Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cardinals – How Much to Penalize Special Teams Snafus?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see new members of his class step up when called upon, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Cardinals.

T.J. Watt, Kyle Murray, Steelers vs Cardinals

T.J. Watt prepares to intercept Kyle Muarry. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
For the second straight week an undrafted Devlin Hodges defeated a number one overall pick. Hodges was an economical 16 for 19 for 152, but he ran the two minute drill well, and stitched together two clock-consuming drives. He also coughed up the ball and unnecessarily stopped the clock late. Stil, it was a good day for Devlin. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The opening drive saw all four Steelers running backs touch the ball. Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell clocked in at 41 yards total, with Whyte doing his damage on longer runs. Jaylen Samuels touched the ball 9 times, while Trey Edmunds had one catch for 7 yards. Benny Snell’s fumble helped give the Cardinals life, but other than that it was a good day for the running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 1 catch for 3 yards before leaving the game with a concussion, leaving Nick Vannett as the lone healthy tight end. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
A week ago we were wondering if we should worry about Diontae Johnson, today he looks like a rookie on the rise, after making 3 critical catches in addition to a 16 yard reverse that helped secure victory. James Washington only had 4 catches for 33 yards, but drew a pass interference penalty and helped keep the clock moving. Deon Cain only had one catch, but it went for 22 yards and converted a third down. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Cardinals sacked Delvin Hodges 3 times and hit him 4 times. The Steelers average 4 yards per carry on the ground. Those are overwhelming numbers, but Pittsburgh did have an edge in time of possession which indicates that the offensive line turned in a respectable performance. Grade: C+

Kerrith Whyte, Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Cardinals

Kerrith Whyte rushes for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Kyler Murray is a mobile quarterback, and mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Steelers by getting out of the pocket. Responsibility for containing quaterbacks begins with the defensive line, and Murray got all of 2 yards on 6 carries. Outside of a handful of runs, Arizona running backs were ineffective. Cam Heyward helped snuff out any chance of a Cardinal comeback with sack. Grade: B+

Linebackers
For the first time since September, T.J. Watt did not have a sack, but Watt made one of the most consequential plays of the game by interception Kyle Murray in the end zone. Mark Barron led the Steelers defense with 7 tackles including one sack, followed by Bud Dupree who had a sack and two tackles for losses. Vince Williams also had a tackle for a loss and critical 3rd down sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden logged his 3rd and 4th interceptions in the course of the last 30 days, and batted away two more passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick “only” had one tackle. But it was for a loss, and stuff out a QB run on 2nd and goal form the Steelers 3. Steven Nelson might not have had the “Splash” plays, but he neutralized a goal line pass for zero gain, and tied for the team lead in tackles. Terrell Edmunds shared that tie for the lead in tackles, and dropped one ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. One of the reasons why Muarry was sacked so much was that he simply had nowhere to throw…. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Chase Edmonds, Steelers vs Cardinals

Joe Haden intercepts a pass intended for Chase Edmonds. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson’s 85 yard punt return gave the Steelers the fast started they’d needed. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking and Jordan Berry boomed off a 69 yard punt….

…Which Pharoh Cooper returned for 29 yards. To make matters worse on the ensuing drive, the Cardinals converted a fake punt. Fortunately, Joe Haden ended that drive with an interception, but these types of special teams snafus are exactly the types plays that can fuel upsets by inferior teams.

Which brings us to the Steelers botched fake punt. Mike Tomlin is taking responsibly for it, although reports indicate that someone tried to call it off, but Jordan Berry failed to get the message. The play allowed the Cardinals to pull within 6:44 left to play. The error could have been catastrophic. Fortunately it wasn’t, but  it brings the group grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner doesn’t have a reputation for being an offensive innovator, but he certainly has shown that he knows how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. No one is going to confuse this offense with the Killer Bees, just as no one is going to confuse any of the defenses it has triumphed over for the ’85 Bears.

  • But Randy Fichtner is getting it done, with players that weren’t even on the roster, let along projected as starters, on opening day.

Keith Butler’s defense gave up one clean touchdown drive, but the unit stepped up and killed two more drives that were on the verge of scoring with interceptions. They also stoned another drive that reached their 3 forcing a field goal. Most of the Steelers turnovers have come at home, but Butler’s boys showed they were capable of taking it away on the road.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

With this win, Tomlin clinches his 13th consecutive non-losing season, and if you want to see first hand evidence of Tomlin’s coaching influence, look no further than the contrast between Diontae Johnson’s play against the Browns and against the Cardinals. Tomlin’s strength is as a leader of men, and he’s got the men on this team pulling together, and because of that, they’re winning. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
Regardless of how the Steelers 2019 season ends, people will forget this play. In fact, many have forgotten it already. But on 1st and 10 from the Cardinals 23, with 1:08 remaining in the first half, Chandler Jones strip sacked Devlin Hodges.

The ball lie there for the taking and an Arizona recovery would wipe 3 all but certain points off the board. Matt Feiler jumped on the ball, and the Cardinals never had a chance and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Cardinals.

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Finding New Ways to Win: Steelers Defeat Cardinals 23-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to the desert and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 in another wild, white-knuckle game that went down to the wire.

  • The victory improved the Steelers record to 8-5 and renewed their lease on playoff life for another week.

But more importantly, the victory affirmed a fundamental truth about this team’s identity: When the game is on the line, count on these Steelers to find new ways and, if necessary, new faces to win.

Diontae Johnson, Byron Murphy, Steelers vs Cardinals

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown over Byron Murphy. Photo Credit: AP, Tribune-Review

Steelers Flip the Script, with Unexpected Results

Much has been made about the 2019 Steelers ability to defy the pull of gravity imposed by injuries, starting quarterback ineffectiveness, trades and free agent defections. But at the end of the day, the formula for the Steelers success has remained simple:

  • Secure turnovers on defense
  • Play efficient, turnover free, ball control offense
  • Avoid costly special teams mistakes

Yet, the Steelers showed no inclination to stick to the script. In the first quarter Pittsburgh marched to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Chris Boswell field goal followed by an electrifying 85 yard punt return by Diontae Johnson. For the first time all season, the Steelers were starting fast.

The Steelers continued to deviate from the script on their next possession, when Benny Snell coughed up the ball at Pittsburgh’s 30. The Cardinals marched down to the Steelers 3. It didn’t seem to matter:

  • Steven Nelson stoned Christian Kirk for no gain on first down
  • Kyle Murray scampered around and looked like he might try to run it in, only to be sacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Vince Williams stepped out of his spy role to sack Murray on third down who had nowhere to throw.

In past situations, it’s fallen on Fitzpatrick to secure the turnovers and players like T.J. Watt and/or Bud Dupree to disrupt the backfield, but in their first goal-line situation, Fitzpatrick and Williams did the damage behind the line of scrimmage while Nelson provided the splash in the secondary.

  • Credit the Cardinals for flawlessly executing a no-huddle, tying touchdown drive that the Steelers could not stop.

But Devlin Hodges responded with an expertly managed two minute drill that got the Steelers back on the board with another field goal before the half. Hodges wasn’t flawless on the drive. He gave up a strip sack which would have been disastrous; however Matt Feiler covered it up, and Kerrith Whyte got back all 10 yards with a brilliant run up the middle on the next snap.

Faces in New Places Continues in Second Half

The theme of faces in new places continued in the 2nd half. After the Steelers pulled ahead by 10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals mounted a long drive of their own. Faced with a 4th and 2, Arizona decided to go for it all. Kyle Murray had a lane to get the first down, but aired the ball out, only to have T.J. Watt intercept.

  • The Steelers appeared determined to keep it interesting however, when Jordan Berry botched a fake punt attempt.

That gave the Cardinals the ball at Pittsburgh’s 32, and they only needed 3 plays to move within three points. Yet, Diontae Johnson, who’d already had a critical catch and a touchdown earlier in the half, delivered again.

After a pass interference penalty on James Washington put the Steelers into Cardinal territory, Diontae Johnson ripped off a 16 yard reverse that put the Steelers just outside the Red Zone. Four plays later Delvin Hodges rolled to his left, threw against his body but managed to hook up with Johnson for a 16 yard completion that put the Steelers at the Cardinals 16.

  • Another Chris Boswell field goal gave the Steelers a 6 point cushion.

A clock management lapse by Hodges ended up giving the Cardinals the ball with 1:42 left to play, but successive sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree set up a Joe Haden interception on 4th and 17 with 47 seconds left to play.

Steelers Prepare for Showdown with Buffalo

The Steelers now face a show down next week at Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.

Who would have thought that a year that included a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, a benching by Mason Rudolph, prolonged injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conners would come down to a Week 15 Sunday Night football show down, and one against the Buffalo Bills of all teams?

Yet when asked for the secret to his success, Mike Tomlin explained:

We’re just singularly focused on Buffalo. That’s probably why we’re here. We don’t care about the three games.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott would no doubt say the same. Yet as McDermott focuses on the stopping the Steelers, he’d better do so with a wide-angle lens, because the win over the Cardinals proves that anyone of the 53 men on the Steelers roster can and will make a play when called upon.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns – “Pittsburgh Finishes It” Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is thrilled at seeing his entire class pull together to overcome adversity, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden interception, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden’s interception ensures that “Pittsburgh Finishes It” against the Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
When asked to assess Devlin Hodges play, an uncharacteristically frank Mike Tomlin confessed “He played his tail off.” Devlin Hodges did not have a strong first quarter, but hit his stride in the second, hitting 8 separate receivers, going 14 of 21 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw an interception late, which could have been devastating, so his grade comes down. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
If there is any bright side to come out of 2019, it is perhaps that the Steelers coaching staff will see that you CAN split carries and run the ball effectively. Benny Snell had 69 yards on 13 carries, followed by Kerrith Whyte added 10 on 3 carries. More important than any numbers or averages, the Steelers ran the ball when they needed to, when the Browns knew it was coming and couldn’t stop them. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Whether by happenstance or design, the tight ends re-emerged in the passing game, with Vance McDonald catch 3 passes for 21 yards and Nick Vannett catching one for seven that helped sustain the Steelers insurance field goal drive. Run blocking was notably better this week, and the tight ends share credit. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
James Washington had another phenomenal game coming up with 3 clutch catches, including a touchdown to close the 1st half. On the day, Washington was 4-111. Tevin Jones only had one catch for 28 yards, but it set up the Steelers tying touchdown before halftime. Diontae Johnson had shaky afternoon with 1 catch on 5 targets, as costly penalty and a route that he cut off too early. But his 17 yard reverse served as the second punch in the combo that sparked the Steelers offense and set up the first score. Deon Cain had 1 catch for 5 yards but it gave the Steelers a first down on their tying drive during the first half two minute drill. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The offensive line didn’t exactly road grade, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will. Delvin Hodges was only sacked once, and hit four times. In the first matchup against the Browns those numbers were 4 and 11, (and Myles Garrett only accounted for 3 of those QB hits.) The Steelers offensive line played its best game in weeks, and their improvement was key to victory. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Browns

Not even 3 Browns can stop Benny Snell. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward served as a two man wrecking crew up front, combining for 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Cleveland ran the ball a little too well at times, and the line holds some responsibility for that.

But numbers fail to fully tell the tail as Cam Heyward recovered the fumble that sparked the Steelers final scoring drive, and he combined for the sack the forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal. Javon Hargrave’s sack forced a punt after Hodge’s interception. That’s some serious playmaking. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Devin Bush lead the team in tackles, followed by Bud Dupree, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with another strip sack and another opportune sack (he would have had a 3rd had it not been for a bogus roughing the passer call.) T.J. Watt “only” had a sack a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and 1 quarterback hit. Mark Barron had 5 tackles while Vince Williams had 2 plus 1 for a lose. Again, Cleveland’s success running the ball brings this grade down a bit. Grade: B+

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles, while Steven Nelson was next with 5. Mike Hilton deflected two passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 1 pass deflected that he should have intercepted. In the end, it did not matter. Two plays later Joe Haden got his hands on the ball and held on to end the game. The Browns were 4-12 on 3rd down conversions, which only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade: A

Special Teams
Kerrith Whyte opened the game with a 34 yard kick return and averaged 24 yards on 3 returns, strong numbers in today’s NFL. The Browns got nowhere on their kick returns. Diontae Johnson is still finding his way as a punt returner, but he did have one good 13 yard return. Steelers punt return coverage was sound. Jordan Berry had a solid day punting, while Chris Boswell was perfect. Grade: B+

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
Last time “Baker out of the pocket” was Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis of what ailed the Steelers defense. He was right. This time, the Steelers contained Mayfield Baker, and that was a difference maker. The Browns ran the ball a little too well for comfort early in the game, but the Steelers defense clamped down.

Randy Fichtner is taking heat in some quarters for the offensive game plan, but after a slow start the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points until the Browns settled for a field goal with 7:34 left to play.

  • Randy Kitchens and the Browns chose to focus on the final 8 seconds of the first game, all the way down to his “Pittsburgh Started It” selfie.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin’s focus was on fixing the errors so painfully apparent in the game’s first 59:52 of play. When challenged about the impact of his T-Shirt, Kitchens was dismissive, insisting his team was “ready to play.”

While Randy Kitchens “talked the talk,” Mike Tomlin “Walked the Walk.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were the team that was ready, willing and able to win. “Pittsburgh Finishes It” indeed. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
He inherited “Next Man Up” status the moment Le’Veon Bell’s no showed in September 2018. Yet, with James Conner ailing last week, Benny Snell got the start upon his return to health.

Nonetheless, against the Browns he had 37 yards on 7 carries including a few out of the Wildcat plus 2 catches for 22 yards on two carries, and for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win at Cincinnati – How Did the Quarterbacks Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who, if nothing else, is happy to see one half of his class picking up the slack when the other half stumbles, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
On the first two drives preceding his interception, Mason Rudolph looked OK. After the interception, Rudolph was tentative and played poorly. Devlin Hodges stepped in and connected on his first 2 throws, the 2nd of which went for a touchdown. Which means he was 3 of 9 on the rest of the day….. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers effectively deployed 4 running backs to rush for a combined total of 160 yards, a season high for the team. Kerrith Whyte ripped off a few impressive runs, as did Trey Edwards. Jaylen Samuels had 2 carries and 3 catches. Overall, a solid game by the Steelers running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For unknown reasons, it is pretty clear that the Steelers tight ends won’t play much of a role in the 2019 passing game, as Vance McDonald had 1 yard on 1 catch for 1 target. Nick Vanett did not get targeted. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
While he’s a long way from being a superstar, with each week James Washington seems to inch up his game a notch and every week he makes an important contribution. Diontae Johnson had 3 catches on 6 targets but all went for short gains. Deon Cain’s 1 catch for 35 yards set up the Steelers first field goal. Tevin Jones had 1 catch for 9 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the plus side, after giving up 2 holding penalties and 1 false start against the Browns, the Steelers offensive line didn’t get flagged for either penalty. And when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line delivered the run blocking that was needed. Cincinnati knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. On the negative side, the Bengals had 6 tackles for losses, registered 3 sacks and laid on 7 more QB hits. More quality and more consistency is needed. Now. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward is a monster. Heled the team in tackles, registered a sack, had a hand in two tackles for losses and hit Ryan Finley 4 more times. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. Outside of a few runs late in the game, Joe Mixon wasn’t a factor in the game, and that starts with the line. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and remained in the game following a bone bruise. Bud Dupree was quiet for much of the game, until he ended it with a strip sack of his own. Mark Barron had an almost safety. Devin Bush authored the biggest play for the linebackers when he forced a fumble by Tyler Boyd and Pittsburgh’s 8, changing the game for good. Grade: A

Secondary
And who just happened to scoop up the fumble Devin Bush caused? Minkah Fitzpatrick who had concentration needed to stay in bounds and return it 36 yards. Joe Haden defended 3 passes, including two of which came during the game’s final moments. Mike Hilton also got a hand on three passes of his own. Steven Nelson tipped away another pass. Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden gave away successive big pass plays which led to an easy score, which brings this group’s grade down. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Diontae Johnson returned 4 punts for 5.3 yards, while the Steelers punt coverage was sound. Kerrith Whyte didn’t do much on his first kick return, and the Steelers gave up an average of 23.5 yards on kick returns. Until the Steelers can managed to get that average down, teams are going to continue returning kicks instead of taking the touchback.

Jordan Berry boomed off 7 punts that averaged 45.1 yards and, more importantly, nailed 3 inside the 20. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals, including a 47 yarder. Grade: B+

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Coaching
The Steelers were playing one of the worst offenses in the NFL that, on top of that was, missing its best receiver. While Keith Butler’s boys didn’t quite pitch a perfect game, they did allow one touchdown that looked all too easy, they limited Cincinnati to 10 points. The Bengals went 2-12 on third downs, punted 9 times and suffered seven 3 and outs.

  • Most importantly, when Cincinnati threatened to get back in the game, the Steelers defense delivered a turnover.

It is easy to criticize Randy Fichtner and his “one touchdown a game” offense. And to be certain, Fichtner has his faults. It’s also true that he was playing 6 players who’d been cut previously this season. It was not pretty, but the Steelers offense came from behind once, reestablished the lead another time, and then added insurance points.

  • While ever popular with fans, benching a quarterback is fraught with risk.

Yes, it can give an offense and even an entire season a spark. See Tommy Maddox in 2002. Or it can blow up in a coach’s face (see Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak in the rain at Tampa in 1998).
Or the replacement quarterback can do just well enough to get by.

That’s what happened on Sunday afternoon. Devlin Hodges provided the Steelers with just enough spark to push the Steelers on to victory. However, Hodges hardly has a “hot hand.” Mike Tomlin will need to manage this with care moving forward, but on Sunday switching quarterbacks was the right decision. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell rushes in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
It was the Steelers best rushing effort of the season and their best rusher of the game brought his best when the game was on the line. He might have been held under 100 yards, clocking in at 98 yards on 21 carries, but 63 of those yards came on nine 4th quarter carries. The Steelers needed that type of effort to close with the win, and Benny Snell Jr. delivered it and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Cincinnati.

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Devlin Hodges Rallies Steelers to 16-10 Win over Bengals after Mason Rudolph Benched

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in a rebound win that  puts them back in the AFC Wild Card race, for the moment.

Although Pittsburgh took a 5-5 record and a 10 game winning streak against the Bengals into Cincinnati, in many ways the odds certainly weren’t stacked in the Steelers favor. On offense against Cincinnati, the Steelers would be:

  • Starting their number 2 quarterback
  • Missing James Conner, their number 1 running back
  • Missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, their number 1 wide receiver
  • Missing Maurkice Pouncey, their best offensive lineman
  • Giving carries two players, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain who were playing for other teams last week

In an ironic twist, the decisive change that sparked the Steelers to victory was Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, a player who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Practice Squad Poaching Products Flash, but Don’t Start

While Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph drew all of the attention during the last week, the impact felt from the Body Bag Game in Cleveland was felt elsewhere. Namely, that it deprived Pittsburgh of its number one running back and number one wide receiver.

Kevin Colbert moved swiftly and out of his comfort zone when did some practice squad poaching by signing Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain from the Bears and Colts practice squads, respectively. Deon Cain, who’d last been seen dropping passes in the Colts loss at Heinz Field, proclaimed himself to be a playmaker upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed that they don’t and shouldn’t listen to me. Deon Cain had a 35 yard catch which flipped the field and was the offense’s only play of substance on their 1st half field goal drive. Kerrith Whyte lost a yard on his first NFL carry, but then rebounded to rip off a 15 yard run on his second try.

  • Not bad. But at the end of the day, both of those plays amounted to simple flashes that failed to spark the Steelers offense.

Mason Rudolph began the afternoon respectably. While no one was forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger was on the sidelines, Rudolph held himself reasonably well, and had moved the team into scoring position when a tipped ball led to a Shawn Williams interception.

  • The Steelers defense held the Bengals to zero yards on the next possession, but Mason Rudolph was never the same after that play.

In contrast, the Bengals, under quarterback Ryan Finley showed that they could muster some roar with their rookie quarterback who hooked up on two picture perfect strikes Tyler Boyd, schooling Terrell Edmunds first and Joe Haden for a second and a touchdown.

The Bengals took a 10-3 lead into halftime, and it was fair to question whether the Steelers could summon enough offense to get back in the game.

Tomlin Sparks Offense with Historic Decision

Football fans love the rallying cry “BENCH THE QUARTERBACK” almost as much if not more than “FIRE THE COACH.” Yet, as an organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers bench quarterbacks only a little more frequently than they fire coaches.

Yet going into the game Bob Labriola entertained a question about Mike Tomlin changing quarterbacks in his “Asked and Answered” and at half time Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell tweeted:

Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph one series which began with a sack ended in a three and out and ended with an ugly pass aimed at Diontae Johnson’s feet. The next time the Steelers got the ball back, Devlin Hodges was standing under center.

  • And Devlin Hodges delivered immediately.

He hit on his first two strikes to Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, and on his third try he found James Washington wide open in the field. Washington stiff armed B.W. Webb and ran 79 yards for the touchdown.

Truth be told, those three passes seemed to be about the only tricks that Delvin Hodges had in his bag, but they were enough on this afternoon.

Defense Delivers. Again.

Defense has carried the Steelers throughout 2019 and the win in Cincinnati was no different. While that’s no surprise, there was an important X factor heading into the game, and that was Joe Mixon against a Steelers run defense that had been leaky at times.

  • For 3 quarters the Steelers defense held Joe Mixon in check.

With 10 minutes left to go in the four quarter, it looked like the Joe Mixon had finally found a chink in the Steelers armor, as he ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards, the first of which looked to be a 5 yard loss. On the next play, Ryan Finley found Tyler Boyd for a 22 yard gain.

  • Cincinnati appeared poised to enter Pittsburgh’s end zone and either even the score, or pull ahead.

Devin Bush had other plans, stripping Boyd of the ball, which was scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick who logged his 8th takeaway for the season, which he returned 36 yards. That was the last drive that ended with positive yards for Cincinnati would earn all day.

Joe Haden and Mike Hilton teamed up to bat away passes, while Cam Heyward helped harass Finley up front setting Bud Dupree to end the day with a strip sack and recovery.

Who Starts for Steelers vs Browns?

After the game Mike Tomlin remained coy over whether Mason Rudolph would return to the starting  role against Cleveland next week or whether Duck Hodges would remain. It says here that benching Mason Rudolph against the Bengals was the right move.

  • But it is also far from clear that Delvin Hodges holds a “Hot Hand.”

Overall, he only completed 5 of 11 of his passes and, on his final pass before Chris Boswell kicked his third field goal, Hodges threw the ball away when Vance McDonald was open for a completion, which at the very least would have kept the clock running.

Outside of throwing the ball with a little more confidence, the main difference between Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph was in Hodges ability to avoid the rush.

Perhaps Tomlin had that tendency in mind when he teased reporters by suggesting he might already have made up his mind as to who to start. We will find out soon….

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