Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals. Time to Give Out F’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher fearing his students are slacking off just when the end of the semester crunch as begun, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F

Running Backs
Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 9 catches for 95 yards on 14 targets while Chase Claypool had 3 on 8 targets for 82 yards. James Washington had 1 catch for 3 yards and Anthony Miller had 1 for 2 yards. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F

Secondary
James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F

Special Teams
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+

Coaching
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.

  • The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.

On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.

  • Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)

It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.

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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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Discipline Drives Steelers to 15-10 Win over Browns in Cleveland

The location was Cleveland, the day Halloween. The teams were the Steelers and the Browns. The stakes were avoiding the division basement. And Pittsburgh triumphed 15-10 in a game worthy of the old AFC Central.

The victory puts the Steelers within striking distance of the AFC North lead and extends their winning streak to 3. But the real take away from the game lies in how the Steelers won: By focusing on fundamentals and maintaining discipline.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Strange Things Happen in Cleveland. But This was Just a “Side Note”

Strange things happen when the Steelers play in Cleveland. Seldom are they good.

Joe “Turkey” Jones once pile drove Terry Bradshaw in a late hit. Dwight White once warned rookie Tunch Ilkin to wear his helmet at all times lest he get hit with a battery. Ilkin took the veteran’s advice. Leroy Hoard once got decked in the end zone, only to have pass, that deflected off of several players, literally land in his lap for a touchdown.

Jerry Olsavsky blew out 4 ligaments there and got pelted by the Dawg Pound with beer bottles as he was removed on a stretcher. The same game saw the Steelers dominate in every phase, yet lose thanks to 2 Eric Metcalf punt returns.

In 2012, the Steelers fumbled the ball 8 times, lost 5 of them, while Charlie Batch threw 3 interceptions.

  • The strange thing isn’t that the Steelers lost, but that they could have won it at the end.

And so it was that Mike Tomlin, instead of taking a near-certain field goal for the lead late in the first half, opted for a fake. And so it was that Chris Boswell, who’d been 1-1 and a 1 touchdown as a passer, not only threw an incompletion, but got a concussion on an illegal hit.

  • Mike Tomlin accepted responsibility for the call.

But this latest “strange thing” ended up being a “side note” instead of a defining moment largely because of the work Tomlin and his staff had done during the week.

Steelers Execute on Fundamentals while Browns Bumble

Going into this game, if you’d have said it would revolve around the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and simply hitting or pushing harder than your opponent, the smart money would have favored the Browns.

The Browns are the NFL’s best rushing teams. They do it by winning the battles upfront which allows Nick Chubb to reach the second level just as he’s hitting his stride. You counter teams like this by putting 8 men in the proverbial box. But, as The Athletic’s Mark Kabloy explained:

The Browns have been outstanding against eight-man fronts. The majority of the time the Browns have countered with two tight ends. Still, they average a league-high 4.69 yards per carry when at least eight are in the box.

Devin Bush, D'Ernest Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

Perhaps the Browns outsmarted themselves a bit, opening by throwing more than running. But in the end it didn’t matter. The Steelers shut down Nick Chubb. Devin Bush stopped him once at the goal line and then Bush plus T.J. Watt did it again on 4th down.

Cam Heyward had a hand on shutting him down on numerous 1st down runs. In the 4th quarter Alex Highsmith had a hand in shutting him down on three separate critical plays.

Taking Chubb out of the game put the onus of moving the offense on to Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, playing hurt, did make some courageous plays, but the Browns were 3-10 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th down.

Steelers Offense Embraces KISS Principle

Offensive innovation is in vogue. Everyone likes creative formations and deceptive use of motion. And who doesn’t love a good gadget play? To be certain Matt Canada’s clever play calling helped carry the day.

  • But the Steelers won because on offense they embraced the KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid principle.

Matt Canada didn’t try to dazzle the Browns with smoke and mirrors. Sure, he gave 3 carries to Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud, and those plays helped open up the offense. But Canada executed a conservative game plan designed to limit the damage Myles Garrett could do.

  • And by and large, it worked.

Even though Najee Harris was only averaging 3 and a half yards per pop, the Steelers stuck to the run and that kept the Browns defense honest, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to quietly author his best game of the season, which included a spectacular 50 yard hook up with Diontae Johnson. Johnson not only flipped the field, but had the discipline to stay in bounds, essentially sealing the game.

Discipline = Difference Maker

“Discipline.” There’s that word again. If the Steelers ability to stay in their gaps on defense and make tackles was critical winning the game, but Pittsburgh’s superior discipline was the difference maker.

Clinging to a 1 point lead early in the 3rd quarter, the Browns faced a 4th and at midfield. Cleveland lined up with Mayfield going into the hard count, trying to force a penalty. Playing from behind, on the road in front of fired up fans, the Steelers defense could have flinched easily.

  • They didn’t. The Browns punted.

Discipline was critical on the next drive, and Ben Roethlisberger on 4th and goal, waited patiently, and then hit Pat Freiermuth who not only had the concentration to catch a very contested catch, but also got his foot in bounds for the touchdown.

8 plays later, a lapse of discipline would undo the Browns, as Joe Schobert knocked the ball lose from Jarvis Landry, as T.J. Watt recovered. The Steelers punted 3 plays later, but the clock was ticking.

Finally, with the Browns sitting on the Steelers 25 yard line on 3rd and 12, Rashard Higgins committed a false start, knocking Cleveland back 5 yards. They got four of them back, but Minkah Fitzpatrick saw to it that Mayfield’s 4th down pass to Jarvis Landry fell incomplete.

Steelers Story Heading in Right Direction

When asked about what this game means to the team Mike Tomlin explained:

Its days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be. We’ll continue to write that story positively or negatively, but today was a good day.

He is right. The Steelers will continue to write their story. But fortunately, for the first time since the opening day win against the Bills, the Steelers story is a tale of more wins than losses.

Yes, today was a good day.

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs. Seahawks 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Highsmith, Geno Smith, Steelers vs Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive Evolution vs Reaching a Plateau?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watt’s a One Man Offense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • And he was only getting warmed up.

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Reach Equilibrium @ Bye Week

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

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

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