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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Played Out in Pittsburgh? Chiefs Defeat Steelers 42-37 at Heinz Field in 2018 Home Opener

There’s no sugar coating this: Pittsburgh has problems. The Steelers 37-42 opening day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs included a multitude of milestones, none of them good:

  • Kansas City won in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986
  • Mike Tomlin suffered his first home defeat to Andy Reid
  • The Steelers suffered their 1st home-opening loss in 5 years
  • Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Chiefs for the first time since 2009

But those milestones, however unpleasant, tell us more about the Pittsburgh’s past than its present. The Kansas City Chiefs victory a Heinz Field exposed several fundamental weaknesses of the 2018 Steelers, weaknesses which Mike Tomlin will be hard pressed to paper over.

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches a pass as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

One of the Worst Quarters of the Tomlin Era

The simple take away from the Steelers 21-21 against the Browns was that without 6 turnovers from the Steelers, Pittsburgh wins fairly easily.

  • While far from flawless, that analysis is largely accurate.

The simple take away following the loss to the Chiefs is to point to the offense’s 37 points and lay the blame on the shoulders of Steelers defense. That would be a mistake, however.

The Steelers first two drives netted negative yardage, as a hurried Ben Roethlisberger’s passes flew high and off target. By the time the Steelers offense got out of the red, the Kansas City Chiefs had already scored two touchdowns, and the only answer the Steelers offense could muster was a missed Chris Boswell field goal.

  • Credit Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense for not panicking and keeping sharp enough focus to come back and tie the score at 21-21.

With feeding the ball to James Conner a non-option given the score, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to make anything more than piecemeal connections with Antonio Brown, Ryan Switzer Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up.

But as it did during the 4th quarter against Cleveland, the Steelers offense sputtered during the 4th quarter. By this point in the game it had become painfully clear that Pittsburgh’s defense could do nothing to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense.

  • In his 2017 season postmortem, Steelers President Art Rooney II quipped that “Its become difficult to play defense in this league.”

While Art Rooney II’s words may hold some truth, if you’re MO for winning games is to score 50 points a game,  then your offense cannot take a quarter to warm up, nor can it sputter in critical moments late in the game.

Steelers Defenseless Against Chiefs

Of course the Steelers goal never was to simply make every game a shootout and count on the offense to prevail. During the 2018 off season the Steelers went through a whole sale house cleaning of their secondary and made moves to bolster its linebacking corps.

  • Last week, against a re-tread quarterback in Cleveland, the Steelers defense had a reasonably strong showing for itself.
  • Against an emerging elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers defense came out flat footed.

One of the key new pieces the Steelers added in the off season was Jon Bostic. The scouting report on Jon Bostic was that he was fairly strong against the run, but struggled in coverage. And against the Chiefs, Bostic defended the run well enough, but looked clueless in coverage as Travis Kelce burned the Steelers down the middle all afternoon long.

The Steelers doubtlessly missed Joe Haden, but on one in the rest of the secondary did anything to suggest things would be different had Haden played.

  • Artie Burns thus far failed to translate any of his summer magic from St. Vincents to the regular season.
  • Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle and looked out of place early and often.
  • Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were forgettable in first starts for the Steelers.

The same can be said for the Steelers front seven. Cam Heyward did force a key incompletion and later a fumble. So did T.J. Watt, but that was his sole highlight of the day. The answer to an ailing secondary is to pressure the passer, and the Steelers front seven barely touched Patrick Mahomes.

Played Out in Pittsburgh?

Furious fans took to social media to draw comparisons to the Jacksonville playoff debacle. That’s understandable, but perhaps the 2002 season opener against the Patriots provides a more accurate comparison.

Following the same script that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick used 16 years ago, Andy Reid and Patrick Maholmes essentially abandoned the run in the second half.

  • And once again, the Steelers were powerless to stop them.

That 2002 Steelers team started 1-3, yet clawed its way to a division championship. Only a bogus roughing the kicker call kept Pittsburgh from an AFC Championship appearance. But that rebound required Bill Cowher to spark the team with a quarterback change, and the Steelers pass defense remained a liability all season long.

  • Mike Tomlin will not and should not bench Ben Roethlisberger.

Nor does the Steelers head coach have any equivalent, dramatic personnel change to make on defense. Which means that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter must find a way to coax better performance out of their defense

Otherwise, the Steelers will continue to fall hard this autumn.

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Artie Burns Added to Injury List as Patrick Mahomes Looks to Test Steelers Secondary

Artie Burns appearance on the Steelers injury report prior to their 2018 home opener promises to put Pittsburgh’s secondary depth to the test.

There’s a certain symmetry about these things, as just Thursday this site suggested that the Steelers might have turned a corner at cornerback. The thinking was, that with Joe Haden out with a hamstring injury, the Steelers were in good hands with Cam Sutton starting in his place. Such is the life of a blogger.

  • Contrast that the panic that ensued when Joe Haden broke his leg last year.

And that panic was justified. Coty Senasbaugh started in Haden’s place, and the Steelers sieve like secondary started giving up 50 yard plus touchdown passes roughly once a half. All of that wasn’t Coty Sensabaugh’s fault, but he certainly marked a step down from Joe Haden.

Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers injury report chiefs game

Joe Haden & Artie Burns at Steelers practice. Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

With the Steelers potentially sitting their number one and number two corners, it is not hard to image Andy Reid licking his chops at having Patrick Mahomes send Tyreek Hill.

Tyreek Hill specializes in long touchdowns, although per Gerry Dulac’s research in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steelers defense has done a good job of containing him. In three games against the Steelers, Hill has just 14 catches for 85 yards and 5 rushes for just seven yards.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily in their secondary this off season, in part with an eye towards eliminating those big gains.

Sean Davis has moved to from strong to free safety, while Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds are splitting the strong safety duties. The Kansas City Chiefs figure to put Keith Butler’s new dime, quarter, and dollar alignments to the test.

Other Steelers vs Chiefs Injury News – Big Ben Back, DeCastro Out

Ben Roethlisberger missed the first several days of practice leading to speculation that Joshua Dobbs might get his first NFL start against the Chiefs.

  • However, Big Ben practiced on Friday and will start against the Chiefs.

David DeCastro, who broke his hand in the 21-21 tie against the Browns, however will miss the name. The Steelers will start B.J. Finney in his place. The Steelers also got some good news on the injury front as Vance McDonald practiced for the first time since the beginning of training camp, although it is unclear whether McDonald or Jesse James will start.

Mike Tomlin holds a 4-2 record over Andy Reid, and the Steelers overall record vs the Chiefs is 23-11, with Pittsburgh holding a 11-7 edge at home. The Steelers have won the last three meetings, and Kansas City has not won in Pittsburgh since 1986…

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In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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Steelers Report Card for the Chiefs Win – Enjoying the Manic Side of Schizophrenia

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is enjoying the manic surge of his schizophrenic students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Daniel Sorensen, Steelers Report Card Chiefs

Daniel Sorensen’s bobble is Antonio Brown’s bounty in the Steelers win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was better than he was last week against the Jaguars and perhaps than he’s been better before. Fewer passes sailed on him, and if he got lucky on his touchdown pass, he also was unlucky yon his one interception. Still, if reports are correct, Roethlisberger check out of run plays in the Red Zone and the team could not convert. The Steelers also struggled on third downs. Grade: C

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell’s Hall of Fame caliber talent had been missing all year…. Until he stepped on to the turf at Arrowhead. How good was Le’Veon Bell? Try the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 9 and converting. Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards on 32 carries and willed his way into the end zone. James Conner ran twice for 14 yards while Terrell Watson converted a third and short. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt Nix paved the way for much of the day. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald’s taken a lot of criticism since arriving here via trade, but he made his presence felt as a blocker, and caught a critical 26 yard pass while the Steelers were in the end zone. Jesse James didn’t have a pass thrown his way, but the running backs don’t have the kind of day they did if the tight ends fail to block. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there any doubt that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver? There should be none in Steelers Nation. Antonio Brown’s 51 yard touchdown has to rank as one of his top career catches, which says a lot. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 3 passes for 32 yards and is showing himself to be an effective blocker. Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards. Thus far Ben Roethlisberger has only established a rapport with 84, and we’ll err on the side of assuming that the responsibly lies with him and not the other receivers. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
When you pay 23 million plus to field an offensive line, this is the type of road grading that you expect to see. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t simply better, so were the men up front. Whether it was Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pulling or Alejandro Villanueva protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, the Steelers offensive line got it done. The third down sack that the Steelers allowed which ended Pittsburgh’s first drive is the unit’s lone blemish. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line didn’t produce the kind of numbers that make fantasy owners happy (to the extent that Fantasy Football even bothers with defense), but it would be fool hardy to overlook the devastating performance of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers defense neutered the NFL’s leading rusher, and they made it look easy. That starts with the boys up front. Stephon Tuitt also had a critical pass defensed late in the game. Grade: A

Linebackers
In case anyone had any doubts, James Harrison proved that age hasn’t robbed him of his decisive, play making capability, as Harrison downed Alex Smith on the penultimate play. Vince Williams was playing as a one-man wrecking crew racking up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage before getting injured. Ryan Shazier had 4 tackles and got his hands on Smith’s last pass. Tyler Matakevich looked good in relief of Williams. An excellent day by the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton had another fine day coming in with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Hilton may be small, but he simply makes plays. Joe Haden got his hand on a pass, but otherwise was invisible… which is good for a corner. Artie Burns stepped up to break up two key passes early on, although he blew the coverage and missed a tackle on the Chief’s touchdown drive. Mike Mitchell also caused a costly roughing the passer play (although he might have been pushed by Anthony Chickillo). The Steelers secondary had a good day, but the Chief’s 4th quarter touchdown surge drops their grade a notch. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and Chris Boswell hit all of his kicks, but other than that the Steelers special teams did little to distinguish themselves. First, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a miscue after the Steelers safety which had the net effect of turning a 2 point advantage into a 1 point deficit. Then Brown almost muffed a fair catch. The Chiefs also had a 32 yard punt return late in the game which brought Kansas City to midfield for his final drive. These special teams mishaps could have been more costly. Grade: D

Coaching
The Haley haters who’ve been clamoring to see more Roosevelt Nix and rushing out of the I-Formation got their wish. The Steelers ran the ball early and often and with great effectiveness. Nonetheless, too many drives stall in the end zone, and the Steelers offense is struggling to convert 3rd downs.

  • The Steelers offense found a way to win, but the unit only managed to put 17 points on the board.

Keith Butler had his unit primed and ready to play. The Steelers went into the living room of the NFL’s best offense and completely shut them down in the first half – had it been a amateur wrestling matching the defense would have scored a technical fall. While its true that Kansas City’s late touchdown came a little too easily, it is also true that the Steelers defense got stuck defending a short field with two minutes left to play and completely stone walled the Chiefs.

Mike Tomlin certainly deserves criticism for the up and down nature of the Steelers performances this season, but Pittsburgh’s hardly provides a unique case in 2017’s NFL. Losses such as the one against the Jaguars and have a nasty ripple effect (see November/December 2009), yet Mike Tomlin prevented that by arriving at Arrowhead with a strong game plan whose execution more than anything else revolved around controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers won those battles, and won the game because of it. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman’s been quiet thus far in 2017 and in fact has been called out for lapses in any number of post-game film analysis on several occasions. But he’ll earn no such criticism from the Jon Leydard’s of the world this week, as he led the team in tackles, and came away with a critical pass defense in the end zone on 4th and Goal. For that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Chiefs.

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Returning to Their Roots Steelers Beat Chiefs 19-13 with Physical Football

The Pittsburgh Steelers walked in to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that opened questions about who they are and what they’re legitimately able to accomplish this season.

  • Their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was playing at home with an 5-0 record and a claim to “best team so far.”

In short, things weren’t expected to get any easier for the Steelers. And they didn’t get any easier. But the Steelers walked out of Kansas City with a 19-13 win and Steelers Nation can count this as one victory where the means to a “W” are just as important as the win itself.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, Frank Zombo, Steelers vs Chiefs

Alejandro Villaneuva stones Frank Zombo as Ben Roethlisberger connects with Antonio Brown for a TD. Photo Credit: Chaz Pallas

Steelers Define Identity Part I: Defense

By any measure, the Kansas City Chiefs figured to offer the Steelers defense a stiff test. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play. Their quarterback Alex Smith would win the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide were the voting head prior to today and their running back Kareem Hunt was leading the NFL in rushing yards.

In contrast, commentators both inside and outside of Pittsburgh had suggested that the Steelers defense was set to broach elite status, only to see Keith Butler‘s boys get gouged on the ground in Chicago and again against Jacksonville.

The Chiefs gift wrapped 2 points to the Steelers with an errant snap that flew through the end zone, but Pittsburgh gift wrapped them right back by muffing the ensuing punt. If the script from the previous four games was to be followed, instead of starting the game 9, or even 10 to zero, the Steelers would instead start it 7-2.

  • But this Steelers defense took the field intent on writing its own script.

The Steelers defense yielded only a handful of yards, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Instead staring at 7-2, the Steelers got the ball back only looking at a 1 point deficit. And that was the story of the first three and a half quarters. The Steelers defense went into the home of the NFL’s most potent offense and proceeded to:

  • Hold the Chiefs to under 250 yards, which includes their late game surge
  • Not allow a first down until the tail end of the first half
  • Neuter Kareem Hunt, holding him to 21 yards
  • Rip a would be touchdown on 4th and goal out of the receiver’s hands
  • Unleash James Harrison to sack Alex Smith on the second to last play of the game

What stands out when looking at the stats is that the Steelers did this without forcing a turnover, and by only sacking the quarterback twice prior to the final drive. While Artie Burns had some smart pass breakups and Mike Hilton was devastating behind the line of scrimmage, the Steelers defense shut down the NFL’s number one offense without a lot of “Splash plays.”

James Harrison, Alex Smith, Eric Fisher, Holding James Harrison, James Harrison Alex Smith Sack, Steelers vs Chiefs

Even Chiefs Eric Fisher holding can’t stop James Harrison from sacking Alex Smith with game on the line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Instead, they excelled by executing on the fundamentals, led by Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt disrupting things upfront, while everyone else behind them simply “did their job.”

The Steelers defense was far from perfect. Kansas City’s lone touchdown drive came much too easily, with missed tackles galore. Comparisons to the ’85 Bears remain a ways off. But against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense proved it can close tight games on the road against a high-octane octane offense playing in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums.

That ladies and gentleman, represents a significant step forward for this young Steelers defense.

Steelers Define Identity Part II: Offense

It is no secret that something has been missing from the Steelers offense thus far in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were supposed to give the NFL its most fearsome offensive quartet this side of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and John Stallworth.

  • 30 points a game was supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling.

The Steelers victory over the Chiefs didn’t come close to transforming that 30 point margin from a pipedream into a reality. But the Steelers offense nonetheless found something important with their win over the Chiefs:

  • They reestablished the run, and they did it with Le’Veon Bell looking like he did a year ago.

While Ben Roethlisberger has born the brunt of the criticism for the Steelers offensive woes thus far, number 7 was far from the only player who was under performing. Thus far this year, Le’Veon Bell has looked average at times, good at others, but he hasn’t flashed anything like the Hall of Fame talent that was so evident just one season ago.

  • That changed against the Chiefs, and changed to the tune of 179 yards on 32 carries.

Indeed, going into the half, Bell had more yards than the entire Kansas City offense. Bell’s wasn’t the only running back to shine. James Conner got two carries, and looked sharp running the ball, and Terrell Watson converted a third and short.

  • The Steelers also reestablished the run without falling into the trap of being one-dimensional.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald 1st Steelers pass, Steelers vs Chiefs

Vance McDonald catches his first pass for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger’s 26 yard pass to Vance McDonald while standing in his own end zone might have been the most important completion of the afternoon. With that said, balance still eludes the Steelers offense. While he did manage to hit Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the success of the Steelers passing game largely hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown.

  • Roethlisberger did that often enough and, quite frankly, can thank his lucky stars that he has someone as talented as Number 84 to catch his passes.

By and large the beauty of the day came in the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball and get it often. More often than not, they failed because the Steelers imposed their will.

Time for Steelers to Take Step Forward Not Back

The Steelers responded to an ugly loss to the Bears with a convincing win over the Ravens. Two weeks later they responded to an uglier loss to the Jaguars with a hard fought win against the Chiefs. Perhaps what was most important was the way the Steelers responded:

  • By reestablishing their identity as a physical team on both sides of the ball.

That amounts to a step forward for Mike Tomlin’s team, but it is a step forward that the Steelers must sustain. A win next week over the Cincinnati Bengals will go a long way defining whether the 2017 Steelers are a team that mumbles in mediocrity or one that asserts its will.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Chiefs Victory

Its that time again Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers limped into Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following their humiliating defeat at Heinz Field at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars and emerged with a hard-fought 19-13 win over the Chiefs.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs game balls

Le’Veon Bell forces his way into the End Zone in the 2nd quarter of the Steelers win over the Chiefs

As we do after every Steelers win, we give you citizens of Steelers Nation a chance to vote Steelers game ball winners.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs Game Ball, Le'Veon Bell

While Ben Roethlisberger certainly didn’t play his best game vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, he did look far better than he had the week before. But Ben Roethlisberger’s best move was perhaps to hand the ball to Le’Veon Bell, who looked like his old self in rushing for 179 yards on 32 carries. Big Ben’s next move was to throw the ball to Antonio Brown, who looked simply spectacular in torching the Chief’s defense for 8 catches for 155 yards which included an electrifying 51 yard touchdown.

  • Tight end Vance McDonald also gets a nod. He only had one catch, but it was an important one that got the Steelers out of their own goal line.

Those four men earn ballot positions for the offense, but remember, you can write in James Conners, Terrell Watson, Martavis Bryant or any other offensive player you wish.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sean Davis earns a ballot slot for leading the team in tackles and defensing a pass in the end zone. Vince Williams also gets a nod, thank to his smart two sack performance prior to leaving the game with an injury.  James Harrison also gets a nod, thanks to his critical sack on third down during the Chief’s final drive.

  • Remember, you’re not limited to these choices.

Think that Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt or Cameron Heyward deserve a game ball? No problem, write their names in. Better yet, leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting, and be sure to check back later for Steel Curtain Rising’s full analysis of the Steelers win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead.

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Steelers vs Penguins – Pens May Hoist Stanley Cup, but Men of Steel Still King in Pittsburgh

It seems every time the Penguins experience a run of success, as they are right now–a run that includes back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, following a 2-0 victory in Nashville over the Predators Sunday night–people like to entertain the topic.

What topic am I talking about, you ask?

  • The idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins are about to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers as the number one team in the City of Pittsburgh in terms of popularity.

On talk radio last week, Dejan Kovacevic, filling in for the popular and controversial Mark Madden, threw that thought out there and basically agreed with it.

  • Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering 105.9 the X is the Penguins flagship station.

At this very moment, the Penguins are the number one team in town; how could they not be?

Stanely Cup, Nick Bonino, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguin Nick Bonino hosts the Stanley Cup at the Steelers South Sid facility as Cam Heyward and others look on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Tribune-Review

They boast some of the NHL’s and hockey’s greatest players–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–and, as previously mentioned, Lord Stanley will be paraded around Pittsburgh for a second consecutive summer.

Also, with the drafting of the legendary Mario Lemieux in 1984, the Penguins forever changed the fortunes of their previously downtrodden franchise and have won a total of five Stanley Cups since the summer of 1991.

  • Meanwhile, the Steelers have won just two Super Bowls since 1979, the same year the Pirates claimed their last World Series title.

Over the past three-plus decades, the Penguins have gone from a laughingstock of an organization, to hockey royalty.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a Steelers fan, you obviously know the legacy that was forged in the 1970’s that was jump-started by the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969 and the drafting of defensive stalwart Mean Joe Greene almost immediately afterward.

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Terrible Towel, Black Terrible Towel

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth sport Terrible Towels in Three Rivers Stadium during 70’s Super Bowl.

With the help of nine future Hall of Fame players (Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster), the Steelers went from an also-ran in the early’70’s to the class of the NFL by the end of the decade.

  • And, in Pittsburgh, there was no mistake who reigned supreme in a sports sense.

Here we are, nearly five decades into the Steelers run of football supremacy, and there are no true signs of this love, this passion the fans have for the team dissipating anytime soon.

Sure, it might seem that way, considering the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups since the last time the Steelers hoisted a Lombardi, following their 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, some eight years ago.

But all one needs to do is examine the TV ratings–both locally and nationally–to see that the Penguins have a ways to go before they supplant the Steelers for local sports supremacy.

As USA Today pointed out on Tuesday, NBC, the network with the rights to the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, is doing cartwheels for the ratings the six-game final between Pittsburgh and Nashville drew.

Stanley Cup 2017, Penguins vs. Predators, Ron Hainsey, Juuse, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ron Hainsey shoots puck past Nashville Predators goalie Juuse. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via FanRag.com

What was the average for those six games? A 4.76, or almost two points lower than Last Man Standing, a Tim Allen sitcom that recently made the news after being canceled by ABC. 

  • By contrast, the most recent Super Bowl–SBLI between the Patriots and Falcons–drew a 48.8 share for Fox. That’s almost a difference of almost ten times in case you’re wondering.

OK, yes, I just pointed out that football is still king in America, and that its signature event is watched by almost half the country, while hockey’s marquee series is watched by the same amount of people who would tune in to watch a middling TV show on Friday night.

What about the local ratings for the finals?

  • According to NBC Sports, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final–the clincher–drew a 40.0 rating in Pittsburgh, while the entire series drew a 32.0.
  • Great for Pittsburgh and great for NBC.

But when you examine some of the Steelers’ recent local regular season TV ratings, you may start to get a sense for just how popular they still are.

According to a TribLive article from January of 2014, that came on the heels of a playoff-less and 8-8 2013 season that included starts of 0-4 and 2-6, the Steelers averaged a 38.2 local rating, which was pretty much on par with what the Penguins generated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final this past Sunday.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers playoff rushing record, Jesse James

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record for a 2nd consecutive week in Steelers playoff win over Chiefs. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via Newsday

And when you examine the Steelers most-recent playoff win–an 18-16 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round on January 15–you may wonder if NBC, the network that broadcast the game, has already contacted head coach Mike Tomlin about starring in his very own sitcom: First Down Family…Obviously. 

  • The game averaged 37.1 viewers and was the most watched non-conference championship game playoff matchup in NFL history.

Wow.

Sure, the game was moved into primetime due to weather concerns in Kansas City, but it doesn’t lessen the impact the Steelers and the NFL have on the country and the City of Pittsburgh.

So, what am I saying?

  • Yes, the Penguins are the hot team in town right now, and probably will be for quite some time.

The organization did a great job years ago by marketing the team to young fans–don’t know how many young millennials are huge Penguins fans.

However, while Pittsburgh started to develop a bit of a hockey culture after the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux 33 years ago, it was almost as if the Pittsburgh of pre-1970, with its blue-collar work-ethic, was a football town waiting for a team to embrace.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became that team in the early-1970’s, and it appears as if no one–not even the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins–will knock them off the top perch anytime soon.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

antonio brown, justin houston, antonio brown vs justin houston, Steelers vs. Chiefs, steelers red zone receiver

Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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