had a first and 10 from the Browns’ 18-yard line and looked poised to get on the board first.

Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger, who has always been known as a gunslinger, wanted to make Antonio Brown his very next connection, hence the ill-advised throw into triple-coverage.

Moving on to late in the second quarter. The Steelers had a 7-0 lead and were on the positive side of the 50-yard line in-search of an even bigger lead before halftime.

Following an incomplete pass, Pittsburgh faced a second and 10 from the Cleveland 37-yard line. During his usual pre-snap maneuverings, Roethlisberger motioned for Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James to switch positions. Roethlisberger quickly found a wide-open James with a short pass that went right through his hands and into Ward’s for his second interception of the half.

  • Like Roethlisberger’s first interception, the Browns failed to capitalize with points, but they once again prevented Pittsburgh from scoring any.
  • That’s two interceptions that potentially wiped out anywhere from three to 14 points for the Steelers.

For the day, the Steelers committed six turnovers, with James Conner’s being the only one that led to points by Cleveland. Again, that makes him an easy target to blame.

But as some critics liked to remind us last December when the Steelers were denied a touchdown against the Patriots thanks to a replay reversal, there are many plays throughout the course of a game that help to shape the outcome.

James Conner had a hand in the Steelers losing a two-touchdown lead, but Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James also made sure Pittsburgh’s fourth quarter advantage wasn’t much, much bigger.

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Steelers Report Card for 21-21 Tie Against the Browns – Struggling Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher whose dismayed that his star pupil can’t seem to perform except when sitting at his own desk, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Opening Day Tie against the Browns.

T.J. Watt, Tyrod Taylor, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Tyrod Taylor as Bud Dupree gets face masked. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Once again Mike Tomlin decided to rest Ben Roethlisberger for the bulk of preseason, and once again Roethlisberger was road rusty in Cleveland. After a rough, 3 interception start, Roethlisberger appeared to settle down in the 3rd quarter, but then failed to move the offense at critical moments in the 4th. The Steelers committed 6 turnovers against the Browns, and Roethlisberger accounted for 5 of those. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Who? Ok, it is too early to say that, but James Conners starting NFL debut was a smash success. James Conner ran with the authority of a starting NFL running back, scoring two touchdowns, catching 5 passes and rushing for 135 yards. However, Conner’s fumble was quite costly letting Cleveland back in the game, which brings his grade down significantly. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Steelers coaches might be intent on replacing Jesse James, but Jesse James continues to respond when his number is called, catching 3 passes on 5 targets including a crucial compleition late in the game. And injured Xavier Grimble started but did not have a pass thrown his way. The run blocking was exceptional against the Browns, and the tight ends helped make that happen. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster helped jump start the Steelers 2nd half rally with a 67 yard pass return on a day where he caught 5 of the 8 balls thrown his way. However, late in the afternoon, Smith-Schuster disappeared. Antonio Brown came down with a phenomenal touchdown pass in double coverage. Justin Hunter had 1 catch of 5 and has yet to prove he can perform outside of practice or preseason. James Washington didn’t get a target, and Ryan Switzer was 0 for one, although he did have one carry for 8 yards. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the positive side the Steelers offensive line provided road-grading quality blocking to open holes for James Conner in the running game. However, the unit’s pass protection left a lot to be desired. The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger 4 times, two of which were strip sacks and another could have easily been a strip sack. This doesn’t let the signal caller off the hook, but the line must protect Ben Roethlisberger better. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward again reverted to 1 man wrecking crew mode, leading the Steelers defensive line with 1 tackles, a sack, tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Stephon Tuitt had 4 tackles, while Javon Hargrave two tackles. The Steelers defense did a decent job of containing the Cleveland running game. Grade: B

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt’s performance against the Browns is any indication of the 2nd year leap he is posied to make watch out. Watt was unblockable, sacking Tyrod Taylor 4 times, hitting him 4 more times, and making him 5 and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Per ESPN”s count, Bud Dupree had 1 sack as did Jon Bostic who also had 2.5 tackles for losses. Vince Williams led the team in tackles. Compared to the last time the Steelers took the field, the Steelers linebackers were fare improved. However, Tyrod Taylor’s 77 yards rushing hints that the Steelers linebacking corps is still missing Ryan Shazier’s athleticism. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers remade their secondary this off season and the results were generally positive. Joe Haden was a force in coverage, breaking up at least one touchdown pass. Mike Hilton stepped up to break up a couple of passes, as did Terrell Edmunds, with Edmunds coming up on a key 3rd down. Cam Sutton got beaten on a touchdown pass, but he was supposed to have help from Sean Davis. He atoned for it with an interception that forced OT. Artie Burns committed a costly penalty that helped set up a Cleveland score. At the end of the game, Tyrod Taylor literally had no place to throw. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry, who had a mediocre at best preseason, played a good game boming off punts when the Steelers needed him to. Ryan Switzer, while not breaking one, showed himself as a kick returner who had the potential to make something happen, a rarity in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal to save the tie.

All positives. The big negative of course is the high snap and missed Chris Boswell kick in overtime that could have won it. That brings the unit’s grade down. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Coaching
Mike Tomlin took a lot of grief from the fans immediately after the game, which is understandable. While a tie is better than a loss, the “W” the Steelers were counting on could easily come back to haunt them with it comes to tie breaker time.

  • On the defensive side of the ball, Keith Butler’s unit played a strong, although not perfect game.

A defense that must compensate for 6 offensive turnovers is starting with an incredible handicap. The Steelers defense pressured the quarterback, limited Cleveland’s running game and didn’t allow a pass play over 40 yards – although Cleveland hit two for 38 and 39.

On the offensive side of the ball, it was Randy Fichtner’s first game as a signal caller, and some of the same Todd Haley haters were already criticizing him for becoming too conservative in the 4th quarter, arguing “Haley would have kept his foot on the gas.” The fact is that the Steelers offense looked tentative during the 4th quarter and overtime after a strong third quarter.

  • The key to this game was turnovers. Coaches don’t throw picks or fumble balls.

Nonetheless, for the second straight year Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty in the opener, and the Home Ben vs. Road Ben issue surfaced again. Neither of these tendencies might be considered Mike Tomlin’s “fault” but both were foreseeable and neither was mitigated. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero
The record will forever reflect that James Conner’s first start was a success. But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. ON play after play, Roosevelt Nix was plowing would be Cleveland tacklers out of plays. Nix also helped partially block the punt in overtime, and for that Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the tie against Cleveland.

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Ben Roethlisberger Sputters in Opening Day Steelers 21-21 Tie with Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 season on the shores of Lake Eire against the Cleveland Browns and came away with… an UGLY 21-21 tie against a team that hadn’t won in over 600 days.

  • The tie stirred up Steelers Nation’s Gloom and Doom contingent, who’re wasting little time in declaring the entire season a total loss.

And their response, is understandable — to a point. A tie football game satisfies no one. It’s like grabbing a still warm mug only to have your mouth find lukewarm coffee. While you certainly lose nothing in a tie football game, you fail to gain anything.

While the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns is a cause for disappointment, Pittsburgh’s performance provided no shortage of positive plays, and its one legitimate area of concern revolves around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

Positive Side of the Tie I – James Conner

One of the key questions facing the Steelers going into the opener was whether they could run the ball effectively while Le’Veon Bell remained AWOL. It was only one game, but James Conner provided a resounding answer in the affirmative.

  • James Conner justified the faith that his teammates invested in him by running hard and playing at the level of a starting NFL running back.

James Conner hit the holes with authority, proved himself a capable target in the passing game, and scored on two separate occasions. Conner’s second TD came on a 22 yard run where the former Pitt Panther showed excellent instincts and hustle.

James Conner’s fumble certainly counts as a costly mistake, but if his game against the Browns is any indication of what he is capable of for the rest of the season, the retailers at Station Square would be wise to start selling “Le’Veon Who?” T-Shirts.

Positive Side of the Tie in Cleveland II – The Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense entered the game as an even bigger question mark than James Conner.

The last time we saw this unit, the Jacksonville Jaguars were putting up points and racking up yards as if they were the Greatest Show on Turf. The Steelers opened themselves to a lot of criticism for their performance against the Browns.

  • But very little of the criticism should be directed against the defense.

Thanks to a snafu with DirectTV’s NFL Sunday ticket, I missed the first half of the game. When I saw that Ben Roethlisberger had thrown 3 interceptions, but that the Steelers still held a 7 point lead, my thought was, “Well, the defense must be playing well.”

Then came the first drive of the 2nd half. The Steelers started things off right by sacking T.J. Watt, then let the Browns right back into it with two successive penalties. Before too long, Tyrod Taylor was out juking Bud Dupree and lowering his shoulder against Artie Burns for a touchdown.

  • Although that drive came far too close to the Jacksonville game for comfort, it represented the low point for the Steelers defense.

Statisticians can make this as fine a point as they want, but when your offense gives up 6 turnovers, you’re not only supposed to lose a game, you’re supposed to lose it badly. The Steelers didn’t lose to the Browns and they can thank their defense for that.

Mike Hilton broke up multiple passes. T.J. Watt recorded four sacks, and looked every bit like a young player blossoming into a dominant one. Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had sacks.

The Steelers defense will face stiffer tests than those offered by the Browns. Cleveland’s tying touchdown came far too easily, but when Cleveland tried to pick on Cam Sutton again, Sutton made them pay the interception that forced over time.

That type of bounce back, paired shut down performance of the Steelers defense during over time offers hope that the arrow is pointed up for Keith Butler’s boys.

As Roethlisberger Goes, So Go the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win in Cleveland because they committed 6 turnovers. Of those 6, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned over the ball 5 times. Two of Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions in the first half were outright hideous.

  • Ben Roethlisberger appeared to be trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown on one occasion.
  • On a second pick the duo was clearly out of sync.

After Ben Roethlisberger opened the 2nd half with several lightning strike throws to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In little more than the blink of an eye, the Steelers were up 21-7. 247 Pittsburgh writer Jim Wexell offered this observation:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. During the 4th quarter Ben Roethlisberger was ineffective and played tentatively during the critical stretch when the quarter was winding down and again in overtime. Worse yet, he coughed up the ball twice.

Neither those turnovers were entirely his fault, but Ben Roethlisberger has made a career of moving around in the pocket making something out of nothing. In the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns Ben Roethlisberger was unable to do that.

Could Haves, Would Haves Should Haves

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers had opportunities to win, despite the turnovers. Chris Boswell missed a difficult, yet makeable field goal which should have have won the game in over time.  The Steelers defense came up with a key stop after Roethlisberger’s final fumble in regulation, yet the offense could do nothing.

In overtime the defense limited Taylor to 1 completion, forced two punts and the special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal.

  • Not sure what the stats are on blocking punts AND field goals in overtime, but one would figure the team that does that usually wins

Unfortuantely, the Steelers didn’t win.

Football is the ultimate team game, and the observations above help show that winning and losing never comes down to the efforts of one player. But the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are built around Ben Roethlisberger, and when he is below the line, its very difficult for the rest of the team to pull itself above the line.

Ben Roethlisberger was below the line in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns, and because of that Pittsburgh has already put itself at a disadvantage in the AFC North race.

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Can the Steelers “Band of Brothers” Spirit Weather Le’Veon Bell’s Disruptive Antics?

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2018 season today at Cleveland against the Browns. Like all other seasons, a Lombardi Trophy will define success or failure. Earlier this week this site laid out 4 key questions the Steelers needed to answer affirmatively to bring up a 7th Super Bowl.

Now, thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s hold out has added a 5th question:

  • Can the Steelers maintain the “Band of Brothers” mentality in the locker room?

Building a coheshive locker room is critical to winning championships. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reflected on Hines Ward’s 2005 holdout by saying he felt the team had the closeness that is necessary for championships.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Concerned that contract squabbles could jeopardize this closeness Dan Rooney had Jerome Bettis bring Hines Ward to the Latrobe airport for a one-on-one. The results was that Hines Ward reported to camp, got a new contract, and the Steelers season ended with victory in Super Bowl XL.

Except it wasn’t that simple. The 2005 Steelers faced more than their share of ups and downs, and injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch and inconsistency on the part of Tommy Maddox led Bill Cowher to start 3 quarterbacks that fall.

  • The Steelers overcame those difficulties, in no small part, because they remained united, and focused.

Fast forward to 2018. Everyone knows that Le’Veon Bell has refused to sign his franchise tender and is not part of the 2018 Steelers. Until this point, the rest of the Steelers locker room had been neutral, if not supportive of Bell,

But when Bell failed to show up for practice on Wednesday the gloves came off. One by one, from David DeCastro, to NFLPA Rep Ramon Foster to center Maurkice Pouncey criticized Bell.

Pittsburgh 247 writer Jim Wexell made what might have been the defining analytical quote of the 2018 season when he observed: “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

That’s a pretty dramatic statement, but if there is any reporter who has an accurate pulse of the Steelers locker room, it is Jim Wexell. Right now the Steelers locker room is united, but what happens when Le’Veon Bell returns?

The Buffalo Bills easily had the most talent roster in the AFC in the early 1990’s, making for straight Super Bowl appearances. They lost each one of them. While the ’91 Redskins and the ’92 and ’93 Cowboys held clear talent edges, Buffalo didn’t help themselves by creating an atmosphere that led them to be labeled as the “Bickering Bills.

Antonio Brown has extended an olive branch, assuring that Bell will be welcomed as family when he returns. While fans may not be so welcoming, locker room divisions serve no one.

As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler confided to Jim Wexell, “The good thing we’ve got, I think, is our locker room. Probably our strongest suit is our locker room. That’s going to always be the case here.”

Le’Veon Bell’s eventual return promises to put the later part of Butler’s statement to the test.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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