Devoured! Bengals Shame Steelers 41-10, Signal Changing of AFC North Guard

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paul Brown Stadium hoping to keep themselves in the thick of the AFC North division title race. Instead, they found themselves devoured 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Don’t be fooled:  This contest wasn’t even as “close” as the score suggests.

While the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati while playing at Paul Brown Stadium, this wasn’t their first loss. But there was something different about this one, different because it signaled something deeper.

B.J. Hill, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

B.J. Hill sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Bengals.com

Yes, This Game Was Competitive. For a While

The Cincinnati Bengals are a better football team than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, looking beyond the frame of this game or this season, the Bengals are a team on the rise. The Steelers are not.

But this is the NFL. If Washington can beat the Patriots, the Jets can beat the Bengals, and the Dolphins can beat the Ravens then the Steelers could have beaten the Bengals.

  • And there were times in the first half when this seemed like it might be possible.

The Bengals scored on their first possession and made it look easy, with Joe Mixon accounting for 54 yards on that first drive and Joe Burrow running in untouched for a touchdown. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger would throw inside while Chase Claypool broke outside and Eli Apple snapped Big Ben’s interceptionless streak – and returned it 50 yards to the Steelers 5 for good measure.

Oddly enough, the next sequence proves that the Steelers, with a few plays could have made something of this game.

  • The Steelers stuffed Mixon on 2nd and 3rd and then Chris Wormley dropped Burrow on 3rd down.

Defenses that respond to a dramatic turnover by forcing an offense to settle for 3 typically find ways to win football games. The offense took note, as Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Chase Claypool; this time the sophomore from Notre Dame flipped the field.

  • The Steelers converted another third down, but alas had to settle for a field goal.

The Bengals scored on their next two possessions, which each touchdown coming easier than the first. Things were beginning to look bleak before the half, when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow with just under a minute left to go and returned it 19 yards.

  • Yes, a little bit of Minkah had given the Steelers a lease on life.

37 seconds isn’t a lot of time, but Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have proven field flipping ability. And once you get in the Red Zone, Pat Freiermuth isn’t quite “money” but he’s getting there. So if the Steelers could get a touchdown, get the ball back at the half and find the end zone again, the 2nd half could be quite interesting….

…Instead Ben Roethlisberger threw to James Washington but couldn’t step into his throw and former Steeler Mike Hilton was only to happy to make him pay, returning a pick six 24 yards and improving the score to 31-3.

And that ladies and gentleman, was the game.

Joe Mixon, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Mixon scores a 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Little Analysis Necessary

When it was all over, the Steelers lost the game 41-10. Really, a second half comeback wasn’t feasible. (No, Alex Highsmith’s could have been pick six wouldn’t have moved the needle).

This Steelers squad simply isn’t talented enough or healthy enough. While James Pierre has looked sharp at times this year, he’s got a long way to go to show he’s the next Joe Haden. T.J. Watt was in uniform, but his best play was his post interception scuffle with Joe Burrow. Either Devin Bush‘s heart or his ACL recovery is lagging or perhaps a little of both, but he’s not getting the job done.

  • The Steelers tried moving Cam Heyward to nose tackle, but that proved to be a mistake.

On the offensive, Najee Harris showed he was capable of being truly a special back, but he hath no line to block for him. Fourth string guard B.J. Finney helped remind everyone why the Steelers let him go in free agency, two teams parted with him during 2020 and the Steelers waited until November to dress him.

  • This is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that can’t run and can’t stop the run.

Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t carry this team on his back in 2021 and yesterday proved that. Claypool, Johnson and Freiermuth made some nice plays, but Ben clearly failed to make some throw’s he’d have made as recently as 2018.

Tomlin Promises Changes, but Some Changes Are Beyond His Control

Since he arrived in the NFL during the Steelers 2004 season, commentators have seldom tired of reminding us of how well Ben Roethlisberger has played in his native Ohio. He did it again this fall in Cleveland, but this streak skidded out Sunday in Cincinnati.

That’s an interesting factoid, but the story of this game goes beyond Ben losing what is likely his last game in Ohio. When asked change was coming after the game, Mike Tomlin admitted  “You know, we’re open to doing whatever is required to change what’s trending.”

While there are some changes Tomlin can make, perhaps even ones that will bear fruit next week against Baltimore, the Steelers loss at Paul Brown Stadium signals that the guard has changed in the AFC North.

And there’s no decision Mike Tomlin can make this season to alter that reality.

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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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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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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over the Bears: Just in Time Principles Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is just as committed to “Just in Time” principles as his students, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Monday Night Win over the Bears.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an economical night, completing 21 passes in 30 tries for 205 yards including two touchdowns. Most importantly, he completed all of his passes on the game’s final drive, although one must question his decision to kill the clock. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Rookies are NOT supposed to be this good. Pat Freiermuth came up with his second combat catch in two weeks. Kevin Rader had one catch although why he was targeted on the play is a bit of a head scratcher. Zach Gentry was in for 51% of the snaps but not targeted. The running game could have used some blocking help. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wide receivers did little to keep Fantasy Football owners happy Monday Night, but each one came up with a key catch. Chase Claypool’s 3rd down conversion was critical. Diontae Johnson almost single handedly put the Steelers in scoring range with his 22 yard pass on the finale drive. James Washington came back to catch a 42 yard pass set up their 3rd quarter touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 12 yard catch sustained the Steelers final drive. Claypool, Johnson and Washington all made gains on the ground. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The offensive line had its worst outing since September. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times and hit 5 more. The running backs had no room to run. Improvement is needed. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward is a monster. His interception helped the Steelers build an early lead and he hit Justin Fields 3 times. The Bears did run a little better than you’d like to see, but overall, the defensive line had a solid night. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had 3 sacks, two of which came on third down all of which helped force punts. He also deflected the ball on the game’s penultimate play. Devin Bush came up with a key pass deflection late, but he needs to do more. Grade: B

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in tackles while laying in the wood. Joe Haden deflected a pass. The Bears were able to move the ball through the air late in the game and they made it look easy. Some of this had to do with coverage schemes to contain Justin Fields, but rest assured the Ravens are watching. The secondary has a few weeks to get ready. This game shows they’ll need that time. Grade: D

Special Teams
How do you grade an effort like this? A fumbled punt returned for a touchdown – half way through the 4th quarter in a 10 point game no less. A missed extra point. And some wildly inconsistent punting by Pressley Harvin.

On the plus side Chris Boswell made 3 field goals, two from more than 50 yards including the game winner. And he recovered a fumbled kickoff return. The Steelers coverage was also good. Boswell’s heroics bring this grade up. But if Santos makes his kick, the grade goes down. Grade: C-

Coaching

Keith Butler might have contained the damage that Justin Fields did with his legs, but he has to hope he didn’t provide the Baltimore Ravens with a blueprint for how to move at will on the Steelers defense.

The Steelers defense played well in the first half, but gave up 17 points in the second half, and it looked too easy. You won’t beat many teams that way.

Matt Canada continues to improve week on week. His play scripting early on shows he was ready to exploit the Bears weaknesses. And when he couldn’t get the ground game going with his running backs, he improvised – a year ago in this situation the Steelers would sold out to the short passing game.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

While the need for 4th quarter heroics is something we’d all like to avoid, the Steelers never let themselves get caught up in the moment and those moments were never too big for them. That reflects well on Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero
It was a tough night for the Steelers running backs. They had nowhere to run. Yet Najee Harris refused to let that daunt him. No where was that more evident than in his second effort on his successful 4th down conversion on the Steelers 2nd touchdown drive. Najee Harris’ resiliency set the tone for the entire team and for that he wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the Monday Night Football win over the Bears.

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“Marginal” Best Describes Steelers MNF Win over Bears. …But Maybe That’s Good

The Steelers 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football conjures many different descriptions.

  • Intense. Last second. Frantic. Heart Rendering. Barn burner. Lucky.

Do you agree with these descriptions? Good. So do I. But there’s another, better word we can use: “Marginal.” Marginal certainly isn’t as colorful. “Marginal” also holds a neutralish if negative connotation. But Bears win on Monday night shows us that the 2021 Steelers might actually be able to use that to their advantage.

T.J. Watt, Justin Fields, Steelers vs Bears, T.J. Watt Fields Pass Block

T.J. Watt blocks Justin Fields’ pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Canada Sets Offense Up for Strong Start

Given this win’s last second nature, it is easy to forget the Steelers left a lot of positive takeaways in this game, especially early on.

  • One of those is that Matt Canada has a sharp offensive mind.

He’s clearly gaining a feel only for his player’s abilities but he’s also adept at applying those strengths to exploit opposing defense’s weaknesses. On their first possession, the Steelers marched down the field, literally just as Canada had scripted it.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Najee Harris scores a first quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Canada’s formation set up Ben Roethlisberger’s 3rd and 7 conversion to Chase Claypool. Later in the Red Zone put Claypool in motion and deployed Derek Watt to block allowing Najee Harris to march into the end zone untouched.

And if the drive following Cam Heyward’s interception wasn’t quite as smooth, it did only take ten plays for Ben Roethlisberger to find Pat Freiermuth in the end zone for another touchdown to start the 2nd quarter.

Sure, the Bears eked out a field goal late in the second quarter, but as the Steelers entered the locker room at half time, one couldn’t help but imagine Mason Rudolph taking the field in the early 4th quarter….

Failure to Control Line of Scrimmage (almost) Dooms Steelers in 2nd Half

…Instead of seeing Mason Rudolph taking snaps, Steelers Nation got to witness Ben Roethlisberger’s 39th 4th quarter comeback and 50th game winning drive.

  • After such a strong start, these heroics shouldn’t have been necessary. Alas, it was for very understandable reasons.

If the first quarter proved that Matt Canada can scheme with the best of them, the next three quarters proved that his offensive line remains a work in progress. The Steelers offensive line lost the battles up front, leaving Najee Harris no where to run.

Credit Canada for innovating and using jet sweeps to gain yards on the ground. James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Claypool carried the ball 6 times and gained 37 yards in the process. While this helped keep the defense honest, the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away because their offensive line was getitng manhandeled.

To recap, with about 7 minutes left to play, T.J. Watt had sacked Justin Fields. Even if the Steelers run 3 plays for zero yards, Pittsburgh probably burns at least 2 and a half minutes off of the clock. A single first down in that situation could seal victory.

Instead, the Steelers let the Bears right back in the game.

And Chicago was only too happy to take them up on their invitation.

Limiting Fields Carried Costs for Defense

Chicago’s comeback did not happen in a vacuum. Justin Fields, after struggling for much of the first half, played lights out late in the game. The Steelers defense struggled to slow the Bears.

When asked why Arthur Maulet was left in single coverage so often with Minkah Fitzpatrick roaming instead of helping with double coverage, Mike Tomlin explained, “Quarterback mobility challenges you from that standpoint. So, yes, there’s not only Arthur, but a lot of people are in single coverage when dealing with quarterback mobility.”

That’s both good and bad for the Steelers.

  • Its good because it suggests that Chicago wasn’t exploiting a systemic weakness
  • Its bad because the Steelers have to play Lamarr Jackson twice more this season.

Its also worrisome because the Steelers gave up the house to draft Devin Bush in part to have a player capable of containing Jackson. Bush, who left the field on third downs, doesn’t appear to be capable of that at this point.

A “Marginal” Victory? Yes. But History is Made in the Margins

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward and Ben Roethlisberger all admitted that, victory notwithstanding, things must improve. And the hard truth is, that if you take a hard dispassionate look at the struggles at the line of scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger’s difficulty throwing down field and the ease at which the defense gave up points late, its difficult to envision this team sustaining a playoff run, much less hosting the Lombardi.

But if that’s true, then think back to some of the outlying plays that the game turned on:

  • Chris Boswell making not one, but two 50 yard field goals, recovering a fumble, yet missing a PAT
  • T.J. Watt batting a way a pass at the line of scrimmage
  • Cairo Santos 65 yard field goal – at Heinz Field no less – banging off the lower upright

Football is a game of inches. That’s another way of saying that victory or defeat often comes down to which team can master the little things, that fall in the margins.

This Pittsburgh Steelers team might be developing a knack for doing just that. Which is good. Because history is made in the margins.

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Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

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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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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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Friend-Foe Axis Updates: Steelers Sign Arthur Maulet; Villanueva Runs to Ravens

In the “Watch what we do, not what we say” department, the Steelers made their first personnel addition following the 2021 NFL Draft when they signed former New York Jets safety Arthur Maulet to a one year contract.

Sean Davis, who was the number one back up at both positions last season, signed with the Colts. The team has Antoine Brooks, who was their 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Brooks only appeared in four games during 2020. He began the season on the practice squad and was activated in November and saw his first action in the win over the Bengals.

  • This is bad news for Jordan Dangerfield, who served as a backup safety and special teams captain.

The move suggests that the Steelers were looking to address safety earlier in the draft than they did, when they picked Tre Norwood with their first 7th round pick.

The move also suggests, against logic, that the Steelers are comfortable with the depth they have behind Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt.

Arthur Maulet, James Washington, Steelers vs Jets 2019

Aruthur Maulet horse collars future teammate James Washington. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via Jets Wire.

From Foe to Friend Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet broke into the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints. He appeared in six games for the Saints in 2017. In 2018 he made the active roster for New Orleans, but was cut, was signed by the Colts where he saw action in 5 games. The Colts cut him, and he was resigned by the Saints and he played one game for them.

  • The Saints cut him in late January and the New York Jets signed him immediately.

During 2019 and 2020, Maulet appeared in 23 games for the Jets, making 11 starts, and participating in about 1/3 of the defensive snaps, while also being active on special teams. During his NFL career, he has made 2 interceptions and one sack.

During the Steelers 2019 loss to the Jets, Maulet made 4 tackles, and his illegal contact penalty against James Washington set up a Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson touchdown one play later, with 9 seconds remaining in the first half. (He was also fined for a horse collar tackle, picture above.)

From Friend to Foe Villanueva Signs with Ravens

In the from friend to foe department, former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens for two years. The move was widely reported prior to the draft and was expected.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this move later.

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