Steelers Report Card for Comeback over Colts: Roethlisberger Rebound Edition

From the grade book of a teacher crossing his fingers that his struggling students are rebounding as finals approach, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
At the half, Ben Roethlisberger had completed just over 50% of his passes for less than 100 yards. After intermission Roethlisberger let it rip 23 of 29 passes for 244 yards, including touchdown passes of 25, 34 and 39 yards. Those deep balls fueled a stunning turn around that lifted the entire team and, if sustained, will make the Steelers a championship contender. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Twenty yards rushing. That was the Steelers total for the game. That includes two victory formation kneel downs, a 2 yard sweep, six Benny Snell rushes for a net zero yards and 5 James Conner runs for 20 yards and a touchdown. As has been the case too often this season, there was nowhere to run. James Conner did catch 5 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, completions which sustained drives. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 5 of seven balls thrown to him including the Steelers 3rd touchdown. Vance McDonald caught one pass for 5 yards and could be seen throwing quality blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to be a work in progress dropping a pass early and running the wrong route just before the first half ended. But he atoned, burning the defense for a spectacular 39 yard touchdown and turning in a strong day. Chase Claypool re-emerged, coming up with a big catch that stretched the field and changed the tempo. James Washington had two catches for 20 yards. The leader of the group JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 96 yards on 13 targets including the go ahead touchdown. Grade: A-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Colts

Ju-Ju Smith Schuster scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Offensive Line
So the Steelers rally included a return to road grading for the running game an diary writing for the quarterback, right? Not quite. During the first half the running blocking was atrocious. There was some improvement, on Kevin Dotson’s side, but nothing to rave about. Both of Roethlisberger’s deep strikes came out fast but he did have time to throw in the 2nd half. The line was above the line. Grade: C

Defensive Line
The Steelers rally started with Stephon Tuitt’s sack of Philip Rivers. Cam Heyward ended their first drive of the 4th quarter with a sack of his own on a drive when he and Tyson Alualu set up the 3rd and long by stuffing Jonathan Taylor. The stats for this group were fine, but what stands out is the plays they made when it counted. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt set up the Steelers first score with a strip sack and added another tackle for a loss and two more QB hits for good measure. Vince Williams returned and logged 5 tackles. The real star of the unit? Avery Williamson. He stuffed Johnathan Taylor at the goal line for a 1 yard loss and then sacked Philip Rivers on the Colts next possession after the Steelers touchdown. Grade: A

Avery Williamson, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Avery Williamson closes in on Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick not only led the team in tackles, his coverage also set up Heyward’s sack and he deflected a late ball. Steven Nelson had a strong game although a PI penalty converted a 4th down for the Colts. Joe Haden gave up a touchdown while Terrell Edmunds and 5 tackles. The real star of the show was Mike Hilton who returned a fumble to the 3 and picked off Philip Rivers. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was fine in relief of Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry punted well. Ray-Ray McCloud return averages weren’t exceptional, but he seem to recover some of the confidence he was lacking since his fumble against Washington. The Steelers kick coverage was OK but punt coverage was a bit shaky. This trend cannot continue in the playoffs. Grade: C

Coaching
At this point in his tenure, what you see is what your get from Randy Fichtner. You’re not going to see hand-crafted Joe Gibbs-like game plans nor will you see Kyle Shanahan’s innovations. His play calling might be predictable. Generally that’s a bad thing.

  • But you know what? Tom Moore’s play calling was plenty predictable.

Against the Colts it did not matter as the Steelers were able to out execute. The turn around authored by the Steelers defense was just as important. Every time they had to, Keith Butler’s boys step up and made plays in situational football. They were able to do so because guys were where they needed to be.

Facing the most punishing losing streak of since the four game skid of mid-2016 many were calling for Mike Tomlin to make changes. After a putrid first half change had to be tempting. But at halftime Mike Tomlin told CBS his plan was to “get the guys on the grass going.”

Alex Highsmith, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Alex Highsmith pressures Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, Herald Bulletin

  • In doing so Tomlin stuck to one of his core coaching principles: But the game in the hands of your best players.

Tomlin did that, and those players delivered, snapping a 3 game losing streak in the process. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Splash plays. Bit hits. Stats. Those drive conversations about defensive football. But defensive players often make impact that isn’t covered on the stat sheet. Twice Philip Rivers faded back to pass in attempting a comeback and twice his pass flew errant due to pressure. Both times it was Alex Highsmith on the pass rush and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Colts.

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Roethlisberger Lets It Rip vs Colts Proving Steelers Right All Along

If you are a Steelers fan who is used to “experts” telling you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you may have been confused as to why the team kept on trying to grind it out with an ineffective short-passing game during its recent three-game slide.

  • The Steelers went from 11-0 to 11-3, while the offense went from looking unstoppable to seeming totally anemic.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Colts

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to let it rip against the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The short-passing attack, one that had clearly been figured out by opposing defensive coordinators, was a bone of contention with just about everyone who watched and covered the team the previous month or so heading into Sunday’s game against the Colts at Heinz Field.

Even while head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were stating that execution was the problem, it appeared that scheme and predictability were the real culprits.

Throughout the first half of Sunday’s showdown against the Colts, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to try to execute its short-passing game vs. yet another defense that didn’t seem all that interested in adhering to social distancing.

  • The receivers were surrounded by defenders with each quick pass, and the offense accounted for a measly 98 yards in the first half.

“Why aren’t they changing anything,” you may have been screaming at your television, as the Colts opened up a 24-7 third-quarter lead. In fact, you may have no longer had a television following Pittsburgh’s pathetic four attempts to score after securing a first and goal from the one.

But, just like that, as if the Steelers were Rocky to Indianapolis’s Apollo when the former switched back to a lefty in the 15th round of Rocky II, the passing game began to open up. Roethlisberger started to go for the deep pass and hit receiver Diontae Johnson for a 39-yard score.

There were more deep throws — including one that led to a defensive pass interference penalty — and everything began to feel different. Roethlisberger’s arm didn’t look so lifeless. His supposedly injured knee didn’t seem so injured. In fact, he even moved around in the pocket a time or two.

Tony Romo, the now famed color analyst for CBS’ number one announcing crew, even mentioned that the Colts’ defenders were starting to back off. They could no longer dare Roethlisberger to beat them with intermediate-to-deep passes because he was doing precisely that.

The Steelers’ 17-point deficit had transformed into a 28-24 victory, complete with an AFC North crown that looked like a mere formality weeks ago before that puzzling slide began.

There was much speculation as to why the Steelers were so reluctant to move on from their short-passing attack that had proven to be quite successful early in the year before it no longer wasn’t.

Was it Roethlisberger’s health? Was it Roethlisberger’s reluctance to stand in the pocket behind a once-formidable line that had perhaps seen its best days? With a playoff berth already secure, were the Steelers simply protecting their most valuable asset at the expense of a few regular-season games?

We may never know for sure. But we do know a problem when we see one. NFL head coaches are fond of telling us that football is a simple game, that it’s not rocket science. Maybe that’s why we get so angry when a simple solution isn’t explored.

The Steelers did in the second half of Sunday’s game what so many fans had been insisting that they must do to get the offense moving again–and it worked.

Take a bow if you’re a Steelers fan who is reading this. Football isn’t so complicated, after all, and the answers to problems are often as simple as they seem.

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Rebound: Steelers Comeback, Beat Colts 28-24 as Roethlisberger Recovers Long Ball

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 at Heinz Field to improve their record to 12-3. That descriptive statement is correct. But it is hardly accurate as it fails to capture the decisive nature of the victory, including:

  • The dramatic, 17 point, second half comeback they authored
  • The fact that the win captured the AFC North crown for Pittsburgh
  • The sudden change in the tone and tenor of entire last month

The Steelers already had a playoff spot locked up, and the Browns cooperated by losing to the lowly Jets, thus they were ceding the AFC North to Pittsburgh anyway. But in beating the Colts, the Steelers showed something new, something they hadn’t shown all year.

The question the Steelers still must answer is: Was it just a blip or was it a true take away?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = SOS

If you’ve seen the Steelers last four games in December, you’ve already seen the Steelers first half effort against the Colts.

Jonathan Taylor, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Colts

Jonathan Taylor scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, T.J. Watt forced a fumble that Mike Hilton recovered. And while it was hardly a sure thing that Pittsburgh would convert that fumble into points on the board (see Benny Snell getting stuffed), James Conner did get the Steelers in the end zone to start the 2nd quarter. But by that time Jordan Berry had already punted 3 times and the Colts already had a touchdown.

Other than that it was ugly.

  • The Steelers punted on their next two series.
  • The Colts scored two touchdowns on theirs.

Sure, a penalty negated a Nyheim Hines 68-yard run that almost certainly would have resulted in another touchdown for the Colts, but Indianapolis was getting the ball back to start the 2nd half and a 28 to 7 lead only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “If.”

When in Doubt, Turn to the Terrible Towel…

Sometimes the stars line up. It was on December 27th 1976 against the Baltimore Colts that Myron Cope unleashed the Terrible Towel. The talisman that binds Steelers Nation was born.

Originally, the Terrible Towel was only supposed to be for playoff games or special regular season games where Cope would put out his call for the Towel. Could it awaken the Steelers from their slumber? Without Cope around to put out his “official” call would it help the Steelers “Snap out of it?”

  • There was one way to find out.

So yours truly went to his bottom drawer, opened the ziplock bag that holds the Terrible Towel that my mother bought for me at Pittsburgh’s South Side Hospital just after saying goodbye to my grandfather for the final time. The Terrible Towel was deployed.

Second Half: The Old Mr. Roethlisberger Roars to Life

The Steelers started the 2nd half as they’ve started every other quarter, by throwing it. But this time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting on his short routes. Then after 3 straight completions, Ben Roethlisberger rifled the ball out towards Chase Claypool with a pass that flew 45 yards in the air. For much of the year the best result of pass attempts like this has been to draw a pass interference penalty.

  • This time it was different. This time Roethlisberger was on the money and Claypool hauled in a 34 yard completion.

But the Steelers drive sputtered as Pittsburgh failed to convert on 4th and one. But the defense held and on Pittsburgh’s very next snap, Ben Roethlisberger fired a bullet that traveled 50 yards to Diontae Johnson for a 39 yard touchdown. The Steelers were in it again.

But against the Bills and then against the Bengals the Steelers offense had shown spurts of life only to fall short.

  • This time the Steelers were in it to win it.

    Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

    Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Eight plays (and two pass interference calls) later Roethlisberger was hooking up with Eric Ebron from five yards out to cut the Colts lead by three. The Steelers look a more methodical approach to their next drive, burning 4 and a half minutes off of the clock. James Conner actually got in a double digit run and two double–digit receptions.

But before they reached the Red Zone, Ben Roethlisberger let it rip to JuJu Smith-Schuster from 25 yards out and another touchdown strike. There were seven minutes and 38 seconds left in the game, and the Steelers were up 28-21, enjoying their first lead in 10 quarters…

…Could they hold it?

Steelers Defense Delivers

The revival of the Steelers offense in the 2nd half will dominate the conversation by the virtual water coolers in Steelers Nation Monday morning.

  • But 180 degree pivot authored by Pittsburgh’s defense was just as important.

I’ll let the film review delve into the nuances of the 2nd half adjustments that Keith Butler made, but several players stepped up at critical times in the 2nd half.

Cam Heyward, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Cam Heyward sacks Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Colts had their way with the Steelers defense in the first half, and they began the 2nd half marching down the field again. But once they got in the Red Zone, Stephon Tuitt sacked Philip Rivers on third and 3 forcing a field goal.

Its never good to be down 24-7, but that sure beats 28-7. Particularly when your defense can pitch a shut out. Which is what Pittsburgh’s defense pitched on the Colts next 5 drives:

  • Avery Williamson stuffed Jonathan Taylor and Indy’s 1 to help keep them bottled up
  • Williamson began the next drive with a sack, setting up a 3 and out
  • With the Colts at mid field, Cam Heyward sacked Philip Rivers on 3rd and 5 forcing a punt
  • Next, Alex Highsmith pressured Rivers into throwing a pass that Mike Hilton picked off
  • Finally, on 4th and 8 Highsmith again pressured Rivers into an incomplete pass

The Colts scored on their first drive of the 2nd half. They gained 52 yards in just over a minute on their last. In between they netted 45 yards on 14 plays that amounted to 3 punts and an interception.

Those numbers add up to a Steelers defense that delivered.

Can Steelers Sustain This?

Pittsburgh’s comeback wasn’t perfect. Ben Roethlisberger threw at least two passes that should have been intercepted. The running game remains AWOL. They couldn’t kill the clock. Nonetheless, just like back in like September, October and November it was enough to win.

But it is incorrect to say that in the 2nd half Steelers suddenly looked like their former 11-0 selves. Incorrect for a good reason:

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to draw blood with deep balls was something new.

The question is: Was Ben just coaxing the last few long-balls that his arm has left in it or has Roethlisberger reestablished a rhythm with his deep ball?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain today:  If Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his deep ball, then then the Steelers are again legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

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Steelers Defeat Colts 26-24 as Game Comes Down to “Who Makes the Last Mistake”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 as Adam Vinatieri shanked a field goal with 1:13 left to play.

  • The win evened the Steelers record to 4-4 and included several impressive defensive performances as well as a number of gritty offensive plays.

But that doesn’t hide the fact that Pittsburgh made more than its share of mistakes and sloppy plays. In that sense, the Steelers victory over the Colts affirmed the wisdom of the late Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who often reminded listeners, “More games are lost every week in the NFL than are won.”

Adam Vinatieri, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Colts, Adam Vinatieri miss Heinz Field

T.J. Watt signals “No Good” after Adam Adam Vinatieri’s miss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Defense Goes Big Play or Bust in 1st Half

The story on the 2019 Steelers thus far had been this:  After the week 1 debacle against New England, only a handful of plays separated a 3-4 Pittsburgh squad from victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore – 3 of the toughest teams in the league.

While the Ben Roethlisbergerless offense was finding its way, a resilient defense reaffirmed the Steelers relevance. That story while true, came with a big “But,” attached to it:

  •  “Oh, But the Steelers haven’t beaten anyone.”

That was true. Cincinnati and Miami are competing for the 1st pick overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, while the Chargers could contend for top 10 pick. The Colts brought a 5-2 record to Heinz Field were certain to offer a stiffer test. And they delivered on their promise.

Despite losing starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, relief pitcher Brian Hoyer moved the Colts offense with alarming ease during much of the first half, leading Indianapolis to two touchdown drives.

But the Colts defense more than held its own against the Steelers, limiting Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense to two field goal attempts on the Steelers only two trips to the Red Zone.

  • Yet the Colts were making mistakes of their own.

The Colts answered Fitzpatrick’s touchdown with a six play 1:36 minute touchdown drive but one that ended with Cam Heyward blocking the extra point. That left 0:42 seconds in the second half, and Mike Tomlin was determined to be aggressive.

Unlike Miami last week, Frank Reich’s defense only allowed piecemeal yardage, yet on what should have been the last play of the half, Darius Leonard got greedy and hit Vance McDonald late. The extra 15 for a personal foul gave Chris Boswell the yards he needed to attempt a 51 yard field goal which he nailed.

Two miscues by the Colts in the last 42 seconds of the 1st half netted 4 points for Pittsburgh. Four points which would come in handy for the Steelers down the stretch.

Who Makes the Last Mistake?

A few critical plays often define the difference between defeat and victory in the NFL. Sometimes contests are decided by who has the ball last – think the Steelers 2009 win over Green Bay at Heinz Field.

Other times, games come down to who makes an error at a critical juncture – think how the Steelers have sabotaged themselves with poor ball security over the last year.

  • The truth is that the in the Steelers match up against the Colts hinged on who made the last mistake.

Both teams made mistakes aplenty in the second half.

It says here that the Steelers won because they did marginally better at taking advantage of those mistakes, but they still needed the Colts to continue making them. Bud Dupree ended the Colts first procession with a strip sack, and the Steelers converted it into a touchdown thanks to a Mason Rudolph to Vance McDonald touchdown.

Yet on their next possession, the Steelers gave up a safety, only to have Ola Adeniyi, Terrell Edmunds force a fumble which Johnny Holton recovered. But despite getting the ball at their 17, the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

Chester Rogers fumble, Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Colts

Chester Rogers fumbles a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

With James Conner and Benny Snell out injured, the Steelers offense figured to see a lot of Jaylen Samuels. And see him we did. While Trey Edmunds got his first extended NFL action, Jaylen Samuels functioned as the focal point of the Steelers offense for much of the afternoon.

The Steelers gave Jaylen Samuels 21 touches, and while he did well, perhaps the biggest mistake Randy Fichtner made was in relying on him a little too much. Samuels was less effective in the 2nd half, particularly in the Red Zone.

And with the Steelers holding a 23 to 18 lead with just under 12 minutes left to play, he fumbled the ball, a fumble which the Colts only needed 7 plays to transform into a touchdown. But, in keeping with the tenor of the afternoon, Terrell Edmunds batted away the two point conversion, leaving the Colts with a meager 1 point lead.

Twice afterwards the Steelers had the chance to put the Colts away for good, but after a drive that started with an impressive 40 yard catch by James Washington and an opportune pass interference penalty on Diontae Johnson stalled at the 8, Pittsburgh had to settle for another Chris Boswell field goal.

  • The Steelers got the ball back with 3:58 left and conceivably Pittsburgh could have put the game out of reach with one first down.
  • Yet, they failed to get that first down.

The Colts got the ball back, and on the heels of one questionable pass interference call and another less questionable pass interference non-call, Indianapolis got all the way to the Steelers 22. Even after Bud Dupree dumped Marlon Mack for a 3 yard loss, all Adam Vinatieri had to do was knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • And, almost as if on cue, he hooked it wide to the left, and the Colts had lost to the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin explained it perfectly as he closed his press conference, “We’re far from where we want to be. But we’ll take it.”

 

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Dominates Steelers Game Ball Voting (Again)

The votes are in for the Steelers game ball winners for Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts and if the results aren’t necessarily a surprise, perhaps the margin of victory is.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, steelers vs colts, steelers game ball poll winners

JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrates a 2nd half first down in the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: AP via News Sentinel

For yet another week, Steelers rookie wide reciever JuJu Smith-Schuster both led and dominated the voting, bringing down 12 votes which is 50% more than the next vote getter. steelers colts game ball winners, juju smith-schuster, ryan shazier

That’s some what of a mild surprise, as Ryan Shazier came in second, and Ryan Shazier’s game-changing interception even got a feature here by Tony Defeo, coverage which often times influences poll results. Stephon Tuitt was next drawing 6 votes.

Martavis Bryant got 4 votes, which isn’t a surprise given his 2 point and key 3rd down conversions, but Jordan Berry earned 4 votes on his own as a write in, which is impressive.

Vince Williams, who had a key tackle drew 2 votes while Sean Davis who led the team in tackles got one, as did Vance McDonald and Bud Dupree.

That is perhaps a mild surprise. Brown did not have his best game against the Colts by any measure, but he did come up with a critical 32 yard catch and run that put the Steelers into the Red Zone and allowed Chris Boswell to kick the game winning field goal.

Once again, we thank everyone who took time out to vote, and offer a speical word of thanks for those who took time to comment and those who cast write-in ballots.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts – Will “Just Passing” Be Enough When Playoffs Arrive?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose wondering if his students MO of “just passing is enough” will in fact be enough when the pass/fail portion of the course arrives, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Colts, Martavis Bryant 2 point conversion

Martavis Bryant scores critical 2 point conversion in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Nine games into 2017 it’s a fair question to ask if what we’re seeing from Ben Roethlisberger will be what we get. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing his best November and December football, but will that be good enough in January? Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half that included an interception and zero 3rd down conversions. He played well in the second half with two touchdowns and several key completions on the game winning drive. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell is another player who may be in “What you see is what you get territory.” To be fair to Bell, he didn’t have a lot of room to run often times, and there were times when he made something out of nothing. But its hard to watch him and think he’s not a notch below his 2016 performance. James Conner had one carry for 10 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald got wide open in the end zone and made the game tying touchdown. He also had another catch. Still, McDonald missed his block on an end-around and that cost the team. The run blocking was below par, and the tight ends deserve some responsibly. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers top receiver making an Brown-like catch downfield, scoring a touchdown and leading the team with just under 100 yards receiving. Antonio Brown had an off day, he wasn’t targeted much in the 2nd half, but had a drop that would have put the Steelers in the Red Zone and also drew a costly offensive pass interference penalty. Still, Brown came up big late in the game, and his catch and run was a difference maker. Eli Rogers had one catch for 2 yards, but it converted a third down when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pierre Desir, Steelers vs Colts

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2nd quarter catch over Pierre Desir was Antonio Brownesque. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The Colts came into the game with one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses, but you wouldn’t have known it given their 4 tackles for a loss and otherwise proficient run stuffing of Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, the Colts sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him 4 times. While those numbers are not high by Roethlisberger historical standards, its clear that the 2017 edition of Big Ben needs all the help he can get. He didn’t get enough of it, early on at least. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Let it be said that in his absence, the Steelers defensive line played some of its best football of the season (particularly at the goal line.) And upon Stephon Tuitt’s return, the defensive line got better. Ok, perhaps this wasn’t an overall A+ performance as it had been against the Lions as Frank Gore ran reasonably well in the 1st half, but the Steelers shut him down in the second. Stephon Tuitt led the unit with three tackles, including 3 for losses, four QB hits and a sack at a critical moment. Cam Heyward had two tackles and was a force even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Javon Hargrave had a pass defensed. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett early made four tackles including 3 for losses, and Vince Williams brought him down in the 4th quarter. T.J. Watt had a quiet day with 3 tackles. Ryan Shazier made the play of the game, as Shazier’s interception which set up the Steelers tying touchdown. The Steelers didn’t get much pressure on Brissett early, and it showed. They harassed him the entire second half, and that was a difference maker. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Steelers lost Mike Mitchell and more ominously Joe Haden. And they gave up 2 touchdown passes of 60+. When you do that on the road, you normally lose. Its true that the Steelers coverage improved as the game progressed, but those early stumbles could have been fatal. Sean Davis had a spectacular afternoon, and he brings the grade for the entire unit up. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers committed 4 straight penalties on special teams which set up the Colts first touchdown. Jesse James and Alejandro Villanueva lost containment and the Steelers saw their second blocked place kick of the season. Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he kicked the game winner and Jordan Berry boomed off several punts, which raises the grade for the unit. Barley. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley’s play calling came with some head scratchers, including the end around and a very strange lateral run with Le’Veon Bell that went nowhere. Still, the Steelers offense outscored the Colts 17 to 7 in the second half, which amounted to a night and day difference from the first 30 minutes.

Keith Butler’s defense put in another strong day. Given how poorly Pittsburgh’s offense performed during the first half, the Steelers were lucky not to be down by more than 7. Still, the Colts scored two touchdowns and made it look easy. Those types of plays cannot continue.

Mike Tomiln, Steelers vs Colts

Mike Tomlin departs the field after the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The pivotal moment in Pittsburgh’s victory came after the Steelers second touchdown. An extra point would have left the Steelers behind by one, a two point conversion would have tied the game. The Steelers struggled to get the right personnel and play on to the field to the tune of a timeout and a penalty.

Nonetheless, the Steelers still made the 2 point conversation, and that proved to be an important difference, as it forced the Colts to play to win rather than simply burning up the clock. Word is that Mike Tomlin over ruled his lieutenants and made the call himself, and as a result, while the Steelers once again fell short of excellence, finished the game Above the Line. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been a disappointment and a distraction thus far this season. He possibly was at fault for or at least contributed to the first interception. But he came up big when the Steelers needed a two point conversion, and his 3rd down conversion inside the two minute warning got the Steelers to mid field, and for that Martavis Bryant is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Ryan Shazier’s Interception Against the Colts Came at Critical Moment in Steelers Win Over Indy

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, one of the first things head coach Mike Tomlin said about the young lad out of Ohio State was that he was “splash-play capable” (or whatever “Tomlinism” the coach used at that moment).

Maybe that’s why it was no surprise that Ryan Shazier made splash play after splash play in the very exciting and memorable wild card victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season–including a miraculous forced fumble in the final two minutes, which came just one play after it appeared backup quarterback Landry Jones threw the season away to villain linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Ryan Shazier, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts, Ryan Shazier interception Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception against the Colts was a clutch play that came at a critical moment. Photo Credit: Joseph C. Garza, CNIH Indiana

Which brings us to the 2017 campaign, specifically this past Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, where the Steelers were struggling mightily against a 3-6 Colts squad that came into the day having only beaten one team that had beaten other teams (the Colts other two victories came against the winless Browns and the at-the-time winless 49ers).

  • Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was essentially one Colts score away from dropping yet another road game in-which it was a very heavy favorite.

With the offense struggling once again, the Steelers defense not only needed to shut Jacoby Brissett and the rest of Indianapolis’ offense down, it needed to come up with a huge splash play that put the offense in premium field position.

  • No. 50 did just that.

With the Colts facing a third and eight from their own 13, a quick pass from Brissett bounced off  the hands of tight end Jack Doyle, before Shazier, in a Troy Polamalu-like display of otherworldly hand-and-eye coordination, quickly corralled it before being tackled at the 10.

If you were skeptical that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant et. al. would fail to parlay this gift into a touchdown, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, with the help of Vance McDonald they cashed-in to the tune of the maximum eight points and a tie game, before going on to win, 20-17, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell

Speaking of the legendary Polamalu, after he and the rest of Dick LeBeau‘s defense got old in the early-2010’s, there was a very noticeable lack of splash plays, the kind that could ultimately change the course of a game (how many times had No. 43 done so in his prime)?

It’s hard to win in the NFL without an opportunistic defense, and it’s even harder when you don’t have a player who can often come up with a clutch interception, fumble recovery or just a timely hit that forces one.

  • Ryan Shazier has a knack for doing all three, and he has done all three at crucial moments in recent Steelers history.

After a rather-impressive rebuilding of the defense under new coordinator Keith Butler, the unit is full of young, fast defenders who are capable of making a splash play at any time.

But Ryan Shazier, with his unique blend of speed and explosiveness, is often the one who makes the biggest splashes of them all.

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