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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“Pases de Pantalla Chotos a Bryant” – Steelers Football Meets Argentine Lunfardo

It is said that you really reach fluency in a second language when you feel comfortable enough to joke around in it. I can attest to that reality. After 4 or 5 years of living in Argentina, that I was able to call (and this was before caller ID reached universal status) and greeting them with “Hola, gallego“* and delight in their utter inability to figure out who I was.

The Steelers struggles against the Browns gave me the chance to turn the paradigm on its head:

  • Does an imported foreign institution finally gain cultural currency when the locals can apply slang terminology to it?

A few days after the Steelers narrow win over the Browns, I WhatsApped my friend, and sometime site writer, Gustavo Vallegos, El Dr. de Acero, asking what another friend, who is a notoriously harsh critic of the team at times, had thought of the game. HE hadn’t heard from our friend, but offered his own criticism:

“lo que me preocupaba, cuando empiece el partido con estos pases de pantalla a Bryant chotos con no avanzaba ni dos yardas….” 

For those of you who don’t read Spanish, what Gustavo is talking about is the Ben Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant bubble screen passes, and the entire Todd Haley horizontal offense the Steelers tried to mount, instead of trying to pound the ball with Le’Veon Bell or hit Bryant and Antonio Brown downfield.

But the key word there is “choto….”

Choto” is a very Argentine word, and is likely exclusive to the dialect of Spanish spoken in the Rio de la Plata. What does Choto mean….

…Well, this is a family friendly site, so any translation needs to be made with care. “Choto” means to, hum, let’s say a certain piece of the male anatomy that’s short, and one that comes up short at shall we say in opportune times. “Gallego,”* which in certain contexts can be highly disrespectful also has much more affectionate, and playful uses.

  • There’s no such lighter side to labeling something or someone as “choto.”

And that’s the beauty of this anecdote. There’s no real English translation of “choto,” there’s no single English word or expression that carries the exact cultural or linguistic weight. Yet, “choto,” very much describes the play of the Steelers offense, save for Antonio Brown and Jesse James, on Sunday against the Browns.

With all that said, I realize this could quite well be the linguistic equivalent of a “You had to be there” type of moment. If so fair enough. But if you can’t quite fully grasp the linguistic side of it there’s something else that you should be able to hang your hat on….

 

Steelers Fans Buenos Aires, #SteelersWorldWide, Steelers Nation Argentina, Steelers Argentina

Steelers fans gather in Buenos Aires for #SteelersWorldWide Photo

The Steelers Nation’s colony in Argentina might be small, but the porteños are making Steelers football their own!

*Taken literally a “gallego” as an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant from the province of Galacia, in Spain; colloquially saying “Hola gallego” is sort of like saying  “What’s up hoss?” albeit it comes with an affectionate barb, because the stereotype of a gallego is someone who is always a half step-behind the times.

And if you want to follow an Argentine who does really know something about Steelers football, follow:

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Were Rusty Steelers Struggles Against Browns Due to Preseason Philosophy?

Why were the Pittsburgh Steelers so rusty in their 2017 opening win against the Cleveland Browns

Well, chalk it up to Mke Tomlin’s approach to preseason football this past summer. To cut to the chase, scroll down about. Otherwise enjoy our Uruguayan interlude…

Steelers vs Browns, Le'Veon Bell

The Browns gang tackle Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers 2017 opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Steelerless Sunday and an Uruguayan Interlude….

Watching NFL football on tape delay can be a curious experience. Today, despite on-demand viewing’s dominance , the NFL has defended its Appointment Viewing turf. Football fails to excite when you know the outcome, and its getting really hard avoid spoilers. Unless…

…You live outside the United States, as yours truly has done, well for a long time. So I found myself spending my 12 wedding anniversary in Montevideo, Uruguay which happened to coincide with the Steelers 2017 opener against the Browns.

As the weekend evolved, it became clear that my wife would be tied up at a translation Congress for most of Sunday afternoon….

…Which opened the door to watching the game! (Note to Steelers fans who got or will get married from September to early February – I once tried to combine a wedding anniversary dinner follow by “meeting the guys to catch the end of the game” and, as the old faux SNL commercial goes: Bad Idea.)

But I was free on Sunday afternoon. Alas, Google searches in English and Spanish could not confirm any locale in Montevideo that showed NFL games. El Dr. de Acero gave me his NFL Game Pass login credentials, but they didn’t work. So, spent the chilly, rainy September Sunday in Montevideo unable to watch the Steelers unwilling learn of the result, plowing through Peter Carlin’s biography of Bruce Springsteen.

After all, I’d be able to watch the game, commercial free, in less than 12 hours when I was back home in Buenos Aires…

…Except that my Monday morning boat ride home turned into a Monday evening boat ride home, thanks to storms on the Rio de la Plata (take that Lake Eire! I guess) so as it was, I couldn’t see the Steelers against the Browns until 11:00 pm that night.

Rusty Steelers Struggles Against Browns Due to Preseason Philosophy?

As stated above, NFL football on tape delay can be a curious animal. Thanks to heavy rains in the porteño capital, DirectTV informed me that part of the program I’d taped (the game) hadn’t recorded.

So by the time I got to an image I could see, the game had barely started, the Steelers were ahead 7-0, and Chris Boswell was kicking off to the Browns. Wow! The Koolaid of the return of the Steelers Killer Bees sure does give you a nice sugar high!

While I’d assumed that Juju Smith Schuster had probably returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, surely this was a sign that the offensive juggernaut created by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant was going to treat Steelers Nation to a season opener in Cleveland somewhat akin to 1999’s 43-0 opening day Browns beating.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the best recent Steelers-Browns comparison comes from 2014’s Chuck Noll Day victory. But even that analogy falls short, because that was an afternoon of extremes for Steelers.

  • Against the Browns the Steelers offense simply sputtered, while Pittsburgh’s defense punished itself with penalties.

Chalk most of the Steelers defensive woes to over aggressiveness; while set up the scores that kept the Browns in the game, does anyone here want to gentle the aggressiveness out of T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier or Cam Heyward?

Neither do I.

The offensive side of the ball is much harder to excuse, especially because the Steelers offense looked like a group of guys who hadn’t played together for well, about 232. Which is accurate, because you could probably sum the total time the Steelers starting offense (with James Conner filling in for Le’Veon Bell, of course) played together in preseason an not break single digits.

  • While I’m too young to be a grumpy old man, perhaps there’s cause to call me a curmudgeon and I unapologetically remain a preseason football apologist.

OK, the game has changed. Salary cap realities force coaches to use preseason more strategically. A season ending injury to Terry Bradshaw or Lynn Swann would have been just as devastating to Chuck Noll’s Steelers on the field, but it wouldn’t have amounted to a dead money drag on the team.

And let’s be fair. This isn’t Mike Tomlin’s first rodeo, and all of the Steelers starters on offense, save for Roosevelt Nix, are playing on their second NFL contracts. These guys have experience and don’t need the reps.

But its hard not to notice that the one guy who surprised everyone with his shine was Jesse James, a player to saw extensive action in the exhibition season. On the flip side, Maurkice Pouncey got hit with a couple of holding calls, and Lon Ledyard of Steel City Insider pointedly called out Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro’s play.

  • OK, Antonio Brown didn’t play much in preseason either. Joe Hayden didn’t play at all (for the Steelers at least).

Unfortunately, accurate preseason snap counts aren’t available (yet.) The “Hard Hitting Analysis” thing to do would be to go back, look at preseason summaries, and get a rough idea of who played and how much, but that falls outside of this this is a stream of consciousness type article.

So be it. The workday beckons. The Steelers had their NFL equivalent of a warmup game against Appalachian State and they won it. But it says here that such opening day rustiness could have been avoided with a slightly different approach to preseason football on the part of Mike Tomlin and his staff.

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Overtime Win over the Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see average, everyday students rise to the occasion with the star pupils out, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Cleveland.

DeAngelo Williams, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns, Marcus Gilbert, Jesse James

DeAngelo Williams celebrates his touchdown against the Browns with Jesse James and Marcus Gilbert. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Quarterback
The game’s very first series made it clear that Landry Jones wasn’t going to get the same protection that Ben Roethlisberger got, and Landry Jones struggled for much of the first half. And Landry Jones’ interception at the end of the 3rd quarter was as ugly as it gets. But Jones pushed on, and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and another in overtime. Jones also deserves credit for his heads up play in recovering a fumble in the end zone. And Jones did all of this with the Steelers top weapons on offense sitting on the bench. If we apply the same standard we applied last week to Ben Roethlisberger, there’s only 1 grade for Landry. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Browns

Running Backs
One of the big questions heading into the game was how well DeAngelo Williams would respond after 9 games on ice. Fantasy Football owners who started Williams are probably suffering from buyer’s remorse. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, however, are not. On the surface, Williams 1 yard rushing in the first half and his overall 67 yards on 22 carries remain unimpressive. But Williams ripped off runs of 12, 10 and 8 in the second half, scored the Steelers first two touchdowns. He also did an incredible job in avoiding safety when the Steelers were backed into their own end zone.

Fitzgerald Toussaint had 3 carries for 14 yards including a 12 yarder, and Roosevelt Nix had 2 catches for five yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Jesse James had two catches for 16 yards on 3 targets. Neither Xavier Grimble nor David Johnson had a carry. The Steelers tight ends had a solid, if not spectacular performance against the Browns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the team with 6 catches for 61 yards taking another important developmental step forward. As did, Cobi Hamilton who caught the game winner as well as a critical completion during the 3rd quarter. Demarcus Ayers looked good in his second NFL game, finding his way to the end zone for a go ahead score in the 4th quarter. Darrius Heyward-Bey saw his first action in 9 weeks, and came away with on reception for 46 yards. Overall a very good day for the Steelers wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
B.J. Finney made several starts at right guard for Ramon Foster this season and played well enough that some bloggers suggested his comparative salary cap value might make Foster expendable during the 2017 off season.

  • No one is going to say that about his performance in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

It is probably unfair to scapegoat Finney, but the truth is that the Browns got pressure on Landry Jones on several third downs, and each time it looked like they came right up the middle. Indeed, the line struggled to protect their quarterback for the first time in recent memory, and the rushing lanes weren’t quite as solid. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Injuries left the Pittsburgh Steelers playing their 3rd string defensive line for most of the day. The truth is that the Browns ran the ball a little too easily. OK, a big part of this has to do with James Harrison being out (who essentially plays a defensive end in the Steelers nickel alignment), but if the Standard is the Standard, then the Steelers defensive line fell a little short, although Daniel McCullers did get a sack on Robert Griffin III. Grade: C-

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, George Atkinson

Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree sandwich George Atkinson in the Steelers overtime win vs. the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
Does anyone still debate why the Steelers rushed to pick Ryan Shazier instead of a defensive back in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Ryan Shazier led the Steelers linebackers securing an interception at the 5 yard line, and helping ensure that the Browns would lose 14 yards when on 3rd and Goal at the Steelers 2 in overtime. Jarvis Jones had his best game as a Pittsburgh Steelers, sacking RGIII once, forcing another fumble as the Browns threatened to score, and batting away a pass in overtime. Bud Dupree had another sack, and another tackle for the loss. Lawrence Timmons had 6 tackles.

While the Steelers linebackers had a strong day, they too bear some of the responsibility for the breakdowns in the run defense so their grade must reflect that. Grade: B+

Secondary
Sean Davis led the unit and the Steelers defense overall with 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Mind you, the man is playing safety. Artie Burns had 8 tackles, and batted away a pass that he almost intercepted. Ross Cockrell’s name wasn’t heard much, and that’s good for a cornerback. William Gay had a key pass defense, while Mike Mitchell had 8 tackles and a fumble recovery. A solid day for the Steelers secondary, particularly in the Red Zone. Grade: B+

Ross Cockrell, Seth Delvalve touchdown steelers, steelers vs. browns overtime

Seth Delvalve scores for the Browns as Ross Cockrell attempts to stop him. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his extra points and Jordan Berry had an excellent day punting on an afternoon where the Steelers found themselves backed up in their own end zone too often.

Eli Rogers returned 3 punts for a total of 15 yards with a long return of 10 yards. While that’s nice, he did bobble one return – which cannot happen during the playoffs. Cobi Hamilton returned 3 kick offs for 44 yards which is as unimpressive as it looks.

  • The real concern here is the Steelers kick coverage.

The Browns averaged 30 yards on their kickoff returns, or five more than they’d get in touchbacks, and Mario Alford returned 3 punts for 26 yards including one return of 17 yards. Those are the types of return yardage numbers that can tip a close playoff game in the wrong direction…. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s Christmas present to Todd Haley was to ask him to devise a winning game plan after taking away his top 4 offensive players. The truth is that Haley’s offense sputtered for much of the day, but once they got in a groove, they scored 21 points in less than two quarters.

  • Keith Butler didn’t have the same “excuse” as only James Harrison was held out of the game.

That alone made it clear just how much James Harrison means to the Steelers running game. Had the stakes in the game been higher, Butler likely would have played the Steelers nickel less. While the Steelers defense likely made some Fantasy Football owners happy, the fact is that they secured two Red Zone turnovers in addition to stuffing a 3rd down attempt for a 14 yard loss defending their own two.

  • I’ll take that.

Finally, Mike Tomlin sent an important signal when he benched the Steelers top players. But he also insisted it would be “Business as normal” for everyone who did suit up. Tomlin lived true to his word. It would have been easy for Tomlin to either intentionally coach towards a tie or to make other decisions that would have left Cleveland with a win, particularly in overtime.

Instead, Mike Tomlin played to win, and his players responded by delivering a win. This is exactly what the mentality and level of execution Pittsburgh needs heading into the playoffs. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
When Landry Jones threw his interception at the end of the 3rd quarter and Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked to the end zone for an apparent pick-six that looked to doom the Steelers for the afternoon. But one player continued to hustle, never gave up, and ended up catching Boddy-Calhoun and knocking out the ball before he scored a touchdown.

  • The play saved a touchdown, and sparked the Steelers rally.

This is exactly the type of hustle at all times mentality a team needs in the playoffs, and for that Darrius Heyward-Bey wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers overtime win over the Browns.

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6 Take Aways for the Playoffs from Steelers Comeback Win Over the Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Cleveland Browns for yet another regular season finale at Heinz Field in a game that had zero impact on the Black and Gold’s post-season fortunes. With Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey out and James Harrison not playing, this figured to be an exam of sorts for the Steelers backups.

  • The Cleveland Browns, not having won a game in Pittsburgh since 2003, showed themselves as willing examiners.

The Steelers prevailed in a teeter-totter style game and, while the 7th straight win only adds window dressing to the 2016 regular season record, the comeback win over the Browns does reveal 6 key take aways that tell us something important about these Steelers as we head to the playoffs.

Cobi Hamilton, steelers vs. browns, steelers 2016 regular season finale browns

Cobi Hamilton catches the game winning pass in overtime as the Steelers comeback to beat the Browns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

1. Landry Jones Has Grown into a Legit Backup

Going into this game, the pundits who weren’t labeling this “Landry Jones’ last game with the Steelers” instead suggested Mike Tomlin start Zach Mettenberger.

  • Landry Jones showed them how foolish they were.
  • Let’s be clear: If Ben Roethlisberger goes down, he takes the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl hopes with him.

If all goes well, the last image we have of Landry Jones during the 2016 season (other than him holding a clipboard) will be of him hitting Cobi Hamilton from 26 yards out in overtime to give the Steelers the win. Contrast that with his deer-in-the-headlight performance in the Steelers playoff win a year ago vs. the Bengals.

Landry Jones, Jesse James, Steelers vs. Browns

Landry Jones throws a pass as Jesse James blocks during Steelers 2016 season finale win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted Landry Jones to grow into a competent NFL backup quarterback. The only thing that his 2013 and 2014 preseason performances inspired was job security for Bruce Gradkowski. Landry Jones made strides in closing out wins vs. the Raiders and Cardinals in 2015, and looked respectable in the Steelers loss to the Patriots.

  • Against the Browns, Jones showed he could overcome a costly interception, rally his team in the 4th quarter, and lead it to victory in overtime.

That marks and important step for the signal caller. Granted, Landry Jones wasn’t playing against the 85 Bears defense, but Steelers best offensive lineman and skill players were in street clothes. Salary cap math might prevent the Steelers from bringing Jones back in 2017, but he’s proven he’s a capable backup.

2. Darrius Heyward-Bey Is Back

It is no secret that Antonio Brown had to scratch and claw for his catches as the season wore on. And while Eli Rogers has stepped up his play late in the season, as had Hamilton, the Steelers still haven’t had a reliable deep threat to take heat off of Brown. Darrius Heyward-Bey may have only had one catch, but he brought it down for 46 yards.

If this is any indication of what he is capable of, the Steelers offense can be lethal in the playoffs.

3. Steelers Can’t Survive without Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers lost Stephon Tuitt in the first series against the Bengals, things did not look good. Cincinnati ran the ball well against the Steelers in the first half, punctuated by Jeremy Hill’s powering his way into the end zone in the second quarter. Yet the Steelers run defense clapped down, and held Hill to negative yards in the second half.

  • Against the Ravens, the Steelers performance against the run was mixed.

The Steelers run defense held its own in the first half, but it struggled to stop the run at times during the second half. To be blunt about it, Isaiah Crowell looked like the Jim Brown running against the Steelers defense.

L.T. Walton has played well, as has Ricardo Mathews when healthy. Johnny Maxey has looked good as for a practice squader. But the Browns game clarified a that healthy Stephon Tuitt is essential to a successful Steelers Super Bowl run.

4. Sean Davis is Simply a Stud

When was the last time a rookie Steelers defender excelled to the level that Sean Davis has reached?

Sean Davis, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs. Browns, Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III, Sean Davis RGIII

Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III in Steelers 2016 win over Browns at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Like Sean Davis, Troy Polamalu and Bud Dupree both won Joe Greene Great Performance awards, but neither of them made the type of impact plays that Sean Davis is making. You’d arguably have to go back to Kendrell Bell to find a rookie Steelers defender who made the type of impact that Sean Davis made.

  • Did someone tell Sean Davis the Browns game was supposed to be “meaningless?”

Apparently not. Davis dominated leading the team in tackles, sacking the quarterback, and recovering a bad snap to set up the Steelers first touchdown. It is usually a sign of desperation for a team to go into training camp counting on draftees to make a difference.

However, as Pittsburgh pivots to the playoffs, the Steelers can be confident that their 2016 draft class can contribute to a Super Bowl run with Sean Davis leading the way.

5.  DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Showing Any Rust

The Steelers haven’t seen much of DeAngelo Williams since his injury against Miami. Indeed, journalist David Todd went so far as to suggest that he might have made his last carry for the Steelers. On the surface, Williams numbers of 67 for 23 do not look good.

  • Numbers do not lie, but often times they fail to tell the full story and such was the case of DeAngelo Williams.
DeAngelo Williams, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Browns, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns

David DeCastro leads DeAngelo Williams into the end zone as Steelers comeback against Browns.

Williams, like the rest of the Steelers offense started sluggishly, but he picked up steam as the game wore on. And it was DeAngelo Williams who got the Steelers on board to close the second half and who tied the game in the 4th quarter. Moreover, DeAngelo Williams used every ounce of his skill as a runner to save the Steelers from taking a safety on several occasions.

Injuries have forced the Steelers to start their 4th and 5th string running backs in their last two post season appearances. Pittsburgh’s offensive backfield will look a little bit different on this playoff trip.

6. These Pittsburgh Steelers WANT It

How many opportunities did this Steelers team have to mail it in against the Browns? Make no mistake about it, football is a brutal sport, and if your heart is not in it, that will show pretty quickly? How many times have we seen the Browns fold against the Steelers in a season ender after Pittsburgh puts up a two score lead?

  • The Browns went up by two touchdowns, but the Steelers fought back
  • Late in the 4th, Cleveland tied the game,and threatened to score at the Steelers 5, but the Jarvis Jones forced a fumble
  • The Browns won the toss in OT and marched to the Steelers two, but Ryan Shazier helped force a 14 yard loss

When the Steelers finally got the ball they came up to a 4th and 2 at their own 32-yard line. It would have been so easy for Mike Tomlin to send in Chris Boswell for a 49-yard field goal attempt, figuring Cleveland could not score in 3 minutes.

Instead, he went for it and Demarcus Ayers converted the third down. One play later, Cobi Hamilton was sealing the Steelers win in OT.
As Mike Tomlin said, fight won’t bring home a seventh Lombardi trophy, and some of the sloppiness the Steelers displayed vs. the Browns will doom them. But overall, the Steelers win over the Browns offers a lot of promise as Pittsburgh head to the playoffs.

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