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

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

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Conner Dominates in Steelers 33-18 Win Over Browns At Heinz Field

Running back James Conner rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, as the Steelers quickly shook off their post-bye rust in a 33-18 victory over the Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

  • Cleveland’s first offensive possession resulted in a game’s first points, after an 11-play, 66-yard drive culminated in a 3-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.

Pittsburgh’s offense, meanwhile, netted just seven yards on its first three offensive possessions–including two punts and an interception by Browns’ safety Derrick Kindred. But the Steelers offense wouldn’t stay down for long.

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner stiff arms Myles Garrett during 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Following a 41-yard field goal miss from Joseph early in the second quarter that would have given Cleveland a 9-0 lead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with receiver Antonio Brown on a 43-yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-6.

On Cleveland’s ensuing drive, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was intercepted by cornerback Joe Haden at the Pittsburgh 13.

The Steelers offense went back to work on a 16-play, 87-yard drive that ate up 7:12 of game clock and resulted in a second-straight scoring connection from Roethlisberger to Brown–this time for one yard–and the home team took a 14-6 lead into halftime.

The Steelers got the ball to start the second half and looked poised to take control of the football game on an impressive drive into Cleveland territory. However, on second and 10 from the Browns’ 25, Roethlsiberger found running back Stevan Ridley on a short pass to the 22, and Ridley was stripped of the football by cornerback Denzel Ward, who recovered the fumble and returned it to the 29.

The two teams would then exchange punts, and one play after Jordan Berry‘s boot was downed at the Cleveland five-yard line, Browns’ left tackle Desmond Harrison was flagged for holding Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Since the infraction took place in the end zone, Pittsburgh was awarded a safety and a 16-6 lead.

But just when it looked as if the home team would seize command of things, there appeared to be great confusion on the ensuing free kick, as the return unit treated it as if it was a punt, allowing the Browns to recover at the Pittsburgh 24.

  • Four plays later, the Browns made it 16-12, thanks to a one-yard hook-up from Mayfield to Antonio Callaway.
  • The Steelers answered right back with a five-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 23-12.

From there, it was all Pittsburgh, as Conner proved to be a workhorse on the day, and helped put the finishing touches on a thorough victory, with a 22-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 33-12 lead right before the two-minute warning.

  • James Conner averaged 6.1 yards per carry and added another 66 yards on five receptions.
  • As for Ben Roethlisberger, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Brown was Pittsburgh’s leading  receiver on the day, totally 74 yards on six receptions and the two touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger.

The win improved the Steelers record to 4-2-1, and they have a road date with the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

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Steelers Soar over Falcons 41-17 as Pittsburgh Takes 1st Step at Removing “September Stench”

The Steelers soared over the Atlanta Falcons in a 41 to 17 win giving Pittsburgh’s starters their first win at Heinz Field since their last second victory over the Ravens in mid-December 2017.

  • Preseason pundits had predicted a Pittsburgh-Atlanta Super Bowl.

Instead, both teams struggled with the Falcons going 1-3 while the Steelers had registered a 1-2-1 mark in September. Instead of a Super Bowl preview, this week 5 Heinz Field matchup served as crossroads for both clubs:

  • Win and gain a foothold on contending.  Lose and dig yourself into a hole.

Despite the score, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers didn’t exactly look like a Super Bowl team, yet way in which Pittsburgh won offers hope that this team is capable of playing winning football against good teams.

James Conner, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Falcons

James Conners goes over the pile to score Steelers 1st touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Take 1st Step at Breaking Vicious Cycle

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been struggling since Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion last December against the Bengals.

  • Since that night, the Steelers have struggled to establish even a modicum of consistency on defense

In 2018, an inability to convert third downs has exacerbated that struggle, creating a vicious cycle. The Steelers defense, with or without the offense turning over the ball, gives up a few quick touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger tries to force the ball to Antonio Brown and fails. Jordan Berry punts. The defense gives up another score.

  • Then Randy Fichtner’s offense has had have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

The best outcome for the Steelers in such a scenario is to transform the game into a shoot out, yet as the Jaguars and Chiefs visits to Heinz Field showed, that is not a recipe for success. The solution to breaking this cycle was simple, and James Conner summed it up in his post-game comments.

“We played Steeler football today” – James Conner

Art Rooney II once defined it as the “foundation of the franchise.” The Steelers President was talking about running the football. The Steelers hadn’t done that consistently in 2018, yet they came out of the gate rushing against the Falcons with James Conner getting the ball on 7 of 8 plays in the opening touchdown drive.

James Conner’s efforts would have counted for a lot less had Steelers defense turned around and allowed a quick score, but instead L.J. Fort dropped Matt Ryan.

The Steelers scored again with a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster strike which was enough to put them up 13-0, and giving Pittsburgh their first multi-touchdown first quarter of the season.

  • But Pittsburgh hardly played a perfect half.

The Falcons scored on a 42 yard touchdown pass, the type of which has been all to common this year. Chris Boswell missed another extra point. And perhaps worst of all the Steelers ran a very efficient two minute drill, only to see Ben Roethlisberger badly try to force the ball to Antonio Brown in the end zone, leading to an interception.

Steelers fans can be forgiven if they were dreading the other foot dropping in the second half.

Steelers Play Complete 2nd Half for the First Time All Year

In the second half of the Falcons game will the Steelers took their first foot forward towards reestablishing themselves as a team that can be counted on to win football games.

  • The Steelers had opportunities to put the Browns away, but squandered them with turnovers.
  • The Steelers hung with the Chiefs for a while, but Kansas City clearly won the shoot out.
  • With a play or two, the Steelers could have taken the Ravens to the wire.

Even the win against Tampa Bay required the Steelers to hold on for dear life as the offense failed to score while the defense gave up touchdown after touchdown.

Against the Falcons, the Steelers played a complete half in all three phases of the game for the first time all season.

  • Roosevelt Nix blocked a punt and then did some road grading ahead of James Conner’s touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger finally connected with Antonio Brown deep
  • T.J. Watt added icing to the cake with his strip sack of Matt Ryan, setting up L.J. Fort’s touchdown

Credit the Atlanta Falcons. At any number of points in the second half they could have folded. They didn’t. But also credit the Steelers coaching staff. Both Randy Fichtner and Keith Butler made sure their boys kept their feet on the gas pedal and, for all their fight, the Falcons never threatened a serious comeback.

Sometimes, the Names You Don’t Hear Are the Most Important

Several Steelers authored impressive highlight reels against the Falcons. But perhaps the most impressive performances came from names you seldom heard mentioned and won’t see on ESPN game highlights.

The Steelers offensive line toiled an relative anonymity throughout the afternoon. You never heard their names because the Falcons hardly laid a glove on Ben Roethlisberger and because James Conner averaged over 5 yards a carry.

For four weeks Steelers fans have watched in anguish as wide receivers either raced through the Steelers secondary or managed to get just enough yards to keep a drive going. The Steelers secondary kept the Falcons passing attack in check the entire afternoon, limiting them to six 3rd down conversions on 14 tries, a stat that includes garbage time.

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers have a lot of work to get that “September stench” out of their noses, but against the Falcons at least, Pittsburgh offered hope that they can do just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Haden,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Recent AFC Trends Suggest Steelers Aren’t Among Conference’s Best

No matter how people broke things down or what record they may have predicted heading into the 2018 regular season, there’s no question the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were considered Super Bowl contenders.

Even after an 0-1-1 start that includes a tie with the Browns and loss to the Chiefs in-which the Steelers defense was totally embarrassed by Patrick Mahomes, it would be foolish to give up on a true Super Bowl contender this early in the year.

  • But that would only be if we’re talking about a true contender, something recent trends suggest the Steelers are not.

Why do I say that? Because the Steelers have lost three straight games–all at home–to teams that are among the best the AFC has to offer.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

The first loss came last December 17, when the Patriots stunned Pittsburgh with a 27-24 victory that many thought was a miscarriage of justice, thanks to the controversial reversal of a Jesse James touchdown with just seconds remaining.

Had Jesse James touchdown stood, it would have likely given the Steelers a 31-27 victory and the inside track to capture the AFC’s top seed. OK, if the reversal of the Jesse James’ touchdown indeed was a miscarriage of justice, how can I hold that against Mike Tomlin and Co.?

Because Mike Tomlin, former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to panic (or at least failed to communicate properly) during the sequence of plays that followed the reversal, and Roethlisberger wound up throwing an ill-advised pass that was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

  • There’s no way that game should have ended in regulation.

To make things brief, I will just combine the last two games that saw the Steelers defense yield a grand total of 827 yards and 80 points in back-to-back losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs.

The loss to Jacksonville last January 14 came in a playoff game at Heinz Field and put an end to a 2017 campaign in-which the Steelers, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, appeared to be destined for a rematch with New England in the AFC Championship game.

As for Week 2’s defeat to Kansas City, the performance of the defense was so alarming, it made one absolutely dread the regular season rematch with the Patriots this December at Heinz Field.

  • As I said, it is really early, and the Steelers wouldn’t be the first team to start a season slowly before showing its true championship colors.

However, 2017, one in-which they struggled to defeat some of the more mediocre teams in the NFL on a weekly basis, often needing kicker Chris Boswell to bail them out with game-winning field goals in the final seconds, may have been the true colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers–maybe it just took the top contenders in the AFC to flesh them out.

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James Conner’s Fumble Hurt, But Not as Badly as Other Steelers Turnovers 21-21 Tie with Browns

If there’s one positive to take away from the Steelers very disappointing 21-21 Week 1 tie with the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, it’s that James Conner isn’t receiving the lion’s share of the blame.

Perhaps, if he were another running back, such as the one he started in-place of–superstar Le’Veon Bell, who continues to sit out rather than sign the $14.5 million franchise tag–Conner would be more susceptible to criticism.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

After all, when a team is up by two touchdowns and in possession of the football midway through the fourth quarter, the offense is supposed to grind the clock out and go home with a win. And when you can point to a fumble by a running back that jump-started the comeback, why wouldn’t that running back be the goat?

While it is true that James Conner’s fumble, which tarnished an otherwise awesome day in-which he tallied 192 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, was the life-preserver that prevented the Browns from drowning in a game-long downpour, you can also point to some very egregious turnovers earlier in the game that, had the offense executed like the juggernaut it’s supposed to be, could have made Conner’s gaffe meaningless.

For example, how about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 15-year veteran, the future Hall of Famer, the two-time Super Bowl-champion, throwing into triple-coverage and getting intercepted by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward late in the first quarter of what was then a scoreless game?

Following a 27-yard connection to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster one play earlier, Pittsburgh had a first and 10 from the Browns’ 18-yard line and looked poised to get on the board first.

Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger, who has always been known as a gunslinger, wanted to make Antonio Brown his very next connection, hence the ill-advised throw into triple-coverage.

Moving on to late in the second quarter. The Steelers had a 7-0 lead and were on the positive side of the 50-yard line in-search of an even bigger lead before halftime.

Following an incomplete pass, Pittsburgh faced a second and 10 from the Cleveland 37-yard line. During his usual pre-snap maneuverings, Roethlisberger motioned for Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James to switch positions. Roethlisberger quickly found a wide-open James with a short pass that went right through his hands and into Ward’s for his second interception of the half.

  • Like Roethlisberger’s first interception, the Browns failed to capitalize with points, but they once again prevented Pittsburgh from scoring any.
  • That’s two interceptions that potentially wiped out anywhere from three to 14 points for the Steelers.

For the day, the Steelers committed six turnovers, with James Conner’s being the only one that led to points by Cleveland. Again, that makes him an easy target to blame.

But as some critics liked to remind us last December when the Steelers were denied a touchdown against the Patriots thanks to a replay reversal, there are many plays throughout the course of a game that help to shape the outcome.

James Conner had a hand in the Steelers losing a two-touchdown lead, but Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James also made sure Pittsburgh’s fourth quarter advantage wasn’t much, much bigger.

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Steelers Report Card for 21-21 Tie Against the Browns – Struggling Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher whose dismayed that his star pupil can’t seem to perform except when sitting at his own desk, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Opening Day Tie against the Browns.

T.J. Watt, Tyrod Taylor, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Tyrod Taylor as Bud Dupree gets face masked. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Once again Mike Tomlin decided to rest Ben Roethlisberger for the bulk of preseason, and once again Roethlisberger was road rusty in Cleveland. After a rough, 3 interception start, Roethlisberger appeared to settle down in the 3rd quarter, but then failed to move the offense at critical moments in the 4th. The Steelers committed 6 turnovers against the Browns, and Roethlisberger accounted for 5 of those. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Who? Ok, it is too early to say that, but James Conners starting NFL debut was a smash success. James Conner ran with the authority of a starting NFL running back, scoring two touchdowns, catching 5 passes and rushing for 135 yards. However, Conner’s fumble was quite costly letting Cleveland back in the game, which brings his grade down significantly. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Steelers coaches might be intent on replacing Jesse James, but Jesse James continues to respond when his number is called, catching 3 passes on 5 targets including a crucial compleition late in the game. And injured Xavier Grimble started but did not have a pass thrown his way. The run blocking was exceptional against the Browns, and the tight ends helped make that happen. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster helped jump start the Steelers 2nd half rally with a 67 yard pass return on a day where he caught 5 of the 8 balls thrown his way. However, late in the afternoon, Smith-Schuster disappeared. Antonio Brown came down with a phenomenal touchdown pass in double coverage. Justin Hunter had 1 catch of 5 and has yet to prove he can perform outside of practice or preseason. James Washington didn’t get a target, and Ryan Switzer was 0 for one, although he did have one carry for 8 yards. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the positive side the Steelers offensive line provided road-grading quality blocking to open holes for James Conner in the running game. However, the unit’s pass protection left a lot to be desired. The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger 4 times, two of which were strip sacks and another could have easily been a strip sack. This doesn’t let the signal caller off the hook, but the line must protect Ben Roethlisberger better. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward again reverted to 1 man wrecking crew mode, leading the Steelers defensive line with 1 tackles, a sack, tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Stephon Tuitt had 4 tackles, while Javon Hargrave two tackles. The Steelers defense did a decent job of containing the Cleveland running game. Grade: B

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt’s performance against the Browns is any indication of the 2nd year leap he is posied to make watch out. Watt was unblockable, sacking Tyrod Taylor 4 times, hitting him 4 more times, and making him 5 and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Per ESPN”s count, Bud Dupree had 1 sack as did Jon Bostic who also had 2.5 tackles for losses. Vince Williams led the team in tackles. Compared to the last time the Steelers took the field, the Steelers linebackers were fare improved. However, Tyrod Taylor’s 77 yards rushing hints that the Steelers linebacking corps is still missing Ryan Shazier’s athleticism. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers remade their secondary this off season and the results were generally positive. Joe Haden was a force in coverage, breaking up at least one touchdown pass. Mike Hilton stepped up to break up a couple of passes, as did Terrell Edmunds, with Edmunds coming up on a key 3rd down. Cam Sutton got beaten on a touchdown pass, but he was supposed to have help from Sean Davis. He atoned for it with an interception that forced OT. Artie Burns committed a costly penalty that helped set up a Cleveland score. At the end of the game, Tyrod Taylor literally had no place to throw. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry, who had a mediocre at best preseason, played a good game boming off punts when the Steelers needed him to. Ryan Switzer, while not breaking one, showed himself as a kick returner who had the potential to make something happen, a rarity in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal to save the tie.

All positives. The big negative of course is the high snap and missed Chris Boswell kick in overtime that could have won it. That brings the unit’s grade down. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Coaching
Mike Tomlin took a lot of grief from the fans immediately after the game, which is understandable. While a tie is better than a loss, the “W” the Steelers were counting on could easily come back to haunt them with it comes to tie breaker time.

  • On the defensive side of the ball, Keith Butler’s unit played a strong, although not perfect game.

A defense that must compensate for 6 offensive turnovers is starting with an incredible handicap. The Steelers defense pressured the quarterback, limited Cleveland’s running game and didn’t allow a pass play over 40 yards – although Cleveland hit two for 38 and 39.

On the offensive side of the ball, it was Randy Fichtner’s first game as a signal caller, and some of the same Todd Haley haters were already criticizing him for becoming too conservative in the 4th quarter, arguing “Haley would have kept his foot on the gas.” The fact is that the Steelers offense looked tentative during the 4th quarter and overtime after a strong third quarter.

  • The key to this game was turnovers. Coaches don’t throw picks or fumble balls.

Nonetheless, for the second straight year Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty in the opener, and the Home Ben vs. Road Ben issue surfaced again. Neither of these tendencies might be considered Mike Tomlin’s “fault” but both were foreseeable and neither was mitigated. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero
The record will forever reflect that James Conner’s first start was a success. But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. ON play after play, Roosevelt Nix was plowing would be Cleveland tacklers out of plays. Nix also helped partially block the punt in overtime, and for that Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the tie against Cleveland.

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Ben Roethlisberger Sputters in Opening Day Steelers 21-21 Tie with Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 season on the shores of Lake Eire against the Cleveland Browns and came away with… an UGLY 21-21 tie against a team that hadn’t won in over 600 days.

  • The tie stirred up Steelers Nation’s Gloom and Doom contingent, who’re wasting little time in declaring the entire season a total loss.

And their response, is understandable — to a point. A tie football game satisfies no one. It’s like grabbing a still warm mug only to have your mouth find lukewarm coffee. While you certainly lose nothing in a tie football game, you fail to gain anything.

While the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns is a cause for disappointment, Pittsburgh’s performance provided no shortage of positive plays, and its one legitimate area of concern revolves around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

Positive Side of the Tie I – James Conner

One of the key questions facing the Steelers going into the opener was whether they could run the ball effectively while Le’Veon Bell remained AWOL. It was only one game, but James Conner provided a resounding answer in the affirmative.

  • James Conner justified the faith that his teammates invested in him by running hard and playing at the level of a starting NFL running back.

James Conner hit the holes with authority, proved himself a capable target in the passing game, and scored on two separate occasions. Conner’s second TD came on a 22 yard run where the former Pitt Panther showed excellent instincts and hustle.

James Conner’s fumble certainly counts as a costly mistake, but if his game against the Browns is any indication of what he is capable of for the rest of the season, the retailers at Station Square would be wise to start selling “Le’Veon Who?” T-Shirts.

Positive Side of the Tie in Cleveland II – The Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense entered the game as an even bigger question mark than James Conner.

The last time we saw this unit, the Jacksonville Jaguars were putting up points and racking up yards as if they were the Greatest Show on Turf. The Steelers opened themselves to a lot of criticism for their performance against the Browns.

  • But very little of the criticism should be directed against the defense.

Thanks to a snafu with DirectTV’s NFL Sunday ticket, I missed the first half of the game. When I saw that Ben Roethlisberger had thrown 3 interceptions, but that the Steelers still held a 7 point lead, my thought was, “Well, the defense must be playing well.”

Then came the first drive of the 2nd half. The Steelers started things off right by sacking T.J. Watt, then let the Browns right back into it with two successive penalties. Before too long, Tyrod Taylor was out juking Bud Dupree and lowering his shoulder against Artie Burns for a touchdown.

  • Although that drive came far too close to the Jacksonville game for comfort, it represented the low point for the Steelers defense.

Statisticians can make this as fine a point as they want, but when your offense gives up 6 turnovers, you’re not only supposed to lose a game, you’re supposed to lose it badly. The Steelers didn’t lose to the Browns and they can thank their defense for that.

Mike Hilton broke up multiple passes. T.J. Watt recorded four sacks, and looked every bit like a young player blossoming into a dominant one. Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had sacks.

The Steelers defense will face stiffer tests than those offered by the Browns. Cleveland’s tying touchdown came far too easily, but when Cleveland tried to pick on Cam Sutton again, Sutton made them pay the interception that forced over time.

That type of bounce back, paired shut down performance of the Steelers defense during over time offers hope that the arrow is pointed up for Keith Butler’s boys.

As Roethlisberger Goes, So Go the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win in Cleveland because they committed 6 turnovers. Of those 6, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned over the ball 5 times. Two of Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions in the first half were outright hideous.

  • Ben Roethlisberger appeared to be trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown on one occasion.
  • On a second pick the duo was clearly out of sync.

After Ben Roethlisberger opened the 2nd half with several lightning strike throws to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In little more than the blink of an eye, the Steelers were up 21-7. 247 Pittsburgh writer Jim Wexell offered this observation:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. During the 4th quarter Ben Roethlisberger was ineffective and played tentatively during the critical stretch when the quarter was winding down and again in overtime. Worse yet, he coughed up the ball twice.

Neither those turnovers were entirely his fault, but Ben Roethlisberger has made a career of moving around in the pocket making something out of nothing. In the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns Ben Roethlisberger was unable to do that.

Could Haves, Would Haves Should Haves

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers had opportunities to win, despite the turnovers. Chris Boswell missed a difficult, yet makeable field goal which should have have won the game in over time.  The Steelers defense came up with a key stop after Roethlisberger’s final fumble in regulation, yet the offense could do nothing.

In overtime the defense limited Taylor to 1 completion, forced two punts and the special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal.

  • Not sure what the stats are on blocking punts AND field goals in overtime, but one would figure the team that does that usually wins

Unfortuantely, the Steelers didn’t win.

Football is the ultimate team game, and the observations above help show that winning and losing never comes down to the efforts of one player. But the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are built around Ben Roethlisberger, and when he is below the line, its very difficult for the rest of the team to pull itself above the line.

Ben Roethlisberger was below the line in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns, and because of that Pittsburgh has already put itself at a disadvantage in the AFC North race.

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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Hold Down the North – Steelers in AFC North Poll Position Coming out of Bye Week

Are you wearing your Pittsburgh Steelers “Hold Down the North” AFC North Division Champions T-shirt (or, if you’re in Pittsburgh, long-sleeve shirt) today?

I realize “Hold Down the North” was last year’s slogan. I also realize we’re only halfway through the 2017 campaign, and things are far from decided in this season’s version of the notoriously rugged and hotly-contested AFC North Division.

  • But are things really far from decided?

As Pittsburgh, 6-2, enjoyed its bye week on Sunday, both the Ravens and Bengals, what’s left of the competition in the division (the Browns are 0-8), lost to fall to 4-5 and 3-5, respectively.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens Christmas, Tavon Young

Steelers Antonio Brown makes a first down in Pittsburgh’s Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

What that means is the Steelers have a three-game advantage in the ever-important loss column with just a half-a-season to play (less than that for Baltimore). That’s a lot of ground to make up in such a short window, and if there’s anything the first half of the 2017 NFL campaign has taught us about the Ravens and the Bengals, it’s that they probably don’t have what it takes to make up so much ground in two months.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s a departure for the AFC North, as it’s notoriously been one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, with the winner often having to play the runner-up in either the wild card round, the divisional round or even the conference championship.

Even nine years ago, when the Steelers went 6-0 on the way to capturing their second-straight AFC North title, two of those victories were nail-biters over Baltimore, a team that would ultimately clinch a wild card spot, and then navigate its way through the first two rounds of the postseason and back to Heinz Field for the conference title game.

Yes, the Steelers vanquished Baltimore on the way to a record sixth Super Bowl title, but not without plenty of anxious moments that weren’t quite alleviated until legendary safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a fourth quarter pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and raced 43 yards for a game-sealing score.

Even Pittsburgh’s last two division titles were contentious until the bitter-end, and one could argue that the team entered the postseason each time more battle fatigued than battle ready having lost Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for stretches of those playoff runs.

You have to go all the way back Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie year in 2004, when the Steelers finished with a 15-1 regular season record and clinched the North title by early-December, to find a time when the home team had such a clear-cut edge over everyone else in the division.

Speaking of that 2008 season that saw them go undefeated in the North, with a 3-0 divisional record currently through eight games, the Steelers have set themselves up nicely to repeat history; furthermore, two of their final three divisional games are at home.

And even if they lose one game and it happens to be against the Ravens, Baltimore would have to find a way to, again, make up three games in the loss column in less than two months–and even then it would come down to a third tiebreaker, as head-to-head and division records would be out the window.

The Steelers are far-and-away the best team in the AFC North, and unlike in previous years, there doesn’t even appear to be an annoying little brother that will hang around until the end of the season (or even the playoffs) and make their lives a little uncomfortable.

The Steelers will hold down the AFC North Division again in 2017 (and everyone else in it).

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