Mike Tomlin Reaches a Turning Point in His Tenure as Steelers Coach

Mike Tomlin has reached a turning point in his tenure as Steelers head coach. Ironically, to meet this challenge he might need to look to a lesson offered by his biggest nemesis.

  • As I conceded on Super Bowl Sunday, feeling good about the Pittsburgh Steelers is hard right now.

The story on the 2019 Steelers revolves around Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell leaving town. Oh, and so does Morgan Burnett, in case you’re taking notes.

Sure, 2018 was the year Pittsburgh FINALLY won a December show down with the Patriots, but since then, the Steelers have produced a steady stream of bad news. While he isn’t 100% responsible for the Steelers slide, Mike Tomlin must be the man to stop it.

And a big part of that solution just might come in the form of a lesson that Bill Belichick learned a long time ago.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

What to Blame, and Not Blame Tomlin For

Coaches, like quarterbacks often get blamed for things beyond their control, while successes get ignored. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey column on why he shifted his stance from a Tomlin defender to a Tomlin critic illustrates this:

1. The Jacksonville playoff debacle.
2. The worst late-season collapse in recent Steelers history.
3. The Oakland debacle.
4. The AB saga.

Let’s deconstruct Starkey’s argument, point-by-point. The Jacksonville playoff debacle WAS bad. I don’t absolve Tomlin entirely of this, but what was the ugliest element of the loss? How about Pittsburgh’s piss-poor tackling?  The Steelers defense made strides in 2018, and improved tackling was one of them.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

The Steelers 2019 late-season collapse was hard to stomach. But, as cataloged in our Steelers 2018 season review, so much of that meltdown came down to untimely passes picked off, fumbles at critical moments, dropped interceptions and a smattering horrendously bad calls.

  • Were I doing a podcast with Starkey, I’d challenge him to answer: “What could Tomlin have done differently to avoid that?”
  • Joe Starkey is dead right on Oakland debacle.

As I observed at that time, Mike Tomlin erred badly by keeping Joshua Dobbs in after Ben Roethlisberger was cleared to play. The mistake cost the Steelers the playoffs and perhaps their last, best shot at Lombardi Number Seven in the Roethlisberger era.

  • But how fair is it to blame Mike Tomlin for the Antonio Brown soap opera?

That’s a complex question that Mike Tomlin, fairly or unfairly needs to find an answer for. And to find it, Mike Tomlin might be wise to look to Bill Belichick’s past.

Lesson Bill Belichick Left from Cleveland

Victors write history. That reality makes it easy to understand when everyone forgets one fundamental fact:

  • Bill Belichick was an unmitigated disaster as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

He was so bad that I once wrote a long-form article on Behind the Steel Curtain detailing how the Steelers once actually OWNED Bill Belichick. Alas, instead of sparking conversation into what fueled Belichick’s transformation, the post article conversation article devolved into a Spygate debate.

  • There is only one insight I’ve gleamed into Cleveland-New England metamorphosis.

And came from a network commentator who said that Bill Belichick felt his mistake in Cleveland was to hold different players to different standards, an error he vowed not to repeat in New England.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

And as he reaches the turning point in his tenure with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin might be wise to take that lesson to heart. It says here that Mike Tomlin takes ZERO responsibility for Antonio Brown:

  • Throwing furniture off of a 14th floor balcony
  • Driving at 140 miles per hour in McKnight Road
  • Cursing out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette
  • Physically threatening an ESPN reporter
  • Getting his name into the news over a an alleged domestic dispute

But as Jeremy Fowler depicted, Mike Tomlin let Antonio Brown both bend and break a lot rules. Some of this might have been necessary.

Mike Tomlin’s been managing Antonio Brown’s diva tendencies since Day One. Remember Brown’s first NFL play, the touchdown on a kick return vs. Tennessee? Brown sat on the bench next week, as Tomlin talked of “Two dogs and one bone.” Tomlin benched Brown after Brown quit after an interception late in the 2013 loss to the Patriots. Yet Tomlin massaged Brown ego by allowing him to keep his receiving streak alive against Jacksonville a few years back.

  • But the problem is that Antonio Brown hasn’t been the only locker room disruption.

Le’Veon Bell reported refused to answer Tomlin’s phone calls, and James Harrison protested his lack of playing time in 2017 by mailing it in. There’s a pattern developing in Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin must break it.

Pittsburgh Coaches’ Turning Points Past

It would be poetic to say that “All NFL coaches reach turning points.” Untrue. Most NFL coaches simply get fired. But both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher had their turning points.

Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Chuck Noll faced two. First came when the NFL moved the draft to after the Super Bowl to late spring. Although no one saw it at the time, as Ed Bouchette documented in a Dawn of a New Steel Age, the move allowed Noll micromanage the scouting process, to the detriment of the Steelers drafts.

  • The second came during the Steelers 5-11 1988 season, when Dan Rooney forced him to fire coaches.

Chuck Noll resisted but relented, and while he never returned to a Super Bowl, the 1989 Steelers did give the Emperor one last Hurrah.

  • Bill Cowher’s came in 1999. For the second straight season the Steelers melted down in the 2nd half of the season.

Without naming names, Lee Flowers called out teammates for quitting, and the 1999 season ended in a sloppy loss to the Tennessee Titans that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman t-shirt after a garbage time touchdown, and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return.

  • But Bill Cowher prevailed in his feud with Tom Donahoe and reasserted his control over the locker room in the process.

Mike Tomlin isn’t feuding with Kevin Colbert, but he must establish firm control of the locker room in 2019. Tomlin is reputed to say he treats everyone fairly, but not equally. Tomlin, it would seem, needs to tweak that.

  • Has Mike Tomlin already begun reasserting control?

When he showed up for the Bengals game, Antonio Brown issued a clear challenge to Tomlin’s authority, daring his coach bench him with the playoffs on the line.

Tomlin didn’t blink, which if nothing else could mark Tomlin’s pivot in Pittsburgh.

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Patriots – Just a Blip or Realizing Their Potential Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher wondering whether he’s just seen another momentary upward blip from his star students or a true ascent towards realizing their potential, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New England Patriots.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the Steelers to prevail in a Brady vs Ben duel, one would think that Ben Roethlisberger would need to have one of his best days as a pro. Yet, Fantasy owners who started Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it, as Ben’s overall numbers were pedestrian. The truth is that Ben didn’t have a banner day against the Patriots, but he made the throws the Steelers needed him to make to win. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Running Backs
Stevan Ridley’s revenge ambitions drew attention going into this game and Ridley did an excellent job of getting the Steelers out of danger with his 12 yard run from Pittsburgh’s one. However, the real star of the show was Jaylen Samuels who rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and displayed incredible instincts by staying in bounds late in the game. Roosevelt Nix wasn’t used often, but as usual he was effective. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the Steelers first touchdown and forced his way to extra yards to earn a third down on the Steelers final scoring drive. Jesse James had one catch for 9 yards. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught the Steelers second touchdown, which JuJu Smith-Schuster help set up with two electrifying catches, and Eli Rogers made his presence known with a couple of key 3rd down conversions. But the real star of the show was James Washington who led the Steelers in both catches and yards and for the first time looked like he really belonged. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than has been the norm this season, but the offensive line provided pass protection when it was needed the most, and Alejandro Villanueva’s block on the second touchdown serves as a great example. But the line’s biggest contribution to the win came in the run blocking it provided as it almost seemed to have symbiotic relationship with Jaylen Samuels. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball, but the Steelers also limited them at key moments in the game. Likewise, while the sack numbers weren’t there, the QB pressures were and a good number of those plays were made by the defensive line, as evidenced by Stephon Tuitt’s 2 QB hits. Grade: A-

Linebackers
In statistical terms,it was largely a quiet day for the Steelers linebackers, although Vince Williams and Anthony Chickillo had success in dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Patriot rushers made it to the second level a number of times, but they didn’t get far when they did, and the Steelers linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Secondary
Where to start? Play-by-play stats would appear to indicate that Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett handled the bulk of the duties when it came to shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the number show that the duo delivered. Those same stats also show that Coty Sensabaugh did his part to shut down the Patriots.

Mike Hilton came in second in the team on tackles, behind Joe Haden, who snatched a throw way jump ball from the air to stop the Patriots cold and get the ball back for the Steelers. The unit did give up an easy touchdown, which brings their grade down, albeit slightly. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had one return for 27 yards. Jordan Berry did not have any returnable punts, and the Steelers attempted no returns. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, but unlike last week, he redeemed himself with a 48 yarder – no small feat at Heinz Field. Grade: C

Coaching
Honesty check: If I’d told you one team would have 14 penalties called on it and the other 4, you’d have guessed the Steelers self-destructed with penalties, again. No worries, I’d have said the same. But it was the Patriots who kept scuttling their own drives with penalties.

Unlike one week ago, Randy Fichnter appears to have gone into the game intent on establishing the run, and he deserves credit for designing plays that maximized Jaylen Samuels unique skill set. The Steelers lined up regularly with empty sets, but still ended up with well over 100 yards rushing.

More importantly, when the coaching staff saw that Samuels could move the ball, they gave him more opportunities to do so which was a difference maker in the game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, and for good reason.

    Steelers locker room, Alejandro Villanueva

    Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Thus far the Steelers defense has been chronically incapable of closing games. Yet the Steelers defense not only ensured that the Patriots didn’t on two Steelers turnovers, it also secured one of their own the Red Zone.

The Patriots reached the Red Zone as time was about to expire, but unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense delivered.

  • Finally, there’s the job that Mike Tomlin has done.

While momentum is often oversold in today’s NFL, losing, particularly in December, can have a snowball effect. The Steelers had lost three tough games and things could have easily spun out of control. Yet Tomlin got his team to stay focused on the Patriots, and doubled down on his investment of trust in his players, which in turn fostered trust within the locker room. The results speak for themselves. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Normally a 1 sack performance indicates a putrid pass rush. Yet the Steelers got in Tom Brady’s face early and often, and while they only brought him down once, they flushed him from the pocket numerous times and forced him to rush his throw.

While the entire Steelers defense deserves credit for this achievement, Tom Brady’s to biggest antagonizes were T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and, for that, they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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Mike Tomlin’s Mistake? Trusting His Defense Too Much

Trust forms the lifeblood of human relationships. Without trust, society, let alone football teams would function. Yet if trust is essential to a football team’s success, trust, as Mike Tomlin is finding out, can get you into trouble.

  • The phrase “trust can get you into trouble” conjures images of lies, deceit and betrayal.

Anyone of those can scuttle the fortunes of a football team. But there are other ways that trust can fail. Think of the parent who instills sound study habits in their children, proctors nightly homework sessions, tutors intensively before tests only to see their child try their damndest yet fall flat on their faces when exam time arrives.

And therein lies Mike Tomlin’s biggest mistake from last Sunday – he placed too much trust in his defense.

Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin talks with Cam Heyward in Steelers loss to Radiers. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Let’s be clear: This site harshly criticized Mike Tomlin after the loss to the Raiders. I stand by those criticisms. By Tomlin’s own admission, medically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger could have entered the game one series earlier than he did.

When Ben did enter the game, he moved the offense at will, opening with a completion to Antonio Brown, then he hit Jaylen Samuels before connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster on four straight passes.

There’s no reason to think that things would have been any different if Ben would have replaced Joshua Dobbs one series sooner. And holding Ben out was game changing, and perhaps season ruining decision.

But part of the reason why Mike Tomlin held Ben out is also similar to the reason why he saved his time outs:

  • He was trusting his defense to make a play.

It is easy to scoff at such a notion given the way the Steelers defense has given up easy touchdown drives all season long, and particularly at the end of halves.

But remember that the Steelers defense is fielding 4 first round picks, 2 second round picks, 1 third round pick, and two major free agent signings. And that doesn’t count Cam Sutton and Artie Burns who weren’t playing.

  • Invest that type of NFL personnel capital in your defense and you should expect them to deliver.

And if “Heinzsight’s” film reviews over on Steelers 247 are to be trusted (and they should) then it is pretty clear that the Steelers defenders have been in the correct coverages and executing those coverages fairly well, but have been failing to make plays.

Consider the catch that Seth Roberts made in between Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Slam both of them for failing to make a play, but the men were where they needed to be.

Throughout his career, when the game is on the line, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly put its outcome in the hands of his players. Think of handing off to Le’Veon Bell with no time left against San Diego in 2015, or having Ben Roethlisberger throw to Antonio Brown on Christmas in 2016.

Against the Raiders, Mike Tomlin placed a similar trust in his defense, but unfortunately the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Raiders: Sobering Reality of Stumbling into Mediocrity Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher struggling with the sobering sight of once star students stumbling toward mediocrity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the (latest) loss to the Raiders in Oakland’s Black Hole.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was 25 for 29 for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, although he had some close calls. But Ben moved the offense at will in the 4th quarter and did well in the first half. Joshua Dobbs saw his first extensive work, and he disappointed. While his passes weren’t wild they were also a little off. Dobbs best play was a run, which is never good for a quarterback. Dobbs led the offense to two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. Not good enough. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin can claim that rushing the ball is an 11 man job, but we know that neither Jaylen Samuels or Stevan Ridley will be a threat on the ground anytime soon. As a positive, Roosevelt Nix made a great block and Ridley hit the hole perfectly for the first TD, Jaylen Samuels looked really good coming out of the backfield. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Jesse James made a number of key catches up the middle on an afternoon where Steelers offense put a premium on those short and medium passes. McDonald, however could not convert on the 4th and one, and he missed his block on Darrius Heyward-Bey’s reverse. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a slow afternoon but still caught 5 of 7 balls thrown his way. But one of those set up a score and another sparked the 4th quarter rally. The real star of the Steelers offense was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who literally is budding into a super star before our very eyes with 8 catches for 130 yards. James Washington caught two passes for 28 yards. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Raiders only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and kept the Steelers quarterbacks clean, but Oakland’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the league, yet the Steelers offensive line could do nothing to take advantage of them. Even a smidgen of rushing offense could have made a difference in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made another splash play, while Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns stoning Raiders runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. This was nice, but the Steelers really needed someone to make a stop on 4th and 1. That’s not all on the line’s shoulders, but it starts with them. Grade: D

Stephon Tuitt, Derek Carr, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Stephon Tuitt sacks Derek Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
T.J. Watt tipped a pass and looked stout in run support as did Bud Dupree who added a sack. L.J. Fort saw extensive time at inside linebacker, and most frequently the back of his jersey was seen chasing down wide receivers or tight ends. The fact is that Oakland was able to complete passes down the middle when it needed to, and while that’s not all on the linebackers they must do their part. Again, where was the drive-ending 4th quarter splash play? Grade: D

Secondary
Mike Hilton came up with a key sack and recovered a fumble. However, he had his hands on a pick that got away, as did Sean Davis. Mike Hilton also blew the coverage on the game winning touchdown. Morgan Burnett came up with a nice pass deflection in the end zone, but that was only after he and Terrell Edmunds got burned for the Raider’s 39 yard pass that set up their final score. The Steelers played the Raiders tight at times, but when it counted, in the 4th quarter, Oakland sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary as if it were Swiss cheese. Grade: F

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had some decent punt and kick returns, and the Steelers return coverage was solid. None of Jordan Berry’s punts were returnable. All positives.

That’s two missed field goals in a game decided by 3 points. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers offense was bound to be one dimensional, and yet Randy Fitchner came up with a solid game plan given the limitations and his players executed it well enough.

  • As for Keith Butler’s defense, 13 games into the 2018 season what you see is what you get.

When the Steelers get pressure on the quarterback this defense is capable of playing with just about any offense in the league. And, as compared to a year ago, the Steelers defense isn’t giving up big plays in droves the way they were.

But the Steelers pass rush is only solid when it needs to be relentless. And that reality, along with coverage lapses and inconsistencies against the run adds up to a brutal truth:

  • This is a defense that simply cannot be counted on to salt a game away.

While a lot of fans are ready to scapegoat Keith Butler, it is entirely possible that Butler is doing well with the talent he has at hand. Hum, “The talent he has on hand” that’s an interesting concept to take into account when evaluating Mike Tomlin’s performance in this game.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin is taking heat for his use of time outs when the Raiders were in the Red Zone, but this scribe strongly suspects that Tomlin was giving his defense a chance to “Grow up” so to speak. If that’s the case, then its hard to fault his motive, even if his defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • The same cannot be said about Mike Tomlin’s other gamble, namely keeping Joshua Dobbs in the game.

Per Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger was “medically cleared to play” when he reached the sideline. Tomlin also conceded that Ben could have come back in the game a series earlier.

Who knows why Mike Tomlin kept Joshua Dobbs in when Ben was ready to return? Really, it doesn’t matter because it was the wrong choice, a choice that will carry consequences far beyond dooming the Steelers to a loss to a 2-10 team. Grade: F-

Unsung Hero Award
Being asked to step into James Conner’s shoes cannot be easy, but that is what the Steelers asked of Jaylen Samuels. And while Samuels struggled running the ball, he did quite well as a pass catcher, and really impressed with his second efforts and determination to grind out extra yards. And for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Reverse Grand Slam: Offensive, Defensive, Special Teams and Coaching Failures Fuel Steelers 24-21 Loss to Raiders

Gripe all you want about Oakland’s Black Hole. Yes, the venue has been cursed the Steelers for a generation, but don’t blame the Black Hole curse for this loss. The Steelers arrived in California reeling from 2 game losing streak.

  • A match up against a 2-10 Raiders team appeared to be just what the Dr. ordered.

As individuals, some of the members of the Steelers made some spectacular plays on both sides of the ball. But isolated outbursts of outstanding individual efforts don’t equal success in a football game, instead every member of the team must execute whenever called upon.

And the Steelers 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders happened because the Steelers offense, defense special teams and coaches each failed to execute at critical junctures.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell slips while attempting a game winner. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Above the Line First Half

To descend into Mike Tomlin speak, the Steelers were “Above the line” in the first half. Yes, the Raiders scored a touchdown on their first drive, and they did so making it look easy. But the Steelers forced a field goal the next time the Raiders threatened to score.

Better yet, the Steelers defense forced two other Raiders punts thanks to stout run defense by Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and T.J. Watt, sacks by Mike Hilton and Stephon Tuitt along with a generous helping of penalties committed by Oakland.

As promised the Steelers split carries between Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley but neither man proved to be a threat on the ground. And, with James Conner out, that forced the Steelers offense to become one-dimensional.

When a team is missing a key player the remaining members carry the burden of stepping up.
The Steelers offense did that in the first half. For whatever he lacked rushing the ball, Jaylen Samuels proved to be an effective threat coming out of the backfield, showing extra hustle time and time again. Vance McDonald and Jesse James made several tough catches over the middle. Roosevelt Nix and the offensive line did an outstanding job of paving the way for Stevan Ridley’s touchdown.

  • And JuJu Smith-Schuster made an incredible touchdown catch at the end of the first half and had to be seen on replay to be believed.

Sure, the Steelers had left 3 points on the board in the form of a missed Chris Boswell field goal, but the arrow appeared to be pointing up for Pittsburgh at half time. The Steelers offense seemed to find its rhythm, held a 14-10 lead and were set to get the ball back to start the second half.

The Dobbs Decision

The second half would start with a surprise for Steelers Nation as Joshua Dobbs an not Ben Roethlisberger came out under center. Not only was Ben Roethlisberger not playing, he was not on the sidelines.

Beginning with the 2-6 start in 2013 there’s been a contingent of Steelers Nation who has advocated going into “Suck for Luck” mode, and embracing the idea that the Steelers should jettison Ben Roethlisberger and start over.

  • The first 25 minutes of the second half serves as living proof as to why Art Rooney II is NOT inclined to do that.

Joshua Dobbs might grow into a fine backup quarterback. He might even make a serviceable starter. Perhaps he’ll even mature into a quality NFL signal caller. But he is far cry from a franchise quarterback. Dobbs made some decent throws – one could even argue that Antonio Brown should have caught the ball on Dobbs lone interception.

  • But Dobbs best plays of the afternoon came when he was running, which is not what you want to say of a quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the sideline late in the 3rd quarter, yet Joshua Dobbs remained in the game. It was only after the Raiders took the lead with around 5 minutes left to go, that Ben Roethlisberger returned.

After the game, Mike Tomlin confirmed that Ben Roethlisberger had been medically cleared to play as soon as he reached the sidelines. Why didn’t Mike Tomlin play him immediately? It only took Ben Roethlisberger 5 plays to lead the Steelers to the go ahead touchdown?

Since becoming head coach, Mike Tomlin has long preached that doctors know best, and if a player is medically cleared to play, he’s going to play him. Yet Tomlin held him out. This was one Mike Tomlin decision whose repercussions will reverberate for some time to come.

Steelers Defense Fails to Deliver

Let the record reflect that the Steelers defense did make a few plays in the 2nd half. Bud Dupree stoned Doug Martin at the line of scrimmage on a number of occasions, and he sacked Derrick Carr to help force a punt. Mike Hilton recovered a fumble, while Morgan Burnett deflected a pass in the end zone.

  • Those were all nice individual efforts, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

Sean Davis had his hands on an interception and couldn’t come up with the ball. The run defense, which had stifled the Raiders on the ground almost all day, let Jalen Richard get 5 yards on 4th and one. That drive ended in the Raiders first go ahead touchdown.

Burnett and Terrell Edmunds got burned on a 39 yard pass that brought the Raiders to the 7 with 1:16 to play. Mike Hilton, after making so many plays earlier in the game, blew the coverage on Derrick Carr’s walk-off game winning touchdown to Derek Carrier.

  • Mike Tomlin is taking a lot of heat for not using his time outs after the Raiders reached the Red Zone.

Fair enough. When you lose this type of second guessing happens. However, it was hard not to get the sense that he wanted to let his defense prove it could save the game.

Instead, the Steelers defense proved they are not good enough.

The Boswell Factor

Chris Boswell started the season in a slump, worked his way out of it for the most part, but he’s back to missing kicks again. Boswell missed a kick in the first half, then slipped and missed what could have been the game winner.

  • Mike Tomlin now has a kicker quandary on his hands.

The Steelers invested big money in Boswell during the off season and for both financial, and perhaps football purposes cutting him outright would be imprudent.

  • But the Steelers can’t trust Chris Boswell now nor will they be able to trust him for the balance of 2018.

Can the Steelers find a competent replacement kicker and allow Boswell to mysteriously have pulled a muscle because of his slip so he can go on IR? That’s not a decision you want to make, but the fact is, if Chris Boswell makes either kick, neither the Steelers coaching mistakes nor their offensive and defensive failures matter.

Steelers Don’t Deserve Playoffs

Eight days ago the Steelers still had a shot at an AFC playoff bye. Now the Steelers playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. Yet, as a friend reminded me, the Baltimore Ravens also lost, which helps the Steelers cause.

But does that really matter?

No it doesn’t. When you lose to a 2-10 team in mid-December you quite simply don’t deserve to make the playoffs. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

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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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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens at M&T Stadium – Poise & Maturity Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is pleased to see consistent improvement from his students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens

Bud Dupree & Stephon Tuitt converge on Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers via PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger might not have had his flashiest day of the season and he certainly did miss on a couple of key throws. But Ben Roethlisberger was hot in the Red Zone and the Steelers converted 10 of 16 third downs paving Pittsburgh’s way to a 36:29 edge in time of possession. One critique, Roethlisberger’s-almost injury on the run was a little reckless. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Historically, the Baltimore Ravens have been a very tough team to run on, but James Conner had 70 yards in the first half alone and added 56 through the air before it was done. Jaylen Samuels had one run for two yards. Grade: A+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James 51 yard catch in the 4th quarter very well may have been the play of the game. James had one other catch for 13 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 catches for 25 yards, although ball security is becoming an issue with McDonald. The Steelers played a lot of two tight end sets, and James Conner had a lot of room to run. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown only had 5 catches for 42 yards, but he made them count as one went for a touchdown, and several others extended drives. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the team with 7 catches for 78 yards, although he did drop what could have been a long one. James Washington returned to the offense and had two catches with one drop, while Ryan Switzer had 3 catches for 41 yards. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Ravens pressured Ben Roethlisberger but didn’t sack him until the Steelers final series, and that was after Roethlisberger had burned off ample clock time. Even more impressively, James Conner had room to run, and he exploited it, which was a huge difference from the last outing against Baltimore. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
The Ravens had some early success running the ball, and it looked like their line might win the battle upfront. However, that never came to fruition and, while Steelers only registered two sacks of Joe Flacco, they did pressure him all afternoon. Stephon Tuitt had an off sides penalty negate a sack, but he dropped Joe Flacco on Baltimore’s final drive, essentially sealing the game. Cam Heyward had a key stop on the previous drive and blew up the Ravens line to set up Tuitt’s sack. Grade: B

Linebackers
Bud Dupree’s stat line might not look like much, but he got pressure on Joe Flacco all day, splitting a sack with fellow linebacker Vince Williams. Jon Bostic and T.J. Watt tied for number 2 on the team in tackles. Anthony Chickillo saw ample playing time and helped drop a rusher behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton led secondary with three critical plays in the Red Zone, two of which came against runs and another was a pass defensed in the end zone that a “little guy” like him isn’t supposed to make. Sean Davis led the team with 9 tackles is blossoming as a free safety. Morgan Burnett saw his most extensive action, and while he got beaten on a few plays, he stabilized as the game continue. Coty Sensabaugh had another quiet afternoon which is good for a corner.

The Baltimore Ravens were 4-12 on third down and many times Joe Flacco simply had nowhere to throw. Grade: A

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed another extra point, which is becoming worrisome. Ryan Switzer had some good punt returns as well as a good kick return. The Ravens return game didn’t break a big one, but they had more success than you’d like to see. Grade: C

Coaching
When the Baltimore beat Pittsburgh just 35 days ago at Heinz Field, the Steelers looked like a team doomed to be mired in mediocrity for the entire season. In the four games since then, the Steelers have established themselves as the sole leader of the AFC North.

  • Keith Butler has brought the defense along since that ugly night.

The Steelers defense still has issues and remains a long way from the shutdown form it was flashing just one year ago, but Butler’s boys have managed to reduce the long plays while playing the pass more consistently, even when they can’t constantly harass the quarterback.

  • Randy Fichtner’s offense has also improved.

5 weeks ago the Steelers offense only seemed capable of producing in the 2nd and 3rd quarters and couldn’t convert third downs. Since then Steelers offense has consistently done both, while improving in the Red Zone.

Finally, we focus on Mike Tomlin. The Steelers had a rough September, and the last loss to the Ravens seemed punctuate every troublesome trend from the first 3 games. But both Tomlin and his team filtered out the naysayers and have played with poise and maturity since then. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
12:39 remained in the fourth quarter. A holding penalty on Alejandro Villanueva had just sent the Steelers back to their own 5 yard line, bringing up 2nd and 20. And trainers had just helped Ben Roethlisberger from the field. If ever there was a moment for the Ravens to tip the momentum in their favor it was this.

  • Those were the conditions that under which Joshua Dobbs made his NFL debut.

And the rocket scientist not only didn’t flinch, he executed a picture perfect pass that secured a first down and set up the next long play that set up the next score. For his poise under pressure, Joshua Dobbs wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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Superior Focus, Balance and Poise Drive Steelers to 23-16 Over Ravens at M&T Stadium

What a difference 35 days makes. On September 30th, the Baltimore Ravens 26 to 14 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on seemed to confirm the worst about the 2018 Steelers:

  • Their defense couldn’t stop the big play, couldn’t pressure the passer, while the offense remained incapable of consistency.

A different Pittsburgh Steelers team took the field against the Ravens at M&T Stadium to earn a 23-16 victory and sole possession of the AFC North lead. While notching an AFC North road win was important, the key take away from the win over the Ravens is how the Steelers secured victory.

In his press conference, Mike Tomlin pointed to Red Zone performance and the ability to convert third downs as the drivers of the Steelers victory. And Tomlin is right. But the qualities underlying the Steelers success in the Red Zone and on 3rd down are far more important:  Focus, balance and poise.

 

Josha Dobbs, Jesse James, Josha Dobbs 1st NFL pass, Jesse James. Steelers vs Ravens

Joshua Dobbs prepares to fire off a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers, PennLive

About That Red Zone Differential

The key stats in the game are the Steelers and Ravens respective performances in the Red Zone.

  • The Steelers made four trips to the Red Zone and scored 3 touchdowns and 1 field goal.
  • The Ravens made three trips to the Red Zone and scored 2 field goals and 1 touchdown.

The Steelers first two touchdown passes represented workman like efforts, that culminated in short touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to James Conner and Antonio Brown. The Ravens drives were also reasonably workman like, but they featured some nice runs by Alex Collins.

While it would be incorrect to conclude that Baltimore was imposing its will on the Steelers rushing defense, both field goal drives proved that the Ravens could run on Pittsburgh. But thanks, in no small part, to efforts of Mike Hilton against the pass and then against the run, Baltimore was forced to settle for 3 points both times.

The mathematical difference of is easy to understand, but Pittsburgh’s Red Zone superiority also altered the dynamic of the game as the Steelers would show at beginning of the 2nd half.

Steelers Balance Disrupts Ravens Equilibrium

Thanks to some stout work by the defense, the Steelers got the ball back with 49 seconds left to go in the 2nd quarter. Instead of mounting one of their patented 1 minute drives, Vance McDonald proceeded to test the collective cardiac health of Steelers Nation with two almost fumbles.

Instead of going into the locker room with extra points, the Steelers clumsy close to the first half opened the door to doubts about their ability stay in control.

  • The Steelers offense answered those doubts by opening the 2nd half with a 15 play 75 yard drive that burned  8:14 seconds off of the clock, and put Pittsburgh up 20 to 6.

Now, down 14 points, Baltimore was forced to abandon its running game and become one dimensional.

For a time, however, it looked like one-dimensional might be enough, as the Joe Flacco led the Ravens an 11 play 75 yard drive that narrowed the difference to 7 in just 3:50 seconds. The Steelers offense followed with a 3 and out and momentum appeared to be shifting to Baltimore as the third quarter ended.

Pittsburgh’s Prevails on Poise and Focus

Keith Butler’s defense responded by forcing a 3 and out of their own as Vince Williams and Bud Dupree teamed to sack Joe Flacco at his own twelve. Yet, the Steelers found themselves in almost exactly the spot on the field, as a penalty on a Ryan Switzer punt return put the Steelers on Baltimore’s 15.

A pair of penalties and an injury to Ben Roethlisberger left the Steelers at 2nd and 20 on Baltimore’s fifteen, leaving Joshua Dobbs standing under center taking his NFL snap.

  • The conventional wisdom of the situation screamed:  Hand the ball to James Conner!

And that is apparently what Randy Fichtner intended to do. But the young Rocket Scientist turned NFL quarterback saw something he liked in the Ravens alignment, and with the poise worthy of a 10 year veteran, Dobbs checked out of the running play, dropped five yards deep into his own end zone, planted his feet and rifled off a 22 yard dart to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Two plays later Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James, who saw the ball bounced and bobble off his body, but James maintained focus, brought the ball home and moved the Steelers 51 yards down the field. This time the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone, but a Chris Boswell field goal was enough to extend the lead to 7 points.

The Ravens got all the way to the Steelers 19, aided by a Coty Sensabaugh pass interference play, but head up plays by Cam Heyward, Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo forced Baltimore to settled for 3 again.

The Steelers next drive only saw them go 19 yards, but in converting 2 third downs, Pittsburgh milked over four and a half minutes off of the clock. Baltimore got the ball back with 44 seconds left to play, but a Stephon Tuitt sack of Joe Flacco rendered the rest of the Ravens plays into an academic question.

Steelers Win Fourth Straight with Same Formula

35 days ago the Steelers 2018 season seemed to be dead in the water. Pittsburgh was 1-2-1, tied for last in the AFC North without a conference victory to their names. Since then the Steelers have authored victories against the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and now the Baltimore Ravens.

  • While the victory over the Falcons can rightly be labeled as a blow out, the outcome of each of the other 3 games remained in doubt until end of the 3rd quarter, if not later.

In each of those games, a breakdown on the part of the Steelers allowed their opponents to threaten a comeback with a late score.  But in each instance, Pittsburgh responded with poise instead of panic which has paved their for the Steelers offense and defense to respond with scores and stops of their own.

While you’d like to see your team put opponents away, Pittsburgh’s poise under pressure is a quality that will serve the Steelers well down the stretch.

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