Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
What did we learn in the Week 9 slug-out? Let’s let the participants tell us.
A little ugly?
A little maddening?
That’s becoming the check-list for the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s how the participants (and some commentators) told that story:
“I’m not trying to take any shots, anybody, but if you didn’t know who America’s team was, you should’ve seen the stands. All The Terrible Towels, Dallas may be America’s team. But we’ll be the world’s team.”
You’ve probably seen the punch line, about being the world’s team, already. But I like the larger context: “you’ve seen the stands.” Yup. During election coverage, I noticed an exchange between NBC’s Alison Morris and a correspondent in Allegheny County, when the correspondent noted that the Steelers were buying meals for poll workers and vote counters in Pittsburgh. Morris smirked a little and applauded the correspondent for having the strength to report on that, even though she was from Ohio. Then she grinned and said, “as a Steelers fan, I’m not sure if I’d have reported it if it was the Browns.”
(Post-script: it’s a joke in my family that my dad, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Ohio, gets stopped every time he goes out of the house in a Steelers hat, with a: “hey, go Steelers.” We laughed about that when I lived in Missouri a couple years ago, and then it happened at the grocery store. Then, at another store Sunday morning, this time in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I saw a guy in a JuJu jersey. I’ve lived here for a year and a half, and never seen Lions, Bears, or Colts gear. But now I’ve seen the Steelers…)
“We’re the Pittsburgh Steelers, everybody knows what that means. We get everybody’s best punch, regardless of record. I think people respect our brand and they respect our franchise and its history. That’s been my experience over 14 years here.”
— Mike Tomlin
This is kind of an extension of the last quote, but I’ve added it as a way to note that Tomlin is now assured of his 14th consecutive season at .500 or better — which ties the NFL record, held by Marty Schottenheimer (Bill Cowher’s mentor). And speaking of Cowher, if the Steelers go undefeated this year (still a reasonable possibility) he’ll tie Cowher with 149 career regular season victory, in one fewer season. Cowher, as most of us know, was just elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While we’re on the subject, Ben Roethlisberger is now also assured of his 17th consecutive Steelers squad at .500 or better — an NFL record for a career. (And before you point to Tom Brady and Payton Manning, Manning’s Colts went 3-13 and Brady’s Patriots went 5-11 in their respective rookie campaigns. Rookie Ben’s Steelers went 15-1.)
The Steelers have been good for a long long time. We’re lucky in these parts.
“I will say this as long as you listen… The best team to be is the team that plays the Ravens or Steelers the week after they played each other!!”
I will say this as long as you listen… The best team to be is the team that plays the Ravens or Steelers the week after they played each other!!
— Ryan Clark (@Realrclark25) November 8, 2020
A little rejoinder from last week, when Clark and Bart Scott agreed that the Steelers/Ravens was more than a rivalry: it’s a war. I’ve included it because both the Steelers and Ravens began this week looking rough. Pittsburgh trailed Dallas by four at halftime; Baltimore trailed Indianapolis by three. Both teams came back and won, but they needed to work out some kinks on the way.
I should add, I noticed during the Saints’ late-game dismantling of the flavor-of-the-week Buccaneers, that Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth marveled that this was the first ever season-sweep of Tom Brady’s career. Some fans undoubtedly want to attribute that to Brady’s dominance; the way I see it, that stat is a reminder of how easy the Patriots always had it in the miserable AFC East, while the Steelers were battling with the Ravens (and often Bengals) in the black-and-blue AFC North.
“I wish that I played better early in the games and that we were up, and we didn’t have to [come back]. But… as long as we win, I’ll take it.”
— Ben Roethlisberger
“Thankfully we’ve got a group that sticks together, that’s mentally tough… [But] we can’t keep having these conversations every week because one of these weeks we’ll be doing it with an ‘L’…”
— Mike Tomlin
It’s useful to admit that this was an ugly game – a frustrating game, a sloppy game. But these guys keep doing whatever it takes. After a three-game gauntlet of Browns (4-1), Titans (5-0), and Ravens (5-1), they were due for an emotional let-down. This was especially true since the Cowboys were playing with house money – those trick plays, like the punt-return-lateral prove that. A team with nothing to lose is a dangerous team. A team at home with nothing to lose is especially dangerous, particularly against an exhausted opponent.
The Steelers proved mentally tough, like Tomlin asserted, and, like Ben says, I’ll take it. But hopefully the home-stand against Cincinnati this week will be an opportunity to refocus and get back to basics. Patrick Walker, at CBS Sports, wrote, “It was ugly for the Steelers for much of the first half, in all three phases of the game, but credit them for remember who they are.” Hopefully this will be a bounce, and the team can keep in mind “who they are” going forward.
“Claypool was somewhat held on that play… heh, somewhat tackled really…”
Apparently I’m not the only one that thought Claypool got mugged twice with no call in the first half. That said, I’ve started to notice that the Steelers seem to have two modes: 2-yard pass or 60 yard pass. The Cowboys kept connecting on 8-yarders, and moving the sticks. 2nd and 2 puts the pressure on the defense; 2nd and 9 does not. The Steelers seemed to keep the pressure on themselves with that strategy.
(Side note: the Cowboys had the worst rush defense in the NFL coming in. Before that final run-out-the-clock series, the Steelers had run the ball 14 times, and one of those was a Roethlisberger scramble. 46 pass plays and 13 run plays. Against the worst rush D in football. What? Steelers runners didn’t look great Sunday, but the only memorable rushes were 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 – which is not a great measure of your rushing offense. I guess I always support putting the game in Big Ben’s hands, but this was some bad scheming.)
“Pollard now with his second 20 yard gain of the game”
— Jim Nance, in the Cowboys’ opening drive of the third quarter
The Steelers defense has begun to feel, to me, a little too “feast or famine.” That is, they either demolish you, or they get scorched. A single 74 yard touchdown against Philadelphia was one thing. But following that up with a 75 yard pass against Tennessee, seven plays of over 20 yards against Baltimore (seriously, seven), and now five more against Dallas – that’s a problem.
Worse, these plays seem to come at crucial times. And again, it’s feast or famine. The Steelers are getting really good at snatching takeaways from inside the 5, or breaking up passes on the final play of the game, but you can’t live that way. More importantly, they are giving up conversions on 3rd and long at an alarming rate. Minkah Fitzpatrick noted that Dallas, “schemed it up very well, getting linebackers in coverage… but besides that, it’s really just possession downs.” Yeah, but those are really important downs, man.
I get it that Mike McCArthy is a Super Bowl winning coach and Ezekiel Elliott is an outstanding runner (Steelers fans don’t need to be reminded of either of those facts), and like I said a couple weeks ago, the other guys get paychecks too. But if this defense is as good as billed, they’ll get the offensive splash plays under control fast. Otherwise, the Saints, Bills, and Chiefs offenses that I watched on Sunday will eat their lunch.
“It’s hard to find a more impactful trade acquisition over the past decade”
Gary Gramling in SI.com, about Minkah Fitzpatrick
Speaking of Minkah… This was the second consecutive game that the Steelers All Pro free safety saved for the Steelers in dramatic fashion. Lots of fans were nervous about his lack of splash plays in the early part of the season. Well, whatever was going on back then seems to be resolved. Not only is he becoming a turnover machine again, but his tackling has been excellent lately. (Frankly, the whole secondary is getting better in that regard. Joe Haden deserves a shout-out for a potentially game-saving one-on-one tackle of Elliott Sunday.)
As a quick contrast, Grant Gordon, on NFL.com, had this to say about a certain former Steeler: “Antonio Brown was back on Sunday, had three catches for 31 yards and made as much impact on the Buccaneers offense as anyone, which is to say none.” I noticed that Brady was intercepted on one pass to Brown, and nearly intercepted on a second. Welcome to the Antonio Brown experience, Tom.
“I bet the Steeler’s [sic] rue the decision to cut Dan McCuller’s [sic] with all of the injury’s [sic] on the defensive line.”
— commenter “intellectualpenury” on Pro Football Talk, Sunday night
As we knock coaches or players (which I’ve done here and elsewhere) it’s sometimes useful to remind ourselves that fans don’t always know what they’re talking about. “intellectual”? Sure, buddy. I enjoyed your (let’s call it) “creative” use of apostrophes.
P.S. speaking of the D-Line, another quick shout-out is in order, this one to Cameron Heyward, for the bull rush of the century in the fourth quarter. Goodness.
Two notes about special teams:
“Man, we had struggled so much with our field goal group early in the game, I didn’t feel good about it… I had just seen enough of their dominance in [special] teams.”
Mike Tomlin on the decision to not kick the field goal in the game’s final minute
“[The false start] was just another example when we weren’t on the nuts and bolts of it from a special teams standpoint. [The Cowboys] do that shift trying to get you to jump all the time. We worked on it and we failed in that instance.”
— Mike Tomlin on the penalty that pushed Chris Boswell’s field goal backward to a team record 59 yards
A reminder that sometimes you can coach the hell out of something, and the players still screw it up…
(P.S. quick shout-out to Chris Boswell. 59 yards is no joke. And he’d just missed a 54 yarder, and a PAT. That’s some focus, especially with the Cowboys leaping over the line right in his face all day. The missed PAT wasn’t cool, but otherwise, he was outstanding. The blocked PAT wasn’t his fault, the 59 yarder was epic, and he had a beautiful coffin corner kickoff that the coverage teams blew — and watch the highlights: Bos was ultimately in on the tackle. I know he lost some fans during his 2018 slump, but that’s my kicker. Kudos.)
“Part of the game of football. Guys get hit all the time… I’ll be fine.”
— Ben Roethlisberger
Back in his Backyard-Superman days, it used to be said that the play didn’t start until Ben had been hit at least once. Today, his lightning quick release has rendered that phenomenon obsolete. But Ben’s Rocky Balboa impression is still alive – getting kicked around for 11 rounds, and then suddenly going Tazmanian Devil.
As NFL.com wrote after the game, “We’re not saying an injury made Ben Roethlisberger play better Sunday, but there’s no doubt the former preceded the latter.” This wasn’t wrong. Here are Ben’s numbers before and after his knee got popped:
Before: 10-15, 70 yards (4.67ypa), 0 TDs, 0 INTs. 77.1 passer rating.
After: 19-27, 236 yards (8.74ypa), 3 TDs, 0 INTs. 134.2 passer rating.
It’s hard to identify what else changed after that hit, except that Ben got focused and perhaps his teammates got mad (after all, the defense’s first takeaway happened right after Ben’s hit as well). But in any case, with a fully-healthy Ben, the Steelers were outscored 0-13. With a limping Ben, they thumped the Cowboys 24-6. This season just keeps getting stranger and stranger…
“I think [going with an up-tempo 5-wide offense is] something that we can do early in the game and use to our advantage, instead of pulling it out in the second half… Ben draws plays in the dirt. It’s something… they can’t stop, because Ben knows what he wants.”
Last year, I wrote a column about how Randy Fichtner is not a bad play-caller in-game, but that he plans a terrible first quarter. I pointed at Fichtner because we can be pretty sure that Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges weren’t “drawing up plays in the sand.” But even with Ben, this team seems to come out with cement-overshoes. It’s hard to figure out – they dominated Tennessee from the opening gun two weeks ago, but have started in idle against Baltimore and Dallas. Again, I don’t want to kill them for the Dallas game, which was bound to be a let-down. But I’d like to see some more creativity in play selection. And not just in terms of jet-sweeps and screens. I’d like to see the Steelers put their opponents on their heels from the start.
JuJu is playing like Hines Ward the last few weeks, so I’m glad to be able to shout-out to him in this column too, but it’s also important that he’s a veteran now – the oldest man in the wide receiver room. If he’s noticing this stuff, hopefully it’s getting to the coaches’ ears. Fingers crossed.
“List of undefeated NFL teams
— Sunday Night Football twitter account
List of undefeated NFL teams:
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) November 9, 2020
“Raise your hand if your team is undefeated!”
Raise your hand if your team is undefeated! ♂️ ♂️ ♂️
— Chris Wormley (@Chris_Wormley43) November 9, 2020
Provided without comment. Go Steelers.