Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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James Conner’s Injury Puts Steelers Success Squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s Shoulders

Cue the “tape” from past posts, but this is one time when a blogger begs to be wrong. The injury that James Conner suffered against the Chargers is worse than expected, and Mike Tomlin has already ruled out Conner for the Raiders game.

In early September, Jaylen Samuels‘ roster spot was seen as somewhat of a luxury pending the return of Le’Veon Bell will likely start for the Steelers this Sunday in Oakland’s Black Hole. Stevan Ridley will back him up, with Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds’ brother, joining the active roster from the practice squad.

Coming off of a two game losing streak, this is the last thing the Steelers need.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner

Ben Roethlisberger hands off James Conner. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Lockhaven.com

Steelers Success Now Rests with Roethlisberger

The irony here is that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichnter may very well have been trying to avoid this situation.

Three years ago with Le’Veon Bell out and DeAngelo Williams carrying the load, Tomlin was asked if he would try to work Jordan Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint into the lineup to prepare them. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, arguing that such a move might backfire if production suffered.

  • Well, DeAngelo Williams did get injured, and the Steelers started Todman and Toussaint in the playoffs.

As noted in our review of the meltdown against the Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger has now thrown 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. James Conner has touched the ball less than 20 times in 4 out of those same 5 games.

While Steel Curtain Rising has exactly ZERO inside information to back this up, this shift happened just as it was becoming clear that Le’Veon Bell was going to sit out the entire year. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have been trying to reduce Conner’s work load by passing more.

  • How does the saying about “Best intentions of Mice and Men” go?

While Jaylen Sammuels has shown promise, he’s never been a number one back before.

Mike Tomlin talked about taking a running back by committee approach, but the fact is that the success of the Steelers offense rests squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington.

One of the takeaways from the Chargers game should have been that the Steelers needed a more balanced approach on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger seems to be trying to do too much. Now the Steelers have no choice but to air it out.

Steelers Shuffle Roster Due to Injuries

Up until now, the Steelers 2018 roster has been fairly stable with very few in season moves. That changed today as the Steelers put Justin Hunter on injured reserve making room for Trey Edmunds.

Not taking any chances, the Steelers signed former New England Patriots running back Ralph Webb to their practice squad and cut linebacker Farrington Huguenin.

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Steelers Report Card for Meltdown to Chargers – Tripping Instead of Leaning In Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher depressed to see his students tripping instead of leaning in as the finish line approaches, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the meltdown against the Chargers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Justin Jones, Joey Bose, Steelers vs Chargers

Justin Jones & Joey Bose sack Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Nowak, Chargers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s stat line of 19-45 for 281 for 2 TD’s and 1 pick looks respectable. And the Steelers signal caller looked sharp at times. Yet his interception was costly and likely took points off the board. He also failed to connect with an open WR, although the WR may be responsible, nonetheless that also took points off the board. That brings Ben below the line. Grade: D

Running Backs
James Conner had two touchdowns and 60 yards on 15 carries including a long run and a key 4th down conversion. Roosevelt Nix looked strong blocking. Jaylen Samuels had two carries for 5 yards and looked good scoring Pittsburgh’s last touchdown through the air. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s Gronk, but he can catch tough passes over the middle, more importantly, he can move DB’s to gain extra yards. Jesse James had one catch for 7 yards and blocked well. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
The WiFi was on as Antonio Brown looked every bit the Steelers number one wide receiver as he caught 10 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.  JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quieter night, going 6 for 49. Ryan Switzer had two catches for 9 yards and Justin Hunter got open for a sure TD that he either under ran or Roethlisberger over threw. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Running backs had room to run. Ben Roethlisberger had a ridiculous amount of time to throw on many occasions. The Los Angeles Chargers only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and only touched him 2 other times. But on the first series of the 4th quarter a holding call put the Steelers back, followed by a sack, which in turn set up a punt return for a touchdown. On this page, grades are earned based on performance and results. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave got the only pressure of the second half with his sack of Philip Rivers. Stephon Tuitt deflected a pass forcing a punt early on. Cam Heyward got pressure in the first half. However, the pressure was absent in the 2nd half, and Justin Jackson broke through to the second level too many times during the meltdown. Grade: D

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, L.J. Fort, Steelers vs Chargers

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and L.J. Fort gang tackle. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
L.J. Fort played for most of the night and led the team in tackles. Vince Williams was next. T.J. Watt got some good pressure in the first half. Bud Dupree played injured, splitting time with Anthony Chickillo and Ola Adeniyi. The linebackers had a lot of responsibility and to their credit the Chargers got very few after catch yards. They made some strong plays in the first half, but couldn’t come up with a big play in the second half. Grade: C-

Secondary
Philip Rivers is as hot as a quarterback can be right now, and the defense contained him in the first half, not so much in the second half. Terrell Edmunds had some nice plays and made the only splash play of the night for the defense. Joe Haden would have had an interception in the end zone but got KOed by Sean Davis instead. That could have been the difference in this game. Again, the Steelers defense needed a take away in the 2nd half and didn’t get one. Grade: D

Special Teams
Sure, the Steelers had a partially blocked punt that was nice. Jordan Berry boomed off some nice punts. But Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And the Steelers special teams seemed to commit penalties on each return.  Again.

  • And of course there’s the punt returned for a touchdown.

YES, it should have been called back and wasn’t. But that one illegal block in the back didn’t prevent the other 10 guys from not touching the returner. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Chargers

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Whenever a team suffers such a catastrophic 2nd half meltdown, the easy out is to point the finger at the coach for allowing complacency to set in.

  • The Steelers however, showed no lack of hustle or focus in the 2nd half.

No one can be accused of mailing it in. And nor can Mike Tomlin be faulted for the critical plays where officiating wasn’t at the issue. Tomlin didn’t throw the pick, miss the PAT or collide with his fellow defensive back to break up an interception.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger has now attempted over 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. While the results are not universally bad, a more balanced approach would be welcome, particularly because the Steelers have shown they can run the ball.

  • Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin need to take a long look at a run defense that suddenly seems to be gouged with double-digit yard runs with alarming regularity.

However, perhaps these last several games have revealed the truth that the 2018 Steelers defense is a unit that is capable of playing well for stretches, but one that simply doesn’t have the talent to do all it needs to do during a 60 minute football game. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Had the Steelers won, this space would consider several candidates for the award. But critical failures in all three phases contributed to the second half meltdown and trying to award an Unsung Hero Award feels a little bit too much like the pro version of giving out a participation trophy so we won’t do it here.

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Steelers 2nd Half Meltdown vs Chargers Makes Pittsburgh Look More Like Pretenders than Contenders

Good teams define themselves with December football. No hardware is awarded in December, but that is when the cream rises to the top, and teams prime themselves for championship runs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a chance to do that on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.

  • And for 30 minutes, Pittsburgh played the part of a team readying for a championship run.

Yet, 30 minutes later, something very different happened and, when it all ended, the Steelers had lost 33-30. The hard truth behind their second half meltdown may be that Pittsburgh is simply a pretender and not a contender.

Terrell Edmunds, Keenan Allen, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds fails to stop Keenan Allen on a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Open Game in Championship Form*

Everyone knew the stakes when the action started at Heinz Field Sunday night. The Steelers held a narrow lead in the AFC North, while the red hot Chargers were chasing a Wild Card slot.

  • And for 30 minutes, there was no doubt as to which team was stepping up.

The Steelers wasted little time starting the fireworks, as Ben Roethlisberger struck Antonio Brown on a 46 yard pass that ended at the one. One play later and James Conner put Pittsburgh up by a touchdown.

On Pittsburgh’s next possession, the Chargers helped the Steelers out with a blatant pass interference penalty on Ryan Switzer. Again, this set the Steelers up for another James Conner one yard touchdown plunge.

The Chargers responded with a touchdown of their own, thanks to an uncalled false start penalty, but the Steelers responded with a field goal.

  • The Steelers closed the half with another one of their trademark 2 minute drives that included a 16 yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and another touchdown to Antonio Brown.

On the other side of the ball, Philip Rivers was completing passes, but the Steelers defense was yielding no quarter : A sack by Terrell Edmunds, a deflected pass by Stephon Tuitt, pressure from Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt along with stout coverage by L.J. Fort led to four Chargers first half punts.

  • The Steelers first half hadn’t been flawless.

But they’d left some points on the board, but they entered the locker room holding a 23-7 lead, and those missed plays looked to be little more than footnotes as another Carolina like rout appeared to be in the making….

Steelers Suffer Epic Meltdown in 2nd Half

The LA Chargers left both Steelers coaches and amateur film reviewers with a lot of tape to dissect from the worst meltdowns in franchise history. I’ll leave it to others to dig into the root causes and adjustments that the Chargers made and that the Steelers failed to counter during the implosion.

Terrell Edmunds, Justin Jackson, Steelers vs Chargers

Justin Jackson stiff arms Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers could have put the game away with a score on their opening drive, but instead had to settle for a punt plus 5 minutes burned off the clock.

  • The Chargers response was telling.

Conventional wisdom says that when you’re 16 points behind, on the road, and you’ve only got 25 minutes left on the clock, you rollout your hurry up offense. San Diego didn’t do that. Instead, they methodically moved down the field and scored a touchdown, in a drive the consumed 8 minutes.

At that pace, the Chargers didn’t seem to stand a chance of mounting a comeback, even if their defense could force the Steelers to punt, as they did.

  • But a Desmond King punt return for a touchdown changed everything for San Diego in a heartbeat.
  • After their second successful two point conversion, the Chargers had tied the game.

The Chargers responded with another touchdown to take the lead, but only after Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden taking away a near-certain Haden interception. Ben Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers for a touchdown, this time by connecting with Jaylen Sammuels, but San Diego had enough time on the clock to get in field goal position.

After three tries, thanks to Steelers special team penalties, the Chargers won it at the closing gun.

Who Not to Blame for the Loss

Citing a desire not to send any more money to New York, Mike Tomlin stopped short of blaming the officials for the loss. Others have taken up his cause.

  • An uncalled but blatant false start should have nullified the Charger’s first touchdown
  • An illegal block in the back should have nullified their second touchdown
  • The Steelers got screwed on a spot and were forced to burn a time out
  • A couple of questionable holding penalties scuttled Steelers drives in the 2nd half
  • The off sides penalty that allowed a Chargers re-kick as time expired looked questionable

Poor officiating certainly hurt the Steelers, but pointing the finger at the zebras for this loss might feel good, but it only papers over some deficiencies that Mike Tomlin and company need to address quickly.

Mirror Shows Steelers Tripping Instead of Leaning In

Bad calls are part of the game. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they do not. Some bad calls have greater impact than others, but when they do occur, good teams must stay focused to overcome those.

Poor officiating didn’t force:

  • Chris Boswell to miss an extra point
  • Ben Roethlisberger to throw an interception trying to reach Vance McDonald
  • A failed connection between Roethlisberger and a wide open Justin Hunter in the end zone

If the Steelers make two out of those three plays, they have the points they need to win the game.

And all of those plays came in the first half, when the Steelers were playing well. Bad calls didn’t keep Philip Rivers clean, as Javon Hargrave’s sack seemed to be the only time the Steelers defense touched him in the 2nd half.

Poor officiating also didn’t allow Justin Jackson to run rampant in the Steelers secondary throughout the second half with runs of 18, 19, 18, and 11 yards. There were any number of occasions in the 2nd half when a sack, a forced fumble, or an interception would have shifted momentum back to the Steelers.

  • Yet, the Steelers defense failed to make a play.

December football is the time when true championship contenders “lean in” towards the finish line. Against the Chargers the Steelers started by leaning in, only to trip over their own two feet.

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Eli Rogers Practices. Should Justin Hunter or James Washington Look Over Their Shoulders?

The Eli Rogers returns to practice this week for the Steelers, which gives Pittsburgh 21 days to either activate him or put him on season ending IR. As it currently stands, if the Steelers do activate Eli Rogers that will mean that someone’s roster spot is in jeopardy. Which begs the question:

Currently the Steelers have wide receivers Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter on their roster. That gives them 6 wide outs which about brings them to their ceiling.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers returns to practice with the Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Obviously, barring an injury in the next 21 says Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer are staying put. Darrius Heyward-Bey only has one target this year, but because of his role on special teams his job is likely safe too.

  • But Justin Hunter and James Washington are no so lucky.

Although he was a four year veteran when the Steelers signed Justin Hunter as a free agent in the spring of 2017, Pittsburgh liked him then more for his potential rather than past performance. And two years later potential remains Justin Hunter’s calling card in the Steelers offense. Hunter only has 7 catches on 20 targets.

The Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, a move which drew immediate comparisons to JuJu Smith-Schuster, their 2nd round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Washington was close to a non-stop highlight reel in the 2018 preseason, despite Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger’s attempts to quell expectations. 11 games into the season, it is easy to understand why they were so quick to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. James Washington has 8 catches on 25 targets.

Steelers 2018 Offense Needs a Legit 3rd Wide Receiver

To revert to Tomlin speak the 2018 Steelers are still “writing their story.” But with 11 chapters on paper, Randy Fichtner’s offense is proving to be an upgrade from Todd Haley’s. Red Zone performance is up and at 45.71% third down conversions are higher than they ever were during the Todd Haley era.

Look across the depth chart, and its hard to find any one area that’s under performing or has a glaring deficiency. (Well, OK, a James Conner injury will change that in a hurry.)

  • But 11 games into 2018, the Steelers offense still doesn’t have a legit 3rd wide receiver.

Ryan Switzer has done everything this offense has asked of him and last week the kid certainly proved he can take a hit, but being a legit 4th wide receiver isn’t the same as being a third wide out.

  • He may not be the weapon that Antwaan Randle El, was, but Eli Rogers has already proven he’s a legitimate 3rd wide receiver in the Steelers offense.

Rogers of course injured his ACL in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars and his knee must be tested. However, if Eli Rogers is healthy and ready to go, he’d provide an immediate upgrade from either James Washington or Justin Hunter.

  • In such a situation look for Justin Hunter to get a visit from the The Turk.

The Steelers aren’t going to cut James Washington, and putting him on injured reserve would end his season, whereas no team is going to be in a rush to ink Justin Hunter to a new deal should Pittsburgh cut him loose.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Broncos – Failing Because You Forget to Write Your Name Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is frustrated at watching his students flunk assignments because they’re forgetting to do things like put their names on their papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2018 loss to Denver at Mile High Stadium.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Lindsay, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs. Broncos

Terrell Edmunds tackles Philip Lindsay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had his moments, including and impressive streak of consecutive pass completions , and hitting long touchdown pass from his own end zone. He also executed a game plan that forced him to be disciplined in getting the ball out quickly. But Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. The first came got the Broncos back into the game on a drive when a touchdown very well may have sealed the outcome. The second came when the Steelers needed to score. Grade: D

Running Back
James Conner didn’t get a lot of opportunities to run the ball, but behind Roosevelt Nix’s blocking Conner looked like he might be able to put the game on ice had to coaches chosen to go that route. He also caught 4 passes on 4 targets. Nonetheless, James Conners fumbled at a critical moment which set up Denver’s go ahead touchdown. Ball security is becoming an issue for James Conners. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Jesse James had his number called 4 times and each time he delivered. Vance McDonald also had 3 catches on a day when a short passing game reigned supreme. Xavier Grimble had what should have been an excellent 23 yard run turn into a turnover instead of a touchdown in large part because he didn’t secure the ball properly. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
There was good and bad here. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97 yard touchdown should have been a game breaker. However, JuJu missed an earlier deep pass. Antonio Brown made one excellent toe-tapping catch only to miss another one which was more necessary. Ryan Switzer proved himself to be a valuable underneath target and showed he can take a hit. With Eli Rogers beginning to practice, James Washington needs prove he deserves a roster spot. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Denver has a fierce pass rush, yet Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and neither were game-changing plays. The Steelers run blocking looked to be good enough, but honestly establishing the running game was never an priority of the coaching staff. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward’s sack of Case Keenum could have been a game turning play, and the duo’s numbers in terms of tackles for losses and QB hits show that they were aggressive. Still, the Steelers defensive line misses Stephon Tuitt, and if Phillip Lindsay 7.9 rushing average isn’t on the defensive line, it starts with them. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had a sack but it was L.J. Fort who actually tied Jon Bostic for the lead in tackles, but a blown Bostic coverage allowed Denver to make their first advanced into the Red Zone. T.J. Watt had one tackle. The stat sheet shows that Philip Lindsay had a lot of 2 yard runs. He also had two 8 yard runs, a 9, a 12, a 14, an 18 and a 32 yard run. A lot of that’s on the linebackers. Grade: D

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds showed off his athleticism by running down Philip Lindsay on a couple of long runs, which is good but in at least one of those cases Edmunds was compensating for a bad angle on the part of Sean Davis. Joe Haden had one of his most difficult days as a Steeler, giving up a long pass to Matt LaCosse and getting burned by Emmanuel Sanders. Mike Hilton’s trade mark has been timing blitzes perfectly, but he got flagged for a neutral zone infraction. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers fake field goal

Chris Boswell prepares to throw it to Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
The return games were non-elements for both teams. Jordan Berry had a sound day kicking and Chis Boswell made all of his kicks – save for the one that got blocked, which is inexcusiable given Denver’s tape on that front.

On the flip side, the Chris Boswell to Alejandro Villanueva field goal was the first successful fake field goal in memory for the Steelers and the Steelers special teams effectively added made up for their earlier error. Grade: C

Coaching
Not that he, or more importantly Art Rooney II pay much attention, but Steelers coaches haven’t felt much social media heat during their five game winning streak. That ended with the loss to the Broncos.

  • As if Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner are somehow responsible for turnovers.

On offense it is easy to second guess Randy Fichtner’s short-passing game plan, but the truth is that he kept Ben Roethlisberger clean, the Steelers moved the chains and led in time of possession. None of that mattered much thanks to two end zone turnovers.

  • While the turnovers were the key to the game, they do obscure an afternoon that was rougher for Keith Butler’s defense than most commentators are acknowledging.

While the defense didn’t revert to its September form, it gave up several long plays and struggled against the run. Moreover, as Mike Tomlin indicated in his press conference, the Steelers defense could have altered the dynamic with a turnover, but none was forth coming.

Individual turnovers are never a coach’s fault, ball security is becoming an issue with a few of the offense’s key players and Mike Tomlin needs to see if this can be addressed systemically. This loss is hardly devastating, but Mike Tomlin must ensure that a snowball effect does not ensue. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Von Miller is easily the NFL’s most dynamic defensive player today. He’s got a Troy Polamaluesqe ability to make game-changing plays at critical moments. Being asked to start your first game against him cannot be easily. But that’s what the Steelers asked Chukwuma Okorafor to do, Okorafor delivered and for that he win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers latest loss to the Broncos at Mile High.

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More Mile High Misery: 3 Turnovers Fuel Broncos 24-17 Win Over Steelers

Denver’s Mile High Stadium is the site of landmark Steelers victories such as the 1984 playoff upset of the Orange Crush and the 2005 AFC Championship win that paved the way for Super Bowl XL. But it is also the same venue where Steelers have suffered several agonizing defeats:

With that backdrop, Mike Tomlin’s 2018 Steelers traveled to Mile High Stadium and lost a hard fought game to the Denver Broncos to the tune of 24 to 17. And, like so many defeats before, what stings the worst about this loss is its self-inflicted nature.

 

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Steelers Sketch Game Narrative by Leaving 10 Points on the Board

Every football game tells its own story. In some games, the protagonists spontaneously interact against each other on the field leaving the outcome in doubt until the final bell. Last week’s win over the Jaguars offers a perfect example of that type of game.

  • The story of other games is formulaic, evolving like a plotted novel whose finale is predictable from the first page onward.

Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver was an example of that second type of game. The Steelers established the narrative in the contest’s first 16 minutes, and they kept going back to its familiar refrain until the bitter end.

  • On their very first possession, the Steelers marched down the field to the Broncos 30 where Justin Simmons blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.

The Broncos have been blocking kicks all season, and Justin Simmons has already blocked a field goal. Danny Smith knew this, but it still happened. Only 9:36 had elapsed in the game, and Steelers special team’s failures had already taken 3 points off the board.

The Broncos didn’t respond with anything spectacular, save for transforming a blown Jon Bostic coverage into a 29 yard gain, but they managed to kick a field goal without anyone from Pittsburgh touching it.

Ben Roethlisberger, mindful of the to need stay out of Von Miller’s sights, nickeled and dimed his way down the field with short passes to Jesse James and Ryan Switzer, until reaching Denver’s 27 where he hit Xaiver Grimble in the middle.

With most of the Broncos defense concentrated on the strong side of the Steelers offense, Grimble had a straight shot to the end zone. However, Will Parks arrived in time to hit him at the goal line and knocked the ball lose where it rolled out of bounds in the end zone. So it was touchback Denver instead of touchdown Pittsburgh.

The game was only 16 minutes old and the Steelers had left 10 points off the board.

Plot Twist: Fake Field Goal and Quick Strike TD Keep People in Their Seats

Even the most serialized Hollywood sitcom manages to provide enough plot twists to keep the audience in their seats, and so it was with the Steelers at Mile High. At the end of the first half the Steelers authored the first of two plot twisting teasers that they executed well enough to convince everyone that this was a game that might go off script.

  • After getting on the board with a field goal of their own, the Steelers then gave up an all-too easy 75 yard touchdown drive, putting themselves behind 0-3.

But, with just over 3 minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back, and proceeded to hit Vance McDonald and Ryan Switzer to bring the Steelers down to Denver’s 2 where the drive stalled. With little time remaining, Mike Tomlin opted to take the safe route and kick a short field goal going into the half.

  • Except the ball went directly to Chris Boswell who tossed a 2 yard strike to Alejandro Villanueva tying the score at 10.

The Steelers fireworks continued in the second half. After Denver pinned the Steelers deep into their own territory, Randy Fichtner opted to risk a pass from his own end zone, where Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster with a 97 yard touchdown pass, putting the Steelers up 17 to 10.

The Steelers defense limited Denver to just two yards on the next drive as Pittsburgh gave every appearance of a superior team that was faithfully playing its role by taking control of the game….

Steelers Stick to Self-Destructive Storyline Set in First Half

…Except that the Steelers of course weren’t the superior team on this afternoon as they quickly reverted to the storyline they’d set for themselves early in the game.

On the Steelers next possession, Ben Roethlisberger targeted but badly missed Antonio Brown. Chris Harris Jr. intercepted, and it only took the Denver Broncos two plays to get Emmanuel Sanders into the end zone for the tying score.

As the third quarter ended, the Steelers again moved into scoring position as James Conner reached the Denver 21 yard line, only to fumble the ball away to the Broncos. Denver fed the ball to Phillip Lindsay who the Steelers were powerless to stop, and the Broncos scored the go ahead touchdown to begin the 4th quarter.

  • Every good story has a convincing climax, and the Steelers latest moment of Mile High Misery is no exception.

Javon Hargrave got the end game sequence started with a sack of Case Keenum that forced a punt. Ben Roethlisberger got the ball with 4:26 left to go, and he moved the offense down the field in workman like fashion. The Steelers reached to the Broncos 3 just inside the 2 minute warning.

After an unsuccessful pass and a 1 yard run, on third and goal from the two, almost as if on cue, Ben Roethlisberger tried to force the ball to Antonio Brown and Shelby Harris ended the game with an interception.

The Steelers Mile High Misery is of Their Own Making

Of course a football game isn’t a novel or a TV show. Outcomes are never pre-ordained. Whenever pushed during the season to “speak in broad strokes” about some sort of tendency, Mike Tomlin will respond by insisting that “We are still writing our own story.”

  • And so it is, as it has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mile High Stadium.

While the Denver Broncos offense certainly revealed and then exploited a number of weaknesses within the Steelers defense, Pittsburgh’s offense was responsible for the defining plays in this contest.

  • And, as it does at Mile High, the Steelers offense provided the game’s defining moments by turning the ball over at critical moments.

This latest loss brings Pittsburgh record at Denver to 5-13. And like so many times before, the Steelers Mile High Misery is of their own making.

 

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Watch Tower Special Edition: Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap Transform Conflict into Charity

The “Watch Tower’s” lights have been out for a while as material has abounded but time has been in short supply. However a recent player-pundit spat prompts us this special edition.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Ryan Switzer in the Steelers win over Tampa Bay

The Inherent Tension Between Journalists and Athletes

An inherent tension defies the relationship between sports journalists and the athletes they cover. Journalists, unlike us bloggers, job depends on getting athletes to talk to them. But by the same token, a journalist’s credibility with his or her readers depends on them writing objectively about those athletes.

  • And by definition, it is inevitable that at some point are going to rub the men in the locker room the wrong way.

Usually these tensions remain below the surface, although writers like Jim Wexell frequently share insights into how easy or difficult it is to talk various players. Sometimes the public gets wind of these tensions.

Greg Lloyd stopped talking with much of the local media in the mid-1990’s, and John Stiegerwald even described how Greg Lloyd once physically shoved him out of the way while he was trying to interview another player. If memory serves, Rod Woodson barred reports from the Tribune-Review from a press conference when he announced he was leaving Pittsburgh.

More recently Ben Roethlisberger blew off an interview with reporters who overheard him explain “I ain’t gonna win no Rooney award anyway.” (The post-Midgeville Roethlisberger did in fact win The Chief Award a year later.) And just last summer Antonio Brown blasted Ed Bouchette over an injury report.

But if tension is natural, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be resolved, as Ryan Switzer and 93.7 The Fan’s Colin Dunlap demonstrate.

Switzer – Dunlap Turn Twitter Spat into Charity Fundraising Challenge

If you’re reading this you know that the Steelers 20-16 win over the Jaguars came down to a hectic and heroic goal line situation set up a James Conner drop and by several Ben Roethlisberger JuJu Smith-Schuster hookups.

The target of Ben Roethlisberger’s penultimate pass was Ryan Switzer, prompting Colin Dunlap to make this observation:

Ryan Switzer responded:

However, rather than given into the corrosive nature of bad blood, Colin Dunlap and Ryan Switzer decided to do something constructive:

In response, Ryan Switzer pledged to donate $40-per-catch to UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department for the rest of the season.

  • And the duo didn’t stop there.

The two opened their challenge to the public and are inviting everyone to join in which they can do via the Pittsburgh Children’s hospital page. Their orginal goal was to raise $5000 dollars, but as of 4:00 pm Eastern on Saturday November 24th it appears they’ve raised over $10,000 already, with team mate T.J. Watt donating $1000 dollars.

While this won’t be the last time a journalist butt’s heads with one of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in this time of tension and violence both Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap win Watch Tower Kudos for finding a way to transform conflict into an opportunity to raise money for UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department.

Click here to donate to the The Ryan Switzer Reception Challenge.

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Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey – Despite “Losing” Brown Showed Why Still NFL’s Best

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown had five receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers dramatic come-from-behind 20-16 win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday.

Just another ordinary day for a living legend of a pass-catcher who is considered by many to be the very best in the NFL at his position. In-fact, if we’re being honest, few were even that impressed with No. 84’s day, as he was deemed the “loser” in the one-on-one battle against Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey–a man who is also considered to be the very best in the league at his position.

Jalen Ramsey certainly frustrated the perennial First-Team All-Pro receiver for most of  the day, limiting him to three receptions on eight targets in-which the two were going head-to-head.

Antonio Brown, Jalen Ramsey, Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars, Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey

Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“Losing” seems like such a poor choice of words for a battle in-which Antonio Brown totally schooled Jalen Ramsey at least a few times–including on a double-move early in the game, a play that would have surely gone for a score had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not been having an almost comically incompetent first half against the Jaguars’ stout pass defense.

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions on the day, including two to Ramsey on plays in-which he was covering Brown.

However, better throws  would have likely led to touchdowns on both occasions–and this was especially the case on another play in the first half when Antonio Brown was running free down the seam. Yes, it was a great display of instinct and athleticism when Jalen Ramsey undercut the route and intercepted Roethlisberger’s throw before it could reach Brown. But, the fact of the matter is, a more accurate pass would have led to an easy touchdown for No. 84.

  • Individual battles, aside, Antonio Brown did make two key plays that helped bring the Steelers all the way back.

The first came at the end of the third quarter, two plays after the Jaguars scored a touchdown to take a seemingly insurmountable 16-0 lead.

Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on second down, and his first option appeared to be tight end Vance McDonald, who ran a quick route over the middle. But Vance McDonald was covered, and Ben Roethlisberger decided to hold onto the football, after a quick little pump in his tight end’s direction. As soon as Ben Roethlisberger pumped, a Jaguars safety rushed towards Antonio Brown, who also ran a short route.

But the split-second that the safety jumped up to cover Brown, Antonio Brown instinctively ran by him, down the middle of the field and had nothing but yards and yards of grass surrounding him. Roethlisberger unleashed a bomb that Brown pulled in and took the distance for a 78-yard touchdown that gave Pittsburgh its first points of the day.

  • And with less than a minute remaining and the Steelers trailing, 16-13, Antonio Brown came through yet again.

Facing a third and 10 from the Jacksonville 27, following a drop by running back James Conner that would likely have given the Steelers the game-winning touchdown, the offense needed to come up with something big, or else have to settle for a long field goal attempt from kicker Chris Boswell, who hasn’t been having one of his better seasons.

Fear-not, because despite being covered by Jalen Ramsey, Antonio Brown pulled in a critical pass from Roethlisberger, and not only secured a first down, picked up 25 yards down to the Jaguars’ two-yard line, setting up No. 7’s one-yard dive into the end zone with five second remaining in the game.

  • With 62 receptions for 807 through 10 weeks, Brown is on pace to have one of the least productive years of his career–or so it would seem.

In his first season with Randy Fichtner as his offensive coordinator, Anotnio Brown has 11 touchdowns–including at least one in his past eight games–and is well on his way to smashing his career high of 13. Furthermore, Antoino Brown has continued to have the clutch gene, as Sunday’s heroics, along with his game-winning score against the Bengals, have clearly illustrated.

Let’s face it, teams aren’t going to allow Antonio Brown to dominate statistically this season like he has so many times in the past. And when all is said and done, he might not be anywhere near the league leaders in receptions or yards.

But while Antonio Brown’s statistics have slipped a bit in 2018, his status as the very best wide receiver in the NFL has not.

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