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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner

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

Steelers Success Now Rests with Roethlisberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Shuffle Roster Due to Injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrell Edmunds, Keenan Allen, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Steelers Open Game in Championship Form*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Steelers first half hadn’t been flawless.

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

Steelers Suffer Epic Meltdown in 2nd Half

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

Terrell Edmunds, Justin Jackson, Steelers vs Chargers

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

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

  • The Chargers response was telling.

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

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

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

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

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

Who Not to Blame for the Loss

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

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

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

Mirror Shows Steelers Tripping Instead of Leaning In

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

Poor officiating didn’t force:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eli Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2018 Offense Needs a Legit 3rd Wide Receiver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns, Focus in the Face of Tragedy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed with his students ability to focus in the face of horrific hometown terrorist tragedy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Browns.

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some time to get warmed up, and threw a couple of questionable passes, but he showed poise in the pocket when the game was on the line in the 3rd quarter and never blinked. For the day Roethlisberger was 24-26-257-2-1. Grade: B+

Running Backs
James Conner continues to exceed even the most optimistic expectations riding on him going into the season. James Conner had 212 yards from scrimmage, running for 146 on the ground and 66 in the air, scoring two touchdown. Stevan Ridley caught two passes and fumbled one away, leading to Jaylen Samuels to get the garbage time duty, where he looked good. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald led the group with 3 catches for 47 yards with Jesse James catching 2 passes for 9 yards. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown might not have had the eye popping fantasy stats that we’re accustomed two, but he did his damage on 6 catches for 74 yards on two touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 33 yards, while Justin Hunter stepped into the 3rd receiver role with 2 catches for 15 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit one other time. James Conner had holes you could drive truck through. This offensive line is protecting its quarterback on passing plays and road grading on running plays. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Nick Chubb actually hit the Steelers for a few nice long runs, but the Steelers defense and the game situation neutralized him with 10 Cleveland rushers going down behind the line of scrimmage. Stephon Tuitt had a phenomenal day making a game-sealing sack and dominating throughout. Javon Hargrave helped bring a rusher down behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to dominate the Browns with 2 and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage in addition to a sack. Bud Dupree didn’t get a sack, but harassed Baker Mayfield all day and drew a holding penalty for a safety. Jon Bostic and Vince Williams kept things quiet up the middle, while L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo did well in spot duty. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden nabbed an interception which the Steelers turned into a touchdown, and defensed another critical pass. Mike Hilton continues to be one of the NFL’s most underrated nickel backs defensing a pass and helping bring down a running back in the backfield. Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis all had solid afternoons. Grade: A

Special Teams
“We screwed up.” Those are Mike Tomlin’s words, and he is right. The Steelers turned over the ball on a free kick, setting the Browns touchdown which pulled the score to within 4 in the third quarter. Had the Cleveland Browns had of the wisdom and maturity required to win football games, the Steelers would have been in big trouble.

Chris Boswell did make all 5 of his kicks, while Jordan Berry looked good punting, and Ryan Switzer had a few nice punt returns. But the free kick is inexcusable. Grade: D

Coaching
The Steelers offense started slowly, but Randy Fichtner clearly made the necessary adjustments. While the play of the men at the skill positions deserves praise, the stealer performance of the Steelers offensive line is what makes this unit tick.

  • While we are a long, long way from any hardware being handed out, it is already possible to suggest this best offensive line the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed in franchise history.

On defense, Keith Butler’s unit continues to evolve. While this is a bit of a tautology, the success of the Steelers defense rises and falls with the pass rush, and the Pittsburgh clearly pressured the passer.

Historically, Mike Tomlin teams have done well coming out of the bye, but they were 1-4 in recent years following the break. On top of that, the team went on a roller coaster ride during September and October.

  • More gravely, the city of Pittsburgh had endured an act of domestic terrorism at the Squirrel Hill Synagogue less than 24 hours before.

In other words, opportunities for distraction abounded, yet the Steelers succumb to none of them, and that reflects well on Mike Tomlin and the locker room he has built. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
You didn’t hear his name all day, at least until he fumbled away the faux interception. Yet he started the entire game, and when you don’t hear a cornerback’s name under those circumstances, that is usually a good thing and for that Coty Sensabaugh is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals – Legacy Defining Anyone?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if he really has seen a “legacy”defining performance from his pupils, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Quarterback
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger was only “OK” in the first half. He also threw a few balls that he was lucky not to have intercepted. But that matters for little, because Ben Roethlisberger the one minute drive to perfection, it did it with the clam, poise and, most importantly, the confidence needed to deliver. Grade: A-

Running Backs
James Conner’s 111 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving might have been lower than last week’s, but by Jim Wexell’s reporting, Conner’s bruising style knocked two Bengals players out of the game. Stevan Ridley continues to get a handful of carries for nominal gain. Roosevelt Nix helped open holes for Conners. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James kept the Steelers offense moving and helped establish the physical tone while the wide receivers were getting in gear. Xavier Grimble had two catches, including a 22 yarder on third and 19. Vance McDonald looked poised to score but fumbled instead, his second in 4 games. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
It took a while for the Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WiFi connection to reach full speed, but when they did, the duo inflicted their damage on the Bengals defense. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 7 yards, while James Washington and Justin Hunter both had targets but no catches, although Hunter’s block was critical on the winning TD. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger did not give up a sack and indeed, the Bengals only touched him once! Add that to road grading done for James Conner and you have excellence in its purest form. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave both had sacks. Cam Heyward didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he’s not doing his job, the other two can’t do theirs. The Bengals did have some success in running the ball, and pass pressure could have been more consistent throughout the game, but it was a good day for the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
You think seeing L.J. Fort light up the Atlanta Falcons maybe didn’t inspire Vince Williams just a big? Williams led the team in tackles, shadowed Joe Mixon in the passing game, and even covered down field. T.J. Watt defensed a pass and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had solid if splash playless games. The linebackers had a good day, but room for improvement remains. Grade: B-

Secondary
Joe Haden had two defensed passes and contained A.J. Green. Both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton had defensed passes, although Sutton had his hiccups. Artie Burns committed a costly pass interference penalty that helped keep a drive alive. The secondary played well, but Cincinnati closed both halves with touchdown drives. That  is not a trend which can continue. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell quietly made all of his kicks which was a welcome change especially in the confines of an opposing stadium during the rain. Jordan Berry boomed off two long punts and landed 3 inside the 2. Ryan Switzer had a long punt return of 15 yards and some decent kickoff returns.

However, Alex Erickson had kickoff returns of 47 and 51 yards, the former of which gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 44 with a minute left. This is the kind of special teams play that can lose a game. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense appears to be finding its rhythm. When the passing game isn’t quite working, the running game is able to pick up the slack. Such balance is necessary for sustainable success in the NFL.

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

That improvement must continue as evidenced by two two touchdowns the Bengals scored at the tail end of each half. However, two weeks ago the Steelers defense was a lost cause. Today it looks like a unit that does some things well, while offering legitimate “upside.”

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

After a big win last week and going into a big game against the Bengals with Ryan Shazier’s recovery as a backstory, it would have been easy for the Steelers to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster.

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

The Bengals 51 yard 2nd half kickoff return could have easily spelled doom. Yet the Steelers defense went out and forced a punt despite giving up a penalty that gave Cincinnati a 3rd an 1.

  • At the end of the game the Pittsburgh’s poise was present for all to see.

There was no panic in the Steelers huddle or on the sidelines as the Bengals went up by one with just over a minute to play. Nor was there any sense of desperation evident when the Steelers found themselves in 2 third down situation on that final drive.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown waited for their moment, and then drove a stake through the Bengals secondary.

That type of calm under pressure requires character. It also requires competent coaching that allows that type of locker room culture to flourish. Mike Tomlin has worked to establish that and the fruits of his labor were evident in the game’s final minute. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Everyone will long remember Antonio Brown’s last minute touchdown, as well they should. Meanwhile JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the afternoon making critical, if less highlight-worthy catches. But he is in this space for two heads up plays.

  • The first came when he out fought a defensive back for a catch at the goal line, and the second came when he recovered Vance McDonald’s fumble.

A turnover in either occasion would have lost the game for the Steelers, but neither were and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Steelers Comeback to Beat Bengals 28-21, Forging Latest Paul Brown Stadium Milestone

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, put them together at Paul Brown Stadium and what do you get? Mayhem. Hard hits. Intense play. Battles in the trenches. Drama. Games going down to the wire. Football contests that Paul Brown himself would have appreciated. Consider a few recent milestones from the rivals’ history in this building:

  • Ike Taylor’s career ended here.
  • Chris Boswell once kicked six field goals AND needed to make a shoe-sting tackle for the Steelers to earn a narrow 4 point win.
  • During the same game, Ladarius Green suffered a hit that ended his career
  • Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble set up the Steelers first post Super Bowl XLV playoff win.
  • And of course, two years later Ryan Shazier suffered a life-changing injury on this very field.

The Steelers went on the road against the AFC North, division leading Cincinnati Bengals still searching for their first conference victory. The contest lived up to the series’ pedigree featuring intense action, late lead changes,  and a Steelers victory at the final gun.

But more importantly, if Mike Tomlin can keep his team focused, the impact of this latest Paul Brown Stadium milestone could be felt well beyond the October afternoon in which the Steelers authored it.

 

Antonio Brown, William Jackson, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown burns William Jackson en route to go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Gary Landers, AP via PennLive.com

Winning in the Trenches, Getting Flanked by the Rear Guard

Old school football commentators love to remind us that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. And very often that is true. Whether you’re playing offense or defense, control the line of scrimmage, and you control what the ball carrier can and cannot do.

  • In the first half the Steelers won the scrimmage battle.

Pittsburgh didn’t dominate Cincinnati the way they dominated at Atlanta, but they kept the Bengals paws off of Ben Roethlisberger, and they opened holes for James Conner to explode through. While Joe Mixon did gouge the Steelers defense for a few long runs, Pittsburgh stuffed him on a number of occasions.

  • Winning in the trenches was critical for the Steelers, because Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at his best in the first half.

Despite having ample time to throw, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still struggled to connect, with the quarterback having his best success hitting Vance McDonald and Jesse James up the middle. And when he did try to find his wide receivers, Big Ben tempted fate, as JuJu Smith-Schuster was forced to go into defensive back mode to prevent an interception at the goal line.

But thanks to the Steelers force up front, James Conner was barreling through the line for his second touchdown one play later. With 1:07 left to play, Pittsburgh seemed poised to take a 14 point lead into the locker room.

  • But winning at scrimmage means little if you leave the rear door unlocked. That’s exactly what Danny Smith’s special teams did.

Alex Erickson not only ripped off a 47 yard return, but an Artie Burns penalty added another 5 yards to the end of it. Suddenly, instead of needing to go 80 yards for a score, the Bengals only had to go 44.

And 44 yards Andy Dalton and crew went, tying up the game at the half.

2nd Half – Steelers Readjust to Bengals Adjustments

The ability of the Steelers offense to compensate for the adjustments made by Marv Lewis and his defensive staff is the story of the second half. Twice the Steelers offense reached the one, and twice Bengals defense forced Pittsburgh to settle for field goals.

But how the Steelers got into the Red Zone was as equally important as the Bengals ability to prevent Pittsburgh from banging it in when they got there. The Steelers 2nd field goal of the 2nd half had been set up by a 48 yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

A bit of old time Ben-to-Brown magic that foreshadowed things to come.

Steelers Defense Does its Part

The Steelers defense has been under fire for much of the season, and a Cincinnati offense that featured Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green figured to offer another stiff test. While Pittsburgh was far from perfect, the Steelers defense did its job.

The Steelers defense broke even with the Bengals offense going 6 for 12 on third downs. And although the defense gave up the final touchdown a little too easily, that set the stage for what was to come.

“This is what legacies are made of….”

4th quarter comebacks are what make football great. Few things are more satisfying – or aggravating – than watching an offense methodically move down the field for the decisive go ahead score. The team that scores enjoys unrestrained glory. The team that fails to hang on fights utter demoralization.

  • Yet, for whatever Ben Roethlisberger’s flaws as a quarterback he might be, he has never succumb to demoralization in those moments.

Think back to Super Bowl XLIII, as Larry Fitzgerald soared to the go ahead score. Ben Roethlisberger simply put on his helmet, buckled his chin strap and was immediately in his element. And so it was, with 1:08 and 77 yards to go, Ben Roethlisberger told his teammates, “‘This is what legacies are made of for all of us. Let’s go out and take care of business.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster a few times, tried to hit James Conner and Justin Hunter.

Then, already inside the outer limits of field goal range, with William Jackson in cover-0 without safety help, Ben Roethlisberger audibled and hit Antonio Brown on the inside up the middle:

https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1051565087440478208

With an Usain Bolt like bust of speed, Antonio Brown knifed through the middle of the Bengals defense for the go ahead touchdown.

Another Paul Brown Stadium Milestone for Pittsburgh?

Aside from being dramatic moments, the milestones cited at the beginning of this article all share something else in common:

  • Each represented a critical turning point for the Steelers.

In some cases those turning points transcended in which they occurred. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble in the playoffs legitimized the Steelers as a Super Bowl contender. Less than a month ago, commentators argued with good cause that Shazier’s spinal contusion had closed that same Super Bowl window.

While no one is talking Super Bowl in Pittsburgh this morning, this latest win at Paul Brown Stadium certainly makes the Steelers look like legitimate AFC North contenders, and that’s not a conversation any serious person would have considered started even two weeks ago.

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Steelers Report Card for 21-21 Tie Against the Browns – Struggling Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher whose dismayed that his star pupil can’t seem to perform except when sitting at his own desk, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Opening Day Tie against the Browns.

T.J. Watt, Tyrod Taylor, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Tyrod Taylor as Bud Dupree gets face masked. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Once again Mike Tomlin decided to rest Ben Roethlisberger for the bulk of preseason, and once again Roethlisberger was road rusty in Cleveland. After a rough, 3 interception start, Roethlisberger appeared to settle down in the 3rd quarter, but then failed to move the offense at critical moments in the 4th. The Steelers committed 6 turnovers against the Browns, and Roethlisberger accounted for 5 of those. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Who? Ok, it is too early to say that, but James Conners starting NFL debut was a smash success. James Conner ran with the authority of a starting NFL running back, scoring two touchdowns, catching 5 passes and rushing for 135 yards. However, Conner’s fumble was quite costly letting Cleveland back in the game, which brings his grade down significantly. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Steelers coaches might be intent on replacing Jesse James, but Jesse James continues to respond when his number is called, catching 3 passes on 5 targets including a crucial compleition late in the game. And injured Xavier Grimble started but did not have a pass thrown his way. The run blocking was exceptional against the Browns, and the tight ends helped make that happen. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster helped jump start the Steelers 2nd half rally with a 67 yard pass return on a day where he caught 5 of the 8 balls thrown his way. However, late in the afternoon, Smith-Schuster disappeared. Antonio Brown came down with a phenomenal touchdown pass in double coverage. Justin Hunter had 1 catch of 5 and has yet to prove he can perform outside of practice or preseason. James Washington didn’t get a target, and Ryan Switzer was 0 for one, although he did have one carry for 8 yards. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the positive side the Steelers offensive line provided road-grading quality blocking to open holes for James Conner in the running game. However, the unit’s pass protection left a lot to be desired. The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger 4 times, two of which were strip sacks and another could have easily been a strip sack. This doesn’t let the signal caller off the hook, but the line must protect Ben Roethlisberger better. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward again reverted to 1 man wrecking crew mode, leading the Steelers defensive line with 1 tackles, a sack, tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Stephon Tuitt had 4 tackles, while Javon Hargrave two tackles. The Steelers defense did a decent job of containing the Cleveland running game. Grade: B

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt’s performance against the Browns is any indication of the 2nd year leap he is posied to make watch out. Watt was unblockable, sacking Tyrod Taylor 4 times, hitting him 4 more times, and making him 5 and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Per ESPN”s count, Bud Dupree had 1 sack as did Jon Bostic who also had 2.5 tackles for losses. Vince Williams led the team in tackles. Compared to the last time the Steelers took the field, the Steelers linebackers were fare improved. However, Tyrod Taylor’s 77 yards rushing hints that the Steelers linebacking corps is still missing Ryan Shazier’s athleticism. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers remade their secondary this off season and the results were generally positive. Joe Haden was a force in coverage, breaking up at least one touchdown pass. Mike Hilton stepped up to break up a couple of passes, as did Terrell Edmunds, with Edmunds coming up on a key 3rd down. Cam Sutton got beaten on a touchdown pass, but he was supposed to have help from Sean Davis. He atoned for it with an interception that forced OT. Artie Burns committed a costly penalty that helped set up a Cleveland score. At the end of the game, Tyrod Taylor literally had no place to throw. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry, who had a mediocre at best preseason, played a good game boming off punts when the Steelers needed him to. Ryan Switzer, while not breaking one, showed himself as a kick returner who had the potential to make something happen, a rarity in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal to save the tie.

All positives. The big negative of course is the high snap and missed Chris Boswell kick in overtime that could have won it. That brings the unit’s grade down. Grade: B-

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

Coaching
Mike Tomlin took a lot of grief from the fans immediately after the game, which is understandable. While a tie is better than a loss, the “W” the Steelers were counting on could easily come back to haunt them with it comes to tie breaker time.

  • On the defensive side of the ball, Keith Butler’s unit played a strong, although not perfect game.

A defense that must compensate for 6 offensive turnovers is starting with an incredible handicap. The Steelers defense pressured the quarterback, limited Cleveland’s running game and didn’t allow a pass play over 40 yards – although Cleveland hit two for 38 and 39.

On the offensive side of the ball, it was Randy Fichtner’s first game as a signal caller, and some of the same Todd Haley haters were already criticizing him for becoming too conservative in the 4th quarter, arguing “Haley would have kept his foot on the gas.” The fact is that the Steelers offense looked tentative during the 4th quarter and overtime after a strong third quarter.

  • The key to this game was turnovers. Coaches don’t throw picks or fumble balls.

Nonetheless, for the second straight year Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty in the opener, and the Home Ben vs. Road Ben issue surfaced again. Neither of these tendencies might be considered Mike Tomlin’s “fault” but both were foreseeable and neither was mitigated. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero
The record will forever reflect that James Conner’s first start was a success. But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. ON play after play, Roosevelt Nix was plowing would be Cleveland tacklers out of plays. Nix also helped partially block the punt in overtime, and for that Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the tie against Cleveland.

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Steelers 2018 Roster Balances Super Bowl Hopes with Long-Term Viability

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 roster is nearing completion and the choices Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made balance the teams Super Bowl aspirations with an eye towards sustaining long term success.

  • In case you’ve been under a rock, the Steelers roster cuts included a minor bombshell when the team cut Landry Jones.

The Steelers also cut Nat Berhe, but resigned him after placing Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on injured reserve, which will keep the undrafted free agent rookie out of the lineup for the next two weeks. The Steelers have not made any trades nor have they tried to claim any players on waivers.

That could change as the week evolves but the Steelers 2018 opening day roster is pretty well set.

Antonio Brown, Heinz Field, pregame warm ups

Antonio Brown in pre-game warmups at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Roster

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger
Joshua Dobbs
Mason Rudolph

Cutting Landry Jones was a major surprise, and for the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without a veteran signal caller as their backup quarterback. The Steelers are clearly taking a short-term risk in the name of making a long-term investment.

Running Back

James Conner
Jaylen Samuels
Stevan Ridley
Roosevelt Nix

The elephant in the room’s name is Le’Veon Bell as of Tuesday morning, Bell had not signed his franchise tag nor given any indication as to whether or when he would do so. The Steelers clearly didn’t expect this, as they likely would not have cut Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Bell stay away, the running back by committee crowd will get its wish.

Tight End

Vance McDonald
Jesse James
Xavier Grimble

The biggest news here is the move the Steelers haven’t made yet. Injuries have abounded at tight end, yet the Steelers haven’t made any move to bring in an outside player.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown
JuJu Smith-Schuster
James Washington
Justin Hunter
Ryan Switzer
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Antonio Brown all of preseason, supposedly only as a precaution. The Steelers have high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington while Justin Hunter looked good in preseason. Again. Ryan Switzer is an unknown while Darrius Heyward-Bey is mainly on the roster to play special teams.

Offensive Line

Alejandro Villanueva
Ramon Foster
Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro
Marcus Gilbert
B.J. Finney
Chukwuma Okorafor
Matt Feiler
Zach Banner

Some felt the Steelers would only keep 8 offensive lineman, however Zach Banner made the cut despite joining the team late in the summer. You can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward
L.T. Walton
Javon Hargrave
Dan McCullers
Stephon Tuitt
Tyson Alualu

Cam Heyward is officially a “tackle” and Karl Dunbar has brought Daniel McCullers further along than anyone ever expected.

Outside Linebacker

T.J. Watt
Bud Dupree
Anthony Chickillo

1 year ago the Steelers carried 5 players here. Now they have 3 albeit with one rookie on IR and another on the practice squad.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams
Jon Bostic
L.J. Fort
Tyler Matakevich
Matthew Thomas

The “battle” between Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic never really evolved and Matthew Thomas has insiders privately wondering whether his role can grow as the season evolves. Insight linebacker might not have to be a strength for the Steelers defense in 2018, but it cannot be a liability.

Cornerback

Joe Haden
Artie Burns
Mike Hilton
Cam Sutton
Coty Sensabaugh

In contrast to quarterback, the Steelers opted for experience over youth, in keeping Coty Sensagaugh over Brian Allen, although Brian Allen remains on the practice squad. For once, the Steelers have strong depth on paper.

Safety

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Morgan Burnett
Sean Davis
Terrell Edmunds
Nat Berhe
Jordan Dangerfield

Sean Davis is the only player who returns from 2017 in the entire unit, although Jordan Dangerfield was on IR. The Steelers have invested heavily in this position and for the defense to improve, those investments must deliver.

Specialists

Chris Boswell
Jordan Berry
Kameron Canaday

Jordan Berry did not post pretty preseason numbers, nonetheless, he made the team. Next time you’re in a Steelers bar either A. Ask people “Who is our long snapper” or B. “Who is Kameron Canaday?” No matter which question you ask, here’s 100 Argentine pesos that says 1% of the people you poll have the right answer. Anonymity is a virtue for a long snapper. Let’s hope we don’t hear “Kameron Canaday” until free agency rolls around.

Steelers 2018 Practice Squad

Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker
Brian Allen, Cornerback
Jarvion Franklin, Running Back
Trey Griffey, Wide Receiver
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Lavon Hooks, Defensive End
Farrington Huguenin, Outside Linebacker
Tevin Jones, Wide Receiver
Patrick Morris, Offensive Line
R.J. Prince, Offensive Line
Christian Scotland-Williamson, Tight End

Perhaps conspicuous by his absences was Joshua Fraizer, the Steelers 7th round draft pick. Christian Scotland-Williamson holds a spot thanks to the International Player Pathway. Trey Griffey is of course the son of Ken Griffey Jr. and the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr. Keion Adams and Brian Allen are members of the Steelers 2017 draft class.

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Who Needs Dez Bryant? Steelers Rookie Damoun Patterson Shows Why Pittsburgh Stands Pat

It seems the Pittsburgh Steelers find new and unknown receivers in camp each and every summer, prompting this writer to ask “Who needs Dez Bryant?

Take two years ago, for example, when Eli Rogers, an undrafted free-agent out of Louisville who spent his entire rookie season of 2015 on Injured Reserve after suffering a foot injury in his very first training camp.

Rogers was one of the young sensations of the Steelers 2016 training camp and was rewarded by making the final 53-man roster. Not only that, but Rogers became the slot receiver and proved to be a dependable option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns.

Eli Rogers saw a decline in production a year ago, and he suffered a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14. After recently being re-signed, he is currently on the team’s PUP list, hoping to get a chance to see if he can still be a part of the Steelers talented receiving corps.

Damoun Patterson, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Damoun Patterson catches a preseason touchdown from Joshua Dobbs. Photo Credit: Bill Streichner, USA Today, via 24/7 Steelers.

  • This summer another UDFA, Damoun Patterson, a youngster who played his college ball at Youngstown State, has thrown his hat into the ring to be 2018’s Eli Rogers.

Damoun Patterson is now a true contender to be a part of the receiving corps after catching six passes for 77 yards and one dazzling touchdown in the Steelers preseason-opening 31-14 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Patterson showed great body control as he spun around to catch a laser-strike from third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs and great balance as he got one foot down in the end zone and then the other.

  • Both Patterson’s body control and balance, were on display as the rookie celebrated his touchdown heroics by doing a back-flip.

With Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and likely Darrius Heyward-Bey all locks to make the squad, the fifth receiver position could be up for grabs.

Obviously, when he’s ready to depart from the PUP list Eli Rogers is a candidate, as is Justin Hunter, the veteran receiver the Steelers signed as a free agent in the 2017 offseason. However, Justin Hunter, despite his obvious physical attributes, has never truly broken out during his time in the NFL.

Another contender for that fifth-receiver spot is former University of Pittsburgh standout, Quadree Henderson. Henderson didn’t do much on Thursday, but he’ll obviously have ample time to impress his coaches between now and the final cut-down date.

But Damoun Patterson, who isn’t even listed on the Steelers official team depth chart (for what that’s worth in the preseason), has certainly done something to at least make his bosses take notice.

  • And this is why all that talk about the still unsigned Dez Bryant possibly coming to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago seemed ridiculous at best.

The Steelers obviously know how to find receivers to round out their depth chart–guys who have actually contributed during crucial moments (Cobi Hamilton caught a touchdown pass in the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots).

This summer, if it isn’t Patterson, Rogers or Henderson who rounds out the receiver depth chart, it will surely be another diamond in the rough we may not even be talking about right now.

The Steelers know their away around unknown wide receivers.

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