Even if we admit that Steelers Nation is spoiled (we are) the fact is Steelers fans have had a rough 61 days. But yesterday the news out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave every Black and Gold bleeding Steelers fan something to smile about.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so:
Ryan Shazier with Ben Roethlisberger at UPMC. Photo Credit: Ryan Shazier Instragram, via the Tribune Review
The sight of Ryan Shazier standing alongside Ben Roethlisberger is a sight for sore eyes. It was just 61 days ago that we watched Ryan Shazier made a seemingly routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals only to roll over pointing at his back.
Word was, even a few days afterward that Shazier would walk again.
Yet, the inside linebacker has been in a wheelchair in every image relased since then. Until now. Shazier has some sort of brace on his leg, it looks like he’s holding onto something for balance with his right hand and his wheel chair, which he used to leave the hospital, is visible in the background.
But Ryan Shazier is standing on his own and you have to stand before you can walk.
And, the image of Ryan Shazier standing upright offers an important lesson for everyone in Steelers Nation:
Steelers fans might think they’ve had to “endure” a lot, they might argue that taking Mike Tomlin to task without insisting that Art Rooney II fire him amounts to hollow criticism, but let’s be honest folks, no one in Steelers Nation has had a tougher stretch in these last 61 days than Ryan Shazier. And its not even close.
Ryan Shazier standing next to Ben Roethlisberger signals he’s turned an important corner in his recovery.
Perhaps it should also signal to both the franchise and fan base that its time to put a disappointing end to the 2017 season in the past and firmly focus on 2018.
For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.
This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.
Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com
Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?
By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.
So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?
Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.
Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.
While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.
Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.
Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.
If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.
This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.
Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.
What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright
During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.
For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.
Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.
Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.
On this count, numbers don’t lie:
Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator
But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.
It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results
So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.
First, football is a results driven business.
Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?
The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.
Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.
If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC
Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.
The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.
Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.
Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would tip the scales. Time will tell.
But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.
Yannick Ngakoue sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser
OK, so the Steelers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl last year, but, since returning to the postseason in 2014, their playoff trajectory had seen them lose in the wild-card round (2014), the divisional round (2015) and the AFC title game round (2016).
Given how superbly talented the 2017 Steelers seemed to be, it only seemed like the next logical step was the Super Bowl.
But not before having that AFC title rematch with those nasty Patriots.
And, as far as the rest of the country was concerned, the two AFC powerhouses appeared on a postseason collision course from the very moment the 2017 season kicked off on September 7.
Both teams did their parts, with matching 13-3 regular season records; when the postseason began, the Patriots had the top seed, and Pittsburgh had the second seed.
As you know, unfortunately, the Steelers won’t be joining New England this Sunday in the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium, not after getting their doors mostly blown off in the divisional round by an upstart Jaguars team.
Of course, not even the professional bettors, who quickly installed Pittsburgh as a 7.5 point home favorite, thought the Jaguars would be able to do what they did the first time, which was come up with key takeaways and run the ball at will.
But after coming up with five interceptions–including two that were returned for scores–and rushing for over 200 yards in the regular season contest, Jacksonville forced two turnovers on Sunday–one leading directly to a touchdown, and the other one setting up a touchdown–and pounded the ball for 164 yards.
In-fact, rookie running back Leonard Fournette eclipsed the 100-yard mark a second straight time against Pittsburgh this season, and scored three times, giving him a total of five touchdowns in two games at Heinz Field.
I’m not the first one to say it, but it needs to be repeated:
The Steelers knew exactly what the Jaguars were going to do, and they let them do it anyway.
Yes, you have to give Jacksonville credit, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be angry at the Steelers.
After anticipating a re-match with your biggest foe–the proverbial monkey that’s been sitting on your back since January of 2002, when it walked out of Heinz Field with the first of three AFC titles at your expense–you couldn’t even make it back to the party to see if, just once, you had it in you to shake that thing off.
So, yes, I’m still a little miffed about how the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season ended, and I don’t blame you if you’re feeling the same way.
The Steelers offensive superstars looked the part in Pittsburgh’s AFC Divisional Playoff match-up against the Jaguars at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Injured receiver Antonio Brown turned in a courageous effort, pulling in seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. And running back Le’Veon Bell was the dual threat he’s been his entire career, tallying 155 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns–one through the air; and one on the ground.
Yes, the Steelers high-paid offensive stars gave fans their money’s worth.
Why? Because, while the Steelers stars were dazzling their fans with perfect throws and breath-taking catches, the Jacksonville Jaguars were executing playoff football.
What’s that, you ask?
Part of it is winning the turnover battle.
The Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger at critical moments. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
Turnovers are a big deal during any football game–and they become absolutely vital after the calendar changes from December to January.
While the Jaguars defense collected 33 takeaways during the regular season, to Pittsburgh’s 22, they also took seven of them back for scores, while Pittsburgh put up one giant zero in that department.
Perhaps then it was no surprise that Jacksonville collected two turnovers on Sunday and turned both into touchdowns. The Steelers, meanwhile, couldn’t turn any takeaways into points, because their defense didn’t come up with a single one.
Speaking of Pittsburgh’s defense, after leading the NFL in sacks with 56 during the regular season, it barely got a hand on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.
The Jaguars defense that collected 55 during the regular season didn’t exactly hound Roethlisberger, who was sacked just twice in 58 attempts. But one of those sacks was of the strip variety, and the fumble was taken to the house by linebacker Telvin Smith.
What about third down conversions?
The Steelers were seven for 16, which isn’t exactly horrible. Jacksonville, meanwhile, was eight of 14. This doesn’t seem like a huge disparity, that is, until you consider the Steelers were battling back from a 21-point deficit.
When you have a team on the ropes, which the Steelers did after cutting their 28-7 deficit to 28-21 with back-to-back touchdowns to end the first half and begin the second, your defense needs to get off the field as quickly as possible in-order to give the football back to your red-hot offense.
But not only were the Jaguars pretty efficient on converting third downs, they had no three-and-outs the entire afternoon.
That’s right, ZERO three and outs for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Steelers. Zip.
What about fourth downs?
The Steelers were four of six in that category, but the fact that they had to attempt so many is indicative of a team that was playing from behind the entire afternoon.
Jacksonville had the lead right from the beginning.
Because it converted on its only fourth down attempt of the day, when running back Leonard Fournette dived through the tackle attempt of Sean Spence and into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown on the game’s opening series.
The Steelers two failed fourth down conversions came when the yard to gain was less than one.
The Jaguars simply out-executed Pittsburgh in every important measurable that a head coach holds near and dear to his heart.
Maybe that’s why they rushed 35 times, to Pittsburgh’s 18.
Why pass 55 times, when you’re averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the ground?
Like Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said afterwards, Pittsburgh’s porous defense couldn’t really get aggressive on second and third down, because Jacksonville was continuously winning on first down (were you as sick as I was of seeing second-and-five or six after just about every run by Fournette and T.J. Yeldon?)
The Steelers out-gained the Jaguars 545 to 378, and in many ways, they were the more spectacular offense.
But statistics are nice, winning is even nicer.
The Jaguars did just about everything a team needs to do in-order to advance in the playoffs.
And that’s why Jacksonville is packing for the AFC Championship game, and the Steelers are packing for the offseason.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil test out of the first round of exams, arrive early on test day, only to forget to the the home portion! Here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Mike Tomlin’s 2nd Playoff Loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Leonard Fournette burns Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Mike Mitchell & Joe Haden on his 18 yard touchdown run. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reads 37-58-5-1for 469, which is a Fantasy Owner’s wet dream. And to be honest, Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Jaguars was strong by any conventional measure. Ben Roethlisberger made some incredible throws. But in this case, his grade must go beyond those numbers and recognize that he committed two turnovers, which were detrimental difference makers. Grade: C-
Running Backs Le’Veon Bell never got a chance to take over this game the way some thought he might, largely because the Steelers were down by two touchdowns before they knew what hit them. Nonetheless, Bell ran for 67 yards and caught balls for another 88. There are LOTS of fingers to point after this loss, but none of those should aim at Le’Veon Bell. Grade: B+
Tight Ends Vance McDonald was the Steelers 2nd leading receiver catching 10 passes for 112 yards (and replays show that he probably couldn’t have caught the ball that was intercepted.) Jesse James had one catch for 12 yards. Grade: B
Steelers fans should appreciate just how good they have it in Antonio Brown. The man is the best in the game, bar none. Having come up with several critical catches, including both touchdown grabs. Martavis Bryant caught a long touchdown pass to end the first half, and it was welcome to see him as a downfield weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quite game in his playoff debut, making only 3 catches. Grade: B+
Antonio Brown makes a 4th down 4th quarter touchdown grab. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
The Jacksonville Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, including a key strip sack that put the Steelers right back in the 14 point hole they’d dug. Jaguar defenders also hit the Steelers signal caller 7 times. Roethilsberger’s stats suggest he shrugged it off, but imagine if he’d been just a little less hurried on those throws. The line also failed to open running lanes when establishing the run would have made a difference for the Steelers. And the line failed on the 4th down pitch. Grade: D
The Steelers, by their own admission, have deployed Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt differently since Keith Butler arrived. The idea was to sacrifice a little run stuffing to get more pressure on the QB. Against the Jaguars, the Steelers got the sacrifice part right, but where was the pressure on Blake Bortles? As for the run defense, it was non-existent when it counted. Grade: F
Tommy Bohanon scores TD as Sean Spence watches. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
OK. Ryan Shazier was not only head and shoulders above the rest, but he also made everyone else look better. Fine. But can ANY linebacker step up and make a play. Against the run? Against the pass? In the middle of the field? Or ANYWHERE else? Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, despite leaving the game for a time. T.J. Watt did hit Bortles twice, but was largely ineffective. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, while Sean Spence had 5 – none of any consequence. The Steelers linebackers were terrible. Grade: F
With the run defense failing up front, if there was ever a day to stop the Jaguars in third down, it was at Heinz on Sunday. Yet, Jacksonville went 8-14 on third down, and while Blake Bortles was a consummate “Game Manager,” he did hit the Steelers deep a few times. The situation screamed for Artie Burns, Sean Davis or Joe Haden to make a play. They didn’t. But at least they didn’t go to the Jaguars locker room and try to call them out before the game, as Mike Mitchell did. Inexcusable. Grade: F
Special Teams Chris Boswell was perfect on PAT’s. Kick coverage was strong, and the Steelers actually got a 29 yard return out of Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers special teams set up the offense to take control of the game when Robert Golden partially blocked a punt. Alas, the offense failed to capitalize.
While all those were positives for the special teams, Steelers failed at their 15th consecutive on sides kick recovery. While those are by definition low percentage plays, the Steelers absolutely needed that one and they didn’t get it. That result brings the grade down. Grade: C-
Coaching Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away, this is probably the only site in Steelers Nation that’s not up in arms over the fourth down pitch that failed so miserably.
No, it was not a “great call” nor was it a “good” play call.
And the pitches to the outside hadn’t worked prior to that. But, if properly executed, it could have plausibly gotten the yardage and perhaps even sprung Bell lose. But the Steelers execution was piss poor. That’s not to let Todd Haley (who might be gone anyway) off the hook.
Mike Tomlin after losing to Jaguars. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
The Steelers really could have used a strong start to the game, and the offense didn’t get going until they were behind by 21 points.
Still, had you told any Vegas book maker that you knew the Steelers were going to score 42 points, he’d have predicted a big Pittsburgh win.
The culpable coordinator here is Keith Butler.
The Steelers knewLeonard Fournette would run the ball. They knew Leonard Fournette could run the ball against the defense — with Ryan Shazier in the lineup. Keith Butler and his staff had had two weeks to prepare for him, and by all accounts they Steelers did use those two weeks to prepare for the Jaguars.
Not that anything the Steelers defense did make them look remotely prepared for this game.
That’s a damming observation, and one that extends equally to Mike Tomlin. It wasn’t Tomlin or Butler who were missing those tackles, taking bad angles, or failing to fill gaps. But it’s their job to ensure that the players are in position to execute and they failed miserably at that on defense.
It says here that the Steelers weren’t “looking past the Jaguars,” and it also says here that Mike Tomlin isn’t at fault for the turnovers, which were killers.
While the Jacksonville Jaguars are a good team, position-by-position, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a more talented team. But the score board fails to reflect that, and that’s Mike Tomlin’s fault. Grade: F
Unsung Hero Award
Early in the game it took the Steelers time to get their offense going. But one player who was on the mark from the very get go was Eli Rogers, who caught 4 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, and was a critical element to getting the offense moving when everything else was going wrong and for that Eli Rogers wins the Unsung Hero Award.
Well, that neither ended the way we wanted or expected, did it? On the heels of a 13-3 regular season performance and a first round playoff bye, the Pittsburgh Steelers welcomed the Jacksonville Jaguars to Heinz Field for the AFC Divisional playoffs – and promptly self-destructed.
The final score reads Jacksonville 45, Steelers 42.
But don’t fool yourself. This one was never that close. The Jaguars opened the game with a touchdown, converted an interception into a touchdown and were up 21 nothing before the Steelers knew what hit them.
This one stings. As it should. Undoubtedly Twitter is a live with folks who wish to see Todd Haley, Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and even Art Rooney II sacked. Who can blame them? This was a total team failure.
But here we seek to tone-down any vigilante in favor of a blow-by-blow distillation of 4 key factors that fueled the implosion of the Steelers 2017 season.
Ben Roethlisberger hangs his head after the Steelers 45-42 playoff loss to Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Shazierless Steelers Powerless to Stop Run, Leonard Fournette
Perhaps it is fitting that Jacksonville Jaugar Fred Taylor holds the single-game regular season rushing record against the Steelers, because had he not gotten injured, Leonard Fournette almost certainly would have earned the playoff record.
Leonard Fournette owned the Steelers during the game’s first 30 minutes.
Since Ryan Shazier’s injury, the Steelers front seven has struggled against the run. Sure, they made improvements against Houston, but everyone knew stopping the run would be key for the Steelers to set the tone they needed to win.
Instead, Leonard Fournette ran wild, breaking through to the second level with alarming regularity, and benefiting from ruby like scrums on a number of occasions. Even the most optimistic assessments going into the game probably had the Jaguars running well against the Steelers.
But the Jaguars offensive line manhandled the Steelers front seven during the first half. To be sure, the Steelers defense adjusted during the 2nd half (although let’s be frank, Fournette’s injuries limited him) but if you let yourself be dominated 30 minutes in the playoff you can expect to lose.
Turnovers Send Steelers Spinning
Protect the football. If there’s a cardinal rule in playoff football, it’s that. The Steelers were minus two in the turnover differential.
The first turnover came early, when Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Vance McDonald in stride. McDonald got both hands on the ball, but bobbled it and Myles Jack made a text book in bounds catch to keep the ball.
It took Leonard Fournette all of one play to transform that turnover into a touchdown, and put the Jaguars up 14-0, and five minutes remained in the 1st quarter…
Leonard Fournette torches Steelers to score 2nd touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner
The second turnover came when the Steelers seemed to be putting together one of their patented end-of-first half scoring drives, which hit the skids when the Jaguars defense got to Ben Roethlisberger who fumbled, only to have Telvin Smith scoop it up and run 50 yards for the touchdown.
Those two turnovers translated into a 14 point hole the Steelers had dug for themselves….
Even Money Not Good Enough for Steelers
….So how does a football coach react when his team digs itself a hole? He gambles. If there’s a record for 4th down attempts in playoff football, the Steelers very well may have tied it.
The first time the Steelers tried a pitch to Le’Veon Bell, executed it piss poorly, and lost yards
The second time Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant in the end zone for a touchdown
The fourth time Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown deep for 43 yards for a touchdown
When a team goes 50/50 on 4th down attempts that’s normally “pretty good.” When a team gets touchdowns on two successful 4th down conversions, that’s very good. But against the Jaguars, it wasn’t enough, as Jacksonville converted both of Steelers other two fourth down failures into touchdowns.
So instead of digging themselves out of the hole, the Steelers gambles simply maintained the status quo. Breaking even on playoff games simply isn’t good enough.
Steelers Special Teams Creates Opportunities, Offense Fails to Capitalize
The critical moments that defined the game’s outcome came at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Steelers had opened the half with a 77 yard, 5 minute 51 second drive that ended with a Ben Roethlisberger pass to Le’Veon Bell.
After that, the two teams traded punts.
You never want to punt, but the Steelers were stopping the Jaguars. On the Jaguar’s second possession the Steelers did them one better, forcing a punt which Robert Golden partially blocked. Danny Smith went wild. Heinz Field erupted.
Nothing changes momentum like a big special teams play, and this was one of those.
This was the Steelers chance to tie the game and set themselves up to win it in the fourth quarter. Le’Veon Bell ran for six on first down. He ran for three on second. On third he got stoned for no gain.
Mike Tomlin’s 4th down gamble fails. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner
Then Mike Tomlin gambled with the fourth down pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jaguars took over on their own 39, only 11 yards back from where they’d been just two minutes earlier. It only took the Jaguars another two minutes and 10 seconds to make it 35-21.
Steelers Fail to Recover On Sides Kick. Again.
Someway, somehow, some time, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers will actually execute a successful on-sides kick. They did it once, back in January of 2007 in a meaningless game against the Baltimore Ravens.
The stat geeks will tell you that on-sides kick have about a one and 10 chance of success.
Since that fateful day in Baltimore, the Steelers have failed at 14 on-sides kicks.
So the law of averages had to work in their favor, didn’t it?
I mean, the Steelers were due to finally recover an on-sides kick, weren’t they?
Alas, dice don’t have memories. While luck certainly plays a role, execution and not statistical averages determine who recovers an on-sides kick, and the Steelers couldn’t even kick it the requisite 10 yards.
Everything after that was window dressing.
After the Jaguars field goal, the Steelers got to the Red Zone with enough time, theoretically to score a touchdown and recover an on-sides kick to try to tie the score. But you really didn’t think their 16th on sides attempt would go any differently than their previous 15?
A Little Word on the Big Picture
Mike Tomlin declined to offer any “big picture” analysis following the game, and I won’t go far down that road here as this article is long enough already.
From a Vulcan like logical perspective, the Steelers gave up a couple of turnovers, struggled to stop the run and simply never dug out of the hole they created for themselves. Plus, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a pretty good football team, even if they have an average-at-best signal caller.
But the Steelers had the best playoff positioning they have in 7 years, a bye which was supposed to be a difference maker.
It wasn’t, and the Steelers playoff implosion can’t help but leave the feeling that Pittsburgh’s 13-3 regular season record was an over achievement.
Taken from the gradebook of a very tardy teacher who fears that his once sharp star student has quite frankly lost his edge, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Ben Roethlisberger tried to ward off the Jaguars Calais Campbell. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Maybe I’ve lost it…” Ben Roethlisberger responded to a question about his poor play. While that was a stream of conscious utterance (as opposed to Mike Ditka’s tearful admission that he’d lost it as New Orleans Saints coach), Ben Roethlisberger certainly spoke what has been on everyone’s mind. The Steelers are 5 games into the 2017 season, and Ben Roethlisberger has been subpar, at best, in at least four of them. A couple of three of his 5 interceptions might not have been completely his fault, those compensate throws in earlier games defenders should have picked off. Statistics say this was Ben Roethlisberger’s worst day as a pro. Sometimes statistics reveal brutal truths. Grade: F
Running Backs Le’Veon Bell’s taken it upon himself to pronounce that the Steelers offense must rush, and if Ben Roethlisberger’s begun his definitive decline, then that argument makes sense on paper. But after a strong game against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell did little to distinguish himself. True, the Steelers went from being in a position to rush for protect a lead to playing from two scores behind in a blink of an eye. But unlike the Dolphins game a year ago, there was nothing about Bell’s play that suggested he could have taken it over. James Conners had 3 carries for 9 yards in garbage time, he also missed a block on a Roethlisberger’s first interception. Grade: C-
Tight Ends Jesse James had 3 catches on 5 targets for 24 yards showing himself to be a fairly reliable ball catcher, but one who struggles to gain yards after contact. Jones also missed a key block in the Red Zone that could have paved the way for a Le’Veon Bell touchdown. Vance McDonald was targeted on the first interception and did not see a pass come his way. The tight end did not distinguish themselves in this game. Grade: D
Wide Receivers Antonio Brown had 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown negated by a penalty. Brown continues to be Ben Roethlisberger’s only reliable receiver and the question of whether is forcing the ball to Brown or remains open. Martavis Bryant gained 13 yards on a reverse, and had 5 catches for 21yards. Thus far, Bryant has shown none of the game-changing explosiveness he flashed before his suspension. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 58 yards. Justin Hunter had 1 catch for 6 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C
While the Jaguars only sacked Ben Roethlisberger 2, they hit him five times and he was under duress much of the afternoon. Jaguars defenders also made at least 7 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during the game. The Steelers have invested big bucks in their offensive line, and are got precious little return on investment in terms of both pass protection and road grading run blocking. Grade: F
Pro Football Focus may have graded the Steelers defensive line out highly, but the fact is that the Jacksonville Jaguars rushed for 231 yards. Even if you take out the 90 yard run in garbage time, the Jaguars still averaged 3.9 yards per carry. The defensive line might not entirely be at fault for that, but they certainly share some of the responsibly. Grade: D
Linebackers Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and had a sack. T.J. Watt registered another sack, giving him 3 in four games. Ryan Shazier had what should have been a game-changing interception. Those are all positives, but the linebackers job is to keep running backs from reaching the second level, and the Steelers linebackers weren’t up to the task. Grade: C-
Secondary Blake Bortles completed 8 passes for 95 yards. Normally that would mark an outstanding day for any secondary, but the brutal truth is that the Jaguars didn’t need to throw the ball. Nonethless, the Jaguars still completed 3 passes for double digit yardage. And even if it was garbage time, the Steelers defensive backs must shoulder responsibility for allowing the 90 yard run. Grade: C-
Special Teams Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and the Steelers coverage units didn’t well, although their return game was negligible and included at least one penalty that negated a return. Could a special teams spark have changed the outcome of the game for the Steelers? Possibly. But we’ll never know, because they didn’t produce one. Grade: C
Todd Haley has been roundly roasted for his Red Zone play calling and the Steelers lopsided pass-run ratio.
Some of this criticism is legitimate, however, some of the breakdowns boil down to execution.
Regardless, the Steelers offense isn’t getting it done, and it is Haley’s job to ensure that this happens.
Going into game five, pundits, both inside and outside of Pittsburgh were posed to proclaim Keith Butler’s defense as an elite unit. After the game, several commentators were content to give Butler a pass, given that the Jaguars defense scored nearly half of the team’s points, and turnovers set up other scores.
Fair enough. But Keith Butler’s defense let the Jaguars open the with a 13 yard drive that consumed 8:07 off the clock when the score was still 20 to 9. That’s simply inexcusable and indicative of a defense that is anything but elite.
Finally we come to Mike Tomlin. Credit Tomlin for attempting to establish the tone immediately after the Raven’s road win by reminding his team that Jacksonville had beaten the Baltimore more badly than the Steelers had.
Once again, Tomlin’s motivation and preparation in the face of a supposedly inferior team failed him.
To be fair to Tomlin, if Ben Roethlisberger really is losing it, Le’Veon Bell has had a little too much tread worn of his tires and if Martavis Bryant lost something during his year-long suspension, that’s not something you can blame the head coach for.
But what about the poor play of the offensive line, and the consistently inconsistent execution of the defense?
The bottom line is that Steelers are performing poorly on an alarmingly consistent basis 5 games in to the 2017 season. And that comes back to the coach. Grade: F
In perhaps the worst performance of his 14-year career, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions–including two that were returned for touchdowns–as the Steelers fell to visiting Jacksonville, 30-9, before a stunned and displeased Heinz Field crowd on Sunday.
Pittsburgh jumped out of gate strong, when Roethlisberger found receiver Antonio Brown for a 49-yard pass on the team’s first offensive play of the day.
Barry Church takes it to the house as Ben Roethlisberger can only look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live
However, as has been a theme for the Steelers supposed high-powered unit so far this season, the offense reached the 13-yard line and had a first and 10, but ultimately could only muster a Chris Boswell 29-yard field goal and a 3-0 advantage.
On Pittsburgh’s next offensive series, Roethlisberger tried to find tight end Vance McDonald on a pass down the seam, but he was intercepted by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 46.
Speaking of themes, the Jaguars started what would become a theme on the day, by marching 47 yards and converting Roethlisberger’s miscue into a score, when running back Leonard Fournette skied over the Steelers defensive line and into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown to make it 7-3, visitors.
The teams traded punts over the next three series, but with less than a minute left in the second quarter, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier made a heads-up play, when he ripped a pass from the grasps of tight end James O’Shaughnessy and intercepted it at the 39-yard line with 41 seconds left in the half.
The Steelers converted this into points, by driving 45 yards on six plays, setting up Boswell’s second field goal of the day–this time from 34 yards away–and headed into the locker room trailing 7-6.
Pittsburgh received the second half kick off and produced its best offensive series of the afternoon, by methodically moving the football down to the Jacksonville five-yard line. Unfortunately, after facing a first and goal, the Steelers elected not to hand the football to All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell and instead passed three-straight times and failed to hit pay-dirt. Boswell trotted out for a 20-yard field goal, and the Steelers now led 9-7.
It was all downhill from there.
After T.J. Watt ended the Jaguars first offensive series of the second half with a sack of quarterback Blake Bortles, Pittsburgh faced a second and 11 from its own 22. But a short pass intended for Brown was deflected at the line-of-scrimmage and fell into the waiting arms for of linebacker Telvin Smith, who galloped 28 yards for a touchdown and a 13-9 Jaguars lead.
Just six plays later, another Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Brown was tipped by Ramsey and intercepted by safety Barry Church, who raced 51 yards for another score and a 20-9 lead for the team from Florida.
Early in the fourth quarter, following yet another disappointing drive by the offense, the Steelers defense had a chance to get the momentum back in the home team’s favor, when Jordan Berry pinned Jacksonville down at its own four-yard line with a 51-yard punt.
However, the Jaguars marched 67 yards on 13 plays–eating up 8:07 of game-clock in the process–and effectively put the game away, when kicker Jason Myers connected on a 47-yard field goal to make it 23-9 with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter
Photo credit: Jacksonville.com
What followed would be two more interceptions by Roethlisberger, the second pick setting up a 90-yard touchdown scamper by Fournette to put the icing on the cake for the Jaguars.
For the day, Roethlisberger completed 33 of 55 passes for 312 yards, zero touchdowns and those five interceptions.
Brown pulled in 10 passes for 157 yards, while Bell carried just 15 times for 47 yards against a Jaguars rushing defense that came into the game last in the NFL.
As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it kept the game close through two-plus quarters, but in the end, Jacksonville became the second team in three weeks to rush for over 200 yards against it (231), with Fournette accounting for 181 yards of his own.
Next up for the Steelers is a 4:25 match-up against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.
As the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly recounts, when OTA’s began, the Steelers offense huddled at the 20 yard line – Mike Tomlin however ordered the team into a 2 point conversion drill. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knew what was coming, but it was a surprise to the rest of the offense.
Tomlin explained his motive to the rest of the offense in simple terms: “We are not going to talk about it, we are just going to do it.”
By moving the extra point kick back to what will now be a 32 or 33 yard field goal, the extra point will still be almost automatic instead of being virtually automatic. In 2014 NFL kickers converted extra point kicks more than 99% of time, whereas 33 yard field goals were approximately 94% proposition.
Since Mike Tomlin joined the Steelers in 2007, the Steelers have converted 10 of 13 2 point conversion attempts or nearly 77% and they hold the best two point conversion record in the NFL since 2001, having converted 72.7%
The irony is that the most Steelers fans can probably name at least two of these failures without going to Google.
Both missed opportunities cost the Steelers dearly. The first severely set hurt the Steelers comeback efforts, and the second time it robbed them of a chance to tie the game, and allowed the Ravens to run out the clock.
As Ben Roethlisberger confided to Mark Kaboly, all 33 yard field goals are not created equally – kicking one in a dome or in a place like Tampa Bay isn’t quite the same as kicking a 33 yard field goal on a windy November evening at Heinz Field.
It will be interesting to see what strategy Tomlin employs regarding the two point conversion. At the very least Tomlin’s intent on establishing a “Be prepared to go for 2”mindset starting with the first set of Steelers OTA’s that includes both veterans and members of the Steelers 2015 draft class.
The Super Bowl has arrived and the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will soon be selecting the 2015 Hall of Fame Class. This year 3 candidates with strong ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers are finalists and they are Kevin Greene, Tony Dungy and of course Jerome Bettis.
While most of Steelers Nation would be perfectly happy to see Dungy and Greene elected, Bettis is the one we care about.
Perhaps Jerome Bettis is falling victim to the “Too Many Steelers in the Hall of Fame” mentality, perhaps it is his 3.9 yards per carry average. Neither should be a sticking point. Jerome Bettis belongs in the Hall of Fame.
To help make that happen, here are 15 Worthy Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Games. Click on a link below for specific games or scroll down to relive them all!
Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss
I. Bettis Best Game Ever
12/12/93, Los Angeles Rams 23, New Orleans Saints 20
Sometimes we easily forget Jerome Bettis wasn’t always a Pittsburgh Steeler after so long as “The face of the franchise.” But it is true. The Los Angeles Rams selected Jerome Bettis with the 10th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.
Bettis took the league by storm, rushing for 1429 yards as a rookie, and his best game of the season came vs. New Orleans, when he banged out 212 yards on 28 carries, for one touchdown. That was his highest single game rushing total ever, and it included his longest run at 71.
Although Bettis would never have a better day statistically, he did have bigger games — all for the Black and Gold.
II. Bettis First 100 Yard Game for Steelers
9/8/96, Pittsburgh Steelers 31, Baltimore Ravens 17
Jerome Bettis’ first game for the Steelers didn’t go so well, as Pittsburgh suffered a disastrous defeat in Jacksonville at the hands of the Jaguars with injuries decimating the linebacking crops, with Bettis 57 yard effort an under story.
He made good in week 2 the first Steelers-Ravens match up ever. Bettis rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries – and he didn’t even start. Erric Pegram had that honor, who turned in a respectable 60 yard on 11 carry performance
III. Rams Rue Decision to Run Bettis Out of Town
11/3/96, Pittsburgh Steelers 42, St. Louis Rams 6
Jerome Bettis was the only positive for the 4-12 1993 Rams. Chuck Knox aka “ground Chuck” got the ax the team hired Rich Brooks and moved to St. Louis. For whatever reason Bettis and Brooks didn’t work well together. Bettis production dropped by 400 yards in 1994 and to 637 yards in 1995.
Dick Vermeil’s first decision was to pick Lawrence Philips in the 1996 draft.
By the time the Steelers played the Rams at mid-season, it was already clear that the trade might have been one of Tom Donahoe’s best ever personnel decisions. Bettis already had six 100 yard games and laid claim to the moniker, “The Bus.”
Bettis exploded vs. the Rams, scoring the first two touchdowns and racking up 100 yards before the half, as The Bus steamrolled the Rams to the tune of 129 yards rushing on 19 carries for a 6.8 yard average. For the record Lawrence Philips had six yards on 5 carries….
Carnell Lake returned a fumble 83 yards for a touchdown, but the Colts would threaten the entire game, as the Steelers lost Kordell Stewart and Charles Johnson to injury. Things got so bad that reserve receiver Mike Adams had to play the entire second half on a torn ACL.
The Steelers did what they worked for them best in that day and age – they rode The Bus. Bettis racked up 164 yards, his highest total as a Steeler, on 30 carries including one touchdown.
But credit Jerome Bettis as the game’s unsung hero. The fireworks took place in the first half, which ended in a 21-21 tie. The second half started with the Broncos getting a field goal and the lead.
Then Bettis took over.
He pounded Denver into submission, including 24 yard run where he literally dragged defenders for a good 7 or 8 yards after contact. When all was said and done, The Bus had run for 24 yards on 125 carries.
When the season finale vs. Jacksonville arrived, the Jaguars started their back up and the only thing at stake was Bill Cowher’s chance to avoid his first losing season. He didn’t.
The harsh reality is that many of Cowher’s players quit on him.
But one player shown out. He not only gave it his all, he played with power and he delivered results. That player was number 36, Jerome Bettis who ran for 139 yards and caught 4 balls for 24 yards – and he did it on a bum knee, having announced to ABC’s sideline reporter that he’d scheduled surgery for the following morning.
Stepping up in games like these were one reason why Bettis owned the Steelers locker room.
George Seifert’s Carolina Panthers came to Three Rivers Stadium with a 7-7 record while the Pittsburgh Steelers were reeling on a six game losing streak.
The Steelers looked like easy pickings.
Early on the Steelers looked lackluster, but then it started to snow. Snow blanked the Astroturf at Three Rivers Stadium, and it left the Panthers flat footed. The Bus took off, rushing for 137 yards and inspiring the team to victory. The Panthers made a run late in the game as they fought to within 3 late in the third quarter. But Bettis did what he always did – iced the game away with a dominating 4th quarter that saw him barrel into the end zone with 3:47 remaining to put the game away.
Bill Cowher had other ideas. He didn’t care that he’d started 0-3. He didn’t care that the Jacksonville Jaguars were Super Bowl contenders. He didn’t care that Jacksonville had won 3 straight vs. Pittsburgh. He didn’t care that Kent Graham, his starting quarterback, had been injured late in practice on Friday.
He didn’t care because Bill Cowher preached that players should expect to win on Sunday.
In this game, names like Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Desha Townsend announced their presence to Steelers Nation and as the Steelers defense dominated. But on a day where Kordell Stewart only managed 132 yards passing, Jerome Bettis carried the Steelers offense. He didn’t break 100 yards, but he did run for 97 and scored two touchdowns. The victory in Jacksonville set the tone for the Steelers for a decade and, once again, the Steelers rode the Bus.
IX. Bus Shines in Old Fashioned Steelers Raiders Showdown
12/3/00, Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Oakland Raiders 20
This probably gets left off of many other worthy Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame games lists, but it makes it here because this game simply doesn’t get its due. The twin Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowls defined pro football excellence in the 70’s, but had they not then the dozen epic matchups the Steelers and Raiders fought between 1970 to 1980 would have.
Due to scheduling irregularities, the Raiders would not play in Pittsburgh for 20 years. That changed in December 2000, and the matchup was worthy of the best of Steelers-Raiders lore. The Steelers had clawed their way out of an 0-3 start back to 6-6 while the Raiders boasted a 10-2 record.
The Steelers comeback left Pittsburgh with some priceless memories:
Kordell Stewart’s miraculous recovery, including his 17 yard touchdown run
Mark Bruener marshaling pure will power to win a goal line dog fight to spark the Steelers rally
Jon Gruden pleading for a 5th down after the Steelers defense stopped him cold on 4th down with 7 seconds left.
But what many forget, is that amidst all the chaos Jerome Bettis “quietly” kept the offense moving for by rushing for 128 yards. That’s just what Hall of Famers do.
X. Bus Rolls Over Redskins in Three Rivers Stadium Finale
12/16/00, Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Redskins 3
In 2000 Daniel Snyder bought his first off season Lombardi. For many fans and press alike, Snyder’s signing of Deon Sanders in June made the delivery of the Redskins 4th Super Bowl trophy a mere formality. The schedule had been published by then, and few Redskins fans even gave a second thought to the fact that they’d have to play the Steelers in the final game a Three Rivers Stadium.
A far different off season narrative had been penned for Jerome Bettis.
Declining production in 1998 and 1999 led many, inside and outside Pittsburgh, to assume Bettis best days were behind him.
Yet, when the Three Rivers Stadium finale arrived, it was Jerome Bettis, and not any of Daniel Snyder’s high-priced free agents, who dominated the game. Bettis charged up and down the middle of the Redskins defense for 104 yards on 25 carries, and added another grab for 25. Perhaps the biggest highlight came when Deon Sanders backed away rather than try to tackle Bettis.
Daniel Snyder grew so incensed that he tried to order Myron Cope to alter his color commentary, to which Cope retorted,
“If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, then he can take his head and stick it in a bucket of paint!”
Suffice to say, all of Snyder’s money could neither silence the voice of Steelers Nation, nor change the fact that The Bus had plenty of tread left on his tires.
XI. Bettis Leads the Way as Steelers Inaugurate Heinz Field with a Win
Instead, the Steelers would open at home nearly a month later, and this time vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Bettis again led the way for the Steelers offense, piling up 153 yards on 25 carries, and giving the Steelers their first win in their new home.
XII. Bus Comes Off Bench to Help Steelers Spoil Philly’s Perfect Record
Staley had run well in the season’s first seven games, but got injured in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. Prior to the season, Jerome Bettis had accepted a pay cut and was seen by many as an insurance policy at best or a scholarship year at worst.
Bettis proved his critics wrong as he ran for 133 yards and helped the Steelers spoil the Eagles 7-0 record.
XIII. Bus, Staley Tag Team to Bludgeon Jets in Playoffs
Jerome Bettis started this game, but had to take himself out due to injury. Staley came in and continued to pound the Jets. Then he got hurt and Bettis had to return.
It was a sight to behold – two Steelers big backs alternating to pummel an opponent into submission.
The Steelers needed every bit of it, as Ben Roethlisberger began playing like a rookie, and the Jets mounted a stiff challenge. At the end of the day, Bettis the 32 year old war horse, ran for 101 yards and a touchdown.
The Steelers were at 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak. Bill Cowher took the unusual step of order a full pads practice. He told the team they were Christopher Columbus uncharted journey. And with the 9-3 Bears coming to town, he turned to his gamers.
The record will note that Willie Parker got 21 carries as opposed to Bettis 17, but the Bus carried the day for the Steelers rushing for 101 yards, including dominating Brian Urlacher in one incredible 1-1 open field confrontation.
The Chicago game marked Bettis final 100 yard effort. But The Bus made it count.
Bettis didn’t break 100 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown. He didn’t rip off a record breaking run.
Bettis finger print was all over the field, a fact made evident when Joey Porter pulled a surprise, and allowed Bettis to emerge as the lone Steeler during introductions.
Bettis leadership and inspiration is what drove the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers on their improbable 8 game season-closing winning streak and ultimately to One for the Thumb.
15 MORE Reasons for Jerome Bettis to be in the Hall of Fame
The tough thing about writing an article like this, aside from finding the time, is limiting this list to 15 worthy Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Games. Many other candidates scream for inclusion.
Forget about the numbers and statistics.
Hall of Fame worthiness comes from defining what it means to be excellent at your position. When you look at a sampling of his work, who can argue that Jerome Bettis failed to accomplish that? In 13 years as an NFL running back, from his rookie season to his final season, Bettis dominated games.
You can’t say that about Terrell Davis, whom will likely get the nod over Bettis.
Jerome Bettis belongs in the Hall of Fame. Period.