5 (Not So) Random Reflections on the Final 3 Weeks of the Steelers 2023 Season

Welcome back! Steel Curtain Rising has been dark since the s loss to the Colts before Christmas.

Although I was in the United States for the last three weeks of the regular season, I only caught ½ of a the Steelers last game. In another point of my life, that would have been unacceptable. But this time, it was OK. I’ll detail the reasons why at the end.

Of course I’ve followed the Steelers on a daily basis, watched highlights from each of their three victories, and the overall experience has left me with 5 insights to share.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

1. You Should Trust Your Instincts

Instinct informed me that things had taken a bad turn the moment Kenny Pickett got hurt against the Cardinals. And instinct held a lot of truth. The Steelers imploded on both sides of the ball following that failed 4th and one attempt.

  • Worse yet, they suffered a weather delay.

My guts screamed for me to do something else rather than wait out the storm until the game resumed. But I didn’t want to sacrifice time as I wanted to get my article written in time to publish Monday morning.

The Steelers of course found a way to lose against the Patriots. Just as Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his retirement finale, Billy B. leaves the Patriots having owned the Steelers. The Steelers were playing the Colts 3 days before I was set to leave for the States.

My wife had wanted to pack on that Saturday (traveling light is not an art we’ve yet to master), but I begged off, wanting to watch the game in part to ensure I could get the post-game article written. I could have watched the game on delay and perhaps accomplished the same thing.

  • Alas I did not. (Yeah, hindsight is 20/20.)

And the Steelers posted one of their worst efforts of the Tomlin era. What a waste of time. (My wife would agree. Enthusiastically.)

2. You Should Trust Your Instincts. Until You Shouldn’t

The Steelers would play 3 games during the second Christmas I’d spend in the US since 2000. That last year I made a point of trekking to the legendary Purple Goose Saloon on Christmas Eve to watch the 2000 Steelers finale against the San Diego Chargers.

  • I made the right decision.

The Steelers won and then I got to watch Bubby Brister come in for Daunte Culpepper and, in his final game in the NFL, once again keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. But I knew I was headed to Argentina and visits to the Purple Goose would be spare after that (I got to the Goose two more times.) And I made it home in plenty of time for Midnight Mass, where the beloved Fr. Adam Kostic would deliver his final Christmas eve sermon.

Tom Moore, Bubby Brister, 1989 Steelers

Tom Moore and Bubby Brister at Three Rivers Stadium in 1989. Photo Credit: Locallife.com

In 2023, watching the Steelers wasn’t a priority. I’d planned to see the Bengals game. But COVID had other ideas. As I was sitting at the Dr.’s office Patient First in Aspin Hill, Maryland as the Steelers were taking the field against the Bengals.

I couldn’t see the game, but my WhatsApp exploded with commentaries from the Steelers Groups I’m in. It was obvious things were going well.

  • That was welcome. And surprising.

But only to a point. I’d thought back to the December 26th Steelers-Panthers match up, the penultimate game of the 1999 Steelers. The Steelers started slowly, then when the snow hit Jerome Bettis took over Three Rivers Stadium, and the Steelers dominated thereafter.

They lost next week – this was the games that saw Bobby Shaw’s Superman shirt and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell on an interception return. So I chalked the win over the Cincinnati Bengals up as a blip.

  • The Steelers New Year’s eve game against the Seahawks didn’t pose much of a quandary.

The Steelers never win in Seattle. I remember the 1993 Steelers post-Christmas game there, where Jon Vaughn (who? That’s the point) gouged a flu stricken, Greg Lloyd-less Steelers for 131 yards (John L. Williams tacked on 86 more, for good measure.)

I was better from COVID and my wife wanted to spend some time in downtown DC. So to the District of Columbia we went.

  • So I thought nothing of missing the game and, viola, the Steelers won.

I was in New York City for the regular season finale. The wife of my good friend from high school was the curator of an art exhibition in Jersey and invited us to the opening. Needless to say we went. We made it back to the hotel in time for me to catch most of the 2nd half against the Ravens.

I was impressed. The previous two weeks hadn’t been a mirage. I’m glad I caught Diontae Johnson’s interception, Eric Rowe’s forced fumble and Markus Golden’s sack.

3. Trust Mike Tomlin, Not the Pundits

Everyone knows that George Pickens had been a lighting rod for criticism. And for good reason. The guy mailed in when he wasn’t featured on a play. His failure to block for Jaylen Warren was inexcusable. His response was worse.

Listening to legends Ed Bouchette and Vic Ketchman on Jim Wexell’s podcast during COVID isolation, I fully agreed that the Steelers needed to cut their losses with Pickens. Indeed, I had the time but not the energy to write an article saying the Steelers should bench him for the balance of the season.

  • Once again, it is a good thing Mike Tomlin doesn’t listen to me.

Mike Tomlin has a way with young men. He’s far from infallible (see Martavis Bryant). But he can often shepherd them on the path to maturity. For now at least, he’s done it with George Pickens. Pickens burned the Bengals, singed the Seahawks, and then delivered some devastating blocks against the Ravens.

Yeah, Mike knew what he was doing.

4. The Steelers 3 Quarterback System Works

Self-styled NFL personnel experts argue that salary cap dynamics dictate that investing in a veteran backup quarterback is a waste. As for the third string quarterback? Most people will tell you he doesn’t matter.

  • Most people are wrong.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Omar Khan opened the 2023 off season saying that the Steelers had, “Left the door open for Mason Rudolph.” Few paid attention. Yet, when the Steelers resigned Mason Rudolph it was treated as a “surprise.”

And Rudolph looked to be nothing more than a clip board holder. Until he wasn’t. The NFL is all about stepping up when you get your opportunity. And Mason stepped up. For the first time since he arrived it Pittsburgh, you could see why Kevin Colbert had a first round grade on him.

Oh, and even before he came on gang busters in his first start since the tie vs the Lions in 2020, Mason Rudolph had already proved something else: The Mike Tomlin has ushered in the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks.

5. Take a Page for the Rooney’s: Focus on Family

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

If watching Steelers games wasn’t a high priority when I arrived in Maryland, it became an even lower one quickly. Between COVID, my sister-in-law’s father losing a brief battle with pneumonia (and Donald Hay was a great guy) and some other issues, it clear was that I should follow Dan Rooney’s lead: Focus on the family.

I distinctly remember one of his sons being interviewed, it may have been Dan Rooney Jr. but I can’t be sure, explaining that not only did Dan Rooney focus on academics rather than sports when it came to bringing up his children, he made time to speak to each of his 9 children about their day every evening during dinner.

The same child also mentioned that he didn’t even know what his father did for a living until he was in his pre-teen years. That’s because Dan Rooney, at his core, was a family man. Dan always put his family first.

  • I took that lesson to heart on this trip, focused on family and missed three Steelers wins because of it.

And I’m confident that, looking down from heaven, both Dan Rooney and his father Art Rooney Sr. would wholeheartedly agree with me that this was the best decision I could have made.

Go Steelers. Let’s upset the Bills 1989 style!

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Beat Ravens 17-10 as 4th Quarter Fireworks in All 3 Phases Fuel Comeback

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 at Acrisure Stadium to enter the 2023 bye week with the lead in the AFC North.

The 17-10 score suggests that this was yet another, hard-fought defensive battle in the iconic series between these two rivals.

  • Yet there was nothing simple in how the Steelers scored their 17 points.

And that’s fitting. There’s something about this young Steelers season that escapes the numbers. The Steelers have struggled for much of this year just as they struggled against the Ravens. Yet the takeaways from this latest rebound win against the Ravens suggests that maybe those struggles might be bearing fruit.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens after scoring a touchdown vs the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = More of the Same from the Steelers Offense

As an organization the Steelers seem to have an uncanny ability to tune out the noise from the peanut gallery. And that’s good because during the first half Matt Canada’s offense gave this critics plenty to crow about. While the Ravens were busy putting 10 points on the board, Brad Wing was busy staking his claim to NFL comeback player of the year by punting the ball away for Pittsburgh.

Canada’s offense only suffered one three and out and even put together one 10 play drive before sending Wing out. So theoretically, there was progress.  The Ravens might have only scored 10 points, but Baltimore receivers had dropped 2 passes in the end zone. A more lopsided result only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “IF.”

  • But like any good drama, this game’s first chapters foreshadowed things to come.

If the Steelers defense hadn’t been giving up points, it was keeping fantasy owners happy by giving up yards. Yet late in the third quarter Lamar Jackson hit Justice Hill for a 10 yard gain, he seemed to be destined for more only to have Larry Ogunjobi come up from behind an knock the ball loose.

Damontae Kazee picked it up and 7 plays later, Chris Boswell was getting the Steelers on the board. That did little to satisfy booing fans. But the attentive eye noticed that Kenny Pickett to George Pickens had accounted for 25 of the 26 yards the Steelers offense earned. Could this be the start of a trend….?

There wasn’t much time for back patting in Pittsburgh, because the Ravens marched down the field with authority. They reached the Steelers’ 23, until John Harbaugh overplayed his hand, going for it on 4th and 2 passing up an automatic field goal.

Alas, Lamar Jackson misfired in the end zone 2, burning Baltimore’s a chance to put points on the board. Could another trend be forming….? That’s why we play second halves.

3rd Quarter Uneventful – And that was Half Good

Peyton Manning recently tried to dispel the notion of “half time adjustments” and “Half time momentum.” The effort of the Steelers offense in the third quarter would seem to support that.

  • Brad Wing punted another three times.

The Steelers offense started with a three and out. Then they managed 8 plays for 27 yards on their next possession. And on their final possession of the third quarter they managed another 8 plays for 43 yards, including two more Pickett to Pickens hookups.

That did little to quite the “Fire Canada” chants, but punting aside, Kenny Pickett’s passing seemed to get more precise as the quarter progressed, didn’t it?

On defense the Steelers defense forced the Ravens to put twice. But perhaps more importantly, they were starting to get to Lamar Jackson. That was only the beginning.

Fourth Quarter Fireworks — for Everyone

Has there ever been a more exciting fourth quarter in Steelers history? Perhaps. But this one literally had fireworks on every side of the ball.

The staff at Acrisure Stadium got the 4th quarter started in style with Renegade. The Ravens tried to respond, but with Kwon Alexander stuffing Justice Hill for a losses, the Steelers secondary locking down Baltimore receivers, and Cole Holcomb to cutting off a Lamar Jackson run, forcing a punt.

  • Special teams coach Danny Smith decided to get aggressive.

Special teams captain Miles Killebrew soared through the wedge blocking Jordan Stout’s punt, with Rodney Williams barely missing a touchdown. So the Steelers had to settle for a safety.

The Steelers failed to take the lead, but Jaylen Warren almost single-handedly moved them 49 yards, setting up another field goal. Could the Steelers really turn this around?

The Steelers defense followed with another shut down led by Elandon Roberts making spectacular plays first in pass coverage, then in stuffing Justice Hill. The Ravens punted, but return man Gunner Olszewski, as he is wont to do, fumbled with only Rodney Williams’ tackle saving a touchdown.

  • Perched on the Steelers seven yard line, the Ravens were ready pounce and to put Pittsburgh away.

But Kwon Alexander tackled Mark Andrews for a loss, bringing up 3rd down on the Steelers five. Lamar Jackson fired for Odell Beckham Jr., but Joey Porter Jr. had other ideas, intercepting the ball in the end zone.

  • Kenny Pickett took over at the 20, a Steelers quarterback in command of his offense.

He wasn’t perfect, misfiring on his first two passes. But that didn’t phase him. On his next two he found Allen Robison and George Pickett to convert third downs moved to midfield. The Steelers only needed a field goal to win, but Pickett saw the Ravens line up in zero coverage, crowding the middle of the field. He called an audible went for all the marbles, launching at George Pickens for a 41 yard bomb and a touchdown.

  • Yet that was not the end.

A minute 17 is a lot of time to give Lamar Jackson. And Jackson hit Zack Flowers for 19 yards on his first try. On his next try Alex Highsmigh hit the ball out of Jackson’s arm and T.J. Watt scooped it up, returning it to the 18, seemingly sealing the win for the Steelers,

  • Yet that was still not the end.

A penalty prevented the Steelers from running out the clock, giving the Ravens the ball back with a chance to tie with 49 seconds.

Jackson made four drop backs. He hit Mark Andrews on one of them, but T.J. Watt hit him on his last.

Four Takeaways to Put the Steelers Rebound vs Ravens into Perspective

What to make of all of this? Suffice to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken one of the strangest routes to 3-2 and a hold on the division lead in franchise history. The drama underlying this comeback win shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Steelers cannot allow their punter to audition for the offensive MVP award week in and week out.

And the Ravens dropped 2 touchdowns in the end zone and another in the open field that likely would have resulted in another touchdown. That won’t happen again.

But even taking that into account, there are 4 takeaways from this win:

  • Rookies, such as Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr. are finding their NFL footing
  • The re-made inside linebacking crops is starting to gell
  • Kenny Pickett finally seems to have recovered the poise he showed late last season
  • And Pickett seems to be developing a rapport with Pickens

If Mike Tomlin can find away to sustain these trends coming out of the bye week, the next 12 weeks could get interesting.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Dare to Dream Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher daring to dream that his classroom once again features a franchise quarterback, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers vs Ravens 2022 M&T Bank Stadium

Minkah Fitzpatrick with the game-sealing pick. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s stat line of 16 of 27 for 168 yards and one touchdown appears so “pedestrian” at first glance. But there was nothing pedestrian about the poise and playmaking instincts he showed on his final pass. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his first 100 yard game, a 111 yard one to be exact, mixing long runs and tough yards on 22 carries. Jaylen Warren ran for 76 yards on 11 carries with Derek Watt converting a 3rd and 1 for 3 yards. Warren and Harris combined for 5 catches, none more important that Harris’ game winner. Harris also pushed Pickett on a 4th down conversion. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 6 targets for 36 yards to lead the team, but his 20 yard catch brought the Steelers to midfield on the game winning drive. Neither Zach Gentry nor Connor Heyward had a catch, but contributed to run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 35 yards, Steven Sims had 3 for 34 yards and George Pickens “only” had 2 for 29 yards. Miles Boykin didn’t have a catch, but helped push Kenny Pickett across the line on a QB sneak. Gunner Olszewski executed a nice reverse and made a key block on Warren’s long run. Plays like that, along with the receiver’s stats won’t make Fantasy Football owners happy.  But the reality is that the quality of each individual play is why the Steelers playoff hopes are alive. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit nine times. The latter number is too high, but is OK given the context. However, the offensive line contested the line of scrimmage from the very beginning and paved the way for the best rushing effort of a Steelers offense since Le’Veon Bell’s prime. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 4 tackles followed by 3 by rookie DeMarvin Leal. What the stat sheet doesn’t show is the number of times the Ravens rushers were either stopped for zero or minimal gain. An excellent night for the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led the unit with 8 tackles including one for a loss. T.J. Watt “only” had one sack, but it came two plays after J.K. Dobbins 22 yard run and helped ensure it was the last run of the night. Watt also had another tackle for a loss and 3 other QB hits. Alex Highsmith and 3 tackles – for little or no gain. Grade: A

Secondary
The Ravens were 5 for 12 on third downs. And for the second consecutive week, an opponent’s desperation comeback attempt ended with a Steelers interception, this time at the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who also led the unit in tackles. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he made 3 others including a 51 yarder. The Steelers gave up a long kickoff return, only to have their defense deliver a save. Pressley Harvin averaged 5 yards a punt including one inside the 20. Grade: C-

Coaching
Complainers about Matt Canada’s offense will find plenty of fodder given the Steelers partly pass numbers, sluggish Red Zone performance and settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Again.

So be it. The Baltimore Ravens are on of the toughest teams in the NFL to rush on, and the Steelers waltzed into their home and rushed the ball down their throats earning a 10 point advantage in the time of possession.

  • Moreover, the Steelers committed to the run and that delivered dividends as the game wore on.

On defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores decided that the Ravens weren’t going to repeat their success running against the Steelers, and deployed a 4-4-3 scheme that featured 2 rookies to stop the Ravens. And stop the Ravens they did.

Eight weeks ago the Steelers record was 2-6. They’d just gotten thrashed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and talk both inside and outside of Pittsburgh was how high within the top 5 of the draft the Steelers would fall.

But Mike Tomlin committed his team to playing to win, his players bought into it, and today their playoff hopes remain alive. Grade: A

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Mike Tomlin hesitates to praise rookies too much. Yet after the Ravens game he described this individual as “combative” and “confrontational” urging that those characteristics were “needed.” Seven tackles on 50% of the defensive snaps were enough to make Mark Robinson the 3rd leading tackler of game and for that he win Unsung Hero honors for the 2022 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

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He’s Got “It”: Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Kenny Pickett’s Poise Carries Day

Neither quarterback threw for over 200 yards. The teams executed over 70 runs from scrimmage. Three points defined the difference. The game went down to The Wire.

  • In other words It was the Steelers vs the Ravens at their best.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed 16-13 because of “Decision Making Plus Pickett.” The Steelers won because of:

  • Decisions made before the game
  • Decisions made on draft day
  • Decisions made during the game

Add those to the poise that Kenny Pickett showed when the game was on the line, and the result was a decisive Steelers win. Let’s look each element in detail.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Kenny Pickett drops back. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Pre Game Decision

22 days ago the story was very different. The Baltimore Ravens arrived at Acrisure Stadium, lost their 2nd string quarterback and dared the Steelers to stop the run. It all came down to a 3rd and 3 play:

  • Either the Steelers stop the run and force a punt, or the Ravens run out the clock.

Everyone knew the Ravens would run. They did. And the Steelers couldn’t stop them, leading to this conclusion:

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin feigned a shrug off, only conceding that “They wore us down.” But with Mike Tomlin, it’s always watch what he does, not what he says.

A week later, the Steelers won the toss and deferred to the Carolina Panthers, daring a team with a strong rushing attack to run against them. The Panthers tried to pounce, but the Steelers tamed them.

On Christmas Eve, the Raiders brought the NFL’s leading rusher to Pittsburgh. And, in near Artic conditions, they tried to run the ball down the Steelers throats. Outside of their first drive, they failed.

  • But stopping the Panthers and Raiders from running on you is one thing.
  • Stopping the Ravens, in Baltimore no less, is something else entirely.
T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt stuffs J.K. Dobbins. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

So Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores put their heads together to devise what network commentators called a 6-2-3 formation and what Jim Wexell termed as a 4-4-3 formation. However you arrange those numbers it doesn’t matter, the Steelers planned to deploy their biggest bodies and stoutest run stoppers. Mike Tomlin knows that innovation is worthless without execution.

So he did what NFL coaches seldom do in this day and age, let alone this late in the season: He ordered a fully padded practice.

But, as Tomlin is wont to say, “Coaches coach. Players play.”

Draft Day Decisions Come to Fruition

Even the best coaching schemes require competent execution by players. Against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Mike Tomlin not only trusted his players, he embraced a youth movement. Snap counts never lie:

Connor Heyward: 17%
Jaylen Warren: 40%
Mark Robinson: 50%
DeMarvin Leal: 52%
George Pickens: 73%
Kenny Pickett: 100%

Those are all rookies, each one a member of the Steelers 2022 Draft Class, save for Jaylen Warren, who was an Undrafted Rookie Free Agent. But these numbers don’t tell a story about quantity, but rather quality.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mark Robinson made or contributed to several critical stops. Jaylen Warren executed one of those oft maligned Jet Sweeps to perfection, gaining 31 yards and setting up the Steelers first score. George Pickens, dare we say, made the kind of catch that would have made Lynn Swann look proud.

Game Day Decision Making Delivers

Rushing the ball in today’s NFL anything is but vogue. The networks and Fantasy Football owners prefer passing. The college game is so skewed toward the pass that the fullback sits on the brink of extinction.

  • The Steelers are hardly immune.

Bruce Arians banished the fullback in his first act as offensive coordinator. Over the last decade Mike Tomlin has staffed shallow backfields, only to see injuries strike down starters and key backups just in time for the playoffs time and time again.

And, in the estimation of Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel, Steelers coaches abandon the run both too early and too often.

So when the Steelers began their first possession of the 2nd half down by a touchdown, the precedent if not the temptation to put the game in the hands of Kenny Pickett, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth had to be there.

  • Instead, Matt Canada remained committed to the run.

Najee Harris got the ball on the second play from scrimmage and ripped off a 15 yard run. Naysayers will note that although Harris and Warren managed a few other good runs on the drive, they also got stuffed several others and that the offense was forced to settle for a 51 yard Chris Boswell field goal.

Najee Harris, James Daniels, Steelers vs Ravens

James Daniels blocks for Najee Harris. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s the point. As soon as the Steelers got the ball back, Canada handed it again to Harris, and Najee Harris again blasted for 15 yards.

  • Good game day decision making was just as important to the defense as it was the offense.

Early in the second quarter it seemed like the Steelers might simply stone the Ravens running game. Baltimore opened a 2nd quarter drive with a run to Gus Edwards that T.J. Watt and Mark Robinson stopped for no gain. After a nine yard completion to DeSean Jackson, the Ravens tried to run it to Gus Edwards again.

But the Ravens rallied, rushing the ball – no imposing their will – with J.K. Dobbins on their next drive, setting up their only touchdown. Yet, the Steelers coaches refused to panic. The Ravens tried to pound the ball in the second half, but the Steelers refused to yield, forcing Tyler Huntley to beat them with his arm, something he couldn’t do, even when the Steelers stopped Baltimore a 56 yard kick return.

And so it was that the Steelers were down 9 to 13 with 4:16 left to play.

Pickett’s Poise Carries the Day – Again

Since he took the reins of the offense in week 4 against the Jets, much has been made about Kenny Pickett’s unimpressive statistics, the weak competition he’s faced, Red Zone struggles and his reliance on short-high percentage passes at the expense of open receivers downfield.

While those critiques remain valid, they belie a certain truth:

  • Kenny Pickett can learn what he needs to learn to improve on those areas of his game.

But consider the play he made on the touchdown pass to Najee Harris:

That shows poise and playmaking ability can’t be taught nor can it be learned. A player either has it, or he doesn’t.

  • Kenny Pickett has “It.”

And because of that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes remain alive going into the season’s final week.

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Losing It In the Trenches: Steelers Lose to Ravens 16-14 as Baltimore Dominates Line of Scrimmage

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Baltimore Ravens 16-14, losing out in the battle of the backup quarterbacks. The loss snapped the Steelers 2 game winning streak and the Ravens four game losing streak against Pittsburgh.

  • The reason for the change in trends?

As Mike Tomlin conceded during his press conference, there’s nothing mystical about it:  When you turn the ball over 4 times in the Red Zone, you’re going to lose. Even if that is true, and it is, the Steelers still had a chance to win. They didn’t because they fell short on another, more ominous fundamental.

Gus Edwards, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

It falls to Minkah Fitzpatrick to stop Gus Edwards. Not Good. Photo Credit: Joey Polney, BaltimoreRavens.com

Understanding Tomlin’s Patience with Pickett

The win over the Falcons provided an affirmative example of why Mike Tomlin has been smart to stick with Kenny Pickett, despite calls from outside the franchise to sit the rookie. The loss to the Ravens provides a negative one.

  • Pickett’s progress has been slow at times, painfully slow.

The offense has improved, outside the Red Zone at least, the improvement has flowed the way molasses drips down the side of a bottle. The positive is that the drip’s progress is sustainable – unless something acts on it from the outside.

Roquan Smith, Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Ravens

Roquan Smith sacks Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • A reason for Pickett’s slow progress is that he’s been very, very careful with the ball.

That caution virtually eliminated turnovers from Pickett’s game, yet that caution came at the cost of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.

  • The Baltimore Ravens were the outside force that slowed the molasses of Pickett’s progress.

After just two series (and two punts), Pickett left the game in the concussion protocol, giving way to Mitch Trubisky. And Tribusky certainly provided the proverbial “spark” to the offense.

  • He wasted little time in finding Pat Freiermuth for 14 yards converting a 3rd and 9
  • He immediately struck downfield to George Pickens for 42 yards
  • He looked again to Pickens who drew a pass interference penalty

Najee Harris lunched himself into the end zone, cutting Baltimore’s lead to 3. The decisiveness, and the downfield aggressiveness that had been missing from the offense was back. I daresay the series reminded me of the tiempo pickup we saw when Joe Gibbs benched Jay Schroeder in favor of Doug Williams against the Lions back in ’87.

But Tribusky’s aggressiveness carried its own cost. His next two series ended with a Red Zone interception and another interception just outside the Red Zone. Instead of settling for a Chris Boswell field goal, the Steelers got nothing.

Worse yet, while Tribusky protected the ball better the next time the Steelers neared the Ravens Red Zone, Calais Campbell blocked Chris Boswell’s field goal….

Yet despite turning the ball over four times on three possessions which could reasonably have ended with Chris Boswell field goals, the Steelers were in the game till the very end.

Defense Fails @ Line of Scrimmage

Normally turning the ball over four times yet still having a chance to win amounts to a tiny silver lining. That’s not the case here.

The Steelers defense had a chance to win this game. And the Steelers salary cap decision tell us that this defense was built to win games just like this.

Those Splash plays were nice, but the Steelers defense came up short on bread and butter plays. Fitzpatrick’s hit on Huntley forced him from the game, bringing in Ravens 3rd string quarterback Anthony Brown.

Gus Edwards, Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Ravens

Gus Edwards stiff arms Alex Highsmith. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • All the Steelers needed to do was stop the Ravens running game.

The Steelers defense knew the run was coming. They tried to stop it. They failed. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards hung 186 yards on Pittsburgh.

Sure, the Steelers limited the Anthony Brown-led Ravens offense to one field goal. But the field goal drive saw the Ravens rip off runs of 5, 14, 6, 7 and 7 yards. Patrick Ricard also converted a 3rd and 1. Oh, and the Steelers had done a good job of taking Mark Andrews.

  • Except when Anthony Brown hit him for 7 yards on to convert a 3rd and 4 on the field goal drive.

The worst play for the Steelers run defense came last: Gus converted a 3rd and 3, gaining 6 yards thanks to a Minkah Fitzpatrick stop.

You know your run defense is “choto” (Argentine slang for… coming up short er um, anatomically , discussed here) when it is 3rd and 3 after the 2 minute warning where a stop gets you the ball back and your free safety makes the tackle.

  • And so it was.

That singular failure in the trenches illustrates why the Ravens are leading the AFC North and why the Pittsburgh Steelers appear destined to author the first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era.

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Steelers Report Card for Overtime Win over Ravens: Ben in a Blaze of Glory Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher beaming that his star pupil is going out in a blaze of glory, here is the Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Baltimore in Ben Roethlisberger’s last game at M&T Stadium.

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt sack record. Tyler Huntley, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt ties the NFL sack record. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had a 49.2 passer rating for the first three quarters. By the end of overtime, it was 80.1. So it’s a glass half full, glass half empty situation right? Wrong. Five 3rd or 4th down conversions, one lead scoring 4th quarter drive and another overtime score fill the glass every time. Grade: A+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 56 yards total yards from scrimmage, to the horror of Fantasy Football fans. To the delight of Reality Football fans, he started overtime off with a one handed catch – with his left hand – and finished it with a 15-yard romp that made the final field goal a gimmie — while carrying the ball with his left arm. (Still wonder why we drafted him?) Benny Snell better than his numbers but the drop off was noticeable. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth missed a 3rd down conversion in regulation, but boy did he make up for it in overtime. He also did well blocking. Zach Gentry quietly caught 4 balls on 5 targets while blocking well. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool might have had his best day as a Steeler, and this is for a guy who had 3 TDs as a rookie. No, Claypool didn’t score a lot of points for Fantasy Football owners (see the trend), but he made hard gritty plays on the ground, catching the ball and blocking. Diontae Johnson had a good day catching 7 of 51 passes. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 4-37 might not seem like much, but boy, those catches counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked once – when can you say that after a Ravens game. While that was good, the run blocking wasn’t quite as solid has it had been against Cleveland. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward lead the team in tackles had a sack and another tackle for a loss. Chris Wormley got a sack and batted down a ball. Yet the Ravens still gained over 150 yards rushing with a 45 yard run and two plus 20 yard runs. Grade: B-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a hand in another that he wasn’t credited with. However, highly amateur film analysis suggests that linebacking lapses were at fault for the run defense woes. Grade: C+

Secondary
The Ravens were 3-14 on third downs and Tyler Huntly completed no passes in overtime. Cam Sutton’s interception in the end zone was a game changer, and Terrell Edmund’s pick, lucky though it was, positioned Pittsburgh for its first points. Arthur Maulet continues to come up strong in run support. Minkah Fitzpatrick pass defense of Marquise Brown with 31 seconds remaining is the season’s most underrated play. Grade: A

Coaching
Again, the Steelers offense remained stuck in third gear for 3 quarters and again did not find away out until Ben Roethlisberger took over. Is Roethlisberger just an adrenaline junkie? Have his skills eroded to the point where it takes a pressure cooker for him to deliver? Or is Matt Canada’s offense not suited for him? Or do the Steelers simply lack too many people in the trenches? Or is Canada just in over his head?

Outside of a few exceptions in October, the Steelers offense has only ever been effective late in games. Sixteen points in 5 quarters isn’t going to win you a lot of post season games in the NFL, but it was good enough to get Ben Roethlisberger to the playoffs.

With that said, credit Canada for using Chase Claypool to get the offense moving, which was critical on the touchdown drive.

  • On defense the Steelers played solid football.

Yes, the run defense lapses were real, but the Steelers coaches managed to make the right adjustments to neutralize that advantage down the stretch.

Beyond the X’s and O’s the attitude and the resiliency of this group of players is phenomenal. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was the one throwing those 3rd and 4th down passes, but it takes a focused and ready receiver to catch them.

Ray-Ray McCloud, Steelers vs Ravens, Ray-Ray McCloud 4th down catch Ravens

Ray-Ray McCloud comes down with it on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It doesn’t just take special talent to learn how to carry — and catch — with your left arm in the middle of a season finale with the playoffs on the line, it takes a special attitude. The Steelers “smiled in the face of adversity” to use Mike Tomlin’s words, and he deserves the credit for setting that tone. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
How did the Steelers rally start? With a big Ben Roethlisberger pass? No. With a defensive “Splash play?” No. With a running back ripping off a run? No. It was actually Ray-Ray McCloud’s 23-yard punt return that set the Steelers up at midfield. Steelers special teams also defended a fake punt attempt early that could have been a game changer. And of course Chris Boswell went 3 for 3 and for that the Steelers Special teams win the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Playoff Bound! Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads Overtime Comeback

Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.

  • Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.

The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form

If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap,  a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.

A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure  penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.

The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.

  • But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.

The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

That four point differential would come in handy later on….

Run Defense? What Run Defense?

One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.

  • Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.

The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.

  • By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.
Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.

In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.

A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback

Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.

But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.

Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.

  • But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.

Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.

Overtime Atonement

The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:

  • Author a game winning drive at the gun.

 

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.

Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.

  • This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.

The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.

  • Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.

One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!

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King of the North? With 1 Win, Ben Roethlisberger can Boost His Record in Baltimore to .500

The moment has arrived. It is time for Ben Roethlisberger to retire and being his “Life’s Work.”

Roethlisberger taking a knee to close Steelers 26-14 win on Monday Night Football over the Cleveland Browns couldn’t have been a more picture perfect ending for his time in Pittsburgh. But Big Ben is set to strike midnight in Baltimore, not in Pittsburgh. Which is also perfect.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger M&T Bank Stadiu

Ben Roethlisberger calling plays @ M&T Bank Stadium. Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan, USA Today via the Athletic.

  • Because Ben Roethlisberger can end his career by completing the circuit.

The last game before the Ben Roethlisberger, the finale to the Steelers 2003 Season, was played in Baltimore. The first game of the Ben Roethlisberger era began in M&T Bank Stadium on September 19, 2004 with 6:45 left in the third quarter when Roethlisberger tried to target Plaxico Burress after going in for an injured Tommy Maddox.

His next pass was intended for Hines Ward, but got picked off by Adalius Thomas and his last pass on the as the afternoon would end with a 30 to 13 decision in Baltimore’s favor. But that was the last time Ben Roethlisberger would lose in his rookie year until the AFC Championship.

  • So the incentive for Ben to finish where he started is strong. But this goes beyond that.

Since that day Ben Roethlisberger has played in Baltimore 11 more times, having missed a surprising number of games due to injury or sitting out season finales.

But going into the final game of his career, Roethlisberger’s record in Baltimore is 5-6. Roethlisberger didn’t win his first game in Charm City until 2008, the year the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. And although he’s had some rough sledding and a few embarrassing losses in Baltimore, Ben hasn’t lost there since 2016.

Ben Roethlisberger has owned the AFC North for 18 years. For a long time he was the winningest quarterback in Cleveland since the Browns return to the NFL in 1999 and he’s done quite well in Paul Brown Stadium.

  • With one final win on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger can improve his career record in Baltimore to an even .500.

Let’s do it Ben! Let’s close with one last win over the Ravens in Baltimore to officially go out King of the North!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

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

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

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

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