Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns, Focus in the Face of Tragedy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed with his students ability to focus in the face of horrific hometown terrorist tragedy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Browns.

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some time to get warmed up, and threw a couple of questionable passes, but he showed poise in the pocket when the game was on the line in the 3rd quarter and never blinked. For the day Roethlisberger was 24-26-257-2-1. Grade: B+

Running Backs
James Conner continues to exceed even the most optimistic expectations riding on him going into the season. James Conner had 212 yards from scrimmage, running for 146 on the ground and 66 in the air, scoring two touchdown. Stevan Ridley caught two passes and fumbled one away, leading to Jaylen Samuels to get the garbage time duty, where he looked good. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald led the group with 3 catches for 47 yards with Jesse James catching 2 passes for 9 yards. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown might not have had the eye popping fantasy stats that we’re accustomed two, but he did his damage on 6 catches for 74 yards on two touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 33 yards, while Justin Hunter stepped into the 3rd receiver role with 2 catches for 15 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit one other time. James Conner had holes you could drive truck through. This offensive line is protecting its quarterback on passing plays and road grading on running plays. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Nick Chubb actually hit the Steelers for a few nice long runs, but the Steelers defense and the game situation neutralized him with 10 Cleveland rushers going down behind the line of scrimmage. Stephon Tuitt had a phenomenal day making a game-sealing sack and dominating throughout. Javon Hargrave helped bring a rusher down behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to dominate the Browns with 2 and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage in addition to a sack. Bud Dupree didn’t get a sack, but harassed Baker Mayfield all day and drew a holding penalty for a safety. Jon Bostic and Vince Williams kept things quiet up the middle, while L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo did well in spot duty. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden nabbed an interception which the Steelers turned into a touchdown, and defensed another critical pass. Mike Hilton continues to be one of the NFL’s most underrated nickel backs defensing a pass and helping bring down a running back in the backfield. Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis all had solid afternoons. Grade: A

Special Teams
“We screwed up.” Those are Mike Tomlin’s words, and he is right. The Steelers turned over the ball on a free kick, setting the Browns touchdown which pulled the score to within 4 in the third quarter. Had the Cleveland Browns had of the wisdom and maturity required to win football games, the Steelers would have been in big trouble.

Chris Boswell did make all 5 of his kicks, while Jordan Berry looked good punting, and Ryan Switzer had a few nice punt returns. But the free kick is inexcusable. Grade: D

Coaching
The Steelers offense started slowly, but Randy Fichtner clearly made the necessary adjustments. While the play of the men at the skill positions deserves praise, the stealer performance of the Steelers offensive line is what makes this unit tick.

  • While we are a long, long way from any hardware being handed out, it is already possible to suggest this best offensive line the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed in franchise history.

On defense, Keith Butler’s unit continues to evolve. While this is a bit of a tautology, the success of the Steelers defense rises and falls with the pass rush, and the Pittsburgh clearly pressured the passer.

Historically, Mike Tomlin teams have done well coming out of the bye, but they were 1-4 in recent years following the break. On top of that, the team went on a roller coaster ride during September and October.

  • More gravely, the city of Pittsburgh had endured an act of domestic terrorism at the Squirrel Hill Synagogue less than 24 hours before.

In other words, opportunities for distraction abounded, yet the Steelers succumb to none of them, and that reflects well on Mike Tomlin and the locker room he has built. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
You didn’t hear his name all day, at least until he fumbled away the faux interception. Yet he started the entire game, and when you don’t hear a cornerback’s name under those circumstances, that is usually a good thing and for that Coty Sensabaugh is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Browns.

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James Conner Dominates in Steelers 33-18 Win Over Browns At Heinz Field

Running back James Conner rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, as the Steelers quickly shook off their post-bye rust in a 33-18 victory over the Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

  • Cleveland’s first offensive possession resulted in a game’s first points, after an 11-play, 66-yard drive culminated in a 3-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.

Pittsburgh’s offense, meanwhile, netted just seven yards on its first three offensive possessions–including two punts and an interception by Browns’ safety Derrick Kindred. But the Steelers offense wouldn’t stay down for long.

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner stiff arms Myles Garrett during 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Following a 41-yard field goal miss from Joseph early in the second quarter that would have given Cleveland a 9-0 lead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with receiver Antonio Brown on a 43-yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-6.

On Cleveland’s ensuing drive, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was intercepted by cornerback Joe Haden at the Pittsburgh 13.

The Steelers offense went back to work on a 16-play, 87-yard drive that ate up 7:12 of game clock and resulted in a second-straight scoring connection from Roethlisberger to Brown–this time for one yard–and the home team took a 14-6 lead into halftime.

The Steelers got the ball to start the second half and looked poised to take control of the football game on an impressive drive into Cleveland territory. However, on second and 10 from the Browns’ 25, Roethlsiberger found running back Stevan Ridley on a short pass to the 22, and Ridley was stripped of the football by cornerback Denzel Ward, who recovered the fumble and returned it to the 29.

The two teams would then exchange punts, and one play after Jordan Berry‘s boot was downed at the Cleveland five-yard line, Browns’ left tackle Desmond Harrison was flagged for holding Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Since the infraction took place in the end zone, Pittsburgh was awarded a safety and a 16-6 lead.

But just when it looked as if the home team would seize command of things, there appeared to be great confusion on the ensuing free kick, as the return unit treated it as if it was a punt, allowing the Browns to recover at the Pittsburgh 24.

  • Four plays later, the Browns made it 16-12, thanks to a one-yard hook-up from Mayfield to Antonio Callaway.
  • The Steelers answered right back with a five-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 23-12.

From there, it was all Pittsburgh, as Conner proved to be a workhorse on the day, and helped put the finishing touches on a thorough victory, with a 22-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 33-12 lead right before the two-minute warning.

  • James Conner averaged 6.1 yards per carry and added another 66 yards on five receptions.
  • As for Ben Roethlisberger, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Brown was Pittsburgh’s leading  receiver on the day, totally 74 yards on six receptions and the two touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger.

The win improved the Steelers record to 4-2-1, and they have a road date with the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

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The Steelers’ Offensive Line Is Playing In The Zone Right Now

Through the first four games of the 2018 regular season, it was factual to say that the Steelers highly-touted and highly-decorated offensive line wasn’t performing up to its usual standards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was often under the proverbial gun and faced more pressure than he probably had become accustomed to in recent years, once the big guys up front became one of the most formidable units in all of football.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

The Steelers offensive line is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

One month into the season, Roethlisberger had already been sacked nine times, a number that put him on pace for 36 for the year. While such a sack total still wouldn’t have approached the ridiculous number of times Roethlisberger was taken to the turf in the days before the likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro came on the scene, it certainly would have far-surpassed the average of 22.75 sacks No. 7 had absorbed per year since 2014.

  • And then there was the ground game, which seemed to go on sabbatical in the three weeks after second-year running back James Conner rushed for 135 yards in a Week 1 tie with the Browns.

After his magnificent performance in Cleveland, Conner combined for a mere 97 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Ravens, respectively. Sure, you can say the Steelers faced large deficits in two of those games–they fell behind by a combined score of 35-0 in the first quarter of home losses to Kansas City and Baltimore–which necessitated a heavy dose of passing. But the fact of the matter was, Pittsburgh’s hogs got whipped at the line of scrimmage more often than not during that three-week period.

  • But while we’re stating facts, it is worth noting that the Steelers’ offensive line was a bit compromised due to injury over the first month of the season.

Veteran left guard Ramon Foster missed the vast-majority of training camp with a sprained knee and surely wasn’t at full-speed at the start of the regular season. Meanwhile, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro, two of the highest ranked players at their respective positions, missed a combined three games due to injuries.

Like every other portion of the Steelers’ 53-man roster, I guess the offensive linemen–as formidable as they may have been–couldn’t escape the bumps, bruises and lackluster play that was thematic of the first four weeks of the 2018 regular season.

But as we sit here today, those first four weeks seem like a distant memory for the 3-2-1 Steelers, especially for an offensive line that has seemingly taken its play and its reputation to a whole new level.

  • How’s the pass protection been?

In the past two games–both impressive and important victories over the Falcons and Bengals, respectively–Roethlisberger has dropped back to pass a combined 75 times without being sacked once.

  • Forget sacks, he’s barely been touched, while passing for a total of 619 yards and five touchdowns.

How about that ground game?

James Conner has combined for 221 rushing yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry in the process.

If you wish, you can talk about the Falcons’ defense and how it was decimated by injuries prior to its arrival at Heinz Field on October 7. But you can’t say the same thing about a Bengals’ defense that arrived at Paul Brown Stadium this past Sunday equipped with a front-seven that included Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict.

  • The Steelers’ offensive line didn’t just dominate the decimated the past two weeks. It dominated the dominant.

The Steelers’ offensive line is, again, highly-decorated, highly-touted and, as Pouncey showed when he pulled all the way from the center position over to the right edge to throw the key block on Conner’s 26-yard run against the Bengals on Sunday, highly-capable.

The Steelers’ offensive line is also in the zone. If it can stay there for the remainder of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh’s offense–and the entire team–will be pretty hard to dominate.

.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals – Legacy Defining Anyone?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if he really has seen a “legacy”defining performance from his pupils, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Quarterback
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger was only “OK” in the first half. He also threw a few balls that he was lucky not to have intercepted. But that matters for little, because Ben Roethlisberger the one minute drive to perfection, it did it with the clam, poise and, most importantly, the confidence needed to deliver. Grade: A-

Running Backs
James Conner’s 111 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving might have been lower than last week’s, but by Jim Wexell’s reporting, Conner’s bruising style knocked two Bengals players out of the game. Stevan Ridley continues to get a handful of carries for nominal gain. Roosevelt Nix helped open holes for Conners. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James kept the Steelers offense moving and helped establish the physical tone while the wide receivers were getting in gear. Xavier Grimble had two catches, including a 22 yarder on third and 19. Vance McDonald looked poised to score but fumbled instead, his second in 4 games. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
It took a while for the Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WiFi connection to reach full speed, but when they did, the duo inflicted their damage on the Bengals defense. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 7 yards, while James Washington and Justin Hunter both had targets but no catches, although Hunter’s block was critical on the winning TD. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger did not give up a sack and indeed, the Bengals only touched him once! Add that to road grading done for James Conner and you have excellence in its purest form. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave both had sacks. Cam Heyward didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he’s not doing his job, the other two can’t do theirs. The Bengals did have some success in running the ball, and pass pressure could have been more consistent throughout the game, but it was a good day for the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
You think seeing L.J. Fort light up the Atlanta Falcons maybe didn’t inspire Vince Williams just a big? Williams led the team in tackles, shadowed Joe Mixon in the passing game, and even covered down field. T.J. Watt defensed a pass and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had solid if splash playless games. The linebackers had a good day, but room for improvement remains. Grade: B-

Secondary
Joe Haden had two defensed passes and contained A.J. Green. Both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton had defensed passes, although Sutton had his hiccups. Artie Burns committed a costly pass interference penalty that helped keep a drive alive. The secondary played well, but Cincinnati closed both halves with touchdown drives. That  is not a trend which can continue. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell quietly made all of his kicks which was a welcome change especially in the confines of an opposing stadium during the rain. Jordan Berry boomed off two long punts and landed 3 inside the 2. Ryan Switzer had a long punt return of 15 yards and some decent kickoff returns.

However, Alex Erickson had kickoff returns of 47 and 51 yards, the former of which gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 44 with a minute left. This is the kind of special teams play that can lose a game. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense appears to be finding its rhythm. When the passing game isn’t quite working, the running game is able to pick up the slack. Such balance is necessary for sustainable success in the NFL.

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

That improvement must continue as evidenced by two two touchdowns the Bengals scored at the tail end of each half. However, two weeks ago the Steelers defense was a lost cause. Today it looks like a unit that does some things well, while offering legitimate “upside.”

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

After a big win last week and going into a big game against the Bengals with Ryan Shazier’s recovery as a backstory, it would have been easy for the Steelers to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster.

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

The Bengals 51 yard 2nd half kickoff return could have easily spelled doom. Yet the Steelers defense went out and forced a punt despite giving up a penalty that gave Cincinnati a 3rd an 1.

  • At the end of the game the Pittsburgh’s poise was present for all to see.

There was no panic in the Steelers huddle or on the sidelines as the Bengals went up by one with just over a minute to play. Nor was there any sense of desperation evident when the Steelers found themselves in 2 third down situation on that final drive.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown waited for their moment, and then drove a stake through the Bengals secondary.

That type of calm under pressure requires character. It also requires competent coaching that allows that type of locker room culture to flourish. Mike Tomlin has worked to establish that and the fruits of his labor were evident in the game’s final minute. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Everyone will long remember Antonio Brown’s last minute touchdown, as well they should. Meanwhile JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the afternoon making critical, if less highlight-worthy catches. But he is in this space for two heads up plays.

  • The first came when he out fought a defensive back for a catch at the goal line, and the second came when he recovered Vance McDonald’s fumble.

A turnover in either occasion would have lost the game for the Steelers, but neither were and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Steelers Comeback to Beat Bengals 28-21, Forging Latest Paul Brown Stadium Milestone

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, put them together at Paul Brown Stadium and what do you get? Mayhem. Hard hits. Intense play. Battles in the trenches. Drama. Games going down to the wire. Football contests that Paul Brown himself would have appreciated. Consider a few recent milestones from the rivals’ history in this building:

  • Ike Taylor’s career ended here.
  • Chris Boswell once kicked six field goals AND needed to make a shoe-sting tackle for the Steelers to earn a narrow 4 point win.
  • During the same game, Ladarius Green suffered a hit that ended his career
  • Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble set up the Steelers first post Super Bowl XLV playoff win.
  • And of course, two years later Ryan Shazier suffered a life-changing injury on this very field.

The Steelers went on the road against the AFC North, division leading Cincinnati Bengals still searching for their first conference victory. The contest lived up to the series’ pedigree featuring intense action, late lead changes,  and a Steelers victory at the final gun.

But more importantly, if Mike Tomlin can keep his team focused, the impact of this latest Paul Brown Stadium milestone could be felt well beyond the October afternoon in which the Steelers authored it.

 

Antonio Brown, William Jackson, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown burns William Jackson en route to go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Gary Landers, AP via PennLive.com

Winning in the Trenches, Getting Flanked by the Rear Guard

Old school football commentators love to remind us that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. And very often that is true. Whether you’re playing offense or defense, control the line of scrimmage, and you control what the ball carrier can and cannot do.

  • In the first half the Steelers won the scrimmage battle.

Pittsburgh didn’t dominate Cincinnati the way they dominated at Atlanta, but they kept the Bengals paws off of Ben Roethlisberger, and they opened holes for James Conner to explode through. While Joe Mixon did gouge the Steelers defense for a few long runs, Pittsburgh stuffed him on a number of occasions.

  • Winning in the trenches was critical for the Steelers, because Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at his best in the first half.

Despite having ample time to throw, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still struggled to connect, with the quarterback having his best success hitting Vance McDonald and Jesse James up the middle. And when he did try to find his wide receivers, Big Ben tempted fate, as JuJu Smith-Schuster was forced to go into defensive back mode to prevent an interception at the goal line.

But thanks to the Steelers force up front, James Conner was barreling through the line for his second touchdown one play later. With 1:07 left to play, Pittsburgh seemed poised to take a 14 point lead into the locker room.

  • But winning at scrimmage means little if you leave the rear door unlocked. That’s exactly what Danny Smith’s special teams did.

Alex Erickson not only ripped off a 47 yard return, but an Artie Burns penalty added another 5 yards to the end of it. Suddenly, instead of needing to go 80 yards for a score, the Bengals only had to go 44.

And 44 yards Andy Dalton and crew went, tying up the game at the half.

2nd Half – Steelers Readjust to Bengals Adjustments

The ability of the Steelers offense to compensate for the adjustments made by Marv Lewis and his defensive staff is the story of the second half. Twice the Steelers offense reached the one, and twice Bengals defense forced Pittsburgh to settle for field goals.

But how the Steelers got into the Red Zone was as equally important as the Bengals ability to prevent Pittsburgh from banging it in when they got there. The Steelers 2nd field goal of the 2nd half had been set up by a 48 yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

A bit of old time Ben-to-Brown magic that foreshadowed things to come.

Steelers Defense Does its Part

The Steelers defense has been under fire for much of the season, and a Cincinnati offense that featured Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green figured to offer another stiff test. While Pittsburgh was far from perfect, the Steelers defense did its job.

The Steelers defense broke even with the Bengals offense going 6 for 12 on third downs. And although the defense gave up the final touchdown a little too easily, that set the stage for what was to come.

“This is what legacies are made of….”

4th quarter comebacks are what make football great. Few things are more satisfying – or aggravating – than watching an offense methodically move down the field for the decisive go ahead score. The team that scores enjoys unrestrained glory. The team that fails to hang on fights utter demoralization.

  • Yet, for whatever Ben Roethlisberger’s flaws as a quarterback he might be, he has never succumb to demoralization in those moments.

Think back to Super Bowl XLIII, as Larry Fitzgerald soared to the go ahead score. Ben Roethlisberger simply put on his helmet, buckled his chin strap and was immediately in his element. And so it was, with 1:08 and 77 yards to go, Ben Roethlisberger told his teammates, “‘This is what legacies are made of for all of us. Let’s go out and take care of business.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster a few times, tried to hit James Conner and Justin Hunter.

Then, already inside the outer limits of field goal range, with William Jackson in cover-0 without safety help, Ben Roethlisberger audibled and hit Antonio Brown on the inside up the middle:

https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1051565087440478208

With an Usain Bolt like bust of speed, Antonio Brown knifed through the middle of the Bengals defense for the go ahead touchdown.

Another Paul Brown Stadium Milestone for Pittsburgh?

Aside from being dramatic moments, the milestones cited at the beginning of this article all share something else in common:

  • Each represented a critical turning point for the Steelers.

In some cases those turning points transcended in which they occurred. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble in the playoffs legitimized the Steelers as a Super Bowl contender. Less than a month ago, commentators argued with good cause that Shazier’s spinal contusion had closed that same Super Bowl window.

While no one is talking Super Bowl in Pittsburgh this morning, this latest win at Paul Brown Stadium certainly makes the Steelers look like legitimate AFC North contenders, and that’s not a conversation any serious person would have considered started even two weeks ago.

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NFL Fine of T.J. Watt Isn’t for “Roughing the Passer” Its for “Roughing the Grass”

After news broke that Roger Goodell fined Mike Tomlin for… telling the truth, it also came out that the NFL had fined T.J. Watt for… “Roughing the grass.” Of course, the league office isn’t calling it that.
Officially the fine is for T.J. Watt’s supposedly illegal low “hit” on Matt Ryan.

Carlos Ortiz reacted the news by arguing “…esto no fue ‘roughing the passer’ esto fue ‘roughing the grass.’” (Carlos Ortiz writes on Steelers360 and if you’re not fluent enough in Spanish to follow his work, well then maybe its time to give Berlitz a call.)

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt drew a 20,054 fine for this low “hit.” Photo Credit: AP, via Cincinnati.com

If you don’t remember the play from the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, take a look for yourself:

The tweet is of course from T.J. Watt’s brother J.J. Watt. As you can see, T.J. Watt did his best to avoid contact, and barley touched Matt Ryan. An Oscar worthy performance for Ryan followed, because Ryan almost certainly did not fall on his own power.

For his troubles, T.J. Watt is now $20,054 poorer. Clearly Watt won’t have problems buying Christmas presents for his family come December, but a $20,000 dollar fine means a lot more to a player who is still on his rookie contract that it would mean to someone like Joe Haden, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.

  • This wasn’t the only questionable roughing the passer penalty called against the Steelers last Sunday.
  • Jon Bostic also drew a flag when he arrived a second too late on a Cam Heyward sack of Matt Ryan, but was not fined.

Mike Tomlin of course is not happy about any of this, and he too his poor for his words, however truthful the might be. But perhaps Mike Tomlin wasn’t telling the complete truth. Penalizing and issuing fines for plays like these isn’t simply a joke, it is mockery of the game itself.

  • And please spare me any player safety talk about the need to protect players from CTE and head trauma.

Yes, it is imperative that the NFL do all it can to reduce the risk of head trauma. CTE poses an existential threat to football. Thankfully, the days when Terry Bradshaw could suffer multiple concussions, as he did against the Redskins in 1979, and joke about it with reporters after the game, are over.

  • But let’s be clear, the NFL isn’t going to eliminate one future case of CTE by fining players for “hits” like T.J. Watt’s.

In taking the NFL to task a few days ago for fining Mike Tomlin, I conceded that protecting the quarterback was important, but not if those protections altered the essence of the game. T.J. Watt’s words to reporters after learning of this fine underline just how malevolently the essence of the game is being altered.

Before getting to T.J. Watt’s words, let’s recall remarks of former Steelers linebacker, this one a Hall of Famer. And before sharing this Hall of Famers words, let’s politely suggest that if you either don’t understand or don’t agree with him then you should stop watching on Sundays and stick to Madden and Fantasy Football instead.

Jack Lambert once explained:

I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.

Contrast that with implications T.J. Watt’s response when asked if Matt Ryan took a dive:

I don’t know. If I was him I would. Why not? Fifteen yards helps your team a lot. If I’m a quarterback I’m going to sell it too. I can’t blame him for playing the game. [Emphasis added]

Sadly, here in 2018 taking World Cup soccer like dives is becoming part of “playing the game.” But it is not the way the game should be played. And that shows just how show just how grotesquely Roger Goodell is distorting football as we know it.

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NFL Fines Mike Tomlin for Telling the Truth – The Game is Becoming a Joke

News that NFL was fining Mike Tomlin hardly came as a surprise. The NFL has long fined head coaches for criticizing the officials, long before Roger Goodell brought his Kangaroo Court style of justice to the league.

When reporters questioned Mike Tomlin about the officiating after the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, the Steelers head coach didn’t hold back. After conceding that the two penalties called on Bud Dupree were probably legitimate, Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words:

Some of the other stuff, man, is a joke. We gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We gotta get ‘em correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you.

While he doesn’t mention them directly, Mike Tomlin was referring to the penalties called on Jon Bostic who arrived a second too late after Cam Heyward sacked Matt Ryan, and T.J. Watt who barley made contact with Ryan yet still got the 15 yard flag.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

In other words, the NFL is fining Mike Tomlin for telling the truth: The NFL is becoming a joke.

Business Case for Protecting Quarterbacks

Unlike Roger Goodell’s 2010 arbitrary crack down on hits to the head which unfairly targeted Pittsburgh Steelers such as James Harrison and Ryan Clark, controversy about protecting the quarterback is hardly new to Pittsburgh.

While it is hard for a Steelers site to take up for the son of a Cleveland Browns legend, Clay Matthews Jr. got flagged doing nothing other than tackling the quarterback. While traditionalists have cried foul, the NFL’s latest quarterback protection rule has no shortage of apologists.

MMQB’s Andrew Brandt and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Paul Zeise have argued that quarterbacks are a key ingredient to the NFL’s on the field product and that therefore doing what is necessary to keep them in the game is simply a wise business decision.

That line of thinking isn’t new and unlike when Jack Lambert claimed quarterbacks should wear dresses the NFL has a salary cap. So when a quarterback goes down, the NFL is literally seeing money taken off of the field.

Beyond this nerdy, accountantesque line of reasoning, it is also true that allowing passing combos like Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann or Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown to blossom is good for the game.

  • So protecting the quarterback make good business sense, to a point.
  • But when these protections begin to alter the essence of the game, they go too far.

And football, at its core, is a game that is meant to be won by those that hit the hardest, as Jack Lambert argued. And the current movement to protect the quarterback is an attempt to alter that reality.

Fantasy football owners might be happy with rules that cause flags fly after Stephon Tuitt barley love taps Andy Dalton a half second after Dalton releases his pass. But those rules water down the essence of the sport, and that will do far more damage to the NFL’s on the field product in the long run.

  • The difference between coming out on the right side of the fine line that separates winning and losing in the NFL is often defined by who wins a test of wills.
  • That includes the quest to get the quarterback.

If the NFL eliminates that element from the game in the name of coddling quarterbacks, then it will be doing far more damage to its on the field product than whatever damage losing quarterbacks to injury causes.

Mike Tomlin is telling the truth, and because of that he’s $25,000 poorer.

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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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Defeo Demands and T.J. Watt Delivers – Add to Defeoman’s Wish List

One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in football to know that the Steelers defense needed someone to step up in a big way heading into their 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Several Steelers defenders did indeed step up, and perhaps we have Tony Defeo to thank for the defender who made the biggest bang.

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Writing on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo made a simple statement, but one strong enough to merit a game day Retweet:

And just like that, T.J. Watt delivered, leading the Steelers in tackles, tackling 5 players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Matt Ryan 4 times, and sacking him 3 times, including a forced fumble which L.J. Fort recovered in the end zone for a game clinching touchdown.

Articles like that remind me of the days back at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, where I’d jaw with buddies Mike and Todd.

Bill Cowher needs to use Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala to give Jerome Bettis a breather, and while he’s at it, they need to throw more to Mark Bruener, especially when they’re in the Red Zone….”

Then one of us would quip “Yep, and we’ll tell him you said that the next time we see him!”

  • Of course now that the blogesphere exists, it is a lot easier to fool one’s self into thinking an average fan can exert such influence.

We can’t . But it’s nonetheless a little uncanny that our beloved Defeoman would see such a demand transformed into reality in such dramatic fashion. In the event that Tony’s DOES have some sort of mystical connection allows such wishes to be granted, here are a few to add to his bucket:

This list is just for starters. Feel free to add yours, although be judicious because Tony must wield his power wisely….

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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