How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed, PennLive.com

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Secondary
Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Coaching
IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Pittsburgh’s Upper Classman Carry the Team

Taken from the grade book whose pleased to see his upper classman hit their stride but dismayed by the drop off from his under classman, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Packers.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Jamaal Williams, Steelers vs Packers

Cameron Heyward smothers Jamaal Williams in Steelers 31-28 win over Packers @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Where does Ben Roethlisberger play best? At home under the lights. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s second consecutive Prime Time game at Heinz Field and his second 4 touchdown performance. Roethlisberger’s number would have been even better had he not suffered multiple drops. While he did throw two interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger was on against the Packers. Grade: A-

Running Backs
The Packers run defense didn’t leave a lot of rushing room early on, but Le’Veon Bell was patient, and ended up just below the century mark on the ground. Moreover, Bell seems to be recovering his rappot with Roethlisberger in the short passing game, and that was a true difference maker for the 2nd straight week. Bell did fumble, which brings his grade down. Slightly. Grade: A-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble caught a shovel pass to get the Steelers on the board and convert their first Red Zone opportunity. Jesse James had 3 catches but one notable drop. The blocking from this group was solid, but not spectacular. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there a better wide reciever in football than Antonio Brown? Good luck trying to make that case. Antonio Brown was simply spectacular the entire evening, coming up with the ball whenever the Steelers needed it. Martavis Bryant had a touchdown on a text book fade pattern and made some other drive sustaining catches. But he also had a drop and Eli Rogers had several, although he rebounded with catches later. Justin Hunter had a drop on his only target and one has to wonder if Darrius Heyward-Bey should get the nod instead of him. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Packers sacked Ben Roethlisberger deep in Pittsburgh territory, but the Steelers offense recovered to score a touchdown. Rushing room was sparse at times, but the Steelers offensive line eventually opened holes when they needed to be opened. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line kept the Packers running game more or less in check throughout the night, although Green Bay did get some traction early on and then again in the Red Zone. The defensive line accounted for all three sacks. Stephon Tuitt had a tackle for a loss, as did L.T. Walton who also had a critical sack. A very good night for the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack on the Packer’s final possession which should have been flagged, nonetheless it was a heads up play as Brett Hundley could have done some damage with a scramble. T.J. Watt also defensed a critical pass as did Ryan Shazier who led the Steelers in tackles. Vince Williams and Bud Dupree had 4 tackles with Vince dropping one of his men behind scrimmage. Grade: B

Steelers vs Packers, Vince Williams, Jamaal Williams

Vince Williams after stuffing Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Packers threw touchdown passes for 49, 54 and 55 yards. And while the screen pass wasn’t entirely on the shoulders of the Steelers secondary, they bear responsibility for the break down. Artie Burns bit badly on a double pump, tackled poorly in many cases, and Coty Sensabaugh got burned one of the 50 plus yarders. Stats like third down conversions suddenly become irrelevant when opposing teams can count on covering half the field on any given play. Grade: F

Special Teams
The opened the game with their longest kick return of the season and Jordan Berry’s punts were sufficiently well placed and/or had enough hang time that the Packers declined to return them. Kickoff coverage was solid. Steelers missed on a an extra point, but Chris Boswell came through by kicking a Heinz Field record tying 53 yard field goal as time expired. Can’t ask for (much) more than that. Grade: A-

Coaching
It would be easy to say that the Steelers almost fell into another Tomlin trap game or that Tomlin’s comments about the Patriots and the subsequent closeness of the context indicated a lack of focus on the part of the coaching staff.

  • Both of those assumptions are almost certainly wrong.

While the Steelers offense did suffer from some execution errors, they got production out of their key starters all night, and Todd Haley’s overall game planning was solid, and his unit did score four touchdowns including 3 from inside the Red Zone as well as making a 2 point conversion.

  • The bigger and more concerning issues are on defense.

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

  • Even at 9-2, this type of failure could cost  easily the Steelers the AFC North title, let alone home field advantage.

Whether the root cause of these breakdowns is the cause of scheme, execution, personnel or some combination thereof, the Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin must fix it, quickly.

Count the Steelers win against the Packers as another “closer than expected win.” But the Steelers are nonetheless finding ways to win those. And Mike Tomlin gets credit for that. Grade: C-

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Brett Hundley, Steelers vs Packers

Cam Heyward celebrates with Stephon Tuitt after sacking Brett Hundley in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Unsung Hero Award
In the past we’ve metaphorically referred to him as “One Man Wrecking Crew.” But against the Packers he literally was the only member of his unit to take the field on a number of downs as the Steelers went into a 1-4-6 alignment.

  • And wouldn’t you know, on one of these occasions the player in question came up with a sack on a critical third down.

He also had another sack, and dropped 3 Packers ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, and for that Cam Heyward is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Packers.

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Brown Bests Big Ben by a Nose in Steelers-Titans Game Ball Winners Poll! And No Love for Todd Haley

The Steelers Thrusday Night trashing of the Titans certainly energized Steelers Nation if voting in our Steelers-Titans game ball winners poll are any indication. And this time the race was hotly contested and for good reason.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, LeShaun Sims, Steelers Titans Thursday Night Football

LeShaun Sims couldn’t ground Antonio Brown and neither could Ben Roethlisberger, at least not in our game ball poll! Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Game Ball Poll REsultsAt first glance, it appears that Ben Roethlisberger narrowly out polled Antonio Brown by a single vote to win the poll. However, if you scroll down, you’ll see that someone wrote in “AB” which can only be interpreted as Antonio Brown, so when we had his two votes to his 24, he comes out ahead of his quarterback by one

  • And for good reason, the duo was outstanding Thursday night, with both players in championship form.

The next highest vote getter was Cameron Heyward. That’s not much of a surprise, given how thoroughly Cam Heyward dominated the Titans, including making a critical sack on third down to force a field goal when the outcome remained very much in doubt.

Support for Heyward built slowly however, and one can speculate on whether it was influenced by Tony Defeo’s didactic piece on whether the Steelers 2017 defensive line is simply too talented to contain.

Coty Sensabaugh was the next highest vote getter, with 9 votes, which is a bit of a surprise. Sensabaugh’s interception did come at a critical moment, and did set up a Chris Boswell field goa, but Coty Sensabaugh also bears responsibility for the long bomb the Steelers defense gave up.

Vince Williams came in fifth in the pecking order, after another strong night that included a sack, which was enough to get him six votes. Ryan Shazier and Mike Hilton tied for 6th place with each player polling four votes.

Le’Veon Bell and Stephon Tuitt tied for 7th place with each man garnering 3 votes. Sean Davis was next with 2 votes, followed by Jesse JamesRobert Golden and L.T. Walton who got one vote a piece. Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant had their moments against the Titans, but neither got a ballot slot and no one saw fit to write their names in.

  • On a night when the Steelers offense exploded for 40 points, the one person who found no love was Steelers offensive Todd Haley whose name was on the ballot.

That’s not a terrible shock, given that hatred for Haley runs strong in Steelers Nation, as many fans were quick to point to the usage of the no-huddle to discredit any role Haley had in the Steelers success. Yours truly doesn’t share that opinion, but poll is about what you the readers think, and the readers have rendered their judgement.

Thanks as always go out to all of you who took time to vote. Go Steelers!

 

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NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans – Have the Star Students Finally “Got It?”

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has crossed his fingers, hoping his students have finally “Got it,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Titans.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, Kevin Byard

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Titans safety Kevin Byard in Steelers win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was playing at home for the first time in close to a month, and he’s clearly more comfortable playing at Heinz Field. While Roethlisberger had an uneven first half, he recognized that challenged everyone including himself to step it up, and he was unstoppable in the second half, keeping drives alive, distributing the ball and throwing touchdowns in the Red Zone. For the night, Ben went 30 of 45 for 299 yards no turnovers and 4 touchdowns. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell didn’t have much room to run, and the Steelers didn’t try to force feed him the ball. Bell was a force catching balls through the air, and helped set up manageable 2nd downs. James Conner ran a little before garbage time and didn’t find much room to run either, but looked OK late in the game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Jesse James might never become a true number 1 tight end, but he’s proving to be a reliable target down field. While the tight ends much share some blame for the lack luster run blocking, James delivered as a receiver and added another touchdown catch to his resume. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had endured a couple of weeks where his production dropped and he was elispecd by JuJu Smith-Schuster. While murmurs of “Is 84 losing a step” hadn’t begun (and for good reason), Brown appeared to take it personally. Brown was clearly the Steelers number 1 reciever on the field catching 10 passes for 144 yards, including 3 touchdowns and one which was a work of pure wonder. JuJu Smith-Schuster had some nice catches, including a tough 3rd down conversion in the Red Zone. Martavis Bryant had a quieter night, but made a key third down conversion. He also recovered a fumble. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Titans had more success getting to Ben Roethlisberger than any team thus far this season, but the Steelers line kept him clean in the 2nd half. The line’s run blocking left a little to be desired, but they were going up against a Dick LeBeau defense intent on making Roethlisberger beat them. He did, and the line helped. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
The Titans barely broke 50 yards rushing and averaged 2.5 yards on the ground, and that starts up front as the Steelers defenders dropped at least 10 Titan ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, by ESPN’s count. Cam Heyward is playing at a level of dominance not seen since the days of the Steel Curtain, recording 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 3 QB hits. Stephon Tuitt wasn’t far behind, recording a sack and 2 QB hits. Javon Hargrave had 1 tackle for a loss. L.T. Walton had a sack late in the game. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, DeMarco Murray

Vince Williams, Cam Heyward and others gang tackle DeMarco Muarry in Steelers Thursday Night win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Ryan Shazier led the Steelers in tackles with 10 total, Vince Williams had a sack and T.J. Watt tipped a ball. Bud Dupree had part of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker helped shut down the run and get the defense off the field in the third down. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton had an interception that allowed the Steelers to go up by 3. Coty Sensabaugh had another interception that set up the Steelers second field goal. Robert Golden’s third interception set up the Steelers 3rd touchdown, while Sean Davis intercepted the ball in garbage time. While those are all positives, the Steelers secondary got burnt, badly on another long pass play. That makes 3 in two games, which cannot continue and brings the grade down considerably. Grade: B-

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Titans, Robert Golden, Steelers vs Titans

Mike Hilton returns on of four interceptions on the night during the Steelers Thrusday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
It sure feels better to be the kick blocker rather than the kick blockee. Thanks to T.J. Watt, the Steelers blocked a Titan’s field goal early in the game, which helped ensure the Steelers lead. Antonio Brown returned two punts and averaged 11.6 yards, a refreshing change, and could have taken his last one farther had he not bumped into one of his own players. Chris Boswell was a perfect 4/4 on field goals and extra points. The Titans did have a long kick return and a decent punt return, neither of which had an impact but could have. Grade: A-

Coaching
Score one for Todd Haley. Haley was going up against a coach who knew his tendencies, his personnel and his way of thinking better than any other opposing defensive coordinator he’ll ever face. Yes, the Steelers used more no-huddle than normal, and Ben Roethlisberger’s comments suggest that he was doing more of his own play calling.

  • But Todd Haley correctly assessed that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to rely on the run to win this one, and he designed his game plan accordingly.

Keith Butler’s defense continues to evolve, and save for the first play of the second half, completely shut down the Titans in the last thirty minutes. Butler is blessed by an awesome defensive line, yet he needs to find a way to coax better play out of his secondary, especially if his starting corner and starting free safety are out as long as they’re expected to be out for.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t start the 2017 season firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin appeared to anticipate that, warning people that the team remained a work in progress as opening day arrived. Tomlin knew his team, but more importantly, the Steelers have made slow but steady (if not always linear) improvement as the season has progressed.

While you always want to play your best football all the time, the truth is that finishing strong is more important that starting fast. The Pittsburgh Steelers still must sustain their progress during the season’s last 6 games, but week 10 saw Mike Tomlin getting his players to play their most complete game of the season, which is a very positive sign. Grade: A-

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday Night

Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin confer on the sidelines during the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Unsung Hero Award
Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed him to be the focus of the Steelers offense. And for the better part of the last 12 months, that’s been undeniably true. But going into the game against the Titans, he knew focus was going to be off him, and he didn’t pout, didn’t complain on social media. Instead, he continued to make the bread and butter plays both on the ground and through the air that kept the Steelers offense humming.

He had what looked to be a really tough touchdown taken away on replay, and instead of demanding a second chance, accepted his role as a decoy in one of the best play fakes the Steelers have executed in living memory, paving away for a critical touchdown and for that Le’Veon Bell is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans.

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