Steelers Secondary a Primary Reason for Win Vs. Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered their Sunday Night Football matchup with Cincinnati Bengals  certain of three things:

  1. Their playoff ticket was already punched
  2. beating the Bengals would set Pittsburgh as the destination of that ticket
  3. Playing at Heinz Field in the post-season would require overcoming the team’s unquestioned link: the secondary

The underlying irony of the Steelers 27-17 win over the Bengals is that secondary was the primary reason for Pittsburgh’s win.

Steelers Defensive Backfield Hardly Secondary Concern

During the Steelers awful 0-5 stretch in 2009, no unit got stung more the secondary, which got scorched by some of the NFL’s most mediocre quarterbacks. A year later, the unit bounced back, only to have Aaron Rogers having his way with them in Super Bowl XVL. A year, later Tim Tebow shoed the Steelers out of the playoffs with a single overtime pass.

  • Since the Steelers last hoisted the Lombardi, Pittsburgh the secondary has repeatedly been singled out as the team’s weak link.

And that came before 2014, where the Steelers pass defense ranked 27th in yards allowed, 28th in touchdowns allowed, and 25th in interceptions. The stage was set. Andy Dalton might not strike fear into anyone’s heart, but A.J. Green certainly should and does. Just 3 weeks before the duo had teamed for 224 yards, and they arrived at Heinz Field looking for more.

Not Your Older Brother’s Bengals

Cincinnati might be making its fourth straight playoff appearance, but it entered each of its three previous trips to the post season with a whimper. Just over one year ago, the Bengals had come into Heinz Field on Sunday Night fighting for a first round bye only to get “pimp slapped” to quote BTSC’s Ivan Cole, by the Steelers.

  • The Steelers struck first, with the defense forcing a 3 and out and Antonio Brown electrifying the Steel City with a 71 yard touchdown return.

But these are not your order brother’s Bengals. Yes, Brice McCain picked off an deep pass for A.J. Green, but the Bengals defense forced a 3 and out of their own and took 7 plays to convert a short field into 7 points of their own.

These Bengals made it clear they weren’t conceding the AFC North crown, no they were going to claw and scratch with everything they had to get it.

Steelers, Bengals Adjust Game Plans

In their first match up at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati couldn’t run, but the Steelers couldn’t stop A.J. Green through the air, and the Bengals couldn’t stop Le’Veon Bell on the ground or in the air.

  • Both teams executed new game plans to avoid old mistakes.

The Bengals focused on shutting down Le’Veon Bell and it worked – on the ground at least. Bell held him to 20 yards rushing, tying his season low. They also committed themselves to rushing the ball with Jeremy Hill and they succeeded. Hill not only reached the century mark, his strong play also allowed Dalton to use play action effectively, especially early in the game.

On defense the Steelers committed themselves to protecting against the deep ball and they succeeded – the Bengals didn’t have a catch of more than 19 yards.

McCain and Blake Deliver as Difference Makers

The Steelers 2014 off season was one of their busiest ever. Yet their moves to address their biggest area of need, cornerback, generated far more skepticism than enthusiasm. First was signing Brice McCain, whom Pro Football Focus had rated as the NFL’s worst cornerback in 2013.

Next, came their decision not to draft a corner early in the 2014 Draft, while Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake instead chose to talk about some guy named Antwon Blake whom the Steelers plucked from Jacksonville’s waiver wire.

So it was that, midway through the second quarter, Dalton again looked deep for Green. He couldn’t quite deliver on target and the ball deflected off of Green’s hands. Brice McCain smelled blood and attacked, picking off the ball and returning it 31 yards.

That was the 1st turnover produced by the secondary turned into a touchdown.

The next turnover came wrapped in more than a bit of irony, considering that it amounted to the secondary bailing out the special teams, and by implication the coaches:

Bouchette’s probably got a point, but if Mike Tomlin didn’t believe in his defense, his defense certainly believed in itself. 3 plays after Pittsburgh’s fake punt, Dalton found Green in Steelers territory, Antwon Blake may have allowed the catch, but never stopped hustling – forcing Green to cough up the ball and then pouncing on it.

  • With 3:51 left the smart move would have been to burn up the clock.

But as Mike Tomlin declares, “The Steelers live in our hopes not our fears.” Ben Roethilsberger missed on a deep strike to Bryant, but two plays later he connected with Brown for 63 yards.

Cincinnati got the ball back, and could have theoretically mounted a comeback – but the Steelers defense shut them down cold.

Defense to be Player in Steelers Playoff Run Too?

“The Word” was that the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers would go as far as their offense would take them. But in two straight games now, their defense has stepped up to provide the plays that make the difference between 11-5 and a division championship and 9-7.

It will be interesting to see how the dynamic evolves as Pittsburgh proceeds through the playoffs.

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Rapid Reaction Steelers Defeat Bengals 27-17, Win AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-17 at Heinz Field to finish the season at 11-5 and claim their 4th AFC North title of the Mike Tomlin era. With the win secured, the Steelers now move on to the playoffs, where they will face AFC North arch-rival Baltimore Ravens next week.

  • The win however, came at a high cost.

During the third quarter, Steelers 2014 MVP Le’Veon Bell was injured and did not return to the game. The early diagnosis was a hyper-extended knee, but nothing definitive has been confirmed. His replacement Josh Harris did run 59 yards from scrimmage, but the play was nullified via penalty.

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Although both the Steelers and the Bengals had clinched playoff spots, the game had a playoff atmosphere. Both the Steelers and the Bengals committed 3 turnovers, but the Steelers were able to turn their into points.

The critical play of the game came after a 17 yard A.J. Green catch that saw Antwon Blake first force a fumble, and then recover it. 3 plays later Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown hooked up for a 63 yard touchdown pass which sealed the victory for Pittsburgh.

Folks, its now 2:31 here in Buenos Aires, and work looms tomorrow. Steel Curtain Rising will have a full analysis later in the day on Monday. 

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Martavis Bryant wins Steelers Rookie of the Year Award

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football writers association named Martavis Bryant winner of the “Joe Greene Great Performance Award” aka Steelers rookie of the year award.

  • Where there was some drama over who would win the Steelers MVP award, Bryant as Steelers Rookie of the Year was a more obvious choice.

Both Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown had strong cases as MVP candidates, but eventual winner Le’Veon Bell’s was ultimately stronger. Bryant however, had far less competition and his story shows how unpredictable the evolution of rookies in the NFL came be.

The Steelers surprised and shocked most of the NFL (Jim Wexell excepted) when they chose Ryan Shazier in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. They took the unusual step of installing him as the immediate starter during mini-camp. Shazier debuted in preseason with a bang in indeed started the Steelers first 3 games.

By the time he’d return to full health, he found himself below Sean Spence and Vince Williams on the depth chart. Shazier wasn’t the only rookie who generated pre-season buzz, as the weakness on the Steelers defensive line led to talk about Stephon Tuitt and Dan McCullers getting snaps as they ultimately did.

  • While both Tuitt and McCullers have contributed on defense, their efforts pale in comparison to Martavis Bryant’s.

Bryant began his NFL receiving career by catching a 35 yard bomb from Ben Roethlisberger that helped spark a Steelers rally past the Houston Texans. He went on to score 6 touchdowns in his next 4 games, a record for an NFL rookie, and added another 94 yard touchdown vs. Cincinnati.

It would be wrong to say that Bryant has played like an immediate superstar, despite the star power implied in his touchdown grabs. Bryant has also committed some key drops, and been out of position at critical times, as you’d expect a rookie to be.

  • There’s no denying however, that the Steelers offense is much more dynamic with Martavis Bryant playing.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed in 2009 when Mike Wallace won the Steelers rookie of the year award, winning the Joe Greene Great Performance Award is no guarantee of a successful career.

Some players, such as Carnell Lake and Chad Brown, the 1989 and 1993 winner did very well for themselves. Other’s such as Jon Witman and Kendall Simmons, winners in 1996 and 2002 have gone on to more pedestrian careers. While others yet have been complete flops, such as 1987 and 1999 winners Delton Hall Troy Edwards.

The Tomlin era is no exception. Patrick Bailey won the award in 2008, Maurkice Pouncey won it in 2010, Marcus Gilbert won in 2011, Mike Adams won in 2012 and Le’Veon Bell won in 2013.

Regardless of how things turn out from here forward, Steelers rookie of the year Martavis Bryant is most deserving of the honor.

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Steelers Report Card for Playoff Clinching Win Over Chiefs

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just seen his star pupil ace the first 3 sections of a 4 part pass-fail final exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chiefs.

Steelers, Report Card, grades, Chiefs, playoffs

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger only threw 25 passes and only hit 5 different receivers the former a season low for him and the later a likely one too. But those looking to find flaws with Ben’s play will look long and hard. Roethlisberger faced one of the best pass rushers in the league, and only gave up one sack. He protected the ball and did not throw a pick. He led the Steelers first half touchdown drive, and then ensured that Pittsburgh capitalized on the fumble. His strike in the end zone to Antonio Brown as he took a kick from Vance Walker was nothing short of a gun shot. Big Ben didn’t do any favors for fantasy football owners. But he played pretty damn well. Grade: A-

Running Back
The Chiefs sold out on shutting down Le’Veon Bell, and they held him to 69 yards and one catch. Bell ran well enough however to earn 6 rushing first downs for the Steelers and scored a touchdown. Clearly not Bell’s best day in a season when he’s had a lot of great ones. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Le’Veon Bell’s loss in the passing game was Heath Miller’s gain. It wasn’t Miller’s best day on the season in terms of receptions or yards, but every time the Steelers needed him to come up with a catch, he did, save for the end zone drop. With Matt Spaeth injured, Michael Palmer saw action at tight end as did Mike Adams. Palmer dropped a pass in the end zone. A strong day for Miller, but two passes dropped in the end zone brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a season-low in receiving yards, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the catches he made. Like Miller, he came down with the ball when he had to. His fellow receiver stats don’t look that impressive, but Martavis Bryant’s 44 yard catch set up the Steelers first field goal, and Markus Wheaton helped keep two scoring drives alive. Not to beat a dead horse, but fantasy owners might not have been happy, but Steelers recievers coach Richard Mann certainly had to be. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Justin Houston has 18 sacks this season, or two more than the Steelers franchise record. He sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him one other time. Per ESPN’s stat sheet, Roethlisberger was only hit two more times. Some of that was getting rid of the ball quickly, but the offensive line deserves credit where credit is due. It was a solid game on the pass blocking, although the Steelers run blocking could have been better. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Kansas City entered the game averaging 130 yards per game. The Steelers held them to 39. This was the strongest performance Pittsburgh has seen from its defensive line not only in 2014, but perhaps since Aaron Smith fell injured in 2010. Yes it was that good. Cameron Heyward played like a man on fire, with a sack and a half, a tackle for a loss, and a quarterback hit. Stephon Tuitt also got a sack, a quarterback hit a tackle for a loss, and walloped Jamaal Charles so hard from behind that he coughed up the ball. Oh, Steve McLendon didn’t record a single stat…. And if you think he didn’t have anything to do with the Steelers looping off 90 yards for KC’s rushing average you’re just plain ignorant. Grade: A

Linebackers
Linebackers have long been the strength of the Steelers defense and it’s a close contest to see whether they or the defensive line dominated for Pittsburgh Sunday vs. the Chiefs. Either way its a great debate to have in Pittsburgh. James Harrison was a man on a tear, looking every bit like the James Harrison of 2008. Jason Worilds made plenty of noise, with two sacks, two tackles for losses and two more QB hits. Vince Williams and Sean Spence continue to do an exceptional job of occupying the inside linebacker position and should keep Ryan Shazier off the field. Grade: A

Secondary
Kansas City arrived in Pittsburgh with the NFL’s second best Red Zone offense. The Steelers held them to 4 field goals in what were effectively 6 trips to the Red Zone. The Steelers also sacked Alex Smith six times. The secondary is very, very far from being a strength, but neither of the previous two accomplishments happen if guys are not being covered at critical moments. Grade: B

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham was perfect on his field goal attempts. The Steelers punt return coverage was good, kick return coverage was a notch below. Markus Wheaton continues to improve returning kicks. On the negative side, Kansas City converted a field goal attempt, which is nothing to glaze over. However, the special teams executed perfectly in covering an on-sides kick. Grade: B-

Coaching
Todd Haley coached a fabulous game, mixing and matching plays, protecting his quarterback, and ensuring the Steelers made yards when they had to. The Steelers did settle for field goals twice in the Red Zone, but they also scored two touchdowns. Kansas City wishes it could say the same thing, and it can’t…

….because of the job that Dick LeBeau’s defense has done. Football teams are organic units. They generally evolve over the course of a season either toward growth or regression. The arrow on LeBeau’s defense leans towards growth. Just a handful of weekends ago, Scott Brown of ESPN remarked that the Steelers defense was average on one of its good days. The remark stung because it hit so close to home.

  • Could the Steelers have turned that around in just a few weeks?

It depends. No one will confuse this defense with the ’08 units and the playoffs will ultimately determine how much the defense has grown. But the fact that the Steelers are in the playoffs to begin with proves that the defense has in fact taken steps forward.

Finally, credit Mike Tomlin for keeping it together. This team was been wildly inconsistent during the season’s first 12 weeks, but Tomlin has them playing their best when it counts. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
By definition, the unsung hero award goes to the player whose accomplishments got overlooked either in the glory of victory or agony of defeat. When the Steelers defense wins a game like it won vs. the Chiefs, it is a little hard to say that any of the defenders was “unsung.” But here’s one. Tackle counts are often times a misleading stat for evaluating a defensive player’s performance. A safeties often make many tackles because of errors from people in front of them. Sometimes a high tackle count is just a function of where the player is on the field.

  • Then there are times when tackle counts do tell us something.

And yesterday was one of those. Vs. the Chiefs, this player might not have had a “splash play” (unless you consider exploding into a running back behind the line of scrimmage on 4th and inches), but he was everywhere, every time the Steelers needed him to be there, and for that reason Lawrence Timmons win the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chiefs.

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Steelers Defeat Chiefs 20-12, Defense Dominates as Pittsburgh Earn Playoff Berth

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 to improve to 10-6, seize a playoff spot and earn a shot at the AFC North Championship. These accomplishments seemed neither likely nor even possible a few short weeks ago.

  • The Steelers 10-6 record and playoff spot reveal the exceptional job Mike Tomlin is doing.

While that might surprise some, it shouldn’t. Tomlin has proven himself as a coach. Period. But what is eye opening about the Chiefs game is the way in which the Steelers secured victory – they did it with their defense.

Chiefs Plan – Stop Bell, Control Clock

Super Bowl losing teams who failed to rebound to win it in the next year are, by definition, in decline. In previewing the Steelers-Chiefs game, Steel Curtain Rising observed that the Steelers matchups vs. the Chiefs in 2011, 2012, and 2013 served as milestones in their decent into mediocrity.

  • If any one player has exemplified the Steelers break out from, it is Le’Veon Bell.

The Chiefs understood that and focused their game plan on him. On defense they aimed to limit his effectiveness both on the ground and through the air. On offense, Kansas City strived for ball control, limiting the Steelers opportunities to rely on its running game. The plan worked, to an extent.

  • On the ground Bell only gained 63 yards on 20 carries
  • Through the air, Bell had 1 catch for 9 yards

For many, but not all intents and purposes, the Chiefs neutralized Bell. The other half of Kansas City’s game plan worked, on paper at least. The Chiefs won the time of possession battle. While the final differential was only 31:07 to 28:53, Kansas City held a much larger edge in heading into the 4th quarter.

  • Kansas City’s 17 first downs to Pittsburgh’s 11 also indicate just how much they controlled the game’s tempo.

But that’s the problem with trying to reduce football to a game of facts, figures and statistics – it only works when you elevate your execution on the fundamental aspects of the game…

Roethlisberger, Brown & Miller Pick Up Slack for Steelers Offense

…And one of those other fundamentals would be, that against the Pittsburgh Steelers, you mustn’t stop Bell at the expense of all else. But that’s what Kansas City did. The clearest example of this is how badly Heath Miller burned the Chiefs.

  • Heath Miller simply came up with a catch when the Steelers needed him to.

Miller’s been doing that for 10 years of course, but the Chiefs made it easy by assigning a safety to cover Bell. Roethlisberger looked to 83 instead, and found pay dirt 7 of the 8 times. And when he wasn’t hitting pay dirt with Miller, he was hitting it with Antonio Brown, who connected with Roethlisberger on 7 of 9 targets.

  • That’s 14 completions on 17 targets to the tandem.

Martavis Bryant also chipped in with a long gain, and Markus Wheaton converted 1 third down and earned another 1st down on two catches.

Also, one crucial aspect of Kansas City’s plan to stop fell short – keeping him out of the end zone. Note to future opponents defending the Steelers from their own 1 –that’s where you have to stop Bell.

The Steelers offense today was “efficient” against Kansas City. Scoring 20 points in today’s NFL is low, the Steelers didn’t pile up yards. But they did what they needed to do. The real difference makers for Pittsburgh lie on the other side of the ball….

Steelers Defense Dominates Chiefs Inside the Red Zone

Kansas City got more yards and ran more plays in 1 fewer drive than Pittsburgh. Alex Smith out threw Ben Roethlisberger. Kansas City even enjoyed short fields. Their offense functioned well, especially early in the game, everywhere except in the Red Zone.

The Chiefs advanced to the Pittsburgh 10 on their first drive, when Cameron Heyward sacked Smith for a 7 yard loss on third down. Kansas City kicked a field goal. Their next drive stalled at the Steelers 12, when Andy Reid called a fake field goal which the Chiefs converted. 1st and goal at Pittsburgh’s six.

The Steelers defense didn’t blink:

  • James Harrison stopped Jammal Charles for a 2 yard gain
  • Antwon Blake broke up a sure touchdown pass to Dwayne Bowe
  • Jason Worild and James Harrison ran Smith out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage

Again, the Chiefs settled for 3. That was just the warm up. Kansas City answered the Steelers first touchdown with a precision drive that took them to the Pittsburgh 12. On third down Michael Mitchell shoved De’Anthony Thomas out of bounds just short of a first down. Andy Reid had a sure field goal and a chance to make it a one point game.

  • Instead he tried to go for it.

Jamaal Charles never had a chance. Lawrence Timmons smashed him before he even reached the line of scrimmage. James Harrison got a piece. So did Will Allen. So did Mike Mitchell. It was a gang tackle that sent Charles reeling and set the tone for the rest of the game.

Twice more in the 2nd half Kansas City would reach scoring position, first from the Steelers 25 and then from the Steelers 5. Each time the drive ended with Cairo Santos kicking a field goal. Time and time again, the Steelers defense found someone to step up and make a plays in critical situations:

  • James Harrison had 1.5 sacks, 2 tackles for losses, and 2 QB hits
  • Lawrence Timmons was simply all over the field, making play after play, with 13 tackles
  • Cameron Heyward had a sack and a half, a tackle for a loss and 3 hits on Smith
  • Stephon Tuitt had his first NFL sack, and forced a key fumble that sparked the Steelers second touchdown
  • Vince Williams and 10 total tackles and a fumble recovery
  • Jason Worilds had 2 sacks, 2 tackles for losses, and hit Smith twice

Kansas City came to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s second best Red Zone defense – the Steelers defense held them to 12 points in 4 tries. Jamaal Charles arrived at Heinz Field as the AFC’s 4th leading rusher and averaging 5.2 yards per carry – Dick LeBeau’s defenders held him to 20 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.

Lesson for Steelers Defense to Last Beyond 2014?

The Steelers defense has struggled, mightily at times, this year. But Mike Tomlin has refused to give up, and continued to stoke his team’s competitive fire with internal competition. It’s working. The defense is kicking into high gear at just the right time.

  • But today’s victory carries and importance that has the potential to reach beyond 2014.

The Steelers accomplished this feat with Brett Keisel on IR and Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor out of the lineup. James Harrison clearly made his presence felt. But the biggest argument for keeping around this aging quartet of veterans was that they could help teach younger players how to win games.

The efforts of the Vince Williamses, Stephon Tuitts, and Cameron Heywards in this game reveal that the youngsters are learning their lesson.

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Steelers Defeat Chiefs Rapid Reaction as Pittsburgh Heads to Playoffs

Steelers Defeat Chiefs Rapid Reaction as Pittsburgh heads to playoffs. Woah! That was a nail bitter Steelers Nation. But the men and Black and Gold hung together, and pulled it off as the Pittsburgh Steelers won by 20 to 12 and in the process secured their first playoff berth since 2011.

As the 2014 season has progressed, the Killer Bees, aka Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell have gotten more and more attention, not only as the focal point of the Steelers offense, but of the entire team.

  • Such praise is well deserved, as each man has proven he belongs among the NFL’s elite.

Be that as it may be, it is the Steelers defense that shined today at Heinz Field. There is hardly a player on the defense whose name didn’t get called for making a big play at some point. Lawrence Timmons had perhaps his best game of the season. Cameron Heyward harassed the Chiefs all day long. James Harrison abused Eric Fisher and has to have at least someone on the South Side considering talking him into playing yet one more year.

  • Yes, the Chiefs put up a lot of yards, yes they won the time of possession battle.

But Kansas City entered the Red Zone 5 times, and each time the Steelers defense rebuffed them, holding them to 4 field goals.

The win ensures the Steelers will return to the playoffs with at least a Wild Card; the AFC North remains a possibility as Cincinnati comes to Heinz Field next week. They’ll be plenty of time to study that match up, but for now, Steel Curtain Rising encourages Steelers Nation to celebrate the way only true Steelers can. Listen to the Jimmy Psihoulis classic, the Western Pennsylvania Polka:

That’s all for now. Steel Curtain Rising will be back later with more in depth analysis. It is a great day to be a Steelers Fan!

 

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Steelers vs. Chiefs Preview: Pittsburgh Faces Fitting Crossroads Against Kansas City

Week 16 of the 2014 NFL season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers facing an important crossroads. With 9 wins the Steelers already have a winning season for the first time since 2011 and victory vs. the Chiefs will secure their first playoff berth since that same year.

Past Struggles vs. Chiefs Signaled Trouble for Steelers

The Chiefs are a fitting opponent for the Steelers at this juncture, as match up vs. Kansas City served as milestones on the route to 8-8.

The Steelers and Chiefs played each other in 2011. And while Pittsburgh took an 8-3 record into Arrowhead and left with a 9-3 record, the Steelers left a lot to be desired. Todd Haley’s offense was down to its third quarterback, Tyler Plako for those keeping notes, and could only manage 3 Ryan Succop field goals.

Field goal kicking was in vogue that night. The Chiefs and Steelers kicked five field goals that night, and four of them were from 40 yards or longer. Steelers trivia buffs will note that it was in that game that Weslye Saunders scored his first and only (thus far) touchdown. Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, and Mike Wallace combined for 144 yards, or the same amount that Brown alone had vs. Baltimore this year.

Yes, the Steelers would win four of their next five games, but they limped into the playoffs, where they promptly got Teebowed.

In 2012 it was Kansas City’s turn to travel as they brought their 1-8 record to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Steelers had just knocked off the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, and looked to be hitting their stride.

  • Instead, the Kansas City game was the beginning of a second half stumble.

Ben Roethlisberger got injured during the game, and that injury impacted him and the Steelers for the rest of the season. But even taking that into account, the Steelers never should have struggled as they did against the Chiefs.

After racking up 147 yards against New York, Isaac Redman could only manage 21 that night
Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders combined yardage total was 66 yards
Jamaal Charles rushed for precisely 100 yards back when the Steelers didn’t allow 100 yard rushers – and worse yet, he slogged it out.

The Steelers and Chiefs didn’t play in the 2013 regular season, but they did in preseason. The Steelers had looked bad in losing their first two preseason games, managing just 13 points in each. Steelers Nation heard “Its only preseason” mantra but Kansas City brought preseason game number three, the game where the starters see the most time.

  • The best that the Steelers starters could manage was a 10-10 tie.

Pittsburgh actually held a lead going into the 4th quarter, but the Chiefs tied it, and then scored a touchdown in overtime. (Steelers trivia buffs can note that Kion Wilson closed regulation by sacking Chase Daniel.)

9

Again “Its only preseason” was the word both that week and the loss that followed. Mike Tomlin shrugged off criticism saying he was going to cut most of the players responsible for the 0-4 preseason.

It sounded good, but he and Kevin Colbert betrayed their true thoughts with a raft of roster moves after the final cut down day as an 0-4 preseason signaled an 0-4 regular season. To top it all off, the 2013 Steelers playoff hopes came down to a missed field goal by the Chiefs Ryan Succop and a blown call on a fake punt…

Steelers vs. Chiefs = Gut Check Time for Tomlin’s Team

…But that was then. This is now.

Unlike the ’13 meaningless preseason contest or ’11 and ’12 where Kansas City was playing for pride, this Chiefs have a shot at the postseason and come to Pittsburgh prepared play for all of the marbles.

In both 2012 and 2013 the Steelers held onto playoff chances into late December, but in both years they were more playoff dreams rather than legitimate aspirations.

  • This year, something is different. The Steelers not only control their own fate; they also are carrying themselves with a certain swagger.

The press seems to be picking up on this too, as indicated by Jim Wexell’s tweet:

The press tried to spin a similar story around the Steelers last Thanksgiving. Dejan Kovacevic, then with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review then, praised Tomlin as the “One voice [that] was heard after London” as the Steelers dug themselves out of an 0-4 hole to arrive in Baltimore with a shot at reaching .500 and a foothold in the AFC North race.

But Jim Wexell’s right. Tomlin is doing something differently here. As Steel Curtain Rising noted before, the Saints game marked a “Get the band back together” moment for Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison. Of course that reunion was short lived.

  • Keisel’s injury appears to have sparked a turning point for Tomlin.

James Harrison hasn’t played since. Ike Tayor didn’t last a full game. Either men could play vs. the Chiefs, but Tomlin’s clearly looking to the next generation. And he’s not handing anything to anyone. Just ask Ryan Shazier, Shamarko Thomas or even Marcus Gilbert.

  • By my count, only 18 players remain from the 2011 playoff squad (I did see a count of 22 elsewhere.)

This is a new generation of Steelers seeking their own identity. And they can take their own step in foraging their own legacy by beating a formidable Chiefs team. They’d better be ready, because Andy Reid, Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston have similar thoughts.

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Watch Tower: Kudos for Jim Wexell, Ed Bouchette on Le’Veon Bell; 2nd Toughts on Shazier…?

The Killer Bees led the Steelers to a total team victory over the Falcons, raising Pittsburgh’s record to 9-5, but the Watch Tower focus today is the coverage the Steelers press corps. is giving to Le’Veon Bell and Ryan Shazier.

Bragging Rights for Wexell, Bouchette on Bell

Walter Payton, Le'Veon Bell, 200 yards, scrimmage, 3 games, Steelers vs. Bengals

Le’Veon puts himself in some elite company…

Even if the Steelers end up losing their final 3 games this season to finish 8-8, one unequivocal positive to this campaign will be the emergence of Le’Veon Bell as the Steelers first legitimate feature back since Rashard Mendenhall’s ACL injury to close the 2011 season.

  • Bell is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Steelers Nation.

So popular in productive is number 26 that it is easy to forget that it wasn’t always so. Not by a long shot. Bell did arrive in Pittsburgh with a lot of fanfare, but his Lisfranc injury delayed his debut on the field and his somersault end zone flip in the Steelers London Loss seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with the then 0-4 club.

  • While no one was calling Bell a “Bust,” plenty people inside and outside Pittsburgh pointed to his sluggish start.

Bell looked strong through the tackles at times, but in 12 games during his rookie season he had 5 games where his rushing average was below 3 yards. He didn’t break the 100 yard mark until the 15th game of the season. Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, whom the Steelers passed on, out performed him.

Credit Jim Wexell for stepping out early and raising his hand, and saying, “Hold on folks, let’s not give up on this young rookie yet.” After Bell turned in a 34 yard 16 carry performance in the 2013 Steelers win vs. the Jets, Wexell took to Steel City Insider to publish a column titled “Give Bell a Chance.”

Not only were Wexell’s words warrented, but the context in which he chose to frame his arguments all the more ironic 14 months later:

Le’Veon Bell’s no Walter Payton. We can all agree on that.

But with so many reporters and fans questioning Bell’s high rookie expectations as the Steelers’ next “bell cow” running back, perhaps it’s time to take a look at how the late, great Payton fared as a rookie:
* In his first two games, Payton carried 29 times for 95 yards.
* In his first seven games, Payton averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
* Payton came on late to average 3.5 ypc. that season; his team averaged 3.7.
* Payton’s team started 1-4, finished 4-10, and the offensive line was so bad the Bears drafted there in the first rounds of the next two drafts.

If not for the next 12 years of Payton’s Hall of Fame career, Bell’s name could be substituted in the above notes. [Emphasis added]

Wexell didn’t simply make the Bell-Payton analogy once and let it slip away into oblivion. During the course of the 2013 season, charted Bell’s game-by-game production against Walter Payton’s rookie season, just to keep things in context:

During the Steelers victory over the Bengals, Bell became the first back since 1977 to amass over 200 yards from scrimmage in 3 straight games. The back who did it in ’77? Walter Payton of course.

  • Kudos to you Wex for your wise words.

While we’re doling out kudos for those who believed in Bell early, its also time to throw in a kind word for Ed Bouchette (and eat a little crow in the process.) Before the Steelers 2013 preseason opener, Bouchette compared Bell to Franco Harris and declared that a new era could be beginning for the Steelers.

While its certainly true that Bell as a long, long way to go to put himself in the same category as Franco Harris and Walter Payton, his achievements thus far show that he’s got a shot of getting (if, God willing, he stays healthy.)

So as it turns out, Bouchette was on to something when he invoked Franco’s name during Bell’s first training camp. That’s buds for you Mr. Bouchette.

Second Thoughts on Shazier….?

During 2014 NFL Draft the Steelers surprised and shocked the world by drafting inside linebacker Ryan Shaizer in the 1st round. Then they broke protocol and immediately installed him as a starter. Shazier drew raves, even as Sean Spence’s amazing recovery drew plenty of attention.

Of course Shazier got hurt in the Steelers victory over Carolina, and Sean Spence and Vince Williams have manned inside linebacker along side Lawrence Timmons since then.

Shazier is now back to health, but he didn’t play a down vs. the Bengals, which given Spence and William’s play isn’t a surprise. But is there more to the story there?

Well, for that, look to the one man who wasn’t surprised by the Steelers decision to pick Shaizer – Jim Wexell:

The Watch Tower already patted Wexell on the back for that scoop, and now it focuses on something tucked into a column about Stephon Tuitt. Wexell’s column details the evolution of the the Steelers 2nd round pick from Notre Dame, quoting early caution from Johnny Mitchell and then he works in this little bomb:

 

Steelers fans didn’t want to hear that at the time, or any time when it comes to rookies. Many fans want their top draft picks thrown into the fire right away, to learn, they reason, the way Ryan Shazier learned.
Ahem.

Of course, Shazier, the first-round draft pick, is not getting any snaps these days. The grumbling around the team is that he doesn’t work hard enough, that he was given too much too soon, and now he’s paying the price on the bench.

Tuitt, on the other hand, has been forced to work for everything he’s now getting. And with Brett Keisel down, Tuitt’s getting quite a bit. [Emphasis added.]

Wexell of course don’t quote anyone about Shaizer, and keeps the focus of the rest of the article on Tuitt. But this is one of the first negative pieces of news to surface about Shazier since he was drafted. Almost all of the coverage has focused on the young man’s athleticism, his desire, and the fact that he deserved the starting spot.

  • Someone on the South Side clearly is having second thoughts about this.

In his article documenting Tomlin’s press conference leading up to the Chiefs game, Wexell suggests that “someone” could be Tomlin himself, as he revealed:

Ryan Shazier was expected to regain the starting position that was handed to him on the first day of spring drills, but sources revealed last week that Tomlin wasn’t happy about Shazier’s work ethic.

Wexell of course doesn’t provide any hint as to who those “sources” are but one can imagine that its an assistant coach, although that’s only speculation on the Watch Tower’s part.

That doesn’t mean that Steelers Nation need worry about Shazier, not yet, but it’s an important piece of information and a story what bears watching. Again, the Watch Tower gives out kudos to Jim Wexell for bringing this news to our attention.

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Steelers Report Card for Falcons Win @ Georgia Dome

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers after seeing his student succeed in the first two sections of a four-part pass fail final exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over the Falcons.
Steelers, Report Card, grades, Falcons

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger likely didn’t keep the fantasy football owners happy, failing to throw a single touchdown pass in 35 attempts. So what did he succeed at? He protected the ball. He converted third downs. He executed the two minute drill to perfection. He led the team’s go ahead touchdown. He burned off over 7 minutes in the four quarter. He was right on the money in the game sealing pass. He did it without much of a running game to support him. Perhaps not excellent by Fantasy Football standards, but more than good enough for real football. Grade: A-

Running Back
Opponents facing the Steelers now have a choice. Do you sell out to stopping Le’Veon Bell? The Atlanta Falcons tried and limited him to 47 yards on 20 carries, or 2.5 yards per carry. By one measure, they succeeded. Unless you overlook the 44 yard catch Bell ripped off on 3rd and 2 to set up a field goal; Unless you consider him running untouched into the end zone to close the 1st half; unless you factor in him running 13 yards for the Steelers final TD. Unless you take into account Bell converting 2 third downs in short yardage. Other than that, they stopped him cold. Will Johnson again blocked well. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Heath Miller got off to a shaky start in 2014. But for several weeks he’s been back to doing what he does best – coming up with big catches for the Steelers at the right spot on the field, at the right time of the game. Miller was 4 for 68 on 5 targets, and as usual he made every one count. Matt Spaeth continued to block well. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It seems like each week Antonio Brown does something else to confirm his status as an elite receiver and his toe-tap to set up the 2nd half score was his latest. Martavius Bryant had 3 catches for 31 yards and almost came up with a big one in the end zone. Lance Moore had two passes thrown his way, but could not hold on to one of them and the other was out of his reach. A solid day for the wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger clean for most of the game, as he was only sacked once although he was hit 5 times. Michael Adams did appear to struggle a bit, getting the start over Marcus Gilbert – expect Gilbert to start next week. The line cannot be said to have had a spectacular game run blocking, but they got it do in the Red Zone twice for Bell. That plus protecting the passer counts for a lot. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Take out Matt Ryan’s 2 runs and the Falcons had 70 yards rushing. Atlanta did run a little early in the game, but not much to be of any consequence. Cameron Heyward led the registered a QB hit, and defensed a pass. Steve McLendon was solid stopping the run. Stephon Tuitt actually led the unit in tackles. Not a bad day for the defensive line. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Jason Worilds fell victum to an inane flag for roughing the passer when he clearly was in the strike zone and did not lead with his head. Sean Spence played well, registering the team’s only tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Lawrence Timmons was all over the field, making stops when he needed to. Vince Williams, however, played the role of the heavy man, leading the unit in tackles and helping snuff out the Falcon’s final drive. Jarvis Jones was uncomfortably quiet, and Arthur Moats did nothing to extend his 15 minutes of fame. Overall solid play from the linebackers but there was not enough pressure on Ryan. Grade: C+

 

William Gay, Steelers, pick six, touchdown, interception, Atlanta, Falcons

William Gay takes it to the house vs. Atlanta

Secondary

Troy Polamalu has returned 3 pick sixes in his career. Now William Gay has 3 pick-sixes in one season. Antwon Blake looked good early but did get beaten in coverage on the two touchdowns. Matt Ryan’s 310 yards might make some fantasy owners happy, and he did play well during the middle stretch of the game. But his two runs came because there was no one open. Likewise, on the Falcon’s final drive, the most he could manage was a 4 yard pass because nobody was open. That means the secondary was doing its job at critical junctures. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Devin Hester did break one, but Shaun Sushiam managed to kick it away from him on most occasions, and Shamarko Thomas stoned him on another. Antonio Brown ripped off a nice return. Suisham made all of his kicks and Brad Wing downed two punts inside the 20. Grade: B

Coaching
Dick LeBeau’s defense isn’t going to cause too many offensive coordinators to lose sleep, but LeBeau’s unit managed to hold the Falcon’s to two field goals in 4 trips to the Red Zone, and forced a three and out when it needed one in the fourth quarter. Sure, more pressure and fewer 40 yard plus (2) and 1 yard plus (1) pass plays would be nice.

  • But as opposed to having “the game pass him by” LeBeau is getting the most out of the talent he has.

It’s a testament to this young man’s development and growth that teams are now specifically game planning to stop Le’Veon Bell. And the Falcons did frustrate the Steelers running game, at least at times. But the Todd Haley ensured that the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat and as a consequence, Bell managed to find other ways to hurt the Falcons, short of just grinding down yards.

The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers are only half way through their pass-fail season ending final exam, but Mike Tomlin has his team playing together as one and executing when it needs to thus far. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There was a name missing from the wide receivers ranking, and that was on purpose. Yes, this game will be remembered as the day when the Steelers Killer Bees broke 3 franchise records. It will be remembered as the day when an exclamation point was put on “Big Play Willie Gay.” But there was another player who quietly did what was asked of him, stayed on the same page as his quarterback, caught everything throw to him, converted a key third down, and set up a touchdown with a nice long 30 yard catch. That player is Markus Wheaton and for those exploits he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Falcons.

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Steelers Defeat Falcons – Ben, Bell & Brown Lead Total Team Effort in 27-20 Victory

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 at the Georgia Dome to raise their record to 9-5 on the year. The win, of course, allowed them to keep pace with Cincinnati and Baltimore in the AFC North race.

  • This victory also exorcise a demon that has plagued the 2014 Steelers – under performing against teams with losing records.

All of those things are important, but perhaps what is more important is how the Steelers pulled off the feat.

Steelers Heed Labriola’s Advice

Steelers Digest isn’t what it used to be (more on why in a future Watch Tower column). But you still get to read words and wisdom of editor Bob Labirola. Digest is now published twice weekly, so its most recent issue came after the Titans win and the loss to the Saints.

After summing up the root causes of the Steelers disappointing loss to the Saints, Labriola had an observation and one piece of advice for the men in Black and Gold:

There is but one month left to this 2014 NFL Season, and these next four games will label these Steelers. These four games will reveal once and for all what kind of team they are. Therefore, it would beehove the Steelers to play them as a team.

  • And that’s really the key to this Steelers victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Yes, the “Killer BeesBen Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell will win a lot of accolades in for getting it done.

  • Ben Roethlisberger went 27 of 35 for 360 yards, protected the ball and kept chains moving on third down
  • Antonio Brown literally caught everything thrown at him, and his first half toe-tapping catch was a work of art
  • Le’Veon Bell had difficulty running the ball, but made plays in the passing game and he made Atlanta pay on the ground when it counted

And each of these three players deserve every bit of praise they get.

Ben Roethlisberger broke his single season passing record. Antonio Brown broke the Steelers single season receptions. And Le’Veon Bell broke Barry Foster’s single-season yards from scrimmage record. It’s safe to say that with the Killer Bee’s, the Steelers are as deep at the three skills positions has they have been since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann/John Stallworth.

  • But the Killer Bees can’t and didn’t do it alone.

Dick LeBeau’s defense might be a pale imitation of his ’05, ’08, and ’10 defenses. But it was William Gay’s third pick six of the season that put gave the Steelers their first touchdown. Twice in the third quarter Atlanta’s offense got deep into the Red Zone – both times they went away settling for 3. Indeed, the same thing would have happened in the second quarter, had Jason Worilds not been hit with a bogus roughing the passer call.

  • As the old cliché goes, the Steelers special teams didn’t stop Devin Hester, but they did contain him.

The Steelers return units also allowed Antionio Brown to notch a 31 yard punt return to his resumes, and Markus Wheaton looked strong.

Nor were the Killer Bees the only stars on offense. Heath Miller ended the 3rd quarter with a 26 yard catch and Markus Wheaton opened the 4th quarter with a 30 yard catch that set up Bell’s second touchdown. On the next drive Wheaton had an impressive third down conversion catch which kept the clock running.

  • None of these types of plays are sufficient to winning football games in December, they all are necessary.

And so it goes with the offensive line with the offensive line and the defense. The offensive line kept the Falcon’s defenders away from Roethlisberger for most of the day. While the line didn’t put on a road-grading quality day run blocking the Steelers converted on 3rd and short when they needed to.

On the Falcon’s final possession, Matt Ryan simply had no where to throw, and William Gay and Vince Williams made sure check down receivers got nothing.

2014 Steelers Coming Together at the Right Time

Bob Labriola was right. The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers were a team has defied identity during the season’s first 12 games. During the season opener vs. Cleveland for two quarters they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball, then two quarters later they allowed the Browns to look just as unstoppable.

A horrendous performance followed in Baltimore, followed by a game in Carolina where the Steelers offense looked “scary good,” followed by a game at home vs. Tampa where a street free agent named Vincent Jackson (again – see the ’09 debacle vs. Oakland) channeled his inner Jerry Rice.

  • As Labriola declared, the real Pittsburgh Steelers will reveal themselves during the final four games of 2014.

So far those Steelers have shown themselves as a team capable of overcoming faults to win two tough games on the road. So far those Steelers have seen different teammates step up with others have faltered. So far those Steelers have passed two sections of a four-part pass-fail exam.

If the Steelers play the next two games with the determination and cohesion which they displayed vs. the Bengals and again vs. the Falcons, their prospects for passing this exam look very good.

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