Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.
Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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Do Steelers Playoff Hopes Hinge on Alex Highsmith Imitating Ziggy Hood? Actually, They Might!

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to surprise the skeptics and make a serious Super Bowl run they’re going to need players like Alex Highsmith to find a little something extra during the playoffs. There are signs that Highsmith might already being doing that.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Highsmith’s pressure helped force Mike Hilton’s interception. Later, Highsmith helped pressure Rivers into throwing incomplete on 4th down. Against the Browns, Highsmith’s sack of Baker Mayfield helped stop Cleveland’s 2 minute drill cold.

These trends are encouraging and Alex Highsmith must build on this in the playoffs by following in the footsteps of Ziggy Hood

…Yep, you read that right!

Ziggy Hood Teases at Becoming the “Special Man”

Ziggy Hood was of course the Steelers 1st round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, number 32 overall due to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It is both unfair and incorrect to hang the label “bust” on Ziggy Hood (if you really think he was a bust, I invite you to Google Keith Gary, Daryl Simms or Aaron Jones).

  • But if that’s true, its also true that Ziggy Hood disappointed.

Just as Walter Abercrombie had the ignominious fate to replace Franco Harris, Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith, one of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Ziggy Hood wasn’t up to the task.

  • However, for a time it seemed like he might be the time Ziggy “…Became the special man”

When injuries ended Aaron Smith’s 2010 season, this site declared that Ziggy Hood’s moment had arrived, leading off the post with the quote ““When the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band” from David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” The idea was Smith’s injury signaled the end of an era on the Steelers defensive line, and that a torch was being passed

With 20/20 hindsight, it would seem like Ziggy Hood fumbled the moment and then it was gone. But that’s not true. Ziggy Hood just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle.

But Ziggy Hood enjoyed one great flash in his career and that flash came right when the Steelers needed it the most.

  • Hood took over from Aaron Smith at the end of October and authored a pretty ho-hum November.

But he came alive in December, sacking Joe Flacco in the Steelers AFC North Division clinching win over the Ravens. He followed that with sacks in the Steelers win over the Panthers two weeks later and in the 2010 season finale win over the Browns. And if you’re tempted to write off that as garbage time glory in meaningless games then consider what Hood did in the playoffs.

Ziggy Hood, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Super Bowl XLV

Ziggy Hood sacks Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

In the Steelers 2010 Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens, Hood sacked Joe Flacco on 3rd and 10 with 1:15 left to play, setting up a 4th and 18 which Baltimore failed to convert. In Super Bowl XLV he sacked Aaron Rodgers on Green Bay’s final drive.

For those of you counting at home, that’s 5 Ziggy Hood sacks, several coming at critical moments during 8 must-win games for the Steelers.

Never would Ziggy Hood broach that level of production again.

The Playoffs Can Prime Players to Step Up

Long term, if Alex Highsmith succeeds in Bud Dupree his career ceiling will need to be higher than Ziggy Hood’s. But the take away from Hood’s story is that the playoffs can coax the best out certain players.

During the Steelers 2010 playoff run offensive tackle Jonathan Scott also enjoyed his career peak as had as offensive guard Darnell Stapleton during the Steelers 2008 run to Super Bowl XLIII.

Go back further, and you’ll find that that a good regular-season Merril Hoge became playoff great with 100 yard games for the 1989 Steelers in their upset Wild Card win over the Oilers and heartbreaking loss to the Broncos.

  • It doesn’t always work this way of course as we’ll detail in a future story.

But if Alex Highsmith can step it up and help T.J. Watt give the Steelers defense the 1-2 punch on the edge that they enjoyed with Bud Dupree healthy, Pittsburgh’s road to Super Bowl glory will become much more plausible.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals: No Christmas Reprieve Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Carl Lawson, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F

Running Backs
Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.

Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+

Linebackers
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Secondary
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.

Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.

    • It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyler Boyd, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Played Out at Paul Brown? Bengals 27-17 Win Spells Trouble for Steelers, Roethlsiberger

The Bengals beat the Steelers 27-17, but Pittsburgh was far more dramatic than the 10 point margin that Cincinnati inflicted suggests. It not that…

  • They suffered their 3rd loss after 11 straight wins
  • Pittsburgh lost to a 2-10 Cincinnati team
  • The Bengals were fielding a third string quarterback and missing many starters
  • Steelers fumbled their chance to grab a division title

No. All of those factors are symptoms of a far more troubling trend:  The Ben Roethlisberger era appears to be ending in front of our eyes. Yes, we saw a different, better Ben Roethlisberger in the 2nd half. Could that offer hope for the rest of the season?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain right now:  Watching this happen is real time is painful.

Darruis Philips, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals

Darrius Philips deflects a pass aimed at Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP via Benglas.com

1st Half Steelers Nation Suffers its Ali-Holmes Moment

The “Super Steelers” were my heroes growing up in Maryland in the late 70’s. Really. We’d play “Super Steelers” as if Lynn Swann and Joe Greene had super powers. But they weren’t my only heroes

  • Another big one was Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Las Vegas 1980

Muhammad Ali is defeated by Larry Holmes. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Hannibal Boxing.

I’d never seen him fight. Didn’t matter. Popular culture filled the void. Ali could do no wrong. I woke up gleefully on the morning of October 3rd, 1980 expecting good news and still remember my disappointment at hearing my mom tell me that Ali had lost to Larry Holmes.

  • Disappointment wasn’t limited to 8 year old boys.

Veteran boxing correspondent Jack Newfield confessed that he was “… literally crying. I was– there were tears on my notebook as I watched that.” The first half of the Bengals game felt like Steelers Nations’ own Ali-Holmes moment.

  • Sometimes the best way to break out of a slump is to confront your weakness head on.

Credit Randy Fichtner for doing just that. The Steelers have struggled both the long ball and play action this year. So on the very first play Fichtner had Ben Roethlisberger fake the handoff to Benny Snell, rollout of the pocket to his right and target James Washington 40 yards downfield.

  • It was a beautiful sight. It would have been a tone setter
  • It could have even been a game changer
  • Except that the pass was 3-4 yards too short
  • So short that Darius Phillips should have intercepted it

More bad things happened. On the next snap Benny Snell ran the ball for real and only got 2 years. On third down Ben Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson with a pass that was high yet catchable. Diontae dropped it. Not that this really mattered — it was a 4 yard pass when the Steelers needed 8.

Things got worse. On the next possession a four yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster simply set up 2 more deep incompletions and a punt. Next the tried to use “Jet Motion” with Ben Roethlisberger under center – where he promptly fumbled. The Bengals recovered.

Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

The Steelers defense did well to limit Cincinnati to a field goal. But the worst was yet to come. Before the 2nd half was over:

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster would get his noodle rocked, fumbling the ball back to the Bengals
  • Ben Roethlisberger would toss an ugly interception to Mackensie Alexander
  • The Bengals would convert both of those into touchdowns

By the end of the first half, Pittsburgh had just 40 yards from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger had 19 yards passing and two turnovers. In other words, the Steelers offense had 3 turnovers and had made just two first downs.

Damning numbers indeed. But they looked and felt worse in real time. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, yet here was Ben Roethlisberger struggling to connect on simple throws. He didn’t look like a two- time Super Bowl winner; he looked like a hapless rookie 4th string quarterback going up against the ’85 Bears.

Indeed, although Ben wasn’t taking a beating, in the first half he looked every bit as out of control as Ali had against Larry Holmes on the fateful night in Las Vegas.

Roethlisberger Redux? Meh, Not Quite

For the first time ever, I honestly thought that Mike Tomlin should consider pulling Ben Roethlisberger for performance. In Latin America, ESPN Deportes commentators thought it might happen, advising that Mason Rudolph had warmed up after half time.

It didn’t happen. Stout play by Cam Heyward, Avery Williamson and Alex Highsmith forced a 3 and out and the when the Steelers offense came out, Ben Roethlisberger was at the helm.

And for a time, the Steelers looked like the team that went 11-0 in September, October and November and not December’s 3 and 0er. Behind a crushing block from Vance McDonald, Chase Claypool transformed a simple screen pass on 3rd and 3 into to a thirty seven yard sideline scamper. One play later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a laser to Diontae Johnson.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell running in the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the next series, it was Benny Snell’s turn to shine as he ripped off runs of 29 and 13 yards. The Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal, but still, it was a 1 score game and 5 minutes remained in the third quarter.

Out Muscled on the Line, Defense Out Foxed by Finley

Before the game, no one in Steelers Nation knew the names “Ryan Finley” and  “Josh Bynes.” We’ll probably never hear their names again. But together the tandem snuffed out the Steelers 2nd half comeback.

  • In the first half, the Steelers mustered their will to convert a 4th and 1. That was a small but symbolic moment.

Symbolism only gets you so far. When the next time the Steelers faced a 3rd and 1 after Chris Boswell’s field goal, Benny Snell got stoned by Josh Bynes. Instead continuing to fight to tie the score the Steelers punted and asked their defense to bail them out. Again.

  • Out foxed by Ryan Finley, the defense couldn’t deliver.

Ryan Finley completed just 7 passes, but he ran for 47 yards. Three of those runs converted 3rd downs and another other gave Cincinnati a touchdown.

T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson all made excellent plays against the Bengals. But the Steelers defense couldn’t prevent Ryan Finley from looking like the 2nd coming of Fran Tarkenton. Disappointing?

Yes, but hardly surprising given that the Steelers were missing 3 of their 4 starting linebackers, their top backup and were forced to play a safety at inside linebacker.

One Last Hurrah?

Christmas is days away, and the Steelers haven’t played a good football game since before Thanksgiving. Yet, as Mark Kaboly pointed out in The Athletic, minus Bud Dupree, this is the same team that tangled with the Titans in the battle of the undefeated and walked away with a win.

  • For weeks now we’ve been waiting for the Steelers to “snap out of it”
  • Instead, their downward spiral is snapping into high gear

The story of a veteran pulling it together and leaving all out on the field for one final hurrah offers a compelling narrative. Sometimes it even happens in real life. See Jerome Bettis in Super Bowl XL.

But for that to happen here, Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to accept his limitations, find a way to succeed within them and hope his offensive line and running game can do “just enough” to get by.

Otherwise, Steelers Nation will be facing a long, cold winter.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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Steelers Report Card for Win Wednesday Win over Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is so late he almost had to call in a substitute, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wednesday win over the Ravens.

Luke Wilson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick denies Luke Wilson a touchdown. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger completed 70% of his passes going 36-51 for 266 with a touchdown and a pick. Had he not suffered so many drops, Roethlisberger easily could have gone for 80%. On paper his lone interception doesn’t look bad, but it came in the end zone, again, and foreshadowed missed opportunities to come. That brings his grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Steelers running backs rushed for 68 yards on 20 carries with a long run of 13 yards. They also made 4 catches for 40, and one of those came from Anthony McFarland’s catch for 17 yards. That looks pretty pathetic on paper. But the running backs had no room to run, and moved the chains when they had to. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron led the Steelers in receptions with 7 and appeared to be in rhythm with Ben Roethlisberger early. Yet he had several drops, including one in the Red Zone. The tight ends did not help much in the running game either. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Looking at the stat sheet, one might concluded the Steelers wide outs had a respectable, if economical day. Chase Claypool had 6 catches on 9 targets for 52 yards. Diontae Johnson had 8 grabs for 13 targets for 46 yards. Yet both men dropped or failed to make multiple combat catches in the Red Zone and/or the end zone. James Washington also missed a combat catch in the end zone, but came up with a critical grab late in the game. JuJu Smith-Schuster made 8 catches in 9 targets for 37 yards including a touchdown bringing the group’s grade up. Grade: D

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The story here remains the same for almost the entire season. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was hit 6 times which is low for a Ravens game. So the pass protection was good. The running game was a different story. Mike Tomlin openly called out his line for “unblocked men at the point of attack.” The failure to create daylight is leading to 1 and 2 yard runs on first down that complicate everything else that follows. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with two tackles and a sack. Overall, the Steelers did a reasonable job against a Ravens team that rushed at will against them the first time, although RGIII’s 39 yard scamper went right through the heart of the Steelers defense and the line takes some heat for that. Grade: C

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had 7 tackles 2 sacks and another tackle and a half behind the line of scrimmage in addition to 3 more QB hits. The Steelers will need every bit of that production with Bud Dupree down who made two tackles for losses. Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson combined for 8 tackles. Vince Williams 2 tackles look pretty pedestrian on paper, but he recovered a fumble and his slow stand up from the pile late in the first half might have saved a touchdown. Grade: C+

Secondary
The Baltimore Ravens completed 9 passes while giving up 3 sacks. And went 3-13 on 3rd down conversions. Moreover, Minkah Fitzpatrick broke up a pass in the end zone, as he seems to do almost every week. And Joe Haden’s pick six should have sparked a Steelers romp. That’s a 14 point swing. However, Terrell Edmunds missed tackle allowed Trace McSorley (who?) to burn them for a 70 touchdown that put Baltimore right in the game, which brings the mark down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2 for 2 on field goals, yet missed another extra point. Jordan Berry‘s punting was respectable. Kick and punt coverage was strong. Ray-Ray McCloud had a sub par day on both kick and punt returns, and his fumble put Baltimore into the game. Grade: D

T.J. Watt, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt sacks RGIII. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Eleven months ago essentially the same Steelers defense played an RGIII led Ravens squad who had less at stake and the Steelers did demonstrably better (OK, that Baltimore team wasn’t fighting a COVID-19 outbreak.) Still, Keith Butler’s defense does seem to have an identifiable flaw:

  • Almost once again, they give up a long run.

At this point in the season one has to wonder if this can be corrected or if the only remedy is to compensate for it in one way or another.

It is hard to fault Randy Ficthner’s game planning given that execution was at issue. However, the Steelers running game is severely lagging and one wonders if improvement is possible on this front. One thing to keep in mind, the jet sweeps and other creativity seen earlier in the year wasn’t on display this week.

The Steelers started expected to play the Ravens on a short week and instead played them on a very long one. Whether that was the reason or not, the blunt fact is the Steelers suffered critical breakdowns in all three phases of the game. Mike Tomlin quickly accepted responsibility for this, and we will happily hand it to him. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
16 rushes for 68 yards and no touchdowns will not make any Fantasy Football owner happy. But when the Steelers needed to move the chains and then later needed to make yards to kill the clock, Benny Snell delivered by running with authority, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Consequences: Steelers 19-14 Win Over Ravens Carries Costly Repercussions

The Steelers-Raven game was supposed to be on Thanksgiving. COVID-19 pushed it to Sunday. And then to Tuesday. And then to Wednesday. By the time they actually played, the Baltimore Ravens had called up 11 players from their practice squad.

  • Everyone expected a JV-Varsity game.
  • Stephon Tuitt, himself out on the COVID-19 list, tweeted about padding stats.
  • We did see a JV-Varsity effort.

Except the Baltimore Ravens brought their Varsity game, while Mike Tomlin labeled the Steelers’ effort as “J.V.” As they’ve been many times this season, the Steelers were below the line in all three phases. And, just like in other outings this year, Pittsburgh prevailed 19-14 despite that.

But the critical question is, how much longer can continue to do that?

RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

RGIII is off to the races on 3rd down late in the 2nd half. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Quarter Foreshadows Things to Come

The Steelers and Ravens began by exchanging punts, then on the first play of Baltimore’s second possession, a failed exchange between Robert Griffen III and his running back landed on the grass with Vince Williams pouncing on it to give Pittsburgh the ball at Baltimore’s 22.

In other words, things happened exactly as they were scripted to.

Lack of practice had reduced the Ravens to struggling with fundamentals, as Pittsburgh looked poised to go up early and easily. But instead of capitalizing, the Steelers stumbled. Sure, Ben Reothlisberger and  Benny Snell had a nice 13-yard hookup that brought the ball to the Ravens 6, but the rest of the drive consisted of 1 and 2 yard runs by Snell and piecemeal catches by Eric Ebron.

  • Unable to score on 3rd down, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1.

As he’s done too many times this season, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone. The Steelers squandered an opportunity to go up by an easy 7.

But that didn’t seem to matter. The script that destiny had drafted for this game continued to impose its own inertia. On the Ravens very next possession, RGIII looked to convert a very easy 3rd down to James Proche, but Joe Haden read him all the way, picking off the ball and taking it to the house.

  • What the Steelers offense couldn’t do, the defense did for it.

It took about a minute and a half longer, but the Steelers still got their early touchdown. Except the score was only 6-0 instead of 7-0 because Chis Boswell missed the extra point, foreshadowing things to come.

Ravens Force Role Reversal, Steelers Oblige

Had the Steelers offense scored its easy touchdown AND had the defense brought home its pick six, it is easy to imagine the game evolving very differently. No, John Harbaugh’s team would NOT have quit on him. But often times when inexperienced teams get behind early in big games, they start trying too hard.

  • Balls get loose.
  • Blocks get missed.
  • Easy catches bounce off hands.
  • Simple tackles slip and big gains ensue.

And that is exactly how things evolved following Chris Boswell’s missed extra point. Except the Baltimore Ravens rejected the role of method actor, opting to go improv and the Steelers willingly obliged by flipping the script.

You can pin-point the Steelers somersault with precision. With the help of a Cam Heyward sack, Pittsburgh seemed to be slamming the door on the Ravens by forcing a quick punt.

Marlon Humphery, Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens

Marlon Humphery bats away touchdown pass from Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Unfortunately, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the return, giving Baltimore the ball at Pittsburgh’s 16. 6 plays later, the Ravens were up 7-6 and Steelers Nation was primed for what is perhaps the sloppiest 48 minutes of play in recent history. It was JV football at its most mediocre. Here are the low lights:

  • The Steelers had to settle for Red Zone field goals, twice
  • Eric Ebron, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool all either had Red Zone drops or passes batted away
  • RGIII gored the Steelers defense with a 39 yard run on 3rd an 11
  • The Steelers failed to convert a 4th and 2
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick dropped an easy interception/pick six
  • Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed tackles allowing Trace McSorley (who) to connect with Marquise Brown for an easy touchdown.

Yet, in spite of all that, the Steelers to eeked out a win. Let’s look at why.

JuJu and Snell Gamers to the End

Athletes who are good enough to reach the pros generally give it their all. But “gamers” are athletes who give it their all but manage to find a little something extra when the game is on the line. Franco Harris in the Immaculate Reception and James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII are two easy examples.

  • But true gamers find ways to deliver that something extra on bread and butter plays.

To use Mike Tomlin, in his William and Mary eloquence, the Steelers had “sucked” in the Red Zone throughout the game. By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied:

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

The Steelers other “gamer” is Benny Snell Jr., who on that self-same touchdown drive, got the ball on a 3rd and 3, had ZERO room to run, reversed field and ripped off 10 yard run. Later, with the Steelers looking to kill the clock, Snell exploded for a 13 yard run, forcing the Ravens to use a precious time out, and then ended the game by converting a 3rd and 1.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sloppy Play Carries Consequences

With 5:31 left to play, Trace McSorley fired off a deep pass to Marquise Brown. Minkah Fitzpatrick almost intercepted it.

  • Bud Dupree had blitzed the passer, slipped and immediately began pounding the turf.

Later, we not only saw him walking with the trainers to the locker room, but he did so under his own power. Surely, this couldn’t be serious, could it? Alas, it was serious as he’d torn an ACL.

If the Steelers had made half, perhaps even a third of the plays they’d left on the field, Bud Dupree would have been out of the game, resting up for Washington. Instead, he’s out for the year.

The Steelers had slipped but recovered enough to win, but as Dupree’s injury reveals, sloppy play has its consequences.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Straight A’s But Still Imperfect Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher leading a straight A yet imperfect class, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 32 of 46 for 267 two touchdowns plus an interception. These are solid numbers, but the Steelers were below the line a bit on 3rd down conversions, and Ben Roethlisberger’s end zone interception cost the team at least 3 points. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 13 times for 89 yards, ripping off a long run deep in Steelers territory and executing an impressive reverse of field run that could have easily gone for a loss. Benny Snell scored the only rushing touchdown of the day and looked OK in non-garbage time runs. Anthony McFarland was not impressive gaining 3 yards on 3 carries. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was on his own for much of the game, as an injury took Zach Gentry out of the game. Ebron caught 4 of 7 passes thrown his way including the final touchdown. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had another breakout day which at one point saw him hauling in more catches that Jake Luton had made completions. He showed his versitiliy, catching balls at short, medium and long lengths, including an incredible goal line catch. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and an impressive touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 19 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 20 yards and 1 run for 3. James Washington only had one catch, but it converted a third down and set up a touchdown. Grade: A

Diontae Johnson, steelers vs jaguars

Diontae Johnson makes goal line catch. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and was only hit twice. More importantly, the running backs had room to run. No one will confuse Sunday’s performance against the Jaguars with road grading delivered by Steelers offensive lines of yesteryear, but it was and improvement over previous weeks, and enough to make the running game a factor, albeit an erratic one. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line in tackles and while he wasn’t credited for a sack, he clearly pressured the quarterback. Tyson Alualu lone stat is a tipped pass – which helped cause an interception and fuel what was at a minimum a 10 point swing. Henry Mondeaux had one quarterback hit. James Robinson’s rushing average wasn’t bad, but if the Steelers did contain him, and that started with the line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
As usual Vince Williams led the Steelers linebackers in tackles, dishing out punishment as he went along. T.J. Watt went sackless for only the 3rd time in 10 games, but did hit the quarterback 2 times. Robert Spillane had four tackles while Alex Highsmith had 2. The real star of the unit was Bud Dupree who had deflected a pass had one sack and came very close to deflecting another. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Jaguars were 4-13 on third downs. Deep into the 4th quarter Diontae Johnson had more catches than Jake Luton completions. Oh, yeah, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edumnds both had two deflected passes and two interceptions, the first time since 1998 that two safeties have had multiple picks in one game (thanks to Jim Wexell for that stat.) If you’re keeping score, Steven Nelson had an uncredited deflected pass. And if you’re keeping track, Joe Haden had 3 tackles. Grade: A

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Jaguars

Terrell Edmunds nets his 2nd interception in a game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made 2 field goals but missed another, while being perfect on extra points. Jordan Berry had a soild day punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a solid day returning, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Marcus Allen had a heads up play on an on sides kick. Grade: B+

Coaching
While it is true that Jordan Berry did take the field a little too often for comfort, that should not obscure the fact that the Steelers run game was considerably better than it has been for the last several weeks. And if Randy Ficthner’s offense didn’t put together as many long drives as one will like, it did transform 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

  • Keith Butler came into the game with a simple mandate: Dominate a rookie quarterback.

Butler’s boys passed with flying colors, containing James Robinson, creating unmanageable third downs which the rookie was ill-equipped to convert.

Behind it all is Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are riding an unheard of 10-0 record, yet you wouldn’t know that by reading any of his player’s post-game press clippings. This type of “We’re good but we can and will improve attitude” is as healthy as you can get. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at the stat sheet and it says 1 tackle, 1 assist, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 pass defensed and 1 QB hit. Look pretty mundane. But Stephon Tuitt’s play in this game was anything but mundane and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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The “Imperfections” in Steelers 27-3 Win over Jaguars are Feature, Not a Flaw

A downside to going undefeated is that stories predicting your first loss begin to ellipse ones detailing why you’re winning. And so it is with the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. No matter who the opponent was this week, the question was going to be “Has the upset arrived?” Now, stir in a little history and the plot thickens:

  • The Jacksonville Jaguars have a nasty habit of upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That habit started in the first meeting between the two franchises and carries through to Pittsburgh’s most recent playoff experience. Steel workers it would seem, make poor Jaguar hunters.

  • Yet, the men in Black and Gold arrived in Jacksonville with a 9-0 record and left 10-0.

The Steelers 27-3 win over the Jaguars certainly wasn’t spotless, but that’s actually a feature rather than a flaw. Let’s see why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Jaguars

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown for the Steelers. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Some Fine Football Footnotes, Courtesy of Luton and Robinson

The true history of world events is often told through the footnotes. In the NFL? Not so much.

History will little note that Jake Luton completed his first 2 passes for double-digit yardage, nor will it remember that James Robinson began the game by gouging the Steelers defense for double digit runs. Had Jacksonville won, scribes like me would have described this pair of unheralded rookies as “Setting the tone with their decisive play during the game’s opening drive.”

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

  • Instead, people are already forgetting that Jacksonville actually led for game’s first 19 minutes.

That’s because NFL history isn’t written by teams who can make a handful of good plays; it is made by teams who make plays consistently. Or at least make them at critical moments in games. During the first half against the Jaguars, the Steelers fell into the latter category by:

  • Going into bend-but-don’t-break mode to force a field goal after Jacksonville’s early advance
  • Marcus Allen’s attentive recovery of a surprise on-sides kick
  • James Conner tearing off a 25 yard run when Pittsburgh found itself backed up against its own end zone
  • Tyson Alualu tipping a pass that Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off in the end zone

Those efforts paved the way for Chris Boswell to make a 44 yard field goal after missing a 45 yarder, for Ben Roethlisberger to hook up with Chase Claypool to give the Steelers the lead and later to connect with Diontae Johnson to set up a one yard Benny Snell touchdown to give the Steelers a 17-3 lead just before the half.

Yet if the Steelers had done some opportunistic playmaking in the game’s first 30 minutes, the last 30 seconds reinforced just how much they’d left on the table.

Terrell Edmunds intercepted Jake Luton with 36 left to play. Ben Roethlisberger brought them within field goal range, yet threw an interception to Daniel Thomas. Instead of taking a 24 or 17 point and 3 score lead into half time, the Steelers were standing pat with just 14.

Jaguars Squander Opportunity

14 points is a healthy yet hardly insurmountable half time lead. And 14 points becomes even less insurmountable when you when start the half by getting the ball and then promptly run 3 plays for negative 1 yards. The worst thing you can do with a young team is to let them hang around, yet here were the Steelers, opening the door for Jacksonville to come roaring back into the game.

  • Would the Jaguars pounce on the opportunity?

For a few moments, it seemed liked they might. After limiting the Steelers to negative one yards, Jacksonville advanced from their own 31 to Pittsburgh’s 41 in six plays. Now, those six plays were hardly worthy of John Facenda narration, but the Jaguars were stalking their way up the field with confidence. Then they blinked:

  • On 2nd and 9, Bud Dupree gifted them 5 yards by going off sides
  • Jacksonville regifted those 5 yards right back with a false start
  • Next, Stephon Tuitt batted away a pass aimed for Tyler Eifert, bring up 3rd and 9
  • 3rd and 9 turned in to 3rd and 14 thanks to another false start
  • Then Stephon Tuitt sacked Jake Luton, forcing a punt

The Steelers gave Jacksonville a chance to get right back in this game, and the Jaguars squandered it. Now all that remained was for Pittsburgh to close the deal.

Dominating Steelers Defense Delivers the Difference

IF the late Steve Sabol were scripting this game, he’d have Stephon Tuitt’s sack sparking a Ben Roethlisberger response that included a few pristine passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and/or James Washington, some road grading run blocking backed by James Conner’s powers rushing.

Bud Dupree Sacks Jake Luton. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • But NFL Films has the luxury of crafting their dramatic narratives after outcomes are decided.

Football games evolve at their own pace and in this case that meant that Jordan Berry would punt four more times during the second half, that the Steelers would have to wait until the 4th quarter to put more points on the board and those next points would come off of Chris Boswell’s leg.

But the offense’s difficulty scoring didn’t matter much, as the Steelers defense dominated the Jaguars en every sense of the word, whether it was Bud Dupree sacking Luton on third down, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward  stoningJames Robinson at the line of scrimmage, or Terrell Edmunds intercepting Luton again, the defense made sure Jaguars never had a chance to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s offensive sluggishness.

Imperfection, a Feature, Not a Flaw

Terrell Edmunds’ second interception sparked the offense, as Ben Roethlisberger only needed 4 plays to find Eric Ebron in the end zone.

  • Was it a perfect afternoon for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Hardly. That final touchdown padded Pittsburgh’s point margin, making the game look more lopsided than the 27-3 score suggests. But it doesn’t matter. In Ben Roethlisberger’s words, the Steelers are “…not chasing perfection in terms of a perfect 16-0. We’re chasing Lombardis.”

  • Mike Tomlin made a similar point offering that the only thing perfect about this team is its record.

So in other words, you’ve got a team with a 10-0 record with both room for improvement AND the self-awareness that they must improve? That’s a pretty good place to be.

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