Super Bowl Legends Dissing Steelers Defense Isn’t New. But It Still Hurts

“There’s absolutely no physicality. There’s no energy defensively. There’s no tone-setters.”

“Pittsburgh football ain’t about having fun. Pittsburgh football is about dominating people on the field because of your physicality.”

“But that ain’t what y’all want. What y’all want to do is show up, and y’all want to live on the backs of legends. Don’t nobody care about that no more. Young people aren’t respectful to the past. In the past, Pittsburgh was something. This Pittsburgh defense ain’t jack.”

Those quotes, courtesy of Fox News, are all from the same person, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, during a rant on Monday while making an appearance with his current employer, ESPN.

Ryan Clark, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu

Ryan Clark celebrates after an interception. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy.com

Clark, a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII team, a championship team that was spurred on by one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the NFL (Dick LeBeau‘s unit finished number one in just about every important category in 2008), was upset about the performance of Keith Butler‘s 2021 version, a version that has allowed 586 rushing yards over the past three games (the Steelers have lost two of those games and had to settle for a tie against the pitiful Lions in the other).

Clark isn’t the only former Steelers defensive player to chime in on the struggles of the current defense. Former linebacker Arthur Moats has been very critically, especially of the effort put forth by linebacker Devin Bush: “Your tape is going to tell me everything I need to know so don’t tell me you want to make plays when I cut the tape on you, you’re not showing that effort.”

I realize that Bush has come under the microscope with the media and fans because of his lack of productivity this year, but Moats’ comments had to cut deep like a surgical procedure with no anesthesia.

It’s easy for us to just arbitrarily proclaim that a player isn’t putting forth the effort, but when a former player, an actual expert, accuses you of that, again, ouch!

Of course, former Steelers, especially former Super Bowl heroes like Ryan Clark, expressing strong opinions about the team’s defensive struggles is nothing new. In fact, I think the most famous quote from an old legend about such things came from Dwight White, a four-time Lombardi winner and member of the famed Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, once famously (or infamously) described Pittsburgh’s mediocre defense of the mid-’80s as “Soft and cheesy.

Guys like Clark, Moats and White know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two, especially Clark and White who, again, played on some of the best defenses in the history of the NFL.

It can’t be easy for a former player to sit back and watch a unit that he once helped to make legendary, intimidating and dominant regress into something that wouldn’t put fear into a high school team’s offense.

It has to be especially frustrating to watch the 2021 unit because, despite the injuries, there should be more than enough star power to still be quite effective. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s unit, one that was hovering around the top 10 in total yards fairly recently, has dropped to 21st in that category.

  • As for the run defense, it’s near the bottom of the NFL, allowing 133.1 yards per game.

Pathetic.

Also, a defense that was one of the more opportunistic units in the NFL the past two seasons has just 10 takeaways in 11 games. Heck, even the pass rush, the hallmark of the defense–the entire team, really–since the second half of the 2016 campaign, is having a down year and is on pace for just 37 sacks–and that’s with an extra regular-season game.

What has happened to the Steelers defense in 2021? It can’t be just about the injuries; if it is, guys like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu deserve a lot more money than what they’re currently earning. If it’s indeed about attitude, want to and being on the details, well, the unit better figure things out and quick.

Former players aren’t just watching, they care deeply. And when a legend like Ryan Clark, one of the most charismatic and vocal former NFL players currently working in television, puts you on blast, he isn’t going to turn the volume down until you get it right.

 

 

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Do You Doubt Chris Boswell Would Have Beaten the Lions in OT? I Don’t

Sports fans love to talk in absolutes. Sportswriters do as well.

  • Steelers fans and reporters are certainly no different.

For example, did you know the Steelers absolutely would have defeated the Oakland Raiders in the 1976 AFC title game if not for the injuries sustained by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Also, Pittsburgh would have won many more Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s had the organization selected quarterback Dan Marino in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft.

Do you think either of the above scenarios would have actually taken place had history been different? We’ll never know, but a different history certainly wouldn’t have hurt the Steelers’ cause.

As it pertains to the Steelers of the present–or at least their most-immediately past–there is no doubt in my mind that they would have won Sunday’s game — a contest against the lowly Detroit Lions that ended in a 16-16 tie in overtime at Heinz Field – had their kicker, Chris Boswell, but given at least one chance to attempt a field goal from 50-plus yards away.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Lions

Chris Boswell would have made it in OT. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It may have seemed risky to trot Boswell out there after a 39-yard hookup to Diontae Johnson on Pittsburgh’s first possession of overtime to attempt a 59-yard field goal, but it may not have been as risky as allowing the offense to attempt to get the job done. Unfortunately, Johnson fumbled on that play (see what I mean?) and denied the Steelers and their fans the opportunity to find out.

I absolutely would have sent Boswell out to attempt a 57-yard field goal the moment Johnson was tackled at the Detroit 39-yard line on Pittsburgh’s final possession of overtime. There were mere seconds left, the Steelers had no timeouts, and any pass that ended with a tackle in bounds would have made for a frantic attempt for Boswell.

The Steelers thought otherwise and, instead, attempted one final pass, which rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth pulled in for a one-yard gain before quickly fumbling the last shot at winning right down the tubes.

  • Such a shame. Boswell is at the height of his powers right now and has never looked better.

He’s starting to nail 50-plus yard field goals like one sinks two-foot putts–consistently if you’re a good golfer. In fact, he’s six-for-six from that range in 2021 and hit one from 51-yards away late in regulation on Sunday, in the rain, in the cold, at Heinz Field.

Just six days prior, in Pittsburgh’s come-from-behind win over the Bears on Monday Night Football, Boswell, who kicked the game-winner from 40 yards out, connected on field goals of 54 and 52 yards earlier in the night, becoming the first kicker to ever hit two from 50-plus yards in the same game at Heinz Field.

Other than T.J. Watt, Boswell might be the most reliable Steeler at this point, and when you really think about it, he’s been reliable his entire career. I don’t know what was going on with Boswell in 2018 when he missed seven of 20 field-goal tries while also missing five extra points, but even with those seven field-goal misses, Boswell has made 164 field goals in 185 tries during his Steelers career.

Amazing. Furthermore, Boswell is 15 of 18 from 50-plus yards out since signing with Pittsburgh early in the 2015 campaign.

Obviously, neither Johnson nor Freiermuth intended to fumble in overtime on Sunday, so it’s hard to blame effort or even strategy–even if I do think the final pass to Freiermuth was a poor call and/or poorly executed.

It’s just a shame that Boswell wasn’t given a chance to boot home the win.

I have no doubt that he would have.

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Still Fretting over Steelers Drafting Najee Harris & Pat Freiermuth? Please, Stop.

Since we’ve actually reached the month of November (so hard to believe), and the Steelers 2021 regular season is now seven games old, you’d think most folks would have long since forgotten about what took place during the 2021 NFL Draft last spring.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris goes Air Mail express into the endzone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Wrong.

People are still fretting about how the Steelers should have drafted an offensive lineman in the first round and how running backs are a dime a dozen. And even if you’ve now grown to accept the fact that Pittsburgh decided to select Najee Harris, running back, Alabama, 24th, overall, damn it, why didn’t the team take center Creed Humphrey, center, Oklahoma, one round later when he was still ripe for the picking?

Did you see Sunday’s game, a 15-10 victory over the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium? Did you witness the powerful runs by Harris and his Walter Payton-like leap into the end zone from about the four-yard line? Did you notice who scored the other touchdown? That’s right, it was Freiermuth. Did you appreciate the body control and the concentration, as he fought off the Browns’ defender, cradled the football and got both feet in bounds before falling to the turf?

A center couldn’t have scored either one of those touchdowns. You might argue that a running back and tight end drafted much lower still may have, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Those two rookies are special. Those two youngsters are studs.

The Steelers were smart in selecting them, and I get the feeling it’s going to continue to pay off for them for quite some time.

As for the offensive line that was very much in need of an infusion of young talent, Kendrick Green, the center Pittsburgh selected out of Illinois in the third round, has been starting since Day 1. Dan Moore Jr., the left tackle drafted out of Texas A&M in the fourth round, surprised everyone with his development over the summer and has also been starting since Week 1.

  • Has Green been pushed around a bit over his first seven games?

Yes, he’s undersized. He’s also green (no pun intended). He barely played center in college. But what I like about Green is that he’s not afraid to push back. Same for Moore, who clearly had his hands full on Sunday while trying to block Myles Garrett (Moore probably wished he had another pair of hands in order to deal with Garrett). But Moore survived. If he can get through a game against perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, he can get through anything, right?

So, just to be clear, the Steelers went into the 2021 NFL Draft in need of a running back, a tight end and multiple offensive linemen. They addressed all four areas with their first four picks and all four selections have contributed heavily to the Steelers’ offense through seven games.

  • What more could you ask for?

If that’s not enough, Isaiahh Loudermilk, a defensive lineman who the Steelers traded a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Dolphins in order to draft in the fifth round, is starting to make strides and turn heads. Tre Norwood, a Swiss Army Knife of a defensive back who the Steelers drafted in the seventh round, has been more than a valuable member of the secondary so far in his rookie season. Oh yeah, and Pressley Harvin III, the punter out of Georgia Tech who Pittsburgh also selected in the seventh round, won the job over Jordan Berry in training camp.

Throw in Buddy Johnson, an inside linebacker from Texas A&M who made the team as a fourth-round pick, and that’s quite a successful 2021 draft class. To review: the Steelers 2021 draft class consisted of nine players. Eight made the team, five are already starting (a punter is considered a starter) and seven are contributing heavily.

  • Again, how can you ask for more than that?

It’s time to stop thinking about what the Steelers could and should have done in the 2021 NFL Draft and start talking about what the players they drafted are actually doing.

The end.

 

 

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At 3-3, the Steelers Are Right Where I Thought They’d Be AT This Point… Kind Of

If you would have asked me before the season where the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers, the team with the NFL’s toughest schedule on paper, the team with the 39-year old quarterback along, the team with a bunch of rookies and a new offensive coordinator, would be after six games and heading into their bye, I would have probably said around .500.

  • As it turns out, that’s where the Steelers sit as they sit around and watch most of the other teams play in Week 7.

So, I guess the Steelers are right where I thought they’d be, right? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, 3-3 seems right, but how the Steelers got to this point was a bit surprising.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

For example, I did not expect the Steelers to go into Buffalo and knock off the Bills in Week 1; if you’ve seen how Buffalo has played since that 23-16 loss at the hands of the black and gold–the Bills may be the best team in the NFL right now–you can certainly understand my doubt.

Conversely, if you would have asked me after the first game where I thought the Steelers would be through three weeks, I would have said they’d still be undefeated; in fact, I remember exchanging text messages with friends and fellow writers and podcasters that reflected that belief. Why? The Raiders, a seemingly mediocre team from out west, and the Bengals, a team that is normally known as the Bungals, were coming to Heinz Field for match-ups in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively.

If the Steelers could knock off the Bills on the road, surely, Las Vegas and Cincinnati would be mere tune-ups along the way to proving all of the offseason doubters wrong, right?

Wrong.

Nope, instead of taking care of both the Raiders and Bengals, Pittsburgh was taken care of in back-to-back home losses. The offense was just as putrid in the two losses as it was in the victory over the Bills. The only difference was a less-potent and effective defense due to a series of injuries that saw both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith sit out the same game.

After dropping a third-straight to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field, the Steelers closed out their pre-bye portion of the schedule with two-straight home victories. The win over the Broncos in Week 5 wasn’t much of a shocker — I think most folks felt good about Pittsburgh’s chances in that game. But what about the win over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks one week later on Sunday Night Football? That game was only considered a sure-thing after Wilson was lost for several weeks with a major finger injury. With Geno Smith starting that game at quarterback for Seattle, that would surely be a time for the Steelers to feast, right?

Wrong…kind of.

So, what’s the moral of the story? I guess it’s that you never quite know what terrain and obstacles a team will have to navigate around when playing out its annual regular-season schedule; some terrain is smoother than you originally anticipated, while some obstacles are damn-near impossible to get around.

Where will the Steelers’ regular-season road take them following their bye? I could predict a record, but don’t ask me to predict how they’ll achieve such a mark.

Your guess is as good as mine.

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Quiet Takeaway after 5 Games? Chris Boswell’s Steelers Career Keeps “Kicking Along” (pun intended)

The one thing that was annoying about the Steelers’ 27-19 victory over the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday was the vantage point during extra point and field goal attempts at one end of the stadium.

I don’t know if it was because the game was on Fox, which prevented me from enjoying an HD viewing experience, but whenever Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a kick and the kick was broadcast from a camera in the opposite end zone (or behind Boswell), I had a hard time finding the ball once it was launched toward the goalposts.

With each kick, I had to wait an extra second or two for the in-stadium crowd to react. If I heard cheers, I knew Boswell’s kick was true. If I heard nothing, I knew he had missed his mark.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Fortunately for me, I had already assumed I would hear cheers as soon as Boswell connected with foot to ball. Why? The man’s been money for most of his career as the kicker for the Steelers, that’s why.

  • He certainly was on Sunday, as he connected on every single kick.

Chris Boswell may never be placed in the same category as Gary Anderson or Jeff Reed as an all-time great Steelers kicker, but he actually is the best to have ever done it in a Steelers career that began during the 2015 campaign, when he was a midseason replacement for the struggling Josh Scobee, who was a training camp replacement Garrett Hartley who was himself an injury replacement for the injured Shaun Suisham.

Boswell connected on 29 of 32 field-goal attempts during his inaugural season with the Steelers and even made the game-winning kick in the final seconds of the wild wild-card win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

One year later, in the divisional round of the 2016 postseason, Boswell was the only scoring the Steelers could muster, as he kicked six field goals in an 18-16 win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

  • The 2017 season may have been Boswell’s finest.

Even though receiver Antonio Brown won the award, you could make a case for Boswell as the Steelers MVP in 2017, as he connected on 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including several game-winners down the stretch to help Pittsburgh win 13 games and the AFC North crown.

Boswell earned a trip to his first Pro Bowl following the 2017 campaign and a new, multi-year contract right before the 2018 regular season was about to kick off.

Unfortunately for Boswell, 2018 would be the worst year of his career; in fact, things immediately started to fall apart in Week 1 with a missed field goal in overtime in a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 rain-soaked tie at Cleveland.

I don’t know if that missed kick against the Browns affected Boswell’s psyche, but he would go on to miss seven field goals and five extra points in 2018 and repeatedly failed to pull the Steelers out of the same close jams that he did one year earlier. Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason with a 9-6-1 record. Was Boswell dealing with some sort of injury all throughout the 2018 campaign? We do know he was placed on Injured Reserve prior to Week 17 after reportedly suffering a torn groin muscle in a game against the Saints.

After some talk of releasing Chris Boswell and his contract during the 2019 offseason, the now veteran thankfully returned to his old form and connected on 29 of 31 field-goal attempts during the regular season.

Boswell remained consistent in 2020, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts and even set a franchise mark with a 59-yard boot against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Speaking of records, Boswell kicked the longest field goal in Heinz Field history earlier this season when he made one from 56 yards in a Week 2 game against the Raiders on September 19.

  • That field goal was one of eight Boswell has made so far in 2021 with his only miss coming in Week 3.

Unlike in the days of Gary Anderson, it’s much harder for kickers to distinguish themselves these days, and most are expected to have an accuracy rate at or close to 90 percent.

Chris Boswell may not get talked about or celebrated in the same fashion as less-accurate Steelers kickers from the past, but he’s clearly the greatest one to ever boot balls for the organization.

That speaks volumes.

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Steelers Fall to the Packers, 27-17, at Lambeau Field to Drop to 1-3

At least the Steelers finally ended that pesky streak of not scoring on their opening drive. Unfortunately, other than that, there wasn’t much great you could say about Pittsburgh’s 27-17 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

Photo credit: Packers Wire

It was the third-straight loss for the Steelers after starting out 1-0. It was the fourth straight week in which the offense looked bad-to-mediocre (and that might be kind). Even the defense looked inept for the second game in a row, despite both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith being back in the mix at outside linebacker.

The Steelers’ offense did start strong and marched 75 yards on the opening drive and took a 7-0 lead on a 45-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Diontae Johnson.

Pittsburgh’s defense did stop the Packers’ offense on its opening possession, a series that ended with a Devin Bush sack of Aaron Rodgers. Unfortunately, Green Bay’s subsequent punt was downed at the four, and after a quick three and out, the Packers’ offense had the ball again at its own 36.

Green Bay promptly marched 64 yards and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown run by Rodgers early in the second quarter.

The Packers got the football right back when defensive back Kingsley Keke stripped Roethlisberger and recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 23. Green Bay took the lead four plays later on a 23-yard touchdown strike from Rodgers to receiver Randall Cobb.

The Steelers offense again showed life on its next possession and seemed poised to tie the score. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger couldn’t connect with a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster on a play that would have gone for a 32-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh ultimately had to settle for three points on a Chris Boswell 52-yard field goal that hit the uprights before going in.

The Packers again marched right down the field and were set up with a first and 10 from the Pittsburgh 13 with 31 seconds left in the second quarter. A touchdown would have given Green Bay a 21-10 lead at the half and may have been the final nail in the Steelers coffin. Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and ultimately forced a field goal attempt by kicker Mason Crosby.

But just when it looked like the Packers would take a seven-point lead, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick crashed through the line, blocked Crosby’s field goal attempt, scooped up the loose football and raced the length of the field for what appeared to be a 17-14 lead for the visitors.

Sadly, cornerback Joe Haden was called for being offsides, a very questionable and disputed penalty that nullified the momentum-changing touchdown and gave Crosby a second chance to convert on his field goal try.

The Packers scored 10-straight points to open up the third quarter–including a 29-yard field goal by Crosby and a one-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Cobb–to take a commanding 27-10 lead.

The Steelers offense continued to struggle over its next three possesions–two of which ended when Pittsburgh failed to convert on fourth and four and fourth and five, respectably.

The Steelers drew to within 10 points on a one-yard touchdown dive by running back Najee Harris with 4:40 remaining in the game, but by then, it was too little, too late.

Roethlisberger completed 26 of 40 passes for 232 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Quite indicative of Roethlisberger and his play dating back to last season was the fact that 21 of his completions went for four yards or less.

Next up for the Steelers is a 1 p.m. matchup with the Broncos next Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

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The Steelers Fall To 1-2 After Lifeless Loss To Bengals

That 1-0 start to the 2021 regular season sure does seem like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

Photo credit: Trib Live

Just two weeks after the Steelers buoyed everyone’s spirits with an unexpected 23-16 Week 1 win over the Bills at Highmark Stadium on September 12, those spirits couldn’t be any lower after Pittsburgh dropped its second-straight game at Heinz Field on Sunday–24-10 to the once-lowly Bengals–to fall to 1-2.

Much like the first two games of the regular season, the Steelers’ offense couldn’t effectively move the ball early on, as promising drives were stymied by penalties to various offensive linemen.

Pittsburgh did catch a huge break midway through the first period when a pass from Joe Burrow was tipped high into the air and intercepted by safety Terrell Edmunds, who returned it 15 yards to the Pittsburgh 44. Unfortunately, the Steelers could do very little with the gift and actually gave the ball right back when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hit by defensive lineman Sam Hubbard while attempting a pass, and the errant throw was picked off by linebacker Logan Wilson, who returned it to the Steelers 42.

The Bengals took advantage and drove right down the field and took a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to receiver Tyler Boyd, who broke a tackle by outside linebacker Melvin Ingram and scampered into the end zone.

Ingram, along with Jamir Jones, started Sunday’s game, thanks to groin injuries suffered by both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith over the first two weeks. With Watt and Highsmith both out, Pittsburgh’s great pass-rush was reduced to ashes, as the team failed to record a sack for the first time in 76 games.

The score remained 7-0 into the second quarter when Pittsburgh’s offense appeared to come to life and drove 86 yards on 15 plays to tie the game after Roethlisberger hit tight end Pat Freiermuth on a shuttle pass, and the rookie pounded his way into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown with 1:04 left in the half.

But the Bengals, who were set to receive the ball in the second half, were not content with running out the clock. Cincinnati immediately caught a break on its next possession when Ingram was called for a questionable roughing the passer penalty that set the Bengals up at their own 47. Two plays later, Burrow found rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was one-on-one with cornerback James Pierre, for a 34-yard touchdown pass to re-establish the seven-point lead for the visitors.

The Bengals took a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter following a 10-play, 55-yard drive that culminated in a 43-yard field goal by Evan McPherson.

The Bengals offense was back on the field just three plays later after Roethlisberger was picked off for the second time by Wilson, who returned it to the Pittsburgh 19.

Three plays later, Burrow and Chase hooked up for their second touchdown of the day, this time from nine yards out, to give Cincinnati a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 left in the third quarter.

The Steelers marched 52 yards on their ensuing drive but could get no closer than the Cincinnati 24 yard-line. Kicker Chris Boswell then missed a 42-yard field goal, his first-ever miss against the Bengals, to really take the air out what was left of the Heinz Field crowd.

Those still in attendance used their lungs to vehemently voice their displeasure when Boswell was brought on again to attempt a field goal following an 18-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 9:03 of game clock; Boswell’s kick was true from 26 yards out to pull the home team to within two touchdowns with 8:09 remaining.

The Steelers last chance to make things interesting came up infamously short when a first and 10 from the Cincinnati 11 quickly went up in flames and culminated in a questionable swing pass to running back Najee Harris on fourth and 10; the rookie was quickly swallowed up by several Bengals defenders.

For the day, Roethlisberger completed 38 of 58 passes for 318 yards, one touchdown and two very costly interceptions.

Harris gained just 40 yards on 14 carries, but he did set a Steelers rookie record for running backs by catching 14 passes for 102 yards.

Next up for the Steelers is a trip to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers this Sunday at 4:25 p.m.

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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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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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