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 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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L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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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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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 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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