Steelers Lose to 49ers 24-20 in Mason Rudolph’s 1st Start, Start 2019 0-3

Mason Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his first career start, as the Steelers fell to the 49ers, 24-20, Sunday afternoon at Levi Stadium.

The loss dropped the Steelers to 0-3 and was very similar to many they’ve had dating back to last November 25, when they started what has now become a 2-7 slide.

Close but no cigar.

Much like a week earlier against the Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s defense was quite dominant in the first half, and on the third play from scrimmage, a 49ers screen pass that was intended for Mike Breida glanced off the running back’s hand and wound up in the arms of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who returned it to the San Francisco 33.

Unfortunately, three quick passes by Rudolph netted just five years, and kicker Chris Boswell came on to try a 46-yard field goal, which he converted to make it 3-0, Pittsburgh.

Following an exchange of punts, the Steelers defense played takeaway once again, when cornerback Joe Haden tipped a pass into the arms of newly-acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrack, who returned the interception 14 yards to the San Francisco 24-yard line.

Once again, the Steelers offense couldn’t take full advantage and had to settle for a second Boswell field goal, this time from 26 yards away, to make it 6-0.

The 49ers advanced into Pittsburgh territory on their following drive, but again, they were victimized by the turnover bug when Fitzpatrick knocked the football out of the grasps of running back Raheem Mostert, and Devin Bush recovered it at the Steelers nine-yard line.

Following a quick punt by the Steelers, the 49ers again moved the football into Pittsburgh territory and again fumbled it away, when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t handle the snap from center, and Bush recovered the fumble at the Steelers seven.

The Steelers offense struggled to move the ball the rest of the first half, and San Francisco finally got on the board late in the second period thanks to a 24-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to make it 6-3.

All-in-all, the Steelers defense took the football away four times in the first half, and all the offense could muster was 76 yards and six points.

Pittsburgh received the second half kickoff and immediately gave the ball back to the 49ers when a Rudolph pass intended for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was intercepted by cornerback K’Waun Williams, who returned it four yards to the Steelers 38.

Unlike Pittsburgh, the 49ers offense quickly took advantage of the takeaway and took a 10-6 lead on an eight-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by running back Jeff Wilson Jr.

After the two teams exchanged punts, the Steelers regained the lead thanks to a 76-yard touchdown catch and run by Smith-Schuster.

The Steelers defense offered little resistance on the following drive, as the 49ers marched 75 yards on 10 plays and re-took the lead on another touchdown run by Wilson Jr., this time from four yards out.

The Steelers struck back with 10:22 left in the game, when Rudolph found rookie receiver Diontae Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 20-17 lead. The big break on the drive came one play earlier when a deep pass intended for James Washington resulted in defensive pass interference.

Once again, the Steelers defense seemed to show little resistance in protecting a three-point lead. But just when it looked like San Francisco would jump back in front, a pitchout intended for receiver Richie James was muffed and recovered by Watt at the Steelers 14 with just 6:49 left in the game–the unit’s fifth takeaway on the afternoon.

Sadly for the Steelers, they re-gifted the fumble three plays later, when running back James Conner was stripped of the football, and the 49ers recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line.

Needing to hold the 49ers to a field goal attempt, Pittsburgh’s defense came up small, first on a holding penalty on inside linebacker Mark Barron on third down and 11 that gave the 49ers a fresh set of downs at the nine. Two plays later, Dante Pettis pulled in a five-yard touchdown pass from Garroppolo to make it 24-20 with just 1:15 remaining.

There would be no Mason Magic to end the game, as the offense quickly turned the ball over on downs to put the final nail in the Steelers 0-3 coffin.

Pittsburgh’s offense tallied just 239 yards and a paltry 11 first downs. And, much like the previous week against Seattle, Keith Butler‘s defense seemed to wither down the stretch after a quick start. For the day, the unit surrendered 436 total yards–including 168 on the ground.

As for the Steelers ground game, it netted just 79 yards on the day–including 43 on 13 carries by Conner, who, again, had a costly fumble late in the fourth quarter.

Next up for the Steelers is a prime-time affair against the Bengals next Monday night at Heinz Field.

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Lesson from Steelers Playoff Win Over Cincinnati? Have Patience with Players Like Ryan Shazier

The Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was special. Ivan Cole of Going Deep with the Steelers went as far as to compare it to the Immaculate Reception.

  • Nothing matches the intensity of a comeback playoff win.

Sometimes those comebacks signal franchise transformation, sometimes they do not… The Immaculate Reception and the 2005 AFC Divisional playoff win over the Colts proved to be transformational; the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers and Tommy Maddox’s 2002 comeback vs. Cleveland were phenomenal feats, but neither was transformational.

Father time will give us the context to properly appreciate this Steelers playoff win, but there’s an important lesson Steelers Nation can learn today.

Remember Steelers Nation: Patience is a Virtue

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette did Steelers Nation a service on game day, writing a full length article detailing the Pittsburgh Steelers then 5 year playoff “slump” with the fortunes of several NFL teams.

Had the Steelers lost on Saturday it would have indeed given the franchise its first 5 year playoff drought since the Immaculate Reception, but the trust of Bouchette’s article is that this pales in comparison to what other teams have weathered.

Bouchette’s article brought to mind a recent Twitter exchange that followed the Steelers loss to Baltimore:

ryan shazier, steelers, ravens, bengals, jarvis jones, bud dupree, draft picks, linebackers

Twitter exchange Ryan Shazier, Steelers linebackers, on after Ravens loss

Out of respect to the other party, the person’s name and photo have been removed. But you can see the substance of the exchange itself. And two weeks later, Mr. Anonymous rant rings just a tad bit ironic, doesn’t it?

  • To be fair, Ryan Shazier’s trajectory since the Steelers drafted him has been anything but a straight line.

The Steelers instantly installed him as their inside starting linebacker as early as minicamp and did not look back. Shazier started the Steelers first three games, but was injured in the victory over Carolina.

  • There Shazier’s tale gets twisted.

Word was that Mike Tomlin was not happy with Shazier’s rehab efforts. And when Shazier returned to full health, he was forced to split time with Sean Spence and Vince Williams. Truth be told, Shaizer made a number of under the radar plays during the later half of 2014, but it appeared that Mike Tomlin wanted to send the rookie a lesson.

Still, Shazier’s status entering 2015 was never in doubt. Just how dominating was Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers? It almost seemed as if he could have taken on the entire 49ers offense himself. But injuries hit Shazier again in 2015, causing him to miss 4 games. This prompted Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler to publically remind Ryan Shazier “If you are waiting to feel good before you play, you are never going to play.”

But when Shazier’s been on the field, he’s been effective. Perhaps not a superstar, but his game-clinching interception vs. Denver was, in the words of Mike Tomlin, the kind of play the Steelers drafted him to make.

Did Ryan Shazier play poorly vs. the Baltimore Ravens? Yes and find me  a Pittsburgh Steeler not named DeAngelo Williams who didn’t. But is that any reason to give up on a player who has yet to complete his second season as starter? No, it is not.

  • And that’s the lesson to take out of the Steelers Wild Card Win over the Bengals.

It takes time for most athletes, even incredibly talented ones, to develop into quality NFL Players.

Of course Steelers fans can readily rattle off names like Ben Roethlisberger, Rod Woodson and Joe Greene, but these men are exceptions, not the rule.

  • It is actually quite normal for future Hall of Famers to struggle early in their careers.

Troy Polamalu sat on the bench for a year. Lynn Swann caught just 11 passes as a rookie. And it was only in 1975, with one Super Bowl in hand, that Terry Bradshaw authored in a season where he threw more touchdowns than interceptions.

  • Against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier did what the great ones do: He stepped up and made something happen.

Even before forcing Jeremy Hill’s fumble, Shazier had played a solid game by any measure. But what Shazier at very end was on the same plane as what Franco Harris did in 1972, Rod Woodson did in 1989 or Troy Polamalu did in 2008. There’s a word for players like that: Special.

Sometimes the special ones take time to grow into their own. So have patience Steelers Nation and remember that Hall of Fame careers are authored on the field and not in the draft room.

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Steelers vs Browns Test of “Pittsburgh Plays Better on Tape Delay” Theory….

As regular readers know, Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Watching the NFL from South America’s “Dagger pointed at heart of Antarctica” has its pros and cons.

When I first moved here that meant only being able to see 2-3 games per year, and even then it required getting up at 2 or 3 am (and having to get up for work the next day.) Night games are hell, particularly after the US goes “fall forward.”

  • The flipside is, it is relatively easy to watch Steelers games on tape delay without knowing the ending.

This is of course theoretically possible to do in the US, but a lot harder to execute in practice. I’d imagine it would be dam near impossible for someone living in Pittsburgh to pull this off, and even for the legion of Steelers fans in Steelers Nation, it would still take a fair amount of discipline, cooperation from friends (and enemies) and a fair amount of luck.

And while the rational side of my brain reminds me that there’s no connection between when I watch and how the Steelers play, the sentimental side of my brain is wont to give into superstition.

  • And the Steelers generally do well on tap delay.

My first experience with tape delay was good: the 2001 Steelers beat the Titans and Ravens at Heinz Field. In 2002 the Steelers followed up their Dread the Spread season opening loss to the Patriots by laying an egg vs. the Raiders, the later of which I saw on tape delay. Yet, later in 2002, the Steelers beat Peyton Manning and the Colts on Monday Night Football.

  • 2003 wasn’t so kind as the Steelers dropped Prime Time games to the Browns and 49ers on tape delay.
  • Ditto 2005 where tape delay had the Steelers losing to the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Since getting Direct TV in 2008, the Steelers record on tape delay is quite good. They beat the Cowboy at home on the strength of Deshea Townsend pick six. A year later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace with just 5 seconds remaining to beat the Packers at home.

And so comes the Steelers 2015 season closer vs. the Cleveland Browns. This is one game that the Steelers will have to work to lose, which as last week’s loss to the Ravens reveals, they’re capable of doing it. But with Browns coach Mike Pettine reportedly already set to be fired, the Steelers should win this one in a walk.

  • So no tape delay assist (should be) needed.

However, Steelers vs. Browns is not the only iron Steelers Nation has in the fire as the 2015 NFL season closes. As EVERYONE knows, if Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills upset the New York Jets, the Steelers will make it to the playoffs….

…On paper the Jets should clobber the Bills.

But Rex Ryan has already upset his former employer. Doing so twice in one season, especially with the playoffs on the line for the Jets and the Bills only playing for pride is an uphill battle.

In other words, a perfect test for tape delay. Go Steelers!

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Steelers Should Not Play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns

Word out of the South Slide is that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to practice in a limited capacity on Thursday and is holding out hope that he can play Sunday at Heinz Field vs. the Cleveland Browns.

Per Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports, Ben Roethlisberger practiced in a limited capacity. While news of Ben Roethlisberger practicing is by definition good, it also comes with a danger. Ben Roethlisberger clearly wants to play vs. the Cleveland Browns, and his desire is understandable.

  • The Steelers are only one game above .500
  • Pittsburgh is 0-2 in the AFC North
  • The Steelers are 2-4 in the AFC
  • The Cleveland Browns are the Steelers final home divisional game this season

All of those spell “Must Win” for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Landry Jones closed out the Steelers games vs. the Cardinals and the Raiders with “saves,” to borrow a baseball analogy, he struggled in his first start vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. A healthy Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a better chance to win. That’s a no brainer. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin seemingly has a difficult decision to make.

  • But it shouldn’t be hard at all.

The Steelers should not play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns unless he is absolutely 100% healthy.

Steelers, Tomlin, Roethlisberger, Have Seen this Movie Before

The Steelers situation is not at all unlike the one they faced in 2011. Ben Roethlisberger injured his ankle in a Thursday night game vs. the Browns. Roethlisberger stayed in the game and put on a performance that was nothing short of heroic. After the game Roethlisberger vowed to play in the Steelers upcoming game at Candlestick Park vs. the 49ers.

Everyone remembers that game as the game that prompted Roger Goodell to suspend James Harrison. But the more important news coming out of the game was the choice Mike Tomlin had to make at quarterback.

  • Mike Tomlin opted to play Ben Roethlisberger.

Even when it was clear that Roethlisberger was nowhere near 100%, he kept Roethlisberger in the game, despite having Charlie Batch in the bullpen. Given Batch’s rustiness in coming off the bench at times, Tomlin’s decision to start Roethlisberger was understandable. But Ben Roethlisberger was hurt so badly that he could not even make it back to the line of scrimmage after long completions during the hurry up offense.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and threw 3 interceptions. Tomlin started Batch as the Steelers shut out the St. Louis Rams the following week. Ben Roethlisberger returned for the Steelers 2011 season finale vs. the Browns, and then for the playoff loss at Denver.

  • But Roethlisberger clearly wasn’t the same quarterback.

Fans remember many things about the playoff loss to Tim Tebow, but Mike Wallace dropping a sure touchdown pass is one of them. While that added fuel to the anti-Wallace bandwagon, the truth is Roethlisberger couldn’t deliver on that pass because he was playing hurt.

  • The Steelers resigned Ben Roethlisberger to an 108 million dollar contract this off season.

It was the right move for all parties involved. All signs indicate that the Steelers have the nucleus of players around Roethlisberger on both offense and defense to make a serious Super Bowl run in 2016 and perhaps that window extends into 2017. But none of it will matter much if Ben Roethlisberger is too injured to play.

The good news is that Ben Roethlisberger seems to be aware of his limitations, as he told Pittsburgh Tribune Review Reporter Mark Kaboly “If I can’t do that, there is no need to be out there.” That’s good news, but not nearly as good as what he told Kaboly next, when he refused to lay odds on his playing:

If I am feeling good enough and if coach determines I am well enough to be out there Sunday, then that’s the goal. I can’t give you a percentage because my percentage is probably different than his percentage.

While it’s impossible to read tea leaves here, it at least seems like Mike Tomlin is taking a more cautious approach to keeping his starting quarterback healthy than he did in 2011. And if that’s a welcome sign.

Let’s repeat it for prosperity: the Pittsburgh Steelers should not play Ben Roethlisberger vs the Browns if there’s even a shadow of a doubt about his health and mobility.

Williams Practices Fully, Harrison, Shazier, Thomas Out

The Steelers did get some good news with no strings attached on the injury/practice front, as starting running back DeAngelo Williams practiced fully after missing the previous two days. William’s absence at practice highlighted the Steelers thin depth at running back, leaving only Jordan Todman and Isaiah Pead behind him.

All of the news was not good, however. James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas all missed practice, and will presumably not play vs. the Browns.

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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terence Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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Steelers Report Card for 49ers Win

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can help but feel proud of the young defensive recruits on the rise, here is the Steelers Report Card from the Pittsburgh’s win over San Francisco.

Quarterback
Is there a better quarterback right now in the NFL? Perhaps there is, but it would be hard to improve on the quarterback play in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-27 for three touchdowns and 369 and was excellent on third downs and a near super human 13.7 yards per attempt. All on a day when he tied Terry Bradshaw’s career victories record at 107. Grade: A+steelers, report card, grade, 49ers, heinz field

Running Backs
No one is ready to say Le’Veon who? But DeAngelo Williams has demonstrated why, even in this ”Thou Shalt Not Run” era of NFL football team needs a solid backup running back. For the second straight week Williams ran hard and ran well. While Williams didn’t have a “dominating performance,” the Steelers ran when they needed to, particularly in the Red Zone where Williams scored three touchdowns, a feat last accomplished by Willie Parker in 2008. Jordan Todman got the lone other carry, but he took it for 11 yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
A week after passing Lynn Swann as the Steelers number 2 all time receiver, Heath Miller only found himself targeted twice. In true Miller fashion, he caught both passes, including one for a touchdown. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
While no one is saying, “Le’Veon who?” a couple more wide receiver performances like we saw yesterday in Pittsburgh might be people asking, “Martavis who?” Markus Wheaton only had two catches on four targets but Wheaton his 48 yard reception set up William’s third touchdown rush, and essentially put the game away for good. Darrius Heyward-Bey showed off his speed and the catching skills he showed in the touchdown he scored did justice to his number 88 jersey. What more can we say about Antonio Brown? 9 catches for 195 yards almost makes it seem like he and Roethlisberger can do it all by themselves. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Caution was the word going into this game. The San Francisco 49ers liked a Rex Ryan style offense, featuring 2, 3 and even 4 tight ends.

  • Could the Steelers defense line go toe-to-toe?
  • Would they have the endurance to keep pace? The answers are yes and yes.

The Steelers limited 49ers running backs to 2.7 yards per carry and took the fight to the 49ers backfield. Both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had sacks, and tackles for losses. While Daniel McCullers, Cam Thomas, and Steve McLendon’s stat sheets are similarly flashy, Johnny Mitchell rotated his lineman regularly, and no one noticed the difference. Grade: A

Linebackers

Lawrence Timmons bounced back after a subpar game vs. New England making nine tackles and defensing a pass. Bud Dupree now has two sacks in as many NFL games, he also had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Jarvis Jones didn’t make an “splash” plays, but he did record 5 tackles. Arthur Moats had 3 tackles, half a sack, a tackle for a loss and a QB hit. James Harrison had two tackles and a QB hit. Those would be impressive numbers by themselves for the linebacking crops. But they all pale by Ryan Shazier’s game, where he made 15 tackles, dropped three people behind the line of scrimmage, had a drive-killing sack, and recovered a fumble to set up another touchdown. Grade: A+

Secondary

What a difference a week makes. Antwon Blake led the secondary with 11 tackles and one for a loss, but more importantly, he had a pass defensed. As did William Gay. As did Will Allen. As did Brandon Boykin. These types of aggressive challenges to receivers were missing vs. New England and their return was welcome. As was the hard hitting which helped contribute to drops as the game wore on. The 49ers ran 3 drives that entered the Red Zone and totaled 48 plays but only yielded 3 points. That only happens if the secondary is doing its job. While the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers secondary this week, the unit also allowed a 75 touchdown catch where Torrey Smith went untouched. This brings their grade down. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Punter Jordan Berry was the star here as he boomed off a 62 yard punt just when the Steelers needed him and average 47.5 yards. Antonio Brown returned on punt for 16 yards, but a player of his caliber should not be returning punts except in critical situations. While the 49ers punt and kick returners were hardly a threat to disrupt the game, their averages were a little high than one would desire. Josh Scobee missed an extra point kick, which coupled with his two misses last week isn’t comforting. Grade: B-

Coaching
Keith Butler promised more aggressive use of his defensive lineman, and if the 49ers game previews things to come, which it might not, then that is an encouraging sign. The Steelers have invested heavily in their linebacking crops, and that showed vs. the 49ers. Moreover, the communication issues which plagued the Steelers defense vs. New England were not evident.

It may have taken a lot of growing pains to get there, but Todd Haley has Ben Roethlisberger playing the best football of his life. Yes, he has a strong supporting cast, but the fact that the offense is missing two of its most explosive players shows you just how well this group is firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin preached balance after the loss to New England and was preaching it after the 49er’s win. That is good. The first 12 games of the 2014 season were characterized by some rather wild swings in the quality of the Steelers performances, and Tomlin appears to be attempting to keep the team on an even keel. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
369 yards passing and 3 touchdowns through the air and 3 more on the ground is nice. So is one receiver catching 9 passes for just under 200 yards. These offensive fireworks are fun to watch, and they make the fantasy owners happy.

  • But all of this is made possible by something that entire franchise of fantasy football fails to mention – spectacular offensive line play.

Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert might not get stats, you might not hear people moaning, “Oh, I wish I’d started DeCastro this week” but the simple fact is that their play is what allows the Roethlisbergers, Browns, Millers and Williams of the Steelers offense to excel.

To the point. The San Francisco 49ers failed to touch Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers ran the ball when they had to. And for that the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over San Francisco 49ers.

Thanks for reading. Click here to read other Steelers Report Cards.

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Steelers Defense Dominates 49ers, Offense Steals Show in 43-18 Pittsburgh Win

The script for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers was supposed to be simple: The Steelers offense would soar while the Steelers defense struggled.

The Steelers offense didn’t soar but it was only few mistakes and mental errors away going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady. The defense held up its end of the bargain, it struggled with no qualifiers necessary. Pittsburgh rebounded in week 2 at Heinz Field, as the Steelers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 43-18.

While the Steelers offensive explosion will generate most of the headlines and highlights, the real headline of the Steelers win over the 49ers  should read, “Steelers defense dominates 49ers.”

Steelers Offense Steals the Show vs. 49ers. Literally.

Let’s establish one fact.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers offense deserves the accolades it earned for its performance over the 49ers.

Of course the Steelers weren’t playing the 2000 Ravens, the 86 Bears, or either incarnation of the Dallas Doomsday Defense that Terry Bradshaw and company grappled with in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. But a tweet for Alex Kozora helps puts things into perspective:

That’s by far not the only set of numbers that illustrate how lethal the Steelers offensive effort was vs. the 49ers today. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and only saw 6 of his passes hit the ground. Antonio Brown caught 195 yards worth of those passes even when the 49ers knew the ball was coming his way.

Wearing Number 88, Darrius Heyward-Bey made a very Lynn Swann like catch, while Markus Wheaton only made two catches, but as his trade mark, he made both of them count. And for the second straight week, DeAngelo Williams made Steelers Nation forget the team was missing someone named Le’Veon Bell.

If the Steelers win over the 49ers is in anyway indicative things to come in 2015, then one can only imagine what this offense will do when it is fully armed an operational with Bell and Martavis Bryant in the lineup.

Steelers Defense Dominates 49ers

The Steelers offensive explosion was fun to watch. It undoubtedly made a lot of fantasy owners happy. But Steelers Nation should not allow such fireworks to overshadow the most important development to come out of the Steelers victory over the 49ers:

  • The near dominating performance of the Steelers defense.

It is a shame that the saber metrics number crunching types have never bothered to find a way to give defense its due in fantasy football, because without it, fantasy football so badly distorts what really matters in football.

Fortuantely, Pittsburgh-based AP writer Will Graves does appreciate what real football is all about, even when you reduce it to mere numbers:

IT says here that scoring touchdowns is always a good thing. But back in 2002 the Steelers learned a difficult lesson during the days of Tommy Maddox:

  • It does little good to have a quick-strike offense if your defense fails to keep the other team out of the end zone.

That weak link of the 2002 Steelers defense was decidedly its secondary. Bill Belinick saw it, sent out 4 and 5 wide receiver formations, didn’t run once in the second half and taught the Steelers to dread the spread. The 2015 San Francisco 49ers offense isn’t set up the same way, but the secondary is the weakest spot on the 2015 Steelers depth chart.

As Will Graves points out, the San Francisco 49ers might have won the time of possession battle, but defense won the war.

  • Holding any offense in the NFL to 3 points on 3 Red Zone possessions is impressive.

What is more impressive, is the way in which Keith Butler’s defense went about doing it. They were physical, athletic and aggressive. The Steelers secondary might not be strength of the team, but the Steelers defeat of the 49ers shows that you can make up for deficiencies in the secondary with strong play up front. Consider that:

  • Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Arthur Moats and Stephon Tuitt all recorded or shared sacks
  • Six Steelers defenders recorded sacks behind the line of scrimmage, including cornerback Antwon Blake and William Gay
  • The Steelers defense held Carlos Hyde to 43 yards, one week after he romped for 168 vs. Minnesota

And while Colin Kaepernick’s 51 yards on 8 carries looks pretty on the stat sheet, he never came close to breaking free through the Steelers secondary.

Keeping the Steelers Defensive Performance vs. the 49ers in Perspective

Just as the San Francisco 49ers defense isn’t a walking reincarnation of the 86 Bears, this edition of the 49ers offense isn’t he 49er offenses led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice let alone those of Steve Young and Terrell Owens.

Perhaps Mike Tomlin put it best when asked to assess his defense:

We weren’t perfect. We gave up some big plays, particularly in the second half, but we will take the win.

The Steelers defense did give up two touchdown, and although one of them was in the Red Zone, another came on a 75 yard pass to Torrey Smith. This type of big play is not the thing the Steelers can afford to give up against a greater opponent.

But even a blemish such as that can’t alter the reality of the Steelers win over the 49ers: The Steelers defense turned in a far better performance than any of the pundits thought them capable of.

And that is far more encouraging than all of the offensive fireworks.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation: Steelers 49ers Game Ball Winners

The Pittsburgh Steelers notched their first win of the 2015 season in by defeating the San Francisco 49ers in their home opener at Heinz Field. The Steelers were impressive in all three phases of the game, leaving lots of candidates to as Steelers game ball winners. Here is Steelers Nation voted when asked who deserved to be game ball winners from the Steelers win over the 49ers.

steelers, 49ers, game ball, winners, ryan shazier, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown, cameron heyward

Steelers Nation voted game ball winners for Steelers win over 49ers

Among Ben Roethlisberger can certainly stake his claim, throwing for over 369 yards and three  touchdowns, as can Antonio Brown, who caught 9 balls for 195 yards and scored 1 touchdown. DeAngelo Williams can also hang his head high, as he ran for 3 touchdowns and gained tough yards when it was needed. Markus Wheaton only caught two balls, but he made them count. For one play at least, Darrius Heyward-Bey made it look like it was Lynn Swann wearing no 88.

Ryan Shazier led the defense and played like a man on fire, Antwon Blake, Lawrence Timmons and Cameron Heyward also made their presence felt. Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree also played well.

After struggling against the Patriots, the Steelers defense put in an almost flawless first half, earning Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler a slot on this ballot, and Todd Haley likewise gets a slot on the ballot his offense executed an explosive game plan, without the presence of Le’Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant.

Please take a moment to vote. Note, if you think someone else deserves to be a Steelers 49er’s game ball winner, you’re more than welcome to write his name in, but beware, B.S. write votes will be deleted.

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Deflategate Tarnishes Patriots Legacy Enhances Steelers, 49ers

NFL franchises that win multiple Super Bowls put themselves into elite company. They’ve been 49 Super Bowls won by 20 different NFL teams. Of those 20 different teams, 12 franchise took home multiple Lombardi trophies. Together those 12 teams account for 42 of the 49 championships.

In other words, 12 teams out of the NFL’s 32 account for 85% of the league’s championships. And yet, there’s an even more elite echelon – the best of the best, if you will. There are 3 teams in the Super Bowl era who an rightly lay claim to the mantel of Dynasty:

  • Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Bill Walsh and George Siefert’s San Francisco 49er’s
  • Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots

Each of these 3 teams fielded a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, was led by an innovative head coach, had a superior scouting and personnel operation and each won 4 Super Bowl Championships.

Steelers, 49ers, Patriots and the Debate to Define the NFL’s Greatest Dynasty

Among the three fan bases debate rages over which team was the best of the best.

chuck noll, terry bradshaw, stare

Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw See Eye-to-Eye. Uncomfortably.

The Steelers Nation’s rallying cry has been “4 Super Bowls in 6 years,” that Steelers contributed more players the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team than any other, and in number of Super Steelers inducted into the Hall of Fame.

49er fans point to the superiority of their quarterback, to the revolutionary changes Bill Walsh brought to the game, and to the still growing cadre of successful disciples that he spawned.

Patriots fans point to their 7 Super Bowl appearances and 4 victories during the age of free agency, when amassing and keeping talent the way the Steelers and 49ers did is simply impossible.

  • Debates about great teams from different eras are as inevitable as they are unanswerable.

Human beings crave clarity by nature. Sports fans therefore demand to know who is history’s true champion. Alas, history denies the mere possibility of a definitive answer. This is true of all sports, but more so in football, because so much changes in the NFL from era to era. Meaningful comparisons simply become impossible.

Had they faced off before the rule that bears his name been instituted, Mel Blount would likely have tamed Jerry Rice. But by the same token, Gerry Mullins, whose mid-season weight often dropped to around 220 pounds, would have been dominated by the 49er’s Michael Clark, who tipped the scales at near 300.

But those debates are fun, and Steelers fans and 49er’s fans have been waging them ever since San Francisco’s Super Bowl XXIV blowout over the Denver Broncos. And those debates will continue for as long as fans from both teams are around to wage them.

  • But the New England Patriots have forever sacrificed their place in those debates.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have handed football historians the necessary objective criteria to permanently lower themselves a notch below the Steelers of the 70’s and the 49ers of the 80’s.

  • Seven Super Bowls appearances between 2001 and 2014 remains an incredibly impressive accomplishment.

But Belichick and Brady have now bound an important qualifier to each of their Super Bowl victories. There’s now proof that the Patriots were cheating in each of the four seasons that ended in Super Bowl victories. Spygate brought to light the illegal taping of opposing teams signals that the Patriots engaged in from 2000 to 2007, when the team won its first three Super Bowls.

And while Spygate tainted the Patriots record, the fact that they remained competitive after getting caught mitigated their past crimes for some, although as many pointed out, the Patriots lost their 1st two post-Spygate Super Bowls.

  • Deflategate dramatically changes the conversation.

The Wells report thoroughly investigated and documented the footballs that mysteriously deflated during the Patriots playoff rout of the Colts. It is now clear that the act was deliberate, that the balls were deflated by members of the Patriots staff, that the deflation of balls happened outside of NFL procedure and behind the backs of the officials, and that Tom Brady knew about it and quite probably requested it.

  • In other words, Tom Brady, like his boss Bill Belichick has now been caught cheating.

Of course, superior talent and not deflated balls drove the Patriots blowout over the Colts just as mind numbing special teams incompetence and Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie mistakes and not stolen signals doomed the Steelers in their AFC Championship losses.

  • But those facts are irrelevant.

The rules of the game establish a baseline of acceptable practices to ensure a level playing field that does not allow any team or individual to gain unfair advantage. The New England Patriots have now been caught red handed breaking those rules. Twice.

Deflategate Tarnishes Patriots Legacy Enhances Steelers

These are not isolated incidents. Bill Belichick’s illegal signal recording occurred for 8 straight seasons. The Colts knew, in part, to check the pressure of the Patriot’s footballs because they’d been tipped off to it. And as the book The Untold Story of Spygate, reveals, there are any number of other irregularities tied to the Patriots. How much else is going on that we don’t know about?

Chuck Noll, sideline

Chuck Noll Calling Plays in the Heat of Battle

Let the “Who was better” debate between Pittsburgh Steelers fans and San Francisco 49ers fans rage on. Let the 49er fans argue for their team’s supremacy based on how the Bill Walsh coaching tree and West Coast offense has been come the NFL’s gold standard of excellence, as Steelers Nation counters by reminding that Chuck Noll and Mark Malone defeated Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Twice.

  • And let the New England Patriots suffer as they watch this debate from the sidelines while they sulk.

No one ever accused Chuck Noll, Terry Bradshaw, Bill Walsh or Joe Montana of violating the integrity of the game. They established their dynasties cleanly and won their Super Bowls fair and square.

In contrast Deflategate tarnishes the Patriots legacy and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will forever carry the stigma and shame of being cheaters.

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Steelers Report Card vs. 49ers

From the grade book of a teacher whose sorely disappointed that his star pupil squandered term paper that he needed to give him a much needed cushion heading into final exams, so goes the Steelers report card for going splat against the 49ers. As always, no other grades have been consulted.

Quarterback
What were Ben Roethlisberger’s final numbers? Who knows. They are unimportant. The important stat that sticks out is 4 turnovers and 3 sacks. Ben Roethlisberger was playing with an injury that left him unable to deliver the deep ball, unable to evade pressure, and inaccurate much of the rest of the time. Does he deserve credit for sucking it up under such trying circumstances? Yes, and that’s what prevents his grade from being an out right failure. Grade: D

Running Backs
Rashard Mendenhall only ran for 64 yards, but he did that in just 15 carries against the NFL’s number one rushing defense. Its not his fault that the team chose to run merely 18 times on the night when their quarterback was hurting. Issac Redman seems to have played better than ESPN’s statistics note, but number don’t like. Mewelde Moore had a nice 21 yard run before he got hurt. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Health Miller was the best player in this unit, although he should have caught the ball that ended up being Ben’s second pick – yes the ball was high. Jericho Cotchery did well late in the game. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown also played well on a difficult night. Still, if the Steelers got good play out of their receivers, they needed exceptional play. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The offensive line missed Maurkice Pouncey out there, but nonetheless played well. They did get called for several penalties in the second half, but those were largely academic. The unit actually gave Ben Roethlisberger decent time to throw, but Roethlisberger was unable to take advantage. Likewise, Mendenhall had room to run, but line wasn’t controlling the line of scrimmage with the kind of conviction that was necessary to control this kind of game. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
The San Francisco’s rushers didn’t dominate, but did do enough to keep drives moving. The defensive line did seem to get some pressure on Alex Smith early on, but that pressure was neither consistent nor effective down the stretch. Still, this unit gets credit for forcing two field goals early in the game. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons got burned repeatedly and looked nothing like the dominating player he appeared to be growing into during the first half of 2010. LaMarr Woodley was not effective. Jason Worilds was a non-factor. James Farrior got beaten badly when the Steelers could least afford it. The Steelers had no sacks and one QB knock down against a quarterback that will let you beat him if you apply enough pressure. Grade: D+

Secondary
The effort of the secondary was inconsistent. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark made key tackle after key tackle, and the Steelers kept San Francisco to 4-13 on third down conversions. Still, things could have been better had Alex Smith not missed some wide open receivers. All in all, however, the secondary’s performance was above the line. Grade: B

Special Teams
Keenan Lewis forced what should have been a potentially game changing fumble. Lawrence Timmons got called on a penalty that ultimately made the score 20-3 instead of 16 to 3. Suisham was 1-1 on long kicks – about the best you can expect. Antonio Brown made a few mistakes but put in a solid game. Special teams could have given the Steelers a spark, but it is hard to find fault with their performance. Grade: B-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin coached the worst game of his professional life. Starting Ben Roethlisberger was a good move, keeping him in the game cost the Steelers a shot at home field advantage in the playoffs. Keeping him in the game was inexcusable. With Bruce Arians you have a mixed bag – throwing 44 times against the NFL’s number 1 defense is understandable, throwing 44 times with a wounded quarterback is not. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
To paraphrase Gerry Dulac’s words, there were lots of chances for someone from the Steelers defense to be a hero against the 49ers, yet that hero never materialized.

Nonetheless, on a night when the offense was struggling as bad as it has in recent memory, the defense kept the Steelers in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Absent “splash” plays, that only happens if guys are making quick, smart plays on a down-by-down basis. One man did that through the whole game, registering two tackles for losses and defensing two passes. For his consistent, productive play, Ryan Clark is Steel Curtain Rising’s unsung hero of the 49ers game.

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