Steelers-Jaguars Preview – Time to Measure Pittsburgh’s Progress Since Playoff Disaster

This is the one Steelers Nation has been waiting for. Today the Steelers face off against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and be honest, when the schedule came out, you saw this game and thought, “Man do I want to see this.”

  • How quickly times change. When the 2017 schedule came out, who gave the Jaguars a second thought?

I certainly didn’t. Yet it was the Jaguars, and not the Patriots, who stopped the Steelers quest to bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Yet a lot has happened in the 309 days that have passed since the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

Changes to the Steelers Since the Last Jaguars Game

Perhaps its is appropriate that so many members of the Steelers defense changed numbers during the off season, because a lot has changed.

During the September, not only did it look like these had been insufficient, but that perhaps the Steelers had further regressed. But the Steelers travel to Jacksonville riding a 5 game winning streak, that has seen the Steelers improve week in and week out.

Across the board, whether you’re looking at third down conversions, Red Zone efficiency, or Ben Roethlisberger’s performance, all of the trends Pittsburgh is taking into this big game are pointed the right way.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in taking a shot at the Team Turmoil thesis, it was just two years ago, on November 13, 2016 when the Steelers home loss to the Dallas Cowboys seemed to signal all hope had been lost.

  • Except it wasn’t, and the Steelers have gone 26-6 since then.

But story symmetry can be a tricky thing. While Jacksonville had bested the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season – with Ryan Shazier on the field – Ben Roethlisberger had played one of the worst, if not the worst game of his career. Big Ben bounced back to play the best football of his life in the second half of 2017.

Few thought Jacksonville would give the Steelers must of a test last January, but reports that Stephon Tuitt missed practice time due to an arm injury foreshadowed a flatfooted defensive response to Leonard Fournette’s fierce rushing.

  • And, as fate would have it, Stephon Tuitt will miss the rematch against the Jaguars.

So be it. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be on a 5 game losing streak, but this still is the same team that schooled the Patriots early in the year. But they were without Leonard Fournette for most of that stretch. But he will play this afternoon.

  • And that’s good in at least one sense.

Fournette’s presence means the outcome of today’s Steelers-Jaguars matchup in Jacksonville will still give Steelers Nation a true measure of how far Pittsburgh has come since that playoff defeat or, how far they still need go.

 

 

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Fans East of the Eastern Time Zone Celebrate: NFL Flexes Steelers-Jaguars Game to Afternoon

When the schedule came out this game seemed like a no-brainer for Prime Time. The Pittsburgh Steelers were scheduled to face off against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a rematch of the Jaguars January 2018 upset of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

  • In the NFL originally scheduled it for the evening of Sunday November 18th.
Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Jaguars

Leonard Fournette smokes Steelers defense in ’17 playoff upset.

But, given the resurgence of the Chicago Bears and the consistent play of the Minnesota Vikings, the NFL has decided to shift that game into Prime Time, leaving the Steelers to play at Jacksonville at 1:00 pm. Most Steelers fans will be a tad bit disappointed at this because the Steelers play their best in Prime Time and because there’s no better showcase for such a revenge rematch.

  • But Steelers fans living east of the Eastern Time Zone celebrate this decision.

As alluded to earlier, those of us who live ahead of the Eastern Time Zone wholeheartedly endorsed Art Rooney II’s concern about the Steelers playing too many night games. But our reasons are far more selfish. Before the US changes its clocks in the early fall, Sunday, Monday and Thursday Night games end at around 12:00 midnight. Not ideal, but still workable.

  • But after the US switches its clocks, those of us in Argentina find ourselves 2 hours ahead of Eastern, which means that games end it 1:00 am — or later.

That gets harder as the years go by. It is true that the Steelers do seem to bring a little something extra in Prime Time, but it is also true that the Steelers ability to beat the Jaguars will be determined by Ben Roethlisberger‘s ability to connect with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald; the offensive line’s ability to open holes for James Conners (and Le’Veon Bell?), and above all the ability of Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Vince Williams, and T.J. Watt to contain Leonard Fournette and pressure Blake Borttles (or perhaps Landry Jones?)

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • 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.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

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.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • 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, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

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.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

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.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

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.

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Steelers Fans Have a Right to Be Angry about the Loss to the Jaguars

Last spring and summer were pretty annoying for me, a huge Steelers fan.

Why? Because I spent the majority of my time arguing with fellow fans about how unsatisfying the end of the 2016 season was, after Pittsburgh got trounced by the Patriots, 36-17, in the AFC Championship Game.

  • For my money, the 2016 campaign was the finishing touches of a masterful rebuild that begin in 2012, only included two playoff-less years and didn’t contain one single losing season.

As a matter of fact, I am of the opinion–perhaps naively–that had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not suffered a torn meniscus right before the regular season match-up against New England, and had star defensive end Cam Heyward not suffered a season ending torn pectoral muscle against the Cowboys in November, Pittsburgh would have finished with a much better record than 11-5 and, at the very least, reached the Super Bowl.

Yannick Ngakoue, Ben Roethlisberger, Ngakoue Roethlisberger sack, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

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.

In-fact, in their 45-42 victory that really wasn’t as close as the score appeared, the Jaguars did to the Steelers exactly what they did to them in Week 5, when they came into Heinz Field and had their way in a 30-9, 5 Roethlisberger interception beatdown.

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.

 

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Difference in Sunday’s Debacle? The Jacksonville Jaguars Played Playoff Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers Didn’t

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.

Only problem was, they didn’t give them a victory, as the Steelers fell 45-42 to end their season one week before most thought it would, and three weeks before everyone wished it would.

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.

Ben Roethlisberger, Lerentee McCray, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Jaguars sack ben roethlisberger

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.

Why?

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.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Loss to Jaguars – F for Total Defensive Failure

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, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Sean Spence, Vince Williams

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-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

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

Wide Receivers
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, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown makes a 4th down 4th quarter touchdown grab. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Offensive Line
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

Defensive Line
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, Sean Spence, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Tommy Bohanon scores TD as Sean Spence watches. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
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

Secondary
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, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

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 knew Leonard 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.

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Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field

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, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

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, Joe Haden, Leonard Fournette touchdown Steelers, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs. Jaguars

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 third time Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and came up short
  • 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.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers Jaguars 4th down, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

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.

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Late Steelers Report Card for Jaguars Loss – Never Too Tardy to Give out F’s…

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.

Calais Campbell, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 5 interceptions, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger tried to ward off the Jaguars Calais Campbell. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Quarterback
“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

Offensive Line
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

Defensive Line
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

Coaching
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

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