Underachieving or Just Underwhelming? Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens

From the grade book of a teacher who wonders if his students are underachieving or simply underwhelming to begin with, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2018 home loss to the Ravens.

James Conner, Anthnoy Levine, Steelers vs Ravens

What’s wrong with this picture? James Conner’s tackle of Anthony Levine was perhaps his best play of the night. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Again Ben Roethlisberger started slow in the 1st quarter, played like a stud in the 2nd quarter and then fizzled out in the 3rd quarter. The Steelers failed to cross the 50 in the second half and were 3-11 on third downs. Ben Roethlisberger not only missed several open receivers, he had several almost interceptions. Grade: F

Running Backs
James Conner had 19 yards on 9 carries and 3 catches for 15 yards. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell has owned Baltimore in the Steelers last three games and this Raven’s run defense, while improved is hardly impenetrable. The run blocking was suspect, but the Steelers needed more from Conners, and didn’t get it. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James caught every pass thrown their way and McDonald’s 33 yarder was impressive. However, his fumble set up Ravens’ touchdown and the Steelers defense doesn’t need its offense to do the opposing teams any favors. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster had four catches and Antonio Brown managed 5 catches 11 targets. James Washington caught 2 of four. While it IS clear that Ben Roethlisberger is out of rhythm with his receivers, it does take two to tango, and there were many plays when no one was simply getting open. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Statistics say Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit once. But the pocket seemed to collapse quickly, and several of the Ravens front 7 batted down passes. Nor did the line effectively open holes for the running game. The Ravens won the battle of scrimmage. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and Stephon Tuitt had 4 with Javon Hargrave registering three, a tackle for a loss, and QB hit and a sack. The Ravens team rushing total of 3.2 years won’t impress any fantasy football owners, but Baltimore ran the ball when it needed to especially in the 3rd half. The Steelers defensive line failed to pressure Joe Flacco. Grade: D

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Joe Flacco and had a decent night. Jon Bostic led the team in tackles, and looked to get men lined up properly. T.J. Watt had four tackles but was otherwise invisible. L.J. Fort looked good after Vince Williams got hurt. The Steelers linebackers weren’t a liability, but they failed get pressure and failed to deliver a 2nd half stop when it was needed. Grade: C-

Secondary
Joe Haden had an outstanding night – after whiffing on those two touchdown passes, one of which he and his fellow defender appeared to be confused on. Terrell Edmunds recovered a fumble that Sean Davis forced, although Edmunds barely avoided getting burned on a Joe Flacco overthrow. Baltimore was 8 of 17 on third down, and while that’s not all on the secondary, a lot of it is. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell splitting the uprights not once, but twice for 34 and 39 yards provided the night’s lone bright spot. Jordan Berry also punted reasonable well and the Steelers coverage units didn’t give up any long returns. A special teams spark would have been nice. Grade: B

Coaching
The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook channeled his inner Chuck Noll when he quipped, “The Steelers problems are great, and they are many.”

For all of the accolades that Ben Roethlisberger has won, and for whatever statistics milestones the offense had achieved before the game, the Steelers offense had been inconsistent all season long as it struggled on third downs disappeared for quarters at a time, only scoring 13 points in the 1st and 4th quarters.

  • Why does the Steelers offense explode in the 2nd quarter only to tapper off in the 3rd and then completely peter out in the 4th?
  • Do Randy Fichtner’s scripted plays fall flat, leading him to adjust only to have defenses readjust?

That’s almost certainly a simplistic explanation, but it makes as much sense as any other offered. Clearly Ben Roethlisberger must be more consistent, but is just is clear that Randy Fichtner must create the conditions for Roethlisberger to be consistent. Thus far Fichtner has failed.

  • On defense, it is hard to know what to say.

Is it Keith Butler‘s fault? Or is Mike Tomlin micro managing him? Has Kevin Colbert, with or without Mike Tomlin’s assent, emphasized drafting for athletic talent at the expense of polished football skill? Or are the Steelers assistants deficient in developing that talent?

Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

Sure the Steelers forced field goals and secured a turnover in the Red Zone, but that hardly matters when an offense can protect a 4 point lead by authoring back-to-back 6 minute plus 2nd half. If the Steelers coverage is so weak that it can only rush 3 men, then perhaps the disease is worse than the cure, because at least big plays get the offense back on the field quickly.

  • And the fact that we’re even having this discussion underlines just how deeply into dysfunction the Steelers defense has sunk.

Worse, the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing with confidence. Notice the change in demeanor between the Steelers before and after Vance McDonald’s stiff arm against Tampa. Absent a spark like that, the Steelers are not taking the field with the attitude of a team that believes it can win, and that is on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
This young player caught a couple of passes, including a key 3rd down conversion, ran a play out of the backfield, and feathered the Ravens with a long enough kick return that they squibbed the next kickoff it to Roosevelt Nix and for that Ryan Switzer wins the Unsung Hero Award for 2018 loss to Baltimore at Heinz Field.

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Baltimore Beats Pittsburgh 26-14, as Ravens Reveal 2018 Steelers Mediocrity for All to See

Something felt different about the Baltimore Ravens 26-14 defeat of Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In terms of 21st century NFL rivalries, Manning vs. Brady may have supplied a lot of sound but Steelers vs. Ravens generated genuine football fury. Consider:

  • Heath Miller once suffered a hit so ferocious it kept him out for 2 weeks afterwards – and this was before the NFL instituted its concussion protocols.
  • Haloti Ngata once broke Ben Roethlisberger’s nose
  • Isaac Redman wasn’t supposed to be on the field, yet willed his way to the end zone a game winning score

And we forget all of this happened in the same nigh because we remember it as they Troy Polamalu-Joe Flacco strip sacked game. The Steelers-Ravens rivalry was fueled by one thing:

  • Both teams were staking legitimate claims to being biggest boy on the AFC North block and neither was backing down.

And that’s what made this one feel different. The Ravens didn’t necessarily assert their AFC North superiority — Cincinnati’s still leads the division — but Baltimore laid bare the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers mediocrity for all the world to see.

Terrell Edmunds, Javarious Allen, Steelers vs Ravens

Terrell Edmunds unable to stop Javorius Allen in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Against Ravens, Steelers Follow Script Rote

It is still too early in September to draw conclusions in the NFL calendar, but team’s tendencies do become clear by the end of the month. And four weeks into the season the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have their script down pat:

  • The defense gives up an early touchdown
  • The offense will go 3 and out
  • The offense will give up a turnover; if not special teams will surrender big gain
  • The opposing offense takes advantage and scores another touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger completes a big pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Vance McDonald
  • Down a few scores, the Steelers offense comes to life to tie the game or take the lead
  • Having taken the lead, the Steelers offense goes AWOL on 3rd down
  • Not coincidentally, Ben Roethlisberger fail to hook up with Antonio Brown at critical stages
  • The Steelers defense goes AOWL on third down

The game ends alternatively as a player like T.J. Watt or James Conner makes a dramatic dramatics that keep the Steelers from losing, OR the Steelers defensive front seven, which features 3 number 1 picks, 1 number 2 pick and a number 3 pick, gets abused by a running back on a play when EVERYONE knows is coming.

  • Sound sarcastic? Sadly it is not.

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers follow a pattern, and they follow it well. And Pittsburgh would be in business if could convince Roger Goodell fashion a sort of pro football equivalent of a Fabulous Freebirds Rule (Google it) declaring that the Steelers only need keep score for the 2nd and 3rd quarters.

  • Were that the case the Steelers wouldn’t simply be 4-0, they have outscored their opponents 87 to 30.

Alas, the game of football is still played for 60 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters.

Erratic Play from Roethlisberger Continues

Yet, if the Steelers have followed a script thus far in 2018, Ben Roethlisberger has not.

As the Steelers strong performances in the 2nd quarter suggest, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.” He’s still capable of making every throw he needs to make, he can still work the two minute drill, he isn’t playing with a compulsion to force the ball, and he can still make good decisions.

  • But by his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t on the same page as anyone.

True, he is more out of sync with Antonio Brown than anyone else, but last night saw a second half in which Roethlisberger misfired to JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Jesse James and Ryan Switzer on numerous occasions.

  • Is this because Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play enough in preseason or during training camp?
  • Is it because he takes of Wednesdays and needs more preparation?

Mike Tomlin had better figure out the answer, because the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to carry them. Four games into 2018 the Steelers now know that they have a good NFL running back in James Conner. Steelers fans can now also see the difference between a good NFL running back, and a great, Hall of Fame Caliber talent in Le’Veon Bell (who, by the way reminds us he still wants to retire a Steeler – thanks Le’Veon).

Deceptive Perceptions of Defensive Decency in Pittsburgh

Fantasy football owners who started the Steelers for team defense very well may be happen this week. After all, in 2018 holding an opponent to 19 non-turnover assisted points is often times more than enough. And on paper, Keith Butler’s defense made some other improvements:

  • Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave sacked Joe Flacco
  • The Steelers forced another Red Zone turnover
  • Tackling was generally good
  • The Ravens had to settle for 4 Justin Tucker field goals in final 3 quarters of the game
  • After the first touchdown the Steelers secondary stopped surrendering yards in big chunks

On paper it would seem like the Steelers defense approached decency against the Ravens. However, the Steelers defense couldn’t deliver when it counted, as the Ravens converted 8 of 17 third downs. Worse yet, as Baltimore was nursing a 6 point lead, the Steelers defense gave up two six minute plus drives.

Yet neither they, nor anyone else did. Worse yet, no one watching the game would have felt the Steelers defense was capable of making a game-changing play.

Can the Steelers Salvage Something of 2018?

The quarter pole of the 2018 season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1-2-1 and mired deep in mediocrity. If Ben Roethlisberger find a way to play well for more than just the 2nd and 3rd quarter, the Steelers could compete with a lot of teams. Maybe.

If Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler could could find a way to both pressure the passer AND not leave gaping holes in their secondary, the defense could play well enough not to require transforming each game into a shoot out. Maybe.

If the special teams could set up and make a play ever now and then, it would take some heat off of offense and defense. Maybe.

That’s a lot of maybes. And teams that depend on “maybes” heading into October are by definition mediocre ones. That’s who the Pittsburgh Steelers are right now.

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How Key Is Joe Haden to Steelers? He’s the Glue Holding Pittsburgh’s Secondary Together

Is Joe Haden a true shutdown cornerback in today’s NFL?

I don’t know what criteria one needs to be labeled as such, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s what Joe Haden does for the Steelers’ secondary, a unit that has already had more ups and downs through three weeks of the 2018 regular season than a drive through Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.

In a Week 1 tie with the Browns on September 9, the Steelers’ defense yielded just 150 yards through the air and recorded 10 passes defensed.

  • Joe Haden recorded one of  them on a nice break-up in the end zone.

Unfortunately, Joe Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and sat out the Week 2 match-up with the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Haden’s loss wasn’t just unfortunate in theory, it was unfortunate in application, as Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s young quarterback, torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss that dropped the Steelers to 0-1-1.

Joe Haden,

Joe Haden is the glue holding Steelers secondary together. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Totday

Pittsburgh’s secondary looked so helpless in the game, it not only failed to record a single pass defensed (defensive end Stephon Tuitt posted the only one on the day on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage), players like Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds spent the majority of the afternoon either totally confused or mostly out of position.

  • After the Kansas City disaster, the confidence in the Steelers’ defense was perhaps lower than it had been since the departure of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

As I said, however, the early portion of the 2018 campaign has been one crazy roller coaster ride for the  secondary; eight days later, in a Monday night match-up with the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Haden returned and so did his great influence on the pass defense.

No, the unit didn’t necessarily look great, as Artie Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh took turns in the Tampa area burn unit, thanks to the plethora of big plays they allowed. However, there was the first half of the game that included four takeaways on four straight possessions. The secondary was responsible for three of those turnovers, as Mike Hilton tallied a fumble recovery and an interception, respectively, while Terrell Edmunds recorded an interception.

What about Joe Haden, the man with the 4.5 speed tasked mostly with covering receiver DeSean Jackson, he of the 4.3 40 time? The veteran corner not only recorded three of the Steelers’ 13 passes defensed, he limited Jackson, who came into the night with nine receptions for 275 yards on the season, to just three catches for 37 yards.

  • How did Joe Haden limit such a potent threat in DeSean Jackson?

I’m no expert, but I’m guessing great technique and veteran savvy had a lot to do with it. As for the technique part, perhaps Haden can spread his influence to Burns, who is obviously younger and a step or so faster.

Regardless of how Burns influences the individual members of the Steelers’ secondary, again, there’s no question the impact he has on it as a whole.

  • Ryan Shazier is said to have been the most important member of the Steelers’ defense.

And it doesn’t take a football Ph.D to know that the Steelers defense hasn’t fully recovered since he suffered that frightful spinal injury against the Bengals late last season.

But Joe Haden was also lost for several weeks in 2017, and it’s clearly no coincidence that it was during this time that the defense was victimized by the big play to the tune of a 46 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play and this stat comes from before Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion.

So, is Joe Haden a shutdown corner? Who cares? He’s a damn good one, and the Steelers defense is better with him in the lineup.

 

 

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James Harrison’s Advice to Le’Veon Bell Suggests Silverback Fogets Where He Came From

James Harrison‘s advice to Le’Veon Bell certainly is generating a lot of sound a fury. But as the estranged ex-Steelers linebacker struts and frets is 15 minutes of Sport TV talk show fame the his words will signify nothing more than the tarnishing of his own legend.

  • Week three of the NFL’s 2018 season has come and gone, and Le’Veon Bell remains out of sight.

Well, actually, that’s not true, because thanks to social media we know that Bell is living the good life jet skiing and strip club hopping in south Florida. But Le’Veon Bell is not with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is where both he and his agent said he would be, until he wasn’t.

James Harrison, Le'Veon Bell, James Harrison advice Le'Veon Bell

James Harrison & Le’Veon Bell during happier times. Photo Credit: dailysnark.com

The question now is will Le’Veon Bell show up, or will he sit out the entire year?

James Harrison has some friendly advice for his former teammate on what he should do. You’ve heard it already, but just to keep it fresh in your memory, here’s the full quote:

If I’m Le’Veon, I’m coming back Nov. 13, and going to go in there, I’m going to get my credit, the season that I need to get, and I’m going to do the best I can to get out of that season healthy,” Harrison said. ”For me, I’d give you everything in practice. You would see, the cameras would see, that I am fine. I am healthy. But come Saturday? Something ain’t right. I can’t play on Sunday. Because if I go out here and I mess something up. I’m losing a lot of money.

Niccolo Machiavelli would approve. Scholars continue to debate the true meaning of the Florentine philosopher’s seminal work The Prince, but the 16th century’s version of a life coach never shied from encouraging would-be statesman to put their self-interest first.

In telling Le’Veon Bell to sign a contract and then mail it in, James Harrison offers the same advice.

  • This from a man who refused to let his kids accept participation trophies
  • This from a man who regularly skipped ceremonies and celebrations because he was in the gym
  • This from a man who wasn’t talented enough to get drafted yet was AFC Defensive Player of the Year

There’s a backstory here of course. There always is. Things did not end well between James Harrison and the Steelers. The Steelers resigned Harrison in the 2017 off season, and then cut him before Christmas.

Who is at fault for what happened in between comes down to who you believe. While I’ve always tended to agree with the Steelers side of the story, Art Rooney II admits that there was “blame on both sides.”

James Harrison begs to differ, it would seem. First James Harrison signed with the Patriots and took selfies with Tom Brady. Then James Harrison has very publicly question Mike Tomlin’s approach to discipline.

  • Both of those are fair game.

James Harrison was free to sign with anyone and when you’re 39 years old, chances to latch on to Super Bowl contenders – in late December no less — don’t come often.

While Harrison’s comments about Mike Tomlin ring petty from a player who did all the things that Bill Belichick supposedly does not tolerate, Belichick almost certainly is more of a disciplinarian than Mike Tomlin.

But advising another player to sign a contract in good faith and then mail it in falls way below the belt.
What kind of message is Harrison sending to his kids?

“Keep your word. Always do your very best. Work hard. Unless of course, you get ticked that Todd Gurley got the kind of contract that you and Adisa Bakari didn’t think he would get. Then it is OK to sign contracts and make commitments you never intend to keep.”

Get that straight boys and girls?

And please, spare me the argument that the Steelers did the same thing. T.J. Watt was a rookie sensation who needed to stay on the field, and if Harrison really wanted to push for playing time, sleeping through meetings was not the way to do it.

James Harrison became a dominating NFL linebacker by the sweat of his brow. No one gave James Harrison anything. He went out and earned it. And that’s what made James Harrison such a popular Pittsburgh Steeler. His attitude, his work ethic and his tenaciousness embodied the values that made the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh great.

  • It would be one thing for Harrison to tell Bell to hold out. Bell has that right and its a legit business decision.

But telling Le’Veon Bell to sign a binding contract and then simply to turn his back on his teammates suggests that James Harrison has forgotten where he came from.

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Steelers Report Card for the Win Over the Buccaneers – Finally and “Above the Line”Effort

From the grade book of a teacher who is just happy to see his students finally “Above the line” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Pittsburgh’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s first interception was vintage Big Ben trying to do too much. But Roethlisberger bounced back throwing 3 touchdown strikes and running a two minute drill with pin-point precision to end the first half. AFC Offensive Player of the week honors not withstanding, the Steelers offense was scoreless in the 2nd half and Steelers struggled on 3rd down. Grade: A

Running Backs
James Conner’s 61 yards on 15 carries and 35 catches for 5 yards might not make any fantasy owners happy, but James Conner’s 4th quarter rushing was phenomenal. Stevan Ridley got another 3 carries to spell Conners and looked good. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
A week ago the Tribune Review’s Tim Benz wondered allowed why Vance McDonald was still starting over Jesse James. No one is asking that question today, as Vance McDonald’s stiff arm is already one of the Tomlin era’s greatest offensive plays. McDonald caught 3 other passes on 5 targets. Jesse James caught one pass for 7 yards while Xavier Grimble and one target. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had one touchdown on 6 catches for 9 targets. Brown could have had more, but he and Ben were clearly not on the same page, which could have something to do with him missing practice. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the unit with 9 catches for 116 yards and came up big when the Steelers needed him two. James Washington only had to catches, but both converted first downs, while Ryan Switzer caught a touchdown to close the 1st half. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Missing two starters on the offensive line, the unit struggled at times as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and was hit nine times. Still, Steelers offensive line provided Ben time to throw when he needed, and opened holes for James Conner when the game was on the line. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Statistically speaking, it was a quiet night for the Steelers defensive line, although Stephon Tuitt did log 3 quarterback hits, and Cam Heyward logged another and defensed a pass. But what this unit did is evident in numbers elsewhere, such as the anemic performance of Tampa’s running backs, and Daniel McCuller’s pressure that helped lead to a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception. Grade: B

Linebackers
Vince Williams had 5 tackles and a quarterback hit, T.J. Watt had four tackles plus a QB hit. The real star of the crew was Bud Dupree, he had a sack, tackle for a loss, 3 QB hits, a pass defensed and most importantly a pick six. A good night for Steelers linebacking. Grade: B

Secondary
If there was any doubt, and they should not be, Joe Haden proved he the group’s unquestioned leader. Haden defended 3 passes and really seemed to elevate everyone else’s play. Terrell Edmunds got his first pick, and displayed lighting like quickness on the return. Mike Hilton had an interception, defensed a pass and helped drop someone behind the line of scrimmage. Artie Burns forced a fumble and tackled well, although he continues to struggle in coverage. Coty Sensabaugh split time with Burns rotating the two makes sense. Sean Davis rebounded from a bad game.

The Steelers secondary still has issues. However, the unit produced 3 turnovers, including one in the Red Zone and those players were difference makers. Grade: C+

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Chris Boswell continues to struggle, and carry critical costs his missed extra point and field goal would have made a huge difference for the Steelers. The Steelers continue to self-destruct with penalties, although Tampa negated a touchdown of its own. Jordan Berry had a better night punting, and pinned Tampa down deep in its own territory not once, but twice although the latter one was negated by a penalty. Ryan Switzer had one decent kick return, and one 16 yard punt return. Boswell must start making kicks and his slump brings the grade for the unit down. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the 2nd straight week, Randy Fichtner’s offense put up enough points to win, but the unit remains a work in progress. The Steelers moved the chains well enough in the second half, but didn’t score and continued to struggle on third downs.

Most, if not all of that was well deserved. Nonetheless, the Steelers defense played better. Coverage lapses abounded, particularly in the second half, but the Steelers defense created turnovers, pressured the passer and scored which helped compensate.

  • The Steelers did not lack for drama this week.

Charges that Mike Tomlin had “lost the locker room” swirled on social media. Yet Tomlin took it in stride, keep the Steelers dirty laundry in house – at least as far as is possible in the age of social media – made a personnel change, and ordered a live tackling drill. His team responded and turned in Above the Line performances. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
On lookers greeted his arrival in Pittsburgh with a collective “Ho hum.” Objective evaluations of what he brought to the team were always made in comparison to who he wasn’t. He didn’t do much to stand out during the first two weeks, and even ESPN Deportes Raul Allegre harshly criticized him early in the game.

Yet this player paid those critiques no mind, as he led the team in tackles, registered a sack, dropped two rushers behind the line of scrimmage defensed one pass and tipped another that turned into a Red Zone interception, and for that inside linebacker Jon Bostic wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over Tampa Bay.

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How Steelers Barn Burning win over Buccaneers Reveals Pittsburgh’s Peril and Promise for 2018

It took 3 weeks, but the Steelers 30-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave the Black and Gold its first win of the 2018 season, proving once again that on the field and off the field, Pittsburgh certainly does not lack for drama.

The win was a barn burner, something which Steelers Nation got accustomed to during the latter half of 2017. Moreover, it was a Steelers win that revealed both the limits and perhaps the promise Pittsburgh of the 2018 season.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Stiff Arm Heard Round the World

Week three marks an important milestone in the NFL calendar. Teams that exceeded expectations in the first two weeks either get a reality check or show that they’re really ready for prime time. Teams that have fallen short of expectations in the first two weeks either dig themselves deeper into a statistical hole or they offer hope that the can be better.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had exceeded expectations during the season’s first two weeks, while the Pittsburgh Steelers had fallen short.

After Pittsburgh and Tampa traded punts, Ben Roethlisberger forced the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Evans made him pay, picking him off at midfield. Ryan Fitzpatrick needed only 5 plays to march 53 yards for a touchdown. For Steelers Nation, it was déjà vu all over again.

Fortunately, the Steelers starting tight end didn’t share the feeling:

With Vance McDonald’s stiff arm and incredible burst of speed, the Steelers declared “We didn’t come here to play. We came to win.”

Steelers Show Promise in First Half vs Buccaneers

Vance McDonald’s touchdown ushered a different Steelers team onto the field at Raymond James Stadium, one very similar to the team that people inside and outside of Pittsburgh thought could contend for a championship.

  • Anthony Chickillo ended the next Buccaneers drive with a sack
  • Artie Burns came off the bench to force a fumble
  • 2 plays later, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown schooled Tampa for a touchdown
  • The Buccaneers marched Pittsburgh’s 12 only to have Jon Bostic tip a pass that Mike Hilton intercept
  • Terrell Edmunds returned an easy interception with Troy Polamalu-like speed
  • After a -7 yard drive Jordan Berry pinned Tampa down at at their 2
  • 2 plays later Bud Dupree took his first interception to the house

The Steelers did give up a field goal on the ensuring drive, but with just a 1:09 remaining, Ben Roethlisberger moved the Steelers 75 yards down the field with Swiss-like precision, hitting Ryan Switzer for a touchdown with 0:06 left to spare.

This was the type of Pittsburgh Steelers team everyone expected: An explosive offense matched with a defense capable of making splash plays to compensate for leaks that it can’t really doesn’t have the talent to plug.

Second Half Reveals Steelers Limits and Potential Ceiling

Twenty point leads lend a lot of confidence to teams heading into the locker room. But any wise fan knew not to take anything for granted. This was after all the Steelers team that had the Cleveland Browns on the ropes with a two touchdown lead in the 4th quarter but managed to tie the game.

  • It would be easy to offer the Steelers second half effort as proof that the Steelers defense is hopeless.

And you’d no doubt, find plenty of takers in the “Fire Everyone” crowd who don’t understand why Art Rooney II didn’t summarily fire Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Kevin Colbert and the water boy after the Kansas City debacle.

  • The truth is that the Steelers defense in general and its secondary specifically secondary left a lot to be desired for much of the 2nd half.

On the upside, tackling was a bit better, but members of the secondary got plenty of tackling practice as Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with receiver after receiver. For all the “Fitzmagic” talk, Ryan Fitzpatrick never should have been allowed to make it so close. But he did, and underlining the fact that the Steelers have some legitimate deficiencies on defense.

  • The Steelers offense also shoulders some of the responsibility.

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still are not on the same page: Ben grossly overthrew Brown on a deep pattern that could have been an easy touchdown, and the two were badly out of sync on another that could have killed the clock.

But those two flaws, while real, should not overshadow two positives from the game’s final five minutes.

  1. James Conner ripped off 27 and then 17 yard gains, when EVERYONE knew he was going get the ball
  2. The Steelers defense pitched a perfect shut out on the Buccaneer’s final drive

In fewer words, both Steelers units found ways to win. Finding the ability to make key plays at critical moments in the NFL is a distinct skill. In the closing moments against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Steelers showed they still have that skill.

Which is good, because they will likely need to call on it throughout the 2018 season.

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Rapid Reaction: Steelers MNF Win over Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Whew. The Steelers sure don’t like to make things easy for themselves. It may have taken 3 weeks, but the Pittsburgh Steelers notched their first win of the 2018 season with a nail biting victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football

The contest saw the Steelers build up a 30 to 10 halftime lead, only to hold on for dear life in the second period as Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Buccaneers to 17 unanswered points.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, M.J. Stewart, Steelers vs Buchaneers, Steelers MNF win Buccaneers

JuJu Smith-Schuster stiff arms M.J. Stewart. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via PennLive.com

The game ended at just before 1:00 pm Buenos Aires time, and work looms tomorrow morning (thank God we haven’t reached fall back, when we’ll be two hours ahead of US Eastern time!) So there’s no time for detailed analysis beyond this rapid reaction:

Vance McDonald’s first touchdown a word of beauty. He literally not only knocked a defender on has rear-end with a stiff arm, but he barely broke stride in doing it. That play and his touchdown set the tone for the first half.

Both players had big turnovers. Terrell Edmunds interception was, while not quite Troy Poalmaluesque, showed the athleticism and big play ability that the Steelers wanted when they drafted him in the first round. Bud Dupree had a big night with a sack and pick six

  • Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t completely shaken off the rust, but still has some of his signature magic.

Ben Roethlisberger’s interception appeared to be an ominous sign. However, the quarterback made time with his feet behind a make-shift offensive line and connected on three touchdown passes, and kept the chains moving just well enough in the second half to deny Tampa Bay the time it needed to mount a comeback.

Still Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are not yet on the same page. Ben Roethlisberger badly overthrew Antonio Brown on a deep pattern that almost certainly would have been a touchdown.

Tampa Bay had struck within 3. The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out. The Steelers needed to kill the clock. In other words, everyone in the stadium knew the Steelers were going to run, and James Conners still delivered with not one but two decisive runs.

  • The Steelers defense isn’t going to win any games for the team any time soon

Keith Butler‘s defense made any number of splash plays during the first half, all of which were difference makers. However, going into the game, Bob Labriola compared Ryan Fitzpatrick’s current streak to the one that Mike Tomczak enjoyed early in the Steelers 1996 season.

That comparison was highly accurate. Nonetheless, the 2018 version of Mike Tomczak took the Steelers defense to the wire.

While the Steelers defense clearly was better than it was against Kansas City, this unit has a long, long way to go. One thing is certain, Joe Haden is clearly a difference maker for this unit. They are a different secondary with him in there.

It is now 1:06 am in Buneos Aires, and another long day of work looms tomorrow. Check back for our full analysis of  the Steelers MNF win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, either tomorrow eveing at around 7:00 pm Eastern, or Wednesday at 8:20 am Eastern.

Go Steelers!

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Amy Trask’s Criticism of Mike Tomlin Rings Horrendously Hypocritical Coming from Former Raiders CEO

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is in the bulls eye again. This time former Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders CEO Amy Trask is taking aim. Speaking on CBS, Amy Trask took this shot:

I have never been impressed with Mike Tomlin’s ability to diffuse situations like this, and to calm a team down.

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have already logged their share of team drama in an NFL season that is only two years old. And Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism in this regard.

But coming from Amy Trask? Please. All one needs to do is take a quick look at her record and turn around her statement that “During Amy Trask’s time as CEO, I was always impressed by the Raiders exacerbate locker room drama and to rile a team up.”

Amy Trask’s Tenure as Raiders CEO

Amy Trask served as the CEO of the Oakland Raiders from 1997 to 2013. The exact nature of her responsibilities is not known to me, which isn’t a surprise, because Al Davis micromanaged and meddled into everything.

  • Still, she held the title CEO and on paper at least bears significant responsibly for what went on in the organization.

The Radiers went 4-12 under Joe Gibbs apprentice Joe Bugle in 1997, when Trask took charge in Oakland. That was followed by Jon Gruden’s first stint as head coach, and Gruden immediately transformed the Raiders into a .500 ball club, and then in his third year took them to the Conference Championship.

Gruden took the Raiders to the playoffs in 2001, but frustrated by Gruden’s inability to win the big game, the Raiders shipped Gruden off to Tampa Bay. Where of course Gruden took the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl, where they decimated the Raiders to the tune of 48 to 21.

  • Things went south quickly under Bill Callahan, who saw the Raiders to a 4-12 record in 2003.

By the time timings were over, Callahan was openly trashing both his players and his assistant coaches. Then the Raiders turned to Norv Turner, who had a losing record and only one playoff appearance in 7 years as coach of the Washington Redskins.

  • Perhaps the “highlight” of Norv Turner’s time in Oakland was his inability to find a way to use Jerry Rice, the greatest NFL wide receiver every to play, whom he shipped off to Seattle.

That incident also perhaps foreshadowed Randy Moss’ time in Oakland, which marked rock bottom for the talented but mercurial wide receiver, who served as a distraction both on and off the field.

Trask and the Raiders then turned back to Art Shell, who failed miserably in his comeback attempt as a head coach, finishing 2-14. That led Layne Kiffin’s tenure, whom after going 4-12 in 2007 was fired early in 2008 after a highly public and controversial feud with Al Davis, which saw Davis fire Kiffin with cause – a rarity for NFL coaches.

That led to Tom Cable, who during his time as Raiders head coach was accused (but never convicted) of breaking an assistant coach’s jaw. Cable was later accused of domestic violence by multiple women. Tom Cable was also the head coach when Richard Seymour cold cocked Ben Roethlisberger, for those taking notes at home.

During Amy Trask’s time in Oakland, the Raiders only posted 3 winning seasons, cycled through 8 different head coaches, and as demonstrated, drama and disruption were never in short supply.

  • It might be a little unfair to hold Amy Trask as the person primarily responsible for all of this chaos.
  • It IS fair to criticism the Pittsburgh Steelers as a team whose drama has led to distraction thus far in 2018

But based on her record as Oakland Radiers CEO, Amy Trask has no business leveling any of those criticisms.

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Recent AFC Trends Suggest Steelers Aren’t Among Conference’s Best

No matter how people broke things down or what record they may have predicted heading into the 2018 regular season, there’s no question the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were considered Super Bowl contenders.

Even after an 0-1-1 start that includes a tie with the Browns and loss to the Chiefs in-which the Steelers defense was totally embarrassed by Patrick Mahomes, it would be foolish to give up on a true Super Bowl contender this early in the year.

  • But that would only be if we’re talking about a true contender, something recent trends suggest the Steelers are not.

Why do I say that? Because the Steelers have lost three straight games–all at home–to teams that are among the best the AFC has to offer.

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

The first loss came last December 17, when the Patriots stunned Pittsburgh with a 27-24 victory that many thought was a miscarriage of justice, thanks to the controversial reversal of a Jesse James touchdown with just seconds remaining.

Had Jesse James touchdown stood, it would have likely given the Steelers a 31-27 victory and the inside track to capture the AFC’s top seed. OK, if the reversal of the Jesse James’ touchdown indeed was a miscarriage of justice, how can I hold that against Mike Tomlin and Co.?

Because Mike Tomlin, former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to panic (or at least failed to communicate properly) during the sequence of plays that followed the reversal, and Roethlisberger wound up throwing an ill-advised pass that was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

  • There’s no way that game should have ended in regulation.

To make things brief, I will just combine the last two games that saw the Steelers defense yield a grand total of 827 yards and 80 points in back-to-back losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs.

The loss to Jacksonville last January 14 came in a playoff game at Heinz Field and put an end to a 2017 campaign in-which the Steelers, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, appeared to be destined for a rematch with New England in the AFC Championship game.

As for Week 2’s defeat to Kansas City, the performance of the defense was so alarming, it made one absolutely dread the regular season rematch with the Patriots this December at Heinz Field.

  • As I said, it is really early, and the Steelers wouldn’t be the first team to start a season slowly before showing its true championship colors.

However, 2017, one in-which they struggled to defeat some of the more mediocre teams in the NFL on a weekly basis, often needing kicker Chris Boswell to bail them out with game-winning field goals in the final seconds, may have been the true colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers–maybe it just took the top contenders in the AFC to flesh them out.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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