Steelers Report Card for Win over Cardinals – How Much to Penalize Special Teams Snafus?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see new members of his class step up when called upon, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Cardinals.

T.J. Watt, Kyle Murray, Steelers vs Cardinals

T.J. Watt prepares to intercept Kyle Muarry. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
For the second straight week an undrafted Devlin Hodges defeated a number one overall pick. Hodges was an economical 16 for 19 for 152, but he ran the two minute drill well, and stitched together two clock-consuming drives. He also coughed up the ball and unnecessarily stopped the clock late. Stil, it was a good day for Devlin. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The opening drive saw all four Steelers running backs touch the ball. Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell clocked in at 41 yards total, with Whyte doing his damage on longer runs. Jaylen Samuels touched the ball 9 times, while Trey Edmunds had one catch for 7 yards. Benny Snell’s fumble helped give the Cardinals life, but other than that it was a good day for the running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 1 catch for 3 yards before leaving the game with a concussion, leaving Nick Vannett as the lone healthy tight end. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
A week ago we were wondering if we should worry about Diontae Johnson, today he looks like a rookie on the rise, after making 3 critical catches in addition to a 16 yard reverse that helped secure victory. James Washington only had 4 catches for 33 yards, but drew a pass interference penalty and helped keep the clock moving. Deon Cain only had one catch, but it went for 22 yards and converted a third down. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Cardinals sacked Delvin Hodges 3 times and hit him 4 times. The Steelers average 4 yards per carry on the ground. Those are overwhelming numbers, but Pittsburgh did have an edge in time of possession which indicates that the offensive line turned in a respectable performance. Grade: C+

Kerrith Whyte, Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Cardinals

Kerrith Whyte rushes for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Kyler Murray is a mobile quarterback, and mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Steelers by getting out of the pocket. Responsibility for containing quaterbacks begins with the defensive line, and Murray got all of 2 yards on 6 carries. Outside of a handful of runs, Arizona running backs were ineffective. Cam Heyward helped snuff out any chance of a Cardinal comeback with sack. Grade: B+

Linebackers
For the first time since September, T.J. Watt did not have a sack, but Watt made one of the most consequential plays of the game by interception Kyle Murray in the end zone. Mark Barron led the Steelers defense with 7 tackles including one sack, followed by Bud Dupree who had a sack and two tackles for losses. Vince Williams also had a tackle for a loss and critical 3rd down sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden logged his 3rd and 4th interceptions in the course of the last 30 days, and batted away two more passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick “only” had one tackle. But it was for a loss, and stuff out a QB run on 2nd and goal form the Steelers 3. Steven Nelson might not have had the “Splash” plays, but he neutralized a goal line pass for zero gain, and tied for the team lead in tackles. Terrell Edmunds shared that tie for the lead in tackles, and dropped one ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. One of the reasons why Muarry was sacked so much was that he simply had nowhere to throw…. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Chase Edmonds, Steelers vs Cardinals

Joe Haden intercepts a pass intended for Chase Edmonds. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson’s 85 yard punt return gave the Steelers the fast started they’d needed. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking and Jordan Berry boomed off a 69 yard punt….

…Which Pharoh Cooper returned for 29 yards. To make matters worse on the ensuing drive, the Cardinals converted a fake punt. Fortunately, Joe Haden ended that drive with an interception, but these types of special teams snafus are exactly the types plays that can fuel upsets by inferior teams.

Which brings us to the Steelers botched fake punt. Mike Tomlin is taking responsibly for it, although reports indicate that someone tried to call it off, but Jordan Berry failed to get the message. The play allowed the Cardinals to pull within 6:44 left to play. The error could have been catastrophic. Fortunately it wasn’t, but  it brings the group grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner doesn’t have a reputation for being an offensive innovator, but he certainly has shown that he knows how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. No one is going to confuse this offense with the Killer Bees, just as no one is going to confuse any of the defenses it has triumphed over for the ’85 Bears.

  • But Randy Fichtner is getting it done, with players that weren’t even on the roster, let along projected as starters, on opening day.

Keith Butler’s defense gave up one clean touchdown drive, but the unit stepped up and killed two more drives that were on the verge of scoring with interceptions. They also stoned another drive that reached their 3 forcing a field goal. Most of the Steelers turnovers have come at home, but Butler’s boys showed they were capable of taking it away on the road.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

With this win, Tomlin clinches his 13th consecutive non-losing season, and if you want to see first hand evidence of Tomlin’s coaching influence, look no further than the contrast between Diontae Johnson’s play against the Browns and against the Cardinals. Tomlin’s strength is as a leader of men, and he’s got the men on this team pulling together, and because of that, they’re winning. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
Regardless of how the Steelers 2019 season ends, people will forget this play. In fact, many have forgotten it already. But on 1st and 10 from the Cardinals 23, with 1:08 remaining in the first half, Chandler Jones strip sacked Devlin Hodges.

The ball lie there for the taking and an Arizona recovery would wipe 3 all but certain points off the board. Matt Feiler jumped on the ball, and the Cardinals never had a chance and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Cardinals.

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Finding New Ways to Win: Steelers Defeat Cardinals 23-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to the desert and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 in another wild, white-knuckle game that went down to the wire.

  • The victory improved the Steelers record to 8-5 and renewed their lease on playoff life for another week.

But more importantly, the victory affirmed a fundamental truth about this team’s identity: When the game is on the line, count on these Steelers to find new ways and, if necessary, new faces to win.

Diontae Johnson, Byron Murphy, Steelers vs Cardinals

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown over Byron Murphy. Photo Credit: AP, Tribune-Review

Steelers Flip the Script, with Unexpected Results

Much has been made about the 2019 Steelers ability to defy the pull of gravity imposed by injuries, starting quarterback ineffectiveness, trades and free agent defections. But at the end of the day, the formula for the Steelers success has remained simple:

  • Secure turnovers on defense
  • Play efficient, turnover free, ball control offense
  • Avoid costly special teams mistakes

Yet, the Steelers showed no inclination to stick to the script. In the first quarter Pittsburgh marched to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Chris Boswell field goal followed by an electrifying 85 yard punt return by Diontae Johnson. For the first time all season, the Steelers were starting fast.

The Steelers continued to deviate from the script on their next possession, when Benny Snell coughed up the ball at Pittsburgh’s 30. The Cardinals marched down to the Steelers 3. It didn’t seem to matter:

  • Steven Nelson stoned Christian Kirk for no gain on first down
  • Kyle Murray scampered around and looked like he might try to run it in, only to be sacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Vince Williams stepped out of his spy role to sack Murray on third down who had nowhere to throw.

In past situations, it’s fallen on Fitzpatrick to secure the turnovers and players like T.J. Watt and/or Bud Dupree to disrupt the backfield, but in their first goal-line situation, Fitzpatrick and Williams did the damage behind the line of scrimmage while Nelson provided the splash in the secondary.

  • Credit the Cardinals for flawlessly executing a no-huddle, tying touchdown drive that the Steelers could not stop.

But Devlin Hodges responded with an expertly managed two minute drill that got the Steelers back on the board with another field goal before the half. Hodges wasn’t flawless on the drive. He gave up a strip sack which would have been disastrous; however Matt Feiler covered it up, and Kerrith Whyte got back all 10 yards with a brilliant run up the middle on the next snap.

Faces in New Places Continues in Second Half

The theme of faces in new places continued in the 2nd half. After the Steelers pulled ahead by 10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals mounted a long drive of their own. Faced with a 4th and 2, Arizona decided to go for it all. Kyle Murray had a lane to get the first down, but aired the ball out, only to have T.J. Watt intercept.

  • The Steelers appeared determined to keep it interesting however, when Jordan Berry botched a fake punt attempt.

That gave the Cardinals the ball at Pittsburgh’s 32, and they only needed 3 plays to move within three points. Yet, Diontae Johnson, who’d already had a critical catch and a touchdown earlier in the half, delivered again.

After a pass interference penalty on James Washington put the Steelers into Cardinal territory, Diontae Johnson ripped off a 16 yard reverse that put the Steelers just outside the Red Zone. Four plays later Delvin Hodges rolled to his left, threw against his body but managed to hook up with Johnson for a 16 yard completion that put the Steelers at the Cardinals 16.

  • Another Chris Boswell field goal gave the Steelers a 6 point cushion.

A clock management lapse by Hodges ended up giving the Cardinals the ball with 1:42 left to play, but successive sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree set up a Joe Haden interception on 4th and 17 with 47 seconds left to play.

Steelers Prepare for Showdown with Buffalo

The Steelers now face a show down next week at Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.

Who would have thought that a year that included a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, a benching by Mason Rudolph, prolonged injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conners would come down to a Week 15 Sunday Night football show down, and one against the Buffalo Bills of all teams?

Yet when asked for the secret to his success, Mike Tomlin explained:

We’re just singularly focused on Buffalo. That’s probably why we’re here. We don’t care about the three games.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott would no doubt say the same. Yet as McDermott focuses on the stopping the Steelers, he’d better do so with a wide-angle lens, because the win over the Cardinals proves that anyone of the 53 men on the Steelers roster can and will make a play when called upon.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns – “Pittsburgh Finishes It” Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is thrilled at seeing his entire class pull together to overcome adversity, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden interception, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden’s interception ensures that “Pittsburgh Finishes It” against the Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
When asked to assess Devlin Hodges play, an uncharacteristically frank Mike Tomlin confessed “He played his tail off.” Devlin Hodges did not have a strong first quarter, but hit his stride in the second, hitting 8 separate receivers, going 14 of 21 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw an interception late, which could have been devastating, so his grade comes down. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
If there is any bright side to come out of 2019, it is perhaps that the Steelers coaching staff will see that you CAN split carries and run the ball effectively. Benny Snell had 69 yards on 13 carries, followed by Kerrith Whyte added 10 on 3 carries. More important than any numbers or averages, the Steelers ran the ball when they needed to, when the Browns knew it was coming and couldn’t stop them. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Whether by happenstance or design, the tight ends re-emerged in the passing game, with Vance McDonald catch 3 passes for 21 yards and Nick Vannett catching one for seven that helped sustain the Steelers insurance field goal drive. Run blocking was notably better this week, and the tight ends share credit. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
James Washington had another phenomenal game coming up with 3 clutch catches, including a touchdown to close the 1st half. On the day, Washington was 4-111. Tevin Jones only had one catch for 28 yards, but it set up the Steelers tying touchdown before halftime. Diontae Johnson had shaky afternoon with 1 catch on 5 targets, as costly penalty and a route that he cut off too early. But his 17 yard reverse served as the second punch in the combo that sparked the Steelers offense and set up the first score. Deon Cain had 1 catch for 5 yards but it gave the Steelers a first down on their tying drive during the first half two minute drill. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The offensive line didn’t exactly road grade, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will. Delvin Hodges was only sacked once, and hit four times. In the first matchup against the Browns those numbers were 4 and 11, (and Myles Garrett only accounted for 3 of those QB hits.) The Steelers offensive line played its best game in weeks, and their improvement was key to victory. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Browns

Not even 3 Browns can stop Benny Snell. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward served as a two man wrecking crew up front, combining for 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Cleveland ran the ball a little too well at times, and the line holds some responsibility for that.

But numbers fail to fully tell the tail as Cam Heyward recovered the fumble that sparked the Steelers final scoring drive, and he combined for the sack the forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal. Javon Hargrave’s sack forced a punt after Hodge’s interception. That’s some serious playmaking. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Devin Bush lead the team in tackles, followed by Bud Dupree, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with another strip sack and another opportune sack (he would have had a 3rd had it not been for a bogus roughing the passer call.) T.J. Watt “only” had a sack a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and 1 quarterback hit. Mark Barron had 5 tackles while Vince Williams had 2 plus 1 for a lose. Again, Cleveland’s success running the ball brings this grade down a bit. Grade: B+

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles, while Steven Nelson was next with 5. Mike Hilton deflected two passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 1 pass deflected that he should have intercepted. In the end, it did not matter. Two plays later Joe Haden got his hands on the ball and held on to end the game. The Browns were 4-12 on 3rd down conversions, which only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade: A

Special Teams
Kerrith Whyte opened the game with a 34 yard kick return and averaged 24 yards on 3 returns, strong numbers in today’s NFL. The Browns got nowhere on their kick returns. Diontae Johnson is still finding his way as a punt returner, but he did have one good 13 yard return. Steelers punt return coverage was sound. Jordan Berry had a solid day punting, while Chris Boswell was perfect. Grade: B+

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
Last time “Baker out of the pocket” was Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis of what ailed the Steelers defense. He was right. This time, the Steelers contained Mayfield Baker, and that was a difference maker. The Browns ran the ball a little too well for comfort early in the game, but the Steelers defense clamped down.

Randy Fichtner is taking heat in some quarters for the offensive game plan, but after a slow start the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points until the Browns settled for a field goal with 7:34 left to play.

  • Randy Kitchens and the Browns chose to focus on the final 8 seconds of the first game, all the way down to his “Pittsburgh Started It” selfie.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin’s focus was on fixing the errors so painfully apparent in the game’s first 59:52 of play. When challenged about the impact of his T-Shirt, Kitchens was dismissive, insisting his team was “ready to play.”

While Randy Kitchens “talked the talk,” Mike Tomlin “Walked the Walk.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were the team that was ready, willing and able to win. “Pittsburgh Finishes It” indeed. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
He inherited “Next Man Up” status the moment Le’Veon Bell’s no showed in September 2018. Yet, with James Conner ailing last week, Benny Snell got the start upon his return to health.

Nonetheless, against the Browns he had 37 yards on 7 carries including a few out of the Wildcat plus 2 catches for 22 yards on two carries, and for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

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This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful The Steelers Haven’t Tanked In 2019

“They’re clearly not trying to win,” is a phrase that’s been thrown around quite liberally during the 2019 regular season.

You’ve heard people say it about other teams like the Dolphins, Redskins and Giants. There are just a lot of bad football teams out there right now, and many of them decided to give up on the season before it even started. Why? They just didn’t think they had the pieces to compete and were more interested in seeing what they had in their younger players. They were also more interested in acquiring the best picks possible for the 2020 NFL Draft.

  • In other words, they decided to tank.

Maybe it’s just me, but this phenomenon of tanking–this mindset of “Well, we don’t have the pieces to win a title, so we might as well just blow the whole thing up and start over”–is becoming more and more prevalent in all of professional sports. It’s grown in popularity in baseball, basketball and hockey in recent years, and now it seems to have become a thing in the NFL.

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

It is a bit surprising to me that NFL teams are starting to develop this mentality, considering football is the ultimate team sport, where one or two players don’t normally make a difference. I realize finding that franchise quarterback can go a long, long way in making that difference, but I also know the chances of landing one, even at the top of the draft, aren’t as great as one might think–this has been proven time and time again.

If you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know this has never been an issue. You know that the team is always interested in winning, in competing, in fighting to stay in contention even when tanking might be easier.

And if ever there was a season where tanking might have been the route to go, it’s this one, where personnel issues have been a thing since Week 2, when franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that required surgical repair.

After losing four of its first five games–including two of the first three that young Mason Rudolph started at quarterback–it looked like Pittsburgh would have no choice but to tank. And after Rudolph was knocked out of the Ravens game with a concussion and would miss the following week’s match-up against the Chargers in Los Angeles, how could the team not throw in the towel, especially with Devlin Hodges, an undrafted rookie quarterback who was cut in training camp, as the starter?

  • The Steelers didn’t throw in the towel that Sunday night in Los Angeles. In fact, they won in impressive fashion, before winning three more with Rudolph back under center.

Fast-forward to today, and the Steelers are now 6-5 and currently sit in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Yes, the odds still seem fairly long that they’ll actually qualify for the postseason, especially with such a putrid offense, one that is not only dealing with the absences of so many key cogs–including injured receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, injured running back James Conner and suspended center Maurkice Pouncey-but with a full-blown quarterback controversy.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

That’s right, Hodges, the undrafted rookie, the guy known as “Duck” thanks to winning a duck-calling contest when he was a child, will start against the Browns this Sunday at Heinz Field, a game with huge playoff implications.

If Pittsburgh wins, it will improve to 7-5, effectively eliminate Cleveland from the race (the Browns would drop to 5-7) and put itself in a prime position for a postseason berth.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Yet, not many are giving the Steelers a chance in this game. I get that. But it also feels like not many people want the Steelers to win because, well, even if they make the playoffs, what are the chances of them doing anything?

  • Not great, but so what?

“I’d rather see them not make the playoffs if they’re just going to go one-and-done,” is a popular phrase you’re hearing from Steelers fans this season.

Another phrase you hear thrown around these days–the era of the tank–is “I’d rather see the Steelers go 3-13 and reload with high draft picks next year.”

Really? Would you also much rather spend a year in a coma? That’s what you’re saying in a sports sense if you want your team to tank for picks. How could you possibly enjoy such a season?

Whatever happened to hope? Whatever happened to the journey being more enjoyable than the destination? Whatever happened to collecting fond memories?

During my weekly Steelers podcast this past Monday–The Hangover–my co-host reflected on the 2002 campaign–the one that gave us Tommy Gun (Tommy Maddox) at quarterback–and how that season, one that ultimately saw Pittsburgh win an exciting wildcard game against the Browns at Heinz Field before bowing out the following week in an equally exciting, if extremely heartbreaking, overtime loss to the Titans in the divisional round, helped get him through some personal issues he was dealing with.

Isn’t that what sports are all about? They’re a distraction, a pastime, they’re their to make us forget about the tough issues in our own lives.

  • They’re there to give us up, to give us something to believe in that’s bigger than we are.

Sure, we’re talking about sporting events–games–but if they weren’t important on a grand scale, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are.

I realize the Steelers chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl are really, really slim. But I also know how tickled I will be if they actually qualify for the playoffs. I also know how excited I’ll be in the week leading up to whatever postseason match-up Pittsburgh may find itself in. I also know how nervous I’ll be watching that game, and how ecstatic I’ll be if the Steelers happen to win. Those are the times you call people out of the blue (who calls anyone anymore?) just to say, “Did you see that?”

The Steelers may give you an opportunity to do and feel all of those things this January, and isn’t that a lot better than tanking for a higher draft pick next spring?

  • You might not think so, but I’m sure glad the Pittsburgh Steelers do.

Thank you, Pittsburgh Steelers, for giving your fans something to hope for this Thanksgiving and beyond.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win at Cincinnati – How Did the Quarterbacks Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who, if nothing else, is happy to see one half of his class picking up the slack when the other half stumbles, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
On the first two drives preceding his interception, Mason Rudolph looked OK. After the interception, Rudolph was tentative and played poorly. Devlin Hodges stepped in and connected on his first 2 throws, the 2nd of which went for a touchdown. Which means he was 3 of 9 on the rest of the day….. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers effectively deployed 4 running backs to rush for a combined total of 160 yards, a season high for the team. Kerrith Whyte ripped off a few impressive runs, as did Trey Edwards. Jaylen Samuels had 2 carries and 3 catches. Overall, a solid game by the Steelers running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For unknown reasons, it is pretty clear that the Steelers tight ends won’t play much of a role in the 2019 passing game, as Vance McDonald had 1 yard on 1 catch for 1 target. Nick Vanett did not get targeted. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
While he’s a long way from being a superstar, with each week James Washington seems to inch up his game a notch and every week he makes an important contribution. Diontae Johnson had 3 catches on 6 targets but all went for short gains. Deon Cain’s 1 catch for 35 yards set up the Steelers first field goal. Tevin Jones had 1 catch for 9 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the plus side, after giving up 2 holding penalties and 1 false start against the Browns, the Steelers offensive line didn’t get flagged for either penalty. And when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line delivered the run blocking that was needed. Cincinnati knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. On the negative side, the Bengals had 6 tackles for losses, registered 3 sacks and laid on 7 more QB hits. More quality and more consistency is needed. Now. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward is a monster. Heled the team in tackles, registered a sack, had a hand in two tackles for losses and hit Ryan Finley 4 more times. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. Outside of a few runs late in the game, Joe Mixon wasn’t a factor in the game, and that starts with the line. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and remained in the game following a bone bruise. Bud Dupree was quiet for much of the game, until he ended it with a strip sack of his own. Mark Barron had an almost safety. Devin Bush authored the biggest play for the linebackers when he forced a fumble by Tyler Boyd and Pittsburgh’s 8, changing the game for good. Grade: A

Secondary
And who just happened to scoop up the fumble Devin Bush caused? Minkah Fitzpatrick who had concentration needed to stay in bounds and return it 36 yards. Joe Haden defended 3 passes, including two of which came during the game’s final moments. Mike Hilton also got a hand on three passes of his own. Steven Nelson tipped away another pass. Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden gave away successive big pass plays which led to an easy score, which brings this group’s grade down. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Diontae Johnson returned 4 punts for 5.3 yards, while the Steelers punt coverage was sound. Kerrith Whyte didn’t do much on his first kick return, and the Steelers gave up an average of 23.5 yards on kick returns. Until the Steelers can managed to get that average down, teams are going to continue returning kicks instead of taking the touchback.

Jordan Berry boomed off 7 punts that averaged 45.1 yards and, more importantly, nailed 3 inside the 20. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals, including a 47 yarder. Grade: B+

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Coaching
The Steelers were playing one of the worst offenses in the NFL that, on top of that was, missing its best receiver. While Keith Butler’s boys didn’t quite pitch a perfect game, they did allow one touchdown that looked all too easy, they limited Cincinnati to 10 points. The Bengals went 2-12 on third downs, punted 9 times and suffered seven 3 and outs.

  • Most importantly, when Cincinnati threatened to get back in the game, the Steelers defense delivered a turnover.

It is easy to criticize Randy Fichtner and his “one touchdown a game” offense. And to be certain, Fichtner has his faults. It’s also true that he was playing 6 players who’d been cut previously this season. It was not pretty, but the Steelers offense came from behind once, reestablished the lead another time, and then added insurance points.

  • While ever popular with fans, benching a quarterback is fraught with risk.

Yes, it can give an offense and even an entire season a spark. See Tommy Maddox in 2002. Or it can blow up in a coach’s face (see Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak in the rain at Tampa in 1998).
Or the replacement quarterback can do just well enough to get by.

That’s what happened on Sunday afternoon. Devlin Hodges provided the Steelers with just enough spark to push the Steelers on to victory. However, Hodges hardly has a “hot hand.” Mike Tomlin will need to manage this with care moving forward, but on Sunday switching quarterbacks was the right decision. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell rushes in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
It was the Steelers best rushing effort of the season and their best rusher of the game brought his best when the game was on the line. He might have been held under 100 yards, clocking in at 98 yards on 21 carries, but 63 of those yards came on nine 4th quarter carries. The Steelers needed that type of effort to close with the win, and Benny Snell Jr. delivered it and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Cincinnati.

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Devlin Hodges Rallies Steelers to 16-10 Win over Bengals after Mason Rudolph Benched

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in a rebound win that  puts them back in the AFC Wild Card race, for the moment.

Although Pittsburgh took a 5-5 record and a 10 game winning streak against the Bengals into Cincinnati, in many ways the odds certainly weren’t stacked in the Steelers favor. On offense against Cincinnati, the Steelers would be:

  • Starting their number 2 quarterback
  • Missing James Conner, their number 1 running back
  • Missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, their number 1 wide receiver
  • Missing Maurkice Pouncey, their best offensive lineman
  • Giving carries two players, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain who were playing for other teams last week

In an ironic twist, the decisive change that sparked the Steelers to victory was Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, a player who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Practice Squad Poaching Products Flash, but Don’t Start

While Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph drew all of the attention during the last week, the impact felt from the Body Bag Game in Cleveland was felt elsewhere. Namely, that it deprived Pittsburgh of its number one running back and number one wide receiver.

Kevin Colbert moved swiftly and out of his comfort zone when did some practice squad poaching by signing Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain from the Bears and Colts practice squads, respectively. Deon Cain, who’d last been seen dropping passes in the Colts loss at Heinz Field, proclaimed himself to be a playmaker upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed that they don’t and shouldn’t listen to me. Deon Cain had a 35 yard catch which flipped the field and was the offense’s only play of substance on their 1st half field goal drive. Kerrith Whyte lost a yard on his first NFL carry, but then rebounded to rip off a 15 yard run on his second try.

  • Not bad. But at the end of the day, both of those plays amounted to simple flashes that failed to spark the Steelers offense.

Mason Rudolph began the afternoon respectably. While no one was forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger was on the sidelines, Rudolph held himself reasonably well, and had moved the team into scoring position when a tipped ball led to a Shawn Williams interception.

  • The Steelers defense held the Bengals to zero yards on the next possession, but Mason Rudolph was never the same after that play.

In contrast, the Bengals, under quarterback Ryan Finley showed that they could muster some roar with their rookie quarterback who hooked up on two picture perfect strikes Tyler Boyd, schooling Terrell Edmunds first and Joe Haden for a second and a touchdown.

The Bengals took a 10-3 lead into halftime, and it was fair to question whether the Steelers could summon enough offense to get back in the game.

Tomlin Sparks Offense with Historic Decision

Football fans love the rallying cry “BENCH THE QUARTERBACK” almost as much if not more than “FIRE THE COACH.” Yet, as an organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers bench quarterbacks only a little more frequently than they fire coaches.

Yet going into the game Bob Labriola entertained a question about Mike Tomlin changing quarterbacks in his “Asked and Answered” and at half time Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell tweeted:

Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph one series which began with a sack ended in a three and out and ended with an ugly pass aimed at Diontae Johnson’s feet. The next time the Steelers got the ball back, Devlin Hodges was standing under center.

  • And Devlin Hodges delivered immediately.

He hit on his first two strikes to Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, and on his third try he found James Washington wide open in the field. Washington stiff armed B.W. Webb and ran 79 yards for the touchdown.

Truth be told, those three passes seemed to be about the only tricks that Delvin Hodges had in his bag, but they were enough on this afternoon.

Defense Delivers. Again.

Defense has carried the Steelers throughout 2019 and the win in Cincinnati was no different. While that’s no surprise, there was an important X factor heading into the game, and that was Joe Mixon against a Steelers run defense that had been leaky at times.

  • For 3 quarters the Steelers defense held Joe Mixon in check.

With 10 minutes left to go in the four quarter, it looked like the Joe Mixon had finally found a chink in the Steelers armor, as he ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards, the first of which looked to be a 5 yard loss. On the next play, Ryan Finley found Tyler Boyd for a 22 yard gain.

  • Cincinnati appeared poised to enter Pittsburgh’s end zone and either even the score, or pull ahead.

Devin Bush had other plans, stripping Boyd of the ball, which was scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick who logged his 8th takeaway for the season, which he returned 36 yards. That was the last drive that ended with positive yards for Cincinnati would earn all day.

Joe Haden and Mike Hilton teamed up to bat away passes, while Cam Heyward helped harass Finley up front setting Bud Dupree to end the day with a strip sack and recovery.

Who Starts for Steelers vs Browns?

After the game Mike Tomlin remained coy over whether Mason Rudolph would return to the starting  role against Cleveland next week or whether Duck Hodges would remain. It says here that benching Mason Rudolph against the Bengals was the right move.

  • But it is also far from clear that Delvin Hodges holds a “Hot Hand.”

Overall, he only completed 5 of 11 of his passes and, on his final pass before Chris Boswell kicked his third field goal, Hodges threw the ball away when Vance McDonald was open for a completion, which at the very least would have kept the clock running.

Outside of throwing the ball with a little more confidence, the main difference between Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph was in Hodges ability to avoid the rush.

Perhaps Tomlin had that tendency in mind when he teased reporters by suggesting he might already have made up his mind as to who to start. We will find out soon….

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Win or Lose, Mason Rudolph Has Shown a Lot of Fight as Steelers QB in 2019

As John Madden, the legendary former NFL coach and analyst liked to say, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team.

Mason Rudolph, in his first year as the Steelers starting quarterback, is now just beginning to find that out. Why? After his four-interception performance in a 21-7 loss to the Browns last Thursday night, fans are starting to clamor for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford who is affectionately known as “Duck,” to be put into the lineup.

  • “They need to give Duck a shot, just to see if he can give the offense a spark.”

Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that hasn’t been heard around these parts since just days before Ben Roethlisberger made his first-career start way back in 2004 and soon began playing at a Hall of Fame level.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

Poor Mason Rudolph. Not only did the second-year man out of Oklahoma State barely get to enjoy a cup of coffee as the team’s newly-appointed backup quarterback after winning the job with a productive preseason, he couldn’t even make it to his eighth-career start before fans started calling for the other guy to start in his place.

  • Such is life for a starting quarterback who hasn’t achieved “elite” or “franchise” status.

Many thought he had the potential to be a franchise passer, when Pittsburgh, who had a first-round grade on him, traded up in the third round to select Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Truth is, and a lot of fans won’t want to hear it, Mason Rudolph still might have that kind of potential.

Only problem is, he hasn’t shown it right away. In-fact, he really hasn’t even shown glimpses of that kind of potential up to this point. Why? It could be due to many factors, including a lack of talent at both running back and receiver.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You know, people like to compare Mason Rudolph’s first year as a starter with Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 years ago. But what fans may have forgotten is that Big Ben had Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress to throw to. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was handing the football off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis.

Try as you might, even on its best and healthiest day (receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson as well as running back James Conner may miss this Sunday’s game against the Bengals with injuries), you can’t compare this current group of skill-position players with the one from Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign.

Another reason may be because of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative approach on offense with Rudolph at the helm. It was almost a running joke, early on, the way Mason Rudolph was attempting and completing passes that barely made it past the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, while the play-calling has gotten more aggressive, as Rudolph has gained more experience as a starter, the offensive production hasn’t improved much at all. Actually, it has regressed over the past few weeks.

Again, though, this current group of skill-position players, led by Smith-Schuster and Conner, has yet to prove it can be a force, especially compared to the ones previously headlined by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Combine that with the injury factor and, oh yes, the surprising struggles of the offensive line, and it’s just so hard to evaluate Mason Rudolph’s performance so far.

  • But while Mason Rudolph has yet to show glimpses of greatness, he hasn’t proven to be a disaster, either.
Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Before last Thursday’s dreadful performance, Rudolph had thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions, two of which were far from his fault and should have been caught. And even after last Thursday’s game, Rudolph’s quarterback rating in 2019 is 82.9.

That’s not exactly horrible. In-fact, one might say those are numbers you can build on. I’m obviously no expert on quarterback play, and I realize Mason Rudolph’s footwork, pocket presence and arm strength have all been questioned by those who know why more about those kinds of things than I do.

  • But half the battle is not looking totally over-matched, and thus far, it’s hard to say the moment has been too big for Mason Rudolph.

Actually, you might say the exact opposite. You might say he’s shown great fight. In Rudolph’s third-career start against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, he was knocked out cold, thanks to a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot by safety Earl Thomas. Rudolph had to be helped off the field, and he missed the following week’s game after being diagnosed with a concussion.

And, of course, at the end the Body Bag Game against the Browns, Rudolph helped create a national news story by starting a brawl with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett that eventually ended with Garrett smacking Rudolph over the head with his own helmet.

It’s a shame that the fight ended the way it did, and it’s really a shame that Mason Rudolph, 24, has been turned into a villain by many national pundits and fans, many of whom have implied, without any proof at all, that Mason Rudolph may have provoked Garrett’s dangerous act with some sort of racial slur.

  • But the fight Mason Rudolph showed up until the bitter end of that brawl was admirable.

It demonstrated a frustration, not only with his performance, but with losing a game to a bitter AFC North rival. It showed me that Rudolph is fully committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers, to winning and to getting better as an NFL quarterback.

Dangerous head injuries, aside, Mason Rudolph is probably having the time of his life in 2019. Where he goes from here and how much more he improves is anyone’s guess.

But Mason Rudolph is fighting, and he’s fighting hard. At the very least, you have to love that part of his game.

 

 

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“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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