60 Minute Men. Steelers Comeback, Beat Jaguars 20-16 at Buzzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded for dramatic 20-16 comeback victory over the Jaguars Jacksonville’s at TIAA Bank Field

In doing so, the men in Black and Gold extended their winning streak to 6 games, secured a conference win, and perhaps doomed the post-season chances of a re-emerging rival.

But Mike Tomlin’s Steelers also affirmed another, more important truth behind the game: Victory comes to those who play for 60 minutes.

Ben Roethlisberger dives for the game winner vs. the Jaguars. Photo Credit, Gary McCullough, AP via PennLive

Steelers Defense Bends, Badly But Balks at Breaking; Ben Just Bad

The Jacksonville Jaguars had bested the Steelers twice last year by employing a simple formula:

All week, the question on everyone’s minds was, “Can the Jaguars pull it off a third straight time?”

For a while, it looked like they might. Ben Roethlisberger played terribly for the vast majority of the game, and was particularly ineffective in the first half. Four of Pittsburgh’s 1st half possession a ended in Jordan Berry punts. Ben Roethlisberger interceptions ended two others.

  • Before the Steelers final drive of the 1st half netted 35 garbage yards, Pittsburgh’s offense totaled 42 yards.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was more of a mixed bag. The Jaguars made it clear that they were going to feed the ball to Leonard Fournette. But in the early going Keith Butler’s defense also signaled that they were going to contest every yard.

That worked, for a while, but as the first half wore on, Forunette and Carlos Hyde started ripping off double digit runs and it was Déjà vu all over again for the Steelers defense.

  • With one large exception.

The Jaguars advanced relatively deep in to Pittsburgh territory 3 times in the first half, but each time the Steelers defense steeled up and refused to allow touchdowns. Bud Dupree and L.J. Fort came up with big stops, and Javon Hargrave sacked Blake Bortles on third down.

So instead being down 21-0, the Steelers defense kept the difference to 9 going into the half.

Establishing the Run

Running the ball might be out of fashion in today’s NFL, and that’s a shame, because something special happens when a team rushes the ball successfully.

As Mike Tomlin explained, when an offense starts to rush well, piles move forward a little more; players start missing tackles, running backs routinely eek out 2-3 extra yards in the open field. The defense erodes.

  • Bill Cowher described it as “Imposing your will.”

And “Imposing their will” has been a key ingredient to the Steelers success in this second Super Bowl era, whether that involved pounding the ball with Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or James Conner.

There are few things better than seeing the Steelers impose their will on an opposing defense, and few things are worse than seeing a running back impose his will on Pittsburgh. And as the second half began, it appeared that the Jaguars were about to impose their will on the Steelers.

And to be sure Fournette got 8 yards on his first two carries, but a penalty pushed the Jaguars back, and then T.J. Watt ended the first drive with a strip sack of Blake Brotles.

But it looked like that stop might be just a footnote in the box score, as the Jaguars took advantage of another Roethlisberger interception by ramming the ball down the Steelers throats on an 80 yard touchdown drive.

That put the Jaguars up 16-0 and, on a day when its offense could do nothing right, it appeared to be the dagger in the Steelers heart. Ironically, it was the turning point of the game.

Steelers Defense Energized Instead of Eroded

It took only two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to hit Antonio Brown for a 78 touchdown to put the Steelers on the board. And, for all the credit the Steelers offense would earn for the fourth quarter comeback, the Steelers defense were perhaps the real stars of the rebound. As Steelers Wire founder Neal Coolong explains:

The Steelers offense stalled after the Roethlisberger to Brown strike, failing on the 2 point conversion and then punting and turning over on downs on its next two drives. It wasn’t an issue, because instead of eroding the will of the Steelers defense, Leonard Fournette’s 1st half energized Keith Butler’s boys into 2nd half shut down mode:

Then the Steelers offense finally came alive, as Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to move down the field, setting up Vance McDonald to make another tough touchdown catch.

Vince Williams, Blake Borteles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Vince Williams lowers boom of Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars got the ball back. Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run, and everyone knew they Fournette was going to run it.

  • Forunette got four yards on his first carry, only to have the Steelers stuff out his next two carries forcing a punt.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:42 left and one time out. A picture perfect fade pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers well into Chris Boswell field goal range, but Mike Tomlin opted to go for the win. Another 25 yard pass to Antonio Brown got the Steelers to the two.

It would take the Steelers 4 tries, but Ben Roethlisberger ran it in with 5 seconds left to go. For good measure, T.J. Watt strip-sacked Blake Bortles again to seal the Steelers win.

Lessons Learned, Lessons to Live By

Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers players themselves undoubtedly wanted a dominating revenge win over the Jaguars. With a last second win, Pittsburgh failed to deliver. But the Steelers leave Jacksonville with a W, and they learned some important lessons in the process.

The Steelers defense is capable of going toe-to-toe with an elite NFL rusher and adjusting along the way as Christopher Carter’s stats highlight:

The Steelers also showed they’re capable of winning a game even when Ben Roethlisberger is not at his best – at least for most of the afternoon. But perhaps most importantly, the this group of Pittsburgh Steelers demonstrated that they have the discipline, the attitude and the resilience to fight to the very last minute.

And against the Jaguars, that made all the difference.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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Steelers-Jaguars Preview – Time to Measure Pittsburgh’s Progress Since Playoff Disaster

This is the one Steelers Nation has been waiting for. Today the Steelers face off against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and be honest, when the schedule came out, you saw this game and thought, “Man do I want to see this.”

  • How quickly times change. When the 2017 schedule came out, who gave the Jaguars a second thought?

I certainly didn’t. Yet it was the Jaguars, and not the Patriots, who stopped the Steelers quest to bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Yet a lot has happened in the 309 days that have passed since the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

Changes to the Steelers Since the Last Jaguars Game

Perhaps its is appropriate that so many members of the Steelers defense changed numbers during the off season, because a lot has changed.

During the September, not only did it look like these had been insufficient, but that perhaps the Steelers had further regressed. But the Steelers travel to Jacksonville riding a 5 game winning streak, that has seen the Steelers improve week in and week out.

Across the board, whether you’re looking at third down conversions, Red Zone efficiency, or Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, all of the trends Pittsburgh is taking into this big game are pointed the right way.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in taking a shot at the Team Turmoil thesis, it was just two years ago, on November 13, 2016 when the Steelers home loss to the Dallas Cowboys seemed to signal all hope had been lost.

  • Except it wasn’t, and the Steelers have gone 26-6 since then.

But story symmetry can be a tricky thing. While Jacksonville had bested the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season – with Ryan Shazier on the field – Ben Roethlisberger had played one of the worst, if not the worst game of his career. Big Ben bounced back to play the best football of his life in the second half of 2017.

Few thought Jacksonville would give the Steelers must of a test last January, but reports that Stephon Tuitt missed practice time due to an arm injury foreshadowed a flatfooted defensive response to Leonard Fournette’s fierce rushing.

  • And, as fate would have it, Stephon Tuitt will miss the rematch against the Jaguars.

So be it. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be on a 5 game losing streak, but this still is the same team that schooled the Patriots early in the year. But they were without Leonard Fournette for most of that stretch. But he will play this afternoon.

  • And that’s good in at least one sense.

Fournette’s presence means the outcome of today’s Steelers-Jaguars matchup in Jacksonville will still give Steelers Nation a true measure of how far Pittsburgh has come since that playoff defeat or, how far they still need go.

 

 

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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Ben Roethlisberger Perfect as Steelers Pulverize Panthers 52-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulverized the Carolina Panthers 52-10 on Thursday Night Football, easily giving Mike Tomlin’s team their best performance of the season to date far. Just how dominant was Pittsburgh’s performance? Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger launched two 50 yard plus bombs for touchdowns
  • The Steelers defense scored on a pick six
  • Roosevelt Nix and Anthony Chickillo setup another touchdown with forced a fumble on a kickoff return

So the Steelers offense, defense and special teams each authored dramatic Splash Plays that, on one level, had a decisive impact on the outcome. But viewed from another angle, the Steelers performance revealed a bit of a different truth about football: For Splash Plays to be decisive, they must be backed by sound fundamental football.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger passes to James Conner. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

From Down 0-7 to Up 14-7 in 0:24 Seconds….

A lot of good quotes surfaced after the game, but perhaps the best came from Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “Yeah, we got the ball at the jump, right down the field, scored. Two plays later, we’re down 14-7.”

  • While it will long be forgotten, things did NOT start out well for the Steelers.

Going into the game stopping Carolina’s high-octane offense was paramount. And the Panthers opened with a 6 play 75 yard drive that featured a lot of Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton, with Pittsburgh looking powerless to slow, let alone stop the duo.

But when two Carolina corners collided on what was to be a short pass to James Washington, Ben Roethlisberger hurled a bomb to JuJu Smith-Schuster who took it to the house.

  • The record will reflect that Carolina’s lead would last all of 0:11 seconds.

They fared a little better with a tie, to the tune of 0:13 seconds, as T.J. Watt wrapped Cam Newton in the end zone. Newton, like Roethlisberger is tough to bring down, and he resisted long enough to save a safety by tossing the ball away, but he didn’t intend hitting Vince Williams, who took the interception to the house giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead.

However, when asked if that was the decisive sequence of the game, Mike Tomlin balked:

…we’ve seen that so many times. There is too much ball after that to think that is the defining moment. It’s not. It was a great moment but whether it was positive or negative the games are never defined by plays that occur that early.

And Mike Tomlin is right. A big play’s impact only reverberates through the end result of the game if you follow solid fundamental football, which is indeed what the Steelers delivered in the game’s remaining forty nine minutes and 55 seconds of play.

Next Six Series Prove to be Decisive for Pittsburgh

While the plays perhaps don’t provide much in the way of ESPN highlight material, its entirely possible that the series following Vince Williams’ Pick Six was the most important of the night.

  • Javon Hargrave stuffed Christian McCafferty for a 1 yard gain on first.
  • The Steelers defense confused Cam Newton, forcing him to burn a time out.
  • It didn’t matter, as Bud Dupree forced him into an incompletion anyway
  • Coty Sensabaugh batted away a pass intended for D.J. Moore

Instead of answering the Steelers score, Carolina had to punt. That in turn allowed the Steelers to lean on James Conners on the ensuring drive to build a 14 point advantage. By the time Carolina got within sniffing distance of another score, a 50 yard Chris Boswell field goal had already given the Steelers a 17 point advantage.

Carolina did indeed cut the Steelers advantage to 10 on another Christian McCafferty touchdown, but it took Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown less than 2 minutes to put the Steelers back up by 17 when the duo hooked up on a 53 yard touchdown play.

2nd Half: Anatomy of a Rout

For the second straight week the Steelers started the second half by getting the ball, and for the second straight week Randy Fichtner’s offense opened by engineering a long, clock consuming drive.

This one saw the Steelers convert 3 third downs, and burn more than 6 minutes off of the clock, as Vance McDonald pulled down a touchdown to put the Steelers up 38 to 14.

Vance McDonald, Eric Reid, Steelers vs Panthers

Vance McDonald makes a tough catch. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Carolina started the first half soundly, as Christian McCafferty got 5 yards on his opening carry. However, Bud Dupree sacked Cam Newton for an 11 yard loss on the next play, and Carolina’s first drive ended in a punt. The rout was on.

Mike Tomlin went into the game planning to play every player with a helmet, and every player had a piece of the victory.

Joshua Dobbs did lose the perfect passer rating he’d taken out of the Ravens game, but that is a small price to pay for seeing your 2nd string quarterback come out for clean up duty in the 4th quarter.

While the win over the Panthers was truly a team effort, any analysis must acknowledge the exceptional play by Ben Roethlisberger, who en route a perfect passer rating game managed to convert third downs at will, while throwing 5 touchdown passes to 5 different players.

Tomlin’s Challenge Coming out of the Carolina Game

As noted in our Report Card, the last time the Steelers played at night in Heinz Field it appeared to be lights out for Pittsburgh. On Thursday Night Football, the Steelers dominated a hot team and one that is a legitimate NFC contender.

The progress is unquestionably positive, but Mike Tomlin’s challenge is to ensure that the Steelers performance against the Panthers doesn’t represent Pittsburgh’s peak. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin appears to understand that as he explained:

Really big performance against versus a really good team on a short week so there is a lot to be proud of, but we are probably not that good. You get games like that sometimes. The ball gets rolling down hill, we are appreciative of it.

If Mike Tomlin can get his team to internalize that attitude, then the Steelers stand a strong chance of gaining a measure of revenge against the Jaguars next Sunday in Jacksonville.

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Panthers – Straight A’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is breaking protocol by issuing his grades before his analysis, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

T.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Vince Williams pick six, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt wrapping Cam Newton in end zone. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger posted a perfect quarterback rating, by going 22 of 25 for 328 and five touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger did it all, long passes, short passes third down conversions and everything in between. Joshua Dobbs was 1 for 2 in mop up duty. Grade: A+

Running Backs
James Conner didn’t break the 100 yard mark, but the Steelers didn’t need him to. As it was, he average 5 yards a carry and added another touchdown. Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive non-garbage time action and managed 26 yards, while Jaylen Samuels only got 7 yards on the ground, but did score a touchdown through the air. Roosevelt Nix caught 2 passes for 17 yards. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James takes heat for his blocking, but he delivered a critical block on Conner’s touchdown run, and scored a late touchdown of his own. Vance McDonald made another tough catch in the end zone and caught 3 other passes. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both scored on long touchdown bombs but both men also made other clutch catches. Ryan Switzer came up with two drive-sustaining catches while Darrius Heyward-Bey nabbed his first catch of the season. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked only once. For most of the night, Ben had time to write his dairy in the pocket. The Steelers weren’t quite as effective running the ball as they have been, but they didn’t need to be.

The play of the Steelers offensive line is nothing short of incredible, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s defense of Ben Roethlisberger after Eric Reid’s hit shows just how seriously this unit takes its job.. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave actually led the defensive line in tackles, as the Steelers remained in their base defense extensively. The real leader of the unit was Cam Heyward, who exploded for 2 sacks, dropped two runners behind the line of scrimmage and made two other hits on Cam Newton. Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Grade: A

Linebackers
Jon Bostic led the team in tackles and arguably should have gotten ½ of a sack. Vince Williams had a banner night, bringing home a pick six and registering a sack. Bud Dupree continues to be a disruptive force in the backfield, as he recorded another sack and had two more tackles for losses. L.J. Fort spot duty stint was enough to earn him a tackle for a loss. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Vince Williams pick six Cam Newton, Steelers vs Panthers

Vince Williams struts after his pick-six of Cam Newton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Steelers secondary didn’t produce a lot of “Splash Plays” other than Terrell Edmunds almost interception. However, Carolina was a dreadful 4-11 on third downs and the Steelers front seven only registers 5 sacks if receivers are covered. Coty Sensabaugh appears to be settling in as a competent corner while Joe Haden has been invisible – in a positive sense. Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Mike Hilton all had strong nights. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on extra points, and made a 50 yarder into the open end of Heinz Field. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return and, for the first time in recent memory, neither the Steelers coverage nor return units gave up a penalty.

  • Special team’s shining moment came on Roosevelt Nix’s forced fumble and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery.

The Steelers were already up 45 to 14 at that point, but it was a heads up play by both men, and it symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Grade: A

Coaching
The last time the Steelers played at night, it looked to be lights out in Pittsburgh, but the win over the Panthers illustrated the dramatic difference the team has experienced since then.

Mike Tomlin, Joshua Dobbs, Alejandro Villaneuva, Steelers vs Panthers

Mike Tomlin huddling with Joshua Dobbs and Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • It is now time to give the Haley haters their day.

Under Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense is firing on all cylinders in ways it never did under Todd Haley. The Steelers offense was multi-faceted against the Panthers, burning Carolina for long touchdowns, converting third downs, orchestrating long, clock-consuming drives all while mounting a balanced attack.

The Steelers defense was also excellent. Perhaps had, the game evolved differently, the Panthers rushing success could have been the defense’s undoing. But that is an academic question, because Keith Butler‘s boys limited the long ball and harassed Cam Newton through the night.

Mike Tomlin deserves credit for preparing his team on a short week and for making an effort to keep everyone fresh throughout the game. As Tomlin conceded, the difference between the Steelers and the Panthers probably isn’t as dramatic as the score board would suggest, but they dominated Carolina in all three phases. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There is no shortage of candidates for this award but we’ll focus on one whose stat line says he ‘only” made one tackle. One tackle, behind the line of scrimmage. This player corralled and wrapped up Cam Newton in the end zone, which forced a pick six. Later this player clobbered Cam Newton in a strip sack with a hit that shook up Carolina’s signal caller, and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Panthers at Heinz Field.

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NFL Fine of T.J. Watt Isn’t for “Roughing the Passer” Its for “Roughing the Grass”

After news broke that Roger Goodell fined Mike Tomlin for… telling the truth, it also came out that the NFL had fined T.J. Watt for… “Roughing the grass.” Of course, the league office isn’t calling it that.
Officially the fine is for T.J. Watt’s supposedly illegal low “hit” on Matt Ryan.

Carlos Ortiz reacted the news by arguing “…esto no fue ‘roughing the passer’ esto fue ‘roughing the grass.’” (Carlos Ortiz writes on Steelers360 and if you’re not fluent enough in Spanish to follow his work, well then maybe its time to give Berlitz a call.)

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt drew a 20,054 fine for this low “hit.” Photo Credit: AP, via Cincinnati.com

If you don’t remember the play from the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, take a look for yourself:

The tweet is of course from T.J. Watt’s brother J.J. Watt. As you can see, T.J. Watt did his best to avoid contact, and barley touched Matt Ryan. An Oscar worthy performance for Ryan followed, because Ryan almost certainly did not fall on his own power.

For his troubles, T.J. Watt is now $20,054 poorer. Clearly Watt won’t have problems buying Christmas presents for his family come December, but a $20,000 dollar fine means a lot more to a player who is still on his rookie contract that it would mean to someone like Joe Haden, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.

  • This wasn’t the only questionable roughing the passer penalty called against the Steelers last Sunday.
  • Jon Bostic also drew a flag when he arrived a second too late on a Cam Heyward sack of Matt Ryan, but was not fined.

Mike Tomlin of course is not happy about any of this, and he too his poor for his words, however truthful the might be. But perhaps Mike Tomlin wasn’t telling the complete truth. Penalizing and issuing fines for plays like these isn’t simply a joke, it is mockery of the game itself.

  • And please spare me any player safety talk about the need to protect players from CTE and head trauma.

Yes, it is imperative that the NFL do all it can to reduce the risk of head trauma. CTE poses an existential threat to football. Thankfully, the days when Terry Bradshaw could suffer multiple concussions, as he did against the Redskins in 1979, and joke about it with reporters after the game, are over.

  • But let’s be clear, the NFL isn’t going to eliminate one future case of CTE by fining players for “hits” like T.J. Watt’s.

In taking the NFL to task a few days ago for fining Mike Tomlin, I conceded that protecting the quarterback was important, but not if those protections altered the essence of the game. T.J. Watt’s words to reporters after learning of this fine underline just how malevolently the essence of the game is being altered.

Before getting to T.J. Watt’s words, let’s recall remarks of former Steelers linebacker, this one a Hall of Famer. And before sharing this Hall of Famers words, let’s politely suggest that if you either don’t understand or don’t agree with him then you should stop watching on Sundays and stick to Madden and Fantasy Football instead.

Jack Lambert once explained:

I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.

Contrast that with implications T.J. Watt’s response when asked if Matt Ryan took a dive:

I don’t know. If I was him I would. Why not? Fifteen yards helps your team a lot. If I’m a quarterback I’m going to sell it too. I can’t blame him for playing the game. [Emphasis added]

Sadly, here in 2018 taking World Cup soccer like dives is becoming part of “playing the game.” But it is not the way the game should be played. And that shows just how show just how grotesquely Roger Goodell is distorting football as we know it.

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NFL Fines Mike Tomlin for Telling the Truth – The Game is Becoming a Joke

News that NFL was fining Mike Tomlin hardly came as a surprise. The NFL has long fined head coaches for criticizing the officials, long before Roger Goodell brought his Kangaroo Court style of justice to the league.

When reporters questioned Mike Tomlin about the officiating after the Steelers 41-17 win over the Falcons, the Steelers head coach didn’t hold back. After conceding that the two penalties called on Bud Dupree were probably legitimate, Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words:

Some of the other stuff, man, is a joke. We gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We gotta get ‘em correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you.

While he doesn’t mention them directly, Mike Tomlin was referring to the penalties called on Jon Bostic who arrived a second too late after Cam Heyward sacked Matt Ryan, and T.J. Watt who barley made contact with Ryan yet still got the 15 yard flag.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

In other words, the NFL is fining Mike Tomlin for telling the truth: The NFL is becoming a joke.

Business Case for Protecting Quarterbacks

Unlike Roger Goodell’s 2010 arbitrary crack down on hits to the head which unfairly targeted Pittsburgh Steelers such as James Harrison and Ryan Clark, controversy about protecting the quarterback is hardly new to Pittsburgh.

While it is hard for a Steelers site to take up for the son of a Cleveland Browns legend, Clay Matthews Jr. got flagged doing nothing other than tackling the quarterback. While traditionalists have cried foul, the NFL’s latest quarterback protection rule has no shortage of apologists.

MMQB’s Andrew Brandt and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Paul Zeise have argued that quarterbacks are a key ingredient to the NFL’s on the field product and that therefore doing what is necessary to keep them in the game is simply a wise business decision.

That line of thinking isn’t new and unlike when Jack Lambert claimed quarterbacks should wear dresses the NFL has a salary cap. So when a quarterback goes down, the NFL is literally seeing money taken off of the field.

Beyond this nerdy, accountantesque line of reasoning, it is also true that allowing passing combos like Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann or Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown to blossom is good for the game.

  • So protecting the quarterback make good business sense, to a point.
  • But when these protections begin to alter the essence of the game, they go too far.

And football, at its core, is a game that is meant to be won by those that hit the hardest, as Jack Lambert argued. And the current movement to protect the quarterback is an attempt to alter that reality.

Fantasy football owners might be happy with rules that cause flags fly after Stephon Tuitt barley love taps Andy Dalton a half second after Dalton releases his pass. But those rules water down the essence of the sport, and that will do far more damage to the NFL’s on the field product in the long run.

  • The difference between coming out on the right side of the fine line that separates winning and losing in the NFL is often defined by who wins a test of wills.
  • That includes the quest to get the quarterback.

If the NFL eliminates that element from the game in the name of coddling quarterbacks, then it will be doing far more damage to its on the field product than whatever damage losing quarterbacks to injury causes.

Mike Tomlin is telling the truth, and because of that he’s $25,000 poorer.

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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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