Ben Roethlisberger Perfect as Steelers Pulverize Panthers 52-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers pulverized the Carolina Panthers 52-10 on Thursday Night Football, easily giving Mike Tomlin’s team their best performance of the season to date far. Just how dominant was Pittsburgh’s performance? Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger launched two 50 yard plus bombs for touchdowns
  • The Steelers defense scored on a pick six
  • Roosevelt Nix and Anthony Chickillo setup another touchdown with forced a fumble on a kickoff return

So the Steelers offense, defense and special teams each authored dramatic Splash Plays that, on one level, had a decisive impact on the outcome. But viewed from another angle, the Steelers performance revealed a bit of a different truth about football: For Splash Plays to be decisive, they must be backed by sound fundamental football.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger passes to James Conner. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

From Down 0-7 to Up 14-7 in 0:24 Seconds….

A lot of good quotes surfaced after the game, but perhaps the best came from Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “Yeah, we got the ball at the jump, right down the field, scored. Two plays later, we’re down 14-7.”

  • While it will long be forgotten, things did NOT start out well for the Steelers.

Going into the game stopping Carolina’s high-octane offense was paramount. And the Panthers opened with a 6 play 75 yard drive that featured a lot of Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton, with Pittsburgh looking powerless to slow, let alone stop the duo.

But when two Carolina corners collided on what was to be a short pass to James Washington, Ben Roethlisberger hurled a bomb to JuJu Smith-Schuster who took it to the house.

  • The record will reflect that Carolina’s lead would last all of 0:11 seconds.

They fared a little better with a tie, to the tune of 0:13 seconds, as T.J. Watt wrapped Cam Newton in the end zone. Newton, like Roethlisberger is tough to bring down, and he resisted long enough to save a safety by tossing the ball away, but he didn’t intend hitting Vince Williams, who took the interception to the house giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead.

However, when asked if that was the decisive sequence of the game, Mike Tomlin balked:

…we’ve seen that so many times. There is too much ball after that to think that is the defining moment. It’s not. It was a great moment but whether it was positive or negative the games are never defined by plays that occur that early.

And Mike Tomlin is right. A big play’s impact only reverberates through the end result of the game if you follow solid fundamental football, which is indeed what the Steelers delivered in the game’s remaining forty nine minutes and 55 seconds of play.

Next Six Series Prove to be Decisive for Pittsburgh

While the plays perhaps don’t provide much in the way of ESPN highlight material, its entirely possible that the series following Vince Williams’ Pick Six was the most important of the night.

  • Javon Hargrave stuffed Christian McCafferty for a 1 yard gain on first.
  • The Steelers defense confused Cam Newton, forcing him to burn a time out.
  • It didn’t matter, as Bud Dupree forced him into an incompletion anyway
  • Coty Sensabaugh batted away a pass intended for D.J. Moore

Instead of answering the Steelers score, Carolina had to punt. That in turn allowed the Steelers to lean on James Conners on the ensuring drive to build a 14 point advantage. By the time Carolina got within sniffing distance of another score, a 50 yard Chris Boswell field goal had already given the Steelers a 17 point advantage.

Carolina did indeed cut the Steelers advantage to 10 on another Christian McCafferty touchdown, but it took Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown less than 2 minutes to put the Steelers back up by 17 when the duo hooked up on a 53 yard touchdown play.

2nd Half: Anatomy of a Rout

For the second straight week the Steelers started the second half by getting the ball, and for the second straight week Randy Fichtner’s offense opened by engineering a long, clock consuming drive.

This one saw the Steelers convert 3 third downs, and burn more than 6 minutes off of the clock, as Vance McDonald pulled down a touchdown to put the Steelers up 38 to 14.

Vance McDonald, Eric Reid, Steelers vs Panthers

Vance McDonald makes a tough catch. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Carolina started the first half soundly, as Christian McCafferty got 5 yards on his opening carry. However, Bud Dupree sacked Cam Newton for an 11 yard loss on the next play, and Carolina’s first drive ended in a punt. The rout was on.

Mike Tomlin went into the game planning to play every player with a helmet, and every player had a piece of the victory.

Joshua Dobbs did lose the perfect passer rating he’d taken out of the Ravens game, but that is a small price to pay for seeing your 2nd string quarterback come out for clean up duty in the 4th quarter.

While the win over the Panthers was truly a team effort, any analysis must acknowledge the exceptional play by Ben Roethlisberger, who en route a perfect passer rating game managed to convert third downs at will, while throwing 5 touchdown passes to 5 different players.

Tomlin’s Challenge Coming out of the Carolina Game

As noted in our Report Card, the last time the Steelers played at night in Heinz Field it appeared to be lights out for Pittsburgh. On Thursday Night Football, the Steelers dominated a hot team and one that is a legitimate NFC contender.

The progress is unquestionably positive, but Mike Tomlin’s challenge is to ensure that the Steelers performance against the Panthers doesn’t represent Pittsburgh’s peak. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin appears to understand that as he explained:

Really big performance against versus a really good team on a short week so there is a lot to be proud of, but we are probably not that good. You get games like that sometimes. The ball gets rolling down hill, we are appreciative of it.

If Mike Tomlin can get his team to internalize that attitude, then the Steelers stand a strong chance of gaining a measure of revenge against the Jaguars next Sunday in Jacksonville.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Panthers – Straight A’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is breaking protocol by issuing his grades before his analysis, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

T.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Vince Williams pick six, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt wrapping Cam Newton in end zone. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger posted a perfect quarterback rating, by going 22 of 25 for 328 and five touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger did it all, long passes, short passes third down conversions and everything in between. Joshua Dobbs was 1 for 2 in mop up duty. Grade: A+

Running Backs
James Conner didn’t break the 100 yard mark, but the Steelers didn’t need him to. As it was, he average 5 yards a carry and added another touchdown. Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive non-garbage time action and managed 26 yards, while Jaylen Samuels only got 7 yards on the ground, but did score a touchdown through the air. Roosevelt Nix caught 2 passes for 17 yards. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James takes heat for his blocking, but he delivered a critical block on Conner’s touchdown run, and scored a late touchdown of his own. Vance McDonald made another tough catch in the end zone and caught 3 other passes. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both scored on long touchdown bombs but both men also made other clutch catches. Ryan Switzer came up with two drive-sustaining catches while Darrius Heyward-Bey nabbed his first catch of the season. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked only once. For most of the night, Ben had time to write his dairy in the pocket. The Steelers weren’t quite as effective running the ball as they have been, but they didn’t need to be.

The play of the Steelers offensive line is nothing short of incredible, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s defense of Ben Roethlisberger after Eric Reid’s hit shows just how seriously this unit takes its job.. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave actually led the defensive line in tackles, as the Steelers remained in their base defense extensively. The real leader of the unit was Cam Heyward, who exploded for 2 sacks, dropped two runners behind the line of scrimmage and made two other hits on Cam Newton. Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Grade: A

Linebackers
Jon Bostic led the team in tackles and arguably should have gotten ½ of a sack. Vince Williams had a banner night, bringing home a pick six and registering a sack. Bud Dupree continues to be a disruptive force in the backfield, as he recorded another sack and had two more tackles for losses. L.J. Fort spot duty stint was enough to earn him a tackle for a loss. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Vince Williams pick six Cam Newton, Steelers vs Panthers

Vince Williams struts after his pick-six of Cam Newton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Steelers secondary didn’t produce a lot of “Splash Plays” other than Terrell Edmunds almost interception. However, Carolina was a dreadful 4-11 on third downs and the Steelers front seven only registers 5 sacks if receivers are covered. Coty Sensabaugh appears to be settling in as a competent corner while Joe Haden has been invisible – in a positive sense. Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Mike Hilton all had strong nights. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on extra points, and made a 50 yarder into the open end of Heinz Field. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return and, for the first time in recent memory, neither the Steelers coverage nor return units gave up a penalty.

  • Special team’s shining moment came on Roosevelt Nix’s forced fumble and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery.

The Steelers were already up 45 to 14 at that point, but it was a heads up play by both men, and it symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Grade: A

Coaching
The last time the Steelers played at night, it looked to be lights out in Pittsburgh, but the win over the Panthers illustrated the dramatic difference the team has experienced since then.

Mike Tomlin, Joshua Dobbs, Alejandro Villaneuva, Steelers vs Panthers

Mike Tomlin huddling with Joshua Dobbs and Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • It is now time to give the Haley haters their day.

Under Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense is firing on all cylinders in ways it never did under Todd Haley. The Steelers offense was multi-faceted against the Panthers, burning Carolina for long touchdowns, converting third downs, orchestrating long, clock-consuming drives all while mounting a balanced attack.

The Steelers defense was also excellent. Perhaps had, the game evolved differently, the Panthers rushing success could have been the defense’s undoing. But that is an academic question, because Keith Butler‘s boys limited the long ball and harassed Cam Newton through the night.

Mike Tomlin deserves credit for preparing his team on a short week and for making an effort to keep everyone fresh throughout the game. As Tomlin conceded, the difference between the Steelers and the Panthers probably isn’t as dramatic as the score board would suggest, but they dominated Carolina in all three phases. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There is no shortage of candidates for this award but we’ll focus on one whose stat line says he ‘only” made one tackle. One tackle, behind the line of scrimmage. This player corralled and wrapped up Cam Newton in the end zone, which forced a pick six. Later this player clobbered Cam Newton in a strip sack with a hit that shook up Carolina’s signal caller, and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Panthers at Heinz Field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

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

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

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

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

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

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

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

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

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

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

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

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

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

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Steelers Prove Murphy’s Law with Injury Luck

Its only week 3, and the Pittsburgh Steelers record is only 2-1. In 12 quarter the men in Black and Gold have looked strong in the first pair and last pair of quarters they’ve played, OK in their second to last quarter, and downright terrible in between.

Steelers Nation is rightly wondering whether the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 8-8 season, are going to up, down stay the same.

steelers tomlin ike taylor injury carolina

Already however, it is clear that the Steelers are showing some signs of continuity from 2013 – they’re proving Murphy’s Law, at least when it comes to injuries. To refresh everyone’s memory here’s how the old adage goes:

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment.

Opening day 2013 might be old news, but the trend started there. You remember. The Steelers went into the season rolling the dice with paper thin depth at offensive line, inside linebacker and running back. Before the first 60 minutes expired, they’d lost Maurkice Pouncey, Larry Foote, and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

  • Against Cleveland and then Baltimore, the Steelers dodged the injury bullet. But their ability to defy gravity escaped them vs. Carolina.  

The Panthers victory was exhilarating to fans, but the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones, two starters and two first round picks, and of course Ike Taylor.

While the Steelers have “depth” at cornerback, with Antwon Blake, Brice McCain and B.W. Webb, Blake and Webb are inexperienced and McCain has been a journeyman since breaking into the league in 2009 as a sixth round draft pick with the Houston Texans. In 5 years he’s made 10 starts.

  • That’s far from an ideal situation in an NFL where you need 3 corners to succeed. 

But that’s a veritable feast compared to the Steelers situation at outside linebacker, where only Arthur Moats stands behind Jones and Jason Worilds. James Harrison is of course back after and 18 day retirement.

Harrison’s return was met by near euphoria in Steelers Nation and has a story book character to it. Yet reality has begun setting in, as Harrison admitted to feeling “horrible” after his first practice. This isn’t to say bringing back Harrison is a mistake.

  • However, it does clarify that Silverback should not be consider a “savior” as Dale Lolley and others have indicated.

The realities of the NFL’s salary cap mean that almost no team can be deep everywhere it needs to be. Every team makes calculated risks that the injury bug will not strike at an inopportune spot on the depth chart, the Steelers are no different.

They simply keep rolling snake eyes.

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Steelers Report Card for Victory Over Panthers

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who prays that his student has learned that processes he followed to succeed is far more important that its most immediate result, here is the Steelers Report Card for the victory over Carolina. As a caveat, no other Steelers report cards were consulted prior to this posting.

Quarterback
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense had a huge night and Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at the focal point of it. When was the last time you could say that? But don’t be fooled. Ben may have lacked glittery fantasy stats, but his no turnover, 2 scramble around and buy some time touchdowns were fantastic, although the Steelers 3-11 third down conversion percentage nudges his grade down. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell rushed for 174 and LeGarrette Blount rushed for 118, giving their first century mark cracking rushing tandem since 1986. The performance of both backs is every bit as relevant as the numbers suggest. Bell ran well between the tackles and patiently waited for his holes and that paid off. Take away Blount 50 yard sprint and he still averages 7.5 yards per carry, and the man bludgeoned the defensive back on his way into the end zone.  Will Johnson did an excellent job blocking. Blount’s hurdling must stop, even that can’t lower the group’s mark. Grade:  A

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only made 4 catches for 51 yards, but two of those resulted in first downs. Matt Spaeth had no catches and had one pass interference penalty called against him. Michael Palmer was penalized for pushing off in the end zone. To see the real contribution of the Steelers tight ends on the stat sheet look above – they had a solid night. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown continues to make things happen when has the ball in his hands catching two touchdowns and 10 catches for 90 yards. He also drew a long pass interference penalty as did Darrius Heyward-Bey. Markus Wheaton only had 4 catches for 35 yards, but was robbed of a touchdown catch plain and simple. Justin Brown caught two pases for 10 yards and most importantly held on to the ball.  A solid night for the wide outs. Grade:  B+

Offensive Line
If this is the Munchak effect we’ve been waiting on, I want more. The offensive line picked up its game, and did so in a big way. With Cody Wallace getting an injury start, the offensive line put in a performance the likes of which have not been seen in Pittsburgh his the heyday of Cowher Power. Marcus Gilbert dominated. David DeCastro dominated. Kelvin Beachum dominated. While this improvement must be sustained, playing against one of the NFL’s best front sevens, the Steelers offensive line was scary good. Grade:  A+

Defensive Line
Another unit which entered the game under fire picked up its performance, and did so noticeably. Steve McLendon set the tone with an early tackle for a loss and an early sack of Cam Newton. Cameron Heyward harassed the other Cam all night. Cam Thomas and Brett Kesiel kept the Panthers running game in check. Grade:  B+

Linebackers
Another group whose performance had been iffy today also rebounded, in spite of injuries to two of its starters. Lawrence Timmons led the group and was all over the field. Ryan Shazier looked good until getting hurt. Jarvis Jones was having a good night and forced a stip-sack when he too fell. Arthur Moats added another. Jason Worilds got a QB hit and landed on the fumble Jones created. A good night.  Grade:  B

Secondary
On positive note, the unit’s tackling was far crisper than before, notably from Mike Mitchell. Cortez Allen had another pass defensed but got burned badly on a play that could have gotten Carolina back into the game.  Ike Taylor was playing exceptionally well until Timmons broke his forearm. Troy Polamalu didn’t make any “splash plays” but his name wasn’t called for the wrong reasons. William Gay looked good in relief of Taylor, but the Panthers immediately targeted Antwon Blake and to great effect. A solid night from the secondary, but with some issues. Grade:  B-

Special Teams
The Steelers returned no kicks vs. Carolina and did a fair job at returning punts. Carolina’s return game was a non-factor. But for the second time in 3 weeks, Danny Smith’s special teams delivered a big play when the Steelers needed it. Brad Wing, aside from showing himself to be a solid punter, has excellent hang time, and it looked as if Philly Brown had an extra second too long to think about the incoming punt, as Robert Golden jarred the ball lose, and then recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Grade:  A-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the game 1-1, but it was a weak 1-1 as the Steelers had virtually disappeared for 6 quarters. The Steelers players said all the right things about fundamentals, staying in gaps, manning up, and finishing tackles. Teams always say that.

The performance vs. Carolina shows that they meant it. While a number of big plays gave the Steelers a lift, the Steelers won the game on the fundamentals – tackling after the catch, containing to prevent the long run, protecting the ball, and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Carolina’s offense was banged up, but their defense is as stout as any in the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers quite simply dominated them. Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau, and Danny Smith earned their stripes this week.  Grade:  A

Unsung Hero
The Steelers lost not one, but two first round picks from their defense vs. Carolina. And when Shazier went down the Steelers had lost their starter at a position that plagued them when Larry Foote was lost last year and had to be replaced by a nobody. This time the Steelers replaced their starter with someone who’d been in street clothes not only last season, but the season before. And you’d have never have known it based on his play. For stepping in and not missing a beat, Sean Spence wins the Unsung Hero Award for the victory over the Panthers.

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Silverback’s Back! James Harrison Returns to Steelers; Jones Put on IR Return

Sometimes letting go can be difficult for everybody involved in a relationship. And so it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and James Harrison.

The Steelers 37-19 victory over the Carolina Panthers was a thing of beauty in many respects, but the win also cost Pittsburgh the services of Ryan Shazier, Ike Taylor, and Jarvis Jones.

The Steelers have solid depth at inside linebacker, depth on paper at cornerback, but Arthur Moats is the team’s only true backup outside linebacker, and he’s now the “Next man up.”

James Harrison Retire Return Steelers

So, less than three weeks after retiring as a Steeler, James Harrison is returning to the team that cut him multiple times a decade ago.

Harrison’s new role with the team is undefined, as Arthur Moats is expected to start vs. Tampa Bay and would presumably remain the incumbent starter, with Harrison seeing spot duty.

Jones Heads to Reserve Recall List

To make room for Harrison, the Steelers placed Jarvis Jones on the NFL’s Injured Reserve, designated return list. Jones must stay on the list until after mid-season, but he is eligible to return after 8 weeks. David DeCastro and Matt Spaeth started their respective 2012 and 2013 seasons on this list and returned at mid season.

While official reports are pending, Ryan Shazier has a sprained MCL and will be out for several weeks and Ike Taylor has a broken forearm which typically take 6 to 8 weeks to heal.

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Steelers Impose Their Will on Panters, 37-19

Going into Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup vs. the Carolina Panthers, Steelers Nation was at no loss to explain all that ailed the 1-1 Steelers.

  • Too many penalties
  • Too much miscommunication
  • Guys out of position
  • Not enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks
  • Too much pressure on their own 
  • Failure to create turn overs
  • Sloppy tackling

And so on. All of the above observations were both accurate and relevant. If you treat the above as a check list, you can say that the Steelers effectively exorcised 6 of the primary 7 demons that bedeviled them for 6 quarters where they were outscored 50-9.

  • You could say that, and you’d be right.

But you’d also be missing the driving force behind the Steelers 37-19 upset of the Panthers.

Steelers Establish Fundamentals in First Half

While football will always lose any attempt to go stat-for-stat with baseball, the saber metricans at places like Pro Football Focus do their damdest to give the rotisserie baseball crowd a run for their money. Saber metrics have their place in the modern game, but too often they’re allowed to obscure a fundamental truth, uttered by Jack Lambert:

I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who whit the hardest.

For all of the attention paid to the league’s attempt to legislate “kill hits” out of the game, football remains fundamentally physical. And the Steelers set themselves up for victory in Carolina by establishing that in the first half. Yes, you read correctly, during the seemlingly lack luster first half.

It was in that first half that the Panthers went up 3-0, force a Pittsburgh 3 and out, only to have Steve McLendon open the dropping Jonathan Stewart for a nine yard loss, to begin the Steelers defense’s first 3 and out of the night.

steve mclendon cam newton steelers vs. panthers

The Steelers tied it with 3 and Cameron Heyward opened Carolina’s next offensive snap with a bull rush that pierced straight through the Panther’s offensive line and sent Cameron Newton on his back. Two plays later, and the Panthers were punting again.

  • Carolina’s next series began with a McLendon sack and a punt, nothing coincidental about that.

These plays were important, but the Steelers made their most important physical statement of the first half on the other side of the ball.

  • And it came on a penalty.

Ben Roethlisberger had just connected with Justin Brown for four yards, when Luke Kuechly shoved Brown to the ground after the play as he attempted to stand. David DeCastro didn’t like what he saw, and expressed his disdain by channeling his inner Lambert, storming down the field and hitting Kuechly.

  • DeCastro’s outburst cost the Steelers 15 yards and likely a shot at a touchdown.

But in the process, he delivered the Steelers message loud and clear:  Tonight, the ones hitting the hardest will be wearing Black and Gold.

Steelers Second Half Explosion

It’s not what your capable of, it’s what you’re willing to do.” – Mike Tomlin, opening training camp.

While the Steelers only carried a 9-3 lead into the second half, their ability to establish themselves as the more physical gave them a decisive advantage that paid dividends throughout the final 30 minutes.

Carolina got the opening kickoff but Jarvis Jones got to Newton on the Panther’s first 3rd down situation, stripping the ball away as Jason Worilds recovered. It was the Steelers 1st turnover of the year, and five plays later Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown turned it into money to score the Steelers first touchdown in 8 quarters.

  • Carolina answered with a field goal, but at it was at that point, that the Steelers physicality began to assert itself. 

Running the ball successfully takes proper technique, precise timing, requisite force, and above all will. Over the last two off seasons the Steelers have invested heavily in assembling the first three elements of the successful rushing formula, but had yet to prove they could muster the fourth.

  • On 1st and 20 at their own ten, the Steelers proved they could muster their will

DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert plowed open a hole, while Le’Veon Bell fooled Kuechly by faking to the inside, and then bolted through a gaping hole in the Panther’s front seven for 81 yards. 5 Plays later and Big Ben and Antonio Brown did their thing again, making it 23 to 6.

  • Carolina did not go gently into the night.

Newton hit Greg Olsen, who burned Cortez Allen to bring Carolina within 10. The Panthers held Pittsburgh to a three and out, but Brad Wing boomed off a punt with just enough hang time to spook an extra second hang time. The offenses exchanged three and outs, but as Philly Brown, who muffed the punt, fumbled it away, as Robert Golden landed on it in the end zone, bringing Pittsburgh up 30 to 13.

Victory Calming, but Costly

That was not quite the end however.

Before it was all said and done, LeBackfield delivered on its promise, as the LeGarrette Blount teamed with Bell to Steelers rack 265 yards, the most in the Tomlin era, and the first time two Steelers backs had broken 100 yards in a game since Ernest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie had done so in 1986.

But victory came at high cost, as Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Ike Taylor all left the game with injuries which will keep them out for several weeks, if not the season.

  • Arthur Moats and Sean Spence did well as replacements, while Antwon Blake struggled as he found himself immediately targeted.

Opposing offenses will no doubt plan to exploit weaknesses exposed by those injuries; but the Steelers defense would wise to compensate by relying on the lesson learned in Carolina – hit harder.

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5 Quick Take Aways from Steelers 37-19 Victory over Panthers

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers as underdogs, but weathered losses of 3 starters to come out on top, 37 to 19.

STEELERS WIN 37-19!!! #HereWeGo #SteelersNation pic.twitter.com/yM6o1gXkkx
— PositivelyPittsburgh (@BurghInfo) September 22, 2014

While the game gave Steelers Nation much to celebrate and Steelers scribes much to analyze, its 1:15 am in this corner of the world, so here are 5 Quick Take Aways:

1. “Thou Shalt Not Run” null and void in Pittsburgh….

The NFL’s is now a quarterback driven league. Passing is everything. That is largely true. But the Steelers have made a deliberate attempt to take advantage of defenses keying on the pass, and the formation of LeBackfield is the perfect example. Vs. the Panthers, Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount exploded for 265 yards rushing.

2. YES, Steelers Are allowed to take away the ball….

Since 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered from a dearth of take aways. The problem is beyond chronic, and extended through the first 2 games of 2014. Vs. the Panthers, Jarvis Jones and Brett Keisel teamed for a strip sack which Jason Worilds recovered. Later on a punt return Robert Golden jarred the ball loose and then landed on in the end zone for a game-sealing touchdown.

3. NO, the injury gods have not forgotten the Steelers…

After a horrific start to 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2014 season relatively unscathed, with Dri Archer and Ramon Foster their only injuries of note. Alas, their luck ran out in Carolina, as Ike Taylor, Jarvis Jones, and rookie Ryan Shazier all left with injuries.

4. Someone tell Ron Rivera it might be a good idea to cover Antonio Brown

The Steelers went up 23 to 6 at the close of the third quarter, when Ben Roethlisberger, doing what he does best scrambling to make something happen, hit Antonio Brown who was about 5 yards from the end zone completely uncovered. No complaints here.

5. Penalties Still a  Problem for Pittsburgh…

The Steelers struggled for much of the first half, and a big reason for that was penalties. The Steelers already came into the game with 20 penalties (a quarter o their ’13 total) and added another 11.

That’s all for now folks as its 1:30 and work looms tomorrow. Check back as Steel Curtain Rising will have full coverage of the Steelers victory over Carolina.

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How Panthers Game Bring Steelers Salary Cap Choices into Perspective

Just how heavily are the Pittsburgh Steelers to pay for their salary cap management sins? A quick look at who appears, and doesn’t appear on the injury report suggests the Sunday night game vs. the Carolina Panthers could tell us a lot.

  • The key to successful salary cap management is to get the most bang for your buck.

If every team has the same amount to spend on players then the team that invests wisely will benefit the most on the field. In theory it is simple.

But unlike baseball, as portrayed in Money Ball, football players don’t have 162 games to give the number crunchers statistically valid samples. Which makes those types of cost-benefit calculations in the NFL more of an art than a science.

Which brings us to the Steelers injury report.

  • On it we find Steve McLendon, who is nursing a shoulder injury. Off it we find Lance Moore who nursed a groin injury during camp.

Those names figure prominently because both of them are tied to cost-benefit personnel decision the Steelers made this spring.

Woods, Thomas and Pitfalls of Trading Proven Performance for “Value”

If Steve McLendon can’t play and, for the record he is practicing (thank God), the proverbial “next man up” is Cam Thomas.

Thomas however, was not the Steelers first choice to back up McLendon. Pittsburgh had invested a lot in developing Al Woods and wanted him back. Al Woods wanted back. But Tennesse offered more, and Woods is now a Titan.

So the Steelers went out and signed Thomas. So far, that hasn’t worked out. Matt C. Steel of Steel City Insider went as far as to say this:

I’m seriously beginning to question the coaching staff’s ability to evaluate talent. How is it that they believed Thomas was worth a roster spot, let alone a stating spot along the line? I’m beginning to think the Steelers’ Defensive MVP the second half of last season was Al Woods. I bet they wished they gave him that extra million over two years now.

Steel has plenty of company. Dale Lolley has singled Thomas out multiple times for being a liability to the run defense. He and others such as BTSC’s Jeff Hartman argue that playing Stephon Tuitt would at least give the Notre Dame rookie some experience. So in pure football terms, Steel might be right.

  • But football needs don’t trump salary cap realities. 

The Steelers, forced to carry dead money from LaMarr Woodley and Willie Colon’s contract, and with multiple restructures by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Troy Polamalu, simply didn’t have the cap space to offer Woods an extra million.

  • The Steelers gambled that, for a little less, they could get comparable performance out of Thomas.

Thus far, that’s looking like a bad bet. Perhaps that will change with time.

Moore Cotchery Please!

Another player whom the Steelers wanted and who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh is Jerricho Cotchery. In 2013 Cotchery was a veritable touchdown catching machine, catching 10 touchdown passes out of 46 receptions.

  • Among fans and the press, Cotchery’s return was all but a given. 

When rumors surfaced about him being wood, reporters pointed out that he was on a Steelers fan cruise. As it turns out, cruise or no, salary cap realities once again reared their head. Carolina offered starting money. The Steeler couldn’t touch that.

  • So instead, they went out and signed Lance Moore.

On paper, Moore looks to provide more bang for less buck as the chart below details:

jerricho cotchery lance moore compared stats steelers receptions

The two men’s production is strikingly similar, with Cotchery getting the edge in yards per catch, while Moore has a higher percentages in Steel Curtain Rising’s home-grown amateur saber metric of “catches for touchdowns and games with a touchdown.”

  • But therein lies the rub.

Moore has missed two games already this year, Cotchery has started into. Salary cap dollars can’t deliver value while you’re on the bench. So while might have more paper value for Moore, in reality Cotchery’s actually producing for Carolina.

So if Moore does suit up Tuesday night, we’ll see if he can deliver where Justin Brown fell short, in the process open things up for Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton.

It will also be interesting to see how Cotchery holds up against Polamalu, Taylor, and Michael Mitchell – three other salary cap choices who helped force the Steelers into letting him go.

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Steelers Defeat Panthers 27-3, Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

The Steelers-Panthers game was not shown in Buenos Aires (as you might imagine, local providers are not exactly fighting with each other to carry the NFL Network) and it was way, way to hot to even think of sitting in front of the computer watching it on the internet.

But the Steelers won the game, in a convincing 27-3 fashion. About the only worrisome news I can gleam out of this was Bryant McFadden’s hip injury and perhaps Shaun Shisham’s first miss.

A win is a win. I am a little annoyed by all of this talk of “zeroing in on a bye” as it is hard to see the Browns defeating the Ravens in Baltimore. No matter, as long as members of the Steelers locker room do not look past the Browns it matters little what the fans are saying.

Enough for the morning of the 24th! (I have to work today….)

Merry Christmas!

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