Steelers-Jaguars Preview – Time to Measure Pittsburgh’s Progress Since Playoff Disaster

This is the one Steelers Nation has been waiting for. Today the Steelers face off against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and be honest, when the schedule came out, you saw this game and thought, “Man do I want to see this.”

  • How quickly times change. When the 2017 schedule came out, who gave the Jaguars a second thought?

I certainly didn’t. Yet it was the Jaguars, and not the Patriots, who stopped the Steelers quest to bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Yet a lot has happened in the 309 days that have passed since the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

Changes to the Steelers Since the Last Jaguars Game

Perhaps its is appropriate that so many members of the Steelers defense changed numbers during the off season, because a lot has changed.

During the September, not only did it look like these had been insufficient, but that perhaps the Steelers had further regressed. But the Steelers travel to Jacksonville riding a 5 game winning streak, that has seen the Steelers improve week in and week out.

Across the board, whether you’re looking at third down conversions, Red Zone efficiency, or Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, all of the trends Pittsburgh is taking into this big game are pointed the right way.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in taking a shot at the Team Turmoil thesis, it was just two years ago, on November 13, 2016 when the Steelers home loss to the Dallas Cowboys seemed to signal all hope had been lost.

  • Except it wasn’t, and the Steelers have gone 26-6 since then.

But story symmetry can be a tricky thing. While Jacksonville had bested the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season – with Ryan Shazier on the field – Ben Roethlisberger had played one of the worst, if not the worst game of his career. Big Ben bounced back to play the best football of his life in the second half of 2017.

Few thought Jacksonville would give the Steelers must of a test last January, but reports that Stephon Tuitt missed practice time due to an arm injury foreshadowed a flatfooted defensive response to Leonard Fournette’s fierce rushing.

  • And, as fate would have it, Stephon Tuitt will miss the rematch against the Jaguars.

So be it. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be on a 5 game losing streak, but this still is the same team that schooled the Patriots early in the year. But they were without Leonard Fournette for most of that stretch. But he will play this afternoon.

  • And that’s good in at least one sense.

Fournette’s presence means the outcome of today’s Steelers-Jaguars matchup in Jacksonville will still give Steelers Nation a true measure of how far Pittsburgh has come since that playoff defeat or, how far they still need go.

 

 

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Panthers – Straight A’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is breaking protocol by issuing his grades before his analysis, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

T.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Vince Williams pick six, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt wrapping Cam Newton in end zone. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger posted a perfect quarterback rating, by going 22 of 25 for 328 and five touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger did it all, long passes, short passes third down conversions and everything in between. Joshua Dobbs was 1 for 2 in mop up duty. Grade: A+

Running Backs
James Conner didn’t break the 100 yard mark, but the Steelers didn’t need him to. As it was, he average 5 yards a carry and added another touchdown. Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive non-garbage time action and managed 26 yards, while Jaylen Samuels only got 7 yards on the ground, but did score a touchdown through the air. Roosevelt Nix caught 2 passes for 17 yards. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James takes heat for his blocking, but he delivered a critical block on Conner’s touchdown run, and scored a late touchdown of his own. Vance McDonald made another tough catch in the end zone and caught 3 other passes. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both scored on long touchdown bombs but both men also made other clutch catches. Ryan Switzer came up with two drive-sustaining catches while Darrius Heyward-Bey nabbed his first catch of the season. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked only once. For most of the night, Ben had time to write his dairy in the pocket. The Steelers weren’t quite as effective running the ball as they have been, but they didn’t need to be.

The play of the Steelers offensive line is nothing short of incredible, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s defense of Ben Roethlisberger after Eric Reid’s hit shows just how seriously this unit takes its job.. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave actually led the defensive line in tackles, as the Steelers remained in their base defense extensively. The real leader of the unit was Cam Heyward, who exploded for 2 sacks, dropped two runners behind the line of scrimmage and made two other hits on Cam Newton. Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Grade: A

Linebackers
Jon Bostic led the team in tackles and arguably should have gotten ½ of a sack. Vince Williams had a banner night, bringing home a pick six and registering a sack. Bud Dupree continues to be a disruptive force in the backfield, as he recorded another sack and had two more tackles for losses. L.J. Fort spot duty stint was enough to earn him a tackle for a loss. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Vince Williams pick six Cam Newton, Steelers vs Panthers

Vince Williams struts after his pick-six of Cam Newton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Steelers secondary didn’t produce a lot of “Splash Plays” other than Terrell Edmunds almost interception. However, Carolina was a dreadful 4-11 on third downs and the Steelers front seven only registers 5 sacks if receivers are covered. Coty Sensabaugh appears to be settling in as a competent corner while Joe Haden has been invisible – in a positive sense. Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Mike Hilton all had strong nights. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on extra points, and made a 50 yarder into the open end of Heinz Field. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return and, for the first time in recent memory, neither the Steelers coverage nor return units gave up a penalty.

  • Special team’s shining moment came on Roosevelt Nix’s forced fumble and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery.

The Steelers were already up 45 to 14 at that point, but it was a heads up play by both men, and it symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Grade: A

Coaching
The last time the Steelers played at night, it looked to be lights out in Pittsburgh, but the win over the Panthers illustrated the dramatic difference the team has experienced since then.

Mike Tomlin, Joshua Dobbs, Alejandro Villaneuva, Steelers vs Panthers

Mike Tomlin huddling with Joshua Dobbs and Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • It is now time to give the Haley haters their day.

Under Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense is firing on all cylinders in ways it never did under Todd Haley. The Steelers offense was multi-faceted against the Panthers, burning Carolina for long touchdowns, converting third downs, orchestrating long, clock-consuming drives all while mounting a balanced attack.

The Steelers defense was also excellent. Perhaps had, the game evolved differently, the Panthers rushing success could have been the defense’s undoing. But that is an academic question, because Keith Butler‘s boys limited the long ball and harassed Cam Newton through the night.

Mike Tomlin deserves credit for preparing his team on a short week and for making an effort to keep everyone fresh throughout the game. As Tomlin conceded, the difference between the Steelers and the Panthers probably isn’t as dramatic as the score board would suggest, but they dominated Carolina in all three phases. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There is no shortage of candidates for this award but we’ll focus on one whose stat line says he ‘only” made one tackle. One tackle, behind the line of scrimmage. This player corralled and wrapped up Cam Newton in the end zone, which forced a pick six. Later this player clobbered Cam Newton in a strip sack with a hit that shook up Carolina’s signal caller, and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Panthers at Heinz Field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

  • Randy Fichtner’s offense has also improved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for 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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Played Out in Pittsburgh? Chiefs Defeat Steelers 42-37 at Heinz Field in 2018 Home Opener

There’s no sugar coating this: Pittsburgh has problems. The Steelers 37-42 opening day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs included a multitude of milestones, none of them good:

  • Kansas City won in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986
  • Mike Tomlin suffered his first home defeat to Andy Reid
  • The Steelers suffered their 1st home-opening loss in 5 years
  • Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Chiefs for the first time since 2009

But those milestones, however unpleasant, tell us more about the Pittsburgh’s past than its present. The Kansas City Chiefs victory a Heinz Field exposed several fundamental weaknesses of the 2018 Steelers, weaknesses which Mike Tomlin will be hard pressed to paper over.

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

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

One of the Worst Quarters of the Tomlin Era

The simple take away from the Steelers 21-21 against the Browns was that without 6 turnovers from the Steelers, Pittsburgh wins fairly easily.

  • While far from flawless, that analysis is largely accurate.

The simple take away following the loss to the Chiefs is to point to the offense’s 37 points and lay the blame on the shoulders of Steelers defense. That would be a mistake, however.

The Steelers first two drives netted negative yardage, as a hurried Ben Roethlisberger’s passes flew high and off target. By the time the Steelers offense got out of the red, the Kansas City Chiefs had already scored two touchdowns, and the only answer the Steelers offense could muster was a missed Chris Boswell field goal.

  • Credit Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense for not panicking and keeping sharp enough focus to come back and tie the score at 21-21.

With feeding the ball to James Conner a non-option given the score, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to make anything more than piecemeal connections with Antonio Brown, Ryan Switzer Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up.

But as it did during the 4th quarter against Cleveland, the Steelers offense sputtered during the 4th quarter. By this point in the game it had become painfully clear that Pittsburgh’s defense could do nothing to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense.

  • In his 2017 season postmortem, Steelers President Art Rooney II quipped that “Its become difficult to play defense in this league.”

While Art Rooney II’s words may hold some truth, if you’re MO for winning games is to score 50 points a game,  then your offense cannot take a quarter to warm up, nor can it sputter in critical moments late in the game.

Steelers Defenseless Against Chiefs

Of course the Steelers goal never was to simply make every game a shootout and count on the offense to prevail. During the 2018 off season the Steelers went through a whole sale house cleaning of their secondary and made moves to bolster its linebacking corps.

  • Last week, against a re-tread quarterback in Cleveland, the Steelers defense had a reasonably strong showing for itself.
  • Against an emerging elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers defense came out flat footed.

One of the key new pieces the Steelers added in the off season was Jon Bostic. The scouting report on Jon Bostic was that he was fairly strong against the run, but struggled in coverage. And against the Chiefs, Bostic defended the run well enough, but looked clueless in coverage as Travis Kelce burned the Steelers down the middle all afternoon long.

The Steelers doubtlessly missed Joe Haden, but on one in the rest of the secondary did anything to suggest things would be different had Haden played.

  • Artie Burns thus far failed to translate any of his summer magic from St. Vincents to the regular season.
  • Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle and looked out of place early and often.
  • Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were forgettable in first starts for the Steelers.

The same can be said for the Steelers front seven. Cam Heyward did force a key incompletion and later a fumble. So did T.J. Watt, but that was his sole highlight of the day. The answer to an ailing secondary is to pressure the passer, and the Steelers front seven barely touched Patrick Mahomes.

Played Out in Pittsburgh?

Furious fans took to social media to draw comparisons to the Jacksonville playoff debacle. That’s understandable, but perhaps the 2002 season opener against the Patriots provides a more accurate comparison.

Following the same script that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick used 16 years ago, Andy Reid and Patrick Maholmes essentially abandoned the run in the second half.

  • And once again, the Steelers were powerless to stop them.

That 2002 Steelers team started 1-3, yet clawed its way to a division championship. Only a bogus roughing the kicker call kept Pittsburgh from an AFC Championship appearance. But that rebound required Bill Cowher to spark the team with a quarterback change, and the Steelers pass defense remained a liability all season long.

  • Mike Tomlin will not and should not bench Ben Roethlisberger.

Nor does the Steelers head coach have any equivalent, dramatic personnel change to make on defense. Which means that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter must find a way to coax better performance out of their defense

Otherwise, the Steelers will continue to fall hard this autumn.

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Artie Burns Added to Injury List as Patrick Mahomes Looks to Test Steelers Secondary

Artie Burns appearance on the Steelers injury report prior to their 2018 home opener promises to put Pittsburgh’s secondary depth to the test.

There’s a certain symmetry about these things, as just Thursday this site suggested that the Steelers might have turned a corner at cornerback. The thinking was, that with Joe Haden out with a hamstring injury, the Steelers were in good hands with Cam Sutton starting in his place. Such is the life of a blogger.

  • Contrast that the panic that ensued when Joe Haden broke his leg last year.

And that panic was justified. Coty Senasbaugh started in Haden’s place, and the Steelers sieve like secondary started giving up 50 yard plus touchdown passes roughly once a half. All of that wasn’t Coty Sensabaugh’s fault, but he certainly marked a step down from Joe Haden.

Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers injury report chiefs game

Joe Haden & Artie Burns at Steelers practice. Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

With the Steelers potentially sitting their number one and number two corners, it is not hard to image Andy Reid licking his chops at having Patrick Mahomes send Tyreek Hill.

Tyreek Hill specializes in long touchdowns, although per Gerry Dulac’s research in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steelers defense has done a good job of containing him. In three games against the Steelers, Hill has just 14 catches for 85 yards and 5 rushes for just seven yards.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily in their secondary this off season, in part with an eye towards eliminating those big gains.

Sean Davis has moved to from strong to free safety, while Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds are splitting the strong safety duties. The Kansas City Chiefs figure to put Keith Butler’s new dime, quarter, and dollar alignments to the test.

Other Steelers vs Chiefs Injury News – Big Ben Back, DeCastro Out

Ben Roethlisberger missed the first several days of practice leading to speculation that Joshua Dobbs might get his first NFL start against the Chiefs.

  • However, Big Ben practiced on Friday and will start against the Chiefs.

David DeCastro, who broke his hand in the 21-21 tie against the Browns, however will miss the name. The Steelers will start B.J. Finney in his place. The Steelers also got some good news on the injury front as Vance McDonald practiced for the first time since the beginning of training camp, although it is unclear whether McDonald or Jesse James will start.

Mike Tomlin holds a 4-2 record over Andy Reid, and the Steelers overall record vs the Chiefs is 23-11, with Pittsburgh holding a 11-7 edge at home. The Steelers have won the last three meetings, and Kansas City has not won in Pittsburgh since 1986…

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Steelers Tarping Practice Field? Why Not Follow Chuck Noll’s Lead and Practice without Numbers?

Change happens fast. Only two weeks ago the Steelers decision to erect a tarp to block the view from the Southern End of their practice field was the “big news” out of Pittsburgh.

Now everyone is focusing Joshua Dobbs’ promotion to QB Number 2 at Landry Jones expense, Terrell Edmunds possibly starting for Morgan Burnett and, in case you missed it, Le’Veon Bell holding out.

  • Excellent. Football news should focus on what happens between the lines, not around them.

But this is a new and a strange development as Mike Tomlin explains:

You know how it is. This is an interesting time, drones and so forth, you know? We’ll do what we have to do to prepare and be ready to play. Play on a level of fair competitive playing field

Fair enough. But if Mike Tomlin is worried about the Bill Belichick’s of the NFL spying on him, wouldn’t he be wiser to combat today’s technological threat by snatching a page from Steelers history?

Chuck Noll (may have) had the same concerns. No, he did have to worry about drones, but given his love of both flying and cameras, he almost certainly could have predicted the problem. Regardless, The Emperor had a solution:

Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll St. Vincents, Steelers practice no numbers

Chuck Noll’s Steelers practiced with no numbers. Photo Credit: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Your eyes tell no lie. Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers practiced with no numbers.

I first learned of this in the 80’s when a TV news story on cheating in pro sports, concluded with shot from Steelers practice and a reporter observing “…Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, still practice with no numbers.”

The offense wore Gold and the defense work Black, and that was that. Chuck Noll’s motives were less clear. On a summer trip to Pittsburgh in the late 80’s or early 1990’s I remember reading in the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette that Noll practiced with no numbers because he wanted coaches to treat all players equally.

If a cornerback was out of position, he wanted to coaches to correct him, whether he was Rod Woodson as a rookie or a veteran like Dwayne Woodruff. If an undrafted rookie free agent like Dwight Stone made a head turning play he wanted him to earn the same praise that Louis Lipps or John Stallworth would.

  • That is highly plausible, given Chuck Noll’s focus on teaching.

Stories of Noll of spending valuable practice time correcting a rookie’s mistake, only to cut him days later, are legendary. Likewise, Noll never hesitated to correct a veteran, as he did with Andy Russell, the only Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette believes that Noll’s goal was to confuse any unwanted on-lookers.

And Noll’s gambit worked.

In the ‘80s the Steelers and Redskins held annual training camp scrimmages which Washington’s WTTG Channel 5 broadcast. Years later, on WCXR’sHarris in the MorningSteve Buckhantz recounted how one summer Chuck Noll decided that the Steelers would scrimmage without numbers.

Buckhantz explained to Paul Harris and “Dave the Predictor” that “I had Franco Harris running for touchdowns, yet didn’t know it was him” as Steelers PR staffer would sit behind him in the broadcast booth try to determine who the player was based on his body type.

At the end of the day, its doubtful that Mike Tomlin would follow Chuck Noll’s example, although numberless jersey’s would  be cheaper than tarping off the south end of the practice field, and wouldn’t practicing without numbers eliminate the problem of drones flying directly above the field instead of just close to it?

Just say’n….

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