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:

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 Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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How Key Is Joe Haden to Steelers? He’s the Glue Holding Pittsburgh’s Secondary Together

Is Joe Haden a true shutdown cornerback in today’s NFL?

I don’t know what criteria one needs to be labeled as such, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s what Joe Haden does for the Steelers’ secondary, a unit that has already had more ups and downs through three weeks of the 2018 regular season than a drive through Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.

In a Week 1 tie with the Browns on September 9, the Steelers’ defense yielded just 150 yards through the air and recorded 10 passes defensed.

  • Joe Haden recorded one of  them on a nice break-up in the end zone.

Unfortunately, Joe Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and sat out the Week 2 match-up with the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Haden’s loss wasn’t just unfortunate in theory, it was unfortunate in application, as Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s young quarterback, torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss that dropped the Steelers to 0-1-1.

Joe Haden,

Joe Haden is the glue holding Steelers secondary together. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Totday

Pittsburgh’s secondary looked so helpless in the game, it not only failed to record a single pass defensed (defensive end Stephon Tuitt posted the only one on the day on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage), players like Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds spent the majority of the afternoon either totally confused or mostly out of position.

  • After the Kansas City disaster, the confidence in the Steelers’ defense was perhaps lower than it had been since the departure of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

As I said, however, the early portion of the 2018 campaign has been one crazy roller coaster ride for the  secondary; eight days later, in a Monday night match-up with the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Haden returned and so did his great influence on the pass defense.

No, the unit didn’t necessarily look great, as Artie Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh took turns in the Tampa area burn unit, thanks to the plethora of big plays they allowed. However, there was the first half of the game that included four takeaways on four straight possessions. The secondary was responsible for three of those turnovers, as Mike Hilton tallied a fumble recovery and an interception, respectively, while Terrell Edmunds recorded an interception.

What about Joe Haden, the man with the 4.5 speed tasked mostly with covering receiver DeSean Jackson, he of the 4.3 40 time? The veteran corner not only recorded three of the Steelers’ 13 passes defensed, he limited Jackson, who came into the night with nine receptions for 275 yards on the season, to just three catches for 37 yards.

  • How did Joe Haden limit such a potent threat in DeSean Jackson?

I’m no expert, but I’m guessing great technique and veteran savvy had a lot to do with it. As for the technique part, perhaps Haden can spread his influence to Burns, who is obviously younger and a step or so faster.

Regardless of how Burns influences the individual members of the Steelers’ secondary, again, there’s no question the impact he has on it as a whole.

  • Ryan Shazier is said to have been the most important member of the Steelers’ defense.

And it doesn’t take a football Ph.D to know that the Steelers defense hasn’t fully recovered since he suffered that frightful spinal injury against the Bengals late last season.

But Joe Haden was also lost for several weeks in 2017, and it’s clearly no coincidence that it was during this time that the defense was victimized by the big play to the tune of a 46 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play and this stat comes from before Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion.

So, is Joe Haden a shutdown corner? Who cares? He’s a damn good one, and the Steelers defense is better with him in the lineup.

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for the Win Over the Buccaneers – Finally and “Above the Line”Effort

From the grade book of a teacher who is just happy to see his students finally “Above the line” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Pittsburgh’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s first interception was vintage Big Ben trying to do too much. But Roethlisberger bounced back throwing 3 touchdown strikes and running a two minute drill with pin-point precision to end the first half. AFC Offensive Player of the week honors not withstanding, the Steelers offense was scoreless in the 2nd half and Steelers struggled on 3rd down. Grade: A

Running Backs
James Conner’s 61 yards on 15 carries and 35 catches for 5 yards might not make any fantasy owners happy, but James Conner’s 4th quarter rushing was phenomenal. Stevan Ridley got another 3 carries to spell Conners and looked good. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
A week ago the Tribune Review’s Tim Benz wondered allowed why Vance McDonald was still starting over Jesse James. No one is asking that question today, as Vance McDonald’s stiff arm is already one of the Tomlin era’s greatest offensive plays. McDonald caught 3 other passes on 5 targets. Jesse James caught one pass for 7 yards while Xavier Grimble and one target. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had one touchdown on 6 catches for 9 targets. Brown could have had more, but he and Ben were clearly not on the same page, which could have something to do with him missing practice. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the unit with 9 catches for 116 yards and came up big when the Steelers needed him two. James Washington only had to catches, but both converted first downs, while Ryan Switzer caught a touchdown to close the 1st half. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Missing two starters on the offensive line, the unit struggled at times as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and was hit nine times. Still, Steelers offensive line provided Ben time to throw when he needed, and opened holes for James Conner when the game was on the line. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Statistically speaking, it was a quiet night for the Steelers defensive line, although Stephon Tuitt did log 3 quarterback hits, and Cam Heyward logged another and defensed a pass. But what this unit did is evident in numbers elsewhere, such as the anemic performance of Tampa’s running backs, and Daniel McCuller’s pressure that helped lead to a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception. Grade: B

Linebackers
Vince Williams had 5 tackles and a quarterback hit, T.J. Watt had four tackles plus a QB hit. The real star of the crew was Bud Dupree, he had a sack, tackle for a loss, 3 QB hits, a pass defensed and most importantly a pick six. A good night for Steelers linebacking. Grade: B

Secondary
If there was any doubt, and they should not be, Joe Haden proved he the group’s unquestioned leader. Haden defended 3 passes and really seemed to elevate everyone else’s play. Terrell Edmunds got his first pick, and displayed lighting like quickness on the return. Mike Hilton had an interception, defensed a pass and helped drop someone behind the line of scrimmage. Artie Burns forced a fumble and tackled well, although he continues to struggle in coverage. Coty Sensabaugh split time with Burns rotating the two makes sense. Sean Davis rebounded from a bad game.

The Steelers secondary still has issues. However, the unit produced 3 turnovers, including one in the Red Zone and those players were difference makers. Grade: C+

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Chris Boswell continues to struggle, and carry critical costs his missed extra point and field goal would have made a huge difference for the Steelers. The Steelers continue to self-destruct with penalties, although Tampa negated a touchdown of its own. Jordan Berry had a better night punting, and pinned Tampa down deep in its own territory not once, but twice although the latter one was negated by a penalty. Ryan Switzer had one decent kick return, and one 16 yard punt return. Boswell must start making kicks and his slump brings the grade for the unit down. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the 2nd straight week, Randy Fichtner’s offense put up enough points to win, but the unit remains a work in progress. The Steelers moved the chains well enough in the second half, but didn’t score and continued to struggle on third downs.

Most, if not all of that was well deserved. Nonetheless, the Steelers defense played better. Coverage lapses abounded, particularly in the second half, but the Steelers defense created turnovers, pressured the passer and scored which helped compensate.

  • The Steelers did not lack for drama this week.

Charges that Mike Tomlin had “lost the locker room” swirled on social media. Yet Tomlin took it in stride, keep the Steelers dirty laundry in house – at least as far as is possible in the age of social media – made a personnel change, and ordered a live tackling drill. His team responded and turned in Above the Line performances. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
On lookers greeted his arrival in Pittsburgh with a collective “Ho hum.” Objective evaluations of what he brought to the team were always made in comparison to who he wasn’t. He didn’t do much to stand out during the first two weeks, and even ESPN Deportes Raul Allegre harshly criticized him early in the game.

Yet this player paid those critiques no mind, as he led the team in tackles, registered a sack, dropped two rushers behind the line of scrimmage defensed one pass and tipped another that turned into a Red Zone interception, and for that inside linebacker Jon Bostic wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over Tampa Bay.

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How Steelers Barn Burning win over Buccaneers Reveals Pittsburgh’s Peril and Promise for 2018

It took 3 weeks, but the Steelers 30-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave the Black and Gold its first win of the 2018 season, proving once again that on the field and off the field, Pittsburgh certainly does not lack for drama.

The win was a barn burner, something which Steelers Nation got accustomed to during the latter half of 2017. Moreover, it was a Steelers win that revealed both the limits and perhaps the promise Pittsburgh of the 2018 season.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Stiff Arm Heard Round the World

Week three marks an important milestone in the NFL calendar. Teams that exceeded expectations in the first two weeks either get a reality check or show that they’re really ready for prime time. Teams that have fallen short of expectations in the first two weeks either dig themselves deeper into a statistical hole or they offer hope that the can be better.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had exceeded expectations during the season’s first two weeks, while the Pittsburgh Steelers had fallen short.

After Pittsburgh and Tampa traded punts, Ben Roethlisberger forced the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Evans made him pay, picking him off at midfield. Ryan Fitzpatrick needed only 5 plays to march 53 yards for a touchdown. For Steelers Nation, it was déjà vu all over again.

Fortunately, the Steelers starting tight end didn’t share the feeling:

With Vance McDonald’s stiff arm and incredible burst of speed, the Steelers declared “We didn’t come here to play. We came to win.”

Steelers Show Promise in First Half vs Buccaneers

Vance McDonald’s touchdown ushered a different Steelers team onto the field at Raymond James Stadium, one very similar to the team that people inside and outside of Pittsburgh thought could contend for a championship.

  • Anthony Chickillo ended the next Buccaneers drive with a sack
  • Artie Burns came off the bench to force a fumble
  • 2 plays later, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown schooled Tampa for a touchdown
  • The Buccaneers marched Pittsburgh’s 12 only to have Jon Bostic tip a pass that Mike Hilton intercept
  • Terrell Edmunds returned an easy interception with Troy Polamalu-like speed
  • After a -7 yard drive Jordan Berry pinned Tampa down at at their 2
  • 2 plays later Bud Dupree took his first interception to the house

The Steelers did give up a field goal on the ensuring drive, but with just a 1:09 remaining, Ben Roethlisberger moved the Steelers 75 yards down the field with Swiss-like precision, hitting Ryan Switzer for a touchdown with 0:06 left to spare.

This was the type of Pittsburgh Steelers team everyone expected: An explosive offense matched with a defense capable of making splash plays to compensate for leaks that it can’t really doesn’t have the talent to plug.

Second Half Reveals Steelers Limits and Potential Ceiling

Twenty point leads lend a lot of confidence to teams heading into the locker room. But any wise fan knew not to take anything for granted. This was after all the Steelers team that had the Cleveland Browns on the ropes with a two touchdown lead in the 4th quarter but managed to tie the game.

  • It would be easy to offer the Steelers second half effort as proof that the Steelers defense is hopeless.

And you’d no doubt, find plenty of takers in the “Fire Everyone” crowd who don’t understand why Art Rooney II didn’t summarily fire Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Kevin Colbert and the water boy after the Kansas City debacle.

  • The truth is that the Steelers defense in general and its secondary specifically secondary left a lot to be desired for much of the 2nd half.

On the upside, tackling was a bit better, but members of the secondary got plenty of tackling practice as Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with receiver after receiver. For all the “Fitzmagic” talk, Ryan Fitzpatrick never should have been allowed to make it so close. But he did, and underlining the fact that the Steelers have some legitimate deficiencies on defense.

  • The Steelers offense also shoulders some of the responsibility.

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still are not on the same page: Ben grossly overthrew Brown on a deep pattern that could have been an easy touchdown, and the two were badly out of sync on another that could have killed the clock.

But those two flaws, while real, should not overshadow two positives from the game’s final five minutes.

  1. James Conner ripped off 27 and then 17 yard gains, when EVERYONE knew he was going get the ball
  2. The Steelers defense pitched a perfect shut out on the Buccaneer’s final drive

In fewer words, both Steelers units found ways to win. Finding the ability to make key plays at critical moments in the NFL is a distinct skill. In the closing moments against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Steelers showed they still have that skill.

Which is good, because they will likely need to call on it throughout the 2018 season.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

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

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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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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