Steelers Report Card for Loss to Chargers: Few A’s for Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed by his students enthusiasm in the face of adversity but nonetheless not inclined to give many “A’s” for effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Chargers.

Chase Claypool, Asante Samuel, Steelers vs Chargers

Asante Samuel Jr. shuts down Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
It happened again. Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week on the COVID-19 list, cleared protocols, flew out on a private jet, and promptly played his best game of the season going 28-44-278 with 3 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. If this were a series or movie franchise we’d have to admonish the writers for recycling plot lines. But its not so instead we’ll admonish any Steelers fan who doesn’t fully appreciate just how special Ben is. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Not a good day for the running game, but the Chargers scoring on their first 5 posessions had a lot to do with that. Najee Harris looked good, given his blocking, but never found a grove but he did find the end zone in earning 39 yards on 12 carries. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage were respectable in spot duty. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron both caught touchdowns and Zach Gentry made some good blocks. The Steelers tight ends did what was asked of them in the running game, but they’re going ot need to do more as run blockers if this offense is to sustain any momentum. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson authored what may have been his finest game as a professional, only falling a few plays short of a dominant performance. He caught 7 passes for 107 yards an a touchdown. Chase Claypool had an “on” night one in what has been an on-and-off season catching 5 passes for 93 yards including a field flipper that set up a score. Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington had 2 catches for 12 yards. Both Claypool and McCloud ran a few reverses, but made little headway. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Rushing room was spare – although the Steelers were in catch up mode most of the night. And although Ben Roethlisberger was hit 6 times, he generally had time to throw. Except on the final drive when the offensive line gave up consecutive sacks. Grade: F

Defensive Line
With the injuries to T.J. Watt it was clear that the Steelers defensive line was going to need to step up and it is equally clear that they were not up to the task. Except of course for Cam Heyward who deflected a pass and ran down a ball carrier from about 30 yards downfield. Grade: D

Linebackers
The story of the game was Justin Herbert breaking off and gouging the Steelers. Which shows that the Steelers weren’t able to neither pressure him nor contain him. That’s on the linebackers as much as the defensive line. Taco Charlton was drafted 2 slots earlier, but people still aren’t forgetting he’s not T.J. Watt. Grade: D

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
That Herbert had to run so many times indicates that he couldn’t find anyone open. And the Chargers were only 7-12 on third downs, a surprising stat. Cam Sutton also delivered what should have been a game-changing interception. Still “no one” had Mike Williams on his 53 yard touchdown pass which cost the Steelers the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a few nice punt kick returns and the Steelers punt return coverage was excellent, stopping the Chargers lone attempt for a loss. Chris Boswell was 3-3. And Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt should have been a game changer. Grade: A

Coaching
While it is tempting to point the finger at Matt Canada for only calling 18 runs against the NFL’s worst rushing defense, the Steelers defense simply could NOT stop the Chargers from scoring. The time to rollout a clock-control game is NOT when you’re down 14 points by the first time you touch the ball in the 2nd half.

  • Canada’s offense put 37 points on the board including converting 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

The Steelers defense had one of their worst nights in memory. In his press conference, Mike Tomlin doubled down on taking blame for the breakdowns of schematics. Honestly, there is probably something to that.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But no amount of scheming can replace the playmaking ability for T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Joe Haden for that matter.

The Steelers were down 17 points the just over 18 minutes left to go, but they continued fighting until the very final gun and almost pulled off a comeback. That reflects well on both them, their coach and the entire organization. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
When team leader goes down those who he leads need to step up, and during the game this player had two sacks, both coming in critical situations, both of which helped keep the game from slipping away from the Steelers and for that Alex Highsmith wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Blocked! Steelers Rally Fizzles as Chargers Win 41-37, while Tomlin’s Remarks were Revealing

The Steelers-Chargers Sunday Night Game had it all:

  • 41 4th quarter points
  • A blocked punt in the Red Zone that set up a 4th down PI call that set up Najee Harris air mail touchdown
  • A 75 yard Ben Roethlisberger touchdown drive ending with a pass to Eric Ebron
  • A pass deflected by Cam Heyward that set up a Cam Sutton interception in the Red Zone
  • A Ben Roethlisberger touchdown to Pat Freiermuth
  • A defense that stopped NOBODY on the ground, coming up with a stop on 4th and 1
  • A 45 yard Chris Boswell field goal with the clock winding to 3:29

Yes, the game had it everything, but in the end everything was not enough as the Steelers fell to the Chargers 41-37 in their first trip to SoFi Stadium. The Steelers first loss in 41 days drops their record to 5-4-1, while Mike Tomlin’s uncharacteristic response reveals a lot about how he sees the rest of 2021 unfolding.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Chargers 2021, Miles Killebrew blocked punt

Miles Killebrew blocks a punt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Can’t Run. Chargers Can, Without Even Trying

The first half ended with a 17-10 advantage for the Chargers. Although a 7-point half time deficit is hardly cause for panic, if it felt like San Diego er um Los Angeles was in charge, its because they were.

On Pittsburgh’s second possession, Chase Claypool had brought the Steelers to the Chargers 5, but Pittsburgh failed to punch it in. An end around by Claypool yielded 3 yards while a rush up the middle by Najee Harris delivered none. Mike Tomlin opted to pass on third and 4th downs and the Steelers misfired on both, getting no points for 73 yards.

  • In contrast, the Chargers responded by going 98 yards and netting a score.

Justin Herbert accounted for 40 of those yards on four unplanned scrambles were just as easy as they looked. The Steelers couldn’t rush the ball while the Chargers could, even when they weren’t trying to.

By the time a Cameron Sutton penalty gave Dustin Hopkins a do over field goal that he converted for 41 yards, the Chargers had a 17 point lead owith just 18 minute left to play.

For all intents and purposes, the game seemed to be over.

Give the Men in Black and Gold Credit for Something

Let’s be blunt. You can talk all you want about professionals football players being paid millions to play a boy’s game. The truth is that a lot of teams facing a 17-point deficit, at night, on the road, with just over a quarter to go would mail it in. The allure of the showers, of getting out of the stadium and on to the plane becomes too strong.

Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, Steelers vs Chargers

Kendrick Green blocks to set up Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers responded to the Chargers field goal with one of their own. On the next drive the Steelers defense did something it hadn’t done all night – force the Charger to punt. For the record, Ray-Ray McCloud returned the punt for 12 yards.

Ah, but off setting penalties forced a re-kick, which Miles Killebrew blocked, igniting the Steelers 24-point 4th quarter explosion. (Note, the Steelers also scored 3 points in the 4th prior to the blocked punt.)

Symmetry within the Number 3 Dooms Steelers

That 24-point explosion was entertaining. It would have been something really special had it not been broken up by 14 points scored by the Chargers. Or by Kyler Fackrell and Joey Bosa book ending the 2 minute warning with 8 and 11-yard sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • The Steelers defense made 3 separate stops the Chargers in the 4th quarter.

Those there the only 3 stops the unit had in them. I suppose that’s an odd sort of symmetry for a Steelers defense missing 3 starters in the form of T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. At the end of the day the Steelers couldn’t get pressure – or containment – of Herbert without Watt.

And if James Pierre did a fine job of filling in for Haden, that forced Tre Norwood out of his slot position and into Minkah’s which is how you get a 53 yard walk off touchdown to Mike Williams with just over 2 minutes remaining.

Factor in Joe Haeg playing for an injured J.C. Hassenauer was in for an injured Kevin Dotson which opened the door to the Chargers final sacks. The Steelers simply didn’t have the players they needed to compete.

Tomlin’s Uncharacteristic Remarks Revealing

Once upon a time, Mike Tomlin would have scoffed at a long injury list with “The Standard Is the Standard.” But after the game he explained, “We have to get back to the drawing board and do a better job of putting them in positions to be successful with the people that we have at our disposal.”

  • Is Tomlin stepping back from “The Standard is the Standard?” Is he, in effect, making excuses?

Don’t bet on it. Mike Tomlin is taking the blame upon himself because he doesn’t want criticism contaminating the spirit and attitude of a promising young crops players.

  • Clearly, he believes that, with a little confidence, this group’s best football lies ahead of it.

The fight they showed in the 4th quarter suggests Tomlin is right. We’ll find out over the next 7 games.

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Steelers Report Card for Tie with Lions: Peaking vs “Learning Experience” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who hopes his students can use this as a learning experience but fears they may have just hit their peak, here is the Steelers Report Card for the tie against the Lions.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Steelers vs Lions

Oh, what could have been. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Anyone still wonder why the Steelers opted to bring back a dismissed Ben Roethlisberger? Mason Rudolph did not play poorly, completing 30 out of 50 passes for one interception and another touchdown. But Rudolph also missed on some throws the Steelers needed him to make. Grade: C-

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 105 yards on 26 carries. While 26 carries perhaps a few more than you’d like to see his four yards per carry average indicates that perhaps they should have leaned on him more. If Benny Snell’s lone carry for four yards is any indicate, he could have been used to spell Harris. Derek Watt actually caught a pass for nine yards. Grade: B

Tight End
Mason Rudolph largely avoided the middle of the field, limited the tight ends a bit. Eric Ebron caught 2 passes for 13 yards while Pat Freiermuth caught 5 passes for 31 yards, but he unfortunately fumbled the ball away in overtime. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The Steelers have done well in combat catches this season, but both Diontae Johnson and James Washington lost contested balls. Ray-Ray McCloud showed why Mike Tomlin kept him after his fumble as he pulled in 9 catches. Johnson showed impressive presence of mind getting out of bounds during overtime, but this happened after he fumbled the ball on a field-flipping play. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was neither sacked nor hit during the entire game, per ESPN’s statistics. And, as mentioned, Harris had good room to run. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
For about 20 minutes, the Detroit Lions ran through the Steelers defense like they were indeed live lions charging through lines of Christians in the Coliseum. That is decidedly NOT the fault of the line, but it starts there. Cam Heyward came up with a monster sack at the end of regulation and another one in overtime. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was awfully quiet in this game until sacking Jared Goff for a 6 yard loss – a play on which he got hurt. Alex Highsmith came up big with two big tackles for losses late in the 4th quarter. Still, the Lion ran at will for a time and Devin Bush and Joe Schobert don’t deserve all of the blame for that, they duo is charged with guarding the middle of the defense. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick symbolizes what this game could have been. His nullified interception should have decided overtime, yet his missed tackles helped dig the Steelers into the hole. James Pierre did well in place of Joe Haden. Terrelll Edmunds overtime sack should have turned the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Kalif Raymond 48 yard punt return awakened the Lions and set up their first touchdown, a 28 yard romp that would get Detroit believing they could win the game. That wasn’t a lone play as averaged over 11 yards on his next returns. Steelers kick coverage was shaky too.

Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals including a 51 yarder in the rain, which pulls the grade for Danny Smith’s group up. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the first time this season, Matt Canada’s play calling led to some head scratching. We can accept that the reads on RPOs in the Red Zone were correct based on 5 Detroit defensive lineman on the field.

  • But does that explain throwing the ball 50 times when Najee Harris is running reasonably well?

Was Canada trying to do more through the air because he thought Rudolph was more capable (with fewer receivers BTW?) Did he want to see Rudolph prove himself? Regardless of his motive, his game plan was questionable in theory and failed in practice.

  • Keith Butler must find a way to coax more consistency out of his rushing defense.

The Lions running game was unstoppable for a quarter. Most of this was due to poor tackling, but that is hardly an excuse.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Lions

Najee Harris in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Finally, this column has credited Mike Tomlin when his players refused to “blink” with the game on the line. In overtime his defense did the same in this game. The offense? Not so much. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers lost four starters in this game, including 2 on offensive line. Yet the unit continued chugging along with backups in the game and for that J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg win the Unsung Hero Award for the tie with the Lions.

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Reality Check: Comedy of Errors Leads Steelers 16-16 Tie with Winless Lions

In one of the ugliest games played in Heinz Field history, the Pittsburgh Steelers fought the winless Detroit Lions to a 16-16 tie in overtime.

  • The story lines coming out of this game are nearly limitless.

You want to talk about injuries? You’ve got it. Questionable calls. Check! Missed opportunities. Yep. And then some. Opportunities to second guess the play calling? You bet. Failure on fundamentals? You can say that again.

In truth, neither team deserved to win this game. But if nothing else this comedy of errors offers a timely reality check for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Diontae Johnson, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Lions, Diontae Johnson fumble overtime Steelers Lions

Diontae Johnson fumbles in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

COVID-19 Strikes Big Ben at the 11th Hour

Less than 24 hours before the game news broke that Ben Roethlisberger had tested positive for COVID-19 and was out for the game. Mason Rudolph had practiced most of the week due to Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, so the backup would at least avoid coming in cold.

  • And Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense started hot.

The Steelers offense opened the game as they have many times this season: By marching down the field for a touchdown. There weren’t a lot of fireworks on this drive, just some solid runs by Najee Harris, some chink and dink short passing to Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington and Eric Ebron.

The Lions pitched in, leaving James Washington wide open in the end zone, allowing the two Oklahoma State Cowboys to hook up for an easy touchdown. With 9:40 left to play in the first half, things were looking very good for the home team at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, this was about as good as it was going to get.

Steelers Run Defense Does Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde Routine. Again.

After 9 games there is one thing you can say about the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 defense: Either it is very good against the run or it is terrible.

  • But there IS no in between.

Early in the second quarter Jermar Jefferson ran 28 yards, going untouched for about his first 24 for a touchdown. Jefferson would suffer an injury on the play, but the Lions running game was about to roar to life.

The next time the Lions got the ball, their running backs ripped off 3 double digit wins, including a 10 yarder on 4th and one that allowed Detroit to kick a field goal to tie the game at the half. The Lions were only sharpening their claws.

Getting the ball after half time, the Lions pounced with:

  • 12 and 16 yard runs by D’Andre Swift
  • 14 and 42 yard runs by Godwin Igwebuike, the latter of which went for a touchdown.

Igwebuike’s touchdown gave Detroit a 16 to 10 lead, there it would stay as Ryan Santoso missed his extra point. But would it matter?

Steelers Defense Remembers to Tackle, Offense Shifts into Low Gear

On their opening drive the Detroit Lions gouged the Steelers for 85 yards and they made it look easy. Then a funny thing happened. During the rest of regulation, they totaled 47 yards, including two drives that ended with negative yards.

When asked to about the manic-depressive nature of the schematics of his run defense, Mike Tomlin begged off explaining:

There was a guy out of place or two initially. But if you had to wrap it in a bow and talk about globally, we had to tackle better. As the game wore on, we did. And we settled it down. But the damage was the damage.

Normally, you wouldn’t think of a defense giving up 16 points with 12:09 left to play in the 3rd quarter as “damage,” but after scoring their first touchdown, the Steelers offense slipped into low gear – and there it remained.

  • It wasn’t so much that Mason Rudolph was playing poorly. He just wasn’t playing particularly well.

Rudolph didn’t have a ton of help from his receivers. Both James Washington and Diontae Johnson failed to come up with key combat catches. Matt Canada’s play calling was questionable. Although Najee Harris was running fairly well, Rudolph threw the ball 50 times. In doing so, he stuck with the safe routes on the side lines, which limited Pat Freiermuth’s role in the offense.

Still, Rudolph played well enough to position Chris Boswell for two field goals, earning a tie in regulation. That set up the most unusual overtime in team, if not NFL history.

Overtime – A Comedy of Errors

Terrell Edmunds, Jared Goff, Steelers vs Lions

Terrell Edmunds sacks Jared Goff in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

It is unfortunate for their sake, that Terrell Edmunds, Cam Heyward, James Pierre, Joe Schobert and Minkah Fitzpatrick made some exceptional plays in overtime, (although Fitzpatrick’s was nullified by penalty.)

Each of those could have been and should have been the proverbial “turning” point in overtime.

  • They weren’t — because the Steelers kept turning the tide back in Detroit’s favor.

On their second play, Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson who flipped the field, moving the Steelers into Lion’s territory. Unfortunately, he fumbled the ball. Detroit recovered. Minkah made his interception but Devin Bush got called for very questionable hold. Detroit got into field goal range, gave up a holding penalty on third down, and promptly missed their field goal attempt. The Steelers had new life.

  • The Steelers answered with a nice 4-yard run.
  • Then Kendrick Green snapped the ball way over Rudolph’s head, bringing up 2nd and 23.

The Steelers punted, and the Lions gained -13 yards on their next drive, thanks in large part to Edmunds’ sack.

The Steelers got the ball back. Rudolph hit McCloud, Ebron and Harris to move the Steelers to midfield. Then he hit Freiermuth, who got them to the Detroit 39 and ostensibly in field goal range – then Freiermuth fumbled.

Detroit got a desperation pass, but they only managed to go 14 yards.

Welcome to Your 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers

Mathematically, a tie is better than a loss. But coming at home, against a winless team that seemed determined to lose the game in overtime?

  • It leaves the Steelers with little to feel good about.

Sure, the Steelers lost two starting offensive lineman, lost T.J. Watt and lost Joe Haden during the game, but the Lions were playing with a skeleton crew at many spots on their depth chart.

  • That, and Jared Goff quarterback was clearly hurting.

After starting 1-3, the Steelers rebounded to win 4 straight. But the result of each of those games has been in doubt until late in the 4th quarter if not the buzzer itself. While no team in the NFL rides “On Any Given Sunday” to four straight wins, the question has been, “How high is the 2021 Steelers ceiling?”

After tying Detroit the answer appears to be, “Not very high.”

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Browns Game Offers the Steelers the Perfect Measuring Stick

There’s a certain symmetry to the Steelers 2021 bye week. They entered the bye after a game against the Seattle Seahawks and exit it playing the Cleveland Browns.

That’s fitting because the transition to the post-Ben Roethlisberger era began against the Seahawks in 2019 and the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns confirmed that Big Ben has reached his 11th hour.

So the bye week gives us an excellent opportunity to take stock of where the Steelers stand in terms of that transition.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
Stronger than in 2019, even since late 2020. When Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow popped, Mason Rudolph had never thrown an NFL pass and Joshua Dobbs had just been traded. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been as erratic as he was in the playoffs, yet he’s lacked the same spark we saw as recently as the Colts game.

Running Backs
Stronger today. Period. Najee Harris is arguably the most talented player on offense, and the depth behind him is stronger than it was in 2019 or at any point in 2020.

Tight Ends
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than 2020. Vance McDonald was ailing in 2019, Xavier Grimble was showing he couldn’t cut it and the Steelers had to trade for and start Nick Vannett in the same week. Last year the Steelers still had McDonald and Eric Ebron, plus Kevin Radar. On paper this group isn’t as strong, but Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry improve every week.

Wide Receiver
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than in 2020. In 2019 the Steelers had JuJu Smith-Schuster, rookie Diontae Johnson, Ryan Switzer (oh, did you forget Donte Moncrief? So did everyone else.) The Steelers returned the same wideout corps as last year, but have lost JuJu, weakening them considerably.

Offensive Line
Weaker than in 2019, stronger than in 2020. While it wasn’t quite apparent, the offensive line’s decline had begun in 2019, but it was still providing good pass protection. A year ago the unit was falling apart. While it is far from a strength, the unit has improved since the beginning of the season.

Defensive Line
Weaker than in 2019 and 2020. Those Steelers defensive lines featured Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and then Tyson Alualu. Now only Cameron Heyward remains. Nuff said.

Linebackers
Weaker than 2019, but stronger than 2020. Bud Dupree was blossoming in the fall of 2019, and Devin Bush was authoring a strong rookie year. T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt and Vince Williams held down the center. IN the playoff last year, T.J. was playing alongside Avery Williamson, Cassius Marsh and Marcus Allen (Ok, Marcus Allen only played 8 snaps. But as Tim Van Patton taught us in the 70’s 8 Is Enough. Yeah, that’s bad, but you get the point, don’t you?) While Devin Bush has been shaky and Alex Highsmith is finding his legs, I’ll take this quartet over the group on the field during the playoffs.

Secondary
Stronger than 2019, stronger than in late 2020. Truthfully, the Steelers secondary got A LOT better following the 2019 Seahawks game thanks to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade. And that secondary might have been stronger than this one, but with Joe Haden was out against the Browns, and he’s back now. Nuff said.

Special Teams
About even. After a bad 2018 campaign, Chris Boswell has been back. While Pressley Harvin has been uneven, he has more upside than Jordan Berry.

What Does It All Mean? Give the Pre-Game Edge – Browns

Since the playoff debacle, Steelers have strengthened themselves at running back, offensive line, linebacker, and in the secondary. Unfortunately they’re weaker on defensive line and the Browns road grading rushing attack is well suited to exploit this weakness.

  • And Ben Roethlisberger has neither the mobility, fire power or receivers to will this team to victory.

The Steelers can win this game, but their ability to do so hinges on their defense and/or special teams delivering some potent fireworks.

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Steelers Report Card for win over Seahawks: Pulling All Nighters, Again Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worried his students are falling into the nasty habit of doing things at the last minute, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Seahawks.

Ben Roethlisberger, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs. Seahawks 2021

Ben Roethlisberger drops back as Zach Gentry blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Shaky. On the surface Ben Roethlisberger’s 29-40-229-1 look solid. And to his credit, he moved the offense in the first half when the running game was stalled. But in the 2nd half the offense netted 2 field goals in regulation. All of those stalled drives are not Roethlisberger’s fault, but he couldn’t close the game in regulation or in overtime. HE also put the ball on the ground. Again. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 81 yards on 24 carries for a 3.4 average. Kalen Ballage tacked on 2 for 15 including an 11 yarder when the Steelers needed it. The exciting thing about Harris’ performance isn’t in the numbers, its in how he made those numbers. He got stronger as the night wore on. That’s what the great ones do. Grade: B+

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 7 passes thrown his way and his impact on the Steelers offense deepens week-to-week. That has come a bit at the expense of Eric Ebron, but Ebron converted a 3rd down and ran for a touchdown. Zach Gentry was on the field for about 1/3 of the time as a blocker and did his job well. Grade: B+

Wide Receiver
That Diontae Johnson would author the group’s best play with a 25 yard field-flipping run is a bit telling. Johnson caught 9 of the 13 balls thrown his way compared to the 2 of 7 hauled in by Chase Claypool. IT is true that in several cases, Ben Roetlisberger didn’t deliver the ball accurately enough to expect a catch. But its also true that where were times when both wide outs needed to make a play and didn’t. James Washington had one catch for 9 yards then disappeared, while Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. Grade: C-

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Seahawks

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
The offensive line continues to grow. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit one other time. More importantly, the running game got better as the night wore on – a clear sign that the offensive line was winning the battles up front. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Alex Collins ran for 100 yards in just over 1 half and made it look easy. That’s not all on the line, but it starts there. The Steelers are clearly missing Tyson Alualu. Nonetheless, Cam Heyward had an outstanding night, pulling the grade up for the group. Grade: B-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt did nothing less than take over the game in over time. Devin Bush had a shaky night, including his initial return of the ball the wrong way, but scooping up a fumble in OT is always critical. Tackling was a chronic problem in the 2nd half, and that brings the linebacker’s grade down. Grade: B+

Secondary
For the second straight week, James Pierre ended regulation with a splash play. The secondary shut down Geno Smith in the first half, yet they took struggled with poor talking. Tre Norwood came up big on third down a few times. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers gave up a 38 yard kickoff return which set up the Seahawks 2nd touchdown and got them back in the game. Ray-Ray McCloud turned in a 37 yard punt of his own on the opening kickoff but regressed after that. The real story once again was Chris Boswell going 3-3 on field goals including a 52 yarder. Grade: B

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense continues to move in the right direction. Certainly, the Steelers weren’t going up against the ’85 Bears defense, but the unit committed to establishing the run, and that commitment paid dividends late in the game.

  • The Steelers defense pitched a perfect shutout in the first half, only to coast badly in the second.

While that is not good, Keith Butler’s boys were able to shut out the run late in the game when it counted, effectively forcing Geno Smith. It oversimplifies things to say that overtime was a 1-1 between Geno Smith and T.J. Watt, but Watt clearly vanquished the backup quarterback.

Alex Highsmith, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahawks

Alex Highsmith sacks Geno Smith. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers have a young team that is finding its way, and this group of men responded to adversity with authoritative playmaking while the game was on the line, which is to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His counterpart on the other side is getting the ink, and deservedly so, but helped seal the edge on several rushing plays and he registered two sacks on third down, the second of which came in the Red Zone during the 4th quarter that forced a field goal and for that Alex Highsmith wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers win over the Seahawks.

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Watt’s a One Man Defense? As Steelers Defeat Seahawks in Overtime 23-30

Moments after the Steelers 23-20 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh’s head coach Mike Tomlin drew this conclusion:

We’ve got a lot of improvements to make, obviously, but boy, it’s good to win a game like that, to get to know yourselves individually and collectively when faced with dire circumstances at times, and seemingly when it’s not going your way.

Tomlin is right. Games like this do reveal a lot about a team. The 2021 Steelers certainly learned a lot about themselves Sunday night? But did we learn anything about them?

The answer is we learned a lot, some of which offers hope for the future, some of which signals caution.

T.J. Watt, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahwaks

T.J. Watt strip sacks Geno Smith. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Evolution vs Reaching a Plateau?

Coming out of training camp, Ben Roethlisberger was the first person to remind everyone that the Steelers offense would be a work in progress. The first month of the season proved that the Steelers quarterback should have been taken at his word.

  • The win over the Seahawks revealed a lot about that evolution, both positive and negative.

The Steelers spent the first quarter trading punts with the Seahawks, reverting the slow starts that plagued them in September. But if Matt Canada panicked, it wasn’t evident in his play calling as the second quarter saw the Steelers stich together two clock consuming drives that ended in Najee Harris and Eric Ebron touchdown runs.

On the plus side, this happened despite Najee Harris rushing for partly 28 yards on 13 carries. On the minus side, the Steelers got the ball back at their own 41 with 36 seconds left yet only managed 3 yards and had to punt it back.

  • Those might sound like odd threads to use to weave an “unfortunately/fortunately” narrative, but they’re apt.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Seahawks

Najee Harris catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Najee Harris finished the game with 81 yards, which means he averaged close to 5 yards a carry in the second half. Getting the ball at their own 26 yard line with the game tied and 5 minutes remaining, the Steelers fed the ball to Harris 5 times.

Last year or even last month, such a slow start to the running game would have resulted in Ben Roethlisberger tossing 50 times. That didn’t happen, which shows the Steelers offense is taking a step in the right direction.

And it is a step the Steelers need it to take, because the Seahawks game confirms that Big Ben can no longer carry this team. For all of the sound and fury generated by clock management, one of the trade marks of the later part of the Tomlin era is to use the final minute of the first half to tack on a field goal. The Steelers tried, but didn’t sniff field goal distance, which foreshadowed things much of the 2nd half.

With 9 minutes left in the 4th, the Steelers got the ball at their own 20. With the game tied, a score was necessary. The Seahawks stuffed Harris on first, Roethlisberger overthrew Diontae Johnson on 2nd and underthrew Chase Claypool on third and the Steelers had to punt.

The game didn’t turn on that play or that series, but those weren’t isolated examples of throws that Roethlisberger would have made prior to his injury.

Watt’s a One Man Offense?

Dealing with the loss of a playmaker is never easy. When the Steelers hit the dark days of 1998 and 1999 Dan Rooney explained that his team needed playmakers, offering Rod Woodson as an example.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger’s days as a playmaker are fading, then T.J. Watt’s star gets more brilliant with each passing week.

To be fair to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers second half struggles are hardly all on him. Both Johnson and Claypool left critical catches on the field. And, not to put too fine point on things, the defense “forgot” how to tackle for much of the second half.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Seahawks

T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward pile on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With no disrespect to Alex Highsmith and Tre Norwood – who’d stepped up with some critical third down plays — one can be forgiven for thinking the Steelers defense needs no one other than T.J. Watt.

Let the record reflect that during regulation, T.J. Watt failed to record a sack. In the elder days of ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime one can imagine Chris Berman and Tom Jackson extolling “Hats off Seattle offense. You can’t hope to stop T.J. Watt, you can only hope to contain him, and contain him they did.”

  • So what did “containing” T.J. Watt in regulation look like?

How about 3 defensed passes and two tackles for losses, both of which came in the 4th quarter, stoning Alex Collins after he’d steamrolled the Steelers offense. All four of those possessions on which Watt made those plays resulted in punts.

  • And he was only getting warmed up.

Seattle won the toss in OT, and T.J. Watt droped Collins for a loss on first down. Cam Heyward made another tackle for a loss, but that was sandwiched by 21 and 10 yard passes to Tyler Lockett and D.J. Dallas.

It was 3rd and 4 at the Steelers 45. A conversion and Seattle can start thinking about kicking a field goal. Instead, T.J. Watt dropped Geno Smith for a 14 yard loss. The Steelers got the ball at their 20 and could only get 9 yards when they needed 10.

Fortunately, Presley Harvin answered the call by booming a 56 yard punt out of bounds.

Pete Carroll had learned his lesson. On first down he put 3 defenders on T.J. Watt. It didn’t matter:

Devin Bush avoided his “running the wrong way” highlight reel and two plays later, Chris Boswell was splitting the uprights to pull the Steelers back to .500.

Steelers Reach Equilibrium @ Bye Week

As Mike Tomlin admitted, the Steelers still have a lot to improve upon. The defense must find a way to play more consistently and the offense must find a way to balance Najee Harris’ evolution against Ben Roethlisberger’s declining skill set.

But thanks to T.J. Watt’s heroics, the Steelers can at least do that from a .500 perch, which is as close to a clean slate as team that suffers a 3 game September losing streak is going to get.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos: Offensive Line Stops Skipping Class Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who was just as truant as the offense during the season’s first month, here is the Report Card from the Steelers win over the Broncos.

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

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

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 15-25 for 253 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions in what was easily is biggest day of the season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had 3 “almost interceptions” but he was right on the money with his two touchdown strikes as well as the deep balls that set up the rushing touchdown. But Ben put the ball on the ground, which brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught 2 passes for 20 more. Harris exploited holes and moved piles forward. Benny Snell dropped a pass early on and found himself on the bench, but ran hard when Harris had to leave with cramps. Kalen Ballage got several carries but had no yardage to show for it. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
All three tight ends got involved in the passing game as Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron caught two passes a piece while Zach Gentry caught another that set off a scoring drive. The run blocking was improved, the tight ends helped with. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool owned the Broncos, burning them for 130 yards on 5 catches and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson opened the scoring with a 50 yard scamper and had one other catch for 22 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had two carries for 3 yards and no catches before leaving the game with a season ending shoulder injury. Ray-Ray McCloud only had one catch, but made an interception saving hit. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
After spending a month mired in a morass of something worse that mediocrity the offensive line turned in a fine performance. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit on one other occasion. What’s more, he had time to throw all afternoon long. Najee Harris also had plenty of room to run. This unit must continue to improve, but if it does a lot of other good things can happen. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III might not be the NFL’s 2021 equivalent of Franco and Rocky, but they’re a solid duo. Williams torched the Steelers for a 49 yard game, but that was the lone highlight of the Denver rushing attack. That starts with the line who had a solid day including Henry Mondeaux who got his first sack.

Linebackers
As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out, you didn’t hear Joe Schobert’s name much, although he did register 5 tackles, and that’s because he was doing his job in the middle of the field. Devin Bush had the lone sack of linebackers against a Denver time that was max protecting, while T.J. Watt did work in two pressures. A solid afternoon for the linebackers. Grade: B+

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 10 tackles and was disruptive all over the field. But the real hero of the group is James Pierre. Pierre stopped a would-be touchdown in the first half by coming from behind to tackle Javonte Williams. His interception saved another touchdown and sealed the game. Yes, he gave up a touchdown and a long gain before that, but the ability to bounce back is critical sign of a quality cornerback. Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds had passes defensed, quietly logging solid games. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made field goals of 48 and 43 yards and was 3-3 on PATs – that’s 9 points in an 8 point game for those of you at home. Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick returns were average at best and the Steelers kick coverage was sound. After getting called out by Tony Defeo, Pressley Harvin III responded with his best day punting, including a 63 yarder late in the game. Grade: B

Coaching
The Denver Broncos came into the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, yet Matt Canada managed to piece together a game plan that saw the Steelers score early and add to that lead all while controlling the clock.

One defense Keith Butler was missing Cam Sutton and rather than put the job of replacing him on one person, he managed to divide the load and do it effectively. The fact that the Steelers went 1-3 on fourth downs is a bit disturbing, but the unit delivered when the game was on the line.

Cam Heyward, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

Cam Heyward pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP

Three game losing streaks are ugly in their very essence in the NFL. And any the pressure to hit the “panic” button is tremendous, even if a coach denies it. Mike Tomlin refused to do that, and continued to trust in his men and his methodology and that trust paid off. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The stat sheet tells us that he might not have made any “Splash” plays. But 4 of the 5 figures on his stat line directly correlate to scuttled drives and for that Cam Heyward wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Broncos.

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

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

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

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

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

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

  • So how did he do?

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

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

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

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

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

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

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

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

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

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

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

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

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

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

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

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

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

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