Ben Roethlisberger Edges Out Antonio Brown in Steelers-Ravens Game Ball Poll

The Steelers thrilling AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens capture the imagination of Steelers Nation if our Steelers-Ravens game ball poll participation is any indication. In total, the poll drew of 195 votes, by far the largest of the year and perhaps in the history of the poll.

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And the voting for the top spot was fierce, as Ben Roethlisberger edged out Antonio Brown by a vote of 39 to 34.Steelers Ravens Game Ball Winners, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown

That’s not surprising, since the Steelers dynamic duo was unstoppable all night. Down the ballot, Chris Boswell claimed third place which should come as no surprise as he kicked four field goals, including a 52 yarder and of course the 46 yard game winning field goal.

Le’Veon Bell cam in 4th with 21 votes, on the heels of a very strong, 100 yard from scrimmage performance against a tough Ravens defense. T.J. Watt, whose strip sack of Joe Flacco sealed the game, was close behind earning 50 votes which was enough for 5th place.

#Shalieve50 came in with 19 votes19, as support for Ryan Shazier and his inspiration to the team was very evident both on the field and in the stands at Heinz Field. Jesse James, who just missed a 100 yard receiving game and came up with several clutch catches throughout the night came next, with 19 votes.

  • After that, the voting dropped off markedly.

Vance McDonald came in with four votes, despite a plea by staff writer Tony Defeo in favor of the Steelers tight ends, and a nod from the Steelers Ravens Report Card, which named both tight ends as unsung heroes.

There were also write in votes for a “Total Team Effort” which polled the support of 7 write-in voters, as well as three for the Steelers offensive line, who got 3 write-ins.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising offers its sincere thanks to everyone who took the time out to vote, and gives a special nod of thanks to any and all who took the time to write in their choices.

Now Go Steelers! Let’s beat the New England Patriots!

 

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Give Steelers Tight Ends Jesse James & Vance McDonald an “A” For Their Performance vs Ravens

OK, not really.

For the record, I’m not the regular Report Card marker for Steel Curtain Rising, so its really not my place to suggest that Jesse James and Vance McDonald get “A” for their efforts in the Steelers win over the Ravens.

But, the position, particularly Jesse James and Vance McDonald, certainly deserved to win the Steelers Report Card’s Unsung Hero Award as they did during the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens for playing a much-bigger part of the game-plan than anyone could have possibly envisioned.

Jesse James, Eric Weddle, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers tight ends ravens

Eric Weddle tackles Jesse James in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

With JuJu Smith-Schuster sidelined while serving a very-controversial one-game suspension for his block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict last week, and with Martavis Bryant continuing to baffle with his inability to get open–this despite Antonio Brown drawing constant double-teams–one wondered who would pick up the slack in the Steelers air-attack.

  • The answer became clear, early on, as James and McDonald combined for four receptions for 45 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two offensive series.
  • Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Steelers first two drives ended in touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.

Speaking of Vance McDonald, he’s sort of been this year’s version of Ladarius Green, who was an athletically gifted tight end the Steelers signed as a free agent prior to the 2016 campaign, but, thanks to concussion-related problems, only played in a handful of games in his lone season in Pittsburgh.

Vance McDonald may not have come to Pittsburgh with the same physical gifts as Green, but when the Steelers acquired him in a trade with the 49ers this past summer, he certainly possessed the size, speed and athleticism Pittsburgh had been searching for at the tight end position for many years.

  • Unfortunately, McDonald has been battling the injury-bug for most of 2017, and he was even forced to leave Sunday night’s game with a shoulder ailment.

But, before Vance McDonald exited the game, he tallied four receptions for 52 yards. This might not seem like much, but considering Eli Rogers and Bryant combined for a mere 66 receiving yards, Vance McDonald’s contribution as welcome as it was necessary.

Speaking of contributions, what about the night Jesse James had for the Steelers on Sunday?

James may have even come up with the night’s most-crucial reception.

  • Trailing by two points with just 1:57 remaining in the game, the Steelers faced a third and 13 from their own 14-yard line.

If Pittsburgh didn’t pick up at least a good chunk of yardage on the play, the game would most-likely be over.

However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found James 16 yards downfield, and the tight end managed to hold on to the pass in traffic, which laid the groundwork for what would become the game-winning field goal drive.

  • All-in-all, James and McDonald combined for 14 catches for 149 yards on the night.

Enough to make the fans stop chanting “HEATH!!!!!” (in honor of legendary tight end Heath Miller) each time a caucasian tight end catches a pass at Heinz Field?

  • Perhaps not anytime soon.

But, in a nip-and-tuck, prime-time affair with the AFC North title on-the-line, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly needed everything Jesse James and Vance McDonald could give them, Sunday night.

And their contributions should not go unnoticed.

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed, PennLive.com

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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For #Shalievers Only – Steelers-Ravens Game Ball Winners Poll

Another week another Chris Boswell field goal at the buzzer, or almost buzzer as the case may be as the Pittsburgh’s defense held on for 42 precious seconds as the Steelers beat the Ravens 39-38 to clinch the AFC North title.

As we do after every Steelers win, we invite you the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote on Steelers game ball winners. Scroll down below the photo for a look at this week’s ballot.

Steelers vs Ravens, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, James Harrison, #Shalieve50

Cam Heyward and James Harrison enter Heinz Field carrying Ryan Shazier’s Jersey. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Here’s how the ballot’s shaping up:

[yop_poll id=”63″]

Leading things off are Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, and really that’s an alphabetical order decision, as both men had phenomenal games, with Antonio Brown hauling in 11 catches for an eye popping 213 yards while Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 500 yards in a game.

Behind them is Le’Veon Bell, who had yet another 100 yards from scrimmage night as he scored two touchdowns on the ground and 1 on through the air.

  • Jesse James also gets to nod who caught 10 passes and fell just short of cracking the century mark.

Vance McDonald only had 4 catches before leaving the game early, but he was a critical enough of a target for Ben Roethlisberger that the low number can help but suprise. And of course Chris Boswell also gets a slot, who was a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals, including the 46 yard game winner, and 3 for 3 on extra points.

  • On defense, the ballot gets much more complicated.

For example, take Sean Davis for example. The Sophomore safety started the game off with an interception, and had a hand in breaking up a 3rd down pass on the Ravens penultimate possession, but in between missed tackles, got beaten for a long touchdown, and made a series of inanely idiotic penalties that paved the way for more Baltimore scoring.

  • Consequently, Davis isn’t getting listed on the ballot (although you can write him in, if you want….)

Vince Williams was the second leading tackler for the Steelers, and he had a sound night there manning the middle. T.J. Watt also gets a ballot slot, as the rookie outside linebacker stepped up to pressure Joe Flacco into key third down incompletion and essentially ended the game with a strip sack.

Heyward’s stat sheet lists all of 1 tackle which might not look that impressive, but after the Ravens went up by eleven, Cam Heyward gathered the defense on the sidelines and started giving everyone a piece of mind. The play of the Steelers defense improved after that.

  • Finally, we’re listing a slot for #Shalieve50.

The Steelers defense clearly missed Ryan Shazier’s athleticism on the field, but it’s obvious that number 50 served as an inspiration to all.

As always, keep in mind that this is your poll, not mine. If you think that say, Martavis Bryant deserves a game ball, write his name in. Ditto Eli Rogers or Roosevelt Nix, write their names in and cast your vote.

The Steelers game against the Ravens ended at close to 2:00 am here in Buenos Aires, and the work day is already upon us. Please click here for our full analysis of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Hold Down the North – Steelers in AFC North Poll Position Coming out of Bye Week

Are you wearing your Pittsburgh Steelers “Hold Down the North” AFC North Division Champions T-shirt (or, if you’re in Pittsburgh, long-sleeve shirt) today?

I realize “Hold Down the North” was last year’s slogan. I also realize we’re only halfway through the 2017 campaign, and things are far from decided in this season’s version of the notoriously rugged and hotly-contested AFC North Division.

  • But are things really far from decided?

As Pittsburgh, 6-2, enjoyed its bye week on Sunday, both the Ravens and Bengals, what’s left of the competition in the division (the Browns are 0-8), lost to fall to 4-5 and 3-5, respectively.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens Christmas, Tavon Young

Steelers Antonio Brown makes a first down in Pittsburgh’s Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

What that means is the Steelers have a three-game advantage in the ever-important loss column with just a half-a-season to play (less than that for Baltimore). That’s a lot of ground to make up in such a short window, and if there’s anything the first half of the 2017 NFL campaign has taught us about the Ravens and the Bengals, it’s that they probably don’t have what it takes to make up so much ground in two months.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s a departure for the AFC North, as it’s notoriously been one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, with the winner often having to play the runner-up in either the wild card round, the divisional round or even the conference championship.

Even nine years ago, when the Steelers went 6-0 on the way to capturing their second-straight AFC North title, two of those victories were nail-biters over Baltimore, a team that would ultimately clinch a wild card spot, and then navigate its way through the first two rounds of the postseason and back to Heinz Field for the conference title game.

Yes, the Steelers vanquished Baltimore on the way to a record sixth Super Bowl title, but not without plenty of anxious moments that weren’t quite alleviated until legendary safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a fourth quarter pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and raced 43 yards for a game-sealing score.

Even Pittsburgh’s last two division titles were contentious until the bitter-end, and one could argue that the team entered the postseason each time more battle fatigued than battle ready having lost Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for stretches of those playoff runs.

You have to go all the way back Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie year in 2004, when the Steelers finished with a 15-1 regular season record and clinched the North title by early-December, to find a time when the home team had such a clear-cut edge over everyone else in the division.

Speaking of that 2008 season that saw them go undefeated in the North, with a 3-0 divisional record currently through eight games, the Steelers have set themselves up nicely to repeat history; furthermore, two of their final three divisional games are at home.

And even if they lose one game and it happens to be against the Ravens, Baltimore would have to find a way to, again, make up three games in the loss column in less than two months–and even then it would come down to a third tiebreaker, as head-to-head and division records would be out the window.

The Steelers are far-and-away the best team in the AFC North, and unlike in previous years, there doesn’t even appear to be an annoying little brother that will hang around until the end of the season (or even the playoffs) and make their lives a little uncomfortable.

The Steelers will hold down the AFC North Division again in 2017 (and everyone else in it).

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Steelers Report Card for Week 4 Road Victory over the Ravens

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who was very satisifed with his student’s performance, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Le'Veon Bell, Tony Jefferson, Steelers vs Ravens

Le’Veon Bell steam rolls ahead as Tony Jefferson can only look on. Photo credit: NFL Spin Zone

Quarterback 

It seems as if Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been at his best so far this season, but he did look a little better on Sunday, completing 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and an interception that was entirely out of his control. There was the failure to see a wide-open Antonio Brown on a play in the first half that would have been an easy touchdown (the blame for this has been disputed). And there was the hurried throw to a wide-open Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter that would have led to a 60-yard score. But Roethlisberger also made the throws he needed to make. The word being thrown around by the local sports media regarding Roethlisberger’s performance is “game-manager,” something not heard since his rookie year. Grade: B-

Running Backs 

What more can you say about the performance of Le’Veon Bell? Thirty-five carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Bell looked like the All-Pro running back everyone was used to, and the Steelers offense looked much like it did during its nine-game winning-streak a year ago. As for rookie James Conner, he had just four carries for 26 yards, but he provided a spark on the offense’s first drive, when he rattled off a 23-yard run on second and 18, one play after Roethlisberger suffered his only sack of the day. Fellow youngster Terrell Watson only carried one time for one yard, but it came on third and one, as he did the job in his apparent new role as a short-yardage specialist. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends 

Jesse James turned in a Jesse James-like performance, catching three passes for 40 yards. As for the newly-acquired Vance McDonald, he dropped the only pass thrown his way, a pass that would have gone for a fairly-large gain and would have perhaps lessened the worry about his quarterback’s performance. Unfortunately, it didn’t lessen McDonald’s reputation for dropping passes. However, he did a pretty decent job blocking, and given the effectiveness of the ground-game, that cannot be discounted. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

The Ravens effectively took Brown out of the game, limiting him to just four catches for 34 yards. As for Bryant, for the second week in a row, he could have been the deep threat consequence to the opposition putting too much focus on Brown, but for the second week in a row, he wasn’t and contributed just 48 yards. However, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, getting the start in the slot for the healthy-scratched Eli Rogers, had himself a bit of a day, pulling in three passes for 47 yards and an 11-yard touchdown late in the first half that broke the game open. Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The line finally seemed to develop the kind of chemistry needed to mesh with Bell’s unique running-style. As for the pass-protection, Roethlisberger was only sacked once and was only hurried a few times. However, the Ravens front-seven was a bit decimated due to injuries, and there was the matter of those six penalties that stalled more than one promising drive. Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Man, what a day for this crew, specifically defensive end Cam Heyward, who registered two sacks, along with a forced fumble and a recovery of said fumble. Again, Heyward looked like a man among boys, and it sure helped that Stephon Tuitt played his first full game of the season, after injuring his biceps in Week 1. Javon Hargrave did his job clogging up the running lanes, which helped limit the Ravens to just 82 yards on the ground. Seventy-three of those yards came on two runs, which is either extremely impressive (only allowing nine yards on the other 13 rushes) or a bit worrisome (will teams like the Jaguars and Chiefs be able to exploit the Steelers ground-game much better than the offensively-challenged Ravens)? Finally, a shout-out to L.T. Walton, who pressured Joe Flacco on a fourth quarter pass that was intercepted by Ryan Shazier. Grade: A

Linebackers

Shazier was the proverbial beast at inside linebacker, recording 11 tackles (10 solo), the aforementioned interception and a tipped pass that led to a second pick. Bud Dupree looked explosive at outside linebacker and was credited with half a sack. And if you’re going to give the defensive line credit for containing the run much better than the previous week, you must also credit the linebackers. Rookie T.J. Watt, back in the lineup after missing Week 3, was in on four tackles and did a really good job of setting the edge on running plays, something Anthony Chickillo was criticized for not doing at Chicago. Grade: B+

Secondary

After struggling a bit over the first three weeks, safety Sean Davis had his best game of the season, posting five tackles and a pass defensed. As for J.J. Wilcox, filling in for an injured Mike Mitchell, he was steady. Same could be said at cornerback for both Joe Haden and Artie Burns, who were barely noticeable, as Mike Wallace led the Ravens in receiving yards, with 55. And what more can you say about Mike Hilton, who has become the slot corner from Mississippi that Senquez Golson never was?

In addition to registering a sack early in the second half, Hilton also had a pass defensed and a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: A

Special Teams 

Brown was reinserted as the punt returner, but only tallied 15 yards on two returns. Chris Boswell missed a 44-yard field goal. As for the kick-return coverage, it was spotty, allowing 96 yards on four returns, but it certainly wasn’t a detriment to success. Grade: C+

Coaching

Given the backdrop of the anthem drama as well as having to travel to a place in M&T Bank Stadium, where he hadn’t won since 2012, Mike Tomlin had his team focused and prepared. The team players were business-like and methodical in their approach to the game and really didn’t let emotion become a factor.

Todd Haley’s game-plan was undoubtedly to feature Bell against Baltimore’s injury-riddled defense, and the offense didn’t deviate from that plan very much. There has been some criticism in the team’s apparent decision to take the air out of the ball in the second half, but given the Ravens offensive woes, the only way they were going to get back in the game was with turnovers.

On defense, not much you can say about Keith Butler’s unit that isn’t glowing. The defense was fast, relentless and very disciplined, given that it was only called for one penalty on the day. Grade: A

Unsung Hero

Fullback Roosevelt Nix. If there’s ever an unsung hero, it’s a back who doesn’t register one carry in a game in-which his team rushes for 173 yards. But Nix is there to block, and it’s kind of hard to argue with the results.

 

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Steelers Dominate Ravens 26-9 in Critical AFC North Road Victory

In a performance that must have seemed like a dream to many of their fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into M&T Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon and dominated the Baltimore Ravens in a 26-9 victory.

For starters, the defense returned to its sound ways against the run. After allowing 220 yards on the run in an overtime loss to the Bears in Week 3, Pittsburgh limited Baltimore to 82 yards on the ground. Also, the pass-rush applied pressure to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco all afternoon and recorded four sacks–including two by defensive end Cameron Heyward and one by slot corner Mike Hilton

Photo credit: Laredo Morning Times

As for the offense, while there is still work to be done, running back Le’Veon Bell seemed to shake off whatever rust was left on his body, by rushing for 144 yards on 35 carries and scoring two touchdowns. Bell also added 42 yards on four receptions.

  • After forcing the Ravens to punt on their first possession, Pittsburgh’s offense had to start with its back to the wall after punter Sam Koch pinned it down at the three-yard line.

However, the Steelers put together their most impressive drive of the season, by marching 84 yards on 16 plays and eating up 10:23 of game time. Unfortunately, after reaching the 12-yard line, penalties reared their ugly head, as right tackle Chris Hubbard was called for a false start, guard David DeCastro was called for holding, and the team had to settle for a Chris Boswell 30-yard field goal.

  • Mid-way through the second quarter, the Steelers extended their lead on another Boswell field goal–this time from 49 yards away–and went ahead 6-0.

On Baltimore’s subsequent possession, Heyward stripped running back Alex Collins of the football and cleaned  things up rather nicely by falling on the fumble at the Baltimore 28.

  • The Steelers took advantage on a six-play drive that ended with a one-yard score by Bell to make it 13-0, visitors.

Following another three-and-out by the Ravens, Pittsburgh seized total control of the game with an  eight-play, 70-yard drive that ended when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for an 11-yard touchdown pass to go ahead 19-0 with 45 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers decided to go for two, but came up short, when Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with receiver Antonio Brown.

The Steelers received the ball to start the second half and immediately gave Baltimore life, thanks to a controversial interception at the 20 yard-line by safety Eric Weddle. On a third down pass to Brown, the receiver appeared to be down by contact after making a short catch. However, as he hit the ground, the ball popped right into Weddle’s hands. Since the whistle blew, the play was blown dead. However, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh challenged that Brown never had full possession when he was taken to the ground, which would have made Weddle’s pick possible. After a brief review, the call on the field was reversed, and Baltimore got its  first break of the day.

  • However, the Steelers defense held firm, and Baltimore lost six yards on three plays and had to settle for a Justin Tucker 42-yard field goal.

The Steelers answered with another impressive drive and marched 53 yards on 11 plays. But a 44-yard field goal by Boswell sailed wide-left, and the Ravens took possession at their 34.

On Baltimore’s first play of the next drive, Collins gashed the Steelers defense with a 50-yard run down to the 16. Two plays later, Flacco connected with former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace on a 16-yard touchdown pass, and Pittsburgh’s lead was cut to 10. The Ravens went for two to make it a one-score game, but a run by Terrence West came up short, and the score was 19-9.

The Steelers defense was simply impressive the rest of the way, limiting Baltimore to a punt and two interceptions–including one by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and one by Hilton–on its next three offensive possessions to effectively ice the game.

Following Hilton’s pick late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers put the finishing touches on the victory by marching 49 yards on a seven-play drive that ended with a one-yard score for Bell to make it 26-9.

  • For the day, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Smith-Schuster ended his day with four receptions for 2 yards and the score, while Brown was held to just 34 yards on four receptions.

Next up for the Steelers is a Week 5 match-up against the Jaguars next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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The Steelers 2016 AFC North Title is More than Just a Stocking Suffer

Steelers fans like to brag about not cherishing playoff spots, division titles or even conference championships.

I guess the standard really is the standard, and after watching the Black and Bold capture six Super Bowls, well, not to sound too cliched (it’s like nails on the chalkboard, sometimes), fans expect nothing less.

However, there’s something to be said for winning a division title, which Pittsburgh did, Sunday night, thanks to a pulsating Christmas 31-27 victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Hold Down the North,

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers following the Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Did the win secure home-field advantage or even a bye? No, but a division championship is nothing to sneeze at and not just something that you look back on years later and say, “Oh yeah, they won the division that year.”

The AFC North is a pretty tough and bruising division, filled with hard-fought and often dirty battles. Sometimes, the best teams don’t always come out on top, and even when they do, like the Steelers did in 2014, it’s not always unscathed. (Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee against the Bengals in the regular season finale and was lost for the wild card game versus Baltimore a week later.)

The Steelers got out of Sunday’s game without any serious injuries, and the fact that they survived at all, heck, that’s better than the alternative.

  • Can you imagine how glum things would be this week, on the heels of a depressing home loss to Baltimore that would have seriously put the Steelers playoff hopes in jeopardy?

Believe me, the chances of the Bengals, the unstable and probably ready for the tropics Bengals, mustering up the enthusiasm to wreck Baltimore’s season in Week 17 on the way to the plane were probably slimmer than none.

Now, Pittsburgh, a team with a lock on the third playoff seed has a chance to rest players such as James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt, Ladarius Green and perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, players who’ve been injured such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeAngelo Williams and perhaps even Sammie Coates can get a chance to get their feet wet.

So, who do the Steelers match-up best against in the postseason? Who cares……for now. Just enjoy that division title for the next couple of weeks. Sure, it’s been done in Pittsburgh 22 times since 1972, but it’s still not that easy (if it was, everyone would do it).

Go out and buy that t-shirt. Go out and buy that cap.

The Steelers are in the playoffs, and that just never gets old.

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