Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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Report Card for Steelers Week 1 Win over the Bills

Quarterback

Photo credit: USA Today

In his first real game as a 39-year old, Ben Roethlisberger looked a lot like he did in 2020 as a 38-year old. With a young and practically brand-new offensive line in front of him, Roethlisberger seemed hellbent on getting rid of the football as fast as possible against the Bills on Sunday and didn’t appear to be all that interested in standing in the pocket long enough to even attempt a deep pass. That changed a bit in the second half, as Roethlisberger opened things up a bit with slightly deeper throws, primarily to receiver Chase Claypool and tight ends Eric Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth. Roethlisberger looked a bit rusty and “off” at first, but he appeared to improve as the game went along and made some spot-on passes when he had to–including a beautiful back-shoulder toss to Claypool early in the second half and perfect passes to Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the game when Pittsburgh was trying to run out the clock. Roethlisberger also showed good mobility at times and even scampered for an eight-yard gain late in the final period. For the day, Roethlisberger was 18 of 32 for 188 yards and a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: B-

Running Back

It was a rather quiet debut for rookie first-round pick Najee Harris on Sunday, as he carried 16 times for 45 yards to go along with one reception for four yards. Harris was the only back who saw any action on Sunday and, to his credit, he did appear to improve as the game went along, even scampering for 18 yards early in the fourth quarter to help set up Pittsburgh’s lone offensive touchdown. Grade: C-

Tight Ends

No tight ends were targeted at all in the first half. As for the second half? Ebron reeled in one pass for 19 yards, while Freiermuth’s first career reception (and lone catch of the day) went for 24. Zach Gentry contributed one catch in the second half but for minus two yards. Given the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t do a ton on the ground, the tight end group certainly didn’t make up for its lack of production by blocking. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Speaking of people who looked a lot like they did in 2020, no Steelers receiver turned in a big performance on Sunday—Smith-Schuster led the way in yardage with 52. Having said that, the group did have a knack for coming up with some huge plays, including Claypool’s previously mentioned back-shoulder catch for 22 yards. Claypool also drew a 26-yard pass-interference penalty in the second half to set up Pittsburgh’s go-ahead touchdown. The second-year receiver from Notre Dame also added another 25 yards on a jet sweep. Johnson, who led all receivers with five catches, displayed great concentration and footwork by staying with a tipped pass before reeling it in and getting both feet in bounds for a score. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster picked up where he left off a year ago by being more tight end than receiver while pulling in short passes and then bowling over Bills’ defenders to pick up tough yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Steelers went into halftime with 54 measly yards of total offense. Roethlisberger didn’t seem comfortable standing in the pocket for very long, while the ground game barely made a dent. Things did improve as the game went along, but the Steelers new hogs are going to have to perform much better if the offense is going to improve as the season rolls along. Grade: D

Defensive Line

Veteran Cam Heyward recorded four tackles, a sack and two passes defended, while recovering a fumble. Heyward also was credited with a whopping 12 quarterback pressures. It was a great day for an all-time great Steeler. Tyson Alualu looked solid as usual, as did Chris Wormley. Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis also factored into the rotation and reportedly acquitted themselves well. Grade: A

Linebackers

Speaking of all-time Steelers greats, it’s hard to not include outside linebacker T.J. Watt in those discussions in this, just his fourth season. The newly-minted $122 million man had another stellar day on Sunday, collecting two sacks and five quarterback hits, while also forcing the aforementioned fumble that Heyward recovered. Watt was credited with eight quarterback pressures, as was veteran Melvin Ingram III, who seemed almost unblockable in his Steelers debut. The Steelers generated so much pressure with four and five-man fronts, it allowed inside linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert to drop back in coverage most of the day, as Pittsburgh utilized nickel and dime packages in an attempt to slow down Josh Allen and Buffalo’s potent passing attack. Grade: A+

Secondary

The concern about the Steelers secondary was great heading into Week 1, but the revamped unit more than picked up where the 2020 version left off. Rookie Tre Norwood, a seventh-round pick from Oklahoma, was practically a starter in his very first game. He played the slot and also free safety in dime situations, allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick and his lethal skill-set to roam free. Norwood was credited with six tackles and didn’t seem out of place at all, while Fitzpatrick collected 10 to go along with one pass defense. Youngster James Pierre, who played outside corner in some sub-packages, had seven tackles and an impressive pass defense. As for veteran Joe Haden, you didn’t even notice him all day, which I believe is a good thing for any defensive back. The star of the secondary on Sunday, however, was Cameron Sutton, who played outside in base formations and in the slot in sub-packages. Week 1 was Sutton’s coming-out party, as he collected five tackles, including perhaps the most important one of the day when he stopped running back Matt Breida for a seven-yard loss on fourth and one. Sutton also added two very important passes defensed. Sutton was responsible for the Bills’ lone touchdown, but his coverage on receiver Gabriel Davis was so good, it was hard to do anything but tip your cap to Buffalo on that play. The Bills receivers may have tallied some receiving yards on the day–270–but they weren’t the difference-makers Buffalo needed them to be. Grade: A+

Special Teams

It was a troubling debut to the season for Pittsburgh’s coverage teams, as Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards. But the coverage unit settled down from there, and McKenzie wasn’t much of a factor the rest of the day. The coverage unit more than made up for it early in the fourth quarter went it went into attack mode. Miles Killebrew blocked a Matt Haak punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped it up and scored a touchdown to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead.

Chris Boswell was five for five on attempts–including three for three on field goals–and effectively iced the game with a 45-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 10-point lead with less than three minutes left.

As for rookie punter Pressley Harvin III, he struggled a bit punting in the often windy conditions of Highmark Stadium. He averaged 41.4 yards per kick and shanked one off the side of his foot while punting out of his own end zone. It wasn’t all bad for the rookie, as he downed two of his five punts inside the 20. Grade: B+

Coaching

The fact that Pittsburgh won this game on the road as a 6.5 point underdog should shock nobody who knows anything about head coach Mike Tomlin. Nobody circles the wagon like Tomlin when his team is the underdog. It wasn’t always pretty, but that may have had to do with the fact that so many rookies not only played for the first time on Sunday but were being counted on to contribute heavily. It was also the NFL debut for offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who looked more like Randy Fichtner in the first half before finding the intestinal fortitude to adjust as the game went along.

I thought it was a masterful game-plan by defensive coordinator Keith Butler, as his charges generated a ton of quarterback pressure while blitzing so very little. Grade: A

Unsung hero

It’s hard to call Haden an unsung hero but as previously mentioned, he was barely noticed on Sunday. If that doesn’t scream “lockdown corner,” I don’t know what does.

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Steelers Overcome Slow Start to Defeat the Bills, 23-16, in 2021 Regular-Season Debut


The Steelers bounced back from a very anemic first-half offensive performance and a 10-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Buffalo Bills, 23-16, at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, on Sunday afternoon to kick off their 2021 regular season.

Photo credit: Yahoo sports

As far as Week 1 victories are concerned, this one had to rank up there for head coach Mike Tomlin, his players and certainly Steelers fans. Pittsburgh entered the game as a 6.5 point underdog, pretty long odds for a team that just won 12 games and the AFC North title one year earlier. But the Bills were considered to be one of the legit Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, while the Steelers were written off as pretenders long before the season even started.

As far as the game was concerned, it actually was a rather ominous start for Pittsburgh, as the Bills’ Isaiah McKenzie returned the game’s opening kickoff 75 yards down to the Pittsburgh 24. Fortunately for the Steelers, their defense, one of the best in the NFL the past two seasons, let it be known right away that it would likely be a force again in 2021 and forced a quick three-and-out. Buffalo placekicker Tyler Bass came on to kick a 37-yard field goal to give the home team a quick 3-0 lead.

It was a defensive battle from there, as the two teams traded punts on their next seven possessions.

With Pittsburgh’s offense struggling mightily to produce much in the way of yards, let alone points, the defense tried to shift the momentum midway through the second quarter when T.J. Watt, he of the recently-inked mega-deal, chased down Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen from behind and stripped him of the football. Cameron Heyward pounced on the fumble, setting the Steelers offense up at its own 45. Unfortunately, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Co. could not take advantage of the present, and Pittsburgh was forced to punt for the fifth time in as many offensive series.

After the Bills got the ball back, they subsequently drove 91 yards on 13 plays and took a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter when Allen found receiver Gabriel Davis in the back of the end zone for a three-yard touchdown pass. Cameron Sutton had great coverage on the play, but Allen made a perfect throw, while Davis displayed great concentration to get both feet in bounds.

Despite the defense’s stout play in the first half, the Steelers as a whole had to be feeling pretty deflated as they headed to the locker room down by 10 points.

While the defense was mostly dominant over the first 30 minutes, the offense was abysmal, tallying just 54 yards on six possessions.

Would the team respond? Would Matt Canada, the team’s new offensive coordinator, make the necessary adjustments that his predecessor, Randy Fichtner, was not known for?

The answer to both questions was yes.

The Steelers took the second-half kickoff and immediately began to move the ball, as rookie running back Najee Harris, the team’s most recent first-round pick, ran for nine yards on the first play. Moments later, Roethlisberger connected with tight end Eric Ebron for 19 yards down to the Buffalo 34. One play later, Roethlisberger connected with receiver Chase Claypool on a beautiful back-shoulder pass down to the Bills’ 12. Unfortunately, the drive stalled from there, and Chris Boswell came on to kick a 24-yard field goal to give the Steelers their first points of the 2021 campaign.

The defense came up big again on the following possession when the Bills decided to go for it on fourth and five from Pittsburgh’s 35, and Sutton broke up a pass intended for Davis.

Roethlisberger connected with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth for 24 yards on the next possession, as the Steelers drove 62 yards on 11 plays. Again, though, the drive stalled inside the red zone–this time, the two-yard line–and Boswell came on to kick a 20-yard field goal to bring the Steelers to within four points.

The Bills again turned the ball over on downs on their next offensive possession when they attempted a weird-looking backward lateral from Allen to running back Matt Breida on fourth and one from the Pittsburgh 41; Sutton came through, again, tackling Breida for a seven-yard loss.

The Steelers offense finally reached pay-dirt on its next possession. Facing a third and seven from the Buffalo 49, Pittsburgh got a fresh set of downs, thanks to a 26-yard defensive interference penalty on cornerback Levi Wallace on a pass intended for Claypool. Harris raced 18 yards down to the Bills’ five on the very next play to set up a first-and-goal situation. One play later, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson in the back corner of the end zone, and the third-year receiver displayed great concentration by first bobbling the pass and then catching it and keeping both feet in bounds for a five-yard touchdown to make it 13-10, visitors. After trailing for three-plus quarters, the Steelers finally had their first lead with 11:19 left in regulation.

The lead would balloon to 10 moments later. After the Steelers defense forced a quick three-and-out, Miles Killebrew raced through to block Buffalo’s punt, and Ulysses Gilbert III scooped up the loose football and scored a touchdown to make it 20-10.

The Bills immediately answered with a field goal to pull to within a touchdown with 5:23 remaining, but Pittsburgh responded with a field goal of its own, as Boswell connected from 45 yards away to re-establish the 10-point lead with 2:42 remaining.

Bass kicked another field goal to pull the Bills to within seven points with 42 seconds remaining, but JuJu Smith-Schuster recovered the subsequent onside kick to secure the Steelers first victory of the season.

Next up for the Steelers is a date with the Las Vegas Raiders next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, as the team kicks off its home schedule in front of what figures to be a loud and raucous crowd.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Long-time Steelers Player and Broadcaster, Tunch Ilkin, Passes Away After Battle with ALS

Tunch Ilkin, a long-time Steelers offensive tackle and broadcaster, passed away on Saturday due to complications from ALS.

Photo credit: WTAJ

It was a very brief battle for Ilkin, who was just diagnosed with the disease in September of 2020 before going public with his illness a month later.

Ilkin, who was born in Turkey in 1957 before his family moved to the United States when he was a small child, was a sixth-round pick out of Indiana State in the 1980 NFL Draft. Ilkin, who played right tackle, didn’t become a full-time starter until 1983; it was the final game of that ’83 campaign–a 38-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round of the playoffs–when Ilkin first came known to a national audience, thanks to being repeatedly victimized by the legendary Lyle Alzado.

Ilkin went on to survive that bit of baptism by fire and would remain a fixture on the Steelers offensive line for a decade. Despite the Steelers’ post-Super Bowl dip into mediocrity (and worse) by the mid-to-late-’80s, Ilkin emerged as a team leader and one of the best right tackles in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in both 1988 and 1989.

Ilkin started 143 games for the Steelers in 13 seasons before signing a free-agent deal with the Packers in 1993.

Not long after retiring from football following the ’93 season, Ilkin began his broadcasting career. Ilkin did color commentary for NBC in 1995, but his real broadcasting career began in 1998 when he joined the Steelers Radio Network, alongside Bill Hillgrove and Myron Cope.

Cope retired following the 2004 season and Ilkin became the lone color analyst in the booth, a role he would hold through the 2020 season before announcing his retirement this past June.

Ilkin became a fixture in the Pittsburgh community during his career as both a player and especially as a broadcaster. His work with local charities, including Light of Life, was well known, as was his relationship with the Christian community.

His close friendship with Craig Wolfley, a fellow Steelers offensive lineman and 1980 draft choice, was also a big part of Ilkin’s broadcasting career, as the two often seemed inseparable, both during broadcasts of Steelers games–Wolfley was the team’s sideline reporter for many years before being promoted to the booth this summer–and away from the field when they hosted the radio show, In the Locker room with Tunch and Wolf.

  • Ilkin’s first wife, Sharon, passed away from breast cancer in 2012, and he re-married the following year.

When Ilkin’s death was reported on Saturday, the news was met with an outpouring of love from the Steelers, their players–both past and present–the fans and the local media.

Tunch Ilkin was 63.

 

 

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Screw Seinfeld: When it Comes to Steelers Legends I Cheer Players, Not Clothes

Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that cheering for sports teams was essentially like cheering for laundry.

Seinfeld, a huge baseball fan and a diehard supporter of the New York Mets, was talking about the changing landscape of sports in the 1980s and 1990s due to the realities brought about by free agency. To Seinfeld, it boiled down to “Cheering Clothes.” Don’t remember? Here’s a refresher:

That’s why comedians are comedians, while the rest of us are mere mortals: they have a way of seeing things differently.

  • I can tell you that I’ve become a bit hardened as a sports fan over the years.

I’ve grown a bit jaded. When a player is drafted by the Steelers, for example, I immediately start the clock and begin counting down the time until he becomes a free agent. The closer the Steelers and the player get to that contract year, the more I start to prepare myself for his departure.

A lot of fans have taken a more clinical and almost business-like approach to sports fandom in the free-agent and salary cap era we’ve been living in for decades. “What can they get for him?” is a question only general managers used to ask when discussing players headed into their contract years. If the player was deemed too expensive, past his prime or simply not worth keeping around, a gm may have strongly considered flipping said player for either another player or a draft choice.

  • Now it’s common for most fans to be concerned about such things.
  • They’ve been trained to think that way, to have a more business-like mindset.

Occasionally, however, you’ll see a fan base and city truly embrace a star player and give him nothing but love. There is just something about seeing that player in that uniform and doing the things that make him so great.

Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, AFC Championship

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Troy Polmalu after the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis used to be that for me.

There was just something about watching The Bus score a touchdown; it had more weight to it than when anyone else did it (no pun intended). It gave you that special feeling, like an iconic character from a famous movie franchise. Bettis just had a special way about him, an aura that made you root for him harder than other Steelers’ players. That’s what made Bettis the face of the franchise.

It’s rare to have that feeling, but I got it during the Steelers’ dress rehearsal preseason game while watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger make his preseason debut against the Lions at Heinz Field and subsequently do his thing like only he could. Much like with the running back position after Bettis, it’s going to take me a long time to “trust” another Steelers quarterback once Roethlisberger retires.

I still don’t have the same faith in Minkah Fitzpatrick that I once had in Troy Polamalu at the safety position. True, Fitzpatrick is a free safety, while Polamalu played strong safety.

But you know what I mean. Fitzpatrick is now THAT guy in Pittsburgh’s secondary; he’s the defensive chess piece that Steelers’ coaches use to make life a living heck for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Fitzpatrick is also world-class and a First-Team All-Pro.

I’m glad that Polamalu played his entire career in Pittsburgh. I’m glad that he received such a heartwarming outpouring of love from Steelers fans when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early August.

It gave me butterflies.

  • Watching Ben Roethlisberger do his thing in his lone preseason action gave me that same warm and fuzzy feeling.

To repeat: there’s just something about certain Steelers players doing their thing on the football field.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s not just about rooting for laundry, even as I approach my 50s. It’s not just about contract stuff, analytics and the salary cap.

  • There’s still room to be a fan of individual players.

They say no player is ever bigger than a team. While that might be true in theory, it’s really not when it comes to certain ones.

  • Some players transcend their teams because of their importance and their aura.

Players like Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are the kinds of Steelers legends who make you root harder for them than others. You want them to succeed because of who and what they are and what they represent.

Laundry isn’t capable of giving you that.

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Haskins Can’t Handle It & 3 Other Thoughts on Steelers Preseason Loss to Panthers

“It was a junior varsity performance,” concluded Mike Tomlin following the Steelers 34-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers which wrapped up Pittsburgh’s 2021 preseason campaign with a 3-1 mark.
Who can argue?

Going into the game Tomlin had several players for whom he “thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skill.”

  • Display those they did not.

Here are four quick takes on this preseason loss.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

1. Haskins Humiliated? Not Quite. Humbled? You Bet

By all accounts, Dwayne Haskins has authored a very strong summer from the moment training camp began in July. Prior to the Panther’s game, he did nothing but impress in preseason. In comparison to Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins showed himself to be the far more dynamic player, and he exhibited more poise and comfort than Rudolph.

  • But of course, that’s that way it was supposed to be.

As a former 15th pick overall, Dwayne Haskins was sort of like the kid who gets held back in kindergarten and then is the best in his class the following year. So Haskins earned the right to start.

  • Haskins squandered it.

No, Haskins didn’t have a full complement of starters. Neither did he get a lot of help from his offensive line and from his running backs. But Haskins looked overwhelmed. Against the Cowboys, Eagles and Lions, the offense directed by Haskins has been a virtual touchdown scoring machine.

  • Against the Panthers the Steelers didn’t convert a 3rd down until late in the 3rd quarter.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to suggest that Haskins performance caused “us to wonder whether it might be more prudent to cut him.”

Frankly, that’s going a bit too far. Haskins did not look good, but the Steelers shouldn’t abandon their reclamation project.

2. Nothing Sexy about Sexton

One of the benefits of the Steelers-Panthers preseason rivalry is that it provides excellent fodder for story lines. Eleven summers ago a small, CFL vet whose speed earned him the name “Joystick” caught the coaches eye’s with a return for a touchdown in preseason. So Mike Tomlin gave him another chance, and he delivered again.

  • Yet he was still on outside looking in going into the preseason finale again.

Stefan Logan got a final chance and he took it to the house, earning himself a roster spot in the process.

  • Matthew Sexton entered the game against the Panthers with a similar opportunity.

But he botched it, badly by muffing two punts. Not even 24 hours have elapsed since the game ended, and Sexton’s butter fingers have earned him a spot on the waiver wire and all but ensure that Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a respectable night receiving, will keep his spot as the Steelers 5th wide out and 1st return man.

3. Can’t Keep Up with the Joneses

Unlike the regular season, during training camp reporters are allow to report on basically everything they see. As camp progresses, you’ll often start hearing a new name mentioned again and again.

  • Jaimr Jones was that player this year.

You started hearing his name in practice. In the Hall of Fame game he had started making noise with a tackle for a loss and a few QB hits. Then he started adding on sacks in preseason games.

He continued the process against the Panthers, leading the team in tackles, getting a sack and logging a few more QB hits for good measure.

That effort has likely earned himself a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

4. Enough to Tell with Snell?

If there was any one player on the roster of figured to benefit for the departure of James Conner and the arrival of Najee Harris, it was Benny Snell. Mike Tomlin likes Benny Snell, and while Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to second guess drafting a running back in the first round, he has shown himself to be at least a competent number 2 rusher.

  • Except Snell has been hurt for most of the summer.

And Kalen Ballage has gotten the carries and as recently as last week it looked like he could be pushing Snell off of the roster. Snell got his first work and while 8 carries for 28 yard is hardly gang busters, he didn’t have the best blocking to work with.

Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to cut him.

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6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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