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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case for Regressing to the Mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

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

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

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

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

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Meltdown to Chargers – Tripping Instead of Leaning In Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher depressed to see his students tripping instead of leaning in as the finish line approaches, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the meltdown against the Chargers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Justin Jones, Joey Bose, Steelers vs Chargers

Justin Jones & Joey Bose sack Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Nowak, Chargers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s stat line of 19-45 for 281 for 2 TD’s and 1 pick looks respectable. And the Steelers signal caller looked sharp at times. Yet his interception was costly and likely took points off the board. He also failed to connect with an open WR, although the WR may be responsible, nonetheless that also took points off the board. That brings Ben below the line. Grade: D

Running Backs
James Conner had two touchdowns and 60 yards on 15 carries including a long run and a key 4th down conversion. Roosevelt Nix looked strong blocking. Jaylen Samuels had two carries for 5 yards and looked good scoring Pittsburgh’s last touchdown through the air. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s Gronk, but he can catch tough passes over the middle, more importantly, he can move DB’s to gain extra yards. Jesse James had one catch for 7 yards and blocked well. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
The WiFi was on as Antonio Brown looked every bit the Steelers number one wide receiver as he caught 10 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.  JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quieter night, going 6 for 49. Ryan Switzer had two catches for 9 yards and Justin Hunter got open for a sure TD that he either under ran or Roethlisberger over threw. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Running backs had room to run. Ben Roethlisberger had a ridiculous amount of time to throw on many occasions. The Los Angeles Chargers only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and only touched him 2 other times. But on the first series of the 4th quarter a holding call put the Steelers back, followed by a sack, which in turn set up a punt return for a touchdown. On this page, grades are earned based on performance and results. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave got the only pressure of the second half with his sack of Philip Rivers. Stephon Tuitt deflected a pass forcing a punt early on. Cam Heyward got pressure in the first half. However, the pressure was absent in the 2nd half, and Justin Jackson broke through to the second level too many times during the meltdown. Grade: D

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, L.J. Fort, Steelers vs Chargers

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and L.J. Fort gang tackle. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
L.J. Fort played for most of the night and led the team in tackles. Vince Williams was next. T.J. Watt got some good pressure in the first half. Bud Dupree played injured, splitting time with Anthony Chickillo and Ola Adeniyi. The linebackers had a lot of responsibility and to their credit the Chargers got very few after catch yards. They made some strong plays in the first half, but couldn’t come up with a big play in the second half. Grade: C-

Secondary
Philip Rivers is as hot as a quarterback can be right now, and the defense contained him in the first half, not so much in the second half. Terrell Edmunds had some nice plays and made the only splash play of the night for the defense. Joe Haden would have had an interception in the end zone but got KOed by Sean Davis instead. That could have been the difference in this game. Again, the Steelers defense needed a take away in the 2nd half and didn’t get one. Grade: D

Special Teams
Sure, the Steelers had a partially blocked punt that was nice. Jordan Berry boomed off some nice punts. But Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And the Steelers special teams seemed to commit penalties on each return.  Again.

  • And of course there’s the punt returned for a touchdown.

YES, it should have been called back and wasn’t. But that one illegal block in the back didn’t prevent the other 10 guys from not touching the returner. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Chargers

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Whenever a team suffers such a catastrophic 2nd half meltdown, the easy out is to point the finger at the coach for allowing complacency to set in.

  • The Steelers however, showed no lack of hustle or focus in the 2nd half.

No one can be accused of mailing it in. And nor can Mike Tomlin be faulted for the critical plays where officiating wasn’t at the issue. Tomlin didn’t throw the pick, miss the PAT or collide with his fellow defensive back to break up an interception.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger has now attempted over 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. While the results are not universally bad, a more balanced approach would be welcome, particularly because the Steelers have shown they can run the ball.

  • Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin need to take a long look at a run defense that suddenly seems to be gouged with double-digit yard runs with alarming regularity.

However, perhaps these last several games have revealed the truth that the 2018 Steelers defense is a unit that is capable of playing well for stretches, but one that simply doesn’t have the talent to do all it needs to do during a 60 minute football game. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Had the Steelers won, this space would consider several candidates for the award. But critical failures in all three phases contributed to the second half meltdown and trying to award an Unsung Hero Award feels a little bit too much like the pro version of giving out a participation trophy so we won’t do it here.

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Steelers Activate Ola Adeniyi, Cut Matthew Thomas

Heading into their critical Sunday night show down with the San Diego er um, Los Angeles Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers made personnel moves, one expected, the other a bit of a surprise.

  • First, the Steelers have activated outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi off of injured reseve.

This move was expected. Bud Dupree’s participation in practice was limited this week, and T.J. Watt also suffered a minor injury in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. Anthony Chickillo also suffered some sort of ankle injury in the Steelers win against the Chargers, although he has practiced since then.

  • So it was not a surprise to see the Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi off of the injured reserve list.

During the preseason Ola Adeniyi, whose full name is Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, was one of the stand out players for the Steelers defense as he recorded 3 sacks, and was a regular presence in the offensive backfield.

Ola Adeniyi, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi

Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi for Chargers game. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

However, their move to make room for Ola Adeniyi does count as a bit of a surprise, as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert chose to wave inside linebacker Matthew Thomas. Matthew Thomas joined the Steelers as part of their 2018 undrafted rookie free agent class, and had a stand out effort in preseason.

In fact, just prior to the opener, Jim Wexell reported some Steelers coaches were considering the possibility that Matthew Thomas could be splitting time with starters Vince Williams and Jon Bostic by the end of the season.

That role for Matthew Thomas never materialized, as the Steelers have turned to L.J. Fort as their primary backup at inside linebacker. The Steelers can of course resign Matthew Thomas to their practice squad, but he would have to clear waivers first.

Other Steelers News Heading into Chargers Game

In other injury-related news, safety Morgan Burnett is also likely out against the Chargers, paving the way for rookie Marcus Allen to see his first playing time of the year taking over the role of dime linebacker.

Starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out leaving Ben Roethlisberger’s protection in capable hands of either Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor. Cornerback Cameron Sutton is listed as questionable.

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6 Myths Debunked During the Steelers 6 Game Winning Streak

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

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

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

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

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nothing could have been further from the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth #6: Mike Tomlin Still Struggles with Clock Management

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

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

Neither should you.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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Steelers-Jaguars Preview – Time to Measure Pittsburgh’s Progress Since Playoff Disaster

This is the one Steelers Nation has been waiting for. Today the Steelers face off against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and be honest, when the schedule came out, you saw this game and thought, “Man do I want to see this.”

  • How quickly times change. When the 2017 schedule came out, who gave the Jaguars a second thought?

I certainly didn’t. Yet it was the Jaguars, and not the Patriots, who stopped the Steelers quest to bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Yet a lot has happened in the 309 days that have passed since the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

Changes to the Steelers Since the Last Jaguars Game

Perhaps its is appropriate that so many members of the Steelers defense changed numbers during the off season, because a lot has changed.

During the September, not only did it look like these had been insufficient, but that perhaps the Steelers had further regressed. But the Steelers travel to Jacksonville riding a 5 game winning streak, that has seen the Steelers improve week in and week out.

Across the board, whether you’re looking at third down conversions, Red Zone efficiency, or Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, all of the trends Pittsburgh is taking into this big game are pointed the right way.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in taking a shot at the Team Turmoil thesis, it was just two years ago, on November 13, 2016 when the Steelers home loss to the Dallas Cowboys seemed to signal all hope had been lost.

  • Except it wasn’t, and the Steelers have gone 26-6 since then.

But story symmetry can be a tricky thing. While Jacksonville had bested the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season – with Ryan Shazier on the field – Ben Roethlisberger had played one of the worst, if not the worst game of his career. Big Ben bounced back to play the best football of his life in the second half of 2017.

Few thought Jacksonville would give the Steelers must of a test last January, but reports that Stephon Tuitt missed practice time due to an arm injury foreshadowed a flatfooted defensive response to Leonard Fournette’s fierce rushing.

  • And, as fate would have it, Stephon Tuitt will miss the rematch against the Jaguars.

So be it. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be on a 5 game losing streak, but this still is the same team that schooled the Patriots early in the year. But they were without Leonard Fournette for most of that stretch. But he will play this afternoon.

  • And that’s good in at least one sense.

Fournette’s presence means the outcome of today’s Steelers-Jaguars matchup in Jacksonville will still give Steelers Nation a true measure of how far Pittsburgh has come since that playoff defeat or, how far they still need go.

 

 

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Ben Roethlisberger Perfect as Steelers Pulverize Panthers 52-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulverized the Carolina Panthers 52-10 on Thursday Night Football, easily giving Mike Tomlin’s team their best performance of the season to date far. Just how dominant was Pittsburgh’s performance? Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger launched two 50 yard plus bombs for touchdowns
  • The Steelers defense scored on a pick six
  • Roosevelt Nix and Anthony Chickillo setup another touchdown with forced a fumble on a kickoff return

So the Steelers offense, defense and special teams each authored dramatic Splash Plays that, on one level, had a decisive impact on the outcome. But viewed from another angle, the Steelers performance revealed a bit of a different truth about football: For Splash Plays to be decisive, they must be backed by sound fundamental football.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger passes to James Conner. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

From Down 0-7 to Up 14-7 in 0:24 Seconds….

A lot of good quotes surfaced after the game, but perhaps the best came from Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “Yeah, we got the ball at the jump, right down the field, scored. Two plays later, we’re down 14-7.”

  • While it will long be forgotten, things did NOT start out well for the Steelers.

Going into the game stopping Carolina’s high-octane offense was paramount. And the Panthers opened with a 6 play 75 yard drive that featured a lot of Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton, with Pittsburgh looking powerless to slow, let alone stop the duo.

But when two Carolina corners collided on what was to be a short pass to James Washington, Ben Roethlisberger hurled a bomb to JuJu Smith-Schuster who took it to the house.

  • The record will reflect that Carolina’s lead would last all of 0:11 seconds.

They fared a little better with a tie, to the tune of 0:13 seconds, as T.J. Watt wrapped Cam Newton in the end zone. Newton, like Roethlisberger is tough to bring down, and he resisted long enough to save a safety by tossing the ball away, but he didn’t intend hitting Vince Williams, who took the interception to the house giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead.

However, when asked if that was the decisive sequence of the game, Mike Tomlin balked:

…we’ve seen that so many times. There is too much ball after that to think that is the defining moment. It’s not. It was a great moment but whether it was positive or negative the games are never defined by plays that occur that early.

And Mike Tomlin is right. A big play’s impact only reverberates through the end result of the game if you follow solid fundamental football, which is indeed what the Steelers delivered in the game’s remaining forty nine minutes and 55 seconds of play.

Next Six Series Prove to be Decisive for Pittsburgh

While the plays perhaps don’t provide much in the way of ESPN highlight material, its entirely possible that the series following Vince Williams’ Pick Six was the most important of the night.

  • Javon Hargrave stuffed Christian McCafferty for a 1 yard gain on first.
  • The Steelers defense confused Cam Newton, forcing him to burn a time out.
  • It didn’t matter, as Bud Dupree forced him into an incompletion anyway
  • Coty Sensabaugh batted away a pass intended for D.J. Moore

Instead of answering the Steelers score, Carolina had to punt. That in turn allowed the Steelers to lean on James Conners on the ensuring drive to build a 14 point advantage. By the time Carolina got within sniffing distance of another score, a 50 yard Chris Boswell field goal had already given the Steelers a 17 point advantage.

Carolina did indeed cut the Steelers advantage to 10 on another Christian McCafferty touchdown, but it took Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown less than 2 minutes to put the Steelers back up by 17 when the duo hooked up on a 53 yard touchdown play.

2nd Half: Anatomy of a Rout

For the second straight week the Steelers started the second half by getting the ball, and for the second straight week Randy Fichtner’s offense opened by engineering a long, clock consuming drive.

This one saw the Steelers convert 3 third downs, and burn more than 6 minutes off of the clock, as Vance McDonald pulled down a touchdown to put the Steelers up 38 to 14.

Vance McDonald, Eric Reid, Steelers vs Panthers

Vance McDonald makes a tough catch. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Carolina started the first half soundly, as Christian McCafferty got 5 yards on his opening carry. However, Bud Dupree sacked Cam Newton for an 11 yard loss on the next play, and Carolina’s first drive ended in a punt. The rout was on.

Mike Tomlin went into the game planning to play every player with a helmet, and every player had a piece of the victory.

Joshua Dobbs did lose the perfect passer rating he’d taken out of the Ravens game, but that is a small price to pay for seeing your 2nd string quarterback come out for clean up duty in the 4th quarter.

While the win over the Panthers was truly a team effort, any analysis must acknowledge the exceptional play by Ben Roethlisberger, who en route a perfect passer rating game managed to convert third downs at will, while throwing 5 touchdown passes to 5 different players.

Tomlin’s Challenge Coming out of the Carolina Game

As noted in our Report Card, the last time the Steelers played at night in Heinz Field it appeared to be lights out for Pittsburgh. On Thursday Night Football, the Steelers dominated a hot team and one that is a legitimate NFC contender.

The progress is unquestionably positive, but Mike Tomlin’s challenge is to ensure that the Steelers performance against the Panthers doesn’t represent Pittsburgh’s peak. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin appears to understand that as he explained:

Really big performance against versus a really good team on a short week so there is a lot to be proud of, but we are probably not that good. You get games like that sometimes. The ball gets rolling down hill, we are appreciative of it.

If Mike Tomlin can get his team to internalize that attitude, then the Steelers stand a strong chance of gaining a measure of revenge against the Jaguars next Sunday in Jacksonville.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Panthers – Straight A’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is breaking protocol by issuing his grades before his analysis, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

T.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Vince Williams pick six, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt wrapping Cam Newton in end zone. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger posted a perfect quarterback rating, by going 22 of 25 for 328 and five touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger did it all, long passes, short passes third down conversions and everything in between. Joshua Dobbs was 1 for 2 in mop up duty. Grade: A+

Running Backs
James Conner didn’t break the 100 yard mark, but the Steelers didn’t need him to. As it was, he average 5 yards a carry and added another touchdown. Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive non-garbage time action and managed 26 yards, while Jaylen Samuels only got 7 yards on the ground, but did score a touchdown through the air. Roosevelt Nix caught 2 passes for 17 yards. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James takes heat for his blocking, but he delivered a critical block on Conner’s touchdown run, and scored a late touchdown of his own. Vance McDonald made another tough catch in the end zone and caught 3 other passes. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both scored on long touchdown bombs but both men also made other clutch catches. Ryan Switzer came up with two drive-sustaining catches while Darrius Heyward-Bey nabbed his first catch of the season. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked only once. For most of the night, Ben had time to write his dairy in the pocket. The Steelers weren’t quite as effective running the ball as they have been, but they didn’t need to be.

The play of the Steelers offensive line is nothing short of incredible, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s defense of Ben Roethlisberger after Eric Reid’s hit shows just how seriously this unit takes its job.. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave actually led the defensive line in tackles, as the Steelers remained in their base defense extensively. The real leader of the unit was Cam Heyward, who exploded for 2 sacks, dropped two runners behind the line of scrimmage and made two other hits on Cam Newton. Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Grade: A

Linebackers
Jon Bostic led the team in tackles and arguably should have gotten ½ of a sack. Vince Williams had a banner night, bringing home a pick six and registering a sack. Bud Dupree continues to be a disruptive force in the backfield, as he recorded another sack and had two more tackles for losses. L.J. Fort spot duty stint was enough to earn him a tackle for a loss. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Vince Williams pick six Cam Newton, Steelers vs Panthers

Vince Williams struts after his pick-six of Cam Newton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Steelers secondary didn’t produce a lot of “Splash Plays” other than Terrell Edmunds almost interception. However, Carolina was a dreadful 4-11 on third downs and the Steelers front seven only registers 5 sacks if receivers are covered. Coty Sensabaugh appears to be settling in as a competent corner while Joe Haden has been invisible – in a positive sense. Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Mike Hilton all had strong nights. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on extra points, and made a 50 yarder into the open end of Heinz Field. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return and, for the first time in recent memory, neither the Steelers coverage nor return units gave up a penalty.

  • Special team’s shining moment came on Roosevelt Nix’s forced fumble and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery.

The Steelers were already up 45 to 14 at that point, but it was a heads up play by both men, and it symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Grade: A

Coaching
The last time the Steelers played at night, it looked to be lights out in Pittsburgh, but the win over the Panthers illustrated the dramatic difference the team has experienced since then.

Mike Tomlin, Joshua Dobbs, Alejandro Villaneuva, Steelers vs Panthers

Mike Tomlin huddling with Joshua Dobbs and Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • It is now time to give the Haley haters their day.

Under Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense is firing on all cylinders in ways it never did under Todd Haley. The Steelers offense was multi-faceted against the Panthers, burning Carolina for long touchdowns, converting third downs, orchestrating long, clock-consuming drives all while mounting a balanced attack.

The Steelers defense was also excellent. Perhaps had, the game evolved differently, the Panthers rushing success could have been the defense’s undoing. But that is an academic question, because Keith Butler‘s boys limited the long ball and harassed Cam Newton through the night.

Mike Tomlin deserves credit for preparing his team on a short week and for making an effort to keep everyone fresh throughout the game. As Tomlin conceded, the difference between the Steelers and the Panthers probably isn’t as dramatic as the score board would suggest, but they dominated Carolina in all three phases. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There is no shortage of candidates for this award but we’ll focus on one whose stat line says he ‘only” made one tackle. One tackle, behind the line of scrimmage. This player corralled and wrapped up Cam Newton in the end zone, which forced a pick six. Later this player clobbered Cam Newton in a strip sack with a hit that shook up Carolina’s signal caller, and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Panthers at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens at M&T Stadium – Poise & Maturity Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is pleased to see consistent improvement from his students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens

Bud Dupree & Stephon Tuitt converge on Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers via PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger might not have had his flashiest day of the season and he certainly did miss on a couple of key throws. But Ben Roethlisberger was hot in the Red Zone and the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third downs paving Pittsburgh’s way to a 36:29 edge in time of possession. One critique, Roethlisberger’s-almost injury on the run was a little reckless. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Historically, the Baltimore Ravens have been a very tough team to run on, but James Conner had 70 yards in the first half alone and added 56 through the air before it was done. Jaylen Samuels had one run for two yards. Grade: A+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James 51 yard catch in the 4th quarter very well may have been the play of the game. James had one other catch for 13 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 catches for 25 yards, although ball security is becoming an issue with McDonald. The Steelers played a lot of two tight end sets, and James Conner had a lot of room to run. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown only had 5 catches for 42 yards, but he made them count as one went for a touchdown, and several others extended drives. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team with 7 catches for 78 yards, although he did drop what could have been a long one. James Washington returned to the offense and had two catches with one drop, while Ryan Switzer had 3 catches for 41 yards. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Ravens pressured Ben Roethlisberger but didn’t sack him until the Steelers final series, and that was after Roethlisberger had burned off ample clock time. Even more impressively, James Conner had room to run, and he exploited it, which was a huge difference from the last outing against Baltimore. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
The Ravens had some early success running the ball, and it looked like their line might win the battle upfront. However, that never came to fruition and, while Steelers only registered two sacks of Joe Flacco, they did pressure him all afternoon. Stephon Tuitt had an off sides penalty negate a sack, but he dropped Joe Flacco on Baltimore’s final drive, essentially sealing the game. Cam Heyward had a key stop on the previous drive and blew up the Ravens line to set up Tuitt’s sack. Grade: B

Linebackers
Bud Dupree’s stat line might not look like much, but he got pressure on Joe Flacco all day, splitting a sack with fellow linebacker Vince Williams. Jon Bostic and T.J. Watt tied for number 2 on the team in tackles. Anthony Chickillo saw ample playing time and helped drop a rusher behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton led secondary with three critical plays in the Red Zone, two of which came against runs and another was a pass defensed in the end zone that a “little guy” like him isn’t supposed to make. Sean Davis led the team with 9 tackles is blossoming as a free safety. Morgan Burnett saw his most extensive action, and while he got beaten on a few plays, he stabilized as the game continue. Coty Sensabaugh had another quiet afternoon which is good for a corner.

The Baltimore Ravens were 4-12 on third down and many times Joe Flacco simply had nowhere to throw. Grade: A

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed another extra point, which is becoming worrisome. Ryan Switzer had some good punt returns as well as a good kick return. The Ravens return game didn’t break a big one, but they had more success than you’d like to see. Grade: C

Coaching
When the Baltimore beat Pittsburgh just 35 days ago at Heinz Field, the Steelers looked like a team doomed to be mired in mediocrity for the entire season. In the four games since then, the Steelers have established themselves as the sole leader of the AFC North.

  • Keith Butler has brought the defense along since that ugly night.

The Steelers defense still has issues and remains a long way from the shutdown form it was flashing just one year ago, but Butler’s boys have managed to reduce the long plays while playing the pass more consistently, even when they can’t constantly harass the quarterback.

  • Randy Fichtner’s offense has also improved.

5 weeks ago the Steelers offense only seemed capable of producing in the 2nd and 3rd quarters and couldn’t convert third downs. Since then Steelers offense has consistently done both, while improving in the Red Zone.

Finally, we focus on Mike Tomlin. The Steelers had a rough September, and the last loss to the Ravens seemed punctuate every troublesome trend from the first 3 games. But both Tomlin and his team filtered out the naysayers and have played with poise and maturity since then. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
12:39 remained in the fourth quarter. A holding penalty on Alejandro Villanueva had just sent the Steelers back to their own 5 yard line, bringing up 2nd and 20. And trainers had just helped Ben Roethlisberger from the field. If ever there was a moment for the Ravens to tip the momentum in their favor it was this.

  • Those were the conditions that under which Joshua Dobbs made his NFL debut.

And the rocket scientist not only didn’t flinch, he executed a picture perfect pass that secured a first down and set up the next long play that set up the next score. For his poise under pressure, Joshua Dobbs wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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