¿Por que los Pittsburgh Steelers se quedaron sin los playoffs en 2018? (Parte II)

 

En la entrega anterior estuvimos repasando cómo las entregas de balón afectaron de manera decisiva el resultado final de la temporada 2018.

Ahora es el turno de los errores en la ejecución

Mucho se ha discutido acerca de si los Pittsburgh Steelers es un equipo mal dirigido por el staff encabezado por el Coach Tomlin, o si en cambio, lo que sepultó las aspiraciones de disputar el Super Bowl LIII fue un déficit grave en la ejecución.

Pero ¿cómo evaluar objetivamente la “ejecución”? ¿Qué aspectos del juego, a ambos lados del balón y en los equipos especiales representan objetivamente “la ejecución”?  

Según la Real Academia Española “poner en ejecución significa ejecutar, llevar a la práctica, realizar”. Entonces el paso siguiente es buscar aquellos indicadores que permitan evaluar de manera más objetiva la aptitud del equipo para conseguir el objetivo, que en este caso es ganar el partido. Como ejemplificaba en el artículo anterior, mi idea es realizar una “auditoría” a los números del equipo.

¿Fueron los Steelers el mejor equipo de la liga, como se pregonaba a mediados de año?

Claramente la respuesta es NO. Pero, ¿qué tan lejos se estuvo de eso?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster noto un touchdown en le finale contra los Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

¿Una ofensiva de élite?

Para comenzar analicemos el indicador más duro de ejecución: el resultado.

Todos conocemos de memoria este ítem: 9 – 6 – 1 (otra temporada ganadora para el Coach Tomlin, argumentarán sus defensores. Temporadas ganadoras sin títulos es (en palabras de Carlos Ortega) agua tibia, rugirán sus detractores)

Nueve – 6 -1 parece hablar de un equipo mediocre, y 9 – 6 – 1 sin postemporada, peor aún.

Trataré de hacer que la farragosa sucesión de números que siguen no noquee al lector a la altura del segundo párrafo…

Anailcemos a la ofensiva en su conjunto y por secciones.

  • Como conjunto, se puede decir que fue el 7° mejor equipo en puntos anotados… Muy bien!
  • Dentro de la zona roja anotó TD el 73,5% de las veces. Primero en la Liga: excelente!!
  • Convirtieron el 44,4% de los 3er downs lo que los ubica 8° en este rubro: otra vez, muy bien!

Hasta ahora no parece tan mal, o sí?

En yardas recorridas por drive se ubicaron 6° con poco más de 32 yds por serie. El objetivo del drive es anotar (a veces consumir el reloj, es cierto) asique hay que ver cuantas veces se convirtieron puntos en esos drives (ya hablamos de esto en el capítulo anterior): 37 % de las veces (ranking 18°) Y ¿cuántos puntos se anotaron? ¿predominaron los TD? ¿o los goles de campo? Puntos por drive anotador: 2.23 puntos (como si cada vez que anotaban fueran goles de campo) Pero ojo, sólo 8 equipos convirtieron más puntos por drive anotador!

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner y Myles Garrett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Decíamos que otro objetivo de las series ofensivas, aparte de anotar, claro, es consumir el reloj y controlar el ritmo del partido, manteniendo a la ofensiva rival fuera del campo. Pues aquí no se estuvo tan bien. Pero tampoco tan mal: 2:44 minutos por drive (ranking 14°)

Finalmente se retrocedieron 1.026 yardas por infracciones (este ítem atañe tanto a la ofensiva, la defensiva y equipos especiales) siendo el 3er peor equipo, solo superados por Kansas City y Jacksonville.

Ahora algunos datos por sección ofensiva.

El tándem QB-Receptores.

  • 5008 yds aéreas (2°)
  • Los receptores atraparon el 67% de los envíos (ranking 13°)
  • Intercepciones 17, compartiendo el 6° peor puesto con Cleveland (2,5% el porcentaje de veces que fue interceptado por intento de pese – ranking 20°-)
  • Ben Roethlisberger fue el líder pasador con 5.129 yardas y un QBR de 95,5 (ranking 13°)
  • El rating de QB de Big Ben cuando iba perdiendo fue más alto que el rating general (101.6 cuando iba perdiendo) Si va perdiendo faltando menos de 4 minutos el QBR baja a 80 y sorprendentemente cae a 67 dentro de los 2 minutos finales.

Línea ofensiva:

  • Permitió sólo 24 capturas de QB (ranking 4to mejor) o, visto de otro modo,
  • Permitió capturas el 3,4% de las veces que se intentó pase (2do mejor. Excelente!!!)

Juego terrestre:

La negativa de LeVeon Bell a retornar al equipo tuvo consecuencias innegables, aunque para sorpresa de casi todos James Conner superó largamente las expectativas. Pero alguien, en la dirección ofensiva del equipo, no tenía la misma confianza. No sé si fue MT, Coach Fitchner o el propio Ben el responsable de que durante largos momentos, el juego terrestre se mantuviera fuera y congelado.

  • El resultado? el 2do peor ataque terrestre de la Liga. Sólo 90,3 yds por tierra por juego. Ofensiva desbalanceada y predecible.

Si se analiza el juego terrestre por mitades (quiero decir, discriminado en primera y segunda mitad del partido) el promedio de yardas totales, yardas por acarreo y TD terrestres, veremos que no hay diferencias.

  • James Conner se perdió 3 partidos por lesión y aún así fue el 3er RB en cantidad de TD anotados, ganando así su lugar en el Pro Bowl por primera vez.

Si vemos el desempeño del ataque aéreo también dividido por mitades se puede ver que Big Ben lanzó casi el doble de intercepciones en la primera mitad y ¼ más de TD en ese segmento del juego. En efecto, en lo que respecta a los pases de TD Ben fue más prolífico en el 2do y 3er cuartos.

Hasta aquí las estadísticas de la ofensiva.

De 14 items trascendentes analizados, la ofensiva es top 10 en 7 (de ellos, 3 top 5)

Llegó el turno de auditar a la defensiva y los equipos especiales

¿Fue realmente la defensiva tan mala?

Por este lado las expectativas eran más modestas. Luego de la lesión de Ryan Shazier nada fue lo mismo y esta escuadra se veía herida de muerte durante el resto de la temporada 2017.

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

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

En 2018 se llevaría a cabo la reparación de la unidad con la llegada de los veteranos Jon Bostic y Morgan Burnett y del novato de primera ronda, Terrell Edmunds se intentaría emparchar (aunque sea a medias) la ausencia del Playmaker.

Veamos algunos números:

  • Permitieron 360 puntos (un mediocre 17avo lugar) y en zona roja ocuparon el mismo puesto del ranking, permitiendo 59.2 puntos.

Los números más destacados fueron en (atención que me llevé alguna sorpresa):

  • Tackleo: 107.9 (9°. Desafortunadamente no pude encontrar la estadística de yardas después de la atrapada y después del contacto pero intuyo que se ha mejorado de manera muy significativa)
  • Pases defendidos: 83 (ranking 3° y a pesar de Burns. Primera gran sorpresa!)
  • Defensa contra el pase: 10° (Segunda sorpresa!)
  • Presión sobre el QB rival: 52 sacks (1° puesto en la Liga)
  • Defensa contra el juego terrestre: 10° en Yardas por intento y en yardas por partido
  • Y aquí comienzan los problemas: recuperaciones de balón INT 15 (ranking 29°) y fumbles recuperados 7 (21°)
  • Durante las 2das mitades esta defensiva se vió más vulnerable puesto que triplicaron los TD por tierra permitidos y sólo interceptaron 2 balones contra los 6 en las primeras mitades.
  • Por otra parte mostró poca capacidad de recuperación o de sobreponerse al marcador ya que le anotaron 22 TDs mientras iban abajo en el marcador y sólo 7 mientras iban ganando.

“Illegal block in the back” o El trabajo del Coach Smith

El título se explica por sí solo…. Sigamos adelante.

Los equipos especiales mostraron claroscuros. Hubo bloqueos de patadas cruciales, hubo TD, pero el debe más importante y doloroso fue el bajón de rendimiento de quien, con derecho, de había convertido en la 5ts “B” de los Killer B’s: Chris Boswell.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell en Oakland… Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Pasó de un porcentaje de 92%para goles de campo en 2017 a 65% en 2018, con 9/10 en GC de 40 a 49 yds en 2017 y 5/10 desde la misma distancia en 2018. Inexplicable. Y catastrófico para el equipo.

Veamos algún detalle:

  • En las semanas 1 y 2 tuvo 1 GC en cada partido y los falló (el de Cleveland ganaba el partido)
  • Contra Denver fue 1-2
  • Contra Oakland fue 0-2

De jugador indiscutido (contrato multianual mediante) pasa a pelear por su puesto en el campo de entrenamiento próximo.

Switzer tampoco fue un dechado de talento al devolver patadas. Promedió 8 yds en paradas de despeje (ranking 17°) y 19.3 yds al devolver KO’s (31°)

Una estadística me llamó la atención. Es el punto, promedio, desde donde partía la ofensiva. Ese punto fue la yarda 26. (Ranking de la liga 31°)

Hasta aquí, los números que me parecieron más importantes

Pero entonces, ¿las estadísticas del equipo dan respuesta a nuestra pregunta original, sobre qué fue lo que pasó con este equipo en esta temporada?

La respuesta es, a mi entender, que no. Es más, estas estadísticas parecen describir a otro equipo.

Los números delatan algunas características o comportamientos del equipo que podrían ir en la dirección de dar una respuesta.

Por ejemplo,  el hecho de que Big Ben anote menos TD en la segunda mitad, puede ir en detrimento de la capacidad del equipo para cerrar o dar vuelta un partido.

  • Lanzar más intercepciones al comienzo del encuentro, explica o es reflejo de lo que  todos vimos: se empezaba lento.

Es sabido que las infracciones matan ofensivas o muchas veces exponen con crudeza incapacidades o falencias técnicas individuales o de conjunto. Que se haya perdido semejante número de yardas por infracciones no ha sido gratis. Con el correr de los partidos la cosa fue mejorando.

Pero mi conclusión es que las estadísticas, no explican el resultado de la temporada. El equipo en realidad debe salir con un Aprobado + si uno se fiara de los números.

Mi  impresión es que jugadas puntuales o segmentos determinados en varios de los partidos perdidos y en el empate de la semana 1 con Cleveland, sellaron el destino del equipo. Y en general estos eventos están relacionados con pérdidas de balón.

La diferencia entre ganar y perder estuvo en errores mentales, de concentración. Aún cuando el equipo se mostró más carente de ideas, se mantuvo en condiciones de dar vuelta el resultado o de llevar el partido a tiempo extra. Pero allí ocurría el error mental que sepultaba las aspiraciones.

Se perdió por 5.66 puntos promedio por partido. Pero esta cifra es engañosa, también, hasta cierto punto, porque está llevada hacia arriba por la derrota contra Ravens que fue la diferencia en puntos más abultada (12 puntos) Si se quita este partido la diferencia en puntos en partidos perdidos sería de 4 puntos. Por poco más que un gol de campo…

  • Nunca el equipo fue arrasado en el campo de juego.

En definitiva, la diferencia se puede decir que estuvo en los detalles, en determinados momentos de los partidos, en la falta de esa energía o talento extra que tienen los equipos campeones.

En favor de los detractores de Tomlin, tal vez ese plus le corresponda a la influencia del Head Coach para identificar en el momento adecuado qué es lo que le está faltando al equipo.

  • Ese talento extra nunca llegó. Ni del Head Coach, ni de parte de los jugadores.

Esta no es, ni pretende ser, la visión definitiva. Es, en tal caso, mi interpretación de una temporada que finalizó de manera muy extraña, decepcionante, por los resultados y por los sucesos que se ventilaron luego de la semana 17.

El Dr. de Acero

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¿Por qué los Pittsburgh Steelers se quedaron sin postemporada en 2018?

Después de mucho tiempo sin dar muestras de vida, decidí reencontrarme con aquellos pocos que seguían mis cavilaciones en Steel Curtain Rising.

  • Me hubiese gustado volver para comentar una victoria en el Super Bowl 53…

En lugar de eso me mueve la curiosidad de poder desentrañar el “misterio” de por qué un equipo tan talentoso no pudo siquiera acceder a los playoffs…

Como se hace en las organizaciones, se me ocurrió revisar los números del balance de esta temporada.
Ver cuales son los “debe” y cuales los “haber”.

Asique mis amigos, hoy toca AUDITORÍA…!!

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Las razones del fracaso

Durante la grabación de uno de los podcasts (finalmente no emitido) de Steelers 360, al que fui invitado por el querido Carlos Ortega, decía yo, que atribuía el pobre resultado de la temporada regular a dos causas:

  • Turnovers
  • Pobre ejecución

Pero ¿qué significa pobre ejecución?. Siguiendo con el ejemplo de las evaluaciones de las organizaciones, ¿Cuáles son los indicadores de pobre ejecución? ¿Puede uno analizando las estadísticas del juego llegar a alguna conclusión que explique los hechos? o ¿hay acaso razones que no se plasman en fríos números?

Dice el erudito italiano Umberto Eco que la estadística es una disciplina tan manipulable que si hay dos personas y dos pollos, a través de esta ciencia yo podría concluir que cada una comió un pollo aunque haya sido sólo una la que comió…
Advertido de que los números no lo explican todo o que, por el contrario, parecen decir más de lo que hay, voy a adentrarme en esta cuestión y veremos qué encuentro.

En esta primera entrega me voy a dedicar a poner bajo el microscopio los turnovers.

El arte de dispararse al pie

Comencemos diciendo que, esta temporada quedamos en segundo lugar (y fuera de playoffs) en la división norte de la AFC, detrás de los Ravens por un solo partido. Quiero decir que si hubiésemos ganado sólo un juego más, hubiera habido mes de enero para los Steelers. ¿Qué partido? ¿Denver? ¿Chargers? ¿Oakland? ¿el primer juego contra Baltimore? Escojan el que gusten. Todos y cada uno de ellos estuvo a tiro de pedrada.

  • Y los perdimos. Sólo hizo falta ganar un juego más.

Es sabido por todos que si un equipo entrega el ovoide la mitad de las veces en las que anota, es esperable que se estrelle contra una pared. Y eso sucedió con los Steelers.

Explico: el porcentaje de series ofensivas que finalizaron en anotación fue de 36,8% mientras que las series que terminaban en entregas de balón fue de 14,3%. Es decir que por cada 10 series anotadoras, 4 terminaban entregando el ovoide.

  • El turnover ratio de la temporada fue de – 11
  • La relación TD/INT fue de 2:1
  • Los partidos en donde más “generosos” estuvimos con el adversario fueron el empate contra Cleveland (TO ratio -5), la victoria que debió ser derrota contra Jacksonville (-2) y la derrota contra Denver (-4)

Si tomamos las derrotas solamente, allí el ratio es de -11.

En las victorias es 0

  • La cantidad de puntos recibidos gracias a esas entregas, totalizaron 58, equivalente al 16% del total de los puntos recibidos en toda la temporada.

La diferencia entre puntos anotados y puntos recibidos en toda la temporada fue de 68. Puede decirse entonces, que casi toda esta diferencia provino de entregas de balón

En ocasiones las defensivas enmiendan los errores de ofensivas entregadoras, obligando a despejar y evitando que el equipo beneficiado con el turnover cargue con puntos el tanteador. Otras veces no solo ocurre lo contrario sino que esos puntos cedidos determinan el destino del partido.

En la semana 1, en el último cuarto, con los Steelers arriba por 14 en el marcador, James Conner soltó el balón. La respuesta de los locales fueron 7 puntos. En la siguiente serie acerera, fue Big Ben Roethlisberger quien pierde el ovoide. La respuesta no fue inmediata pero los Browns lograron el empate 2 series después y obligaron a jugar tiempo extra. Ya en overtime B. Roethlisberger volvió a soltar el ovoide poniendo a los Browns en situación de ganar el partido si convertían un gol de campo que terminó siendo bloqueado por T.J. Watt.

Semana 4. En casa contra los Ravens. El resultado de las series ofensivas durante la segunda mitad fue: Punt-Punt-Punt-Punt-INT-downs. La intercepción se dió cuando los Ravens ganaban por 9 puntos de diferencia.

Ya más adelante en la temporada, en Mile High. Xavier Grimble tuvo una epifanía y por un instante se imaginó siendo Vance McDonald y supuso que podría atravesar el cuerpo del defensivo que venía a cubrir lo que ya era un TD casi inevitable…

Choque de cabezas, balón mal protegido por Grimble, knock out para el ala cerrada, balón suelto en la línea de gol que se pierde por la zona de anotación, touchback… Se perdieron 7 puntos que hubieran sido vitales para ganar el partido.

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Se disputaba el 3er cuarto con los Steelers arriba en el marcador por 17 a 10. En 2 series seguidas se entregó la posesión (INT- fumble) y en ambas los locales anotaron de a siete. Para finalizar el encuentro, Big Ben lanzó una intercepción a la zona de anotación, faltando poco más de un minuto, desde la yarda 2 de Denver que selló el destino del partido.

No todas las entregas de balón valen lo mismo. La estadística puede sobrevalorar el item TO. Sin embargo otras veces implican cambios del momentum del partido, otras veces puntos, cuando no la mismísima derrota.

La historia de nuestro equipo contará que en la temporada 2018, quedamos fuera de la postemporada, segundos en la división, a un juego, detrás del campeón divisional, Baltimore Ravens, que alistaron como titular por gran parte de la temporada al QB novato Lamar “Venus de Milo” Jackson.

Para concluir, en esta temporada tuvimos:
1 – un diferencial de turnovers lapidario, y
2 – el diferencial de puntos anotados y recibidos puede atribuirse completamente a entregas de balón.
Pero hay más (y esto no está reflejado en las estadísticas…
3- Varias de estas entregas de balón significaron la derrota

Como veremos en próximos episodios, las entregas de balón no fueron las únicas calamidades que debieron enfrentar los Steelers, un equipo con muchos records de top 10.
Tal vez por eso, dolió tanto este final.

El Dr. de Acero

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The Steelers Took a Step Back in 2018. Can They Take One Forward in 2019?

As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:

  • Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
  • How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
  • Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
  • Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship

Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.

We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Rejuvenated Running Game?

Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.

  • Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.

Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.

We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.

  • Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.

Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.

Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)

Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
  • The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
  • Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.

Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.

  • Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
  • Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
  • T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
  • Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
  • Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential

Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.

Emerging Weapons on Offense

The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.

The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.

Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.

Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019

The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.

And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio  Brown.

As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?

  • The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.

Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?

That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.

  • Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?

If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.

 

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Mike Tomlin Can’t Win With His Own Super Bowl Talent, Just Bill Cowher’s

You know the old refrain by now. Yes, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach since 2007, has won a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLIII, following the 2008 season), but he won that Super Bowl with the talent bequeathed to him by Bill Cowher, who passed on to the great network in the sky and became an NFL studio analyst for CBS.

  • You see, Mike Tomlin never has been and never will be a great coach with great game-day abilities.

He simply stepped into the perfect situation with so much stock-piled talent (and let’s not forget about a coaching staff that included Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator), and not only did he auto-pilot Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm, he road the team’s coattails to another Super Bowl appearance two years later.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

Unfortunately, after Mike Tomlin squeezed every last ounce out of Bill Cowher’s players and coaching staff, he’s been unable to duplicate the same success with his own talent and a coaching staff that he mostly hand-picked. (By the same token, Kevin Colbert is only able to win Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s talent, but that’s another rant.)

You know the old refrain by now. Despite having Super Bowl-level talent–the very best talent in the league, they say–all of these years, Mike Tomlin has wasted the latter portion of Ben Roethlisberger’s career by failing to bring home a seventh, eighth and possibly even a ninth Super Bowl.

Many say that Mike Munchak, the Steelers universally loved and respected offensive line coach, should replace Tomlin as head coach. Why? Look at what he did as head coach of the Titans. Over a three-year period, Munchak some how, some way managed to squeeze 22 wins out of a roster that wasn’t nearly as talented and Super Bowl-capable as the one Mike Tomlin has had to work with since he exploited Bill Cowher’s talent and then hand-picked his own awesome talent.

What about that John Harbaugh, the tough-as-nails head coach of the Ravens? Sure, he’s only made the playoffs twice and has just one postseason win since guiding his team to a Super Bowl victory following the 2012 campaign. But look at the inferior talent Harbaugh has had to work with all these years.

  • Let’s be real, has the Ravens roster been as fully-stocked with Super Bowl talent as Pittsburgh’s?

Of course not. No team in the NFL has been able to assemble the level of talent the Steelers have put together in recent years. As has already been established, Pittsburgh’s roster is really, really talented–the best in the league, they tell me.

All of these other head coaches–Harbaugh, Munchak, heck, even Bill Belichick–have been doing more with less, while Mike Tomlin has–and I simply can’t emphasize this enough–done less (much, much less) with more.

What does this all mean? I think it’s obvious. It means Mike Tomlin has been a fraud all along, and once Bill Cowher’s Super Bowl talent pool ran dry, he was exposed for his coaching incompetence, this despite once again having Super Bowl-level talent.

If Mike Tomlin can’t do more than he’s done with all of this Super Bowl talent, the Rooney family owes it to the fans to find a coach who will step right in and guide this incredible roster–the very best in the NFL, I hear–to a title.

That’s right, the Steelers need a man who can take Mike Tomlin’s players — the very best the league has to offer –and win a Super Bowl with them.

It would be the perfect situation for any head coach to step right into.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

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

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

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

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

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

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

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

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

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

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

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

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

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

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

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

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

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

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

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Talent Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

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

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

 

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

 

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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