Looking Glass Tales: Steelers Defeat Titans 27-24, Start 6-0, Evoking Memories of ’92 Win over Oilers

It was the middle of the season. Time for the two biggest boys on the block to fight. The competition was intense. Hits were hard. One side went up big. The game appeared out of reach. The other fought back. The outcome hinged on a final kicked ball….

  • That summarizes the Steelers 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.

It also summarizes a similar contest two franchises waged in the fall of 1992. Today’s game was between the AFC’s last undefeated teams, whereas yesteryear’s was for AFC Central supremacy. Two games, 27 years apart would mirror each other to a T. With one critical exception….

Diontae Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Steelers vs Titans

Diontae Johnson reminds Malcolm Bulter the Steelers have receivers not named Claypool. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

First Half – One of the Best Halves of the Tomlin Era

Pittsburgh’s first half against the Titans has to rank as one of the top ten best halves that the Steelers have played during the Mike Tomlin era. Ben Roethlisberger set the tone by asking his coach to receive should they win the toss.

The Steelers won, and Roethlisberger delivered as he, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Diontae Johnson presented a clinic on possession football. By mixing short passes and aggressive runs Pittsburgh piced together a 16-play drive that burned more than  9 minutes off the clock.

The Titans All-World running back Derrick Henry could do nothing but watch as Diontae Johnson put the Steelers up by 7 with barely 5 minutes left in the first quarter.

Vince Williams limited Henry’s next carry to one yard, Cam Sutton saw to it that Ryan Tannehill’s next pass fell incomplete, and just like that the Titans were punting back to the Steelers.

  • In a nutshell, that is the story of the first half.
Benny Snell, Steelers vs Titans 2020

Benny Snell puts the Steelers up 14-0. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

The Steelers got the ball back and executed another 13 play drive that consumed another 7 minutes off the clock, this time ending with Benny Snell pounding it in at the goal line.

  • The Titans responded with a long drive of their own.

But by the time Tennessee scored a touchdown just over 5 minutes were left in the half, and the Steelers used two and a half of those tack on a 30-yard field goal. Then it was T.J. Watt’s turn to stuff Henry for a loss, which set up another Titans 3 and out.

Backed up against his own end zone Brett Kern boomed off an impressive punt, which Ray-Ray McCloud returned 57 yards all the way to the Titans 17. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson for his 2nd touchdown of the afternoon, putting Pittsburgh up 24 to 7.

The Steelers forced the Titans to turn over on downs, and instead of playing it safe, Mike Tomlin went for the end zone, but unfortunately Dane Cruikshank picked him off. Disappointing, yes? But an interception with 14 seconds remaining in the half when you’re leading 24-7 really isn’t anything to worry about. Is it….?

Historical Interlude – Steelers vs. Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium November 1992

Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers shocked the NFL by upsetting the Houston Oilers on opening day and followed that victory by winning four of their next six to set up a showdown at Three Rivers Stadium for sole ownership of the AFC Central lead.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

  • This was one of those games that NFL Films couldn’t have scripted better if it tried.

The first half saw the Steelers and Oilers fight to a 7-6 advantage in a game that evoked some of the contest the two teams had fought in the 1970’s. Yet, in the 3rd quarter the Oilers took control, scoring a touchdown and then with in minutes returning a strip sack to score another, to hold a 20-7 lead late into the 4th quarter against and offense not known for its speed at scoring points.

Yet, Neil O’Donnell rallied Pittsburgh, hitting tight ends Adrian Cooper and Eric Green for touchdowns, the latter of which gave the Steelers a 21 to 20 lead just ahead of the two minute warning.

Sloppy Second Half Raises Blood Pressure Across Steelers Nation

…As it turns out, Roethlisberger’s interception at the close of the first half foreshadowed things to come. Sure, T.J. Watt started the half with a sack that set up a Titans 3 and out, and the Steelers responded with another Chris Boswell field goal, making it 27-7. But things unraveled after that.

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick blinked, allowing A.J. Brown to take it to the house for 73 yards
  • A tipped ball gave the Titans an interception at the Steelers 30
  • The defense limited Tennessee to 3, but the score stood at 27-17 with a quarter remaining
  • The Steelers stopped Tennessee on 4th & 1 at the goal, but committed a penalty
  • The Titans took advantage and made it 27-24, with 10 minutes to play

The Steelers responded by milking 7:38 off the clock, but the Titans intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone, giving them the ball at the Steelers 20 with 2:34 left to play and a chance to win it all.

As It Was in 1992, It is Again in 2020: Wide Right!

It’s ironic how two games between two franchises separated by 10,221 days can evolve as mirror images of each other.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had clawed their way back from defeat to hold a 1 point lead with little more than two minutes separating them from a win over the Houston Oilers and the division lead.

The 2020 Tennessee Titans had clawed their way back from disaster and two minutes separated them from turning the tables on the Steelers and establishing themselves as the AFC’s last undefeated team.

  • The 1992 Oilers marched down the field reaching field goal range as time threatened to expire
  • The 2020 Titans marched down field reaching field goal range as a 4th and 13 made it now or never

Mirror images indeed, except that ending was the only element to escape the reversal of fortunes that all looking glasses trap in their reflection:

  • Like Al Del Greco 27 years and 11 months earlier, Stephen Gostkowski field goal sailed wide right!

And the Steelers left Nashville with a 6-0 record.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns – Who Didn’t Get an A Edition?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see his student diligently working until the bell, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 home win over the Cleveland Browns.

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled a bit early with the RPOs. But once he settled down he played efficient football and continued to take care of the ball completing 14 of 22 for one touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions and no fumbles. Mason Rudolph competed his 1 pass in mop up duty. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner hit the holes hard putting the Browns on notice that this was a going to be a physical game. He finished the day with 101 yards on 20 carries while adding in another catch. Benny Snell only got 17 yards, but he helped close the game. Anthony McFarland had 3 carries and 1 catch. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had quiet day with two catches for 9 yards and Vance McDonald was not targeted. Cleveland’s front seven is a stout group and Ben Roethlisberger was clean and running backs had room to run and the tight ends certainly contributed to that. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool followed up on his breakout game with a 36 yard reception that set up one touchdown and a run that scored another touchdown. The Browns decided they didn’t need to worry about James Washington, and Washington made them pay with 4 catches including a 28 yard touchdown reception. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 2 catches for 6 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
5.1 yards rushing, 4 quarterback hits and 2 sacks – all against one of the NFL’s best front seven groupings and with their best player, David DeCastro, out injured. An excellent day for the Steelers offensive line. Grade: A

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt sack Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
He might not get ink that some of the other players on this unit get, but Stephon Tuitt is quietly piecing together a monster season. Against the Browns he had a half sack, two and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage 2 QB hits and a forced fumble. Cam Heyward led the team in tackles and pushed more than one pile back to deny conversions. Officially Tyson Alualu had one half of tackle behind scrimmage, but the Browns inept rushing numbers tell a different tale. Chris Wormley only had one tackle, but he stuffed his man. Grade: A

Linebackers
Vince Williams was next with 6 and 1 for a loss. Devin Bush only played a half before tearing his ACL, but that was enough for half of a sack, a QB hit and a five tackles. Bud Dupree had two sacks while T.J. Watt clocked in with 1.5 tackles behind scrimmage. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick started the game with a tone setting pick six that the Cleveland offense never really overcame. Terrell Edmunds name wasn’t heard much, which is a good thing, but he did bat away a pass. How good were Joe Haden and Steven Nelson? Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 5 catches for 65 yards. Cam Sutton had an interception. That Browns were 1-12 on third down. Grade: A

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud and one kick return for 28 yards and 3 punt returns that averaged 12 yards. The Browns averaged 3 yards on two punt returns and 20 yards on kick returns, due in no small part to Chris Boswell pinning the Browns inside their own 20. Dustin Colquitt averaged 41. Yards on 5 punts. Grade: A-

Coaching
Throughout his tenure Mike Tomlin has responded to challenges about the lack of balance on his offices by explaining that balance on offense for him is the offense becoming what it needs to be.

  • In the win against the Browns Randy Ficthner’s offense achieved that goal.

The Steelers dominated time of possession, established a rhythm rushing the ball effectively, pivoted away from RPOs that weren’t working, converted turnovers and used deep passing to set up two touchdowns. They also kept their quarterback clean when they were down a lineman.

Joe Haden, Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden bats a pass away from Jarvis Landry. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers defense has been a step behind the offense thus far in 2020, but against the Browns Keith Butler‘s boys virtually eliminated 3rd down conversions correcting a major flaw. The defense must sustain this against stiffer competition, but it stands as clear positive.

The 2020 season is still young and tough tests await them, but the Pittsburgh Steelers played their toughest opponent thus far in the Cleveland Browns and they delivered their best performance. They started out decisively on defense, refused to blink when things didn’t go right on offense and even when they were up by 31 points they play as if the game could still be decided by a field goal – all to Mike Tomlin’s credit.

Unsung Hero Award
“We don’t have backups, just starters in waiting.” There’s another cliché that became true with two minutes left to play in the 2nd half against the Browns when Devin Bush went down. His replacement stepped in and actually led the linebackers in tackles, registering 6, including 1 for a loss. Teams will certainly start targeting him early and often, but he answered the call against Cleveland and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Defeat Browns 38-7, as Pittsburgh Shows Poise while Cleveland Caves

The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 38-7 at Heinz Field to deliver Pittsburgh’s first 5-0 start since 1978. This was the franchises’ biggest regular season clash since the Steelers 27-7 AFC Central clinching win in December 1994. 2020’s edition had all of the makings of a barn burner.

  • Cleveland has an elite rushing offense.
  • Pittsburgh has an elite rushing defense.
  • The Browns seem to score at will on their opening drives.
  • Who remembers the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive?

Instead of a barn burner, the Steelers blew out the Browns for one simple reason: Pittsburgh’s poise was on display throughout the game, Cleveland’s was MIA.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Browns, Minkah pick six

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick six put the Steelers up 10-0 early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Butler Calls It:  Minkah is Just Fine

As if on cue, the Steelers offense marched down the field after a series of strong James Conner runs, reaching the Red Zone only to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Another week, another touchdownless opening drive.

  • One of the whispers heard below the radar during the Steelers 4-0 start has been, “Where’s Minkah?“

Minkah Fitzpatrick was a difference maker for the Steelers a year ago; his big plays easily turned the outcome of 2 or 3 games if not more.

Yet, Minkah had kept a low profile thus far in 2020. While that might not be the liability that some suggest, the fact that Minkah’s name hasn’t been mentioned much and the Steelers 3rd down defense has been atrocious are hard to chalk up to coincidence.

Pressured by reporters about Fitzpatrick during the week, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler retorted, “Minkah will be fine.”

Butler was right. On the Brown’s first third down Minkah played Baker Mayfield like a harp, picked off the ball and ran it into the end zone to put Pittsburgh up 10-0.

No Panic Despite Big Ben’s Slow Start

The stat sheet suggests that Ben Roethlisberger had a stellar game, with a 101 passer rating, a 14 for 22 yard completion rate, one touchdown and no interceptions. Ben Roethlisberger did play a good game, but he did anything but start strong.

Chase Claypool streches for the pylon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

  • The Browns batted away 3 slant attempts to connect with James Washington, making it look easier each time.

The Steelers next two possessions resulted in quick three and outs, including one that saw Ben Roethlisberger give up a 12-yard sack. With the help of a Devin Bush and Stephon Tuitt sack, the Steelers defense kept the Brown’s honest by forcing punts, but consecutive 3 and outs can demoralize an offense – if they let it.

The Steelers offense declined to do that, and after some chink-and-dink action to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron, Ben Roethlisberger lit it up with a 37 yard pass to Mapletron aka Chase Claypool who set up a 1 yard James Conner touchdown.

Once again, poise instead of panic prevailed for Pittsburgh.

Mayfield Blinks, Roethlisberger Delivers

A 17-0 lead after only 20 minutes of play is hardly a death sentence in the NFL, but it does provide an inflection that separates pretenders from contenders. The Browns responded to their 17 point deficit with:

  • Kareem Hunt getting stuffed by Chris Wormley and Vince Williams for no gain.
  • A holding penalty.
  • An ill-advised pass induced by a Stephon Tuitt pressure that forced a Cam Sutton interception

Less than two plays later Ben Roethlisberger found James Washington deep for a 28 yard touchdown hook up.

Second Half – Cleveland Crumbles, Pittsburgh Rumbles

Credit Cleveland for tacking on a touchdown before the half. The Browns got the ball back to start the 2nd half. A long, workman like touchdown drive was all that separated them from making it a 10 point game.

  • Instead, their first drive netted -16 yards thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and a Stephon Tuitt forced fumble

Randy Fichtner’s offense couldn’t do much with its first chance of the half. Cleveland got the ball back, won a replay challenge, and faced a 4th and 1 at their own 29. This time T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward stoned Kareem Hunt for a 1-yard loss.

While they only had 28 yards to go, the Steelers managed to milk 5 minutes off of the clock as they converted their takeover on downs into another touchdown with a 3 yard Chase Claypool run.

Pittsburgh’s Poise Carries Steelers to 5-0

Claypool’s touchdown run put the Steelers up 31 to 7 effectively ending the game as the third quarter drew to a close. But Pittsburgh’s poise, and Cleveland lack of it continued to shine brightly through the 4th quarter action:

  • Two more times the Browns would test Pittsburgh on 4th down…
  • …and two more times the Steelers would win the battle of wills
  • Kevin Stefanski pulled Baker Mayfield, as a matter of prudence rather than panic, but pull him he did

And then there’s this:

Pittsburgh’s poise was present on many other occasions against the Browns. Joe Haden hadn’t had the strongest start to his season, yet he stepped up to make several plays. Benny Snell showed he can be a sure handed closer, in defending late leads.

The day’s most ominous moment came in the late in the first half when Devin Bush left the game with an injury that Mike Tomlin declared as “significant,” which is likely an ACL tear that will end his season. Yet, Pittsburgh maintained its poise as Robert Spillane did an admirable job answering the “Next man up” call.

  • CBS chose the Steelers-Browns game as its marquee matchup of the week.

We understand why. Both teams arrived at Heinz Field with 4 wins. Only one would leave with 5. On his first day in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin postulated that sometimes the biggest test isn’t how you handle failure, but how you handel success.

The 2020 season is still young, but thus far Pittsburgh is passing that test with flying colors. Cleveland? Not so much. And that’s why the Steelers are 5-0.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Eagles – Pulling it Out with All Nighter’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of teacher who worries his defense students are getting too comfortable pulling things out with all nighters, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Eagles.

T.J. Watt, Carson Wentz, Steelers vs Eagles

T.J. Watt sacks Carson Wentz. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went threw 34 passes for 27 completions for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Steelers converted 11 of 15 third downs and Roethlisberger took care of the ball. His audible on 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter with the game in the balance was a veteran move that sealed the win. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Eagles have ones of the strongest front 7s in the league so it figured this would be tough sledding. And it was. None of the Steelers running back’s rushing averages impress. But if you look beyond the numbers and at the tape, you’ll see that James Conner  and Anthony McFarland all had some respectable runs. Benny Snell gained tough yards to kill the clock at the end. Conner also added 3 carries and scored the go ahead touchdown. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was having a nice day for himself with a 5 catches for 43 yards but he coughed up the ball at a critical time. He also failed to pull in a pass that was incorrectly ruled as an interception. Vance McDonald had one catch for 4 yards, but was an asset in the blocking game. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington had pedestrian games with 4 and 3 catches for 28 and 25 yards respectively. Ray-Ray McCloud had 3 catches but did his damage on two “Jet Sweeps” one of which went for 58 yards. But that wasn’t the big story of the day.

After looking solid in the first 3 games Chase Claypool announced his presence to the NFL with a bang with 7 catches for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns in the air plus another touchdown on the ground. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The only team that had sacked the quarterback more than the Steelers coming into this game was the Eagles. Yet Ben Roethlisberger was only dropped once the entire afternoon and he was only hit two more times per ESPN’s statistics. Run blocking could have been a little stronger, but overall it was a good day for the line, especially considering that David DeCastro was lost for most of the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had two sacks, defensed a pass and logged another quarterback hit while Tyson Alualu added another two tackles. Take away Miles Sanders 74 yard run and the Eagles managed 1.33 yard per carry, and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had another “quiet” day with “only” 3 tackles for losses in between a sack early on and a key pressure that helped force an interception. Bud Dupree also came up big with a half sack on the Eagles final drive. Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 2 and 3 tackles apiece. Steelers linebackers made their plays, but also must shoulder the blame for the long run given up along with the Eagles ease with 3rd down conversions. Grade: B

Travis Fulgham, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles

Travis Fulgham used and abused the Steelers all day. Photo Credit: Keil Leggere, PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Secondary
Who is Travis Fulgham? Mike Tomlin claims the fellow Virginian was on his radar but can the same be said for anyone else? Who knows? We do know is that smoked the Steelers for 10 catches and 152 yards and a touchdown. Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton and Joe Haden all had their issues with the kid. Hilton also missed a tackle on Miles’ touchdown run. Minkah Fitzpatrick also missed a tackle because he failed to rap, leading to a 3rd down conversion. The Steelers pass defense did secure two turnovers, but it is allowing just under 13 yards per pass catch – far too much. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud averaged 24 both his punt returns and Diontae Johnson had 6 yards on two punt returns. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was excellent, helping secure excellent field position. Chris Boswell was perfect, while Dustin Colquitt was OK. Overall a good day for special teams. Grade: B+

Coaching

Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles, John Hightowewr

Steven Nelson 2nd interception of the day. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Whether it is because of Matt Canada’s influence or not, Randy Fichtner continues to find ways to innovate, as the Steelers neutralized the Eagle’s stout front seven with bunch formations and Jet Sweeps. The Steelers offense scored 4 touchdowns on its own, converted another turnover into a touchdown, and killed the clock when it had to.

  • If all signs are encouraging on the Steelers offense and special teams, you cannot say the same about the defense.

The Steelers defense doesn’t lack for Splash plays, as their 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 11 quarterback hits and eight tackles for losses testify. But four games into the season opponents are converted third downs with relative ease, the Steelers are regularly giving up long passes and quick touchdown drives have been too common.

Whether that’s because Joe Haden is losing a step, Devin Bush isn’t developing fast enough or opponents are exploiting the Steelers love of the blitz, Keith Butler needs to take a hard look at his pass defense.

With that said, going 4-0 in the NFL is and accomplishment. It doesn’t happen by accident. The Steelers of late have been rusty coming off of their bye week, yet even if this bye came unexpected, no rust was evident, to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The Eagles had scored 15 unanswered points to cut a 17 point deficit to a 2 point deficit and the Steelers had JUST fumbled the ball back to Philadelphia. It was 1st and 10 at the Pittsburgh 44. Carson Wentz had a man open down field but didn’t quite have time to release because he was sacked for a 3 yard loss.

Sure, the Eagles made 8 of those yards back, but the sack meant Jake Elliot had to try a 57 yard field goal instead of a 54 yard one and those three yards might have been the difference. Stephon Tuitt made that sack and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Eagles.

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Chase Claypool Arrives in Steelers 38-29 Win Over Eagles. Can He Off Set a Defensive Drop Off?

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 38 to 29 to open their season with a 4-0 record. As commentators quickly noted, the last two times the Steelers opened 4-0, where 1978 and 1979 – seasons that ended with Lombardi Trophy presentations in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

That’s an encouraging trend, but the way in which the Eagles game unfolded reveals that the 2020 Steelers still have much to improve upon if they’re to emulate the Super Steelers.

Chase Claypool, Chase Claypool 4 touchdowns, Steelers vs Eagles

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers-Eagles First Half Shows Why You Play on the Field and Not Madden

There’s a reason why you play games on the field instead of simulating them in Madden, and Eagles game shows why. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia both brought aggressive, quarterback harassing defenses into the game.

  • So it follows that the game would be a low-scoring defensive slugfest. Right?

Nope. During the final 20 minutes of the first half, the Steelers and Eagles alternated between 5 straight scoring drives. Officially, the Steelers got in the last word with Chris Boswell’s field goal, but the Eagles reached Pittsburgh’s 12 with an impressive two minute drill and would have scored had time not expired.

The first half’s “expect the unexpected” theme carried over until the end of the 2nd half.

Knock Out Punch Eludes the Steelers. Again.

Even when Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have been at their best, they’ve still struggled to put teams away. To their credit, the Steelers began the 2nd half against the Eagles determined to land that knockout blow.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Eagles

Ben Roethlisberger passes against the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

After feigning with a few chink-and-dink passes, Randy Fitchner dove right into his bag of tricks with jet sweep to Ray-Ray McCloud who streaked for 58 yards down to the Philadelphia 5. Two plays later, Fitchner was at it again when bunched Vance McDonald, Trey Edmunds and James Conner to the weakside only to have the trio act as blockers instead of receivers as Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Chase Claypool for his 2nd touchdown of the day.

Steven Nelson ended the Eagles next drive after just two plays when he reclaimed possession for Pittsburgh at Philly’s 23 by picking off Carson Wentz. A quick pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster brought the Steelers to the goal line where James Conner marched into the end zone behind Kevin Dotson.

The Steelers had gone up by 17 points by scoring a touchdown, securing a turnover, and transforming that turnover into another touchdown. Mike Hilton opened the next series by sacking Carson Wentz to put Philadelphia further behind the 8 ball and barely 5 minutes had elapsed in the first half.

Finally it seemed, Pittsburgh had landed a knockout blow….

Eagles Exploit Steelers Secondary, Claw Their Way Back

….Except they hadn’t. Two plays later, Carlton Wentz converted a third down by finding Travis Fulgham for a field flipping 31 yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Joe Haden put the Eagles in the Red Zone, setting a Philadelphia touchdown and two point conversion that was all too easy.

Carson Wentz and Travis Fulgham continued to use and abuse the Steelers secondary and scored on their next possession, cutting the Steelers lead to two. The Steelers responded with a workman like, clock consuming drive, but unfortunately Eric Ebron scuttled it by coughing up the ball to the Eagles at mid field with 6 minutes left.

Not only had the Steelers failed to knock out the Eagles, they appeared to be supplying them smelling salts….

Chase Claypool Closes It for Steelers, But Cleveland to Offer True Test

Fault the Steelers for letting the Eagles back into the game, but slamming the door shut with fantastic efforts on both sides of the ball. They also had help from Doug Pederson who tried a failed 57 yard field goal – towards Heinz Field’s open end no less – rather than punting to pin the Steelers inside their own 20.

Bud Dupree, Carson Wentz, Steelers vs Eagles

Bud Dupree sacks Carson Wentz in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Philadelphia seemed poised to get another shot as the Steelers quickly found themselves at 3rd and 8, but Ben Roethlisberger saw linebacker Nathan Gerry lined up over Chase Claypool in the slot, called an audible and watched Claypool slice through the middle of the Eagles secondary for a 35 yard touchdown that put the Steelers up 38 to 29.

Carson Wentz tried to rally the Eagles for one final last gasp, but the Steelers answered with a Bud Dupree sack, a T.J. Watt pressure and another Steven Nelson interception.

  • 4-0 is a very good place to be in the NFL and very rarely happens by accident.

But all is not rosy. Against the Eagles, the Steelers defense again proved it can end drives with Splash plays when necessary. But that same defense is also giving up just under 13 yards every time a pass is caught. As Jim Wexell points out on Steel City Insider, those are numbers characteristic of bottom feeders rather than championship contenders.

On the flip side, rookie Chase Claypool became the first Steeler since Roy Jefferson to score four touchdowns in one game, establishing himself as a difference maker. Can Claypool become a consistent enough weapon to make up for a drop off in defense?

Time will tell, the Steelers certainly cannot be complacent when Cleveland comes to town next Sunday.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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Steelers Defeat Texans 28-21 as T.J., Derek Prevail over J.J. in “Watt Bowl”

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Houston Texans 28-21 at Heinz Field, as brothers T.J. and Derek triumphed over big brother J.J. in the Watt Bowl.

  • The Watt brothers provided the game with a nice subplot, but the Steelers 3-0 record is even nicer.

But the nicest part about this win lies in the recipe the Steelers mixed during the Watt Bowl to secured victory down the stretch, as we explain below.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. Watt sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Week 3 is a Curious Place in the NFL

Week 3 is a curious place in the NFL. The math makes it simple. On week one, 50% of the teams must win and 50% must lose. Week two typically clarifies little. Everyone is either winless, undefeated or .500. Not much room for anyone to stand out.

Trends start to confirm themselves in week three, as teams find rhythm, establish personality, and the law of averages begins to weed out the “On Any Given Sunday” element from scoreboard results.

The Steelers entered week 3 with a 2-0 record, while the Houston Texans arrived in Pittsburgh at 0-2.

  • Would one team take a big step forward while another one dug itself deeper into a hole?
  • Or would one team stumble backwards while another clawed out a foothold to stake the rest of their season on?

As the first half end, it things could easily go either way.

Steelers First Half Against Texans Resembles First Two Weeks

The first two weeks saw the Steelers both give their fans a lot to like while leaving a lot plays on the field. During the first half against the Texans, they followed the same script in a topsy-turvy 30 minutes that saw:

  • The Steelers reach the Red Zone with a strong opening drive, only to settle for a field goal
  • The Texans respond with a touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger trying and failing to connect deep with receivers leading to 3 and outs
  • Meanwhile the Texans tacked on another touchdown
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans, JuJu walk off touchdown

JuJu Smith-Schuster literally walks to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With 2:38 left in the half, Ben Roethlisberger did one of the things he does best – run an effective two minute drill, mixing and matching James Conner runs, short passes to James Washington and Eric Ebron before hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a walk-off touchdown. The Steelers were up 17-14 at the 1:14 mark.

  • A good place to be going into the locker room at half time, right?

Not quite. It was the Steelers defense’s turn to stumble, as Deshaun Watson surgically ripped the Steelers defense apart, completing passes in coverage against Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick to put the Texans back up 21-17 at the half.

These were exactly the types of slips the Steelers suffered during the first two weeks. And unlike the Giants and Broncos, it did not appear that the Texans would be so forgiving.

Steelers Methodically Impose Their Will in 2nd Half

Pittsburgh’s problem in recent years has been a chronic inablilty to put teams away. Sometimes they’ve gotten away with it (remember those Chris Boswell game winners in 2017?). Other times Pittsburgh has paid the price (see the 2nd half of 2018.) Last week, the Steelers had the Broncos on the ropes, only to let them back in before escaping with a victory.

  • Pittsburgh put away Houston through a steady, methodical process that consumed the entire half.

Things started slowly. The Steelers opened with a scoring drive that included that included flashes from rookie Anthony McFarland Jr.. Still, after spending 5 minutes on the field, the Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans

JuJu Smith-Schuster pulls in the 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But Keith Butler’s boys answered the call responding with:

  • A three-and-out where the Steelers defense smothered David Johnson
  • Another three-and-out that featured a hellacious Stephon Tuitt sack on 3rd down
  • A Mike Hilton interception, down at the Pittsburgh 13

With 13:27 left to play and starting at their own 21, the men in Black and Gold did something that has been the hallmark of championship Steelers football – They Imposed Their Will.

By Mixing runs and short passes and getting key third down conversions from Benny Snell Jr. and Vance McDonald, the Steelers methodically moved down the field, keeping the chains moving and the clock running.

By the time James Conner barreled into the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown run, the Steelers had physically dominated the Texans and burned 7 minutes off of the clock in the process, while JuJu Smith-Schuster added a 2 point conversion to make it 21-28.

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

Living in Our Hopes, Not in Their Fears

There’s something poetic about Houston’s final series in the Watt bowl starting with a 11 yard sack by T.J. Watt; that made it a question of “When” and not “If” the Texans would punt.

  • The Steelers got the ball back and again, They Imposed Their Will.

James Conner started the drive off with a 25 yard run. To Bill O’Brien’s credit, his Texans declined to fold. In response, Mike Tomlin refused to blink.

On 4th and 1 at Houston’s 35 with 3:11 remaining, Mike Tomlin not only went for it, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball to James Washington who converted the down. Three plays later, the Steelers had a 3rd and 9 at their Houston’s 26. The smart money here says pound it up the middle, let Chris Boswell tack on 3 points and let Houston try for two scores in 2 minutes.

  • Again, Tomlin lived in his hopes and not his fears having Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for a 24 yard gain that set up the victory formation.

Putting up ten points in a half hardly qualifies the Steelers as the next incarnation as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But combined that with a 2nd half defensive shut out, turnover free football and 36:51 to 23:09 time of possession advantage, and during the Watt Bowl the Steelers may have mixed a recipe for winning football.

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Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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