Steelers Report Card for the Chiefs Win – Enjoying the Manic Side of Schizophrenia

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is enjoying the manic surge of his schizophrenic students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Daniel Sorensen, Steelers Report Card Chiefs

Daniel Sorensen’s bobble is Antonio Brown’s bounty in the Steelers win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was better than he was last week against the Jaguars and perhaps than he’s been better before. Fewer passes sailed on him, and if he got lucky on his touchdown pass, he also was unlucky yon his one interception. Still, if reports are correct, Roethlisberger check out of run plays in the Red Zone and the team could not convert. The Steelers also struggled on third downs. Grade: C

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell’s Hall of Fame caliber talent had been missing all year…. Until he stepped on to the turf at Arrowhead. How good was Le’Veon Bell? Try the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 9 and converting. Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards on 32 carries and willed his way into the end zone. James Conner ran twice for 14 yards while Terrell Watson converted a third and short. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt Nix paved the way for much of the day. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald’s taken a lot of criticism since arriving here via trade, but he made his presence felt as a blocker, and caught a critical 26 yard pass while the Steelers were in the end zone. Jesse James didn’t have a pass thrown his way, but the running backs don’t have the kind of day they did if the tight ends fail to block. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there any doubt that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver? There should be none in Steelers Nation. Antonio Brown’s 51 yard touchdown has to rank as one of his top career catches, which says a lot. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 3 passes for 32 yards and is showing himself to be an effective blocker. Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards. Thus far Ben Roethlisberger has only established a rapport with 84, and we’ll err on the side of assuming that the responsibly lies with him and not the other receivers. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
When you pay 23 million plus to field an offensive line, this is the type of road grading that you expect to see. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t simply better, so were the men up front. Whether it was Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pulling or Alejandro Villanueva protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, the Steelers offensive line got it done. The third down sack that the Steelers allowed which ended Pittsburgh’s first drive is the unit’s lone blemish. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line didn’t produce the kind of numbers that make fantasy owners happy (to the extent that Fantasy Football even bothers with defense), but it would be fool hardy to overlook the devastating performance of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers defense neutered the NFL’s leading rusher, and they made it look easy. That starts with the boys up front. Stephon Tuitt also had a critical pass defensed late in the game. Grade: A

Linebackers
In case anyone had any doubts, James Harrison proved that age hasn’t robbed him of his decisive, play making capability, as Harrison downed Alex Smith on the penultimate play. Vince Williams was playing as a one-man wrecking crew racking up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage before getting injured. Ryan Shazier had 4 tackles and got his hands on Smith’s last pass. Tyler Matakevich looked good in relief of Williams. An excellent day by the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton had another fine day coming in with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Hilton may be small, but he simply makes plays. Joe Haden got his hand on a pass, but otherwise was invisible… which is good for a corner. Artie Burns stepped up to break up two key passes early on, although he blew the coverage and missed a tackle on the Chief’s touchdown drive. Mike Mitchell also caused a costly roughing the passer play (although he might have been pushed by Anthony Chickillo). The Steelers secondary had a good day, but the Chief’s 4th quarter touchdown surge drops their grade a notch. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and Chris Boswell hit all of his kicks, but other than that the Steelers special teams did little to distinguish themselves. First, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a miscue after the Steelers safety which had the net effect of turning a 2 point advantage into a 1 point deficit. Then Brown almost muffed a fair catch. The Chiefs also had a 32 yard punt return late in the game which brought Kansas City to midfield for his final drive. These special teams mishaps could have been more costly. Grade: D

Coaching
The Haley haters who’ve been clamoring to see more Roosevelt Nix and rushing out of the I-Formation got their wish. The Steelers ran the ball early and often and with great effectiveness. Nonetheless, too many drives stall in the end zone, and the Steelers offense is struggling to convert 3rd downs.

  • The Steelers offense found a way to win, but the unit only managed to put 17 points on the board.

Keith Butler had his unit primed and ready to play. The Steelers went into the living room of the NFL’s best offense and completely shut them down in the first half – had it been a amateur wrestling matching the defense would have scored a technical fall. While its true that Kansas City’s late touchdown came a little too easily, it is also true that the Steelers defense got stuck defending a short field with two minutes left to play and completely stone walled the Chiefs.

Mike Tomlin certainly deserves criticism for the up and down nature of the Steelers performances this season, but Pittsburgh’s hardly provides a unique case in 2017’s NFL. Losses such as the one against the Jaguars and have a nasty ripple effect (see November/December 2009), yet Mike Tomlin prevented that by arriving at Arrowhead with a strong game plan whose execution more than anything else revolved around controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers won those battles, and won the game because of it. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman’s been quiet thus far in 2017 and in fact has been called out for lapses in any number of post-game film analysis on several occasions. But he’ll earn no such criticism from the Jon Leydard’s of the world this week, as he led the team in tackles, and came away with a critical pass defense in the end zone on 4th and Goal. For that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Chiefs.

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Returning to Their Roots Steelers Beat Chiefs 19-13 with Physical Football

The Pittsburgh Steelers walked in to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that opened questions about who they are and what they’re legitimately able to accomplish this season.

  • Their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was playing at home with an 5-0 record and a claim to “best team so far.”

In short, things weren’t expected to get any easier for the Steelers. And they didn’t get any easier. But the Steelers walked out of Kansas City with a 19-13 win and Steelers Nation can count this as one victory where the means to a “W” are just as important as the win itself.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, Frank Zombo, Steelers vs Chiefs

Alejandro Villaneuva stones Frank Zombo as Ben Roethlisberger connects with Antonio Brown for a TD. Photo Credit: Chaz Pallas

Steelers Define Identity Part I: Defense

By any measure, the Kansas City Chiefs figured to offer the Steelers defense a stiff test. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play. Their quarterback Alex Smith would win the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide were the voting head prior to today and their running back Kareem Hunt was leading the NFL in rushing yards.

In contrast, commentators both inside and outside of Pittsburgh had suggested that the Steelers defense was set to broach elite status, only to see Keith Butler‘s boys get gouged on the ground in Chicago and again against Jacksonville.

The Chiefs gift wrapped 2 points to the Steelers with an errant snap that flew through the end zone, but Pittsburgh gift wrapped them right back by muffing the ensuing punt. If the script from the previous four games was to be followed, instead of starting the game 9, or even 10 to zero, the Steelers would instead start it 7-2.

  • But this Steelers defense took the field intent on writing its own script.

The Steelers defense yielded only a handful of yards, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Instead staring at 7-2, the Steelers got the ball back only looking at a 1 point deficit. And that was the story of the first three and a half quarters. The Steelers defense went into the home of the NFL’s most potent offense and proceeded to:

  • Hold the Chiefs to under 250 yards, which includes their late game surge
  • Not allow a first down until the tail end of the first half
  • Neuter Kareem Hunt, holding him to 21 yards
  • Rip a would be touchdown on 4th and goal out of the receiver’s hands
  • Unleash James Harrison to sack Alex Smith on the second to last play of the game

What stands out when looking at the stats is that the Steelers did this without forcing a turnover, and by only sacking the quarterback twice prior to the final drive. While Artie Burns had some smart pass breakups and Mike Hilton was devastating behind the line of scrimmage, the Steelers defense shut down the NFL’s number one offense without a lot of “Splash plays.”

James Harrison, Alex Smith, Eric Fisher, Holding James Harrison, James Harrison Alex Smith Sack, Steelers vs Chiefs

Even Chiefs Eric Fisher holding can’t stop James Harrison from sacking Alex Smith with game on the line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Instead, they excelled by executing on the fundamentals, led by Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt disrupting things upfront, while everyone else behind them simply “did their job.”

The Steelers defense was far from perfect. Kansas City’s lone touchdown drive came much too easily, with missed tackles galore. Comparisons to the ’85 Bears remain a ways off. But against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense proved it can close tight games on the road against a high-octane octane offense playing in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums.

That ladies and gentleman, represents a significant step forward for this young Steelers defense.

Steelers Define Identity Part II: Offense

It is no secret that something has been missing from the Steelers offense thus far in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were supposed to give the NFL its most fearsome offensive quartet this side of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and John Stallworth.

  • 30 points a game was supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling.

The Steelers victory over the Chiefs didn’t come close to transforming that 30 point margin from a pipedream into a reality. But the Steelers offense nonetheless found something important with their win over the Chiefs:

  • They reestablished the run, and they did it with Le’Veon Bell looking like he did a year ago.

While Ben Roethlisberger has born the brunt of the criticism for the Steelers offensive woes thus far, number 7 was far from the only player who was under performing. Thus far this year, Le’Veon Bell has looked average at times, good at others, but he hasn’t flashed anything like the Hall of Fame talent that was so evident just one season ago.

  • That changed against the Chiefs, and changed to the tune of 179 yards on 32 carries.

Indeed, going into the half, Bell had more yards than the entire Kansas City offense. Bell’s wasn’t the only running back to shine. James Conner got two carries, and looked sharp running the ball, and Terrell Watson converted a third and short.

  • The Steelers also reestablished the run without falling into the trap of being one-dimensional.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald 1st Steelers pass, Steelers vs Chiefs

Vance McDonald catches his first pass for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger’s 26 yard pass to Vance McDonald while standing in his own end zone might have been the most important completion of the afternoon. With that said, balance still eludes the Steelers offense. While he did manage to hit Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the success of the Steelers passing game largely hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown.

  • Roethlisberger did that often enough and, quite frankly, can thank his lucky stars that he has someone as talented as Number 84 to catch his passes.

By and large the beauty of the day came in the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball and get it often. More often than not, they failed because the Steelers imposed their will.

Time for Steelers to Take Step Forward Not Back

The Steelers responded to an ugly loss to the Bears with a convincing win over the Ravens. Two weeks later they responded to an uglier loss to the Jaguars with a hard fought win against the Chiefs. Perhaps what was most important was the way the Steelers responded:

  • By reestablishing their identity as a physical team on both sides of the ball.

That amounts to a step forward for Mike Tomlin’s team, but it is a step forward that the Steelers must sustain. A win next week over the Cincinnati Bengals will go a long way defining whether the 2017 Steelers are a team that mumbles in mediocrity or one that asserts its will.

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Late Steelers Report Card for Jaguars Loss – Never Too Tardy to Give out F’s…

Taken from the gradebook of a very tardy teacher who fears that his once sharp star student has quite frankly lost his edge, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Calais Campbell, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 5 interceptions, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger tried to ward off the Jaguars Calais Campbell. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Quarterback
“Maybe I’ve lost it…” Ben Roethlisberger responded to a question about his poor play. While that was a stream of conscious utterance (as opposed to Mike Ditka’s tearful admission that he’d lost it as New Orleans Saints coach), Ben Roethlisberger certainly spoke what has been on everyone’s mind. The Steelers are 5 games into the 2017 season, and Ben Roethlisberger has been subpar, at best, in at least four of them. A couple of three of his 5 interceptions might not have been completely his fault, those compensate throws in earlier games defenders should have picked off. Statistics say this was Ben Roethlisberger’s worst day as a pro. Sometimes statistics reveal brutal truths. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell’s taken it upon himself to pronounce that the Steelers offense must rush, and if Ben Roethlisberger’s begun his definitive decline, then that argument makes sense on paper. But after a strong game against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell did little to distinguish himself. True, the Steelers went from being in a position to rush for protect a lead to playing from two scores behind in a blink of an eye. But unlike the Dolphins game a year ago, there was nothing about Bell’s play that suggested he could have taken it over. James Conners had 3 carries for 9 yards in garbage time, he also missed a block on a Roethlisberger’s first interception. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 3 catches on 5 targets for 24 yards showing himself to be a fairly reliable ball catcher, but one who struggles to gain yards after contact. Jones also missed a key block in the Red Zone that could have paved the way for a Le’Veon Bell touchdown. Vance McDonald was targeted on the first interception and did not see a pass come his way. The tight end did not distinguish themselves in this game. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown negated by a penalty. Brown continues to be Ben Roethlisberger’s only reliable receiver and the question of whether is forcing the ball to Brown or remains open. Martavis Bryant gained 13 yards on a reverse, and had 5 catches for 21yards. Thus far, Bryant has shown none of the game-changing explosiveness he flashed before his suspension. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 58 yards. Justin Hunter had 1 catch for 6 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C

Offensive Line
While the Jaguars only sacked Ben Roethlisberger 2, they hit him five times and he was under duress much of the afternoon. Jaguars defenders also made at least 7 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during the game. The Steelers have invested big bucks in their offensive line, and are got precious little return on investment in terms of both pass protection and road grading run blocking. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Pro Football Focus may have graded the Steelers defensive line out highly, but the fact is that the Jacksonville Jaguars rushed for 231 yards. Even if you take out the 90 yard run in garbage time, the Jaguars still averaged 3.9 yards per carry. The defensive line might not entirely be at fault for that, but they certainly share some of the responsibly. Grade: D

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and had a sack. T.J. Watt registered another sack, giving him 3 in four games. Ryan Shazier had what should have been a game-changing interception. Those are all positives, but the linebackers job is to keep running backs from reaching the second level, and the Steelers linebackers weren’t up to the task. Grade: C-

Secondary
Blake Bortles completed 8 passes for 95 yards. Normally that would mark an outstanding day for any secondary, but the brutal truth is that the Jaguars didn’t need to throw the ball. Nonethless, the Jaguars still completed 3 passes for double digit yardage. And even if it was garbage time, the Steelers defensive backs must shoulder responsibility for allowing the 90 yard run. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and the Steelers coverage units didn’t well, although their return game was negligible and included at least one penalty that negated a return. Could a special teams spark have changed the outcome of the game for the Steelers? Possibly. But we’ll never know, because they didn’t produce one. Grade: C

Coaching
Todd Haley has been roundly roasted for his Red Zone play calling and the Steelers lopsided pass-run ratio.

  • Some of this criticism is legitimate, however, some of the breakdowns boil down to execution.

Regardless, the Steelers offense isn’t getting it done, and it is Haley’s job to ensure that this happens.

Going into game five, pundits, both inside and outside of Pittsburgh were posed to proclaim Keith Butler’s defense as an elite unit. After the game, several commentators were content to give Butler a pass, given that the Jaguars defense scored nearly half of the team’s points, and turnovers set up other scores.

Fair enough. But Keith Butler’s defense let the Jaguars open the with a 13 yard drive that consumed 8:07 off the clock when the score was still 20 to 9. That’s simply inexcusable and indicative of a defense that is anything but elite.

Finally we come to Mike Tomlin. Credit Tomlin for attempting to establish the tone immediately after the Raven’s road win by reminding his team that Jacksonville had beaten the Baltimore more badly than the Steelers had.

  • Once again, Tomlin’s motivation and preparation in the face of a supposedly inferior team failed him.

To be fair to Tomlin, if Ben Roethlisberger really is losing it, Le’Veon Bell has had a little too much tread worn of his tires and if Martavis Bryant lost something during his year-long suspension, that’s not something you can blame the head coach for.

  • But what about the poor play of the offensive line, and the consistently inconsistent execution of the defense?

The bottom line is that Steelers are performing poorly on an alarmingly consistent basis 5 games in to the 2017 season. And that comes back to the coach. Grade: F

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Steelers Report Card for Bears Loss: Piss Poor Grades for a Piss Poor Performance

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who what he thought was an Advanced Placement class that nonetheless seems to be regressing towards the mediocre mean here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Steelers report card bears, Steelers vs bears, Antonio Brown, Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper swats away the ball from Antonio Brown in the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Are the arms on Big Ben’s clock ticking towards “Life’s Work” faster than anticipated? Ben Roethlisberger’s stat sheet doesn’t quite seem to indicate that as 22 of 39 for one touchdown and no interceptions is respectable, if hardly spectacular. But Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sharp all season, and he hasn’t been able to establish a rapport with any wide out not named Antonio Brown and even then, Brown is making Ben a better quarterback on some of those throws. Big Ben is far from the only thing that ails the Steelers offense, but he need to improve. Grade: C-

Running Backs
This was to be the week that Le’Veon Bell got back on track, wasn’t it? Truth be told, his rushing average was up, but Bell is still very, very far away from the type of dominating performances that were a Sunday afternoon staples for the 2016 Steelers offense. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two of the four passes thrown his way and had to leave the field with an injury. James was the only tight end targeted this this game. While the type of film analysis needed to offer a definitive critique of the Steelers run blocking woes goes far beyond the scope of this column. So while it might not be fair to label the tight ends a problem area, they clearly haven’t shown they can be part of the solution. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Martavis Bryant dropped a bomb on the game’s opening play that he should have caught, and could have been a difference maker. As it was it set the tone for the day, as both he and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a combined 14 targets for 4 catches. Again, some of those passes would have required herculean efforts to catch, but it takes two to tango. Antonio Brown, in contrast, had 10 catches for 110 yards on 11 targets, which brings the group grade up. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit 5 times. On the surface that doesn’t seem like too bad of a day for the Steelers pass blocking, but the first sack resulted in a turnover, the second forced a punt and the third came against a 3 man rush at the end of regulation. And for the third straight week, the road grading effort from the Steelers offensive line was missing. Grade: D

Defensive Line
For the season’s first two weeks, the Steelers defensive line could do no wrong. And to be sure, Javon Hargrave came up with a sack at just the opportune time. But with that said, the Bears averaged over 6 yards a carry rushing. All of that success certainly didn’t come at the expense of Cameron Heyward’s crew, but responsibility for stopping the run starts with them. Grade: F

Linebackers
Anthony Chickillo added another sack, and seemingly reminded everyone of why he was keeping James Harrison on the bench…. Until the Bears moved 74 yards on the ground for a touchdown in 4 plays during overtime. That’s not all Chickillo’s fault, as both Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams missed tackles with alarming regularity during the game, as did Bud Dupree. When the Bear’s “Yards After Contact” numbers are calculated they’ll put the Steelers to shame. What’s worse is that a good chunk of those came on 3rd or 4th efforts. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble & recover y raises this unit’s grade. Grade: D

Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers Report Card Bears loss, Ryan Shazier, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Howard

Ryan Shazier forces then recovers a fumble during the Steelers loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
The Steelers secondary came up with an interception, limited the Bears wide receivers to one reception and kept them to 4-12 on third downs, or worse than the Steelers. So clearly the Steelers defensive backs were doing a lot of things right against the Bears. But that doesn’t mean that Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden get off scott free. It’s not the fault of the Secondary that the Bears running backs broke out to the second half, but it is their job to stop them when they do. The Steelers secondary didn’t, especially when the game was on the line. Grade: D

Special Teams
After the Steelers defense forced a 3 and out, Eli Rogers muffed punt gave the Bears the ball on Pittsburgh’s 29 and set Chicago up for their first touchdown. For an encore, prior to the second half, the Steelers field goal unit allowed a Chris Boswell attempt to be blocked that set off a chaotic chain of events concluded with a 6 point swing in Chicago’s favor.

The Steelers kick coverage was strong, and Rogers actually had a nice 12 yard return, but those hardly make up for the first half special teams disasters. Grade: F

Coaching
It’s hard to finger coaches for poor execution at times, but when things go wrong on so many levels as they did against the Bears, the coaches bear the ultimate responsibility.

  • Chicago ran the ball well in the first half, making their first rushing touchdown look frighteningly easy.

Credit Keith Butler for making some adjustments, adjustments which held until the overtime disaster. A week ago outsiders were speculating as to whether the Steelers had the makings of a number one defense. The Bears show that Butler’s boys are very, very far from earning that status.

  • Todd Haley has been a lighting rod for fan criticism since he arrived in Pittsburgh, and most of that (save for early 2014) has been unjustified.

The same cannot be said 3 games into 2017. On paper, the Steelers have the potential to have one of the most lethal offenses in recent NFL memory. This was the team that was supposed to put up 30 points without breaking a sweat. Instead, they’re struggling to break the 20 point mark without Chris Boswell’s help.

It is hard to identify any one or two critical breakdowns on Steelers offense because three games into the season, the only thing that is working is Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. (The awful Steelers offenses of the late 80’s could at least rely on Merril Hoge in the days when Bubby Brister to Louis Lipps set the tempo.)

  • Todd Haley’s job is to find a way to make it work, and he’s failing mightily in that respect.

And that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Steel Curtain Rising has never jumped on the “Fire Tomlin” bandwagon before and won’t now.

  • But that doesn’t mean the Steelers head coach doesn’t deserve some harsh criticism, because he most certainly does.

Trap games have always been tricky for Tomlin teams, dating back to his rookie season as head coach. And whether you want to focus on his 5-9 “early season road games” since 2014 or his 5-13 road record against losing teams, this has become a chronic weakness of Tomlin teams.

Last season, either after the losses to Philadelphia or Miami, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola assured a fan that neither the Steelers nor Tomlin had eased up on their preparation in the weeks prior to those ugly losses. The Steelers and Tomlin haven’t changed a thing, Labriola assured.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, because the impact of the Steelers September stumbles have echoed on well into December and January during the past three seasons. This cannot continue. Grade: F

Vance McDonald, Marcus Cooper, Vance McDonald forced fumble, Steelers vs. Bears, Steelers report card bears loss

Vance McDonald strips the ball from Marcus Cooper after the Bears block a Chris Boswell field goal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Unsung Hero Award
Finding an Unsung Hero after a game where nearly every area on the Steelers depth chart can be either be fingered for a critical failure or otherwise remained mired in mediocrity is a challenge.

As the Steelers stood poised to bring the score within 4 to close the first half disaster struck in the form of a blocked field goal. Not only did the Bears deny the Steelers 3 points, but the ball bounced right into the hands of Marcus Cooper who looked to transform the disaster into a 10 point swing for Chicago.

But Cooper got a little too cocky on the way, and that allowed Vance McDonald, who hustled the entire play to force a fumble and prevent a touchdown and for that Vance McDonald wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Bears.

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Regression: Stumbling Steelers Overtime Loss to Bears Confirms Troubling Tomlin Trend

Week 3 in the NFL is often times an equalizer. Football is a game of angles and inches and its not uncommon for middling teams to get caught just a little too short or do just enough to win or loss in week’s 1 and 2.

  • But in week 3, the law of averages tends to even out.

And that’s accurately describes the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers won, albeit in unimpressive fashion in weeks 1 and 2 over the Browns and Vikings. In the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears, Pittsburgh came up short in a number of cases, had several opportunities thrown their way, but ultimately revealed their identity for what it is thus far: A team with a superstar roster with woefully under performing its pedigree.

Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Young, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers overtime loss Bears Chicago

Willie Young sacks Ben Roethlisberger to end regulation in the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribuen Review

Troubling Tomlin  Trend Confirms Itself

Mike Tomlin has been at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers for over 10 seasons. While that’s ten too many for some factions of Steelers Nation, this site has not (and still is not) inclined to join that chorus. Regardless, such a long tenure provides ample opportunity for finding meaningful tendencies.

And the tendencies relevant to the Steelers loss to the Chicago Bears are troubleing:

  • The Steelers are 5-13 in last 18 games on the road against teams with losing records
  • Since Super Bowl XLV the Steelers are 5-9 in early-season road games
  • Beny Rothlisberger doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback on the road

Leading up to the Chicago game, the Steelers said all the right things, as they always do. Mike Tomlin reminded the team that it was Mike Glennon who embarrassed the Steelers in their 2014 loss to Tampa. Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier and players further down the depth chart to a man, assured us that the Steelers weren’t taking the Bears lightly.

And let’s give the guys credit, there’s nothing to indicate that the Steelers looked past the Bears.

  • Which makes the Steelers 23-17 overtime loss in Chicago all the more troubling.

It is easy to find scapegoats. And the truth is that absent the Pittsburgh’s special teams snafus, from Eli Rogers muffed punt, to Chris Boswell’s blocked field goals, the Steelers probably would have stumbled to victory against the Bears.

Perhaps it’s a tautology, but great teams find ways to overcome mistakes with superior plays. Good teams overcome mistakes by taking advantage of opportunities presented to them. In their 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, the Steelers failed to marshal superior plays, and saw a Bears team all but beg to give the team away in the second half.

That the Steelers were insufficient to the task is incontrovertible. Understanding why remains a mystery.

Steelers Offense Continues to Underperform

The word on the Steelers coming into the Bears game was that the defense had carried the team during the first two weeks. While that’s true, its also true that the when the Browns took away the deep ball, Ben Roethlisberger responded by burning them to Antonio Brown underneath. When the Vikings crowded up the middle of the field, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant deep (or otherwise got his receivers to draw pass interference penalties.)

  • Through it all, the Steelers struggled to establish Le’Veon Bell on the ground.

Against the Bears, the Steelers offense sputtered, as best exemplified by their 4-11 third down conversion record. And while pass protection was generally sound, a strip sack by the Bears ended one promising scoring drive, and fighting to get into field goal range, the Steelers offensive line was unable to protect their quarterback against a three man rush.

  • Perhaps its Tomlin should have played his starters more in preseason, to establish greater cohesion.
  • Perhaps Le’Veon Bell’s holdout dulled his edge more than expected.
  • Perhaps Todd Haley is mailing it in.
  • Perhaps Father Time has Big Ben’s clock clicking towards “Life’s Work” faster than expected.

At this point, all explanations deserve full consideration.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have far too much talent on offense to struggle as they have during these first 3 games of the season.

Steelers Defense Overrated?

Heading into the season, the word on the Steelers defense was that they had as good of a front seven of any other team in the league, but that the secondary remained suspect. But the Steelers defense looked good in weeks one and weeks two, getting contributions not only from the usual suspects, but from new faces such as Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Joe Haden, J.J. Wilcox, Javon Hargrave and Vince Williams.

They’d preformed so well that MMQB’s Andy Beniot suggested that the Steelers might have the best defense in the league….

  • Then Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard combined for 220 yards and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry.

Note, Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon completed all of one pass for 9 yards to a wide receiver. Clearly he didn’t need to do more. IT would be incorrect to say that the Chicago Bears imposed their will on the Steelers, because there were times when the Steelers defense stuffed Chicago runners as we’re accustomed to seeing them run.

  • But if the Chicago Bears couldn’t run the ball on the Steelers defense when they wanted to, they certainly ran it when they needed to.

And as a result, the Bears overcame two second half turnovers, numerous penalties, fumbles and bad snaps to last long enough to thoroughly embarrass the Steelers defense in overtime.

Keith Butler had better have a long look at this tape, because opposing offensive coordinators certainly will.

3 Games into 2017 Steelers Regressing to the Mean

The Pittsburgh Steelers began 2016 with a mix of strong and inconsistent performances, only to struggle mightily in the middle portion of their schedule. They made a stark turn round during the second half of 2016 which continued all the way to their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • 3 games into the 2017 season, there’s only one thing you can say about this team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are team well-stocked with above average talent that somehow is finding itself regressing to the mean.

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Steelers Bears “Blame Ball” Poll

Well, it was another trip to Solider Field for the Steelers, and another loss. The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the Chicago Bears shows that the franchise has struggled in the Windy City, and their 14 visit there was no exception as the Steelers lost 23-17 in overtime.

Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Joe Hayden, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears overtime

Mike Mitchell can’t stop Jordan Howard as he smokes the Steelers in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Alas, after a substandard effort like that in so many different parts of the team, we cannot in good conscious put up a “Game Ball” poll, so instead we’re launching a “Blame Ball” poll:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 09-18-2017 17:55:27
end_date 09-30-2017 23:59:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers most deserve blame for the Bear's loss? (Multiple Votes allowed)

As you can see, only Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell are the only two individuals to share the dishonor of having ballot mentions.

  • However, please do not mistake that for a scapegoat of either man.

That’s because blame can be spread far and wide on this one, as this Bob Pompeani tweet summarized.

The Chicago Bears gave the Atlanta Falcons a run for their money early in the year, so perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a “Trap game.” Still, as the Tribune Review’s Joe Rutter pointed out, the Steelers have struggled mightly on the road in September, and this game proved the rule.

  • Frankly, blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin, although both Todd Haley and Keith Butler‘s units performed piss poorly.

Danny Smith’s special teams, after being heroes in weeks 1 and 2, caused a costly mistake that resulted in a 6 point swing. Vance McDonald made a heads up play, but if Jordan Berry just lands on the ball, its a safety and the Steelers are ahead by one at game’s close.

  • And then there’s Eli Rogers muffed punt that set up Chicago’s first touchdown.

The stat sheet indicates that Ben Roethlisberger had a decent game, but he also had at least 3 passes that could have been picked off, and couldn’t get the ball to his receivers when he needed to, especially on 3rd Downs. Antonio Brown had a solid game, but that cannot be said for the rest of his wide receiving corps.

Martavis Bryant had 8 targets and only 6 catches. To be sure, some of those were not well thrown balls and/or balls that Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was forcing, but he still should have had the first bomb thrown his way, even if it was a little overthrown.

And while Le’Veon Bell didn’t necessarily have a “bad day” he’s still far, far short of the Hall of Fame level performances that characterized his play in almost every single game last year. All of that blame is not due to him, as his offensive line’s run blocking hasn’t been consistent.

  • On defense, it is hard to know where to point the finger, because the Chicago Bears ran all over the Steelers.

Ryan Shazier had a good day stastically, but it seemed like each and every defender failed to bring his man down on first contact. No matter how you slice it, the Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Shazier and Anthony Chickillo utterly failed to stop Chicago’s running game when it counted.

The Bears won despite completing only one pass to wide receivers, so perhaps the Steelers secondary can avoid blame, but we’ll leave that for you the readers to decide.

As always, write in votes are not only allowed, but encouraged. Thanks in advance for taking time out to vote, and please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest loss to the Bears in Chicago.

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Steelers Report Card for Vikings Win – The Yin & Yang of Under and Over Achievement

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher struggling to understand the yin-yangish overachievement-underachievement dynamic of his new class here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home opening win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Steelers vs Vikings, Tyler Matekevich, Steelers stop fake punt,

Tyler Matakevich stops a fake punt attempt to Blake Bell during the Steelers win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled to find rhythm early as evidenced by the Steelers 4 first half punts, although he did throw two touchdown passes and made a vertical strike downfield. On the day, Ben Roethlisberger 23 of 35 for 243 no interceptions and no sacks. He threw a few questionable passes, but none had any negative consequences. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Tony Defeo authored this site’s admonishment not to fret over Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, and we stand by that. But Bell’s ineffectiveness as both a running and a pass catcher makes it hard to not think that a little more bit of practice in July and August would have made for a little more of “perfect” in August. Le’Veon Bell improved against the Browns and appeared to run stronger as the game continued but he’s nowhere near his ’16 level. James Conner had one carry for 9 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble had one pass thrown to him that was caught but negated by a penalty. Jesse James got the starting nod, and was in sync with Roethlisberger early on catching four balls on 5 targets. However, Jesse James appeared to struggle as a blocker at times. He must improve there. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Has Mike Zimmer unlocked the key to shutting down Antonio Brown? That’s probably going to far, but it did take several quarters for Antonio Brown to get in a grove, although he did draw a key pass interference penalty. As did Martavis Bryant, who made the Vikings pay for progress towards shutting Brown down with a touchdown and a 51 yard field flipping play that set up another. JuJu Smith-Schuster made 3 catches, threw a key block, although he had 3 penalties called on him. Eli Rogers helped keep drives alive in the second half. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
While they might not be the Purple People Eaters, the Vikings have a strong front seven and the Steelers offensive line did an adequate job of giving Ben Roethlisberger protection, although pass protection did break down on a number of occasions. Two weeks into the season, their run blocking is remains below par. The Steelers have invested the salary cap space in their offensive line to get road grading quality run blocking, and that is not happening. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 home opener, Case Keenum

Cam Heyward pressures Case Keenum in the Steelers 2017 home opening win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
Can you imagine how good the defensive line would have been last year had Cam Heyward not gotten hurt. Against the Vikings, Heyward acted as a one man wrecking crew. His stats might appear modest, but he disrupted and/or stopped cold everything Minnesota tried to do. His counterparts also also had quiet days on the stat sheet, but don’t be fooled, this unit played well. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt didn’t have a sack, but did end a drive with a batted down pass. In contrast, Bud Dupree had also batted down a pass and did register a sack, as did Vince Williams later in the game. T.J. Watt couldn’t finish the game due to a groin injury, but Anthony Chickillo stepped in and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat. Ryan Shazier led the linebackers in tackles, and defensed a pass. Grade: B+

Secondary
Artie Burns made a heads up play behind the line of scrimmage, showing just how fast he’s developing. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and got a lick in on the quarterback. Sean Davis was second on the team in tackles, but has been figured as the one who lost containment on the Minnesota’s long run. You didn’t hear Joe Hayden’s name much and that’s good for a corner often. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Specials teams isn’t the difference maker it once was. The extra point has become so rote that the NFL had to change the rules. They’re doing the same on kick returns. But if that’s the case, the truth is that a big special teams play can dramatically shift the momentum of a game.

A week ago Tyler Matakevich caused a big special teams play with a blocked punt, and against the Vikings he prevented another by stopping a fake punt.

While Chris Boswell was perfect as a punter, and Jordan Berry was solid, the coverage units did allow longer than you’d like returns (although they did down a punt at the Vikings on). Eli Rogers likewise attempted to field a punt he needed to fair catch, and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned one kick he probably should have downed. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin,

Steelers head coach Mike Tomiln. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Coaching
While it is true that Keith Butler’s defense really hasn’t been tested by a marquee offense yet, that doesn’t change the fact that his unit still had a strong outing. It true that Minnesota did have one touchdown drive that looked easier than it should, but the Steelers defense got off the field on third down, harassed the quarterback and shut down the run.

  • If Todd Haley’s game plan was easier to understand in week two, his unit’s execution remains uneven.

Early in the game, the Steelers offense couldn’t sustain drives and seemingly needed two long pass interference plays to set up touchdowns. In the second half, the Steelers found more rhythm but had to settle for four field goals. Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line do not appear to be on the same page.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin seemed to acknowledge that the Steelers remain a work in progress, something which he has been saying since the summer. You can argue that this shouldn’t be the case for a team that finished one game short of the Super Bowl, but credit the coach for understanding where his team is, and ensuring that his player execute sufficiently well to win. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
For ten years Steelers Nation got accustomed to seeing number 94 as one of those defenders who would always appear in same camera frame as the ball. That number of course belonged to Lawrence Timmons who acted as a force for stability and consistency during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

  • Timmons has of course moved on, and now there’s a new number 94.

Tyson Alualu now wears number 94 and it was plenty visible on Sunday afternoon, as Alualu played well enough Stephon Tuitt’s absence wasn’t really felt. Mike Tomlin preaches that “The Standard is the Standard” and that the “Next Man Up” should be capable of a winning performance. Tyson Alualu breathed life into his coach’s credo, and that’s why he’s the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Vikings.

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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