Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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Steelers Browns Rivalry Comes Full Circle in Final Week of 2018

Sunday January 30th 2018 closes the 2018 NFL regular season and it also brings the Pittsburgh Steelers Cleveland Browns rivalry full circle.

Few contemporary Steelers fans probably even think of the Cleveland Browns as “rivals” to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s because in many ways the rivalry has been on hold for 23 years. But there was a time when things were different. Oh yes, once things were very, very different.

We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s flash back to night it all changed.

Steelers Browns Rivalry

A Steelers fan and Browns fan in Cleveland, January 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Fansided

The Night Three Rivers Stadium Went Orange

Dateline: Monday, November 13th 1995, on I-95 heading north from the DC suburbs towards Baltimore, en route to watch Monday Night Football at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, then the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore.

  • Yet, this is no ordinary Monday night football game.

A clip on Baltimore’s WIYY aka “98 Rock” illustrates why. “Back goes  Eric Zeier to pass. Andre Rison is open in the end zone. He throws, Rison catches it. Touchdown, Baltimore Browns!”

Less than a week before the unthinkable and once impossible had occurred. After building facilities for the Cavaliers and Indians, the city of Cleveland had shifted focus to building one for the Browns.

Yet, during the summer, Browns owner Art Modell cut off negotiations in the name of focusing on winning a Super Bowl. Little did we know, Modell had secretly begun negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move his team to Baltimore. Municipal officials in Cleveland plowed ahead without Modell, and announced a November 7th ballot referendum to fund a new stadium for the Browns.

  • On Monday, November 7th, Art Modell dropped a bomb: He was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The move sent shock waves through the NFL.

Usually when a team relocates, its because they lack local support. No one could say that the Cleveland failed to support the Browns. Every game was sold out, and television ratings were among the highest in the league.

As Dan Rooney told the AP’s Alan Robinson:

I’m sick about (the move). This is the best rivalry in sports. To go up there to play in Cleveland on that grass field on a gray day – I don’t want to get dramatic, but it really is something. It’s the essence of football.

As fate would have it, the Browns first game after the move came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Steelers fans of that generation were genetically hardwired to hate the Cleveland Browns and their fans.Steelers Browns 1995 Three Rivers Stadium

But as a show of solidarity, Steelers fans wore orange arm bands that night. (Terry Bradshaw even wore one while interviewing Paul Tagliabue about the move.)

  • To understand just how deep of a gesture Steelers Nation made, one must understand just how bitter the Steelers-Browns rivalry flowed.

Just two years earlier, Jerry Olsavsky had blown out all four ligaments in one of his knees Cleveland Municipal Stadium, yet fans at the Dawg Pound threw beer bottles at him as he was being taken away from the field on stretcher. As Tim Gleason recounts in From Black to Gold, cars with Pennsylvania license plates would get their tires slashed if they were parked near Cleveland Stadium during a game.

An old friend of my from college named “Mike” told me of how his father had to protect him from a drunk who tried to attack him at a game in Cleveland in the early 80’s because he was wearing a Steelers shirt – Mike was 6 years old at the time.

  • Yet, on that night, Steelers fans stood in solidarity with Browns fans.

New Chapter for Steelers-Browns Rivalry?

The Steelers-Browns rivalry has never been the same since. And now, 23 years later, the Steelers fans need something from the Browns. Today at Heinz Field, the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conners, Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden to take care of business against the Bengals.

But the Steelers also need the Browns defense to stop Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield to make his magic work for one more week.

  • If the Steelers beat the Bengals and the Browns upset the Ravens, Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs.

But a Browns win at Baltimore would also signify that the franchise is poised to return to contender status next season, transforming games against the Browns into competitive affairs. If that happens, then the Steelers-Browns rivalry will indeed have come full circle.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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Bye Bye Boz? Steelers Place Chris Boswell on IR, Sign Matt McCrane

In a stunning development 2 days before their 2018 season finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers placed place kicker Chris Boswell on the injured reserve list and signed Matt McCrane has his replacement.

  • Chris Boswell has had a rough campaign in 2018.

During the Steelers home opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Chris Boswell missed two extra points and a field goal in a game ultimately decided by 5 points. Against the Oakland Raiders, Chris Boswell missed two field goals in a game ultimately decided by six points.

  • Early on the Steelers stuck by Boswell, but after the Oakland loss, Mike Tomlin opted to hold tryouts for replacement kickers.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

The Steelers have put Chris Boswell on IR. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Chris Boswell won the try out, and although he missed a 32 yard field goal in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Mike Tomlin unhesitatingly sent him out to kick a 48 yard insurance field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers win over the Patriots. Against the Saints, Boswell kicked field goals of 49 and 30 yards and made both extra point attempts.

As recently as yesterday, he’d told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler the following:

However, over on 247Sports.com, Jim Wexell is reporting that Chris Boswell entered the game against the Saints with a groin injury. That is certainly possible, but his name has not appeared on the injury report this week or the week before.

The McCrane Record

In the word of Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman: “McCrane has played in four games this season, and his stat line looks like a kicker who would be available in the waning weeks of the regular season.”

4 Games / 5 FG Made / 9 FG Attempts / 8-for-8 in Extra Points

With the way the Steelers luck has run this season, the Cleveland Browns will surprise everyone with a decisive upset win over the Baltimore Ravens, only to have the Steelers Bengals game come down to a last second field goal attempt by McCrane…

Other Steelers Injury Notes

Sean Davis returned to practice for the Steelers reducing the likelihood that Jordan Dangerfield or Morgan Burnett will play in his place. Antonio Brown also missed practice, leaving his status in doubt. If Antonio Brown misses the game James Washington will likely start alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster.

While losing Brown would be a blow, Eli Rogers return and Vance McDonald‘s presence should give Ben Roethlisberger plenty of targets.

Vince Williams also missed practice, and meaning that L.J. Fort will likely start along side Jon Bostic.

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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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Steelers Comeback to Beat Bengals 28-21, Forging Latest Paul Brown Stadium Milestone

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, put them together at Paul Brown Stadium and what do you get? Mayhem. Hard hits. Intense play. Battles in the trenches. Drama. Games going down to the wire. Football contests that Paul Brown himself would have appreciated. Consider a few recent milestones from the rivals’ history in this building:

  • Ike Taylor’s career ended here.
  • Chris Boswell once kicked six field goals AND needed to make a shoe-sting tackle for the Steelers to earn a narrow 4 point win.
  • During the same game, Ladarius Green suffered a hit that ended his career
  • Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble set up the Steelers first post Super Bowl XLV playoff win.
  • And of course, two years later Ryan Shazier suffered a life-changing injury on this very field.

The Steelers went on the road against the AFC North, division leading Cincinnati Bengals still searching for their first conference victory. The contest lived up to the series’ pedigree featuring intense action, late lead changes,  and a Steelers victory at the final gun.

But more importantly, if Mike Tomlin can keep his team focused, the impact of this latest Paul Brown Stadium milestone could be felt well beyond the October afternoon in which the Steelers authored it.

 

Antonio Brown, William Jackson, Steelers vs Bengals

Antonio Brown burns William Jackson en route to go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Gary Landers, AP via PennLive.com

Winning in the Trenches, Getting Flanked by the Rear Guard

Old school football commentators love to remind us that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. And very often that is true. Whether you’re playing offense or defense, control the line of scrimmage, and you control what the ball carrier can and cannot do.

  • In the first half the Steelers won the scrimmage battle.

Pittsburgh didn’t dominate Cincinnati the way they dominated at Atlanta, but they kept the Bengals paws off of Ben Roethlisberger, and they opened holes for James Conner to explode through. While Joe Mixon did gouge the Steelers defense for a few long runs, Pittsburgh stuffed him on a number of occasions.

  • Winning in the trenches was critical for the Steelers, because Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at his best in the first half.

Despite having ample time to throw, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown still struggled to connect, with the quarterback having his best success hitting Vance McDonald and Jesse James up the middle. And when he did try to find his wide receivers, Big Ben tempted fate, as JuJu Smith-Schuster was forced to go into defensive back mode to prevent an interception at the goal line.

But thanks to the Steelers force up front, James Conner was barreling through the line for his second touchdown one play later. With 1:07 left to play, Pittsburgh seemed poised to take a 14 point lead into the locker room.

  • But winning at scrimmage means little if you leave the rear door unlocked. That’s exactly what Danny Smith’s special teams did.

Alex Erickson not only ripped off a 47 yard return, but an Artie Burns penalty added another 5 yards to the end of it. Suddenly, instead of needing to go 80 yards for a score, the Bengals only had to go 44.

And 44 yards Andy Dalton and crew went, tying up the game at the half.

2nd Half – Steelers Readjust to Bengals Adjustments

The ability of the Steelers offense to compensate for the adjustments made by Marv Lewis and his defensive staff is the story of the second half. Twice the Steelers offense reached the one, and twice Bengals defense forced Pittsburgh to settle for field goals.

But how the Steelers got into the Red Zone was as equally important as the Bengals ability to prevent Pittsburgh from banging it in when they got there. The Steelers 2nd field goal of the 2nd half had been set up by a 48 yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

A bit of old time Ben-to-Brown magic that foreshadowed things to come.

Steelers Defense Does its Part

The Steelers defense has been under fire for much of the season, and a Cincinnati offense that featured Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green figured to offer another stiff test. While Pittsburgh was far from perfect, the Steelers defense did its job.

The Steelers defense broke even with the Bengals offense going 6 for 12 on third downs. And although the defense gave up the final touchdown a little too easily, that set the stage for what was to come.

“This is what legacies are made of….”

4th quarter comebacks are what make football great. Few things are more satisfying – or aggravating – than watching an offense methodically move down the field for the decisive go ahead score. The team that scores enjoys unrestrained glory. The team that fails to hang on fights utter demoralization.

  • Yet, for whatever Ben Roethlisberger’s flaws as a quarterback he might be, he has never succumb to demoralization in those moments.

Think back to Super Bowl XLIII, as Larry Fitzgerald soared to the go ahead score. Ben Roethlisberger simply put on his helmet, buckled his chin strap and was immediately in his element. And so it was, with 1:08 and 77 yards to go, Ben Roethlisberger told his teammates, “‘This is what legacies are made of for all of us. Let’s go out and take care of business.”

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster a few times, tried to hit James Conner and Justin Hunter.

Then, already inside the outer limits of field goal range, with William Jackson in cover-0 without safety help, Ben Roethlisberger audibled and hit Antonio Brown on the inside up the middle:

https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1051565087440478208

With an Usain Bolt like bust of speed, Antonio Brown knifed through the middle of the Bengals defense for the go ahead touchdown.

Another Paul Brown Stadium Milestone for Pittsburgh?

Aside from being dramatic moments, the milestones cited at the beginning of this article all share something else in common:

  • Each represented a critical turning point for the Steelers.

In some cases those turning points transcended in which they occurred. Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble in the playoffs legitimized the Steelers as a Super Bowl contender. Less than a month ago, commentators argued with good cause that Shazier’s spinal contusion had closed that same Super Bowl window.

While no one is talking Super Bowl in Pittsburgh this morning, this latest win at Paul Brown Stadium certainly makes the Steelers look like legitimate AFC North contenders, and that’s not a conversation any serious person would have considered started even two weeks ago.

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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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Sight of Ryan Shazier Standing with Ben Roethlisberger Offers a Lesson for Steelers Nation

Even if we admit that Steelers Nation is spoiled (we are) the fact is Steelers fans have had a rough 61 days. But yesterday the news out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave every Black and Gold bleeding Steelers fan something to smile about.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so:

Ryan Shazier, Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier Roethlisberger UPMC, Ryan Shazier UPMC

Ryan Shazier with Ben Roethlisberger at UPMC. Photo Credit: Ryan Shazier Instragram, via the Tribune Review

The sight of Ryan Shazier standing alongside Ben Roethlisberger is a sight for sore eyes. It was just 61 days ago that we watched Ryan Shazier made a seemingly routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals only to roll over pointing at his back.

  • Word was, even a few days afterward that Shazier would walk again.

Yet, the inside linebacker has been in a wheelchair in every image relased since then. Until now. Shazier has some sort of brace on his leg, it looks like he’s holding onto something for balance with his right hand and his wheel chair, which he used to leave the hospital, is visible in the background.

  • But Ryan Shazier is standing on his own and you have to stand before you can walk.

And, the image of Ryan Shazier standing upright offers an important lesson for everyone in Steelers Nation:

Complain about Jesse James touchdown/non-touchdown vs the Patriots. Gripe about the spectacle of the Steelers cutting James Harrison, then watching James Harrison sign with the Patriots and help them get to the Super Bowl. Moan about Le’Veon Bell‘s contract talk and his tardiness. Whine about Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance against the Jaguars. Ridicule Randy Fichtner’s reverses to Antonio Brown in the Pro Bowl….

Steelers fans might think they’ve had to “endure” a lot, they might argue that taking Mike Tomlin to task without insisting that Art Rooney II fire him amounts to hollow criticism, but let’s be honest folks, no one in Steelers Nation has had a tougher stretch in these last 61 days than Ryan Shazier. And its not even close.

  • Ryan Shazier standing next to Ben Roethlisberger signals he’s turned an important corner in his recovery.

Perhaps it should also signal to both the franchise and fan base that its time to put a disappointing end to the 2017 season in the past and firmly focus on 2018.

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Everyone “Wishes Him Well.” But Is It Actually OK To Hope Ryan Shazier Plays Football Again?

In the nearly two months since Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost for the rest of the 2017 season with a spinal injury in a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 4, the well-wishes and prayers for his recovery have been coming his way non-stop.

  • That’s understandable and as hit should be.

The spinal injury Tyan Shazier suffered didn’t just put him in a precarious spot from a football perspective, as so many spinal/neck injuries do, it left him paralyzed from the waist down, a condition that’s persisted to this day and one that, hopefully, is temporary.

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

However, amid all the well-wishes and prayers for Ryan Shazier to soon leave his wheelchair behind, the one thing people are almost afraid to hope for is his ability to play football again.

Just try and have a conversation with anyone about Ryan Shazier’s health, and if you even mention how much you’d love to see him back in a Steelers uniform, the predictable response you get from the other person is, “I just hope he can walk again, that’s the most important thing.”

It was apparently even taboo for football experts, such as MMQB’s Peter King, perhaps the most prominent NFL writer around, to talk about the football ramifications of Ryan Shazier’s absence from the Steelers defense down the stretch of the 2017 campaign, as he seemed almost apologetic when discussing it during his local radio appearances or in one of his columns.

  • Did Peter King need to be apologetic?

Ryan Shazier meant a lot to the Steelers 2017 defense, so much so, in-fact, the chances of them finding another player who will possess his rare combination of speed and explosiveness seem pretty slim–at least in the immediate future.

  • And that’s one of the reasons I’m rooting for Ryan Shazier to play football again for the Steelers and to do so at the highest level possible.
  • “That’s selfish and insensitive!” you might shout at me rather self-righteously.

Really?

Let me ask you this–and I don’t mean for this to sound flippant in any way–but if Ryan Shazier plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers again, wouldn’t that pretty much take care of the walking part of the equation?

I ask that rhetorically, because it obviously would.

  • So what’s the big deal about wanting Ryan Shazier to play football again?

Does that really make me seem selfish? Maybe it does, but selfish for good reasons. Why wouldn’t I want Ryan Shazier to recover to such an extent he’s an All-Pro caliber inside linebacker again?

  • Wouldn’t that just be the greatest feel-good story in the history of sports?I can’t think of a better one, that’s for sure.

And while you’re busy feeling guilty or calling me selfish, you should probably know that Ryan Shazier, himself, is also dreaming of more than just being able to walk again.

  • Think about it: We’re talking about a guy that spent most of his life playing a sport he loved with all of his heart and soul.

Before games, it was common for Ryan Shazier to warm up shirtless–regardless of the temperature, which was often quite cold. If that wasn’t an indication of absolute passion, I don’t know what is.

The way Ryan Shazier roamed from sideline to sideline with such zest and zeal on just about every play, you don’t do that if you’re not living your dream, your calling in life.

At this point what’s the most likely scenario that sees Ryan Shazier setting foot on a football field again? Suiting up and running through the tunnel wearing number 50? Or coming out for some special tribute to his far-too short career with the Steelers? Sadly, that latter scenario is the one we’ll most likely see.

  • But that doesn’t mean Ryan Shazier playing football again it’s not something worth hoping and praying for.

Do I want this because it will make the Pittsburgh Steelers a better football team? Absolutely.

But I also want it for Ryan Shazier, because I know he’s hoping and praying for the same thing.

 

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Mea Culpa: Why I Changed My Mind on the JuJu Smith-Schuster Suspension to Support #FreeJuJu!

Sometimes it’s simply best to fess up and admit you were wrong. So it is with me and the NFL’s decision to suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • To be honest, I reacted to seeing the flag being thrown by asking “Why?”

Really, it didn’t make sense. But then the replay showed helmet-to-helmet contact, and then JuJu clearly looked to be making light over Vontaze Burfict. That didn’t sit well, and in my post-game write up I came down hard on JuJu and on Rebecca Rollett’s site, Going Deep with the Steelers I observed, “JuJu Smith-Schuster was (rightly in my view) suspended for gloating over Vontaze Burfict…”

  • Let’s put it out front and center: I was wrong about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s suspension.

Several factors influenced my change in thinking, which I expand below.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension, David DeCastro

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Taunting is Wrong, but Is It Suspendable Offense + Vontaze Burfict Took a Dive

In taking JuJu Smith-Schuster to task put his actions into the context of what we know today as opposed to yesteryearWhen I saw Greg Lloyd 3 count Al Toon after Thomas Everett knocked the Jets wide receiver out with a concussion during the 1989 Steelers shut out over the Jets I thought it was awesome.

  • Of course at the time Mike Webster seemed to defying father time by playing for the Chiefs and the word “CTE” was close to 20 years away.

Given that, JuJu’s taunting of a seemingly concussed Burfict, while satisfying on one level is nonetheless wrong on so many others. But as Mike Silverstien, aka “Homer J” reprimanded:

No question Juju deserved 15 for taunting, but NO PLAYER IN NFL HISTORY HAS EVER BEEN SUSPENDED FOR TAUNTING. You throw the flag, give him 15, lighten his wallet and move on, damn it.

There no arguing with that logic, and while the NFL mentioned the taunting in its letter to JuJu it apparently clarified that the suspension was for the hit, not the taunting. Even Jason Witlock and Colin Cowherd, two jouralists not exactly known for their support of the Steelers, went at pains to say that the hit only borderline illegal.

But of course, it was a devastating hit, wasn’t it? Well, again Homer J’s analysis is instructive:

Juju clocks Burfict and lays him flat. Burfuct [sic] at first springs up, and he tries to twist and grab Juju’s legs. Then the flags start flying and Burfict flops like some damned Serbian midfielder in a match against hated Croatia. Just like he falls to the ground game after game during other team’s offensive drives. Just like he said Antonio Brown did in the playoff game two years ago. (So it wasn’t something he hadn’t thought about) He laid there like a slug. And they strapped him to the gurney and took him to the field hospital where the Civil War surgeons were ready to amputate his leg or something. But, wait! According to media reports, the second he got into the tunnel and away from cameras, the SOB demanded to be unhooked, and he jumped up and started to head back onto the field. He was faking it!

As no one disputes the press accounts that Burfict did in fact get off the cart after it was out of camera view, one must assume he did just that. And Homer’s analysis makes a lot more sense in that light.

NFL Has 1 Standard for Juju Smith-Schuster, Another for Ilokia and Gronk

When the news broke that the NFL had suspended Juju Smith-Schuster and while also suspending George Ilokia for his hit on Antonio Brown, the league at least looked to be trying to keep up the appearance of objectivity.
Never mind that Ilokia had a lot more opportunity to avoid hitting Brown’s head that JuJu had with Burfict.

  • But of course Ilokia’s suspension didn’t stick as his lawyer got it reduced to a mere $36,000 fine.

Sorry, no amount of sophistry can justify this, although Ilokia’s agent tried suggesting that Brown should have positioned his head differently.

I suppose JuJu’s agent should have tried the same argument with respect to Burfict. Except unlike Brown, Burfict didn’t have to worry concentrating to hold on to the ball as he was probably calculating whether he could injure Le’Veon Bell again.

Tony Defeo has already written about the NFL’s hypocrisy here and taken the argument further by contrasting the 1 game suspension that JuJu Smith-Schuster got for unintentional yet a (borderline) illegal hit, where as Patriots pretty boy Rob Gronkowski clearly pre-meditated, almost pro-wrestling style elbow to the back of the head of Bills defenseless defensive back Tre’Davious White.

Go read Tony’s full article, we need not rehash it here, but Defeo’s argument also played a role in shifting my thinking.

Where’s the Suspension for Ahmad Brooks Hit on Antonio Brown??

And that brings us to the third factor that shifted my thinking.

  • Where in the hell is the NFL’s suspension for the Green Bay Packers Ahmad Brooks  illegal hit Antonio Brown?

What’s that you ask, I don’t remember anything like that from the Packer’s game? Well, I missed it too, but it came on Martavis Bryant’s ill-fated end around at the goal line. What Brown has David DeCastro passes him by:

Gee, isn’t that interesting? Not only was Brown hitting hit from almost the same position that Burfict was standing in, unlike JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ahmad Brooks was clearly aiming at Antonio Brown’s head. This play also came on a nationally televised game, and yet, the only discussion of it came thanks the discussion board on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider in response to observations made by Craig Wolfley.

  • And just the point isn’t it? Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels either missed this hit or chose not to talk about it.

Which shouldn’t matter, should it? The NFL is supposed to review all game tapes and look for offenses like this, aren’t they? That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Jim Wexell suggested on Twitter:

And that’s what’s so galling about the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension. On paper the NFL has appeared to take strides towards injecting some objectivity into its administration of justice. But as the old adage goes, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The calculus for understanding why JuJu’s punishment is so harsh is simple:

  • Jon Gruden got the rest of the NFL to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, so Roger Goodell suspended him.

No one saw Ahmad Brooks illegal hit on Brown, so it Goodell saw no reason to do anything. Iloka George didn’t taunt and Brown didn’t get taken out on a stretcher, so his suspension can be reduced to a fine.

As for Ron Gronkowski? Well, he’s a Patriot and the one time Goodell tried to get tough on them he overcompensated, and it backfired. So Goodell’s back in his comfort zone of looking the other way when his buddy Bob Kraft is involved.

Let’s repeat something this site has mentioned before and will again:

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy aka “CTE” and related head trauma poses a threat to the existence of not just the NFL, but of football itself.

Football will only survive if the risk of CTE is eliminated or greatly reduced. But arbitrary administration of justice, whether that be giving protection to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but not Ben Roethlisberger, or trying to make James Harrison a scapegoat, simply erodes the integrity of the game, without touching the threat of CTE.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Apologies to readers for the error of my ways. #FreeJuJu!

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