Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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Rebound or Reckoning? Steelers 26-15 Loss Shows Franchise Facing a Critical Crossroads

The Buffalo Bills defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-15, as the Steelers logged their 3rd game in 12 days. This is only the Steelers 2nd loss in 13 games, yet the feeling in Steelers Nation is nothing close to what one would expect for a team with a 11-2 record halfway through December.

  • Perhaps that’s as it should be.

It’s not so much that the Steelers lost to the Bills. It’s the way that they lost. This game hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s pre-half time pick-six. It was, as commentators love to tell us a “momentum changer.” The question now is this: Was this just a momentum changer for just this game or did it change the momentum for the entire season?

Taron Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bills

Taron Johnson’s hauls in his lethal pick six. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Contradicting the Conventional Wisdom: Steelers Strong for First 29 Minutes

Roll your eyes all you want. But in this scribe’s estimation, the Steelers actually looked pretty good for the game’s first 29 minutes. Was Pittsburgh perfect? Hardly.

  • Diontae Johnson promptly dropped the first two passes thrown to him
  • Eric Ebron dropped one thrown at him on third down, no less
  • Jordan Berry had punted five times before the 20 minute mark
  • James Conner had been stuffed for 1 yards, zero yards or negative yards several times
  • The Steelers had failed to turn a Mike Hilton interception into money

Clearly, Pittsburgh’s problems had not gone away. But it was also clear that the coaching staff had taken steps to address those problems. And those measures were working, at least on some level.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Perhaps, best of all, late in the 2nd half Josh Allen brought the Bills into the Steelers Red Zone and some stout play up front by Cam Heyward and Steven Nelson in the secondary helped the Steelers force a field goal. Holding a 7-3 lead while on the road against an all but certain division champion with 1:42 left in the game hardly implies domination.

But when you consider that the Steelers were without Joe Haden, effectively starting their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers and had lost another starter in the first half, a 7-3 lead was a good place to be.

The Steelers had control. Tenuous control certainly, but control nonethless.

  • And Mike Tomlin, to his credit and as his habit, wasn’t content to settle for that.

Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back and proceeded to move the Steelers to midfield with just over a minute left to play. Then Ben Roethlisberger made a bad decision to force a throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster. He made an even worse throw. Taron Johnson took it to the house and put Buffalo up 9 to 7.

The game wasn’t over, but the momentum had changed.

Allen and Diggs Pull Pittsburgh Apart

The Bills got the ball back to start the second half and credit Sean McDermott and his staff for making the ever important “second half adjustment.”

Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs proceeded to pull Pittsburgh apart and in the process they burned 5 minutes off of the clock in their first touchdown drive. The Bills did it again the next time they got the ball, and by time the 3rd quarter was over, Buffalo was up 23 to 15.

Rally, Roethlisberger Fall Short

Things looked bleak. The Bills had scored two touchdowns and the Steelers had done nothing other than send Jordan Berry out to punt twice. But for whatever else you want to say about the Steelers, no one can say they folded.

Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers on the board early in the 4th quarter. Eric Ebron atoned for his previous drop by hauling in a 2 point conversion. Suddenly the Steelers were with in 8 points.
Sure the Bills responded with a field goal, but on paper a win was still within the Steelers grasp.

Alas, that was not to be. On third and long, Ben Roethlisberger tried to go deep targeting James Washington. Washington was wide open, but Ben Roethlisberger put the ball frankly in the only spot on the field were Levi Wallace could get it.

He did, and the Bills nickel and dimed the Steelers by running 12 plays to kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Ben Roethlisberger passes during the Steelers loss to the Bills. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rebound or Reckoning?

After the game Ben Roethlisberger minced no words, explaining “Right now, we’re not playing good football, and it starts with me.” When asked if he and the Steelers had time to right the ship, Ben did not blink, “I hope so. If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.”

The first time Ben Roethlisberger uttered the “R” word was after the Steelers 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. After his 5 interception debacle against the Jaguars in October 2017, he openly mused about “Not having it anymore.”

  • That sounded ominous at the time.

But Ben Roethlisberger responded by playing some of the best football of his life in the 2nd half of 2017 and that saved the season as Ryan Shazier’s loss left the defense reeling.

  • Can history repeat?

It would make for a nice story. But NFL season rarely evolve like movie scripts.

The reality is as simple as it is stark. The Steelers defense is depleted. Pittsburgh lacks both the running backs and the offensive line to field a balanced attack. All of that means that hope for any rebound rests squarely with Roethlisberger.

  • If he can deliver, the result will be worthy of a Hollywood movie.

If not, then perhaps its time for Pittsburgh to begin reckoning with how they will manage the post-Roethlisberger era.

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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

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

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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

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

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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Steelers Smash Mouth Football Dominates Bills Game Ball Winner Voting

Steelers Smash Mouth “3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust” football reigns supreme in the game ball winner voting following Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Bills

Le’Veon Bell rushes as Roosevelt Nix paves the way in Steelers 27-20 win over Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers vs. Bills, Steelers bills game ball winners, le'veon bell, roosevelt nix, steelers offensive line, bud dupreeAs expected, Le’Veon Bell was the top individual vote getter, pulling in a total of 19 votes between his ballot slot and the write in for #26 L.Bell. However, the second highest vote getter was for the Steelers offensive line who had 15 votes, and Roosevelt Nix came in with 14 votes of his own, quite an impressive showing in this age where the fullback is supposed to be a dying position.

  • Those three were the only vote getters on the offensive side of the ball.

Not surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get any votes on a day where he clearly struggled, but Antonio Brown also garnered zero votes. While Brown didn’t have a strong game statistically, he did make one field flipping catch that set up a touchdown, and he made a few shorter key catches that set up other scores.

Bud Dupree led the defensive voting with 9 votes, followed by Ryan Shazier who earned the support of 8 of our voters. Sean Davis was the next highest vote getter on defense netting 5 votes, and he was followed by Stephon Tuitt and a write in for the entire defensive line, who both got 4 votes a piece.

  • Artie Burns notched his third interception of the season, and that was good enough to earn him 3 game ball votes.

Another minor surprise comes on special teams, as Chris Boswell, who had a perfect day kicking in some horrendous conditions, yet only earned the support of one of our voters.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all of you who took time out to vote. Now it is on to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

 

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Rushing with Flying Colors – Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Bills

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his freshman and sophomore setup up, even if his star senior struggled, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Buffalo Bills.

Bud Dupree, Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor, Steelers vs. Bills, Steelers Report Card Bills, Steelers grades bills

Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor in the 4th quarter of the Steelers 27-20 win. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
After playing one solid and another spectacular game away from Heinz Field, road rust hit Ben Roethlisberger, and hit him bad. Against the Bills, Ben Roethlisberger went 17 of 31 for 220 yards and 3 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in the Red Zone, which is particularly troubling. Ben Roethlisberger was efficient at other times, but his mistakes in the Red Zone made this game far closer than it needed to be. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. giants, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers bills

Running Back
236 yards on the ground. 62 yards through the air. 3 touchdowns, no fumbles and a 6.2 yards per carry average on a day when his longest run was 33 yards. Le’Veon Bell set the Steelers single game rushing record, came just a hair below breaking 300 yards from scrimmage and threatened that record as well. Le’Veon Bell took over the game vs. the Bills in a way that only a true great back can. Fitzgerald Toussaint had one carry for 6 yards. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Ladarius Green 2 passes for 25 yards including an 18 yarder which helped set up Bell’s first touchdown. Green was targeted 6 times, although given Ben Roethlisberger’s erratic passing, those four non-catches might not have been his fault. David Johnson got open and caught a 15 yard pass on 4th and one and provided excellent blocking for Le’Veon Bell on a number of occasions. Jesse James caught one pass on 3 targets for 5 yards. This game was won in the trenches, and the tight ends did their part. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet day, all things considered, for Antonio Brown. Brown caught 5 passes for 78 yards and no touchdowns, although long receptions of 9, 29 and 40 yards setup to scores. Cobi Hamilton had a 15 yard catch that helped set up another Le’Veon Bell touchdown, and Eli Rogers 3 catches for 20 yards. It is clear that this point that the Steelers really need someone to complement Antonio Brown, and while Rogers and Hamilton have been serviceable, they haven’t stepped up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had in mind when they authored contract extensions of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro. B.J. Finney again played in relief of Ramon Foster, and clearly the offensive line didn’t miss a beat. Chris Hubbard also saw extensive time as a third tight end. A running back doesn’t average 6.2 yards without good blocking. What’s more, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked and was only hit once. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
No Cameron Heyward, no Javon Hargrave? No problem. The Steelers defensive line played in what was clearly its best game of the season. Stephon Tuitt had a half sack, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and one and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And that probably wasn’t his best play, which came when he chased down Shady McCoy 30 yards down the field while the Steelers held a lead. L.T. Walton saw his first significant action and registered a tackle for a loss. Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. Daniel McCullers name didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he hadn’t been doing his job. LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have been doing his Walter Abercrombie imitation so well. Grade: A

Linebackers
Welcome Back Bud Dupree. The Steelers sophomore linebacker had two sacks, but his best play came when Tyrod Taylor evaded him, broke a few other tackles, only to have Bud Dupree come from across the field and stop him for a one yard game.

  • It should tell you something that Bud Dupree wasn’t the best linebacker on the field.

Ryan Shazier earned that honor, who led the team in tackles, sacked the quarterback once, defensed a pass on third down, and had a tackle for a loss. Whenever McCoy or Taylor threatened to run, Shazier was there. Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison had quiet days, although Harrison’s efforts in sealing the edge on the run game should not be overlooked. Grade: A

Secondary
With each game Sean Davis continues to improve. You know a safety is doing his job well when in on two tackles in the backfield. Davis also had a sack and a half. And it was Davis play in coverage that helped set up Artie Burns interception, which prevented Ben’s costly pick from morphing into a momentum changer. Ross Cockrell also had a solid day, as did William Gay who saw a pick six get called back on a penalty. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in three field goals and three extra points – all on a cold, snowy windy afternoon alongside Lake Eire, all after coming off an injury. Fitzgerald Toussanit had two respectable kick returns, and Antonio Brown made noise as a punt returner. The Bills got nothing in their kicking game. It was a strong game for the special teams, although penalties drop their grade a bit. Grade: B

Coaching
Was Todd Haley hearing echoes of the Dolphins game on Sunday afternoon? Mike Tomlin wouldn’t tell, but the fact is that unlike his trip to Miami, Haley realized he had a back looking to take over the game while his franchise quarterback struggled, and he put the game in the hands of the best player on the field.

  • Both Haley and Mike Munchak must earn credit for the outstanding performance of the offensive line which dominated all afternoon long.

The Steelers defense perhaps gave up a little more than you’d like to see in the 4th quarter, but Keith Butler’s crew negated two of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3 turnovers. More importantly, they directly attacked the Buffalo Bills strength, succeeded in neutralizing their running game.

Mike Tomlin would unquestionably be the first person to insist that he has accomplished nothing yet here in 2016, and far be it for Steel Curtain Rising to take issue with him. But the fact is, with 2 games of December football in the bank, the Steelers are positioning themselves to participate in January football. That’s not something that seemed likely just four weeks ago. Credit Tomlin for that. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Next summer the Steelers Media Guide will read, “Most Rushing Yards, Game” 1. Le’Veon Bell, 236 (12/11/2016 vs. Buffalo). Willie Parker and John Fuqua’s names will follow.

  • But there’s another name that should be mentioned there, but won’t. So we’ll mention it here.

No running back dominates like Le’Veon Bell did without quality blocking. Bell got that from his offensive line and the tight ends. But he also had a herald in the form of Roosevelt Nix, who cleared the way for Bell time and time again. Nix also had a specular special teams tackle that prevented a return, and for those contributions Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bills.

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Why Le’Veon Bell’s Record Game Isn’t Biggest Story of Steelers 27-20 Win over Bills

Le’Veon Bell’s record game led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills on a snowy afternoon at Orchard Park. Much of the game’s coverage will center around Le’Veon Bell’s record setting performance.

Le’Veon Bell deserves all the praise his 298 yards from scrimmage will earn him. But his monster individual game shouldn’t overshadow a larger, team accomplishment that Pittsburgh displayed in beating Buffalo: The Steelers relied on teamwork to excel in the face of adversity.

Le'Veon Bell's record game, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Bills, Le'Veon Bell 236 yards rushing, Le'Veon Bell Steelers rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in route to is 236 rushing performance vs. the Buffalo Bills. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Bills Offer True Challenge, Steelers Respond as Team

The true leaders on any team rise to their position because they both excel at a level above everyone else in a way that allows others to elevate their performances.

For a long time now, Ben Roethlisberger has served as the leader of the Steelers offense. And, for the past two or three seasons, Cameron Heyward has stood as the leader of the Steelers defense. When both men are playing at the top of their games, everyone else tends to follow.

  • But the true test of teamwork comes when the leader is absent or unable to perform up to standard.

Going into the game, it was clear that LeSean McCoy and the Buffalo Bills were going to test the Steelers. The Bills have the NFL’s toughest rushing attack, and worst outings of the season for the Steelers rushing defense came with Cameron Heyward either out or playing injured.

  • Knowing the Steelers would be without Cam Heyward AND Javon Hargrave, doubtlessly left Rex Ryan licking his chops as he viewed game films of Pittsburgh’s losses at Miami, New England and Dallas.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler knew exactly what Rex Ryan would try to do and had a week to plan. Todd Haley wasn’t so lucky. Haley certainly didn’t plan for his franchise quarterback to have one of his worst outings in recent memory. But he did.

The die was cast: The Buffalo Bills would be putting both the Steelers offense and defense to the test.

As Ben Stumbles, Bell Rumbles

Sometimes good players have bad days. Count the Bills game as a bad day at the office for Ben Roethlisberger. It wasn’t that Ben Roethlisberger was simply out of sync the entire day. At times, Ben made adjustments to convert 3rd downs. At others, he exploited weakness in the Bills defense to find Antonio Brown and set up scores.

  • But at other moments, particularly in the Red Zone, Ben Roethlisberger was way, way off.

The interceptions he threw were of the Mark Malone or Kordell Stewart variety. Interceptions are bad. Throwing interceptions in the Red Zone is worse.

  • This season alone, we’ve watched Roethlisberger’s struggles signal stumbles by the rest of his offense.

That was certainly the case in Philadelphia and Miami and at home vs. the Ravens at home. Fortunately, it was not the case on the road against the Buffalo Bills. Given the weather, Rob and Rex Ryan had to have expected a steady diet of Le’Veon Bell. Todd Haley didn’t disappoint.

  • The Bills knew Le’Veon Bell was run at them, and they still couldn’t stop him.

Le’Veon Bell has taken over games before, his performance against the Titans in 2014 springs to mind. However, he has perhaps never dominated as he did against the Bills. Bell didn’t do it alone. Once again, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will.

  • But the line wasn’t the only contributor to Le’Veon Bell’s record game.

David Johnson had an unheralded day blocking, and Roosevelt Nix provided the best fullback play the Steelers have seen since the days of Dan Kreider. To be sure, Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers each made a critical catch.

But this game belonged to Le’Veon Bell and the road graders who paved his way.

Steelers Defense Puts on Shut Down Performance When It Counts

LeSean McCoy might not be get the ink Ezekiel Elliott gets, but if you reach your 11th game in the National Football League with a 5.5 yard rushing average, you’re an elite back. Both elite and less than elite backs have tormented the Steelers defense too often this season.

  • The Steelers defense shut down LeSean McCoy in a way that would make the Steel Curtain or Blitzburgh defenses proud.

Time and time again, LeSean McCoy’s number got called only to see the Steelers defense stone him at or behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Steelers defense made 7 tackles for a loss. There was simply no place for McCoy to go; he finished with a partly 27 yards rushing.

Stopping LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have mattered if Tyrod Taylor had been allowed to gouge the Steelers defense with his legs, or put the Bill’s wide receivers in position to burn the Steelers secondary.

  • Keith Butler’s defense didn’t allow either event to occur.

Taylor had 3 scrambles for 2 yards, while Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Sean Davis and Stephon Tuitt sacked him 5 times. The Steelers defense wasn’t perfect. An Artie Burns holding call negated a William Gay Pick Six, and a collision in the secondary set up a the Bill’s last non-garbage time touchdown.

  • But the defense showed it could step up when it had to.

Artie Burns immediately answered the Bills final interception with one of his own, and which set up a Steelers field goal. This Steelers defense still has its flaws, but with each passing week a new player steps up, elevating the performance of the entire until.

Steelers Have Grown Much in a Month

Just one month ago the Pittsburgh Steelers had lost their 4th game in a row, and the key take away was that this team simply wasn’t that good. Since then the Steelers have won two road games in 5 days, and stopped a streaking NFC playoff contender at home.

  • This week the Steelers defense directly attacked and neutralized the strength of Buffalo Bills offense.
  • Equally important, the Steelers offense relied on physical football to overcome a poor performance by Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bengals and Ravens will offer tougher tests in the next two weeks, but the level of difficulty has risen for the Steelers in each of the last four weeks. The cream rises  in December football and, Mike Tomlin has his team stepping it up a notch each new week.

And that’s exactly what must continue happening.

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Speak Out Steelers Nation: Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Bills Game

Its that time again Steelers Nation. For the fourth straight week invite this corner of Steelers Nation to vote Steelers game ball winners for the Steelers 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills.

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Le’Veony Bell and Maurkicey Pouncey during the Steelers 27-10 win over the Bills

As the question suggests, there is little doubt that Le’Veon Bell earned a game ball for his historic performance against the Buffalo Bills, that saw him run for a franchise record 236 yards and add 62 yards through the air. For those of you at home, Le’Veon Bell fell just 2 yards shy of 300 yards from scrimmage.

[yop_poll id=”44″]

Antonio Brown had a modest day by his standards, but still led the Steelers in catches, with 5 catches for 78 yards. Ben Roethlisberger had a rough day completing below 55% of his passes and throwing 3 picks, each one seemingly uglier than the last. It might seems strange to include Roethlisberger’s name on the ballot, but Ben did make some nice plays at key moments.

  • If you don’t think he deserves a game ball however, by all means vote with your silence.

Rounding out the offensive ballot positions are Roosevelt Nix and the entire Steelers offensive line.

On the defense, Ryan Shazier earns a ballot slot, as Number 50 had a monster game all around and played a key role in containing LeSean McCoy. So did Sean Davis, who likewise has a ballot slot. Bud Dupree showed that he can make an impact, dropping Tyrod Taylor twice.

Stephon Tuitt gets a ballot slot thanks to his overall strong performanceand the half sack he shared with Sean Davis. Finally, Artie Burns gets a nod, thanks in large part to his interception which obliterated any momentum the Bills might have gained from intercepting Ben Roethlisberger in the Red Zone.

  • Chris Boswell also earns a ballot slot for going 2-2 on field goals, and 3-3 on PAT’s in less than optimal conditions.

Remember, as always, you are not limited to these ballot choices. Think that David Johnson, William Gay and/or Ross Cockrell deserve a game ball for their play vs. the Bills? Write their names in and, better yet, leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting and click here for our full analysis of the Steelers win over the Bills.

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LeSean McCoy and Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills Promise to Provide Litmus Test for Steelers Defense

Going into their match up with Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills, Steelers Nation is wondering if the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is either coming into its own, or it’s just on a hot-streak.

So, which is it? With three rookies now starting and playing at a high-for-rookies level, Keith Butler‘s crew has allowed just 30 points in the last three games (23 if you don’t count garbage time last week against the Giants).

And, what about all of those fourth down stops–including two fourth and goals stands against the Colts on Thanksgiving night and three fourth down stymies last week against Eli Manning and Co.?

  • I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty darn good about the Steelers 2016 defense these days (not to mention, confident).

sean davis, ryan shazier, james harrison, william gay, mike mitchel, steelers 2016 defense

Steelers defense vs. the New York Giants. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But, it is real or it just a byproduct of facing three compromised offenses over the past three weeks? (Even the Giants offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut these days, despite the presence of a franchise quarterback and an all-world receiver.)

If the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers defense has arrived, I think we’ll find out this week against Buffalo. Why do I say that? Pittsburgh is going  back to the place where, as head coach Mike Tomlin put it following the all-important next-to-last preseason game of 2015 in-which Bills coach Rex Ryan kept the peddle to the mettle most of the afternoon, many of his youngsters were walking dead and yielded  542 total yards in a 43-19 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

  • So, why is that preseason game relevant now?

After all, a lot of the zombies in question from that defense, such as cornerback Antwon Blake, aren’t with the Steelers any longer. Also, one of Mike Tomlin’s current starting corners–Ross Cockrell–was on Buffalo’s roster at that point, just days away from being cut and picked up by Pittsburgh.

It has a lot to to do with now. For starters, the Bills might be dead-last in passing, behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor (just 181.5 yards per game), but they’re number one in rushing, averaging a shade under 162 yards a week.

  • Running back LeSean (Shady) McCoy, a Pitt Panther football product, leads the way with 949 rushing yards, but Taylor (469 yards) is certainly a threat when using his legs as a weapon.

And, let’s not forget about Charles Clay, a tight end who isn’t exactly on the same level of a Rob Gronkowski (or even Travis Kelce), but who has given the Steelers trouble in the past, when he was a member of the Dolphins.

Speaking of the Dolphins, this Sunday’s game is kind of similar to Pittsburgh’s October 16 visit to Miami, which turned out to be a 30-15 loss. In that game, not only was defensive end Cameron Heyward out with a pulled hamstring, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the majority of the day with a torn meniscus.

  • It was a horrible day for  the Steelers defense, which yielded 222 rushing yards–including 204 by running back Jay Ajayi.
  • Many players–including youngster and first round pick Artie Burns–screwed up assignments in the running game.

But, after winning three games in a row, Pittsburgh’s defense is in a different place than it was, some seven weeks ago. For one thing, Artie Burns has earned the trust of the coaching staff enough to be a starting corner. The result: nine passes defensed and two interceptions, not to mention better attention to detail in the run department.

While third round pick defensive lineman Javon Hargrave is probably out this week with a concussion, the fact is, this Steelers defense appears to be in a different place than it was, even a few weeks ago, when the Cowboys registered 422 yards in a 35-30 loss at Heinz Field on November 13.

Will the end-result be similar to the past three weeks or to the Dallas game three weeks ago, or even the Buffalo preseason match-up of 2015? After all, the Eagles have had Pittsburgh’s number in the preseason in recent years (remember when Troy Polamalu had an emotional outburst during a game in the summer of 2014?) and kept that ball rolling in a 34-3 regular season beat-down in Week 3 of this current regular season.

The Bills seem to be built in a similar fashion to the Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys, and  despite Buffalo’s  rather modest 6-6 record, Rex Ryan’s Bills certainly promise to put the Steelers defense to the test this Sunday.

  • Will Keith Butler’s crew ace this exam?

Steelers Nation will have its answer soon. If it does, the Steelers might be on their way to an epic playoff run.

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