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

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

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Steelers did not lack for drama this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stiff Arm Heard Round the World

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Show Promise in First Half vs Buccaneers

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

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

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

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

Second Half Reveals Steelers Limits and Potential Ceiling

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Steelers offense also shoulders some of the responsibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

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

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

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

But when comparing the two games consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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Played Out in Pittsburgh? Chiefs Defeat Steelers 42-37 at Heinz Field in 2018 Home Opener

There’s no sugar coating this: Pittsburgh has problems. The Steelers 37-42 opening day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs included a multitude of milestones, none of them good:

  • Kansas City won in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986
  • Mike Tomlin suffered his first home defeat to Andy Reid
  • The Steelers suffered their 1st home-opening loss in 5 years
  • Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Chiefs for the first time since 2009

But those milestones, however unpleasant, tell us more about the Pittsburgh’s past than its present. The Kansas City Chiefs victory a Heinz Field exposed several fundamental weaknesses of the 2018 Steelers, weaknesses which Mike Tomlin will be hard pressed to paper over.

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches a pass as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

One of the Worst Quarters of the Tomlin Era

The simple take away from the Steelers 21-21 against the Browns was that without 6 turnovers from the Steelers, Pittsburgh wins fairly easily.

  • While far from flawless, that analysis is largely accurate.

The simple take away following the loss to the Chiefs is to point to the offense’s 37 points and lay the blame on the shoulders of Steelers defense. That would be a mistake, however.

The Steelers first two drives netted negative yardage, as a hurried Ben Roethlisberger’s passes flew high and off target. By the time the Steelers offense got out of the red, the Kansas City Chiefs had already scored two touchdowns, and the only answer the Steelers offense could muster was a missed Chris Boswell field goal.

  • Credit Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense for not panicking and keeping sharp enough focus to come back and tie the score at 21-21.

With feeding the ball to James Conner a non-option given the score, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to make anything more than piecemeal connections with Antonio Brown, Ryan Switzer Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up.

But as it did during the 4th quarter against Cleveland, the Steelers offense sputtered during the 4th quarter. By this point in the game it had become painfully clear that Pittsburgh’s defense could do nothing to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense.

  • In his 2017 season postmortem, Steelers President Art Rooney II quipped that “Its become difficult to play defense in this league.”

While Art Rooney II’s words may hold some truth, if you’re MO for winning games is to score 50 points a game,  then your offense cannot take a quarter to warm up, nor can it sputter in critical moments late in the game.

Steelers Defenseless Against Chiefs

Of course the Steelers goal never was to simply make every game a shootout and count on the offense to prevail. During the 2018 off season the Steelers went through a whole sale house cleaning of their secondary and made moves to bolster its linebacking corps.

  • Last week, against a re-tread quarterback in Cleveland, the Steelers defense had a reasonably strong showing for itself.
  • Against an emerging elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers defense came out flat footed.

One of the key new pieces the Steelers added in the off season was Jon Bostic. The scouting report on Jon Bostic was that he was fairly strong against the run, but struggled in coverage. And against the Chiefs, Bostic defended the run well enough, but looked clueless in coverage as Travis Kelce burned the Steelers down the middle all afternoon long.

The Steelers doubtlessly missed Joe Haden, but on one in the rest of the secondary did anything to suggest things would be different had Haden played.

  • Artie Burns thus far failed to translate any of his summer magic from St. Vincents to the regular season.
  • Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle and looked out of place early and often.
  • Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were forgettable in first starts for the Steelers.

The same can be said for the Steelers front seven. Cam Heyward did force a key incompletion and later a fumble. So did T.J. Watt, but that was his sole highlight of the day. The answer to an ailing secondary is to pressure the passer, and the Steelers front seven barely touched Patrick Mahomes.

Played Out in Pittsburgh?

Furious fans took to social media to draw comparisons to the Jacksonville playoff debacle. That’s understandable, but perhaps the 2002 season opener against the Patriots provides a more accurate comparison.

Following the same script that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick used 16 years ago, Andy Reid and Patrick Maholmes essentially abandoned the run in the second half.

  • And once again, the Steelers were powerless to stop them.

That 2002 Steelers team started 1-3, yet clawed its way to a division championship. Only a bogus roughing the kicker call kept Pittsburgh from an AFC Championship appearance. But that rebound required Bill Cowher to spark the team with a quarterback change, and the Steelers pass defense remained a liability all season long.

  • Mike Tomlin will not and should not bench Ben Roethlisberger.

Nor does the Steelers head coach have any equivalent, dramatic personnel change to make on defense. Which means that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter must find a way to coax better performance out of their defense

Otherwise, the Steelers will continue to fall hard this autumn.

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