Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

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

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

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Mike Tomlin’s Mistake? Trusting His Defense Too Much

Trust forms the lifeblood of human relationships. Without trust, society, let alone football teams would function. Yet if trust is essential to a football team’s success, trust, as Mike Tomlin is finding out, can get you into trouble.

  • The phrase “trust can get you into trouble” conjures images of lies, deceit and betrayal.

Anyone of those can scuttle the fortunes of a football team. But there are other ways that trust can fail. Think of the parent who instills sound study habits in their children, proctors nightly homework sessions, tutors intensively before tests only to see their child try their damndest yet fall flat on their faces when exam time arrives.

And therein lies Mike Tomlin’s biggest mistake from last Sunday – he placed too much trust in his defense.

Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin talks with Cam Heyward in Steelers loss to Radiers. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Let’s be clear: This site harshly criticized Mike Tomlin after the loss to the Raiders. I stand by those criticisms. By Tomlin’s own admission, medically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger could have entered the game one series earlier than he did.

When Ben did enter the game, he moved the offense at will, opening with a completion to Antonio Brown, then he hit Jaylen Samuels before connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster on four straight passes.

There’s no reason to think that things would have been any different if Ben would have replaced Joshua Dobbs one series sooner. And holding Ben out was game changing, and perhaps season ruining decision.

But part of the reason why Mike Tomlin held Ben out is also similar to the reason why he saved his time outs:

  • He was trusting his defense to make a play.

It is easy to scoff at such a notion given the way the Steelers defense has given up easy touchdown drives all season long, and particularly at the end of halves.

But remember that the Steelers defense is fielding 4 first round picks, 2 second round picks, 1 third round pick, and two major free agent signings. And that doesn’t count Cam Sutton and Artie Burns who weren’t playing.

  • Invest that type of NFL personnel capital in your defense and you should expect them to deliver.

And if “Heinzsight’s” film reviews over on Steelers 247 are to be trusted (and they should) then it is pretty clear that the Steelers defenders have been in the correct coverages and executing those coverages fairly well, but have been failing to make plays.

Consider the catch that Seth Roberts made in between Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Slam both of them for failing to make a play, but the men were where they needed to be.

Throughout his career, when the game is on the line, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly put its outcome in the hands of his players. Think of handing off to Le’Veon Bell with no time left against San Diego in 2015, or having Ben Roethlisberger throw to Antonio Brown on Christmas in 2016.

Against the Raiders, Mike Tomlin placed a similar trust in his defense, but unfortunately the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

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Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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6 Myths Debunked During the Steelers 6 Game Winning Streak

The Steelers comeback win over the Jaguars improved Pittsburgh’s record to 7-2-1 which far better than anyone had the right to expect at the end of September.

  • Nonetheless, playoff berths, division titles and, dare we dream for a Bigger Prize, remain a long way away.

At this point a winning record, however likely, is not even a mathematical certainty. As Mike Tomlin might say, it is too early to paint the Steelers 2018 season with “broad strokes.”

But during this six game winning streak, the Steelers have debunked six myths that have been circulating about them since the playoffs ended so abruptly last January. Let’s take a look at them, one by one.

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

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

Myth #1: The Steelers Defense Fell off a Cliff the Day Dick LeBeau Left

Let’s agree that the Steelers defense was lost for most of September. They couldn’t cover, couldn’t stop teams on third down and couldn’t stop the big play.

  • Calls for summary firing of Keith Butler were common place.

Fans debated over whether Butler or Tomlin deserved the largest share of the blame. But perhaps most annoyingly of all, people went on as if the Steelers defense had gotten progressively worse with each day that had passed since Dick LeBeau‘s departure.

  • Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Steelers defense, by various measures improved in 2015 and again in 2016. And the 2017 Steelers defense flashed shut down potential in wins over Kansas City, Cincinnati and Detroit.

Yes, Detroit, give me that Red Zone/Goal Line defense every week, and I’ll keep fantasy owners happy and spot them an extra 100 passing yards.

Then Joe Haden got hurt, and the Steelers started getting torched for long pass plays. Then Ryan Shazier went down, and well, the Steelers defense did fall off of a cliff.

Myth #2: The Steelers did Nothing to replace Ryan Shazier

This one was just as popular with the press as it was with the fans. And, as the Steelers insisted on listing Tyler Matakevich as the starter going into preseason, the argument was understandable, to a point.

Jon Bostic certainly wasn’t a sexy, day one splash free agency signing the way Mike Mitchell or Ladarius Green was (and how did those work out?) No, the Jon Bostic pickup was more reminiscent of the decision to sign Ryan Clark in 2006 who was intended to serve as a bridge between Chris Hope and Anthony Smith.

Jon Bostic certainly isn’t a dynamic player like Ryan Shazier was, and he may never develop into a pillar on defense the way Ryan Clark did, he is proving to be an asset to the defense.

Myth #3: There Is No Life for the Offense After Le’Veon Bell

Time for a mini-mea culpa. Le’Veon Bell played a huge role in the Steelers offense accounting for nearly 1/3 of its production during his non-injury years, and folks like yours truly never tired of reminding everyone whenever the “Running back by committee” cry got raised.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

For however big a role that Le’Veon Bell played in the Steelers offense and numbers don’t lie it was big, 10 games into 2018 and it is clear that he isn’t irreplaceable.

There are no shortage of fans who churn out stats to show the Steelers offense is more efficient with James Conner than with Le’Veon Bell. Those comparisons make for great social media posts, but they’re a bit overstated because James Conner still has to prove he sustain his early success.

But even if that is true, James Conner has shown he is a formidable weapon in this offense. (Again, clutch your rosary beads that he stays healthy.)

Myth #4: The Steelers have a Deficiency for Evaluating Defensive Talent

This is another one that was popular when the embers of the Jaguars playoff debacle still burned brightly.

  • And Artie Burns sitting on the bench complicates the counter argument tremendously.

But look at the Steelers defense over the past six games, and you’ll see major contributions coming in from not only stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but also the likes of Sean Davis, T.J. Watt, Javon Hargrave, Bud Dupree and Terrell Edmunds – in other words players taken when the Steelers defensive rebuild began in earnest.

Myth #5: Big Ben Doesn’t Need Preseason or Training Camp

While his early season struggles of 2018 did not compare to those of 2017, Ben Roethlisberger was off during September, and out of sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • It says here that Mike Tomlin is far wiser than I when it comes to knowing how rest players to keep them fresh for the long haul.

But I’m enough of a curmudgeon that I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, if he only would have practiced more…” back in September.

Myth #6: Mike Tomlin Still Struggles with Clock Management

This site has taken aim at this myth before and gone as far as to praise times when Mike Tomlin has displayed excellent clock management skills. Jim Wexell took up the cause on Twitter:

Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin took heat during his weekly press conference over his clock management at the end of the Jaguars game (#ICYMI the Steelers won.) Tomlin gave a long explanation and acknowledged that critics will criticize and then concluded with “I don’t care.”

Neither should you.

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One Lesson From Jaguars Game? Steelers Need to Play Javon Hargrave More

We have some lessons to learn.”
Mike Tomlin following the Steelers come from behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s right. And here’s one lesson the Steelers should learn form the Jacksonville game: Javon Hargrave needs to play more.

To say the least, Over the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. Dramatic in the form of Ben Roethlisberger 4th quarter, or perhaps more accurately, two minute warning comebacks.

It took the Steelers 4 attempts from the two yard line to score the go ahead touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh never led until the final five seconds of the game arrived.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The truth is that the inability of Ben Roethlisberger to get in sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and the inability of the offensive line to get rushing lanes open for James Conner is the biggest reason why such late heroics were again needed.

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

But, and few could have imagined saying this in September, the Steelers have a good defense too, and one that could be better by finding a way to give more playing time to Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers of course drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the third defensive pick after taking Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Hargrave quickly assumed Steve McLendon’s starting role and his play in the 2nd half of 2016 was a big reason for the team’s turn around.

  • But Javon Hargrave plays nose tackle, and the Steelers play their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

So be it. In many ways sub packages define Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense and far be it for me to criticize them.

But regardless of which subpackage they deploy, the Steelers coaches need to find a way to get Javon Hargrave on the field more. During the first half it looked like Leonard Fournette was going to lead the Jaguars on steamroll the Steelers defense similar to what they had done in the playoffs.

But Javon Hargrave arguably began the defensive rally by sacking Blake Bortles on third down to force a field goal when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone. He followed it up with another sack on the next series helped get the ball back (although the Steelers would turn it over quickly.)

While snap counts by quarter are not available, it seemed like early in the game there was a lot of Daniel McCullers Number 93 on the field and a lot less of Javon Hargrave. However, in the second half Hargrave 79 was on the field a plenty, which is when the Steelers defense went into shut down mode.

  • On the day, Hargrave tackled two Jaguar ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, got two more licks in on Blake Bortles and helped force a 3 and out by deflecting a Bortles pass on third down.

Cam Heyward leads all Steelers defensive lineman having been on the field for 78% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He’s followed by Stephon Tuitt who clocks in at 68%. Javon Hargrave is next, at 38%, meaning his snap count is only 7% higher than Tyson Alualu.

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh and speculation still abounded that he might shift the Steelers to a 3-4 defense, Mike Tomlin explained that a players like Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton were going to be good whether they played in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.

Tomlin’s logic was sound, even if it trying to apply to every good player would be an oversimplification (see the Steelers moving “bust” 1st rounder James Farrior from the outside to inside linebacker.)

Well, Javon Hargrave might officially carry the title of nose tackle, but he’s shown he can be an impact player, and it would wise for Karl Dunbar, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to figure out how to get him on the field more frequently.

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

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

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

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

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Antonio Brown, William Jackson, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Winning in the Trenches, Getting Flanked by the Rear Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Half – Steelers Readjust to Bengals Adjustments

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

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

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

Steelers Defense Does its Part

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

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

“This is what legacies are made of….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Paul Brown Stadium Milestone for Pittsburgh?

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

  • Each represented a critical turning point for the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Soar over Falcons 41-17 as Pittsburgh Takes 1st Step at Removing “September Stench”

The Steelers soared over the Atlanta Falcons in a 41 to 17 win giving Pittsburgh’s starters their first win at Heinz Field since their last second victory over the Ravens in mid-December 2017.

  • Preseason pundits had predicted a Pittsburgh-Atlanta Super Bowl.

Instead, both teams struggled with the Falcons going 1-3 while the Steelers had registered a 1-2-1 mark in September. Instead of a Super Bowl preview, this week 5 Heinz Field matchup served as crossroads for both clubs:

  • Win and gain a foothold on contending.  Lose and dig yourself into a hole.

Despite the score, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers didn’t exactly look like a Super Bowl team, yet way in which Pittsburgh won offers hope that this team is capable of playing winning football against good teams.

James Conner, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Falcons

James Conners goes over the pile to score Steelers 1st touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Take 1st Step at Breaking Vicious Cycle

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been struggling since Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion last December against the Bengals.

  • Since that night, the Steelers have struggled to establish even a modicum of consistency on defense

In 2018, an inability to convert third downs has exacerbated that struggle, creating a vicious cycle. The Steelers defense, with or without the offense turning over the ball, gives up a few quick touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger tries to force the ball to Antonio Brown and fails. Jordan Berry punts. The defense gives up another score.

  • Then Randy Fichtner’s offense has had have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

The best outcome for the Steelers in such a scenario is to transform the game into a shoot out, yet as the Jaguars and Chiefs visits to Heinz Field showed, that is not a recipe for success. The solution to breaking this cycle was simple, and James Conner summed it up in his post-game comments.

“We played Steeler football today” – James Conner

Art Rooney II once defined it as the “foundation of the franchise.” The Steelers President was talking about running the football. The Steelers hadn’t done that consistently in 2018, yet they came out of the gate rushing against the Falcons with James Conner getting the ball on 7 of 8 plays in the opening touchdown drive.

James Conner’s efforts would have counted for a lot less had Steelers defense turned around and allowed a quick score, but instead L.J. Fort dropped Matt Ryan.

The Steelers scored again with a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster strike which was enough to put them up 13-0, and giving Pittsburgh their first multi-touchdown first quarter of the season.

  • But Pittsburgh hardly played a perfect half.

The Falcons scored on a 42 yard touchdown pass, the type of which has been all to common this year. Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And perhaps worst of all the Steelers ran a very efficient two minute drill, only to see Ben Roethlisberger badly try to force the ball to Antonio Brown in the end zone, leading to an interception.

Steelers fans can be forgiven if they were dreading the other foot dropping in the second half.

Steelers Play Complete 2nd Half for the First Time All Year

In the second half of the Falcons game will the Steelers took their first foot forward towards reestablishing themselves as a team that can be counted on to win football games.

  • The Steelers had opportunities to put the Browns away, but squandered them with turnovers.
  • The Steelers hung with the Chiefs for a while, but Kansas City clearly won the shoot out.
  • With a play or two, the Steelers could have taken the Ravens to the wire.

Even the win against Tampa Bay required the Steelers to hold on for dear life as the offense failed to score while the defense gave up touchdown after touchdown.

Against the Falcons, the Steelers played a complete half in all three phases of the game for the first time all season.

  • Roosevelt Nix blocked a punt and then did some road grading ahead of James Conner’s touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger finally connected with Antonio Brown deep
  • T.J. Watt added icing to the cake with his strip sack of Matt Ryan, setting up L.J. Fort’s touchdown

Credit the Atlanta Falcons. At any number of points in the second half they could have folded. They didn’t. But also credit the Steelers coaching staff. Both Randy Fichtner and Keith Butler made sure their boys kept their feet on the gas pedal and, for all their fight, the Falcons never threatened a serious comeback.

Sometimes, the Names You Don’t Hear Are the Most Important

Several Steelers authored impressive highlight reels against the Falcons. But perhaps the most impressive performances came from names you seldom heard mentioned and won’t see on ESPN game highlights.

The Steelers offensive line toiled an relative anonymity throughout the afternoon. You never heard their names because the Falcons hardly laid a glove on Ben Roethlisberger and because James Conner averaged over 5 yards a carry.

For four weeks Steelers fans have watched in anguish as wide receivers either raced through the Steelers secondary or managed to get just enough yards to keep a drive going. The Steelers secondary kept the Falcons passing attack in check the entire afternoon, limiting them to six 3rd down conversions on 14 tries, a stat that includes garbage time.

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers have a lot of work to get that “September stench” out of their noses, but against the Falcons at least, Pittsburgh offered hope that they can do just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Haden,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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