Fighting to the End: Chiefs Beat Steelers 42-21 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Finale, but Big Ben Gives It His All

The record will reflect that the Ben Roethlisberger Era ended with the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card at Arrowhead Stadium on January 16th 2022.

  • Disappointing? Yes, absolutely. Surprising? Absolutely. Not.

IF the 2021 Steelers’ erratic nature led to eerie feelings about the franchise’s future, the Ben Roethlisberger era appeared destined to end on a bright note. The emotional farewell at Heinz Field against the Browns, the comeback win over the Ravens on the road and the surprise playoff slot all seemed to be building up to something.

The 2021 Steelers believed in themselves. JuJu Smith-Schuster came off of IR adding his momentum. Surely, even if the Steelers couldn’t upset the Chiefs, they’d take Kansas City to the wire, perhaps just falling short on the final play, Friday Night Lights fashion.

  • That didn’t happen.

That didn’t happen because as the game unfolded, it became clear that adrenaline and not belief was the Steelers secret weapon, and when the adrenaline wore off, the Chiefs’ superior talent took over. And it wasn’t pretty.

Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, 2021 AFC Wild Card, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Ben Roethlisberger, fighting to the end. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

Hines Ward once likened the difference in the intensity between the playoffs and the regular season to the difference between the regular and preseason. Things move faster. Hits get harder. Mistakes magnify.

  • While it will quickly be forgotten, the Steelers defense actually started this game strong.

On the Chiefs first series the Steelers forced a punt. Cam Sutton blew up a screen to Mecole Hardman for a loss and Tre Norwood followed by breaking up a pass to Travis Kelce. On the second series Chris Wormley broke up another pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, while Minkah Fitzpatrick stopped Byron Pringle a cold yard short of the 1st down marker, leading to another punt.

Really, if players like Wormley and Norwood could make plays in what Mike Tomlin calls “Situational football” alongside the likes of Minkah and the Cams, the Steelers’ defense could hang with the almighty Chiefs, right?

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card Game, Ben Roethlisberger last game

T.J. Watt returns a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

On the next series, the heavy hitters got into the act, with T.J. Watt tipping a pass which Devin Bush intercepted and returned 10 yards. Sure, the Steelers offense could only do what it had already done all night – punt.

But it didn’t matter. Tacho Charlton and Tre Norwood made key stops to force yet another Chiefs punt as the 1st quarter ended. As the second quarter began, the Steelers offense showed some shades of life – it advanced 20 yards before punting. The defense took its cue.

Cam Heyward forced a fumble which T.J. Watt recovered and returned 26 yards for a touchdown as the Steel Curtain seemed poised to rise….

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

…Alas, T.J. Watt’s touchdown didn’t signal the Steel Curtain’s rapture, but rather its swan song. Watt’s touchdown used up whatever opening quarter adrenaline the Steelers had left, and after that Patrick Mahomes owned the Steelers the rest of the way, and it wasn’t even close.

Mahomes answered with a touchdown drive, that included a 23-yard scramble and some devilishly clever trickery to use T.J. Watt’s aggressiveness against him. Less than a minute later he was at it again, this time taking the Chiefs into the Red Zone and scoring just under the two-minute mark.

  • After yet another Steelers’ one-minute drive, Mahomes was back at it again, and scoring again before the half.

Did the Kansas City Chiefs show that their offense is better than the Steeler defense during those final five minutes of the first half? Yes, it did, but during the same time span the Steelers’ offense showed it had no business being in the playoffs.

Diontae Johnson couldn’t hold on to a 2-yard pass on 3rd and 2. Ben Roethlisberger badly misfired on a deep pass to Chase Claypool. The two failed to connect another time deep, but it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback or wide out was at fault. Perhaps it was both.

One in 381….

One of the few bright spots of the Steelers’ 2021 offense has been Najee Harris. Except for a few games in October, Harris has been basically on his own, rushing the ball with no blocking support and getting hit in the backfield more often than not.

Despite that, he rushed for 1200 yards with a 3.9 yard-per-carry average that doesn’t even hint at how hard he had to work to earn those yards. He also caught 74 passes in the air, doing plenty of damage there.

So when the Chiefs opened the second half by taking took the half opening kickoff and driving 68 yards for yet another touchdown (this time on Nick Allegretti tackle eligible play) the safest player the Steelers could look to was Najee Harris.

  • Because not only is Harris the offense’s most talented player, he’s their most reliable one.

He touched the ball 381 times in the regular season without a single fumble. Ben Roethlisberger hit Harris with a pass to start the Steelers 2nd half possession, Willie Gay hit him, Harris fumbled, Frank Clark recovered for the Chiefs, and two plays later Tyreek Hill romped 31 yards for a touchdown.

Any chance the Steelers had of making a comeback ended then.

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

Down 35-7 in a playoff game is a grim place to be. But you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Steeler offense responded. For whatever else you want to say about them, and you can say a lot, this group showed no quit.

Ben Roethlisberger last sack, Michael Danna, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card

Michael Danna earns the honor of making the final sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via The Athletic.

Working in the no huddle, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7 straight passes to Claypool, Harris, Smith-Schuster and Pat Freiermuth before finding James Washington for a toe tapping, combat catch for a touchdown.

The Chiefs added another touchdown, and Roethlisberger responded again. This one featured some incompletions as well as an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer call. It also saw Benny Snell make the most of his shot at garbage time glory. After converting a 4th and 2, Diontae Johnson caught another Roethlisberger pass for a touchdown.

The Steelers actually forced the Chiefs to punt thanks to a T.J. Watt sack, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last drive. He made the most of it, converting 3 third downs, taking advantage of the underneath routes to Benny Snell and Ray-Ray McCloud that the Chiefs were giving him.

Finally, with 11 seconds left to go and no time outs, Ben Roethlisberger hit Zach Gentry for an 11- yard pass that would see Gentry tackled 3 yards short of the goal, ending the game.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his career by giving his all to the very last second. What a fitting farewell.

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Regardless of Result, Pittsburgh Right to Prioritize Playoffs Over Draft Picks

In a few hours the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium against the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game. Suffice to say, no one thought they would be here three weeks ago when the Chiefs scalped them 36-10.

  • But here they are, against all odds, in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to take the field on the road. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If the Vegas odds makers are right, the Chiefs will make quick work of the Steelers, ending Ben Roethlisberger’s last playoff ride as one and done. But it says here that regardless of result, Pittsburgh was right to prioritize playoffs over draft picks.

That shouldn’t need to be said and right now for the most part it doesn’t, but an ugly loss will likely change that. It shouldn’t.

I think that it was late in the 2013 season when someone broached the idea of playing for draft position to Mike Tomlin, and Tomlin scoffed, responding, “As long as we keep score, I’m trying to win.” Good for him.

  • If you play professional football, winning must always be your objective. Period.

That’s the operating philosophy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was evident when, facing salary cap Armageddon and an aging quarterback clearly closing in on his “Life’s Work,” Art Rooney II opted to have Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin build the best roster they could. (And if you look at who everyone thought the Steelers would have after the draft, they didn’t do a bad job – but that’s another story.)

  • Steelers fans should be thankful their favorite team is run that way.

There are plenty of others that do not. Take the Miami Dolphins. If Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is right, the main reason why Brian Flores got a pink slip from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is that he won too much.

  • You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that Ross wanted Flores to tank in 2019.

The first part of the plan appeared to be working, as the Fins jettisoned talent, including Minkah Fitzpatrick and lost their first 8 games. But then Flores committed a boo-boo by winning 5 of his last 8 games. That cost Miami Joe Burrow.

You see, bereft of dynamic talent like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores found a way to get more out of his players and won games. Silly me, I thought that this is what a good coach was supposed to do. Stephen Ross would beg to differ, it seems.

  • Ross is the one who writes the checks, so he can do what he wants.

But if Florio’s reporting is correct (and that’s an IF) I’m just glad that Art Rooney II does think that way, because playing for draft position is overrated.

The Perils of Playing for Draft Position

Barring a miracle, the Ben Roethlisberger Era will end without a third ring. And it says here that one of the main reasons for that was that when the Steelers picked Ben in 2004, they already had a Super Bowl ready roster (although I don’t think anyone, even the Rooneys, realized it).

Then Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Marvel Smith, and Willie Parker getting old happened. That was a problem because rebuilding around a franchise quarterback is difficult, because a franchise QB gives you a couple of three wins per season.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Switch Ben Roethlisberger for Kordell Stewart on the 1998 and 1999 Steelers squads and they probably both finish at least at 8-8 instead of 7-9 and 6-10.

  • But that hardly makes the case for playing for draft position.

Look at the New York Jets. While the franchise hasn’t tried to tank, they’ve nonetheless picked in the top 10 slots in the draft 10 times since 2000. Yet where has that gotten them? Washington has enjoyed good draft position in almost every year since Daniel Snyder took control of the team. How many playoff games have they won?

  • Drafting late in every round does take its toll. If nothing else it magnifies mistakes.

Think of how the Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns picks set the franchise back. But good players remain available in every round. And teams that play to win have a way of finding them. Who are the best players on the Steelers defense this year? Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

  • The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward 31st and T.J. Watt 30th.

The Steelers got Alan Faneca with the 26th pick of the draft and also found Hines Ward in the 3rd round ft and Deshea Townsend in the 4th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. That triplet of players counts 5 total Super Bowl Rings, one Super Bowl MVP and one bust on Canton.

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When I was very young, I saw a NFL Films clip on the SOS “Same Old Steelers” that commented on Bill Austin’s effort in the 1968 NFL season. The conclusion was, “The Steelers were so bad, they didn’t even know when to lose.”

That’s because by winning a few games and tying another during a disastrous 2-11-1 1968 season, Bill Austin cost the Steelers the right to draft O.J. Simpson.

Talk about a tragic mistake. The Pittsburgh Steelers a franchise that had won NOTHING in 40 years, cost itself a shot a drafting the great O.J. Simpson.

Oh, and by the way, Noll also got himself his own Hall of Fame running in 1972. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Franco Harris.

As Jimmy Psihoulis assured us in the Western Pennsylvania Polka, “…Good things come to those who work and wait.”

Jimmy Pol was right. The Steelers face long odds against the Chief and face even longer odds in their quest to win Super Bowl LVI.

But they are damn right to do everything in their power to try.

Go Steelers!

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Rally Around Roethlisberger: Steelers Defeat Browns 26-14 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Game @ Heinz Field

Citizens of Steelers Nation: It doesn’t get any better than this. In Ben Roethlisberger’s (likely) last game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh rallied behind their leader as the Steelers defeated the Browns 26-14.

It was an emotional night for Roethlisberger, the City of Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation and the team’s global fan base. In the end it was special, not just because of the win, but because of the way the Steelers secured victory: Hollywood could not have scripted it better.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

Ben Roethlisberger built his career at going against the grain. Quarterbacks are supposed to go down easy. Roethlisberger never relented. Defensive contact with a quarterback is supposed to disrupt his passing. Not Roethlisberger, especially early in his career, when he became more accurate after being touched by a defender.

  • And so it is at the end.

It’s easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that precious few football players get to leave the game on their own terms. Yes, a finite few like Jerome Bettis go out hoisting the Lombardi. Others pick their own time. But of the few that choose when they leave the game, fewer yet choose how they leave the game.

  • As he has throughout his career, Roethlisberger proved he stood apart from most other football players.

Which isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger dominated against the Browns. He did not. Yes, he hit Diontae Johnson with laser like precision to get the Steelers their first, first half touchdown in 4 games. Yes, he helped connected with Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud to convert Ahkello Witherspoon interception into a Chris Boswell field goal late in the first half.

But on this night, Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passes were either off target or his receivers just couldn’t hold on to them (see Chase Claypool – although credit Cleveland’s DBs.)

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

When asked about how his horrendously and historically bad run defense shut down Cleveland’s potent rushing attack, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained, “…we played a lot of people and everybody put their hand in the pile and made the necessary plays.”

The key phrase above is “everyone put their hand in the pile.” Everyone did, but the usual suspects struck first.

Cam Heyward helped end two Browns drives by deflecting passes when the score was 0-0. Later, ended the Brown’s first drive of the second half with a sack.

After the Steelers tried and failed to convert on 4th down, T.J. Watt sacked Baker Mayfield for a 10 yard loss on third down (oh, and Watt deflected a pass on the previous play.) Later, when the Browns were sniffing scoring range at the end of the first half, Watt sacked Mayfield on 3rd and 2.

  • Chris Boswell knocked in field goals of 30, 50 and 48 yards.

All excellent plays made at critical moments from the players you’d expect to make them. But they got plenty of help.

  • Corliss Waitman boomed off punts and staked a claim to pushing Pressley Harvin off the team
  • Alex Highsmith came up with 2 sacks and tackled Nick Chubb for a loss on a critical drive
  • J.C. Hassenauer stepped in at center and the Steelers saw their best line play since October
  • Derek Watt converted a 4th and 1
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk batted down a pass
  • Forgotten players like Ulysees Gilbert III came off the bench to contain Cleveland’s rushing attack
Alex Highsmith, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Alex Highsmith sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The rushing attack? Yes, you might remember that. It once provided the foundation for 5 Steelers Super Bowls and  formed a potent part of the “Killer Bees.” After making guest appearances in fits and starts during October, the Steelers rushing attack has been AWOL since.

Reestablishing the run was one of Art Rooney II’s chief goals this season, and the Steelers have struggled to comply. But even at its bleakest moments, rookie Najee Harris has shown that, behind a competent offensive line, he can be special.

Najee Harris was special against the Browns, turning would-be losses into gains, and ripping off runs of 13, 14, 30 and 10 yards, and he was only getting warmed up – and this was on a night where he rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries.

And Ending to Treasure

When the Steelers went up 19 to 7 with 5:28 left to play in the 4th quarter, the game seemed to be well in hand. When the Steelers hit Baker Mayfield with back-to-back sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, it seemed to be official.

But then the Browns got a pass interference penalty called against Joe Haden. Another one in the Red Zone brought them to the one. The Browns scored, but Minkah Fitzpatrick collected the on-sides kick.

  • The Browns had two time outs, but the Steelers only needed one first down.

Najee Harris ran for 4 yards on 1st and 4 yards on second. Cleveland could not stop the clock and a first down would seal the game for the Steelers. Harris cut to his right, it was clear he would get the two yards. But then he broke out to the second level and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s last play would be a handoff for a touchdown….

…Except it wouldn’t. The Browns got the ball back, only for Baker Mayfield to bounce a pass off of Austin Hooper that Tre Norwood intercepted.

Ten seconds remained on the clock, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to step on to Heinz Field one last time, taking a knee in the Victory Formation.

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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Report Card For Steelers 36-10 Loss To The Chiefs

From the grade book of a part-time, substitute teacher who’d really prefer to have stuck with his day job, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chiefs

Quarterbacks
It was another frustrating performance for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as the 39-year old, who is presumably on his way out, completed 23 of 35 passes for 159 yards, an ugly interception early on that helped to kick off the Kansas City onslaught and a touchdown late in the game when the onslaught was official. Things were so bad for Roethlisberger that he actually gave way to backup Mason Rudolph following the aforementioned garbage-time touchdown, a 15-yard connection with receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running backs
The ground game was actually healthy enough for a win, as the team gained 130 yards on 25 carries, but one will never know if that was because the Chiefs were playing a softer defense thanks to jumping all over Pittsburgh or if it was legit. For what it’s worth, rookie Najee Harris ran hard as usual and gained 93 yards on 19 carries, while backup Benny Snell Jr. spelled Harris with 20 yards on five carries. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
It was another subpar day for the Steelers receivers. The beleaguered Chase Claypool did have a series in which he made some impressive combat catches, but he only tallied 41 yards on four receptions when all was said and done. As for Johnson, who was the team’s leading receiver on the day with six catches for 51 yards and a score, he pulled an Emmanuel Sanders by fumbling without being touched early in the third quarter. The only other receiver of note was Ray-Ray McCloud, who made people notice how ineffective he was while being targeted eight times. Grade: D+

Tight Ends
|Without Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, this unit was about as effective as you’d expect with Zach Gentry catching four passes for 31 yards and Kevin Rader pulling in one pass for seven yards. Oh well, at least the running game was somewhat effective. I don’t know how helpful these guys were with that, but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt by not totally failing them. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Another rocky and inconsistent day for the unit, especially rookie center Kendrick Green, who was benched during the game for J.C. Hassenauer. Grade: D

Defensive Line
With Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu out for the year, it was another frustrating day for Cam Heyward and his understudies. The Chiefs rushed for 127 yards which wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. While Heyward did record one of the team’s two sacks, the pass rush was mostly ineffective. Heyward even made a mistake early on, when he jumped offsides on third and 11 and kept the Chiefs first touchdown drive alive. Grade: D

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith recorded the defense’s other sack on the day. As for inside linebacker Robert Spillane, he was the leading tackler in the game with 13. However, both Highsmith and Spillane set the tone early on (in a bad way) when they teamed up to stop Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire from the one-yard line, only for Edwards-Helaire to escape their clutches for the game’s first score. T.J. Watt was actually invisible in this game unless you count the times the camera spotted him on the sidelines nursing his injuries. Grade: D+

Secondary
Not much good you can say here, as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 23 of 30 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Nobody in the secondary really did anything of note, not Joe Haden, not Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: D

Special Teams
Kicker Chris Boswell was one for two on field goals on the day with his miss coming from 36-yards out in the first half when the Steelers were trailing, 17-0.

As for emergency punter Corliss Waitman, who was filling in for rookie Pressley Harvin III following the sad news that his father had passed away, he didn’t do too bad, averaging 60.5 yards on two punts.

McCloud averaged 20 yards on three kickoff returns and the same amount on his lone punt return. Grade: C+

Coaching
This was Pittsburgh’s second blowout loss in less than a month and the fourth time since November 19 that the team found itself down by three scores or more in a game. Just like with the 41-10 loss to the Bengals, the team looked uninspired and unprepared. I realize that the Steelers are mostly a young team, but good, young teams improve as the season goes along. This bunch looks like it’s waiting for the offseason to begin. One begins to wonder if head coach Mike Tomlin has finally lost the locker room. As for offensive coordinator Matt Canada? It was another fine mess. Grade: F

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: Passing by Guessing Right Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who understands all too well that his students passed by guessing right on a multiple choice test, here is the Steelers Report card for the win over the Titans.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Titans, Joe Haden

Minkah Fitzpatrick recovers a fumble in the 2nd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 16 for 25 for an economical 148 yards and no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for one touchdown. Roethlisberger faced a lot of pressure and the running game was AOWL. The Steelers transformed 4 turnovers into 12 points. If this was Ben’s penultimate game at Heinz Field, he didn’t go out with a bang. Grade: C+

Running Backs
There have been days when Najee Harris hasn’t had good rushing numbers but got good grades nonetheless. The Titans game is not one of those. Harris had no room to run, what else is new, but made bad decisions and lacked the flash that he’s shown thus far this season. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches but as usual made each of them count until leaving with a concussion. Zach Gentry had a 17 yard catch on the Steelers touchdown drive, Pittsburgh’s 2nd longest pass of the game. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 catches for… 38 yards. No, that’s no misprint. James Washington had 3 catches for 36 yards although his 19 yard grab came in garbage time. Chase Claypool had one rush for 12 yards that was credited as a reception even if he’s listed as having zero receptions. Yep, it was that kind of game folks. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The Steelers feature back averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit another three times. The Steelers offensive line is what it is, and “is” is terrible. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Whew. The Titans “only” ran for just over 200 yards and “only” averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Chris Wormley did have a sack on the Titans opening possession and Cam Heyward’s half sack did force a field goal and take 4 points off the board. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a half and both were impact plays. Devin Bush had a deflected pass which he could have and should have intercepted. He continued to be blocked in run coverage. Joe Schobert intercepted a pass deflected by Taco Charlton. Grade: C

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered a fumble caused by Arthur Maulet that set up the first score. Joe Haden was the game’s MVP recovering a fumble caused by Cam Sutton and icing the game with a textbook tackle on 4th down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job returning punts and his kick returns were OK. Punt return coverage was awful, at one point giving up a 55 yard return. That 55 yard return came after Pressley Harvin III’s 51 yarder which was an outlier as Harvin “booted” punts of 27 and 32 yards (his other punts were either OK or well-placed.) More consistency is needed.

Chris Boswell remained “Mr. Consistency” Knocking in field goals of 36, 28, 46 and 48 yards. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Titans have a talented defense, no doubt and the Steelers offense has its liabilities. Still, Matt Canada’s offense accomplished nothing, outside of a lone touchdown drive. No sticking with the rush until Harris ground out yards, no Jet Motions, no no-huddle. Given four turnovers and quality field position, the Steelers offense should have come away with more than 12 points.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Titans

Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers Titans game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It is true that the Steelers effort on defense had more to do with stars like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden making or taking advantage of big opportunities than scheme or out executing your opponents. But it is also true that before the turnover carnival began, the Steelers were only down 10 points.

  • That’s not bad given how poorly the offense and special teams played.

Overall, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is one that features a number of All Pro caliber men playing along side either green rookies or retreads that are, at best, roster-bubble babies on any other NFL team.

The fact that playoffs remain a possibility this late in December is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s maligned by both fans and the professional press alike and has been since the day he was drafted. And if he hasn’t lived up to his draft position he’s been consistent since arriving in Pittsburgh and he’s also been delivering steady play under the radar. Against the Titans he made a couple of critical plays behind the line of scrimmage and for that Terrell Edmunds is the Unsung Hero of the week.

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Titanic Turnovers: Steelers Drop Titans 19-13 on Three 4th Quarter Turnovers

Maybe what Mike Tomlin needs is for Steelers alumni to keep piling on. It happened after the loss to the Bengals, and the Steelers responded with a last minute win over the Ravens. Another embarrassing loss to the Vikings ensued, and the Steelers answered with another win. And it again happened against the AFC leader.

Go figure.

The Steelers prevailed in another barn burner, this time beating the Tennessee Titans in a 16-13 contest that only saw Pittsburgh prevail because the Steelers defense had just enough star power to take advantage of the Titans inability to master the most basic football fundamental: Ball security.

Joe Haden, Steelers vs Titans

Joe Haden recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Ask Lambert for a Tongue Lashing?

Did the Steelers simply need a good kick in the pants? After the Vikings loss, the “honor” of delivering the kick fell to Joe Greene.

Greene pulled no punches labeling the first half against the Vikings as “the saddest day that I’ve had” as a Steeler, concluding “That was a poor, poor example of the Black and Gold. It disappointed me.”

Whew. The only thing that could top a tongue lashing from Joe Greene would Jack Lambert coming out of the woods to lay into this group of Steelers. Hum, maybe Art Rooney II should seek out the recluse?

No. That would be a waste of time. Pittsburgh’s problems are tied to talent and/or health. Or lack thereof. And the Titans game illustrated that reality once again.

First Half – Like a Rerun of Bad 70’s Sitcom. But with a Twist….

The 2021 Steelers first half performances are becoming about as rote as a Three’s Company rerun (if you’re too young to remember, don’t bother Googling it take my word for it, its not worth it.) The Steelers punted four times, with Presley Harvin’s punting getting so poor that one has to wonder if it wouldn’t be wiser for Mike Tomlin just to have Ben Roethlisberger pooch it the rest of the way.

To add insult to injury, his 51 yarder got returned 55 yards….

That return set up a Titans touchdown. With 7:41 left to go in the first quarter a 3 or 4 touchdown lead at halftime seemed to be a mere formality. Except that didn’t happen.

Yes, Pittsburgh played pretty haplessly in the first half, save for a few key plays. Arthur Maulet forced a fumble early in the 1st quarter which Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered. The Steelers offense muddled around for 5 plays, but an 11 yard-hookup to Pat Freiermuth was all they needed set Chris Boswell up for a 36 yard field goal.

With the Steelers run defense again AWOL, the Titans proceeded to milk over 10 minutes off of the clock, driving all the way down to the Steelers 4 yard line. A touchdown seemed certain, when T.J. Watt sacked Ryan Tannehill on 3rd down, effectively taking 4 points off the board.

The Steelers couldn’t get into position for Chris Boswell to kick his own field goal, but the first half foreshadowed what was to come.

2nd Half Happy Days Are Here Again? Not Quite

The 2021 Steelers have followed a pretty standard script. Atrocious run defense allows the opponent to wrack up a large lead. Terrible offensive line play keeps the Steelers offense stranded in first gear, until Ben Roethlisberger rallies the team to a dramatic 4th quarter finish.

Steelers-Titans game featured its own dramatic 4th quarter finish, but it followed a new template.

That’s because Roethlisberger and the offense never found their 4th quarter roar. On the Steelers lone touchdown drive, their biggest plays were a 17 yard pass to Zach Gentry an a 15 yard penalty called for a concussion hit on Pat Freiermuth. It took a pass interference penalty on Chase Claypool to get them to the one, then it took 3 tries from Najee Harris and Ben Roethlisberger to get them into the end zone.

If watching the first half of the Titans game was like watching a Three’s Company re-run, the second half was like watching Happy Days. Because, while hardly television excellence, at least Happy Days featured Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Tom Boswell at their best.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers 2021 defense is a model of mediocrity, featuring one of the worst defensive lines in franchise history.

But the Steelers defense has a few stars, and when they shine, good things happen. Such was the 2nd half against the Titans which saw:

  • T.J. Watt scuttle a promising Titans drive with a 10-yard sack
  • Cam Sutton forcing a fumble which Joe Haden recovered
  • Taco Charlton deflecting a pass which Joe Schobert intercepted and returned 24 yards
  • T.J. Watt recovering a bobbled snap

The Steelers defense forced turnovers on 3 straight drives. Each of those came in Titans territory. And each time the Steelers offense sputtered, leading to Chris Boswell field goals of 28, 46 and 48 yards. Those field goals were enough to give the Steelers a 19-13 point lead, but not enough to close the deal.

In fact, Tennessee tried to close it themselves, moving methodically down the field. On 4th and 7 at the Steelers 16 Ryan Tannehill hit Nick Westbrook-Ikhine about a yard shy of the first down marker. Joe Haden hit him instantly, wrapping to keep him from extending his arms.

  • Even a gift spot from the officials wasn’t enough for the first down.

Pittsburgh had prevailed at the wire. Again. The win improved their record to 7-6-1 keeping their playoff hope alive for yet another week.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Vikings: Follow the Right Leader Edition

Taken from the grade book of a disappointed teacher who hopes his students learn from this by following the right leader, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Thursday Night Football failed comeback against the Vikings.

Dalvin Cook, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Schobert, Vikings vs Steelers

Not good when your safety and inside linebacker are looking at the running back’s number…. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some vicious hits and endured high, erratic snaps to lead a rally that put 28 points on the board in 17 minutes. In doing so he went 28 of 40 for 3 touchdowns and one interception for 308 yards. His final pass was perhaps one of the best he’s ever thrown. Grade: A

Running Backs
Early on their was so little room to run that Troy Aikman credited Najee Harris with the “best 3 yard run in history.” But Harris was excellent on the night, going 94 yards on 20 carries and catching two 3 passes, while running and catching a touchdown. Benny Snell had one carry for -2 yards. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 2 passes for 32 yards plus a two point conversion, but dropped an incredibly difficult one on the game’s final play. The tight ends could do more in the blocking game. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson bailed on a throw that got intercepted. But he atoned by catching a field-flipping 37 yard pass. Later, he had incredible presence of mind to get out of bounds to set up the final throw. Such efforts were necessary due to his counter part. Chase Claypool’s taunting penalty was bad. The catches he made on the final drive were fantastic. But his post-4th down conversion pose was inexcusable, costing the Steelers at least 1 play. Ray-Ray McCloud caught 6 of 8 balls thrown to him. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Yes, the line protected Ben better in the second half. Yes, it opened up hole in the running game. But pass protection the Steelers suffered in the first half hasn’t been so bad, since… The Steelers loss to the Vikings in London. Better play in garbage time neither excuses nor negates the offensive line getting manhandled during the game’s first 40 minutes. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, everyone else did not. Grade: F

Linebackers
Dalvin Cook ran for 205 yards on 27 carries averaging 7.6 yards per pop; with a separated shoulder. Alexander Mattison averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Kirk Cousins converted a key 3rd down running. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Secondary
Believe it or not, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds actually stopped Cook from doing even more damage and Minkah came up big on several third downs. Cam Sutton got burned on the Vikings last touchdown pass. Ahkello Witherspoon had two interceptions and knocked away 3 passes. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell’s missed extra point might be a footnote, but it is a footnote that put the Steelers in the position of needing two-point conversions to get ahead once something got going. Pressley Harvin III had a few OK punts, but laid several eggs. Kick coverage was OK as were Ray-Ray McCloud’s returns. Special teams could have been a positive difference. It wasn’t. Grade: D

Coaching
Getting a team ready to play on the road on Thursday night is hard. It is even harder after an intense, emotional win over a division rival. And it says here that the Steeler core problems lie with talent, rather than coaching or schemes.

  • But it is also clear that Pittsburgh was not prepared to face the Minnesota Vikings.

Not even close. Matt Canada’s offense was steamrolled by the Vikings defense for the game’s first 40 minutes or so. They punted 5 times and turned over the ball before putting a single point on the board.

  • Pittsburgh’s run defense is a picture of pure disaster.

At first, efforts against the run were erratic. Then teams exploited them a little more. Then that exploitation became systematic. Against the Vikings it became choric as Dalvin Cook ran like some combination of Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Walter Payton in their primes.

Yes, the Steelers defense made key stops in the 2nd half, but as Mike Tomlin acknowledged, that is easier to do against a team has a 29 point lead.

James Washington, Steelers vs Vikings

James Washington catches a bomb. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers showed a lot of heart in the second half rally. But we can’t and won’t credit to coaches for that. The men were responding to Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership, and it is up to the coaches to ensure they follow his example, and not that of the Chase Claypools on the team. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
This man’s season and in fact entire Steelers career has been a bit of a disappointment. But if you look at the Steelers rally, it started with a 29 yard pass that bring Pittsburgh into Minnesota territory. Then he drew a taunting penalty in a 2 yard loss. Then the player had an 8 yard pass that set the Steelers up at the 2. Later he caught a 30 yard touchdown pass. And for those efforts, James Washington win Unsung Hero honors for the loss to Minnesota.

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Manic-Depressive: Steelers Lose to Vikings 36-28, But Failed Comeback Proves Pittsburgh’s Pride

It was fun while it lasted. The Steelers responded to their dramatic, comeback win over the Ravens with a 36 to 28 loss to Minnesota Vikings, their most manic depressive performance of a bipolar season. After the game Mike Tomlin minced no words, confirming:

“Just to be blunt, we’re getting manhandled on both sides of the ball… We were JV again tonight.”

Mike Tomlin may have never spoken truer words. But Tomlin’s remarks don’t capture the whole truth, and that’s something to remember.

Ben Roethlisberger, Harrison Smith, Steelers vs Vikings

Harrison Smith sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Worst Half of Football in the Tomlin Era? Yep.

Have the Steelers ever played a worse half of football under Mike Tomlin? I argue that the first half vs Minnesota was worse than the putrid 31-3 first half against the Bengals. At least Chris Boswell made his field goal attempt against Cincinnati and Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass late in the second quarter.

  • The Steelers did NOTHING well in the first half against Minnesota.

You want a stat to drive this home? Dalvin Cook averaged 16.7 yards per carry on his first seven carries. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times in the first half and 5 times in the games first 32 minutes. But those numbers don’t do justice to the piss poorness of the Steelers offensive line. This does:

Arguably Eric Kendricks’ sack of Roethlisberger was worse, but you get the point. Joe Mixon’s 165 yards against the Steelers? Rather pedestrian compared to Davlin Cook’s 205 yards, 29 of which he logged on an untouched trip to the end zone.

Steelers Show Heart in 2nd Half Rally

Say what you want about the Steelers first half. You’ll get no argument here. Nor will you find here any talk of “moral victories” because of what transpired next. But also be clear:
The Steelers showed incredible heart in the second half.

Football is brutal. Chuck Noll once described training camp as the process of acclimating yourself to using your body as a projectile. That’s unnatural. Such a sacrifice demands a reward.

  • That’s why it gets so easily to mail it in after hope is lost.

And that’s why Rocky Bleier and Ryan Clark’s words stung so sharply. In the comeback against the Ravens, the Steelers seemed to earn some redemption, but that redemption appeared a mere mirage for the 42 minutes of the Vikings game.

Then a field flipping catch by James Washington, stout running by Najee Harris and an idiotic taunting penalty by Kris Boyd moved the Steelers into the Red Zone. Ben Roethlisberger and Najee Harris then hooked up to get the Steelers on the board. So, it was 7 to 29, window dressing had been added to the debacle.

  • It took one play for Ahkello Witherspoon to pry that window open a little bit, intercepting a deflected pass.

The Steelers moved down the field, but appeared to stall on 3rd and goal, only to have Minnesota commit pass interference. The Steelers got 3 more downs, but Najee Harris only needed one of those to score.

Thanks to deep penetration by Cam Heyward and some Minkah magic with a third down pass deflection, the Steelers forced a 3 and out. Roethlisberger responded with bombs to Diontae Johnson and James Washington in the end zone.

The two point conversion failed, and the Vikings answered with a quick touchdown. Minnesota forced a Steelers three and out. Ahkello Witherspoon struck again, this time returning a Kirk Cousins interception 41 yards. It took Ben Roethlisberger 1 play to hit Ray-Ray McCloud for a touchdown. Pat Freiermuth made the two-point conversion.

  • Pittsburgh forced a Minnesota punt giving Ben Roethlisberger 2:16 and no time outs to score.

Long passes to Chase Claypool and smart running by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers one shot with 2 seconds left from the 12 yard line. Here’s what happened next:

  • Yes, Ben Roethlisberger did more than thread the proverbial needle.

In the end, it wasn’t enough thanks to some incredible play by the Minnesota Vikings. The Steelers failed to pull off an improbable comeback. The “almost comeback” doesn’t excuse their awful first half performance and likely cost them a shot at the playoffs.

But at the very least Pittsburgh proved it had not lost its pride.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Rebound with Force Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher unabashedly proud of his student ability forcefully rebound, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Heinz Field win over the Ravens.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
The “Bench Ben” calls look silly now, don’t they? Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his finest game of the season, going 21-31-1-0 for 236 yards and he had a perfectly thrown touchdown ball dropped. You don’t lead 51 comeback wins by accident, and you don’t earn your 51st against the AFC’s leading team if you’re washed up. Grade: A

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his best night on the ground in weeks gaining 71 yards on 21 carries and he banged out his best ones with the game on the line. He also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Benny Snell came in late and while he only had two carries for 13 yards, he ran strong and sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and 3 catches for 26 yards including two that set up the Steelers first score. And he came through with a very difficult 2 point conversion catch. Zach Gentry had 2 catches on the final Steelers scoring drive, one that converted a 3rd down and another than brought them to the 2. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of 11 passes thrown his way for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He is developing into something special. Chase Claypool was having a relatively quiet night, until he opened the 4th quarter by flipping the field, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud had one catch for 7 yards and was robbed of a 32 yarder. James Washington had one pass thrown his way. Diontae Johnson’s dropped TD lowers the group grade. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit 3 other times which might be some sort of record low for the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The biggest difference however was the run blocking. When John Leglue entered the game following B.J. Finney’s injury, he became the 5th player to man the left guard position for the Steelers. Instead of contributing to the downward spiral of the line, he delivered improvements to the run blocking and that, quite frankly, was the difference in this game. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual disruptive self, dropping players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Lamar Jackson and sacking him to help set up the Steelers first score. Montravius Adams walked in off the street and batted down a pass on his eight play as a Steeler. The Ravens came in to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number one rushing attack and barely cracked 100 yards. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt was this good after having COVID how explosive would he have been at full health? Watt’s 3.5 sacks and forced fumble get the attention, but ability to set the edge in the running game and stay disciplined in pursuit of Jackson were equally important. Watt’s first pressure of Jackson forced an interception. His last force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion. Alex Highsmith had struggled against the run but made two tackles for losses. Joe Schobert had a pass defensed. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s end zone interception set the tone not only took 7 points off the board for the Ravens, but it set the tone for the evening. Ahkello Witherspoon got his first start and deflected a 3rd down pass that set up the Steelers final scoring drive. The Ravens converted several third and longs, but the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 19 points. Grade: B+

Special Teams
It was an on and off night for the Steelers special teams. They gave up a long kick return that set up the Ravens 3rd quarter score. Chris Boswell’s mortar kick was well-placed but rolled out of bounds giving the Ravens 15 free yards and untold seconds on the clock. That may not have been his “fault” but the missed extra point was. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK on punt returns but added nothing on as a kick returner. Tre Norwood was perfect on the on-sides kick recovery. Grade: C

Coaching
Matt Canada dialed back some of the bells and whistles of his offense, but remained committed to the run. The Steelers rushing totals weren’t impressive, but it opened up the passing game.

  • Keith Butler had his work cut out for him on defense.

The Steelers defense had gone from suffering quarterly lapses in the running game, to something far more systemic. And they had the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback to defense. Yet Butler managed to find the perfect mix of pressure, containment and coverage.

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But neither Canada’s nor Butler’s schemes wouldn’t have mattered an iota had the Steelers been pushed around at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers instead won those battles after several weeks of losing them. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for snapping that trend and keeping his players positive and focused. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Jersey numbers mean a lot to Steelers fans. Sometimes new players live up to the pedigree. Most often they do not. Since Greg Lloyd retired 22 years ago, 9 different players have worn Number 95. All were either forgettable or disappointing. But against the Ravens number 95 exploded for 2.5 sacks, 3 more QB hits and several stops for no gain, and for that Chris Wormley wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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