Steelers Report Card for Win Over Falcons: Dark Tower Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who is almost as pleased by the fact that he was able to work a Dark Tower reference into his analysis (see the link at the end) as he is about the Steelers back-to-back wins, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 road win over Atlanta.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 16 of 28 for 197 yards with one touchdown and for the fourth straight week – no interceptions. Steadily but surely, Pickett continues to improve. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 17 carries, followed by Benny Snell with 24 yards on 6 carries, Jaylen Warren with 15 yards on one carry and Derek Watt with 1 carry for 4 yards that converted a 3rd down. So the top 3 running backs plus the full backs get carries in consecutive games for the first time in memory. And the Steelers get their first consecutive wins of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Grade: A

Tight Ends
The stat sheet tells you with Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 76 yards on 5 targets and that Zach Gentry caught 1 for 8 yards on one target, and the Connor Heyward caught 1 pass on one target for 17 yards. Gentry’s catch set the Steelers up with a 2nd and 2 with 4:50 left in the game; teach of Freiermuth’s touchdowns converted a 3rd down, and Heyward scored the only touchdown. The Steelers tight ends showed just how much damage you can do with 5 catches. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the unit with 5 catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. But he dropped at least one critical catch and got gift call on a play that should have been a fumble. Steven Sims didn’t catch either of the passes thrown his way, but did look good on reverses. Gunner Olszewski had 2 reverses for 2 yards. George Pickens had one catch for two yards and made little secret of his unhappiness with getting targeted – this attitude must NOT continue. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was not sacked for the entire day and he only took 4 QB hits. Equally impressively, the Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage opening holes for the runners. This unit is coming along. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a difference making sack early in the game. Larry Ogunjobi decisively dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss that forced a field goal. Expecting the pass the Steelers took Montravius Adams and the Falcons ran very well in the second half. The line shoulders some of that. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack led the unit with six tackles and Devin Bush and Robert Spillaine logging QB hits as pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had quiet games. Grade: B-

Secondary
The Falcons were 3-10 on third downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit and the team in tackles, including one for a four yard loss that helped stall a drive, and of course he authored the interception that ended the game. The secondary did get a little squishy in the 2nd half, but went into “Bend but don’t Break” mode in the Red Zone. (Although Arthur Maulet should have been flagged for pass interference). Overall a strong afternoon for the secondary. Grade: B+

Special Teams
What a difference 1 week makes. Matthew Wright hit all four of his field goals and completely neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson on kick returns. Pressley Harvin did a spectacular job pinning the Falcons down, while Myles Boykin downed the ball deep Steven Sims shaky punt returns drops this grade, but special teams was a difference maker for the Steelers. Grade: A-

Coaching
Is it me or does Matt Canada’s play calling suddenly look smarter now that his rookie quarterback is maturing and his offensive line continues to jell? During the first half the Steelers executed their physical, ball control brand of offense to perfection outside of the 20s. They didn’t do quite as well in the 2nd half, but killed the clock when necessary.

  • Getting touchdowns instead of field goals and Red Zone performance must improve, but that should come.

One defense the Steelers completely unhinged the Falcons during the first half. During the second half the Falcons reverted to their roots, and ran the ball effectively. Some of that success likely can be laid to the feet of the Steelers moving away from their base defense.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

George Pickens temper tantrums are a cause for concern as is the coaches obvious attempt to pacify him with a cheap catch, which would only seek to encourage the temperamental rookie. With that said, it was the Steelers, and not the Falcons who were playing like a team 1/2 game out of first place, as Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to their road win since playing a road game on Monday Night Football. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of luck through the air. But they did take their shots down field. And although he’s only credited with one pass defense, Cam Sutton played a huge role in keeping the Falcons from landing in the end zone on more than one occasion and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over Atlanta.

 

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Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Colts: Going Old School Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher pleased as punch to see his students go “Old School” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for win over the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Arthur Maulet, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Colts

Arthur Maulet sacks Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett authored his first comeback win by going 20 of 28 for 174 yards and no interceptions. Pickett is making progress, but still needs to perform better on third downs and in the Red Zone. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris was off to a solid start with 35 yards on 10 runs and a touchdown before getting hurt. Benny Snell stepped in and reminded everyone of why he was on the team with 62 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland, looking like he belonged in the NFL for the first time, had 30 yards on six carries plus 2 catches for 11. Derek Watt converted a fourth down with a 4 yard run. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for 39 yards while Zach Gentry had one catch for 4 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
George Pickens made some nice catches and is developing a rapport with Pickett, but he still made some rookie mistakes. Diontae Johnson continues to disappoint. He had 5 catches but didn’t bring in a catchable ball in the end zone and ran backwards on a play where he could have gotten a first down. Steven Sims had 2 catches for 9 yards while Gunner Olszewski ran a reverse for 9. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett had better protection than he’s had of late, but still got sacked on a few critical third downs. But protection improved as the game wore on and The run blocking continues to improve. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi led the team in tackles while Montravius Adams came in second with three with Cam Heyward getting three hits on Matt Ryan. The Steelers contained Jonathan Taylor well enough and that started with the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and came up with a critical pass defense. Myles Jack came in second, and T.J. Watt had a quiet night, but did help deflect a pass. Alex Highsmith had the play of the night when he strip sacked Matt Ryan during the two minute drill, costing the Colts precious time. Grade: B

Secondary
James Pierre made an excellent interception to help set the tone for the night. Terrell Edmunds made a sack in the first quarter and Arthur Maulet logged one in the 4th. Outside of the pass he defensed Cam Sutton had a quiet night which was good for a cornerback. The Colts went 3-12 on third downs. Grade: B

Isaiah Rodgers, Matthew Wright, Steelers vs. Colts

Matthew Wright helps tackle Isaiah Rodgers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams

You know things are bad when the special teams section features a photo of a kicker making a tackle on a kick return that wasn’t the worst one of the night. Yet, that’s what happened. The Steelers gave up two a 45 yard return to Isaiah Rodgers that should have set up a score and an 89 yard one to Dallis Flowers that not only set up a score, but let Indianapolis.

Yes, the Steelers had a blocked field goal. Yes, Presley Harvin boomed off two punts of over 50 yards, the second of which pinned the Colts at the 7 to start their final drive. And Matthew Wright made all of his kicks. So that keeps this unit’s grade in passing territory. Barely. Grade: D

Coaching
While many if not most fans can’t or won’t see it, Matt Canada’s offense continues to improve. Yes, the Steelers still seldom pass deep, although it is clear there are down the field options. Yes, there are puzzling play calling decisions – such as the screen ton Gentry, but it is also clear that there are execution errors. And offensive penalties are down.

On defense Terryl Austin’s unit limited the Colts to on first half field goal and to two touchdowns in the second half. Is this unit dominating at the level one would expect it to given its star power? No, it isn’t.

  • But the defense continues to give the offense chances to win.

The Steelers entered the game 3-7. But if you look at the intensity that reserves Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell played with, you’d have thought Pittsburgh was contending for a playoff bye week. That’s the environment Mike Tomlin has established to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that fumble recoveries come down to luck. And a lot of times that’s true – sometimes the ball just bounces or doesn’t bounce, your way. But even when the bounce doesn’t come your way, a heads up player can turn a lose ball into an opportunity. So after the Colts had held the ball for nearly 8 minutes and gone 87 yards they looked poised to score again. But Matt Ryan could get the handoff right, the ball came out. He tried to dive on it, but Chris Wormley out muscled him and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 MNF win over the Colts.

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Steelers Report Card for ’22 Loss to Bengals @ Acrisure: 1 Step Forward 2 Steps Back Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but feel he just saw his students follow 1 step forward with 2 steps back, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Eli Apple, George Pickens, Steelers vs Bengals

Eli Apple deflects a pass aimed at George Pickens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett protected the ball and looked sharp enough on three first half scoring drives. But he was utterly ineffective in the second half, save for some garbage time glory. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran 20 times for 90 yards including a touchdown and added 4 catches for 26 yards. Jaylen Warren converted a third down with a 9 yard catch before leaving with a hamstring injury. Solid night from the running backs, but the Steelers needed a little more. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 8 catches for 79 yards including a tough one over the middle. He also had a drop and a holding call on a drive that saw the Steelers reach 3 and 25. Zach Gentry had 2 catches for 8 yards and frankly doesn’t look as promising as a number 2 tight end as he did a year ago. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 4 catches for 83 yards including a 33 yarder and a 24 yard touchdown. He also had a drop. Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 21 yards and looked nothing like a number 1 wide out. He had 1 yard on a jet sweep. Steven Sims didn’t have a catch, and lost 3 yards on his reverse. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Run blocking was OK and while Kenny Pickett was only sacked twice, the Bengals hit him seven times. Pickett has been taking too much punishment of late. Grade: D

Kenny Pickett, Cam Sample, Steelers vs Bengals

Pickett is taking too much punishment. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
The good news? The Steelers pretty much neutralized the Bengals running game. The bad news, Cincinnati didn’t need to run much. Cam Heyward had a sack and Montravius Adams had a nice stuff for a loss, but the Steelers needed more upfront. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had half a sack, intercepted a pass and got his hands on two more. Alex Highsmith also had half a sack. Individually the stats of the rest of the linebacking crops look good, with Myles Jack leading the team in tackles, Devin Bush coming in second, and with Robert Spillane logging a tackle for a loss and a deflected pass. But Joe Burrow moved the ball with ease, often in the middle of the field and was untouched for too many series. The linebackers also came up short in the Red Zone. Grade: D

Secondary
The Bengals were only 3 for 9 on third down. That’s in large part because they had 18 passing first downs. Arthur Maulet led the unit in tackles and Levi Wallace had a nice interception, but Joe Burrow threw 4 touchdown passes and led 3 other scoring drives. Grade: F

Special Teams
Steven Simms muffed a punt that help pin the Steelers back. That must not continue. Simms however was effective as a kick returner. The Steelers kick coverage gave up a long return which set up a Bengals score. Pressley Harvin had a solid night punting, while Matthew Wright redeemed himself kicking 3 field goals and making all of his extra point attempts. Grade: B

Coaching
During the first half Matt Canada’s offense was effective, scoring two touchdowns and running an efficient 2 minute drill. The second half told a different tale as the Steelers offense punted 5 times, turned over on downs once and could only muster a measly field goal after a turnover.

To be fair to Canada, there were obvious execution errors – he didn’t commit the penalties to push the Steelers back to 3rd and 25.

  • Still, some of his play calls were head scratchers.

Teryl Austin has a different problem. He’s got championship talent on his defense. His defense delivered several splash plays late in the 2nd half and during the 3rd quarter when they could have been difference makers.

But its too simplistic to say, “The defense did enough to win and didn’t get the help it needed from the offense.” The Bengals moved up and down the field with relative ease on all four of their touchdown drives. And the defense was horrendous in the Red Zone.

  • You simply do not win games in the NFL when you let that happen.
Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Bengals

Gunner Olszewski catches a batted ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Against the Bengals, the Steelers showed they are capable of playing wining football against varsity opponents. Mike Tomlin must find a way to make that happen consistently. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
While it’s hard to laud garbage time glory as heroics, this player made a heads up catch on a batted ball at the goal line that set up a face-saving touchdown, and for that Gunner Olszewski wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Busted! Steelers 37-30 Loss to Bengals Reveals a Rebuilding Team Struggling to Learn to Win

“Disappointing football game,” declared Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Tomlin is right. Especially when you consider the Steelers week one upset of the Bengals in the Queen City. That game featured:

  • T.J. Watt sacks and interceptions.
  • A Cam Heyward a sack at a critical moment.
  • The Steelers defense securing and taking advantage of turnovers.

The Steelers defense did all of the above in the return bout in Pittsburgh, yet it wasn’t enough.

  • Why? The reason is actually very simple.

For part of the game, the Steelers flashed the very best they could hope be at this point. For the rest of it they that proved they still have a lot of rebuilding to do.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Seeing a Mirage in First Half Flashes

The digest version of this game would explain how the Steelers looked sharp in the first half only to disintegrate in the second. That’s an efficient yet inaccurate way to tell the story.

The truth is that the Bengals closed the first quarter with a 10-3 lead over the Steelers. By itself, that’s hardly damning. What was distressing was that Cincinnati made it look so easy.

But after a Steven Simms kick return set the Steelers up with a short field, Kenny Pickett converted 2 third downs to set up Najee Harris’ 19 yard touchdown scamper. Unfortunately, the Bengals answered with a touchdown of their own, it the Steelers were again down by 7.

  • Just a few games ago, this might have doomed the Steelers.
George Pickens, Eli Apple, Steelers vs Bengals

George Pickens scores a 24 yard 2nd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Matt Canada’s offense has struggled to find the end zone more than once a game, so no one would expect them to match Cincinnati touchdown for touchdown. Yet, that’s just what they did, as Najee Harris, Kenny Pickett and Diontae Johnson nickled and dimed the Bengals for several short gains until Pickett hit George Pickens from 24 yards out to score a touchdown.

No, the Steelers offense wasn’t executing with the lethal efficiency of one of Ken Whisenhunt units, let alone did it look like look like “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But it was answering a touchdown from a high powered offense with one of its own, and that been an uncommon sight in Pittsburgh for a long time.

The defense took it cue from the offense, as Levi Wallace short-circuited the Joe Burrow’s 2 minute drill with an interception at midfield. Mike Tomlin declined to take a tie into the locker room at half time, and with four play including a 27 yard strike to Pat Freiermuth, set the Steelers up for a Matthew Wright field goal that gave them the lead at half time.

Unfortunately, that was the high water mark for the offense during the game.

Too Few Defensive Fireworks in Second Half

Cincinnati’s 20 second half points make it easy to assume that Pittsburgh’s defense mailed it in during the second half. But that’s actually not quite the case.

It was the second half that brought those dramatic sacks from Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt, the later of whom also had an amazing interception that looked like an exact replay of his week one pick of Joe Burrow.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers offense could do nothing when it counted in the second half.

They managed six yards after Watt’s interception and settled for another field goal. Two series later, the Steelers defense stoned Cincinnati’s offense for negative yards, bottling them up at Pittsburgh’s 7 and forcing a punt.

Najee Harris ripped off a 13 yard run to get the Steelers to Cincinnati’s 34. And then penalties pushed Pittsburgh back to the Bengals 49 yard line as the Steelers found themselves a 3rd and 25. Needless to say they failed to convert.

The Bengals marched 90 yards for a touchdown. Mike Tomlin described the two series as “a significant sequence in the game.” He was right. What followed was mere window dressing as the Bengals tacked on an insurance field goal while the Steelers scored a garbage time touchdown.

The Reality of the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

This is who the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers are. The offense took a few steps forward, but it feels like it took a few steps back in the 2nd half. Najee Harris ran reasonably well, but Kenny Pickett struggled on third down. At other times the offense self-destructed with penalizes or poor play calls and/or poor execution, particularly on first down.

  • The Steelers defense is a bit more disturbing.

This was the first time Teryl Austin’s unit was at full strength since the season opener, with Minkah Fitzpatrick playing after suffering an appendectomy just six days earlier. And while the defense did do some nice things, Joe Burrow hooked up with Tee Higgins, at will; the Bengals had 6 players make catches of over 20 yards, and in the Red Zone Samaje Perine was “Mr. Automatic for Cincinnati.”

  • Does this mean that all hope is lost on both sides of the ball?

No, it doesn’t. But when all was said and done, the Cincinnati Bengals looked like a team shaking off his Super Bowl hangover and angling to make another run, while exposing the Pittsburgh Steelers as a team struggling to learn how to win games.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Saints: Glass Half Full Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sees his students’ glass as half full, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card from the 2022 win over at Acrisure over the Saints.

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

Arthur Maulet breaks up a pass for Crhis Olave. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 18 of 30 for 199 yards with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no interceptions. Pickett still looks like a rookie. He’s not seeing open receivers and his accuracy was off at times. Still, the Steelers converted 9 of 17 third downs. More importantly he got better as the game moved on. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers had their highest rushing totals since December 2016 when Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise rushing record. This time it was a team effort, with Najee Harris having his best day of the year, logging 99 yards while Jaylen Warren adding 37 more, the bulk of which came during when it was needed to kill the clock. Derek Watt had 2 runs for 5 yards, both of which converted 3rd and 4th downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 36 yards, but that stat doesn’t do justice to the one handed catch he made of a ball that Kenny Pickett gunned at him. Zach Gentry had one pass thrown his way which was deflected. Connor Heyward had two catches for 9 yards. Grade: B –

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 36 yards including a 36 yarder. George Pickens added 3 for 32 yards, but also contributed with a 22 yard end around. Gunner Olszewski had 1 catch for 4 yards, while Steven Sims and 1 catch for 15 yards and 2 carries for 2 yards, the second of which converted a third down on the final, clock killing drive. Grade: B –

Offensive Line
On the plus side, the offensive line’s progress in run blocking continued. While no one would mistake their efforts for Road Grading, Steelers running backs did have holes to run in. However, pass protection was weak, as Pickett suffered 6 more sacks. Not all of those are the line’s fault, but protection must improve. Grade: C

Defensive Line
No where to run. The Saints totaled 29 yards rushing. Or 7 less that Najee Harris’ longest run. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams stat sheets won’t make any fantasy football owners happy. But measure in Reality Football this group played well. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt only had 4 tackles and one QB hit, but his presence was felt throughout, whether it was stopping guys at the line of scrimmage, snuffing out QB scrambles or drawing double teams…. And those double teams helped Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks, including a strip sack that helped end New Orleans final possession. Devin Bush quietly had another good game. Grade: A

Secondary
Wow. What a difference interceptions make. Damontae Kazee’s 4th quarter interception set up the Steelers final touchdown while Levi Wallace ended the Saints final possession. Arthur Maulet’s stat line reads 3 tackles 2 solos and 1 pass defensed. Nice, but it doesn’t do justice to the incredible play he made. The Saints were 3-12 on 3rd downs. Giving up a TD on a two minute drive brings this group’s grade down. A smidge. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Pressley Harvin punted 3 times, nailing the ball into the 20 twice and none of his punts were returnable. The Steelers kick coverage was sound, and Steven Simms looked good in his lone kick return.

Matthew Wright, however, missed two of his field goals and his kickoffs were short. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the bye week as a 2-6 team that had gotten its tail kicked be a Super Bowl favorite. They exited it looking like a team that used its week off to get “back to basics.”

  • Tackles were crisp. Assignments were smart. Run blocking was physical. Penalties were minimized.

Matt Canada’s offense finally looked like an winning offense. Yes, the Red Zone remains an issue and a tendency to rely on trick plays is forming. But they scored twice at the goal line through smart execution.

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Teryl Austin’s defense put on the most complete performance of the season. Were it not for the late 2nd half hiccup, there’s a strong chance the Saints never see the end zone.

Through it all, Mike Tomlin has kept his eye on establishing sound fundamentals, and that focus paid off. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
This player led the team in tackles, the first two of which went for third down stops. He also made several other stops for no gain, with the biggest coming against Andy Dalton on 4th down with 7:47 left to play and for that Robert Spillane is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Saints.

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Persistence Pays Off: Steelers 20-10 Win over Saints Fueled by Dominating Defense, Patient Offense

Several terms describe the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium Pittsburgh:

  • Ugly
  • A dominating defensive performance
  • A “team win”

Each of these is correct, but at the end of the day, Mike Tomlin’s first win over the Saints was a victory for persistence.

Jaylen Warren, Demario Davis, Steelers vs Saints

Jaylen Warren rips off 4th quarter run. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For Mike Tomlin Persistence Pays Off

For much of Steelers Nation, 2022 is a deep dive into uncharted territory. Think of it:

Most of Duquesne’s freshman class was born during the Steelers 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year

  • These freshman have never suffered a Steelers a losing season.

Even teachers and staff who are Thirtysomething, likely have only distant memories of the 6-10 1999 season. And let’s be clear about one thing: The 2022 Steelers have been just as bad as that ’99 squad.

Losing has opened the Pandora’s box of calls for dramatic change in Pittsburgh. “FIRE MATT CANADA” is only one popular refrain. Fans react as if Najee Harris’ stellar rookie campaign had never happened and throw around the B word. Embarrassments at the hands of the Bills and Eagles have led commentators to mock the Steelers “expensive defense.”

Mike Tomlin has tuned it all out, rejected the idea of coaching by crisis and preaching the need to stay the course and act systematically.

Against the Saints, Mike Tomlin’s patience and perseverance delivered dividends on both sides of the ball.

Defense: Watt One Man Can Do? Not Quite

The Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance against the New Orleans Saints by any measure. They shut them out in the second half, and likely would have kept them out of the end zone in the first half had it not been for a questionable defensless receiver penalty.

  • It is easy to chalk it all up to the return of T.J. Watt.

That conclusion would be simultaneously correct and incomplete. It is true. T.J. Watt helped stone Alvin Kamara for little or no gain early and often. He also snuffed out an Andy Dalton scramble on third down, forcing a field goal.

  • And when Watt wasn’t making plays, he was enabling them.

 

T.J. Watt, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Saints

T.J. Watt stuffs Jordan Howard. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Alex Highsmith had two sacks, and if you look at the one where he showed off his really cool spin move, you’ll see that T.J. Watt is drawing a double team. So yes, having T.J. Watt back made a huge difference for the Steelers, even with Minkah Fitzpatrick out.

  • But the rest of Steelers defense played as a complete game as they have all season.

Taysom Hill is the NFL’s most unorthodox, most dynamic offensive weapon since Kordell Stewart unleashed Slash during the ’95 Steelers season. Hill had one yard the entire game. Alvin Karma isn’t a great running back, but he’s had two 100 yard games (well, almost) and Najee Harris would love to have his rushing average.

  • The Steelers held him to 26 yards. The rest of the Saints only added 3 more.

How quickly we forget – only one year ago, the Steelers run defense was so bad one had to wonder why opposing offensive coordinators even bothered to pass.

Bottling up the run forced the Saints to pass, and the Steelers secondary was a primary reason for the unit’s dominant performance. One game after the Steelers starting corners secured position but failed to make plays down field, Arthur Maulet hung with Chris Olave down field, timed his jump perfectly, and delivered a pass breakup that would have made Troy Polamalu proud.

Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee, fresh off of injured reserve, both showed incredible focus on 4th quarter interceptions. Kazee’s pick set up the Steelers final touchdown while Wallace’s allowed the Steelers to kill the clock.

Offense Takes Baby Steps Towards Half Full Status

Is the Steelers offense a glass that’s filling up to the half way mark or is it one that’s still mired in the mediocrity of half emptiness? It all depends on your perspective.

  • Yes, the Steelers continue to sputter in the Red Zone.
  • Yes, as they did against Philadelphia they needed to fall back on trick plays for their two touchdowns.
  • Yes, the offense’s longest touchdown is only 8 yards.
  • Yes, Kenny Pickett still isn’t seeing open receivers and tucking and running too quickly.
  • Yes, the offensive line pass protection left a lot to be desired with 6 sacks.

All of those are negatives. None of them bode well for Joe Burrow and the Bengals impending visit to Pittsburgh next week.

But the Steelers offense had a good day against the Saints. Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson posted runs or catches of 36, 23, 21, 22, 36 and 26 yards. That’s not “Greatest Show on Turf” like production, but for an offense in need of chuck plays, it’s a step in the right direction.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But even more important than the chunk runs was the ability to grind it out, set up manageable third downs and convert them in route to a 38:56 to 21:04 time of possession.

  • Levi Wallace made his second interception at the 4:30 mark.

After that the Steelers offense ran 9 straight plays, all of them runs, splitting carries between Harris, Warren, Derek Watt and Steven Sims converting 3 third downs along the way.

The New Orleans Saints do not field an elite defense, nor did the Pittsburgh’s offensive line do any “Road Grading” and it would be a stretch to say that the Steelers “Imposed their will.”

But for the first time, in a very, very long time, the Steelers salted away a game by running the ball. It was a sight for sore eyes. And I’d say a sight that reveals a glass half full.

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Eagles: Fire & Fight Isn’t Enough Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher hoping fire and fight he saw in a losing effort isn’t fools gold, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Steven Simms, Steelers vs Eagles

Steven Simms returns a kick. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s road got rougher in his fourth start to the tune of 6 sacks and 11 total hits. Pickett protected the ball, until he didn’t in the 4th quarter. He did some nice things, used the middle of the field more, but the Steelers 1-12 third down conversion rate in 1 touchdown says it all. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren showed some fire and heart, but half of Harris’ 32 yards came on 1 run, while Warren had 6 carries for 50 yards. Harris added 6 catches for 26 yards while Warren had 3 for 25 yards. Derek Watt caught 2 passes including the only touchdown. The running backs weren’t a weak link, neither were they a strength. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with catches, but the fact that he clocked in at 4 should tell you what you need to know about the Steelers offense. Zach Gentry caught one pass for 3 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool had four catches and one pass for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 35 yards and probably should have drawn a pass interference penalty. George Pickens had three targets, he couldn’t come into bounds on one, got a ticky-tacky penalty on another and didn’t bring in a final catch. The Steelers needed more. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The slow, but steady progress the Steelers offensive line had been making came to a crashing halt in Philadelphia. Early on the Steelers running backs had no room to run, something that didn’t change until the draw plays started. Pass protection got worse as the game wore on. Even at its best it would have been rough sledding against the Eagles. The line was at it worst. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The line came up big late in the 2nd half when Carlos Davis and Cam Heyward logged sacks to force a Philly punt. But the line could not pressure Jalen Hurts for the rest of the afternoon, and gave up some rushing yardage late in the game when the Steelers still had a theoretical chance to win. Grade: C-

Linebackers
A quiet day for the unit Robert Spillane and Myles Jack led in tackles with Alex Highsmith rendered a non-factor. Grade: D

Secondary
The Stat sheet says that Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton defensed passes. Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds got burned 3 times by A.J. Brown. James Pierre did well in relief, but that’s just window dressing. Grade: F

Special Teams
Replacement kicker Nick Sciba was perfect on his kicks, but his kickoffs left a lot to be desired. Pressley Harvin had a solid day punting and Steven Simms had a solid day returning. Return coverage was sound.

Gunner Olszewski made a gutsy play that showed a lot of spirit and the Steelers converted a fake punt thanks to Marcus Allen. Grade: B

Coaching
Ooh, this one was ugly.

But if you look at the 3 bombs the Steelers secondary gave up in the first half, Teryl Austin’s defensive backs were in the right places, they just didn’t make plays. Still, the inability to mount any semblance of a pass rush was part of what allowed Jalen Hurts make it look easy.

  • On offense the Steelers were a mess.

For yet another week, the unit only scored one touchdown, and if you credit Matt Canada’s creativity on the play, you also have to question why it was necessary, coming on 4th down by virtue of a penalty.

Malik Reed, Jalen Hurts, Steelers vs Eagles

Malik Reed disrupts a pass, saves a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It would be insincere to suggest that, absent the penalties, the Steelers offense could have given the Eagles a run for the money. That’s probably not true. But penalties continue to short-circuit drives week-in-and-week-out.

Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his guys burning with fire and fight until the better end, but that fire and fight didn’t make them competitive in this game, nor does it him on this Report Card. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Standing in as a replacement player for a generational talent is unforgiving. And for the most part, this player has been quiet, but against the Eagles Malik Reed had a sack and pressured and got a hand on a ball that would have been another touchdown, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 10th consecutive loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

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