2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

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

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

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal with a Disruptive Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal when Your Star Pupil is Disruptive

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Broncos – Failing Because You Forget to Write Your Name Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is frustrated at watching his students flunk assignments because they’re forgetting to do things like put their names on their papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2018 loss to Denver at Mile High Stadium.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Lindsay, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs. Broncos

Terrell Edmunds tackles Philip Lindsay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had his moments, including and impressive streak of consecutive pass completions , and hitting long touchdown pass from his own end zone. He also executed a game plan that forced him to be disciplined in getting the ball out quickly. But Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. The first came got the Broncos back into the game on a drive when a touchdown very well may have sealed the outcome. The second came when the Steelers needed to score. Grade: D

Running Back
James Conner didn’t get a lot of opportunities to run the ball, but behind Roosevelt Nix’s blocking Conner looked like he might be able to put the game on ice had to coaches chosen to go that route. He also caught 4 passes on 4 targets. Nonetheless, James Conners fumbled at a critical moment which set up Denver’s go ahead touchdown. Ball security is becoming an issue for James Conners. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Jesse James had his number called 4 times and each time he delivered. Vance McDonald also had 3 catches on a day when a short passing game reigned supreme. Xavier Grimble had what should have been an excellent 23 yard run turn into a turnover instead of a touchdown in large part because he didn’t secure the ball properly. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
There was good and bad here. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97 yard touchdown should have been a game breaker. However, JuJu missed an earlier deep pass. Antonio Brown made one excellent toe-tapping catch only to miss another one which was more necessary. Ryan Switzer proved himself to be a valuable underneath target and showed he can take a hit. With Eli Rogers beginning to practice, James Washington needs prove he deserves a roster spot. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Denver has a fierce pass rush, yet Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and neither were game-changing plays. The Steelers run blocking looked to be good enough, but honestly establishing the running game was never an priority of the coaching staff. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward’s sack of Case Keenum could have been a game turning play, and the duo’s numbers in terms of tackles for losses and QB hits show that they were aggressive. Still, the Steelers defensive line misses Stephon Tuitt, and if Phillip Lindsay 7.9 rushing average isn’t on the defensive line, it starts with them. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had a sack but it was L.J. Fort who actually tied Jon Bostic for the lead in tackles, but a blown Bostic coverage allowed Denver to make their first advanced into the Red Zone. T.J. Watt had one tackle. The stat sheet shows that Philip Lindsay had a lot of 2 yard runs. He also had two 8 yard runs, a 9, a 12, a 14, an 18 and a 32 yard run. A lot of that’s on the linebackers. Grade: D

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds showed off his athleticism by running down Philip Lindsay on a couple of long runs, which is good but in at least one of those cases Edmunds was compensating for a bad angle on the part of Sean Davis. Joe Haden had one of his most difficult days as a Steeler, giving up a long pass to Matt LaCosse and getting burned by Emmanuel Sanders. Mike Hilton’s trade mark has been timing blitzes perfectly, but he got flagged for a neutral zone infraction. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers fake field goal

Chris Boswell prepares to throw it to Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
The return games were non-elements for both teams. Jordan Berry had a sound day kicking and Chis Boswell made all of his kicks – save for the one that got blocked, which is inexcusiable given Denver’s tape on that front.

On the flip side, the Chris Boswell to Alejandro Villanueva field goal was the first successful fake field goal in memory for the Steelers and the Steelers special teams effectively added made up for their earlier error. Grade: C

Coaching
Not that he, or more importantly Art Rooney II pay much attention, but Steelers coaches haven’t felt much social media heat during their five game winning streak. That ended with the loss to the Broncos.

  • As if Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner are somehow responsible for turnovers.

On offense it is easy to second guess Randy Fichtner’s short-passing game plan, but the truth is that he kept Ben Roethlisberger clean, the Steelers moved the chains and led in time of possession. None of that mattered much thanks to two end zone turnovers.

  • While the turnovers were the key to the game, they do obscure an afternoon that was rougher for Keith Butler’s defense than most commentators are acknowledging.

While the defense didn’t revert to its September form, it gave up several long plays and struggled against the run. Moreover, as Mike Tomlin indicated in his press conference, the Steelers defense could have altered the dynamic with a turnover, but none was forth coming.

Individual turnovers are never a coach’s fault, ball security is becoming an issue with a few of the offense’s key players and Mike Tomlin needs to see if this can be addressed systemically. This loss is hardly devastating, but Mike Tomlin must ensure that a snowball effect does not ensue. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Von Miller is easily the NFL’s most dynamic defensive player today. He’s got a Troy Polamaluesqe ability to make game-changing plays at critical moments. Being asked to start your first game against him cannot be easily. But that’s what the Steelers asked Chukwuma Okorafor to do, Okorafor delivered and for that he win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers latest loss to the Broncos at Mile High.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals – Legacy Defining Anyone?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if he really has seen a “legacy”defining performance from his pupils, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Quarterback
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger was only “OK” in the first half. He also threw a few balls that he was lucky not to have intercepted. But that matters for little, because Ben Roethlisberger the one minute drive to perfection, it did it with the clam, poise and, most importantly, the confidence needed to deliver. Grade: A-

Running Backs
James Conner’s 111 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving might have been lower than last week’s, but by Jim Wexell’s reporting, Conner’s bruising style knocked two Bengals players out of the game. Stevan Ridley continues to get a handful of carries for nominal gain. Roosevelt Nix helped open holes for Conners. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James kept the Steelers offense moving and helped establish the physical tone while the wide receivers were getting in gear. Xavier Grimble had two catches, including a 22 yarder on third and 19. Vance McDonald looked poised to score but fumbled instead, his second in 4 games. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
It took a while for the Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WiFi connection to reach full speed, but when they did, the duo inflicted their damage on the Bengals defense. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 7 yards, while James Washington and Justin Hunter both had targets but no catches, although Hunter’s block was critical on the winning TD. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger did not give up a sack and indeed, the Bengals only touched him once! Add that to road grading done for James Conner and you have excellence in its purest form. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave both had sacks. Cam Heyward didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he’s not doing his job, the other two can’t do theirs. The Bengals did have some success in running the ball, and pass pressure could have been more consistent throughout the game, but it was a good day for the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
You think seeing L.J. Fort light up the Atlanta Falcons maybe didn’t inspire Vince Williams just a big? Williams led the team in tackles, shadowed Joe Mixon in the passing game, and even covered down field. T.J. Watt defensed a pass and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had solid if splash playless games. The linebackers had a good day, but room for improvement remains. Grade: B-

Secondary
Joe Haden had two defensed passes and contained A.J. Green. Both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton had defensed passes, although Sutton had his hiccups. Artie Burns committed a costly pass interference penalty that helped keep a drive alive. The secondary played well, but Cincinnati closed both halves with touchdown drives. That  is not a trend which can continue. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell quietly made all of his kicks which was a welcome change especially in the confines of an opposing stadium during the rain. Jordan Berry boomed off two long punts and landed 3 inside the 2. Ryan Switzer had a long punt return of 15 yards and some decent kickoff returns.

However, Alex Erickson had kickoff returns of 47 and 51 yards, the former of which gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 44 with a minute left. This is the kind of special teams play that can lose a game. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense appears to be finding its rhythm. When the passing game isn’t quite working, the running game is able to pick up the slack. Such balance is necessary for sustainable success in the NFL.

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

That improvement must continue as evidenced by two two touchdowns the Bengals scored at the tail end of each half. However, two weeks ago the Steelers defense was a lost cause. Today it looks like a unit that does some things well, while offering legitimate “upside.”

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

After a big win last week and going into a big game against the Bengals with Ryan Shazier’s recovery as a backstory, it would have been easy for the Steelers to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster.

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

The Bengals 51 yard 2nd half kickoff return could have easily spelled doom. Yet the Steelers defense went out and forced a punt despite giving up a penalty that gave Cincinnati a 3rd an 1.

  • At the end of the game the Pittsburgh’s poise was present for all to see.

There was no panic in the Steelers huddle or on the sidelines as the Bengals went up by one with just over a minute to play. Nor was there any sense of desperation evident when the Steelers found themselves in 2 third down situation on that final drive.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown waited for their moment, and then drove a stake through the Bengals secondary.

That type of calm under pressure requires character. It also requires competent coaching that allows that type of locker room culture to flourish. Mike Tomlin has worked to establish that and the fruits of his labor were evident in the game’s final minute. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Everyone will long remember Antonio Brown’s last minute touchdown, as well they should. Meanwhile JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the afternoon making critical, if less highlight-worthy catches. But he is in this space for two heads up plays.

  • The first came when he out fought a defensive back for a catch at the goal line, and the second came when he recovered Vance McDonald’s fumble.

A turnover in either occasion would have lost the game for the Steelers, but neither were and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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