2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

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

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

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

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

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

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Art Rooney II on Antonio Brown’s Future in Pittsburgh. Did the Steelers President Tip His Hand?

Art Rooney II spoke with Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on the Antonio Brown situation, and while the Steelers President didn’t close the door on Antonio Brown remaining in Pittsburgh, he left little doubt about which way that door was swinging.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown future with Steelers

Happier times. Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown announcing his 2017 contract extension. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via the Washington Post

Art Rooney II made it clear the Steelers were not going to release Antonio Brown outright, but he also clarified that the team would not be hamstrung by the salary cap implications of trading him. But perhaps his most telling quote came when Dulac asked him about Brown coming to St. Vincents:

Asked if it would be hard or easy to envision Brown being at training camp in Latrobe, Rooney said, ‘As we sit here today, it’s hard to envision that. But there’s no sense on closing the door on anything today. There’s snow on the ground. We don’t have to make those decisions right now.’

Mind you, this came from a man who once wrote off Antonio Brown’s “Facebook Live” incident as a “minor annoyance.”

None of this is surprising. When asked if Antonio Brown quit on his team, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin offered no objections. And for those savvy enough to decode press reports, it is pretty clear that the Steelers are open to trading Antonio Brown.

  • And there’s a strong argument to be made for the Steelers-Brown divorce.

Abandoning your teammates is not a trivial offense. The Steelers cut LeGarrette Blount outright when he walked off the field during the Steelers 2014 win over the Tennessee Titans when coaches indicated that Le’Veon Bell would remain in the game. While the situation was a little different, James Harrison did the same in 2017 and the Steelers cut him at Christmas.

Ben Roethlisberger has spoken publicly about the incident, denied any friction between him and Brown in an effort to remain open to Brown coming back. Cam Heyward said he wanted Brown to remain a Steeler, but also made clear that Brown’s behavior is unacceptable. Fair enough, but while Roethlisberger and Heyward’s opinions count, neither man has decision-making authority.

Art Rooney does, and he’s made clear he’s ready to use it.

  • But the question must be asked, did Art Rooney II go too far and tip the Steelers hand?

This might be overthinking things, but if working closely with sales representatives who put together multi-million dollar deals has taught me anything, it is to never let on how much you want to buy or sell.

  • Did other NFL teams know that the Steelers might be considering trading Antonio Brown before Art Rooney II acknowledged it? Of course they did.

But being open to trading someone and wanting to ship someone out are two different things. Scarcity creates demand, and if the Steelers are seen as wanting to trade Brown, then it could make it harder to get fair value for him.

  • If that sounds silly, think of the position the Steelers were in last season with Martavis Bryant.

Martavis Bryant, despite under performing, despite the Steelers having stood by him through various suspensions, wasn’t happy to have to compete with JuJu Smith-Schuster for playing time, and demanded “I want mines.” He then took to Twitter to demand a trade. The Steelers stood firm and refused to entertain offers.

At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine Kevin Colbert took things a step further declaring:

Martavis was never offered in a trade. Teams have inquired about his availability. Because of media reports, we’ve quickly dismissed that and said he’s not available.

And then of course during the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers turned around and traded Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick, and used it to draft Mason Rudolph. Why did the Steelers change their mind?

Because Jon Gruden knew Pittsburgh wanted to keep Martavis Bryant, he offered them a deal that was too good to turn down.

  • Different dynamics drive the Antonio Brown situation.

What Martavis Bryant did in 2017 was out of line; Antonio Brown turned his back on his teammates in their “darkest hour,” and then had the nerve to test his coach by showing up and trying to force him to play him.

A year ago saying that Bryant wasn’t available via trade was simply saying, “We have a guy on a rookie contract who we think can still contribute.”

In contrast, imagine if Art Rooney II had said something like, “Obviously, this is a serious situation, but Antonio is part of the Steelers family. And you know how the saying goes, you praise you family in public, and admonish them in private. We’ll take care of things in house.” He’d have made himself look weak to the rest of the league. Worse yet, he’d have revealed himself as weak to the entire organization.

  • Instead, Art Rooney II has done the opposite. He has made clear that Antonio Brown isn’t going to dictate to the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization.

That’s the right posture to take. Hopefully his public stance won’t compromise the Steelers ability to demand trade terms that deliver fair value for shipping out a Hall of Fame talent out of Pittsburgh.

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

 

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Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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Steelers Browns Rivalry Comes Full Circle in Final Week of 2018

Sunday January 30th 2018 closes the 2018 NFL regular season and it also brings the Pittsburgh Steelers Cleveland Browns rivalry full circle.

Few contemporary Steelers fans probably even think of the Cleveland Browns as “rivals” to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s because in many ways the rivalry has been on hold for 23 years. But there was a time when things were different. Oh yes, once things were very, very different.

We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s flash back to night it all changed.

Steelers Browns Rivalry

A Steelers fan and Browns fan in Cleveland, January 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Fansided

The Night Three Rivers Stadium Went Orange

Dateline: Monday, November 13th 1995, on I-95 heading north from the DC suburbs towards Baltimore, en route to watch Monday Night Football at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, then the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore.

  • Yet, this is no ordinary Monday night football game.

A clip on Baltimore’s WIYY aka “98 Rock” illustrates why. “Back goes  Eric Zeier to pass. Andre Rison is open in the end zone. He throws, Rison catches it. Touchdown, Baltimore Browns!”

Less than a week before the unthinkable and once impossible had occurred. After building facilities for the Cavaliers and Indians, the city of Cleveland had shifted focus to building one for the Browns.

Yet, during the summer, Browns owner Art Modell cut off negotiations in the name of focusing on winning a Super Bowl. Little did we know, Modell had secretly begun negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move his team to Baltimore. Municipal officials in Cleveland plowed ahead without Modell, and announced a November 7th ballot referendum to fund a new stadium for the Browns.

  • On Monday, November 7th, Art Modell dropped a bomb: He was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The move sent shock waves through the NFL.

Usually when a team relocates, its because they lack local support. No one could say that the Cleveland failed to support the Browns. Every game was sold out, and television ratings were among the highest in the league.

As Dan Rooney told the AP’s Alan Robinson:

I’m sick about (the move). This is the best rivalry in sports. To go up there to play in Cleveland on that grass field on a gray day – I don’t want to get dramatic, but it really is something. It’s the essence of football.

As fate would have it, the Browns first game after the move came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Steelers fans of that generation were genetically hardwired to hate the Cleveland Browns and their fans.Steelers Browns 1995 Three Rivers Stadium

But as a show of solidarity, Steelers fans wore orange arm bands that night. (Terry Bradshaw even wore one while interviewing Paul Tagliabue about the move.)

  • To understand just how deep of a gesture Steelers Nation made, one must understand just how bitter the Steelers-Browns rivalry flowed.

Just two years earlier, Jerry Olsavsky had blown out all four ligaments in one of his knees Cleveland Municipal Stadium, yet fans at the Dawg Pound threw beer bottles at him as he was being taken away from the field on stretcher. As Tim Gleason recounts in From Black to Gold, cars with Pennsylvania license plates would get their tires slashed if they were parked near Cleveland Stadium during a game.

An old friend of my from college named “Mike” told me of how his father had to protect him from a drunk who tried to attack him at a game in Cleveland in the early 80’s because he was wearing a Steelers shirt – Mike was 6 years old at the time.

  • Yet, on that night, Steelers fans stood in solidarity with Browns fans.

New Chapter for Steelers-Browns Rivalry?

The Steelers-Browns rivalry has never been the same since. And now, 23 years later, the Steelers fans need something from the Browns. Today at Heinz Field, the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conners, Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden to take care of business against the Bengals.

But the Steelers also need the Browns defense to stop Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield to make his magic work for one more week.

  • If the Steelers beat the Bengals and the Browns upset the Ravens, Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs.

But a Browns win at Baltimore would also signify that the franchise is poised to return to contender status next season, transforming games against the Browns into competitive affairs. If that happens, then the Steelers-Browns rivalry will indeed have come full circle.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Patriots – Just a Blip or Realizing Their Potential Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher wondering whether he’s just seen another momentary upward blip from his star students or a true ascent towards realizing their potential, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New England Patriots.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the Steelers to prevail in a Brady vs Ben duel, one would think that Ben Roethlisberger would need to have one of his best days as a pro. Yet, Fantasy owners who started Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it, as Ben’s overall numbers were pedestrian. The truth is that Ben didn’t have a banner day against the Patriots, but he made the throws the Steelers needed him to make to win. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Running Backs
Stevan Ridley’s revenge ambitions drew attention going into this game and Ridley did an excellent job of getting the Steelers out of danger with his 12 yard run from Pittsburgh’s one. However, the real star of the show was Jaylen Samuels who rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and displayed incredible instincts by staying in bounds late in the game. Roosevelt Nix wasn’t used often, but as usual he was effective. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the Steelers first touchdown and forced his way to extra yards to earn a third down on the Steelers final scoring drive. Jesse James had one catch for 9 yards. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught the Steelers second touchdown, which JuJu Smith-Schuster help set up with two electrifying catches, and Eli Rogers made his presence known with a couple of key 3rd down conversions. But the real star of the show was James Washington who led the Steelers in both catches and yards and for the first time looked like he really belonged. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than has been the norm this season, but the offensive line provided pass protection when it was needed the most, and Alejandro Villanueva’s block on the second touchdown serves as a great example. But the line’s biggest contribution to the win came in the run blocking it provided as it almost seemed to have symbiotic relationship with Jaylen Samuels. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball, but the Steelers also limited them at key moments in the game. Likewise, while the sack numbers weren’t there, the QB pressures were and a good number of those plays were made by the defensive line, as evidenced by Stephon Tuitt’s 2 QB hits. Grade: A-

Linebackers
In statistical terms,it was largely a quiet day for the Steelers linebackers, although Vince Williams and Anthony Chickillo had success in dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Patriot rushers made it to the second level a number of times, but they didn’t get far when they did, and the Steelers linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Secondary
Where to start? Play-by-play stats would appear to indicate that Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett handled the bulk of the duties when it came to shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the number show that the duo delivered. Those same stats also show that Coty Sensabaugh did his part to shut down the Patriots.

Mike Hilton came in second in the team on tackles, behind Joe Haden, who snatched a throw way jump ball from the air to stop the Patriots cold and get the ball back for the Steelers. The unit did give up an easy touchdown, which brings their grade down, albeit slightly. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had one return for 27 yards. Jordan Berry did not have any returnable punts, and the Steelers attempted no returns. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, but unlike last week, he redeemed himself with a 48 yarder – no small feat at Heinz Field. Grade: C

Coaching
Honesty check: If I’d told you one team would have 14 penalties called on it and the other 4, you’d have guessed the Steelers self-destructed with penalties, again. No worries, I’d have said the same. But it was the Patriots who kept scuttling their own drives with penalties.

Unlike one week ago, Randy Fichnter appears to have gone into the game intent on establishing the run, and he deserves credit for designing plays that maximized Jaylen Samuels unique skill set. The Steelers lined up regularly with empty sets, but still ended up with well over 100 yards rushing.

More importantly, when the coaching staff saw that Samuels could move the ball, they gave him more opportunities to do so which was a difference maker in the game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, and for good reason.

    Steelers locker room, Alejandro Villanueva

    Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Thus far the Steelers defense has been chronically incapable of closing games. Yet the Steelers defense not only ensured that the Patriots didn’t on two Steelers turnovers, it also secured one of their own the Red Zone.

The Patriots reached the Red Zone as time was about to expire, but unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense delivered.

  • Finally, there’s the job that Mike Tomlin has done.

While momentum is often oversold in today’s NFL, losing, particularly in December, can have a snowball effect. The Steelers had lost three tough games and things could have easily spun out of control. Yet Tomlin got his team to stay focused on the Patriots, and doubled down on his investment of trust in his players, which in turn fostered trust within the locker room. The results speak for themselves. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Normally a 1 sack performance indicates a putrid pass rush. Yet the Steelers got in Tom Brady’s face early and often, and while they only brought him down once, they flushed him from the pocket numerous times and forced him to rush his throw.

While the entire Steelers defense deserves credit for this achievement, Tom Brady’s to biggest antagonizes were T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and, for that, they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Defeat Patriots 17-10 as Mike Tomlin Trusts Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the New England Patriots in the 21st century is a miserable. New England has beaten Pittsburgh 11 of 14 contests, and most of those haven’t even been close.

  • Sunday, the story was different as the Steelers beat the Patriots 17-14 in an electrifying win at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin appropriately termed it a team victory. But the essential ingredient to the win came from Tomlin himself: Trust.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

If You’d Have Told Me….

The Steelers came reeling into this game on a 3 game losing streak. And while the Patriots looked vulnerable, the Steelers would need to do a lot of things right to win this game. And if you’d had told me….

…That James Conner would not play
…That T.J. Watt would log the sole sack of Tom Brady
…That Rob Gronkowski would put the Patriots into the Red Zone inside the 2 minute warning
…That Ben Roethlisberger would face the fiercest pass rush of the season
…That Chris Boswell would miss yet another makeable field goal
…That the Steelers wouldn’t see the end zone in the 2nd half

I’d have told you that the Steelers would lose in no uncertain terms. Yet all of the statements above were true, but the Steelers pulled out a win.

How the Steelers Won

The Steelers won the game because at every critical juncture, players stepped it up and made plays. Pittsburgh set the tone for this on the opening drive, highlighted by Jaylen Samuels ripping off a 25 yard run and making each of his other 3 touches count. Eli Rogers stepped up and helped convert a critical first down.

  • Vance McDonald delivered in the end zone putting the Steelers up by 7 at the 8:40 mark in a rare opening drive touchdown.

While the Steelers essentially gifted the Patriots a touchdown on the next drive, no one in Pittsburgh blinked. The Patriots got the ball back four other times in the second half, and each time it ended with a Ryan Allen punt.

The Steelers defense didn’t put on much of a fireworks show in the first half. They didn’t make any “Splash plays.” Yet, each time New England attempted to convert a third down, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton Vince Williams or Joe Haden was there to stop them short, while T.J. Watt seemed to be in Tom Brady’s face, even if he wasn’t bringing him down.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger took a knee to end the first half, the Steelers were up 14-7. Could they hold on…?

Tomlin Trusts in his Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

As the second half began, it looked like the answer was going to be “no.” The Steelers defense opened by forcing a punt after just 5 plays, and the offense marched all the way to the Patriot’s 4 yard line on the strength of two sensational James Washington catches.

  • Yet, it was déjà vu all over again in Pittsburgh as Chis Boswell missed on a 32 yard field goal.

The Patriots advanced to the Steelers 10 where Terrell Edmunds stopped Julian Edelman cold, limiting New England to a field goal. Yet 5 plays into the next drive, the Patriots intercepted a deflected pass to Antonio Brown giving New England the ball at mid field.

  • All of the elements were in place for another Steelers 4th quarter meltdown.

A week ago, Mike Tomlin trusted in his defense and trusted in Chris Boswell, and they let him down. Against the Patriots, the Steelers defense delivered, as the Patriots advanced to the Steelers 16, only to have T.J. Watt force Tom Brady to throw the ball away as Joe Haden beat both Rob Gronkowski and Julian Elderman in a jump ball for an interception.

  • All season long fans have watched interceptions slip through the Steelers finger tips.
  • Finally, when they needed one they got one.

Starting from their own 4 with 7:43 left to play, the Steelers milked 5 minutes and 13 seconds off the clock in a drive that saw them move the chains four times. On third and 6 Ben Roethlisberger tried to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster, but J.C. Jackson played it perfectly and the ball fell to the ground.

Mike Tomlin had a decision to make. New England was out of time outs, and a first down would have iced the game. A field goal would have given the Steelers a 7 point lead.

  • Mike Tomlin trusted in his kicker, and Chris Boswell rewarded that trust nailing a 48 yarder.

Now it was time for the Steelers defense to do what has been unable to do all year – prevent an opponent from making a game winning drive.

Tom Brady moved his team to the Red Zone, but Cam Heyward repeated forced him to rush his throws, and after 5 tries he was unable to connect with anyone in the end zone as Morgan Burnett defected his final pass.

Another Win = More Work to Do

Steelers Nation erupted into celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock with Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee. That’s to be expected, as this is a victory that every fan who bleeds Black and Gold has been begging for.

  • As for the Steelers themselves?

David DeCastro explained to 247 Pittsburgh’s Jim Wexell, “No one’s too overjoyed. We hadn’t beaten this team since I’ve been here, so we’re happy. But we’re not overjoyed.” Given the precarious place Pittsburgh occupies in the AFC playoff picture, that’s exactly the attitude you need to hear out of this locker room.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Raiders: Sobering Reality of Stumbling into Mediocrity Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher struggling with the sobering sight of once star students stumbling toward mediocrity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the (latest) loss to the Raiders in Oakland’s Black Hole.

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

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

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was 25 for 29 for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, although he had some close calls. But Ben moved the offense at will in the 4th quarter and did well in the first half. Joshua Dobbs saw his first extensive work, and he disappointed. While his passes weren’t wild they were also a little off. Dobbs best play was a run, which is never good for a quarterback. Dobbs led the offense to two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. Not good enough. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin can claim that rushing the ball is an 11 man job, but we know that neither Jaylen Samuels or Stevan Ridley will be a threat on the ground anytime soon. As a positive, Roosevelt Nix made a great block and Ridley hit the hole perfectly for the first TD, Jaylen Samuels looked really good coming out of the backfield. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Jesse James made a number of key catches up the middle on an afternoon where Steelers offense put a premium on those short and medium passes. McDonald, however could not convert on the 4th and one, and he missed his block on Darrius Heyward-Bey’s reverse. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a slow afternoon but still caught 5 of 7 balls thrown his way. But one of those set up a score and another sparked the 4th quarter rally. The real star of the Steelers offense was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who literally is budding into a super star before our very eyes with 8 catches for 130 yards. James Washington caught two passes for 28 yards. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Raiders only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and kept the Steelers quarterbacks clean, but Oakland’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the league, yet the Steelers offensive line could do nothing to take advantage of them. Even a smidgen of rushing offense could have made a difference in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made another splash play, while Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns stoning Raiders runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. This was nice, but the Steelers really needed someone to make a stop on 4th and 1. That’s not all on the line’s shoulders, but it starts with them. Grade: D

Stephon Tuitt, Derek Carr, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Stephon Tuitt sacks Derek Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
T.J. Watt tipped a pass and looked stout in run support as did Bud Dupree who added a sack. L.J. Fort saw extensive time at inside linebacker, and most frequently the back of his jersey was seen chasing down wide receivers or tight ends. The fact is that Oakland was able to complete passes down the middle when it needed to, and while that’s not all on the linebackers they must do their part. Again, where was the drive-ending 4th quarter splash play? Grade: D

Secondary
Mike Hilton came up with a key sack and recovered a fumble. However, he had his hands on a pick that got away, as did Sean Davis. Mike Hilton also blew the coverage on the game winning touchdown. Morgan Burnett came up with a nice pass deflection in the end zone, but that was only after he and Terrell Edmunds got burned for the Raider’s 39 yard pass that set up their final score. The Steelers played the Raiders tight at times, but when it counted, in the 4th quarter, Oakland sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary as if it were Swiss cheese. Grade: F

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had some decent punt and kick returns, and the Steelers return coverage was solid. None of Jordan Berry’s punts were returnable. All positives.

That’s two missed field goals in a game decided by 3 points. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers offense was bound to be one dimensional, and yet Randy Fitchner came up with a solid game plan given the limitations and his players executed it well enough.

  • As for Keith Butler’s defense, 13 games into the 2018 season what you see is what you get.

When the Steelers get pressure on the quarterback this defense is capable of playing with just about any offense in the league. And, as compared to a year ago, the Steelers defense isn’t giving up big plays in droves the way they were.

But the Steelers pass rush is only solid when it needs to be relentless. And that reality, along with coverage lapses and inconsistencies against the run adds up to a brutal truth:

  • This is a defense that simply cannot be counted on to salt a game away.

While a lot of fans are ready to scapegoat Keith Butler, it is entirely possible that Butler is doing well with the talent he has at hand. Hum, “The talent he has on hand” that’s an interesting concept to take into account when evaluating Mike Tomlin’s performance in this game.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin is taking heat for his use of time outs when the Raiders were in the Red Zone, but this scribe strongly suspects that Tomlin was giving his defense a chance to “Grow up” so to speak. If that’s the case, then its hard to fault his motive, even if his defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • The same cannot be said about Mike Tomlin’s other gamble, namely keeping Joshua Dobbs in the game.

Per Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger was “medically cleared to play” when he reached the sideline. Tomlin also conceded that Ben could have come back in the game a series earlier.

Who knows why Mike Tomlin kept Joshua Dobbs in when Ben was ready to return? Really, it doesn’t matter because it was the wrong choice, a choice that will carry consequences far beyond dooming the Steelers to a loss to a 2-10 team. Grade: F-

Unsung Hero Award
Being asked to step into James Conner’s shoes cannot be easy, but that is what the Steelers asked of Jaylen Samuels. And while Samuels struggled running the ball, he did quite well as a pass catcher, and really impressed with his second efforts and determination to grind out extra yards. And for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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