Mea Culpa: Why I Changed My Mind on the JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension to Support #FreeJuJu!

Sometimes it’s simply best to fess up and admit you were wrong. So it is with me and the NFL’s decision to suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • To be honest, I reacted to seeing the flag being thrown by asking “Why?”

Really, it didn’t make sense. But then the replay showed helmet-to-helmet contact, and then JuJu clearly looked to be making light over Vontaze Burfict. That didn’t sit well, and in my post-game write up I came down hard on JuJu and on Rebecca Rollett’s site, Going Deep with the Steelers I observed, “JuJu Smith-Schuster was (rightly in my view) suspended for gloating over Vontaze Burfict…”

  • Let’s put it out front and center: I was wrong about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s suspension.

Several factors influenced my change in thinking, which I expand below.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension, David DeCastro

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Taunting is Wrong, but Is It Suspendable Offense + Vontaze Burfict Took a Dive

In taking JuJu Smith-Schuster to task put his actions into the context of what we know today as opposed to yesteryearWhen I saw Greg Lloyd 3 count Al Toon after Thomas Everett knocked the Jets wide receiver out with a concussion during the 1989 Steelers shut out over the Jets I thought it was awesome.

  • Of course at the time Mike Webster seemed to defying father time by playing for the Chiefs and the word “CTE” was close to 20 years away.

Given that, JuJu’s taunting of a seemingly concussed Burfict, while satisfying on one level is nonetheless wrong on so many others. But as Mike Silverstien, aka “Homer J” reprimanded:

No question Juju deserved 15 for taunting, but NO PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY HAS EVER BEEN SUSPENDED FOR TAUNTING. You throw the flag, give him 15, lighten his wallet and move on, damn it.

There no arguing with that logic, and while the NFL mentioned the taunting in its letter to JuJu it apparently clarified that the suspension was for the hit, not the taunting. Even Jason Witlock and Colin Cowherd, two jouralists not exactly known for their support of the Steelers, went at pains to say that the hit only borderline illegal.

But of course, it was a devastating hit, wasn’t it? Well, again Homer J’s analysis is instructive:

Juju clocks Burfict and lays him flat. Burfuct [sic] at first springs up, and he tries to twist and grab Juju’s legs. Then the flags start flying and Burfict flops like some damned Serbian midfielder in a match against hated Croatia. Just like he falls to the ground game after game during other team’s offensive drives. Just like he said Antonio Brown did in the playoff game two years ago. (So it wasn’t something he hadn’t thought about) He laid there like a slug. And they strapped him to the gurney and took him to the field hospital where the Civil War surgeons were ready to amputate his leg or something. But, wait! According to media reports, the second he got into the tunnel and away from cameras, the SOB demanded to be unhooked, and he jumped up and started to head back onto the field. He was faking it!

As no one disputes the press accounts that Burfict did in fact get off the cart after it was out of camera view, one must assume he did just that. And Homer’s analysis makes a lot more sense in that light.

NFL Has 1 Standard for Juju Smith-Schuster, Another for Ilokia and Gronk

When the news broke that the NFL had suspended Juju Smith-Schuster and while also suspending George Ilokia for his hit on Antonio Brown, the league at least looked to be trying to keep up the appearance of objectivity.
Never mind that Ilokia had a lot more opportunity to avoid hitting Brown’s head that JuJu had with Burfict.

  • But of course Ilokia’s suspension didn’t stick as his lawyer got it reduced to a mere $36,000 fine.

Sorry, no amount of sophistry can justify this, although Ilokia’s agent tried suggesting that Brown should have positioned his head differently.

I suppose JuJu’s agent should have tried the same argument with respect to Burfict. Except unlike Brown, Burfict didn’t have to worry concentrating to hold on to the ball as he was probably calculating whether he could injure Le’Veon Bell again.

Tony Defeo has already written about the NFL’s hypocrisy here and taken the argument further by contrasting the 1 game suspension that JuJu Smith-Schuster got for unintentional yet a (borderline) illegal hit, where as Patriots pretty boy Rob Gronkowski clearly pre-meditated, almost pro-wrestling style elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White.

Go read Tony’s full article, we need not rehash it here, but Defeo’s argument also played a role in shifting my thinking.

Where’s the Suspension for Ahmad Brooks Hit on Antonio Brown??

And that brings us to the third factor that shifted my thinking.

  • Where in the hell is the NFL’s suspension for the Green Bay Packers Ahmad Brooks  illegal hit Antonio Brown?

What’s that you ask, I don’t remember anything like that from the Packer’s game? Well, I missed it too, but it came on Martavis Bryant’s ill-fated end around at the goal line. What Brown has David DeCastro passes him by:

Gee, isn’t that interesting? Not only was Brown hitting hit from almost the same position that Burfict was standing in, unlike JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ahmad Brooks was clearly aiming at Antonio Brown’s head. This play also came on a nationally televised game, and yet, the only discussion of it came thanks the discussion board on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider in response to observations made by Craig Wolfley.

  • And just the point isn’t it? Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels either missed this hit or chose not to talk about it.

Which shouldn’t matter, should it? The NFL is supposed to review all game tapes and look for offenses like this, aren’t they? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Jim Wexell suggested on Twitter:

And that’s what’s so galling about the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension. On paper the NFL has appeared to take strides towards injecting some objectivity into its administration of justice. But as the old adage goes, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The calculus for understanding why JuJu’s punishment is so harsh is simple:

  • Jon Gruden got the rest of the NFL to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, so Roger Goodell suspended him.

No one saw Ahmad Brooks illegal hit on Brown, so it Goodell saw no reason to do anything. Iloka George didn’t taunt and Brown didn’t get taken out on a stretcher, so his suspension can be reduced to a fine.

As for Ron Gronkowski? Well, he’s a Patriot and the one time Goodell tried to get tough on them he overcompensated, and it backfired. So Goodell’s back in his comfort zone of looking the other way when his buddy Bob Kraft is involved.

Let’s repeat something this site has mentioned before and will again:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy aka “CTE” and related head trauma poses a threat to the existence of not just the NFL, but of football itself.

Football will only survive if the risk of CTE is eliminated or greatly reduced. But arbitrary administration of justice, whether that be giving protection to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but not Ben Roethlisberger, or trying to make James Harrison a scapegoat, simply erodes the integrity of the game, without touching the threat of CTE.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Apologies to readers for the error of my ways. #FreeJuJu!

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Steelers-Bengals Game Ball, Ryan Shazier Support Poll

Honestly, after a game in which the ESPN Deportes of Raul Allegre thought to bring up the infamous Redskins-Eagles “Body Bag” game putting up a game ball poll doesn’t seem right. Seeing Ryan Shazier lying there motionless, as the medical crew got the backboard was simply heart rendering.

For a moment there in the shower I thought to  throw up the poll and simply leave Ryan Shazier’s name on it, but that doesn’t do justice to this situation, although Ryan Shazier’s injury is all that is on anyone’s mind this morning in

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier spinal contusion, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers Ryan Shazier awaits the medical team after suffering a spine contusion against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via PennLive.com

With that acknowledged, we are going to put Ryan Shazier on the ballot, and we ask you, in addition to voting for him, to offer your thoughts and prayers. Here’s how the rest of the ballot shapes up:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-05-2017 09:37:27
end_date 12-09-2017 13:15:31
Poll Results:
Which Steelers Deserve Game Balls for the Win over the Bengals (multiple votes allowed)

We’ve kept the ballot short this morning, and that’s not simply out of respect for Shazier, situation.

The blunt reality of the situation is that the Steelers didn’t play good football last night. Watching the first half unfold called to mind Apollo Creed’s words to Rocky Balboa in Rocky III when conceded that knowing that Micky was dying had to have messed with his head, but he nonetheless scolded Rocky.

Le’Veon Bell gets the first slot on the ballot, as Bell had a tough night running, but remained patient, played to the whistle and was clearly a difference maker for the Steelers. Antonio Brown gets second billing. Antnio Brown entered the day listed as “questionable” because of a toe injury, and while he had a couple of slip ups early on, Brown rallied and again was a difference maker for the Steelers.

  • Ben Roethlsiberger was in the first half last night, and his erratic play began before any injuries took place.

But like his teammates, Ben Roethlisberger bounced back in the second half, and led the Steelers to 20 point rally which ultimately was enough for the win.

Martavis Bryant had another game in which he helped convert several critical downs, although he did have a drop on a long ball that he should have caught. Chris Boswell gets the nod for knocking in his third field goal at the buzzer.

  • On defense, there’s slim pickings.

The Steelers defense began the game without two starters, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden, and losing Shazier created a gaping hole in the middle of the field. At one point it seemed like a preseason game as Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, Cam Sutton, and Arthur Moats all seemed to be in on the field at once.

  • Perhaps that’s memory playing tricks, but it was that kind of night for the Steelers.

With that said, both Bud Dupree and Vince Williams came up with sacks in the 2nd half, and both of those were difference makers so they make the ballot.

Write in Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this isn’t my poll it is your poll. If you think that say, Sean Davis, James Conner or perhaps David DeCastro or another lineman did enough to stand out and deserves a vote, please write their name in.

Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case. The Steelers Monday Night Football game over the Bengals ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, so please click here for our full analysis.

 

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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

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

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

Le'Veon Bell, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Throw to score, run to win.

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams Interlude

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

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

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

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

Steelers Defense Bludgeons Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Steelers a Work in Progress, but Making Progress

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

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

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

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

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Speak Out Steelers Nation – Vote Steelers Bengals Game Ball Winners

Its time once again to speak out Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted AFC North Rival the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ben in Black and Gold walked away with a 29-14 victory, which brings them to 5-2 on the season and perhaps more importantly, 3-0 in the AFC North.

Antonio Brown, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown smokes Darqueze Dennard for a touchdown in the 1st quarter of the Steelers win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As we always do after a Steelers victory, we invite you, the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners for those who stood out during Pittsburgh’s. Here’s a look at this week’s ballot:

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Game ball winners Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger played what was perhaps his best game of the season, and Number 7 was particularly sharp in the first half, leading the Steelers to two touchdown drives on its first two possession, and adding a field goal drive inside the two minute warning.

  • Antonio Brown was Roethlisberger’s favorite target, having caught 4 passes for 65 yards including the Steelers first touchdown.

Le’Veon Bell earns a slot on this week’s ballot, thanks to his 135 yard performance in a game that saw Bell touch  the ball 35 times on the ground and 3 times through the air, including a 42 yard catch and run. David DeCastro also had an exemplary day, leading the way for Bell on run after run.

Their exploits need no introduction as Golden and Darrius Heyward-Bey hooked up on a key 4th quarter fake punt, while Boswell booted in 5 field goals to give the Steelers their margin of victory.

For as potent as the offense was in the early going, the Steelers defense stole the show in the second half, allowing Andy Dalton and the Bengals 19 yards from scrimmage. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree and Tyson Alualu all sacked Andy Dalton, earning them ballot slots. Joe Hayden and William Gay also had interceptions, which secures their position on the ballot.

  • But remember, you my beloved reader, are the ultimate arbiter of who makes the ballot?

Think that JuJu Smith-Schuster,  deserves a game ball? Write his name in? Feel that Sean Davis or Anthony Chickillo deserve nods? Again, write their names in, or better yet write their names in and leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting, and be sure to check back for Steel Curtain Rising’s full game analysis of the Steelers 2017 Heinz Field win over the Bengals.

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Ben Roethlisberger Strikes Out, Le’Veon Bell Romps in Steelers-Chiefs Game Ball Poll

The results of the game ball polling from the Steelers win over the Chiefs are in, and no Ph.D in advanced meta statistics are needed to interpret the results.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Cheifs, Le'Veon Bell Arrowhead

Le’Veon Bell dominated the Chiefs in the Steelers 2017 win at Arrowhead. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

As you can see, Le’Veon Bell was the run away favorite in the voting, followed by Antonio Brown.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs Game Ball, Le'Veon BellReally, if you look at the quality of play of both Number 26 and Number 84 its hard to dispute the result. The fact that Ben Roethlisberger got shut out in the voting is perhaps a surprise, although your truly would like to believe that this reveals the sophistication of this site’s readership.

  • Quarterbacks often get too much credit when a team wins, and too much blame when they lose.

Ben Roethlisberger DID play a better game against the Chiefs than he has played for much of the season thus far, but the fact remains that his still below par for a franchise quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger got extremely lucky on the touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, and he must bear some responsibility for the Steelers 3rd down struggles.

  • Beyond that it was slim picking for the Steelers offense in the game ball poll.

JuJu Smith-Schuster found no love. Nor did Vance McDonald find any love. McDonald might have only made one catch, but it was his first as a Steeler, and a very important one at that. While the defense drew a number of write ins, only David DeCastro got a nod, although 5 other voters followed suit. Perhaps the entire offensive line deserved a ballot position, as the unit played its best game of the season.

Its hard to argue against a game ball for Deboo, and yours truly is NOT inclined to do so. But we will argue that Vince Williams deserved more love, as he was a one-man wrecking crew until he left the game with an injury. Its also a bit surprising that Sean Davis found no love until the very last day of the poll, and then he only pulled down one vote.

Sean Davis had a phenomenal day and, all respect intended for the late game heroics of Cameron Heyward and James Harrison in bringing Alex Smith down, his play in the end zone was arguably the most important defensive play of the game.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who took out time to vote and/or submit their write-in choices.

 

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Steelers Report Card for the Chiefs Win – Enjoying the Manic Side of Schizophrenia

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is enjoying the manic surge of his schizophrenic students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Daniel Sorensen, Steelers Report Card Chiefs

Daniel Sorensen’s bobble is Antonio Brown’s bounty in the Steelers win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was better than he was last week against the Jaguars and perhaps than he’s been better before. Fewer passes sailed on him, and if he got lucky on his touchdown pass, he also was unlucky yon his one interception. Still, if reports are correct, Roethlisberger check out of run plays in the Red Zone and the team could not convert. The Steelers also struggled on third downs. Grade: C

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell’s Hall of Fame caliber talent had been missing all year…. Until he stepped on to the turf at Arrowhead. How good was Le’Veon Bell? Try the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 9 and converting. Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards on 32 carries and willed his way into the end zone. James Conner ran twice for 14 yards while Terrell Watson converted a third and short. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt Nix paved the way for much of the day. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald’s taken a lot of criticism since arriving here via trade, but he made his presence felt as a blocker, and caught a critical 26 yard pass while the Steelers were in the end zone. Jesse James didn’t have a pass thrown his way, but the running backs don’t have the kind of day they did if the tight ends fail to block. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there any doubt that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver? There should be none in Steelers Nation. Antonio Brown’s 51 yard touchdown has to rank as one of his top career catches, which says a lot. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 3 passes for 32 yards and is showing himself to be an effective blocker. Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards. Thus far Ben Roethlisberger has only established a rapport with 84, and we’ll err on the side of assuming that the responsibly lies with him and not the other receivers. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
When you pay 23 million plus to field an offensive line, this is the type of road grading that you expect to see. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t simply better, so were the men up front. Whether it was Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pulling or Alejandro Villanueva protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, the Steelers offensive line got it done. The third down sack that the Steelers allowed which ended Pittsburgh’s first drive is the unit’s lone blemish. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line didn’t produce the kind of numbers that make fantasy owners happy (to the extent that Fantasy Football even bothers with defense), but it would be fool hardy to overlook the devastating performance of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers defense neutered the NFL’s leading rusher, and they made it look easy. That starts with the boys up front. Stephon Tuitt also had a critical pass defensed late in the game. Grade: A

Linebackers
In case anyone had any doubts, James Harrison proved that age hasn’t robbed him of his decisive, play making capability, as Harrison downed Alex Smith on the penultimate play. Vince Williams was playing as a one-man wrecking crew racking up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage before getting injured. Ryan Shazier had 4 tackles and got his hands on Smith’s last pass. Tyler Matakevich looked good in relief of Williams. An excellent day by the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton had another fine day coming in with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Hilton may be small, but he simply makes plays. Joe Haden got his hand on a pass, but otherwise was invisible… which is good for a corner. Artie Burns stepped up to break up two key passes early on, although he blew the coverage and missed a tackle on the Chief’s touchdown drive. Mike Mitchell also caused a costly roughing the passer play (although he might have been pushed by Anthony Chickillo). The Steelers secondary had a good day, but the Chief’s 4th quarter touchdown surge drops their grade a notch. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and Chris Boswell hit all of his kicks, but other than that the Steelers special teams did little to distinguish themselves. First, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a miscue after the Steelers safety which had the net effect of turning a 2 point advantage into a 1 point deficit. Then Brown almost muffed a fair catch. The Chiefs also had a 32 yard punt return late in the game which brought Kansas City to midfield for his final drive. These special teams mishaps could have been more costly. Grade: D

Coaching
The Haley haters who’ve been clamoring to see more Roosevelt Nix and rushing out of the I-Formation got their wish. The Steelers ran the ball early and often and with great effectiveness. Nonetheless, too many drives stall in the end zone, and the Steelers offense is struggling to convert 3rd downs.

  • The Steelers offense found a way to win, but the unit only managed to put 17 points on the board.

Keith Butler had his unit primed and ready to play. The Steelers went into the living room of the NFL’s best offense and completely shut them down in the first half – had it been a amateur wrestling matching the defense would have scored a technical fall. While its true that Kansas City’s late touchdown came a little too easily, it is also true that the Steelers defense got stuck defending a short field with two minutes left to play and completely stone walled the Chiefs.

Mike Tomlin certainly deserves criticism for the up and down nature of the Steelers performances this season, but Pittsburgh’s hardly provides a unique case in 2017’s NFL. Losses such as the one against the Jaguars and have a nasty ripple effect (see November/December 2009), yet Mike Tomlin prevented that by arriving at Arrowhead with a strong game plan whose execution more than anything else revolved around controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers won those battles, and won the game because of it. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman’s been quiet thus far in 2017 and in fact has been called out for lapses in any number of post-game film analysis on several occasions. But he’ll earn no such criticism from the Jon Leydard’s of the world this week, as he led the team in tackles, and came away with a critical pass defense in the end zone on 4th and Goal. For that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Chiefs.

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Steelers Dominate Ravens 26-9 in Critical AFC North Road Victory

In a performance that must have seemed like a dream to many of their fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into M&T Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon and dominated the Baltimore Ravens in a 26-9 victory.

For starters, the defense returned to its sound ways against the run. After allowing 220 yards on the run in an overtime loss to the Bears in Week 3, Pittsburgh limited Baltimore to 82 yards on the ground. Also, the pass-rush applied pressure to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco all afternoon and recorded four sacks–including two by defensive end Cameron Heyward and one by slot corner Mike Hilton

Photo credit: Laredo Morning Times

As for the offense, while there is still work to be done, running back Le’Veon Bell seemed to shake off whatever rust was left on his body, by rushing for 144 yards on 35 carries and scoring two touchdowns. Bell also added 42 yards on four receptions.

  • After forcing the Ravens to punt on their first possession, Pittsburgh’s offense had to start with its back to the wall after punter Sam Koch pinned it down at the three-yard line.

However, the Steelers put together their most impressive drive of the season, by marching 84 yards on 16 plays and eating up 10:23 of game time. Unfortunately, after reaching the 12-yard line, penalties reared their ugly head, as right tackle Chris Hubbard was called for a false start, guard David DeCastro was called for holding, and the team had to settle for a Chris Boswell 30-yard field goal.

  • Mid-way through the second quarter, the Steelers extended their lead on another Boswell field goal–this time from 49 yards away–and went ahead 6-0.

On Baltimore’s subsequent possession, Heyward stripped running back Alex Collins of the football and cleaned  things up rather nicely by falling on the fumble at the Baltimore 28.

  • The Steelers took advantage on a six-play drive that ended with a one-yard score by Bell to make it 13-0, visitors.

Following another three-and-out by the Ravens, Pittsburgh seized total control of the game with an  eight-play, 70-yard drive that ended when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for an 11-yard touchdown pass to go ahead 19-0 with 45 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers decided to go for two, but came up short, when Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with receiver Antonio Brown.

The Steelers received the ball to start the second half and immediately gave Baltimore life, thanks to a controversial interception at the 20 yard-line by safety Eric Weddle. On a third down pass to Brown, the receiver appeared to be down by contact after making a short catch. However, as he hit the ground, the ball popped right into Weddle’s hands. Since the whistle blew, the play was blown dead. However, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh challenged that Brown never had full possession when he was taken to the ground, which would have made Weddle’s pick possible. After a brief review, the call on the field was reversed, and Baltimore got its  first break of the day.

  • However, the Steelers defense held firm, and Baltimore lost six yards on three plays and had to settle for a Justin Tucker 42-yard field goal.

The Steelers answered with another impressive drive and marched 53 yards on 11 plays. But a 44-yard field goal by Boswell sailed wide-left, and the Ravens took possession at their 34.

On Baltimore’s first play of the next drive, Collins gashed the Steelers defense with a 50-yard run down to the 16. Two plays later, Flacco connected with former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace on a 16-yard touchdown pass, and Pittsburgh’s lead was cut to 10. The Ravens went for two to make it a one-score game, but a run by Terrence West came up short, and the score was 19-9.

The Steelers defense was simply impressive the rest of the way, limiting Baltimore to a punt and two interceptions–including one by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and one by Hilton–on its next three offensive possessions to effectively ice the game.

Following Hilton’s pick late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers put the finishing touches on the victory by marching 49 yards on a seven-play drive that ended with a one-yard score for Bell to make it 26-9.

  • For the day, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Smith-Schuster ended his day with four receptions for 2 yards and the score, while Brown was held to just 34 yards on four receptions.

Next up for the Steelers is a Week 5 match-up against the Jaguars next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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