Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Dominates Steelers Game Ball Voting (Again)

The votes are in for the Steelers game ball winners for Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts and if the results aren’t necessarily a surprise, perhaps the margin of victory is.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, steelers vs colts, steelers game ball poll winners

JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrates a 2nd half first down in the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: AP via News Sentinel

For yet another week, Steelers rookie wide reciever JuJu Smith-Schuster both led and dominated the voting, bringing down 12 votes which is 50% more than the next vote getter. steelers colts game ball winners, juju smith-schuster, ryan shazier

That’s some what of a mild surprise, as Ryan Shazier came in second, and Ryan Shazier’s game-changing interception even got a feature here by Tony Defeo, coverage which often times influences poll results. Stephon Tuitt was next drawing 6 votes.

Martavis Bryant got 4 votes, which isn’t a surprise given his 2 point and key 3rd down conversions, but Jordan Berry earned 4 votes on his own as a write in, which is impressive.

Vince Williams, who had a key tackle drew 2 votes while Sean Davis who led the team in tackles got one, as did Vance McDonald and Bud Dupree.

That is perhaps a mild surprise. Brown did not have his best game against the Colts by any measure, but he did come up with a critical 32 yard catch and run that put the Steelers into the Red Zone and allowed Chris Boswell to kick the game winning field goal.

Once again, we thank everyone who took time out to vote, and offer a speical word of thanks for those who took time to comment and those who cast write-in ballots.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts – Will “Just Passing” Be Enough When Playoffs Arrive?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose wondering if his students MO of “just passing is enough” will in fact be enough when the pass/fail portion of the course arrives, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Colts, Martavis Bryant 2 point conversion

Martavis Bryant scores critical 2 point conversion in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Nine games into 2017 it’s a fair question to ask if what we’re seeing from Ben Roethlisberger will be what we get. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing his best November and December football, but will that be good enough in January? Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half that included an interception and zero 3rd down conversions. He played well in the second half with two touchdowns and several key completions on the game winning drive. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell is another player who may be in “What you see is what you get territory.” To be fair to Bell, he didn’t have a lot of room to run often times, and there were times when he made something out of nothing. But its hard to watch him and think he’s not a notch below his 2016 performance. James Conner had one carry for 10 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald got wide open in the end zone and made the game tying touchdown. He also had another catch. Still, McDonald missed his block on an end-around and that cost the team. The run blocking was below par, and the tight ends deserve some responsibly. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers top receiver making an Brown-like catch downfield, scoring a touchdown and leading the team with just under 100 yards receiving. Antonio Brown had an off day, he wasn’t targeted much in the 2nd half, but had a drop that would have put the Steelers in the Red Zone and also drew a costly offensive pass interference penalty. Still, Brown came up big late in the game, and his catch and run was a difference maker. Eli Rogers had one catch for 2 yards, but it converted a third down when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pierre Desir, Steelers vs Colts

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2nd quarter catch over Pierre Desir was Antonio Brownesque. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The Colts came into the game with one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses, but you wouldn’t have known it given their 4 tackles for a loss and otherwise proficient run stuffing of Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, the Colts sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him 4 times. While those numbers are not high by Roethlisberger historical standards, its clear that the 2017 edition of Big Ben needs all the help he can get. He didn’t get enough of it, early on at least. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Let it be said that in his absence, the Steelers defensive line played some of its best football of the season (particularly at the goal line.) And upon Stephon Tuitt’s return, the defensive line got better. Ok, perhaps this wasn’t an overall A+ performance as it had been against the Lions as Frank Gore ran reasonably well in the 1st half, but the Steelers shut him down in the second. Stephon Tuitt led the unit with three tackles, including 3 for losses, four QB hits and a sack at a critical moment. Cam Heyward had two tackles and was a force even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Javon Hargrave had a pass defensed. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett early made four tackles including 3 for losses, and Vince Williams brought him down in the 4th quarter. T.J. Watt had a quiet day with 3 tackles. Ryan Shazier made the play of the game, as Shazier’s interception which set up the Steelers tying touchdown. The Steelers didn’t get much pressure on Brissett early, and it showed. They harassed him the entire second half, and that was a difference maker. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Steelers lost Mike Mitchell and more ominously Joe Haden. And they gave up 2 touchdown passes of 60+. When you do that on the road, you normally lose. Its true that the Steelers coverage improved as the game progressed, but those early stumbles could have been fatal. Sean Davis had a spectacular afternoon, and he brings the grade for the entire unit up. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers committed 4 straight penalties on special teams which set up the Colts first touchdown. Jesse James and Alejandro Villanueva lost containment and the Steelers saw their second blocked place kick of the season. Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he kicked the game winner and Jordan Berry boomed off several punts, which raises the grade for the unit. Barley. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley’s play calling came with some head scratchers, including the end around and a very strange lateral run with Le’Veon Bell that went nowhere. Still, the Steelers offense outscored the Colts 17 to 7 in the second half, which amounted to a night and day difference from the first 30 minutes.

Keith Butler’s defense put in another strong day. Given how poorly Pittsburgh’s offense performed during the first half, the Steelers were lucky not to be down by more than 7. Still, the Colts scored two touchdowns and made it look easy. Those types of plays cannot continue.

Mike Tomiln, Steelers vs Colts

Mike Tomlin departs the field after the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The pivotal moment in Pittsburgh’s victory came after the Steelers second touchdown. An extra point would have left the Steelers behind by one, a two point conversion would have tied the game. The Steelers struggled to get the right personnel and play on to the field to the tune of a timeout and a penalty.

Nonetheless, the Steelers still made the 2 point conversation, and that proved to be an important difference, as it forced the Colts to play to win rather than simply burning up the clock. Word is that Mike Tomlin over ruled his lieutenants and made the call himself, and as a result, while the Steelers once again fell short of excellence, finished the game Above the Line. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been a disappointment and a distraction thus far this season. He possibly was at fault for or at least contributed to the first interception. But he came up big when the Steelers needed a two point conversion, and his 3rd down conversion inside the two minute warning got the Steelers to mid field, and for that Martavis Bryant is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers win over the Colts.

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers End Bye Week 30 Minutes Late

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Hassan Ridgeway, Steelers vs Colts

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers, Stumble then Turn New Page in the Second Half

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

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

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

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

It would be the Colts last charge of the game.

As Steelers Defense Corrals the Colts, Offense Takes Advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Reshoot Old Scene to Craft New Ending

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

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

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

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

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

Another Battle Won, But Work to Be Done

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

But a win is a win.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation! Steelers Colts Game Ball Winner Poll

Whew! Another slow start. Another half of putrid football from Pittsburgh. Another nail biter. Another win. That’s the story on the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Bud Dupree, Jacoby Brissett, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree sacks Jacoby Brisett in the 2nd quarter of the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As we do after every Steelers win, we invite you the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners. Here’s a look at the ballot:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 11-12-2017 19:42:27
end_date 11-16-2017 09:55:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers deserve game balls for the win over the Colts (multiple votes allowed)

For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster gets the top spot on the ballot, thanks to his near 100 yard game, and his touchdown in the Red Zone. After JuJu Smith-Schuster, we’re giving the nod to Vance McDonald, who caught the Steelers second touchdown.

Ben Roethlisberger, who played an atrocious first half, came back to really the Steelers by throwing two scoring strikes, both in the Red Zone, followed by a successful two point conversion. Roethlisberger also rallied the troops late in the second half, to both burn up the clock and put the Steelers in position for Chris Boswell to kick the game winning field goal.

  • Ben Roethlisberger had help however.

Martavis Bryant had a key 3rd down conversion, that got the Steelers to midfield (where Bryant got out of bounds.) That was followed by a 32 yard strike to Antonio Brown, who made his only catch of the second half count, getting the Steelers into field goal range. Martavis Bryant also caught the 2 point conversion, which was critical.

  • Ryan Shazier earns the top slot on the defensive side of the ballot.

Shazier was all over the field, and showed tremendous one the field presence in breaking off his blitz to not only move into coverage, but to secure an intercpetion following a dead ball. That play came inside the Lion’s 15, and set up the Steelers second touchdown. Shazier also had 2 other defensed passes.

After Shazier, the next three defensive candidates are Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt, each of whom had a sack, each of which came at a critical moment. Sean Davis led the team in tackles, and had a key pressure late in the first half.

Write In Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this poll is about what you the readers see. So write in are not only allowed but encouraged. If you think that Le’Veon Bell deserves a vote, write his name in. Ditto Boswell. Better yet, cast your write in vote, and leave a comment aruging your case.

Thanks in advance to all for voting. Please make sure to check back to for our full analysis of the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Steelers 4 Killer Bees Aren’t NFL Equivalent to Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons. But There’s Hope

The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on a 6-2 record at their bye week that was good enough to secure a firm lead in the AFC North coupled with a tie atop the AFC rankings. While this team still has a lot to prove over the next eight games, the 2017 Steelers have established themselves as legitimate contenders at the halfway point.

And the Steelers have done so despite one unfortunate reality:

The fielding four Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, hasn’t turned out to be the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons.

steelers killer bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant

The Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Antoino Brown. Photo Credits: SI.com, Getty, TotalProSports.com, USA Today Sports via Point of Pittsburgh

Steelers Killer Bees ≠ Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons

The fact that Steelers.com almost immediately began selling “Hold Down the North” T-shirts after last year’s Christmas win over the Ravens is a pretty strong indicator that Game of Thrones has strong crossover appeal in Steelers Nation.

But for those of you not acquainted with the hit HBO series, show runner D.B. Weiss compared Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons to “inserting an F-16 into a Medieval battlefield.” This is what he was talking about:

Perhaps it’s a tad bit of an exaggeration to suggest that the Steelers offense was supposed to be this potent, but following Pittsburgh’s one-and-done playoff loss to the Ravens in January 2015 one Steelers writer privately consoled me advising me to “wait until the middle of next season when we’re blowing teams out of the water.”

During 2014 the first tree Killer Bees, Big Ben, Brown and Bell had already proven themselves as the franchise’s most talented skill position threesome since Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris. Martavis Bryant’s emergence during the latter half of 2014 promised to transform the Killer Bees into a quartet with a John Stallworth caliber player. Of course you know the story since then:

  • Suspensions kept the Bell and Bryant from starting 2015
  • Ben Roethlisberger’s injury kept him off the field for their return
  • Le’Veon Bell’s injury knocked him out for the rest of 2015
  • Martavis Bryant finished 2015 on a high, literally, and it cost him 2016

Now factor in Heath Miller’s retirement. While wasn’t the force he once was, Heath Miller’s dependability as a pass catcher demanded that defenses account for him, particularly in the Red Zone.

2017 was supposed to be the year when things came together. Indeed, to some 30 points a game seemed more of a floor rather than a ceiling. Instead, halfway through 2017 the Steelers highest point total is 29 points and Chris Boswell appears to be Pittsburgh’s most reliable Red Zone threat.

  • Why has the Steelers offense fallen so short of expectations?

There are a lot of theories floating out there, and Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t pretend to have a crystal ball. Ben Roethlisberger was clearly off early in the season, and this trend was clear long before his 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars. He’s been better since then, although consistency eludes him.

  • Le’Veon Bell took some time to get into synch as did the entire offense.

Here the Grumpy Old Man inside me wags a finger and admonishes Le’Veon Bell for his hold out and Mike Tomlin for playing his first team offense so little during preseason. Practice still makes perfect, even when you have All Pro talent.

Martavis Bryant, Martavis Bryant drop, Steelers vs Bears

Martavis Bryant drops a would be touchdown against the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

And of course Martavis Bryant really hasn’t been an offensive force, save for the Vikings game where he had a touchdown, one long catch and drew another deep pass interference penalty. Outside of that Bryant has been best known for the plays he didn’t make on the field and his off the field distractions.

When you account for the fact that Pittsburgh fields a veteran offensive line it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that 8 games into 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is less than the sum of its parts….

3 Signs Hope for the Steelers 2017 Super Bowl Aspirations

…Which isn’t to say that Steelers 2017 offense is a hopeless cause. The Steelers second touchdown drive against the Bengals serves as Exhibit A.

As drives go it covered 75 yards and was pretty run of the mill as touchdown drives go. But the key take way here comes from the fact that aside from a 1 yard Le’Veon Bell run, the rest of the yards came from James Conner, Vance McDonald, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith Schuster.

  • The lesson of the painful end to the 2016 season was that Ben, Bell and Brown can’t do it all by themselves.

But while Killer Bees’ success and the Steelers success remain intertwined, Todd Haley has to find ways to sting opponents with other weapons. This drives was a step in that direction, although time will tell whether it signals a deeper integration of the Steelers offense or merely serves as an example of the law of averages working its will.

James Conner

James Conner rushing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today via BTSC

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence in the Steelers win over the Lions is a second reason for hope.

While most of the commentary focused on whether JuJu’s big game in Detroit would cost Martavis Bryant, Bryant could become the beneficiary of JuJu’s coming out. As Chris Adamanski has pointed out, defenses have continued to target Bryant thus far this season. Now JuJu has established also himself as a threat. You do the math — There’s no way opposing defenses can double Brown, Bryant and JuJu.

  • The third reason for hope comes on the other side of the ball.

During the Steelers rebuilding process, the conventional wisdom is that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler only needed to build a good but not necessarily great defense. The additions of Joe Haden and T.J. Watt, the continued maturation of Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave the stout play of stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have combined to allow this defense to flash greatness.

  • True, the Steelers defense has yet to put together a complete game, but when Keith Butler’s boys at their best, they’ve thoroughly dominated.

During Game of Thrones season seven Daenerys Targaryen learned that her Dragon’s, however powerful, didn’t provide an automatic key to victory. The Mother of Dragons came to understand she had to do more.

8 games in to 2017, the Steelers have learned that simply fielding Bryant alongside Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown doesn’t magically add up a dominant offense. For the Steelers to secure Lombardi Number Seven more will be required.

Fortunately Mike Tomlin’s men are showing signs that its willing and able to do more.

 

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Le’Veon Bell Tops Steelers Game Ball Winner Poll for 2nd Straight Week

The Steelers game ball winners poll following the Steelers 29-14 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field generated a lot of participation, with votes being cast across both sides of the ball, including several write ins and with ties resulting across the ballot.

Scroll down below the photo of this week’s top vote getter to review the full results!

Le'Veon Bell, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell gets tackled by Vontaze Burfict en route to his latest 100 yard performance against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

  • And it should come as no surprise, that for the second straight week Le’Veon Bell led the voting.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Game ball winners BengalsThe second slot yielded a pleasant surprise, as Roosevelt Nix tied with Ben Roethlisberger with 10 votes. Nix was instrumental in paving the way for Bell. The fullback is largely an anonymous (and largely disappearing) role in today’s NFL so it is nice to see Nix get recognition.

Fourth place brought yet another tie, with David DeCastro and Robert Golden netting eight votes (interesting that Golden would poll 4 times more votes than the guy who caught his pass). They were followed by yet another tie a slot below, as Bud Dupree and Joe Haden both polled 6 votes to split 5th place.

Antonio Brown drew 5 votes, followed by William Gay’s 4 votes. JuJu Smith-Schuster got 3 votes, Cam Heyward polled 2 tying with Darrius Heyward-Bey, with Tyson Alualu, Maurkice Pouncey and Ryan Shazier polling 1 a piece.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks you our beloved readers for taking time out to vote and gives special nod to those who took the time to cast write in votes.

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Steelers Report Card for the Win over the Bengals – A’s for Defensive Excellence

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who has a note from his mother excusing his middle of the week absences from sickness here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt jumps for joy after sacking Andy Dalton as Cam Hewyard looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Quarterback
This was Ben Roethlisberger’s best game of the season thus far, as Roethlisberger led the Steelers to two touchdown drives, managed to work an number of receivers into the passing game and did not turn over the ball. Big Ben’s day could have been even better had two potential touchdown not been dropped. Still, the Steelers struggled on third downs, and Roethlisberger must bear partial responsibility. Grade: B

Running Backs
Is there any doubt that Le’Veon Bell is back into form? Le’Veon Bell attacked the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense head on, and fought his way to 134 yards on 34 carries. He also made noise in the running game with a brilliant stiff arm of Dre Kirkpatrick. James Conner carried 3 times for 19 yards, while Terrell Watson carried once for no gain. Roosevelt Nix paved the way. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald made two catches, including an impressive 28 yard catch. He also dropped a gimmie on the end zone. Overall however, his blocking was a key element to Bell’s success. Xavier Grimble also had one catch for 1 yards and blocked well when McDonald left via injury. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Bengals have had a lot of success in containing Antonio Brown, but Brown did his damage in the first half with 4 catches for 65 yards including a touchdown. Still, the William Jackson put Steelers Nation on notice that AFC North as a corner that can go toe-to-toe with Brown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had two catches for 39 yards including a touchdown. Eli Rogers reminded everyone why he’s still on the roster, while Martavis Bryant got everyone to ask “Just WHAT is he complaining about again?” Finally, Darrius Heyward-Bey caught what might have been the most important catch of the game on a fake field goal. Grade: B

Offensive Line
IF ESPN’s statistics are to be trusted, the Bengals only touched Ben Roethlisberger once. And while the offensive line wasn’t busying keeping Roethlisberger clean it was opening holes for Le’Veon Bell thanks to David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s pulling. This until established control at the line of scrimmage early on and never looked back. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Its some how fitting that Cam Heyward opened the Bengals final series with a sack, as the defensive line dominated the Bengals front seven from Cincinnati’s final possession of the first half onward. In addition to his sack, Heyward had two tackles for losses, and stopped several other Bengals for no gain. Perhaps most satisfying, late in the second quarter Heyward began punctuating his tackles with an extra backwards slam, and it was all down hill for Cincinnati after that.

Take out Joe Mixon’s 25 yard scamper, and the Steelers held the Bengals running backs to 2.8 yards rushing. That all starts up front. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had two tackles. Anthony Chickillo had a key pass defense. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt both had sacks, while Ryan Shazier lead the team in tackles including one for a loss and was last seen chasing Andy Dalton in the backfield as the beleaguered Bengals signal caller opted to simply throw it away on 4th and two. A fine day by the linebackers. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers interception, Joe Haden intercepts Andy Dalton

Joe Haden after intercepting an Andy Dalton pass intended for A.J. Green. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Secondary
Andy Dalton passed for 140 yards and the Bengals only managed 19 yards of total offense in the second half despite playing from behind the entire time. Oh, and Cincinnati finished 3-11 on third down conversions. Oh, and A.J. Green was held to 3 catches for 31 yards or 1 grab less than the Steelers secondary as Joe Haden and William Gay nabbed their first interceptions of the season. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell boots it well against the Bengals, as he knocked in 5 field goals, including one from 41 yards away and another from 49 away. The Bengals did have one long punt return, which is the second week in a row the Steelers have allowed one.

The biggest play of course came on the hands of Robert Golden who connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey for the fake. That was a gutsy and risky call, but the Steelers executed it and it ended the game. Grade: B+

Coaching
Todd Haley did his homework on this one, expertly mixing the pass and the run to get the Steelers on the board early with touchdowns, and then controlling the clock after that – all against the NFL’s number 2 rush defense.

  • Still, the Steelers Red Zone and third down performance need to improve.

Objectivity commands us to remind ourselves and everyone else that the ease with which the Bengals scored their first two touchdowns was al little disquieting. You can be forgiven if you forgot because from the Bengals final drive of the first half onward, the Steelers defense dominated as thoroughly as any unit fielded by Bud Carson, George Perles, Dom Capers or Dick LeBeau ever fielded.

  • Keith Butler’s defense was that good against the Bengals in the games final 32 minutes.

Cincinnati didn’t have a chance, and Andy Dalton’s final throw away on 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter perfectly symbolized the Bengals haplessness.

Mike Tomlin’s teams are sometimes prone to let down, and this was a possibility after a big win over the Kansas City Chiefs coupled with a Bengals team bringing a 2 game winning streak into Heinz Field on the heels of a bye week. But Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. And if his offense needs to improve in situational football and he does need to take care not to overwork his feature back, his Steelers put in a pretty good afternoon against the Bengals. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin during the 2017 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Unsung Hero Award
A year ago after the Steelers loss at Miami commentators trotted out various statistics of the Steelers records with Cam Heyward and without Stephon Tuitt in the lineup together.

  • Now to be fair to the rest of Johnny Mitchell’s pupils, the Steelers defensive line righted that ship after Cam Heyward’s season ending injury.

But for as well as L.T. Walton, Ricardo Mathews and John Maxey might have played in Heyward’s absence, the Steelers brass went out and signed someone who could be a true 3rd defensive end in the rotation, and his name is Tyson Alualu and it was his playmaking as much as anyone else’s that lead to the defensive turn around and for that Tyson Alualu wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Bludgeon Bengals 29-15, as Defense Delivers 2nd Half Knockout

The Cincinnati Bengals arrived at Heinz Field fresh off a bye week and on a 2 game winning streak intent serving notice to the Steel City that Queen City would not allow the AFC Crown to fall into Steelers hands uncontested.

  • The record shows that Cincinnati and Pittsburgh opened the game by exchanging a pair of hard body blows.

But when the dust settled, the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed, to the tune of a 29-14 victory. And what made the win impressive was the 2nd half defensive knockout delivered by the Steelers defense.

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocks, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals, Rosie Nix

Rosie Nix renders Bengals defenders in Le’Veon Bell’s way as road kill. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers-Bengals Toe-to-Toe For Just Shy of Two Quarters

In is no secret that the Steelers offense has failed to live up to expectations this season. What fans envisioned as the NFL offensive equivalent of the Death Star has resembled the type of offense that we could have expected Ron Erhardt, Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, to field.

And perhaps the Ron Erhardt metaphor is an apt one for the Steelers offensive effort vs. the Bengals. When asked to explain his philosophy to Bill Cowher, Ernhardt’s words were simple:

  • Throw to score, run to win.

That’s exactly what the Steelers did at Heinz Field on this October day against the Bengals. The Steelers opened the game with a steady diet of Ben Roethlisberger handing off to Le’Veon Bell and throwing to Antonio Brown, and scored a touchdown on their opening drive, as Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a seven yard score.

After the Steelers and Bengals traded punts, Cincinnati got on the board with a efficient, if a little too easy looking, drive to tie the score.

  • The Steelers offense offered a new answer that we haven’t seen yet this season.

While Le’Veon Bell carried the ball for one yard, the rest of the yardage on the drive came in the form of passes to Eli Rogers, Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schulster, who scored from 31 yards out. Unfortunately, that was the last time the Steelers offense would see the end zone during the afternoon. To be sure, Todd Haley’s crew provided some fireworks, perhaps most noticeably in the form of Le’Veon Bell’s 42 yard catch and run:

But the Bengals answered the Steelers touchdown with one of their own, and the Steelers could only managed a field goal in response, although the Todd Haley’s crew does deserve credit for moving 71 yards in 1:28 even if they did stall in the Red Zone to give Pittsburgh a 6 point advantage going into the half.

Special Teams Interlude

The Steelers special teams have run hot and cold this season, making a few big plays which contributed to Pittsburgh’s wins over Cleveland and Minnesota, while committing costly errors against Chicago and Kansas City.

  • Against the Bengals, Chris Boswell was a perfect 5-5 including a pair of 41 and 49 yarders – which are not gimmies at Heinz Field.

But the biggest play of the game came from the punt unit, and it didn’t involve Jordan Berry, but rather upback Robert Golden and Darrius Heyward-Bey who hooked up for a 44 yard catch on 4th and 7. Fake punts are, by definition, do or die plays, and a failure there would have opened the door wide open to a Bengals last ditch comeback.

But the pair succeeded, and gave the offense a chance to burn more time off the clock and ended with Chris Boswell knocking in his 5th.

Steelers Defense Bludgeons Bengals

As noted previously on this site, commentators both inside and outside Pittsburgh have twice sought to elevate Keith Butler’s defense to elite status, only to see the Steelers defense give up yards in gobs on the ground against Chicago and then against Jacksonville.

  • Last week, against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers defense turned out almost excellent performance against what had been the NFL’s top offense.

So, when Cincinnati marched down the field and appeared ready to match the Steelers touchdown for touchdown, Steelers Nation’s collective sign of “Oh, boy here we go again. Everyone spoke too soon” was understandable.

But the Steelers closed the 1st half by limiting the Bengals to a one yard Andy Dalton scramble, things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

  • Oh, if ever there was a first half close that signaled a second half turn around, this was it.

The Steelers forced a three and out to begin the second half, and ended the Bengals second possession with a Joe Hayden interception. The Bengals next possession ended like this:

  • Sean Davis deflects a pass that William Gay intercepts
  • T.J. Watt sacks Andy Dalton on third down
  • Dalton opens his next possession with a sack by Tyson Alualu, closes with a sack by Bud Dupree
  • Dalton fails to convert a 4th and 2 by under throwing A.J. Green

When it was all tallied up, the Steelers held the Bengals to a total if 19 yards of offense in the 2nd half.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, as a franchise, has undoubtedly had stronger halves in its history. It’s possible that one of those even came in the Tomlin era, during the 2010 win at Tennessee. But the work of Keith Butler’s defense against the Bengals at Heinz Field must rank up there with the great single half performances of Steelers defenses.

2017 Steelers a Work in Progress, but Making Progress

Mike Tomlin began the year by cautioning everyone that the 2017 Steelers were a work in progress. And thus far his team has vindicated him. The Steelers sputtered, surged and stuttered their way through the season’s first five games.

  • Last week, the Steelers appeared to a step forward against the Kansas City Chiefs.

This week against the Bengals, the Steelers sustained that first step and then took another one forward. To transform itself into a true contender, the Steelers offense will need to do more than rely on Chris Boswell’s leg for entire halves of games.

But against the Bengals that was enough, as the Steelers offense delivered the body blows, while the defense landed a series of 2nd half knockout punches.

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Steelers Report Card for Week 4 Road Victory over the Ravens

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who was very satisifed with his student’s performance, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Le'Veon Bell, Tony Jefferson, Steelers vs Ravens

Le’Veon Bell steam rolls ahead as Tony Jefferson can only look on. Photo credit: NFL Spin Zone

Quarterback 

It seems as if Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been at his best so far this season, but he did look a little better on Sunday, completing 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and an interception that was entirely out of his control. There was the failure to see a wide-open Antonio Brown on a play in the first half that would have been an easy touchdown (the blame for this has been disputed). And there was the hurried throw to a wide-open Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter that would have led to a 60-yard score. But Roethlisberger also made the throws he needed to make. The word being thrown around by the local sports media regarding Roethlisberger’s performance is “game-manager,” something not heard since his rookie year. Grade: B-

Running Backs 

What more can you say about the performance of Le’Veon Bell? Thirty-five carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Bell looked like the All-Pro running back everyone was used to, and the Steelers offense looked much like it did during its nine-game winning-streak a year ago. As for rookie James Conner, he had just four carries for 26 yards, but he provided a spark on the offense’s first drive, when he rattled off a 23-yard run on second and 18, one play after Roethlisberger suffered his only sack of the day. Fellow youngster Terrell Watson only carried one time for one yard, but it came on third and one, as he did the job in his apparent new role as a short-yardage specialist. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends 

Jesse James turned in a Jesse James-like performance, catching three passes for 40 yards. As for the newly-acquired Vance McDonald, he dropped the only pass thrown his way, a pass that would have gone for a fairly-large gain and would have perhaps lessened the worry about his quarterback’s performance. Unfortunately, it didn’t lessen McDonald’s reputation for dropping passes. However, he did a pretty decent job blocking, and given the effectiveness of the ground-game, that cannot be discounted. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

The Ravens effectively took Brown out of the game, limiting him to just four catches for 34 yards. As for Bryant, for the second week in a row, he could have been the deep threat consequence to the opposition putting too much focus on Brown, but for the second week in a row, he wasn’t and contributed just 48 yards. However, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, getting the start in the slot for the healthy-scratched Eli Rogers, had himself a bit of a day, pulling in three passes for 47 yards and an 11-yard touchdown late in the first half that broke the game open. Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The line finally seemed to develop the kind of chemistry needed to mesh with Bell’s unique running-style. As for the pass-protection, Roethlisberger was only sacked once and was only hurried a few times. However, the Ravens front-seven was a bit decimated due to injuries, and there was the matter of those six penalties that stalled more than one promising drive. Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Man, what a day for this crew, specifically defensive end Cam Heyward, who registered two sacks, along with a forced fumble and a recovery of said fumble. Again, Heyward looked like a man among boys, and it sure helped that Stephon Tuitt played his first full game of the season, after injuring his biceps in Week 1. Javon Hargrave did his job clogging up the running lanes, which helped limit the Ravens to just 82 yards on the ground. Seventy-three of those yards came on two runs, which is either extremely impressive (only allowing nine yards on the other 13 rushes) or a bit worrisome (will teams like the Jaguars and Chiefs be able to exploit the Steelers ground-game much better than the offensively-challenged Ravens)? Finally, a shout-out to L.T. Walton, who pressured Joe Flacco on a fourth quarter pass that was intercepted by Ryan Shazier. Grade: A

Linebackers

Shazier was the proverbial beast at inside linebacker, recording 11 tackles (10 solo), the aforementioned interception and a tipped pass that led to a second pick. Bud Dupree looked explosive at outside linebacker and was credited with half a sack. And if you’re going to give the defensive line credit for containing the run much better than the previous week, you must also credit the linebackers. Rookie T.J. Watt, back in the lineup after missing Week 3, was in on four tackles and did a really good job of setting the edge on running plays, something Anthony Chickillo was criticized for not doing at Chicago. Grade: B+

Secondary

After struggling a bit over the first three weeks, safety Sean Davis had his best game of the season, posting five tackles and a pass defensed. As for J.J. Wilcox, filling in for an injured Mike Mitchell, he was steady. Same could be said at cornerback for both Joe Haden and Artie Burns, who were barely noticeable, as Mike Wallace led the Ravens in receiving yards, with 55. And what more can you say about Mike Hilton, who has become the slot corner from Mississippi that Senquez Golson never was?

In addition to registering a sack early in the second half, Hilton also had a pass defensed and a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: A

Special Teams 

Brown was reinserted as the punt returner, but only tallied 15 yards on two returns. Chris Boswell missed a 44-yard field goal. As for the kick-return coverage, it was spotty, allowing 96 yards on four returns, but it certainly wasn’t a detriment to success. Grade: C+

Coaching

Given the backdrop of the anthem drama as well as having to travel to a place in M&T Bank Stadium, where he hadn’t won since 2012, Mike Tomlin had his team focused and prepared. The team players were business-like and methodical in their approach to the game and really didn’t let emotion become a factor.

Todd Haley’s game-plan was undoubtedly to feature Bell against Baltimore’s injury-riddled defense, and the offense didn’t deviate from that plan very much. There has been some criticism in the team’s apparent decision to take the air out of the ball in the second half, but given the Ravens offensive woes, the only way they were going to get back in the game was with turnovers.

On defense, not much you can say about Keith Butler’s unit that isn’t glowing. The defense was fast, relentless and very disciplined, given that it was only called for one penalty on the day. Grade: A

Unsung Hero

Fullback Roosevelt Nix. If there’s ever an unsung hero, it’s a back who doesn’t register one carry in a game in-which his team rushes for 173 yards. But Nix is there to block, and it’s kind of hard to argue with the results.

 

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