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

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

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada Sets Offense Up for Strong Start

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

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

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

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting Fields Carried Costs for Defense

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

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

That’s both good and bad for the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Still Fretting over Steelers Drafting Najee Harris & Pat Freiermuth? Please, Stop.

Since we’ve actually reached the month of November (so hard to believe), and the Steelers 2021 regular season is now seven games old, you’d think most folks would have long since forgotten about what took place during the 2021 NFL Draft last spring.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris goes Air Mail express into the endzone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Wrong.

People are still fretting about how the Steelers should have drafted an offensive lineman in the first round and how running backs are a dime a dozen. And even if you’ve now grown to accept the fact that Pittsburgh decided to select Najee Harris, running back, Alabama, 24th, overall, damn it, why didn’t the team take center Creed Humphrey, center, Oklahoma, one round later when he was still ripe for the picking?

Did you see Sunday’s game, a 15-10 victory over the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium? Did you witness the powerful runs by Harris and his Walter Payton-like leap into the end zone from about the four-yard line? Did you notice who scored the other touchdown? That’s right, it was Freiermuth. Did you appreciate the body control and the concentration, as he fought off the Browns’ defender, cradled the football and got both feet in bounds before falling to the turf?

A center couldn’t have scored either one of those touchdowns. You might argue that a running back and tight end drafted much lower still may have, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Those two rookies are special. Those two youngsters are studs.

The Steelers were smart in selecting them, and I get the feeling it’s going to continue to pay off for them for quite some time.

As for the offensive line that was very much in need of an infusion of young talent, Kendrick Green, the center Pittsburgh selected out of Illinois in the third round, has been starting since Day 1. Dan Moore Jr., the left tackle drafted out of Texas A&M in the fourth round, surprised everyone with his development over the summer and has also been starting since Week 1.

  • Has Green been pushed around a bit over his first seven games?

Yes, he’s undersized. He’s also green (no pun intended). He barely played center in college. But what I like about Green is that he’s not afraid to push back. Same for Moore, who clearly had his hands full on Sunday while trying to block Myles Garrett (Moore probably wished he had another pair of hands in order to deal with Garrett). But Moore survived. If he can get through a game against perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, he can get through anything, right?

So, just to be clear, the Steelers went into the 2021 NFL Draft in need of a running back, a tight end and multiple offensive linemen. They addressed all four areas with their first four picks and all four selections have contributed heavily to the Steelers’ offense through seven games.

  • What more could you ask for?

If that’s not enough, Isaiahh Loudermilk, a defensive lineman who the Steelers traded a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Dolphins in order to draft in the fifth round, is starting to make strides and turn heads. Tre Norwood, a Swiss Army Knife of a defensive back who the Steelers drafted in the seventh round, has been more than a valuable member of the secondary so far in his rookie season. Oh yeah, and Pressley Harvin III, the punter out of Georgia Tech who Pittsburgh also selected in the seventh round, won the job over Jordan Berry in training camp.

Throw in Buddy Johnson, an inside linebacker from Texas A&M who made the team as a fourth-round pick, and that’s quite a successful 2021 draft class. To review: the Steelers 2021 draft class consisted of nine players. Eight made the team, five are already starting (a punter is considered a starter) and seven are contributing heavily.

  • Again, how can you ask for more than that?

It’s time to stop thinking about what the Steelers could and should have done in the 2021 NFL Draft and start talking about what the players they drafted are actually doing.

The end.

 

 

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Did Le’Veon Bell Pave the Way for the Steelers Trade of Melvin Ingram to the Chiefs? Maybe.

Perhaps the best take away out of Stephen King’s On Writing is his argument that compelling stories are never scripted. Instead, they evolve through the actions of their characters.

  • And so it is with Pittsburgh Steelers blogs.

When the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram on July 19th, the article the photo that yours truly picked for the post discussing his signing was one of him tackling Le’Veon Bell in the 2015 game against the Chargers.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

As it turned out, it was quite a fitting photo, because it Le’Veon Bell may have blazed the trail that led the Steelers to trade Melvin Ingram to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 6th round pick after just 6 games in the Black and Gold.

When asked to explain the decision, Mike Tomlin conceded that “I enjoy working with Melvin. It just didn’t work out the way we envisioned, the way he envisioned.” Then he clarified, “And sometimes it happens in free agency and that’s really, you know, culturally, why we build our team primarily through the draft.”

  • Rumors have circulated for weeks that Ingram wanted out.

The Steelers had an offer from the Chiefs, but wanted to send him to the NFC. Ultimately they couldn’t. “What the team needs is first and foremost,” Tomlin insisted, before pivoting “Also, it’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages, so that’s good for the team as well.”

If the “hostages” and “volunteers” colocation sounds familiar (OK, it’s not a true collocation, but how many ESL teachers are gonna read this anyway?) it should.

Nearly 3 years ago, almost to the day, Mike Tomlin explained to ESPN’s Dianna Russini “We need volunteers, not hostages,” when asked about whether the Steelers needed Le’Veon Bell to end his holdout.

  • The decision confirms a shift the franchise’s policy and attitude in these situations.

Four summers ago Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell raised eyebrows when they suggested James Harrison was a candidate for the waiver wire. Social media decried the story as “click bait” but Harrison neither played nor practiced at St. Vincents. And when the season started, some Sundays he didn’t get a helmet and he seldom played when he did.

  • Much of this happened outside the public eye but privately James Harrison was furious and did little to hide it when the cameras weren’t rolling.

The Steelers of course cut James Harrison just before Christmas, the Patriots signed him, started him, Harrison got a few sacks on national TV and a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers suffered their worst public relations debacle since Chuck Noll’s “Franco Who?” comment that ended with the ghastly sight of Franco Harris wearing a blue No. 34 Seattle Seahawks jersey.

The Ingram trade depletes the depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith leaving the Steelers with only Derrek Tuszka and Taco Charlton was backups. An injury to either Watt or Highsmith could derail the Steelers season just as James Conner’s injury derailed the 2018 season.

But that’s a gamble the Steelers are willing to make in exchange for locker room harmony, which might be the lasting lesson that Le’Veon Bell left to the team.

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Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

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Discipline Drives Steelers to 15-10 Win over Browns in Cleveland

The location was Cleveland, the day Halloween. The teams were the Steelers and the Browns. The stakes were avoiding the division basement. And Pittsburgh triumphed 15-10 in a game worthy of the old AFC Central.

The victory puts the Steelers within striking distance of the AFC North lead and extends their winning streak to 3. But the real take away from the game lies in how the Steelers won: By focusing on fundamentals and maintaining discipline.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Strange Things Happen in Cleveland. But This was Just a “Side Note”

Strange things happen when the Steelers play in Cleveland. Seldom are they good.

Joe “Turkey” Jones once pile drove Terry Bradshaw in a late hit. Dwight White once warned rookie Tunch Ilkin to wear his helmet at all times lest he get hit with a battery. Ilkin took the veteran’s advice. Leroy Hoard once got decked in the end zone, only to have pass, that deflected off of several players, literally land in his lap for a touchdown.

Jerry Olsavsky blew out 4 ligaments there and got pelted by the Dawg Pound with beer bottles as he was removed on a stretcher. The same game saw the Steelers dominate in every phase, yet lose thanks to 2 Eric Metcalf punt returns.

In 2012, the Steelers fumbled the ball 8 times, lost 5 of them, while Charlie Batch threw 3 interceptions.

  • The strange thing isn’t that the Steelers lost, but that they could have won it at the end.

And so it was that Mike Tomlin, instead of taking a near-certain field goal for the lead late in the first half, opted for a fake. And so it was that Chris Boswell, who’d been 1-1 and a 1 touchdown as a passer, not only threw an incompletion, but got a concussion on an illegal hit.

  • Mike Tomlin accepted responsibility for the call.

But this latest “strange thing” ended up being a “side note” instead of a defining moment largely because of the work Tomlin and his staff had done during the week.

Steelers Execute on Fundamentals while Browns Bumble

Going into this game, if you’d have said it would revolve around the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and simply hitting or pushing harder than your opponent, the smart money would have favored the Browns.

The Browns are the NFL’s best rushing teams. They do it by winning the battles upfront which allows Nick Chubb to reach the second level just as he’s hitting his stride. You counter teams like this by putting 8 men in the proverbial box. But, as The Athletic’s Mark Kabloy explained:

The Browns have been outstanding against eight-man fronts. The majority of the time the Browns have countered with two tight ends. Still, they average a league-high 4.69 yards per carry when at least eight are in the box.

Devin Bush, D'Ernest Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

Perhaps the Browns outsmarted themselves a bit, opening by throwing more than running. But in the end it didn’t matter. The Steelers shut down Nick Chubb. Devin Bush stopped him once at the goal line and then Bush plus T.J. Watt did it again on 4th down.

Cam Heyward had a hand on shutting him down on numerous 1st down runs. In the 4th quarter Alex Highsmith had a hand in shutting him down on three separate critical plays.

Taking Chubb out of the game put the onus of moving the offense on to Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, playing hurt, did make some courageous plays, but the Browns were 3-10 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th down.

Steelers Offense Embraces KISS Principle

Offensive innovation is in vogue. Everyone likes creative formations and deceptive use of motion. And who doesn’t love a good gadget play? To be certain Matt Canada’s clever play calling helped carry the day.

  • But the Steelers won because on offense they embraced the KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid principle.

Matt Canada didn’t try to dazzle the Browns with smoke and mirrors. Sure, he gave 3 carries to Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud, and those plays helped open up the offense. But Canada executed a conservative game plan designed to limit the damage Myles Garrett could do.

  • And by and large, it worked.

Even though Najee Harris was only averaging 3 and a half yards per pop, the Steelers stuck to the run and that kept the Browns defense honest, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to quietly author his best game of the season, which included a spectacular 50 yard hook up with Diontae Johnson. Johnson not only flipped the field, but had the discipline to stay in bounds, essentially sealing the game.

Discipline = Difference Maker

“Discipline.” There’s that word again. If the Steelers ability to stay in their gaps on defense and make tackles was critical winning the game, but Pittsburgh’s superior discipline was the difference maker.

Clinging to a 1 point lead early in the 3rd quarter, the Browns faced a 4th and at midfield. Cleveland lined up with Mayfield going into the hard count, trying to force a penalty. Playing from behind, on the road in front of fired up fans, the Steelers defense could have flinched easily.

  • They didn’t. The Browns punted.

Discipline was critical on the next drive, and Ben Roethlisberger on 4th and goal, waited patiently, and then hit Pat Freiermuth who not only had the concentration to catch a very contested catch, but also got his foot in bounds for the touchdown.

8 plays later, a lapse of discipline would undo the Browns, as Joe Schobert knocked the ball lose from Jarvis Landry, as T.J. Watt recovered. The Steelers punted 3 plays later, but the clock was ticking.

Finally, with the Browns sitting on the Steelers 25 yard line on 3rd and 12, Rashard Higgins committed a false start, knocking Cleveland back 5 yards. They got four of them back, but Minkah Fitzpatrick saw to it that Mayfield’s 4th down pass to Jarvis Landry fell incomplete.

Steelers Story Heading in Right Direction

When asked about what this game means to the team Mike Tomlin explained:

Its days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be. We’ll continue to write that story positively or negatively, but today was a good day.

He is right. The Steelers will continue to write their story. But fortunately, for the first time since the opening day win against the Bills, the Steelers story is a tale of more wins than losses.

Yes, today was a good day.

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Browns Game Offers the Steelers the Perfect Measuring Stick

There’s a certain symmetry to the Steelers 2021 bye week. They entered the bye after a game against the Seattle Seahawks and exit it playing the Cleveland Browns.

That’s fitting because the transition to the post-Ben Roethlisberger era began against the Seahawks in 2019 and the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns confirmed that Big Ben has reached his 11th hour.

So the bye week gives us an excellent opportunity to take stock of where the Steelers stand in terms of that transition.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
Stronger than in 2019, even since late 2020. When Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow popped, Mason Rudolph had never thrown an NFL pass and Joshua Dobbs had just been traded. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been as erratic as he was in the playoffs, yet he’s lacked the same spark we saw as recently as the Colts game.

Running Backs
Stronger today. Period. Najee Harris is arguably the most talented player on offense, and the depth behind him is stronger than it was in 2019 or at any point in 2020.

Tight Ends
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than 2020. Vance McDonald was ailing in 2019, Xavier Grimble was showing he couldn’t cut it and the Steelers had to trade for and start Nick Vannett in the same week. Last year the Steelers still had McDonald and Eric Ebron, plus Kevin Radar. On paper this group isn’t as strong, but Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry improve every week.

Wide Receiver
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than in 2020. In 2019 the Steelers had JuJu Smith-Schuster, rookie Diontae Johnson, Ryan Switzer (oh, did you forget Donte Moncrief? So did everyone else.) The Steelers returned the same wideout corps as last year, but have lost JuJu, weakening them considerably.

Offensive Line
Weaker than in 2019, stronger than in 2020. While it wasn’t quite apparent, the offensive line’s decline had begun in 2019, but it was still providing good pass protection. A year ago the unit was falling apart. While it is far from a strength, the unit has improved since the beginning of the season.

Defensive Line
Weaker than in 2019 and 2020. Those Steelers defensive lines featured Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and then Tyson Alualu. Now only Cameron Heyward remains. Nuff said.

Linebackers
Weaker than 2019, but stronger than 2020. Bud Dupree was blossoming in the fall of 2019, and Devin Bush was authoring a strong rookie year. T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt and Vince Williams held down the center. IN the playoff last year, T.J. was playing alongside Avery Williamson, Cassius Marsh and Marcus Allen (Ok, Marcus Allen only played 8 snaps. But as Tim Van Patton taught us in the 70’s 8 Is Enough. Yeah, that’s bad, but you get the point, don’t you?) While Devin Bush has been shaky and Alex Highsmith is finding his legs, I’ll take this quartet over the group on the field during the playoffs.

Secondary
Stronger than 2019, stronger than in late 2020. Truthfully, the Steelers secondary got A LOT better following the 2019 Seahawks game thanks to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade. And that secondary might have been stronger than this one, but with Joe Haden was out against the Browns, and he’s back now. Nuff said.

Special Teams
About even. After a bad 2018 campaign, Chris Boswell has been back. While Pressley Harvin has been uneven, he has more upside than Jordan Berry.

What Does It All Mean? Give the Pre-Game Edge – Browns

Since the playoff debacle, Steelers have strengthened themselves at running back, offensive line, linebacker, and in the secondary. Unfortunately they’re weaker on defensive line and the Browns road grading rushing attack is well suited to exploit this weakness.

  • And Ben Roethlisberger has neither the mobility, fire power or receivers to will this team to victory.

The Steelers can win this game, but their ability to do so hinges on their defense and/or special teams delivering some potent fireworks.

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Outtakes: Remembering Steelers 1st MNF Win @ Heinz, Plaxico’s Break Out Game 20 Years Later

Editor’s Note: Today is the 20th anniversary of the first Monday Night Football game at Heinz Field. It also marks the first Steelers game yours truly watched from Buenos Aires. So here is Steel Curtain Rising’s “Outtake,” taken from post-game email written after the game. Aside from minor edits, text appears as written in 2001! Thanks to @PGH_Sports_Date for the reminder!

Steelers vs Titans, 1st MNF Heinz Field, Plaxico Burress, Plaxico Burress 1st 100 yard game,First Monday Night Football Heinz Field, Daryl Porter, Perry Phoenix

Two firsts. Plaxico Burress first 100 yard game & the first MNF game @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI, via UPI.com

The commentary was in Spanish. The game was broadcast at 1:00 am here in Buenos Aires. I was drinking Quilmes (an Argentine beer) and Brahma (a Brazilian beer) instead of my beloved Iron City. And, I was alone, without my usual buddies from the Goose [that’s Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon.]

  • But you know what? It was still great.

I was quite impressed with the Steelers effort against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. The new stadium looked great (first time I’d seen it on TV), the fans seemed to be louder (heard that was an issue before) and the Black and Gold was kicking some ass!

Although this was the first game I’d seen this year, I thought that the team put together an overall great effort. It wasn’t a perfect game, but whenever one area faulted, it seemed like another area picked up the slack.

  • On the offensive side of the ball I was a little concerned about the offensive line play.

After reading about how well the O-Line’s been playing, I was looking forward to seeing them manhandle the Tennessee Tuxedos front seven (BTW/ my friend Bill ., a devoted Ravens fan but great guy all around deserves credit for the “Tuxedos” moniker.) For the most part, that didn’t happen. Jerome Bettis got didn’t get the light to rush that I’d like – except when it counted. The blocking was phenomenal on the two Bettis runs, moreover, the Bus did grind out some yards in the 4th quarter, allowing us to put the Titans away.

  • In a sense however, the mild difficulties experienced by the running game were a positive.

I really thought the passing offense did a good job of coming together. Plaxico Burress had a hell of a game, especially on the long catch in the 3rd quarter, on a ball that would have been intercepted had the defensive back been concentrating. Hines Ward had a few drops, but really impressed me with the tough catch he made in the 2nd quarter and, as usual, he was their when we needed him on the TD drive.

Although it came in garbage time, I thought that Tommy Maddox did well in mop up time when playing from his own goal line, and the much maligned Troy Edwards (OK, he brought it on himself, no argument) made a great effort.

Steelers vs Titans, Kordell Stewart, 1st MNF game Heinz Field

Kordell going down? Nope. He escaped to hit Hines Ward for a TD. Photo Credit: AP via ESPN.com

Although he had a couple ugly throws, I thought Kordell Stewart did a good job of sticking in the pocket and finding his receiver and moving around, although Tennessee did a good job of spying the QB.

  • The defense was excellent. I was really impressed by the play of Kendrell Bell.

OK, he did get burned by Frank Wycheck on two plays, including the Tuxedo’s only TD. But he had good position on both plays, and remember, he’s only a rookie. A year from now those passes, I’ll wager, get broken up. Otherwise the D-line impressed me, as did the play of Chad Scott and Dwayne Washington.

  • I noticed improved play on special teams, and I was particularly impressed with the play of Mike Logan there.

Well, folks, I’d love to be able to offer more insight into how this game fits into the bigger picture, but seeing as how it’s the first game I’ve seen, I can’t. Nonetheless, the offense showed that can use weapons other than Bettis to get points on the board, if not win. (OK, the Tuxedo’s don’t exactly have Baltimore’s pass D, but we still looked good.)

The Steelers are off to a great start, but our next four games come against some tough division opponents, including Baltimore whom we’ve not beaten at home in two years. Cleveland looks to be much improved (how do they really look, some one let me know, please?) And Jacksonville could likely be playing with their backs to the wall.

In its final season, the AFC Central looks WIDE open. That means these are games you’ve got to win. Credit the Steelers for putting themselves in good position. Now its up to Bill Cowher and company to see that they take advantage of it.

So, as we say at the Goose,

Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit, spit, spit, if you ain’t a Steelers fan you ain’t shit! Go Steelers!

KT
President,
Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires

*(I had to go bed early and get up, then go to bed again to get up at 6 am, that really kicks your ass.)
** This was my first Steelers game away from the Goose since October of 1997!

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The Contrast of Two Steelers Coaches and Incorrect Rumors about College Jobs

In case you missed it, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn’t interested in the LSU head coaching job. Or the USC one, for that matter either.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

The dynamics of how this “story” evolved to dominate the internet for the span of a few hours on Tuesday afternoon are best left to the Watch Tower, but for now here are two quick take aways:

  • First, in contrast to his predecessor, Mike Tomlin delivered a clinic on denying a rumor
  • Second, as point number one suggests, the hypothetical isn’t all that unusual.

As we all know, former Steeler and Bills front office executive Doug Whaley went on Pittsburgh radio and suggested that Mike Tomlin might be a candidate for the vacancies at LSU and USC, suggesting that either school might outbid Art Rooney II.

  • Both Ryan Clark and Carlston Palmer took that rumor and ran with it.

The storm of tweets, blog posts and Facebook likes followed. Hey, this was the bye week after all, so why not focus on something juicy instead of doing real reporting.

At his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin answered a score or so questions about the Steelers injury situation, usage of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Anthony McFarland all in the context the Steelers upcoming game against the Browns.

Then Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review asked Tomlin about the rumor.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Mike Tomlin left no room for ambiguity in his response:

Which is refreshing. Just before Christmas during the dark days of the Steelers 1999 season, Bill Cowher was asked about returning to North Carolina to coach college ball. Unlike the Whaley generated story, this one didn’t come out of thin air. Bill Cowher had been dogged by rumors since the end of the Steelers 1997 season that he wanted out.

  • The question had arisen earlier that year with multiple national stories.

Yet, when given a chance to refute the rumors, Bill Cowher, fumbled the opportunity so badly at his weekly press conference that, at the urging of his late wife Kay Cowher, called a second press conference were he delivered an unequivocal denial.

(Where was social media when you needed it? Today Cowher could have gotten it done in a Tweet.)

But if Tomlin’s denial was clear cut, his umbrage at the question itself is on shaker ground. Several commentators have taken his cause, namely ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith:

Smith makes a lot of excellent points.

But let’s everyone should be clear: The prospect of an NFL head coach leaving the pros to go to the NCAA isn’t that far-fetched. After the Patriots fired Pete Carroll following the 1999 season, he went to coach at – you guessed it – USC.

Ah, but Carroll had tried and failed twice as an NFL coach (not that he had much of a chance with Leon Hess owned Jets) you object? OK.

To that I say, Jim Harbaugh. After the 2014 season, two years removed from a NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance, “Capitan Comeback” left the NFL behind to coach for Michigan.

Smith is right. Mike Tomlin does get a unfair criticism heaped at him from all sorts of directions and for many different reasons. Some of those critics have nefarious motives. But we can likely chalk up fact that he was questioned about a rumor linking him to a college job to nothing other than the shoddy state of sports journalism here in 2021.

The Watch Tower will shine its lights on that angle of the story very soon. Stay tuned.

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At 3-3, the Steelers Are Right Where I Thought They’d Be AT This Point… Kind Of

If you would have asked me before the season where the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers, the team with the NFL’s toughest schedule on paper, the team with the 39-year old quarterback along, the team with a bunch of rookies and a new offensive coordinator, would be after six games and heading into their bye, I would have probably said around .500.

  • As it turns out, that’s where the Steelers sit as they sit around and watch most of the other teams play in Week 7.

So, I guess the Steelers are right where I thought they’d be, right? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, 3-3 seems right, but how the Steelers got to this point was a bit surprising.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For example, I did not expect the Steelers to go into Buffalo and knock off the Bills in Week 1; if you’ve seen how Buffalo has played since that 23-16 loss at the hands of the black and gold–the Bills may be the best team in the NFL right now–you can certainly understand my doubt.

Conversely, if you would have asked me after the first game where I thought the Steelers would be through three weeks, I would have said they’d still be undefeated; in fact, I remember exchanging text messages with friends and fellow writers and podcasters that reflected that belief. Why? The Raiders, a seemingly mediocre team from out west, and the Bengals, a team that is normally known as the Bungals, were coming to Heinz Field for match-ups in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively.

If the Steelers could knock off the Bills on the road, surely, Las Vegas and Cincinnati would be mere tune-ups along the way to proving all of the offseason doubters wrong, right?

Wrong.

Nope, instead of taking care of both the Raiders and Bengals, Pittsburgh was taken care of in back-to-back home losses. The offense was just as putrid in the two losses as it was in the victory over the Bills. The only difference was a less-potent and effective defense due to a series of injuries that saw both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith sit out the same game.

After dropping a third-straight to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field, the Steelers closed out their pre-bye portion of the schedule with two-straight home victories. The win over the Broncos in Week 5 wasn’t much of a shocker — I think most folks felt good about Pittsburgh’s chances in that game. But what about the win over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks one week later on Sunday Night Football? That game was only considered a sure-thing after Wilson was lost for several weeks with a major finger injury. With Geno Smith starting that game at quarterback for Seattle, that would surely be a time for the Steelers to feast, right?

Wrong…kind of.

So, what’s the moral of the story? I guess it’s that you never quite know what terrain and obstacles a team will have to navigate around when playing out its annual regular-season schedule; some terrain is smoother than you originally anticipated, while some obstacles are damn-near impossible to get around.

Where will the Steelers’ regular-season road take them following their bye? I could predict a record, but don’t ask me to predict how they’ll achieve such a mark.

Your guess is as good as mine.

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