Give Steelers Tight Ends Jesse James & Vance McDonald an “A” For Their Performance vs Ravens

OK, not really.

For the record, I’m not the regular Report Card marker for Steel Curtain Rising, so its really not my place to suggest that Jesse James and Vance McDonald get “A” for their efforts in the Steelers win over the Ravens.

But, the position, particularly Jesse James and Vance McDonald, certainly deserved to win the Steelers Report Card’s Unsung Hero Award as they did during the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens for playing a much-bigger part of the game-plan than anyone could have possibly envisioned.

Jesse James, Eric Weddle, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers tight ends ravens

Eric Weddle tackles Jesse James in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

With JuJu Smith-Schuster sidelined while serving a very-controversial one-game suspension for his block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict last week, and with Martavis Bryant continuing to baffle with his inability to get open–this despite Antonio Brown drawing constant double-teams–one wondered who would pick up the slack in the Steelers air-attack.

  • The answer became clear, early on, as James and McDonald combined for four receptions for 45 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two offensive series.
  • Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Steelers first two drives ended in touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.

Speaking of Vance McDonald, he’s sort of been this year’s version of Ladarius Green, who was an athletically gifted tight end the Steelers signed as a free agent prior to the 2016 campaign, but, thanks to concussion-related problems, only played in a handful of games in his lone season in Pittsburgh.

Vance McDonald may not have come to Pittsburgh with the same physical gifts as Green, but when the Steelers acquired him in a trade with the 49ers this past summer, he certainly possessed the size, speed and athleticism Pittsburgh had been searching for at the tight end position for many years.

  • Unfortunately, McDonald has been battling the injury-bug for most of 2017, and he was even forced to leave Sunday night’s game with a shoulder ailment.

But, before Vance McDonald exited the game, he tallied four receptions for 52 yards. This might not seem like much, but considering Eli Rogers and Bryant combined for a mere 66 receiving yards, Vance McDonald’s contribution as welcome as it was necessary.

Speaking of contributions, what about the night Jesse James had for the Steelers on Sunday?

James may have even come up with the night’s most-crucial reception.

  • Trailing by two points with just 1:57 remaining in the game, the Steelers faced a third and 13 from their own 14-yard line.

If Pittsburgh didn’t pick up at least a good chunk of yardage on the play, the game would most-likely be over.

However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found James 16 yards downfield, and the tight end managed to hold on to the pass in traffic, which laid the groundwork for what would become the game-winning field goal drive.

  • All-in-all, James and McDonald combined for 14 catches for 149 yards on the night.

Enough to make the fans stop chanting “HEATH!!!!!” (in honor of legendary tight end Heath Miller) each time a caucasian tight end catches a pass at Heinz Field?

  • Perhaps not anytime soon.

But, in a nip-and-tuck, prime-time affair with the AFC North title on-the-line, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly needed everything Jesse James and Vance McDonald could give them, Sunday night.

And their contributions should not go unnoticed.

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Mea Culpa: Why I Changed My Mind on the JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension to Support #FreeJuJu!

Sometimes it’s simply best to fess up and admit you were wrong. So it is with me and the NFL’s decision to suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • To be honest, I reacted to seeing the flag being thrown by asking “Why?”

Really, it didn’t make sense. But then the replay showed helmet-to-helmet contact, and then JuJu clearly looked to be making light over Vontaze Burfict. That didn’t sit well, and in my post-game write up I came down hard on JuJu and on Rebecca Rollett’s site, Going Deep with the Steelers I observed, “JuJu Smith-Schuster was (rightly in my view) suspended for gloating over Vontaze Burfict…”

  • Let’s put it out front and center: I was wrong about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s suspension.

Several factors influenced my change in thinking, which I expand below.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension, David DeCastro

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Taunting is Wrong, but Is It Suspendable Offense + Vontaze Burfict Took a Dive

In taking JuJu Smith-Schuster to task put his actions into the context of what we know today as opposed to yesteryearWhen I saw Greg Lloyd 3 count Al Toon after Thomas Everett knocked the Jets wide receiver out with a concussion during the 1989 Steelers shut out over the Jets I thought it was awesome.

  • Of course at the time Mike Webster seemed to defying father time by playing for the Chiefs and the word “CTE” was close to 20 years away.

Given that, JuJu’s taunting of a seemingly concussed Burfict, while satisfying on one level is nonetheless wrong on so many others. But as Mike Silverstien, aka “Homer J” reprimanded:

No question Juju deserved 15 for taunting, but NO PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY HAS EVER BEEN SUSPENDED FOR TAUNTING. You throw the flag, give him 15, lighten his wallet and move on, damn it.

There no arguing with that logic, and while the NFL mentioned the taunting in its letter to JuJu it apparently clarified that the suspension was for the hit, not the taunting. Even Jason Witlock and Colin Cowherd, two jouralists not exactly known for their support of the Steelers, went at pains to say that the hit only borderline illegal.

But of course, it was a devastating hit, wasn’t it? Well, again Homer J’s analysis is instructive:

Juju clocks Burfict and lays him flat. Burfuct [sic] at first springs up, and he tries to twist and grab Juju’s legs. Then the flags start flying and Burfict flops like some damned Serbian midfielder in a match against hated Croatia. Just like he falls to the ground game after game during other team’s offensive drives. Just like he said Antonio Brown did in the playoff game two years ago. (So it wasn’t something he hadn’t thought about) He laid there like a slug. And they strapped him to the gurney and took him to the field hospital where the Civil War surgeons were ready to amputate his leg or something. But, wait! According to media reports, the second he got into the tunnel and away from cameras, the SOB demanded to be unhooked, and he jumped up and started to head back onto the field. He was faking it!

As no one disputes the press accounts that Burfict did in fact get off the cart after it was out of camera view, one must assume he did just that. And Homer’s analysis makes a lot more sense in that light.

NFL Has 1 Standard for Juju Smith-Schuster, Another for Ilokia and Gronk

When the news broke that the NFL had suspended Juju Smith-Schuster and while also suspending George Ilokia for his hit on Antonio Brown, the league at least looked to be trying to keep up the appearance of objectivity.
Never mind that Ilokia had a lot more opportunity to avoid hitting Brown’s head that JuJu had with Burfict.

  • But of course Ilokia’s suspension didn’t stick as his lawyer got it reduced to a mere $36,000 fine.

Sorry, no amount of sophistry can justify this, although Ilokia’s agent tried suggesting that Brown should have positioned his head differently.

I suppose JuJu’s agent should have tried the same argument with respect to Burfict. Except unlike Brown, Burfict didn’t have to worry concentrating to hold on to the ball as he was probably calculating whether he could injure Le’Veon Bell again.

Tony Defeo has already written about the NFL’s hypocrisy here and taken the argument further by contrasting the 1 game suspension that JuJu Smith-Schuster got for unintentional yet a (borderline) illegal hit, where as Patriots pretty boy Rob Gronkowski clearly pre-meditated, almost pro-wrestling style elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White.

Go read Tony’s full article, we need not rehash it here, but Defeo’s argument also played a role in shifting my thinking.

Where’s the Suspension for Ahmad Brooks Hit on Antonio Brown??

And that brings us to the third factor that shifted my thinking.

  • Where in the hell is the NFL’s suspension for the Green Bay Packers Ahmad Brooks  illegal hit Antonio Brown?

What’s that you ask, I don’t remember anything like that from the Packer’s game? Well, I missed it too, but it came on Martavis Bryant’s ill-fated end around at the goal line. What Brown has David DeCastro passes him by:

Gee, isn’t that interesting? Not only was Brown hitting hit from almost the same position that Burfict was standing in, unlike JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ahmad Brooks was clearly aiming at Antonio Brown’s head. This play also came on a nationally televised game, and yet, the only discussion of it came thanks the discussion board on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider in response to observations made by Craig Wolfley.

  • And just the point isn’t it? Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels either missed this hit or chose not to talk about it.

Which shouldn’t matter, should it? The NFL is supposed to review all game tapes and look for offenses like this, aren’t they? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Jim Wexell suggested on Twitter:

And that’s what’s so galling about the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension. On paper the NFL has appeared to take strides towards injecting some objectivity into its administration of justice. But as the old adage goes, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The calculus for understanding why JuJu’s punishment is so harsh is simple:

  • Jon Gruden got the rest of the NFL to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, so Roger Goodell suspended him.

No one saw Ahmad Brooks illegal hit on Brown, so it Goodell saw no reason to do anything. Iloka George didn’t taunt and Brown didn’t get taken out on a stretcher, so his suspension can be reduced to a fine.

As for Ron Gronkowski? Well, he’s a Patriot and the one time Goodell tried to get tough on them he overcompensated, and it backfired. So Goodell’s back in his comfort zone of looking the other way when his buddy Bob Kraft is involved.

Let’s repeat something this site has mentioned before and will again:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy aka “CTE” and related head trauma poses a threat to the existence of not just the NFL, but of football itself.

Football will only survive if the risk of CTE is eliminated or greatly reduced. But arbitrary administration of justice, whether that be giving protection to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but not Ben Roethlisberger, or trying to make James Harrison a scapegoat, simply erodes the integrity of the game, without touching the threat of CTE.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Apologies to readers for the error of my ways. #FreeJuJu!

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Prayers for Ryan Shazier and Antonio Brown Top Steelers Bengals Game Ball Winner Poll

It has been a both a busy and harrowing week in Steelers Nation. While Ryan Shazier‘s recovery outstrips everything else in terms of importance, Roger Goodell and company’s suspension of JuJu Smith-Schuster and non-suspension of George Iloka have managed to steal headlines.

Oh, and the Baltimore Ravens are coming to town with the AFC North on the line.

 

Antonio Brown, Adam Jones, Adam "Pacman Jones", Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown after making a 1st down catch over Adam “Pacman” Jones. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As mentioned when we put up the game ball poll, running a poll didn’t feel right while Ryan Shazier laid up in a Cincinnati Hospital and the rest of the world wondering if he would walk again. But we put up the poll nonetheless, and included Ryan Shazier.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Game ball polls, yAntonio Brown, yRyan ShazierAs would be expected and is appropriate, thoughts and prayers for Ryan Shazier topped the poll. The numbers from the rest of Steelers players are perhaps a bit lower because the lowly pollster (me) forgot to enable multiple votes for the first day or so, which is when the lion’s share of the votes come in.

So be it. Ryan Shazier reminded us that are are a lot of things that are far more important than football in this world.

  • As it was, Antonio Brown lead the rest of the voting, carrying 9 votes after his incredible performance while injured.

Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Boswell tied for third place, with 6 votes a piece, followed by Le’Veon Bell who polled 4 votes. Martavis Bryant got two votes, and JuJu Smith-Schuster got 2 more. JuJu’s vote total is perhaps a bit low, considering the out cry over the NFL’s double standard applied to him and George Iloka.

Vince Williams got one vote (despite making what was arguably the key defensive play of the night) and Bud Dupree got zero votes, although someone wrote his name in.

  • George Iloka as got a vote, as his penalty led to good offensive field position.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted, and offers special thanks to all those who took time to cast in write ins.

 

 

 

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The JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension Highlights the NFL’s Inconsistency & Hypocrisy

The JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension highlights the NFL and Roger Goodell’s inconsistency, hypocrisy and blatant double standards. 

For his illegal block on linebacker Vontaze Burfict, along with his subsequent taunting penalty in the Steelers 23-20 victory over the Bengals Monday night, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been suspended for the upcoming game against the Ravens.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals, yDavid DeCastro, yVontaze Burfict

Other notable suspensions this week have also been of the one-game variety, and they’ve been handed down to Bengals safety George Iloka for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter; and to Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski for his flagrant elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White on Sunday.

But hold the presses!

Obviously, Smith-Schuster’s appeal on Tuesday was heard, but the suspension was quickly upheld, which begs the question: Does the NFL think an act as blatant as Gronkowski’s–one that could be seen as downright criminal–is the same as Smith-Schuster’s super-aggressive block, which has been considered by many people to be just a tough football play?

Yes, as you can see there was contact to Burfict’s head, which may have actually been what drew the initial penalty:

But you can also see there was even more contact to Brown’s head, and, as I just stated, Iloka’s suspension has been reduced to a fine:

https://twitter.com/RNBWCV/status/937994057489534976

(Momentary aside: Notice that the JuJu’s hit on Burfict is embedable but we had to find go to someone’s Twitter feed from outside the US to get an embedable video of the hit on Brown. Kinda sorta like you videos of the helmet-to-helmet hit that James Harrison took in 2011, the one that broke his orbital bone got taken down from YouTube fast, while the NFL YouTube police let his hit on Colt McCoy stay up for a long time.)

  • You might say, “But Smith-Schuster also stood over Burfict and taunted him after the hit.”

OK, fine, but is that as bad as intentionally elbowing a totally prone and defenseless player in the back of the head, simply because you were angry that he held you right before intercepting a pass from Tom Brady

  • Immediately after the hit, White was put in concussion protocol.

Smith-Schuster’s and Iloka’s fouls were football plays; Gronkowski’s was akin to a heel wrestler hitting someone in the back of the head with a folding chair.

  • And this is why so many people think the NFL front-office is a joke.

If you want to suspend Smith-Schuster for what he did, fine (although, for a rookie receiver to draw a one-game suspension for that is like putting a kid in jail for six months for underage drinking), but then you should have also upheld Iloka’s suspension.

  • And if you want to suspend both of those players for a game, shouldn’t the superstar tight end get at least two (if not more)?

What message are you sending, when you claim to be a league that cares about head injuries, but you’re going to treat a football act the same as, again, a criminal act?

  • It makes no sense, but, then again, it is the NFL, and not much the league does these days makes any sense.

The 10-2 Steelers head into a potential division-clinching match-up Sunday night without one of their best young players, while the 5-7 Bengals will head into their Week 14 match-up with their starting safety.

Seems about right.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Secondary
Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Coaching
IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Brown Bests Big Ben by a Nose in Steelers-Titans Game Ball Winners Poll! And No Love for Todd Haley

The Steelers Thrusday Night trashing of the Titans certainly energized Steelers Nation if voting in our Steelers-Titans game ball winners poll are any indication. And this time the race was hotly contested and for good reason.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, LeShaun Sims, Steelers Titans Thursday Night Football

LeShaun Sims couldn’t ground Antonio Brown and neither could Ben Roethlisberger, at least not in our game ball poll! Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Game Ball Poll REsultsAt first glance, it appears that Ben Roethlisberger narrowly out polled Antonio Brown by a single vote to win the poll. However, if you scroll down, you’ll see that someone wrote in “AB” which can only be interpreted as Antonio Brown, so when we had his two votes to his 24, he comes out ahead of his quarterback by one

  • And for good reason, the duo was outstanding Thursday night, with both players in championship form.

The next highest vote getter was Cameron Heyward. That’s not much of a surprise, given how thoroughly Cam Heyward dominated the Titans, including making a critical sack on third down to force a field goal when the outcome remained very much in doubt.

Support for Heyward built slowly however, and one can speculate on whether it was influenced by Tony Defeo’s didactic piece on whether the Steelers 2017 defensive line is simply too talented to contain.

Coty Sensabaugh was the next highest vote getter, with 9 votes, which is a bit of a surprise. Sensabaugh’s interception did come at a critical moment, and did set up a Chris Boswell field goa, but Coty Sensabaugh also bears responsibility for the long bomb the Steelers defense gave up.

Vince Williams came in fifth in the pecking order, after another strong night that included a sack, which was enough to get him six votes. Ryan Shazier and Mike Hilton tied for 6th place with each player polling four votes.

Le’Veon Bell and Stephon Tuitt tied for 7th place with each man garnering 3 votes. Sean Davis was next with 2 votes, followed by Jesse JamesRobert Golden and L.T. Walton who got one vote a piece. Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant had their moments against the Titans, but neither got a ballot slot and no one saw fit to write their names in.

  • On a night when the Steelers offense exploded for 40 points, the one person who found no love was Steelers offensive Todd Haley whose name was on the ballot.

That’s not a terrible shock, given that hatred for Haley runs strong in Steelers Nation, as many fans were quick to point to the usage of the no-huddle to discredit any role Haley had in the Steelers success. Yours truly doesn’t share that opinion, but poll is about what you the readers think, and the readers have rendered their judgement.

Thanks as always go out to all of you who took time to vote. Go Steelers!

 

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans – Have the Star Students Finally “Got It?”

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has crossed his fingers, hoping his students have finally “Got it,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Titans.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, Kevin Byard

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Titans safety Kevin Byard in Steelers win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was playing at home for the first time in close to a month, and he’s clearly more comfortable playing at Heinz Field. While Roethlisberger had an uneven first half, he recognized that challenged everyone including himself to step it up, and he was unstoppable in the second half, keeping drives alive, distributing the ball and throwing touchdowns in the Red Zone. For the night, Ben went 30 of 45 for 299 yards no turnovers and 4 touchdowns. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell didn’t have much room to run, and the Steelers didn’t try to force feed him the ball. Bell was a force catching balls through the air, and helped set up manageable 2nd downs. James Conner ran a little before garbage time and didn’t find much room to run either, but looked OK late in the game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Jesse James might never become a true number 1 tight end, but he’s proving to be a reliable target down field. While the tight ends much share some blame for the lack luster run blocking, James delivered as a receiver and added another touchdown catch to his resume. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had endured a couple of weeks where his production dropped and he was elispecd by JuJu Smith-Schuster. While murmurs of “Is 84 losing a step” hadn’t begun (and for good reason), Brown appeared to take it personally. Brown was clearly the Steelers number 1 reciever on the field catching 10 passes for 144 yards, including 3 touchdowns and one which was a work of pure wonder. JuJu Smith-Schuster had some nice catches, including a tough 3rd down conversion in the Red Zone. Martavis Bryant had a quieter night, but made a key third down conversion. He also recovered a fumble. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Titans had more success getting to Ben Roethlisberger than any team thus far this season, but the Steelers line kept him clean in the 2nd half. The line’s run blocking left a little to be desired, but they were going up against a Dick LeBeau defense intent on making Roethlisberger beat them. He did, and the line helped. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
The Titans barely broke 50 yards rushing and averaged 2.5 yards on the ground, and that starts up front as the Steelers defenders dropped at least 10 Titan ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, by ESPN’s count. Cam Heyward is playing at a level of dominance not seen since the days of the Steel Curtain, recording 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 3 QB hits. Stephon Tuitt wasn’t far behind, recording a sack and 2 QB hits. Javon Hargrave had 1 tackle for a loss. L.T. Walton had a sack late in the game. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, DeMarco Murray

Vince Williams, Cam Heyward and others gang tackle DeMarco Muarry in Steelers Thursday Night win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Ryan Shazier led the Steelers in tackles with 10 total, Vince Williams had a sack and T.J. Watt tipped a ball. Bud Dupree had part of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker helped shut down the run and get the defense off the field in the third down. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton had an interception that allowed the Steelers to go up by 3. Coty Sensabaugh had another interception that set up the Steelers second field goal. Robert Golden’s third interception set up the Steelers 3rd touchdown, while Sean Davis intercepted the ball in garbage time. While those are all positives, the Steelers secondary got burnt, badly on another long pass play. That makes 3 in two games, which cannot continue and brings the grade down considerably. Grade: B-

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Titans, Robert Golden, Steelers vs Titans

Mike Hilton returns on of four interceptions on the night during the Steelers Thrusday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
It sure feels better to be the kick blocker rather than the kick blockee. Thanks to T.J. Watt, the Steelers blocked a Titan’s field goal early in the game, which helped ensure the Steelers lead. Antonio Brown returned two punts and averaged 11.6 yards, a refreshing change, and could have taken his last one farther had he not bumped into one of his own players. Chris Boswell was a perfect 4/4 on field goals and extra points. The Titans did have a long kick return and a decent punt return, neither of which had an impact but could have. Grade: A-

Coaching
Score one for Todd Haley. Haley was going up against a coach who knew his tendencies, his personnel and his way of thinking better than any other opposing defensive coordinator he’ll ever face. Yes, the Steelers used more no-huddle than normal, and Ben Roethlisberger’s comments suggest that he was doing more of his own play calling.

  • But Todd Haley correctly assessed that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to rely on the run to win this one, and he designed his game plan accordingly.

Keith Butler’s defense continues to evolve, and save for the first play of the second half, completely shut down the Titans in the last thirty minutes. Butler is blessed by an awesome defensive line, yet he needs to find a way to coax better play out of his secondary, especially if his starting corner and starting free safety are out as long as they’re expected to be out for.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t start the 2017 season firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin appeared to anticipate that, warning people that the team remained a work in progress as opening day arrived. Tomlin knew his team, but more importantly, the Steelers have made slow but steady (if not always linear) improvement as the season has progressed.

While you always want to play your best football all the time, the truth is that finishing strong is more important that starting fast. The Pittsburgh Steelers still must sustain their progress during the season’s last 6 games, but week 10 saw Mike Tomlin getting his players to play their most complete game of the season, which is a very positive sign. Grade: A-

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday Night

Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin confer on the sidelines during the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Unsung Hero Award
Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed him to be the focus of the Steelers offense. And for the better part of the last 12 months, that’s been undeniably true. But going into the game against the Titans, he knew focus was going to be off him, and he didn’t pout, didn’t complain on social media. Instead, he continued to make the bread and butter plays both on the ground and through the air that kept the Steelers offense humming.

He had what looked to be a really tough touchdown taken away on replay, and instead of demanding a second chance, accepted his role as a decoy in one of the best play fakes the Steelers have executed in living memory, paving away for a critical touchdown and for that Le’Veon Bell is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans.

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