Steelers Retain Matt Canada – No the Hindenburg Hasn’t Been Sent to Rescue the Titanic

It is official. Mike Tomlin has retained Matt Canada as the Steelers offensive coordinator for at least one more season. Predictably, Steelers Nation is acting like the Hindenburg has just been sent to rescue the Titanic.

It is not.

Steelers fans love to revile their offensive coordinator. It’s an annual pastime. Thanks to marriage of Madden and Fantasy Football, everyone seems to think that working an as offensive coordinator is easy.

  • Full disclosure: I am no exception.

I’ve railed against Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians. Yet, as the “FIRE MATT CANADA” cries reached a fever pitch, I’ve largely kept my silence, even when joining the chorus would have delivered plenty of clicks.

There are several reasons for this, reasons why Tomlin’s decision isn’t a disaster and might even be a good thing. Let’s look at why.

Matt Canada, Hindenburg, Titanic

Steelers retaining Matt Canada ISN’T akin to sending the Hindenburg to rescue the Titanic.

“You Have to Have the Players.” – Dan Rooney

Dan Rooney routinely made this statement whenever he was asked to explain the Steelers continued success. The Steelers record, headlined by 6 Super Bowls, since he took control of the team from Art Rooney Sr. in the 60’s vindicates the late Chairman.

  • The Steelers offense under Matt Canada had hardly been the Greatest Show on turf.

In 2020 the Steelers posted a 9-7-1 record that featured 7 come from behind wins. The offense was at its best when Ben Roethlisberger was in the 2 minute drill, calling his own plays.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

“A damning critique of Canada” you quip?

Not exactly. Ben Roethlisberger was a bad fit for Canada’s offense. This old dog wasn’t going to learn any new tricks. And Roethlisberger was playing behind a make-shift offensive line, with a rookie running back and a rookie tight end.

  • During the first half of 2022 the Steelers offense regressed.

This isn’t opinion. Its fact. The Dr. de Acero commented to me, “Nunca habia visto un ofensa de los Steelers tan inepto” – I’ve never seen a more inept Steelers offense. And he was right. But we’ve also never seen such an inexperienced Steelers offense.

  • Who were the most experienced veterans on the Steelers offense?

Chuks Okorafor, Diontae Johnson and Zach Gentry (and Gentry missed most of 2019 and 2020 in IR.) Outside of those three and Derek Watt, no one had more than 2 years of experience with the Steelers.

Moreover, emerging leaders such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth were in their second years. George Pickens and Connor Heyward were rookies. Mitch Trubisky was in his first year with the team and Kenny Pickett was a rookie.

Assembling an offense on the field is a bit different that designating a week’s starters for Fantasy Football. It takes time for 11 guys to learn to play together. Even Joe Gibbs, who perhaps had the greatest offensive mind in the modern NFL, started in Washington going 1-6 before finishing 8-8.

(And Gibbs had veterans like Joe Theismann, John Riggins and future Hall of Famer rookie Art Monk to lean on.)

“Not Making Change for the Sake of Change” – Mike Tomlin

The quote above was Mike Tomlin’s to questions about whether he would fire Matt Canada midseason after the Steelers got pasted by the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin would be asked that question several other times during the course of the season.

Each time Tomlin would preach the virtues of a systematic as opposed to reactionary approach to coaching.

Tomlin’s philosophy prevailed is illustrated by Mike DeFabo tweet:

That turn around might not have led Fantasy Football owners to scramble to trade for Steelers skill players to add to their team, but those statistics added up to wins.

  • How did Matt Canada and the rest of the offensive staff pull off this turn around?

There’s no secret here. They didn’t execute any massive schematic change (although they did make some tweaks.) Instead, they eliminated the execution errors that had plagued the team earlier in the season and, once that happened, Canada’s system worked.

“But Canada’s Offense Lacks Explosiveness”

This is true. Canada’s offense does lack explosive or “chunk” plays. Even taking into account the turn around in the 2nd half of the season, under Matt Canada, the Steelers remain bottom feeders when it comes to passes longer than 20 yards.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

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

  • But how much of this is by design and how much of this is Canada’s “fault?”

Perhaps a little of both. As Steel City Insider film reviewer D.I. Davis has pointed out since week 1, the Steelers might lack long passing gains, but the deep routes have been there and receivers have been open.

  • If you doubt that look no further than to George Pickens’s tantrum during the middle of the season.

Mitch Trubisky tried to get aggressive in relief of Pickett against the Ravens and his 3 interceptions likely kept the Steelers out of the playoffs. Pickett too stuck with the short passes, particularly early on. As the season progressed, he got a bit more adventurous downfield, albeit with mixed results.

  • On the flip side, Matt Canada’s offense clearly favors ball control.

That might not be exciting, but as the wins over Carolina and Cleveland proved, if you ball control combined with drives that end in touchdowns instead of field goals can be downright lethal.

Tale of 4 Offensive Coordinators

As mentioned above, I too was a harsh critic of former Steelers offensive coordinators Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Bruce Arians.

Joe Walton, Louis Lipps, 1991 Steelers

Joe Walton and Louis Lipps in 1991. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News.

Walton’s tenure was a disaster and his last NFL job (although he did excel at Robert Morris). Ray Sherman’s was arguably worse, lasted one year and he only had one more season as an NFL coordinator.

I also defended Sherman’s predecessor, Chan Gailey for his aggressiveness in the 1997 AFC Championship loss to the Broncos. As the seasons and AFC Championships mounted between 1997 and 2005, I began to regret his decision to put the game in Kordell Stewart’s rather than Jerome Bettis’ hands.

  • Which brings us to Bruce Arians.

A good chunk of this sites content during our first year in 2008 was directed at criticizing Arians. Then came the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII where Arians’ offense excelled. And of course Arians enjoyed tremendous success since leaving Pittsburgh.

  • The moral of this stroll down memory lane is two-fold.

First, Matt Canada may not be Pittsburgh’s next Bruce Arians, but he has earned the chance to try. Second, Mike Tomlin is far more qualified to make that judgement than I am.

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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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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Living Up to Legacy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his students adding to the legacy left to them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Raiders on the 50 Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads the Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 26 of 39 for 244 yards with 1 touchdown and one interception. In truth, Pickett did not look sharp for much of the first 55 minutes of the game. But he delivered perfectly when the game was on the line. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 76 yards on the ground on 22 carries, although perhaps those numbers would have been better had the Steelers committed more to the run. The duo also combined for 7 catches for just under 50 yards. Derek Watt was stopped on third down. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 7 of 8 passes thrown to him for 66 yards and the arrow on this kid continues to point up. Zach Gentry caught 1 pass for 1 yard and missed the block on Derek Watt’s run. Connor Heyward took a surprise pitch 21 yards and showed veteran savvy by sliding down in bounds to keep the clock running. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 64 yards on 7 targets, leading the group. George Pickens caught 5 passes on 5 targets including a 25 yarder, the night’s longest, and the game winning touchdown. Steven Sims and one catch for 7 yards on 1 target. Myles Boykin helped push Kenny Pickett to a first down on 4th and 1. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett wasn’t sacked all night and was only touched on 4 occasions. That’s good. However, the run blocking wasn’t there on a consistent basis, forcing lots of 3rd and longs and consequently, punts. The Steelers need to be able to run the ball in cold weather. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi have only had one stop for a loss, but he helped dominate the Raiders upfront after the opening drive. Montravius Adams had 3 tackles as part of an effort that shut down the Raiders running game on a night when running the ball meant everything. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith closed the third quarter with a 13 yard losing sack of David Carr which helped begin the Steelers rally. T.J. Watt had a tipped pass and a tackle for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles with 12. Grade: A-

Secondary
Arthur Maulet made a heads up play intercepting the ball immediately after Pickett’s turnover. Minkah Fitzpatrick Short circuited their next drive with an interception of his own, and helped set up a sack on a blitz late in the fourth quarter. Cam Sutton made an interception that all but sealed the win for the Steelers. Grade: A

Special Teams
The Raiders did have one long punt return, but its impact was limited. Kick coverage was good and Steven Sims fair caught all but one punt. Pressley Harvin was solid on his returns. Chris Boswell did make two field goals, but he also missed to more. Yes, weather was a factor, but kicking at Acrisure Stadium should be his specialty. Grade: C-

Coaching
Matt Canada’s offense struggled for much of the night and one has to question why the Steelers passed 39 times on a night with 9 degree weather. Still, had the field goals not been missed, the last minute drive wouldn’t have been necessary, but it was and his unit executed to perfection.

  • And the toss to Connor Heyward was a beauty that sealed the game.
Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Franco Harris Jersey, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin wearing a Franco Harris jersey. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via St. Albert Gazette

Teryl Austin’s defense made an immediate adjustment that neutralized the Raiders running game and his defense kept delivering even as the offense missed a field goal and punted 3 times in the second half alone.

  • In early October the NFL had left the Pittsburgh Steelers for dead.

They had a rookie quarterback and had been smacked around by the league’s heavyweights and up and comers a like. At this point the smart money was on Pittsburgh spending Christmas “competing” for a top 5 pick.

Instead the Steelers competed for a playoff spot on Christmas Eve. On a night when the Steelers celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and said goodbye to Franco Harris, Mike Tomlin harnessed that emotion without letting his team get caught up in it. Grade: B+

Sung Hero Award
The Steelers tapped him to lead introductions carrying a Number 32 banner. When the game started, Cam Heyward showed why he was worthy to carry on Franco Harris’ legacy, with two sacks, a pass defensed, another tackle for a loss and numerous others for no or little gain, and for that he wins the Sung Hero ward for the 2022 win over the Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Panthers: Bouncing Back Edition

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher proud to see his students bounce back after what could have been a humiliating loss, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Panthers

Najee Harris goes airborne. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky was a careful but efficient 17 of 22 for 179 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he also avoided interceptions.  The Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs, and while some of those were runs, Tribuisky had to several key long throws and authored the NFL’s longest drive since 2001. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Jaylen Warren had 38 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Derek Watt had 2 yards on another 3rd down conversion. The Steelers running backs ran well early. When Carolina clamped down they continued to run hard. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For the first time in recent memory, Pat Freiermuth did not catch a pass. Zach Gentry did catch one for 4 yards. The tight ends helped in the run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 98 yards on 10 catches catching all 10 targets. That’s impressive, as was his ability to convert third downs, even if he seems to have to resist the urge to run backwards. Amazingly, he STILL doesn’t have a touchdown 14 games into the season. Steven Sims and  Gunner Olszewski each had a catch. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Carolina Panthers sacked the quarterback once and hit him one other time. The Steelers ran well during the first half. During the second half as the Panthers adjusted, the Steelers didn’t run as well, but they were able to run the ball at moments in the game when they needed to run it. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was alive, recording 1.5 sacks and hitting the quarterback two other times. Larry Ogunjobi had 5 tackles including 2 for losses. Isaiahh Loudermilk had a tackle for a loss. Carolina’s running game went no where, and the line is a big reason for it. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt looked closer to his old self getting 1.5 sacks on critical downs, and getting to the quarterback on two other occasions. Alex Highsmith also had a sack and a forced fumble. Devin Bush had four tackles. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles, but was out of place on Terrace Marshall  that set up Carolina’s only touchdown. Grade: B

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles with 5 and overall had a strong game. Overall the secondary played well, but this was more of a “bend but don’t break” game for the Steelers. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in a 50 yard field goal that essentially iced the game for the Steelers. Pressley Harvin had a solid day while Steven Sims was above the line as a returner. Kick coverage did allow a long return. Grade: B-

Coaching
Functioning at its best, Matt Canada’s offense isn’t going to make many fantasy football owners happy. Which is just fine by me. What the win over the Panthers showed was that the formula of ball control combined with touchdowns can be downright lethal.

If the Panthers did move the ball a little too easily at times against Teryl Austin’s defense, the Steelers completely neutralized the Panther’s rushing attack forcing them to try to beat them with Sam Darnold, at task which Darnold wasn’t up to.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The loss to the Ravens could have crushed his team. At the very least it appeared to expose the run defense as their soft underbelly. Yet Mike Tomlin opened the game by daring Carolina to run on him and challenging his defense to stop them.

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Panthers

Thanks to George Pickens’ block, Steven Sims runs for 22 yards on 3rd and 1. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Panthers tried. The Steelers stopped them. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
His 38 yard reception converted a third down and set up a touchdown. But it was his block that sprung Steven Sims free on a risky 3rd and 1 call that kept another TD drive makes George Pickens the Unsung Hero of the Steelers 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Falcons: Dark Tower Edition

From the gradebook of a teacher who is almost as pleased by the fact that he was able to work a Dark Tower reference into his analysis (see the link at the end) as he is about the Steelers back-to-back wins, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 road win over Atlanta.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 16 of 28 for 197 yards with one touchdown and for the fourth straight week – no interceptions. Steadily but surely, Pickett continues to improve. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 17 carries, followed by Benny Snell with 24 yards on 6 carries, Jaylen Warren with 15 yards on one carry and Derek Watt with 1 carry for 4 yards that converted a 3rd down. So the top 3 running backs plus the full backs get carries in consecutive games for the first time in memory. And the Steelers get their first consecutive wins of the season. Coincidence? I think not. Grade: A

Tight Ends
The stat sheet tells you with Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 76 yards on 5 targets and that Zach Gentry caught 1 for 8 yards on one target, and the Connor Heyward caught 1 pass on one target for 17 yards. Gentry’s catch set the Steelers up with a 2nd and 2 with 4:50 left in the game; teach of Freiermuth’s touchdowns converted a 3rd down, and Heyward scored the only touchdown. The Steelers tight ends showed just how much damage you can do with 5 catches. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the unit with 5 catches for 60 yards on 11 targets. But he dropped at least one critical catch and got gift call on a play that should have been a fumble. Steven Sims didn’t catch either of the passes thrown his way, but did look good on reverses. Gunner Olszewski had 2 reverses for 2 yards. George Pickens had one catch for two yards and made little secret of his unhappiness with getting targeted – this attitude must NOT continue. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was not sacked for the entire day and he only took 4 QB hits. Equally impressively, the Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage opening holes for the runners. This unit is coming along. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a difference making sack early in the game. Larry Ogunjobi decisively dropped Cordarrelle Patterson for a loss that forced a field goal. Expecting the pass the Steelers took Montravius Adams and the Falcons ran very well in the second half. The line shoulders some of that. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack led the unit with six tackles and Devin Bush and Robert Spillaine logging QB hits as pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith had quiet games. Grade: B-

Secondary
The Falcons were 3-10 on third downs. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit and the team in tackles, including one for a four yard loss that helped stall a drive, and of course he authored the interception that ended the game. The secondary did get a little squishy in the 2nd half, but went into “Bend but don’t Break” mode in the Red Zone. (Although Arthur Maulet should have been flagged for pass interference). Overall a strong afternoon for the secondary. Grade: B+

Special Teams
What a difference 1 week makes. Matthew Wright hit all four of his field goals and completely neutralized Cordarrelle Patterson on kick returns. Pressley Harvin did a spectacular job pinning the Falcons down, while Myles Boykin downed the ball deep Steven Sims shaky punt returns drops this grade, but special teams was a difference maker for the Steelers. Grade: A-

Coaching
Is it me or does Matt Canada’s play calling suddenly look smarter now that his rookie quarterback is maturing and his offensive line continues to jell? During the first half the Steelers executed their physical, ball control brand of offense to perfection outside of the 20s. They didn’t do quite as well in the 2nd half, but killed the clock when necessary.

  • Getting touchdowns instead of field goals and Red Zone performance must improve, but that should come.

One defense the Steelers completely unhinged the Falcons during the first half. During the second half the Falcons reverted to their roots, and ran the ball effectively. Some of that success likely can be laid to the feet of the Steelers moving away from their base defense.

Cam Sutton, Cameron Sutton, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Sutton keeps the Falcons from landing in the end zone. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review.

George Pickens temper tantrums are a cause for concern as is the coaches obvious attempt to pacify him with a cheap catch, which would only seek to encourage the temperamental rookie. With that said, it was the Steelers, and not the Falcons who were playing like a team 1/2 game out of first place, as Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to their road win since playing a road game on Monday Night Football. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of luck through the air. But they did take their shots down field. And although he’s only credited with one pass defense, Cam Sutton played a huge role in keeping the Falcons from landing in the end zone on more than one occasion and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over Atlanta.

 

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Stack ’em: Steelers Beat Falcons 19-16 as They “Remember the Faces of Their Fathers”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 19-16 at Georgia’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The win came in their second road game on a Monday Night Football shortened week giving them their first consecutive victories of the 2022 season.

  • Just how and why were the Steelers able to accomplish this modest yet important milestone?

The Steelers won in Atlanta because, to borrow the words of Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, “They remembered the faces of their fathers.”

Connor Heyward, Connor Heyward 1st touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Connor Heyward scores his first touchdown. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Remember the Faces of Their Fathers

Roland Deschain is the Dark Tower’s protagonist acting as a sort of mythical knight in the form of an old Western gunslinger (Clint Eastwood’s character in Pale Rider is a good metaphor). A fully summary of an 8 book a 4,250 pages’ series is impossible here, but whenever Roland implores something critical to his katet or posse, he does so by reminding them to “Remember the face of your father.”

Roland Deschain

Roland Deschain

“Remembering the face of your father” serves as a fitting motif for a game that saw Cam and Connor Heyward step with big plays in honor of their father, the late great Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, but that’s part of the motive driving this motif.

After the Steelers 2009 season, Art Rooney II called out his team’s inability to rely on the run in critical situations, describing rushing the football as one of the franchise’s foundations.

A week ago, the Steelers defeated the Colts because they were able to lean on backfield depth after losing their top two backs to injury.

And both players played well. But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada didn’t hesitate to rotate in Benny Snell when necessary. They even continued to rely on Derek Watt who converted yet again in short yardage situations.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Falcons

Najee Harris looked like a first round pick vs Falcons. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Najee Harris’ 86 yards on 17 carries were impressive as were Benny Snell’s 24 yards on 6 carries. Jaylen Warren’s 5 yard carry was more economical, but it converted a third down on a field goal drive.

  • Statistics paint an incomplete picture, however.

The Steelers running backs hit holes with authority and ran decisively. On several occasions Najee Harris stiff armed his way to additional yards and as a group, the Steelers running backs forced piles to fall forward.

Pittsburgh’s running game wasn’t perfect. Matthew Wright’s 4 field goals show that the Steelers are still struggling in the Red Zone, but by relying on an effective running game, the Steelers gave themselves a chance to win.

Pickett Continues to Progress

Even since Mitch Trubisky came off the bench and sealed the win over Tampa Bay, plenty of outsiders have called on Mike Tomlin to bench Pickett and allow the rookie to learn from the sidelines.

After the Philadelphia disaster, Bill Cowher suggested Tomlin was putting Pickett’s confidence in jeopardy. Following the beating from the Bengals, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed to other rookies who’ve been shown the bench around the league suggesting the Steelers follow suit.

  • But Mike Tomlin has kept his own counsel and during these last two weeks we’re seeing why.

A week ago, Kenny Pickett stepped up and put a tough throw trhough a tight window to George Pickens on third down in what would be the game winning touchdown drive. Against the Falcons Kenny Pickett hit Pat Freiermuth 3 times on third down, converting each one.

And with Pittsburgh holding a 3 point lead and sitting on 5 minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers alternated effective running with passes to Zach Gentry and Diontae Johnson, both of which converted third downs.

  • Beyond that, Pickett’s game-IQ continues to improve.

This goes beyond not throwing an interception.  He’s also tucked and run with it when it’s been wise to do so and otherwise thrown it away rather than force a dangerous pass.

And as the read he made on Connor Heyward’s touchdown catch shows, Pickett is doing far more than just driving without denting the back bumper.

Defense Dominates, Slips, Then Stiffens

Taking a 16-6 lead into half time isn’t normally an occasion for saying that the leading team is stomping on its opponent, but that was indeed the case with the Steelers defense in the first half.

Cam Hewyward, Marcus Mariota, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

There weren’t a lot of fireworks, save for Cam Heyward’s sack of Marcus Mariota, but the Falcons could get nothing going. Indeed, had the Steelers been able to trade one of Matthew Wright’s field goals into touchdowns, they very well may have put the game away at the half.

  • But in the 2nd half it was time for the Falcons to remember something.

They remembered that they had the trio of Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley who could run the ball. And Atlanta began letting them run the ball, daring the Steelers to stop them.

  • For much of the 2nd half, the Steelers struggled to do that.

As Atlanta played Smash Mouth football to work its way down to the Steelers 10 yard line with 7 minutes left to go, it looked like the lead to this article was going to be that the Steelers had forgotten the faces of their fathers.

But thanks to stout play by the two Cams, Cam Heyward and Cam Sutton, the Steelers defense forced a field goal. But two more players were to step up before this was over.

Harvin Hits It on a Dime, Setting Up some Minkah Magic

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Chargers 2015

Cam Heyward honoring his father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward on MNF. Photo Credit: Twitter

After forcing a field goal the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away, but thanks to the smart play by Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris and Benny Snell mentioned above, they burned off four minutes and 45 seconds off of the clock – including all of Atlanta’s time outs.

  • Pressley Harvin boomed off a 38 yard punt that Myles Bokin downed at Atlanta’s 2.

Marcus Mariota had 42 seconds to get the Falcons into field goal range with no timeouts. He wasted little time in taking a deep shot to Drake London and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasted even less time in jumping the route, intercepting his pass and returning in 16 yards before running out of bounds.

With the game on the line, Harvin and Fitzpatrick made big, smart plays – truly remembering the faces of their fathers.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Colts: Going Old School Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher pleased as punch to see his students go “Old School” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for win over the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Arthur Maulet, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Colts

Arthur Maulet sacks Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett authored his first comeback win by going 20 of 28 for 174 yards and no interceptions. Pickett is making progress, but still needs to perform better on third downs and in the Red Zone. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris was off to a solid start with 35 yards on 10 runs and a touchdown before getting hurt. Benny Snell stepped in and reminded everyone of why he was on the team with 62 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland, looking like he belonged in the NFL for the first time, had 30 yards on six carries plus 2 catches for 11. Derek Watt converted a fourth down with a 4 yard run. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches for 39 yards while Zach Gentry had one catch for 4 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
George Pickens made some nice catches and is developing a rapport with Pickett, but he still made some rookie mistakes. Diontae Johnson continues to disappoint. He had 5 catches but didn’t bring in a catchable ball in the end zone and ran backwards on a play where he could have gotten a first down. Steven Sims had 2 catches for 9 yards while Gunner Olszewski ran a reverse for 9. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett had better protection than he’s had of late, but still got sacked on a few critical third downs. But protection improved as the game wore on and The run blocking continues to improve. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Larry Ogunjobi led the team in tackles while Montravius Adams came in second with three with Cam Heyward getting three hits on Matt Ryan. The Steelers contained Jonathan Taylor well enough and that started with the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and came up with a critical pass defense. Myles Jack came in second, and T.J. Watt had a quiet night, but did help deflect a pass. Alex Highsmith had the play of the night when he strip sacked Matt Ryan during the two minute drill, costing the Colts precious time. Grade: B

Secondary
James Pierre made an excellent interception to help set the tone for the night. Terrell Edmunds made a sack in the first quarter and Arthur Maulet logged one in the 4th. Outside of the pass he defensed Cam Sutton had a quiet night which was good for a cornerback. The Colts went 3-12 on third downs. Grade: B

Isaiah Rodgers, Matthew Wright, Steelers vs. Colts

Matthew Wright helps tackle Isaiah Rodgers. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams

You know things are bad when the special teams section features a photo of a kicker making a tackle on a kick return that wasn’t the worst one of the night. Yet, that’s what happened. The Steelers gave up two a 45 yard return to Isaiah Rodgers that should have set up a score and an 89 yard one to Dallis Flowers that not only set up a score, but let Indianapolis.

Yes, the Steelers had a blocked field goal. Yes, Presley Harvin boomed off two punts of over 50 yards, the second of which pinned the Colts at the 7 to start their final drive. And Matthew Wright made all of his kicks. So that keeps this unit’s grade in passing territory. Barely. Grade: D

Coaching
While many if not most fans can’t or won’t see it, Matt Canada’s offense continues to improve. Yes, the Steelers still seldom pass deep, although it is clear there are down the field options. Yes, there are puzzling play calling decisions – such as the screen ton Gentry, but it is also clear that there are execution errors. And offensive penalties are down.

On defense Terryl Austin’s unit limited the Colts to on first half field goal and to two touchdowns in the second half. Is this unit dominating at the level one would expect it to given its star power? No, it isn’t.

  • But the defense continues to give the offense chances to win.

The Steelers entered the game 3-7. But if you look at the intensity that reserves Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell played with, you’d have thought Pittsburgh was contending for a playoff bye week. That’s the environment Mike Tomlin has established to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that fumble recoveries come down to luck. And a lot of times that’s true – sometimes the ball just bounces or doesn’t bounce, your way. But even when the bounce doesn’t come your way, a heads up player can turn a lose ball into an opportunity. So after the Colts had held the ball for nearly 8 minutes and gone 87 yards they looked poised to score again. But Matt Ryan could get the handoff right, the ball came out. He tried to dive on it, but Chris Wormley out muscled him and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 MNF win over the Colts.

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Steelers Report Card for ’22 Loss to Bengals @ Acrisure: 1 Step Forward 2 Steps Back Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but feel he just saw his students follow 1 step forward with 2 steps back, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Eli Apple, George Pickens, Steelers vs Bengals

Eli Apple deflects a pass aimed at George Pickens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett protected the ball and looked sharp enough on three first half scoring drives. But he was utterly ineffective in the second half, save for some garbage time glory. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran 20 times for 90 yards including a touchdown and added 4 catches for 26 yards. Jaylen Warren converted a third down with a 9 yard catch before leaving with a hamstring injury. Solid night from the running backs, but the Steelers needed a little more. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 8 catches for 79 yards including a tough one over the middle. He also had a drop and a holding call on a drive that saw the Steelers reach 3 and 25. Zach Gentry had 2 catches for 8 yards and frankly doesn’t look as promising as a number 2 tight end as he did a year ago. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 4 catches for 83 yards including a 33 yarder and a 24 yard touchdown. He also had a drop. Diontae Johnson had 4 catches for 21 yards and looked nothing like a number 1 wide out. He had 1 yard on a jet sweep. Steven Sims didn’t have a catch, and lost 3 yards on his reverse. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Run blocking was OK and while Kenny Pickett was only sacked twice, the Bengals hit him seven times. Pickett has been taking too much punishment of late. Grade: D

Kenny Pickett, Cam Sample, Steelers vs Bengals

Pickett is taking too much punishment. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
The good news? The Steelers pretty much neutralized the Bengals running game. The bad news, Cincinnati didn’t need to run much. Cam Heyward had a sack and Montravius Adams had a nice stuff for a loss, but the Steelers needed more upfront. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had half a sack, intercepted a pass and got his hands on two more. Alex Highsmith also had half a sack. Individually the stats of the rest of the linebacking crops look good, with Myles Jack leading the team in tackles, Devin Bush coming in second, and with Robert Spillane logging a tackle for a loss and a deflected pass. But Joe Burrow moved the ball with ease, often in the middle of the field and was untouched for too many series. The linebackers also came up short in the Red Zone. Grade: D

Secondary
The Bengals were only 3 for 9 on third down. That’s in large part because they had 18 passing first downs. Arthur Maulet led the unit in tackles and Levi Wallace had a nice interception, but Joe Burrow threw 4 touchdown passes and led 3 other scoring drives. Grade: F

Special Teams
Steven Simms muffed a punt that help pin the Steelers back. That must not continue. Simms however was effective as a kick returner. The Steelers kick coverage gave up a long return which set up a Bengals score. Pressley Harvin had a solid night punting, while Matthew Wright redeemed himself kicking 3 field goals and making all of his extra point attempts. Grade: B

Coaching
During the first half Matt Canada’s offense was effective, scoring two touchdowns and running an efficient 2 minute drill. The second half told a different tale as the Steelers offense punted 5 times, turned over on downs once and could only muster a measly field goal after a turnover.

To be fair to Canada, there were obvious execution errors – he didn’t commit the penalties to push the Steelers back to 3rd and 25.

  • Still, some of his play calls were head scratchers.

Teryl Austin has a different problem. He’s got championship talent on his defense. His defense delivered several splash plays late in the 2nd half and during the 3rd quarter when they could have been difference makers.

But its too simplistic to say, “The defense did enough to win and didn’t get the help it needed from the offense.” The Bengals moved up and down the field with relative ease on all four of their touchdown drives. And the defense was horrendous in the Red Zone.

  • You simply do not win games in the NFL when you let that happen.
Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Bengals

Gunner Olszewski catches a batted ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Against the Bengals, the Steelers showed they are capable of playing wining football against varsity opponents. Mike Tomlin must find a way to make that happen consistently. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
While it’s hard to laud garbage time glory as heroics, this player made a heads up catch on a batted ball at the goal line that set up a face-saving touchdown, and for that Gunner Olszewski wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 loss to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Saints: Glass Half Full Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sees his students’ glass as half full, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card from the 2022 win over at Acrisure over the Saints.

Arthur Maulet, Chris Olave, Steelers vs Saints 2022

Arthur Maulet breaks up a pass for Crhis Olave. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 18 of 30 for 199 yards with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no interceptions. Pickett still looks like a rookie. He’s not seeing open receivers and his accuracy was off at times. Still, the Steelers converted 9 of 17 third downs. More importantly he got better as the game moved on. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers had their highest rushing totals since December 2016 when Le’Veon Bell broke the franchise rushing record. This time it was a team effort, with Najee Harris having his best day of the year, logging 99 yards while Jaylen Warren adding 37 more, the bulk of which came during when it was needed to kill the clock. Derek Watt had 2 runs for 5 yards, both of which converted 3rd and 4th downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 36 yards, but that stat doesn’t do justice to the one handed catch he made of a ball that Kenny Pickett gunned at him. Zach Gentry had one pass thrown his way which was deflected. Connor Heyward had two catches for 9 yards. Grade: B –

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 36 yards including a 36 yarder. George Pickens added 3 for 32 yards, but also contributed with a 22 yard end around. Gunner Olszewski had 1 catch for 4 yards, while Steven Sims and 1 catch for 15 yards and 2 carries for 2 yards, the second of which converted a third down on the final, clock killing drive. Grade: B –

Offensive Line
On the plus side, the offensive line’s progress in run blocking continued. While no one would mistake their efforts for Road Grading, Steelers running backs did have holes to run in. However, pass protection was weak, as Pickett suffered 6 more sacks. Not all of those are the line’s fault, but protection must improve. Grade: C

Defensive Line
No where to run. The Saints totaled 29 yards rushing. Or 7 less that Najee Harris’ longest run. Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams stat sheets won’t make any fantasy football owners happy. But measure in Reality Football this group played well. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt only had 4 tackles and one QB hit, but his presence was felt throughout, whether it was stopping guys at the line of scrimmage, snuffing out QB scrambles or drawing double teams…. And those double teams helped Alex Highsmith, who had two sacks, including a strip sack that helped end New Orleans final possession. Devin Bush quietly had another good game. Grade: A

Secondary
Wow. What a difference interceptions make. Damontae Kazee’s 4th quarter interception set up the Steelers final touchdown while Levi Wallace ended the Saints final possession. Arthur Maulet’s stat line reads 3 tackles 2 solos and 1 pass defensed. Nice, but it doesn’t do justice to the incredible play he made. The Saints were 3-12 on 3rd downs. Giving up a TD on a two minute drive brings this group’s grade down. A smidge. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Pressley Harvin punted 3 times, nailing the ball into the 20 twice and none of his punts were returnable. The Steelers kick coverage was sound, and Steven Simms looked good in his lone kick return.

Matthew Wright, however, missed two of his field goals and his kickoffs were short. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers entered the bye week as a 2-6 team that had gotten its tail kicked be a Super Bowl favorite. They exited it looking like a team that used its week off to get “back to basics.”

  • Tackles were crisp. Assignments were smart. Run blocking was physical. Penalties were minimized.

Matt Canada’s offense finally looked like an winning offense. Yes, the Red Zone remains an issue and a tendency to rely on trick plays is forming. But they scored twice at the goal line through smart execution.

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Teryl Austin’s defense put on the most complete performance of the season. Were it not for the late 2nd half hiccup, there’s a strong chance the Saints never see the end zone.

Through it all, Mike Tomlin has kept his eye on establishing sound fundamentals, and that focus paid off. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
This player led the team in tackles, the first two of which went for third down stops. He also made several other stops for no gain, with the biggest coming against Andy Dalton on 4th down with 7:47 left to play and for that Robert Spillane is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Saints.

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