A Sight for Sore Eyes: Ben Roethlisberger Throwing a Football Again!

Steelers Nation has experienced a lot of highs and lows in the last 161 days, but Saturday February 22nd brought the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful a true sight for sore eyes: Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football again.

Steelers fans have been waiting to see that since the 2nd half of Sunday September 15th of the Steelers home opener loss to the Seattle Seahawks. My, what a long strange trip its been. Mason Rudolph stepped in and looked strong in relief, but was shaky enough in his first start against the 49ers that Randy Fichtner had to resort to the Wildcat to jump start the offense against the Bengals.

Just when Rudolph seemed to be hitting his stride, he got knocked out against the Ravens with a concussion. Delvin Hodges came in and almost led the Steelers to an upset. Duck Mania was born!

Rudolph returned two weeks later, looked shaky against Miami, hit Diontae Johnson for a big touchdown (with the help of a helicious block by James Washington) and got stronger week-by-week until struggling might in The Body Bag game against Cleveland, as the Brown knocked JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Conner out of the game.

The event shook Rudolph, who was very tentative against the Bengals, leading to Hodges insertion, who in turn led the Steelers to 3 straight wins. Visions of a 1989 Steelers like improbable playoff run danced through the heads of Steelers Nation.

A week later against the Jets, it was Hodges who got the hook, as Mason Rudolph got the Steelers back in the game, only to injure his collarbone.

Through it all, Ben Roethlisberger remained on the sideline, acting as an assistant coach, as his beard and his gut raced to see who could grow faster. The Steelers and Roethlisberger have remained mum on the nature of Roethlisberger’s injury, only revealing that he had surgery in September.

Yet, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all unhesitatingly assured that they expect a full recovery from Roethlisberger. Today we can all see for themselves why they’ve been so confident.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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1 Quick Post-Season Lesson for Steelers Fans? Defense Ain’t As Sexy As We Thought

Maybe you’re one of those Steelers/football fans that likes to say things like, “I’d much rather watch a low-scoring defensive-battle than a shootout.”

First of all, no you wouldn’t. And, second, even if you think you would, I encourage you to go back and watch some old NFL games from the early-’70s, back when bump-and-run coverage was still a thing. And I’m not talking about old highlights provided by NFL Films, complete with the iconic music as a backdrop and John Facenda’s heavenly voice doing the narration. Go back and watch some old network broadcasts on NBC, CBS or ABC–they’re usually readily available on YouTube.

  • I guarantee you, you won’t make it through one of those 13-10 snooze-fests before, well, dosing off.

Speaking of 13-10 snooze-fests, maybe that will be the title of the Steelers NFL Films-produced highlight show that’s released to the public each and every summer. It would be fitting, since most of Pittsburgh’s games ended with scores in the teens–and they were just so hard to get through.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see the resurgence of the Steelers defense. It was encouraging to watch the unit carry the team for most of the year, following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a lot of fun watching T.J. Watt wreak havoc on quarterbacks week after week, to the tune of 14.5 sacks. How about his bookend at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who had a career year with 11.5?

  • As a unit, Pittsburgh’s defense once again eclipsed the 50-sack mark, posting a suffocating total of 54.

How about all of those takeaways? What suddenly brought those on?

  • How did they go from a paltry 15 a year earlier, to a whopping 38 this past season?

And perhaps the most important new element to the Steelers defense in 2019: an ability to close out a game while holding a slim lead, something the unit did multiple times–including in one-score wins over the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals, games where the opposing offenses had the football late in the fourth quarter and a chance to either win or tie.

Yes, the return to defensive dominance really was a lot of fun and helped make fans believe the impossible could happen:

  • Pittsburgh could make the playoffs with an offense that was a founding member of the “One Touchdown a Game” club.

But hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see now that people were just getting swept up in the fun times the defense was providing. Because “lousy” may be too kind when describing the Steelers offensive struggles in 2019.

It was painful to see. Even at their best, it was hard to watch quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges perform without cringing just a little. And at their worst? Let’s just say it’s a good thing those little “bricks” they sell down at the Strip District are made of foam and not the stuff they use for the ones that build houses.

  • The Steelers offense finished near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistic–including total yards and points per game.

But what could you do? Even before Roethlisberger’s injury, the other two “Killer BeesAntonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell had departed. And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner looked more than capable of filling the voids created at both the receiver and running back position, they were either too injured or too compromised due to quarterback play to really be of much help last year.

But if we’re being honest, while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are fine players, the odds of them ever reaching the levels of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were fairly long to begin with, Big Ben or no Big Ben.

It’s quite popular in this day and age of social media for fans to demand their favorite teams clean house and get rid of the divas and the troublemakers. Such was the case in recent years when it came to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and even Ben due to his advancing age.

  • But be careful what you wish for.

I went to a Penguins game recently and, in addition to the absence of center Sidney Crosby (long-term injury) and winger Phil Kessel (traded this past offseason), the team was missing center Evgeni Malkin due to an illness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the game went into overtime tied at zero. The Penguins won, but it was quite obvious that they were a different team while missing so much fire power on offense.

Maybe the Penguins are a bad example, considering they’ve managed to remain in playoff contention despite the loss of so much offense. But I wonder what their 2019/2020 campaign would look right now if Malkin were out with some sort of long-term ailment. Instead, he’s carried the team on his back and is playing some of the best hockey of his life. It helps that he’s one of the best hockey players in the entire world.

Imagine if, along with Kessel, Malkin was traded away–something many fans have called for in recent years?

  • It’s easy to talk about getting rid of a bunch of players. It’s quite another to replace them.

Not only did the Steelers offense lose All Pros, they spent a good bit of 2019 dealing with the absences of the Pro Bowlers who were entrusted with replacing those All Pros.

Obviously, the best teams don’t just dominate on one side of the ball, they find success through balance. But if I had my choice, I think I’d much rather have a potent offense and a struggling defense than the other way around.

  • You can always out-score your opponents, but it’s just so hard to totally shut them down.

That’s what Pittsburgh’s defense was tasked with in 2019, and while it held up better than most units would have, it couldn’t perform miracles.

Finally, the Steelers may have helped you fall in-love with defense again in 2019. But I hope they also forced you to appreciate the importance of a really good offense.

 

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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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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