Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Johnny Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed, PennLive.com

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Pittsburgh’s Upper Classman Carry the Team

Taken from the grade book whose pleased to see his upper classman hit their stride but dismayed by the drop off from his under classman, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Packers.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Jamaal Williams, Steelers vs Packers

Cameron Heyward smothers Jamaal Williams in Steelers 31-28 win over Packers @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Where does Ben Roethlisberger play best? At home under the lights. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s second consecutive Prime Time game at Heinz Field and his second 4 touchdown performance. Roethlisberger’s number would have been even better had he not suffered multiple drops. While he did throw two interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger was on against the Packers. Grade: A-

Running Backs
The Packers run defense didn’t leave a lot of rushing room early on, but Le’Veon Bell was patient, and ended up just below the century mark on the ground. Moreover, Bell seems to be recovering his rappot with Roethlisberger in the short passing game, and that was a true difference maker for the 2nd straight week. Bell did fumble, which brings his grade down. Slightly. Grade: A-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble caught a shovel pass to get the Steelers on the board and convert their first Red Zone opportunity. Jesse James had 3 catches but one notable drop. The blocking from this group was solid, but not spectacular. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there a better wide reciever in football than Antonio Brown? Good luck trying to make that case. Antonio Brown was simply spectacular the entire evening, coming up with the ball whenever the Steelers needed it. Martavis Bryant had a touchdown on a text book fade pattern and made some other drive sustaining catches. But he also had a drop and Eli Rogers had several, although he rebounded with catches later. Justin Hunter had a drop on his only target and one has to wonder if Darrius Heyward-Bey should get the nod instead of him. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Packers sacked Ben Roethlisberger deep in Pittsburgh territory, but the Steelers offense recovered to score a touchdown. Rushing room was sparse at times, but the Steelers offensive line eventually opened holes when they needed to be opened. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line kept the Packers running game more or less in check throughout the night, although Green Bay did get some traction early on and then again in the Red Zone. The defensive line accounted for all three sacks. Stephon Tuitt had a tackle for a loss, as did L.T. Walton who also had a critical sack. A very good night for the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack on the Packer’s final possession which should have been flagged, nonetheless it was a heads up play as Brett Hundley could have done some damage with a scramble. T.J. Watt also defensed a critical pass as did Ryan Shazier who led the Steelers in tackles. Vince Williams and Bud Dupree had 4 tackles with Vince dropping one of his men behind scrimmage. Grade: B

Steelers vs Packers, Vince Williams, Jamaal Williams

Vince Williams after stuffing Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Packers threw touchdown passes for 49, 54 and 55 yards. And while the screen pass wasn’t entirely on the shoulders of the Steelers secondary, they bear responsibility for the break down. Artie Burns bit badly on a double pump, tackled poorly in many cases, and Coty Sensabaugh got burned one of the 50 plus yarders. Stats like third down conversions suddenly become irrelevant when opposing teams can count on covering half the field on any given play. Grade: F

Special Teams
The opened the game with their longest kick return of the season and Jordan Berry’s punts were sufficiently well placed and/or had enough hang time that the Packers declined to return them. Kickoff coverage was solid. Steelers missed on a an extra point, but Chris Boswell came through by kicking a Heinz Field record tying 53 yard field goal as time expired. Can’t ask for (much) more than that. Grade: A-

Coaching
It would be easy to say that the Steelers almost fell into another Tomlin trap game or that Tomlin’s comments about the Patriots and the subsequent closeness of the context indicated a lack of focus on the part of the coaching staff.

  • Both of those assumptions are almost certainly wrong.

While the Steelers offense did suffer from some execution errors, they got production out of their key starters all night, and Todd Haley’s overall game planning was solid, and his unit did score four touchdowns including 3 from inside the Red Zone as well as making a 2 point conversion.

  • The bigger and more concerning issues are on defense.

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

  • Even at 9-2, this type of failure could cost  easily the Steelers the AFC North title, let alone home field advantage.

Whether the root cause of these breakdowns is the cause of scheme, execution, personnel or some combination thereof, the Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin must fix it, quickly.

Count the Steelers win against the Packers as another “closer than expected win.” But the Steelers are nonetheless finding ways to win those. And Mike Tomlin gets credit for that. Grade: C-

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Brett Hundley, Steelers vs Packers

Cam Heyward celebrates with Stephon Tuitt after sacking Brett Hundley in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Unsung Hero Award
In the past we’ve metaphorically referred to him as “One Man Wrecking Crew.” But against the Packers he literally was the only member of his unit to take the field on a number of downs as the Steelers went into a 1-4-6 alignment.

  • And wouldn’t you know, on one of these occasions the player in question came up with a sack on a critical third down.

He also had another sack, and dropped 3 Packers ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, and for that Cam Heyward is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Packers.

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NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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Steelers Defeat Colts 20-17, Reshooting Old Scene to Forge New Ending to Old Story

Under Mike Tomlin’s tenure, at least since 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a nasty habit of losing to sub .500 teams on the road. It’s a tendency that has hurt Pittsburgh time and time again when playoff pecking order is defined..

In the Steelers 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh simultaneously relived part of the old story, while forging a new ending.

Ryan Shazier, Mike Hilton, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception was a game changer in the Steelers 20-17 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers End Bye Week 30 Minutes Late

While Mike Tomlin’s teams are 6-4 coming out of their bye, 3 of those 4 losses have come in the last three years. The hope was that, after proving their mettle and tough contests against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions, this time things would be different.

  • Unfortunately, for 30 minutes it appeared things would be the same, but only worse.

Everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Steelers in the first half against the Colts. Indeed, it only took two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to throw an interception instead of connecting with Martavis Bryant deep.

That pick might not have been Ben’s fault, as it looked like Martavis Bryant under ran his route. Regardless, Roethlisberger struggled for the entire first half, posting a 33.0 passer rating as the Steelers failed to convert a third down. The offensive line struggled to open holes for Le’Veon Bell, and allowed defenders to pressure Ben more than usual.

Ben Roethlisberger, Hassan Ridgeway, Steelers vs Colts

Hassan Ridgeway sacks Ben Roethlisberger during the first quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Just how bad were the Steelers in the 1st half? Their third series perfectly illustrates the point:

  • A penalty on a punt return pushed Pittsburgh back to its ten
  • After getting 2 first downs and moving to their 43, Ben Roethlisberger got sacked losing 8 yards
  • Two plays yielded 4 yards, bringing up a punt from the Steelers 39
  • 3 straight penalties pushed the Steelers all the way back to their 19
  • 5 plays later Artie Burns was getting burned for a 60 yard touchdown

The Steelers staged a bit of a mini-rally second half’s end on a defensive series that saw Stephon Tuitt stop Frank Gore for a loss, and Bud Dupree sack Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss. The Steelers got the ball back, and did well enough to position Chris Boswell for a 41 yard field goal.

While they authored a strong end to a weak two quarters of football, the Steelers were lucky to only be down by a touchdown at the half, especially when you take into consideration that the Steelers had lost Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden to injury in the first 30 minutes.

Steelers, Stumble then Turn New Page in the Second Half

Any warm and fuzzy feeling the Steelers might have enjoyed at the close of the second half was quickly extinguished 4 plays into the second half as Chester Rogers got ahead of Coty Sensabaugh a 61 yard touchdown pass, giving them a 17 to 3 lead.

  • It was a scene that Steelers Nation has seen too many times in previous years, but also a situation that the 2017 Steelers had put themselves in.

And, as they had done several times already this season, the Steelers refused to blink. Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 44 gain that got them to the 20. Six plays later, the Ben again connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone.

The Colts quickly countered by blocking Chris Boswell’s extra point, but Jesse James atoned for blowing his blocking assignment by making the tackle

It would be the Colts last charge of the game.

As Steelers Defense Corrals the Colts, Offense Takes Advantage

Big special teams plays super charge teams and often rapidly shift momentum. But momentum shifts never shifts automatically. The Steelers defense ensured the Colts could not reach a gallop by corralling Frank Gore and turning up the pressure on Jacoby Brissett.

The Steelers defense limited the Colts first possession after the blocked extra point to a punt, and on their next try, Ryan Shazier showed incredible concentration by breaking off his blitz to drop into coverage where deflected and then intercepted a pass.

Armed with excellent field position at the Colts ten, the offensive line give Ben Roethlisberger rock-solid protection, as he connected with Vance McDonald. A series of miscues cost the Steelers a time out and a delay of game penalty, but neither could stop Ben Roethlisberger from connecting with Martavis Bryant for the 2 point conversion.

Vince Williams, Jacoby Brissett, Vince Williams sacks Jacoby Brissett, Steelers vs Colts

Vince Williams’ 4th quarter sack of Jacoby Brissett fuels a key stop for the Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Jacoby Brissett

The Steelers defense followed by tightening the screws on the Colts as:

  • They forced an incompletion on first down
  • Vince Williams sacked Jacoby Brissett on 2nd down
  • Stephon Tuitt sacked Brissett on 3rd down

The Steelers offense had a chance to get ahead on a drive that included a nice 10 yard run by James Conner but, if there is a motto that’s developing for the Steelers 2017 season, its “Never keep simple what you can complicate.”

Chris Boswell saw a 41 yard field goal bounce off the uprights and the game remained tied with 6:17 remaining to play.

Steelers Reshoot Old Scene to Craft New Ending

The Colts got the ball at their 27 and only needed to get into Adam Vinatieri field goal range, but the Steelers defense forced a punt.

  • If the Steelers offense sprang to life during the second half, one thing remained missing: Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

The Steelers entire second half resurgence came despite the absence of a single Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown connection. Two critical 3rd down conversions first by Eli Rogers and then by Martavis Bryant set the stage for that connection.

At 1st and 10 from the 50, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and found no one open. The Colts defense swarmed. Ben shuffled. A defender grabbed his jersey but Ben bought time with his legs and found Antonio Brown who scampered 50 yards to put the Steelers into field goal range.

It’s a scene Steelers Nation has seen many times before, and one that Roethlisberger and Brown reenacted to write a new ending to an old story. Boswell’s field goal split the uprights as time expired and the Steelers defeated the Colts and advanced to 7-2.

Another Battle Won, But Work to Be Done

The Steelers have won another battle, but 9 games into the season, its clear that Pittsburgh didn’t exit is bye week having found the cure to its offensive woes. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley still have a lot of work to do if the Steelers are going to make a serious run at Lombardi Number 7.

But a win is a win.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster & Steelers Defense Run Away with Lions Game Ball Poll

As drama goes, the Steelers-Lions game ball poll offered very little. The story of the game revolved around one wide receiver who spent the evening streching the field, and a Steelers defense who effectively shrunk the field in the Red Zone.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Lions

JuJu Smith-Schuster sets Steelers touchdown reception record vs. Lions. Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today via Washington Post

The young wide receiver is of course the Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Steelers goal line defense.

  • Steelers vs Lions, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers Lions game ball winnersAs you can see, our voters here didn’t go out for a lot of nuance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was the top vote getter by a whopping 23 votes, but he was course the Steelers goal line defense, anchored by Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Javon Hargrave.

  • Javon Hargrave led the individual voting with 4 votes, while Vince Williams followed  with 3 with another 3 for Tyson AluAlu and Cam Heyward.

Sean Davis got two votes, while Ryan Shazier polled one rounding out the defensive vote getters as Artie Burns was left shut out.

On the offensive side Ben Roethlisberger got 2 votes, the only player to draw multiple clicks.

Le’Veon Bell was shut out, which is a little surprising since he scored the team’s first touchdown and helped burn up the clock when the game’s outcome remained in doubt.

However, Bell did have a fumble, which cost the team dearly as it took 3 points off the board and gave the Lions a chance to add 3 more.

Thanks again to everyone who took time out to vote, and a special thanks to those who submitted write ins.

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4 Keys to the Steelers Success in the 2nd Half of the 2017 Season

The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.

  • While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.

And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.

So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.

Bud Dupree, Alex Smith, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 season

Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports

1. Put It Together on Defense

8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:

  • The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
  • The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
  • That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory

Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.

But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.

2. Get it Done in the Red Zone

Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.

  • Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.

Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.

Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period

3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much

In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.

  • Ok. NFL offenses have changed.

In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).

And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:

Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.

But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.

4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected

OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.

  • Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
  • And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.

But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?

  • Steelers history provides its own examples.

In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.

  • The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.

The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.

The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.

  • Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t  have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.

That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.

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