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Steelers 28, Bengals 21: Antonio Brown provides finishing touch

It was getting to be time to ban all WiFi references involving Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. That whole theme had kind of been beaten to the ground. CBS even did a graphic on it, for crying out loud.

But then with 10 seconds left in the Steelers’ game at Cincinnati on Sunday, Roethlisberger’s game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass to Brown happened.

That, well, that connection and Roethlisberger’s 2-point conversion pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster gave the Steelers a 28-21 win over the Bengals.

All right, so let’s play along.

How’s this:

Never mind WiFi, Roethlisberger and Brown had a WiMAX connection on that play.

WiMAX is basically WiFi with citywide connectivity.

Or something.

Anyway, if we butchered that definition, then we weren’t doing any worse than the Steelers before Brown capped that drive.

The Bengals had taken a 21-20 lead with 1:18 left. Roethlisberger completed an 8-yard pass to Smith-Schuster to begin the ensuing possession, but the Steelers took 25 seconds to run their next play. They faced third-and-10 at their own 41 with 29 seconds left, and it would have been fourth down if the Bengals hadn’t shown once again that no matter how inept the Steelers may be at the time, they can do worse.

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Steelers 41, Falcons 17: T.J. Watt must keep leading defense

The Steelers have taken a defensive player in the first round of the draft six years in a row and counting. Before 2013, their longest string of first-round defensive draft picks had been two years.

That draft strategy hadn’t exactly paid off through the first four weeks of the 2018 season. Part of the problem is that only two of those six selections have made a significant impact.

One of them is Ryan Shazier, and we all know that losing him has been a big blow. The Steelers need someone else to become the heart of the defense.

There’s no open audition to fill that need. There’s one guy who has shown he can do it. He’s the only other one of those six first-rounders (Terrell Edmunds gets a pass, too early to judge him) who isn’t a bust candidate, even if he had been barely visible over the last three weeks.

T.J. Watt had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Falcons at Heinz Field. He also led the team with eight tackles, including six solo tackles, according to ESPN.com.

Watt put up similar game-wrecking numbers the only other time this season that the Steelers defense has looked respectable. He had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and 10 tackles (not to mention the tie-salvaging blocked field goal) in the 21-21 Week 1 stalemate at Cleveland.

In the three games in between, Watt totaled three quarterback hits, 10 tackles and no sacks.

The Steelers took Watt in the first round of the 2017 draft, and he seemed destined for stardom after a two-sack game with an interception in a Week 1 win at Cleveland. He plateaued as the season went on even if it was still a thumbs-up rookie campaign with seven sacks.

Take away Week 1 games in Cleveland, however, and Watt entered Sunday with five sacks in his first 19 career games.

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Ravens 26, Steelers 14: Defense fails early, Roethlisberger falters late

How bad is the Steelers’ defense?

It’s reached the point where all it takes to beat the Steelers is an adequate starting quarterback.

The Steelers fell to Joe Flacco and the Ravens 26-14 Sunday night at Heinz Field, falling to 1-2-1.

Flacco is the last career starter that the Steelers defeated, and even then they gave up 38 points in a 39-38 Week 14 win last season.

Since then the only quarterbacks the Steelers have beaten are T.J. Yates, DeShone Kizer and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick likely lost his starting job Sunday during the Buccaneers’ 48-10 loss to the Bears. Remember when the Steelers and Browns played to a tie while Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers were upsetting the Saints in Week 1? All of a sudden the Steelers’ Week 3 game at Tampa Bay looked a lot tougher.

Well, the Steelers won that game, but it remains their only win and it proves very little considering what transpired in Chicago on Sunday.

Since Week 15 last season, the Steelers have failed to beat Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Patrick Mahomes and Flacco. The talent level among that group varies widely, but what ties them together is that they all have held down starting positions in the NFL at one time or another.

It doesn’t take an elite quarterback to solve the Steelers’ defense these days. All it takes is a competent one.

And the only reason the Steelers managed to beat Flacco in Week 14 last year is that Ben Roethlisberger was better.

He wasn’t better than Flacco on Sunday.

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Steelers’ first win of 2018 is collection of breakout games

The Steelers no longer are among the huddled masses of the NFL’s winless teams after their 30-27 win at Tampa Bay Monday night. They stay out of the AFC North basement, they have a better record than the Patriots and we will not have to re-live the horror of 2013’s 0-4 start.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Steelers (1-1-1) will have to win at least eight more games to make the playoffs, and they needed every fiber of their being to get that win Monday night. They almost blew a 20-point lead for the first time in franchise history. They allowed 455 yards on defense. They committed 13 penalties and Chris Boswell missed an extra point and a 47-yard field goal attempt.

Do the Steelers really have what it takes to pull this off eight, nine or 10 more times?

They just might if certain players can reproduce their breakout performances.

Like Vance McDonald.

The tight end caught four passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Those 112 yards matched the career high he set in the playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Most of those yards, however, came in garbage time. McDonald’s yardage last night packed a lot more punch.

Almost literally.

If the Steelers do win more games this season, McDonald’s stiff arm could turn out to be the defining moment that turned the season around.

The Steelers trailed 7-0 in the first quarter and weren’t looking a whole lot better than they looked in the opening minutes of their Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. They already had committed two penalties. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception and nearly fumbled a snap. The Steelers faced a third-and-10 at their own 25 when Roethlisberger completed a pass to McDonald near midfield and McDonald stiff-armed Bucs’ safety Chris Conte to the ground and rambled into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.

McDonald caught just 14 passes for the Steelers last season after he was acquired in a trade from the 49ers. He’s never caught more than 30 passes in a season, but on Monday night he actually looked like an athletic tight end. If he keeps that up he has a real shot at being a legitimate threat to opposing defenses.

He caught another third-down pass for 12 yards to set up Boswell’s 36-yard field goal that gave the Steelers a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.

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Steelers can’t overcome another slow start at home, fall to Chiefs

When did the Steelers start thinking that they could just roll out of bed and win games at home?

The Steelers lost their second straight game at Heinz Field Sunday going back to last year’s AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 42-37. In this defeat and in the aforementioned 45-42 loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers started the game as if they were still in their pajamas.

The Chiefs became the second team in history to score 21 first-quarter points on the Steelers in Pittsburgh, jumping out to a 21-0 lead less than 13 minutes into the game. The Jaguars nearly hung 21 on the Steelers in the first quarter in January, taking a 21-0 lead less than four minutes into the second quarter.

Visiting teams are scoring 21 points before the Heinz Field public address announcer has a chance to say that patrons must be 21 to purchase alcohol.

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Tie looks better on Browns than it does on Steelers

Perhaps you’ve heard a million or so times that the Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969.

Well now, they’ve had three ties during that same time period after playing to a 21-21 stalemate with the Browns in Sunday’s 2018 season opener at Cleveland.

Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher both have one tie on their resumés, and now Mike Tomlin can put himself in the same class as those coaching legends.

He must be thrilled.

Rare as they are, when ties do happen they leave us wondering how we’re supposed to feel. It’s not a win. It’s not a loss. It’s quite literally something in between.

In this case, it’s a lot closer to a loss for the Steelers and it’s a lot closer to a win for the Browns. Read the rest of this entry »

Predicting each game of the Steelers’ 2018 season

Let the real games begin.

Not that there isn’t value in NFL preseason games. After all, if you watched the Steelers’ 39-24 win over the Panthers in Thursday’s preseason finale, you saw Shawn Hochuli, son of retired referee Ed Hochuli, officiating the game. You can rest assured knowing that even though Ed Hochuli’s theatrics are a thing of the past, there still will be a Hochuli wearing stripes in 2018.

But how will the Steelers do in 2018? It’s time once again for everyone’s favorite game, the Win-Loss-Win-Loss game.

This Steelers blog predicted a 12-4 record, a No. 2 seed and a four-point divisional-round loss at this time last year.

Ignore the rest of this article at your own risk.

Week 1

Sept. 9: at Cleveland

This is not a guaranteed win. Remember the Steelers beat the 0-16 Browns by just three points in Week 1 last year. This will be the first time Ben Roethlisberger and Myles Garrett play in the same game, and that should concern Steelers fans. Last year’s top overall draft pick looks ready to make a big leap this season. But Roethlisberger and the Steelers will escape the Dawg Pound with a hard-earned win.

Steelers, 10-6 (1-0)

Week 2

Sept. 16: Kansas City

It’s no secret that the Steelers will have to get past the Patriots and probably the Jaguars if they want to get to the Super Bowl. Well, the Steelers have been just as much of a hurdle for the Chiefs as those teams have been for the Steelers. The Steelers beat the Chiefs 18-16 in the 2016 playoffs and handed them their first loss at Kansas City last year, 19-13. Is Patrick Mahomes the answer? Well, not in this game.

Steelers, 17-14 (2-0)

Week 3

Sept. 24: at Tampa Bay

The Buccaneers won’t have Jameis Winston, who’s suspended for three games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s biggest strength is looking like Jason Sudeikis. This situation seems ripe for one of the Steelers’ trademark losses to an inferior opponent, but those losses don’t tend to happen on Monday Night Football. The Steelers win a franchise-record seventh straight Monday-night game.

Steelers, 38-7 (3-0)

Week 4

Sept. 30: Baltimore

In this scenario, the Steelers are 3-0 for the first time since 2010, and just like 2010 they win at Tampa Bay in Week 3 and host the Ravens in Week 4. The Ravens foiled the Steelers’ first 4-0 start since 1979 with a 17-14 win at Heinz Field in 2010. Not this time. The Steelers’ defense will go through growing pains in a post-Ryan Shazier world, but Michael Crabtree and John Brown won’t scare their improved secondary on Sunday Night Football.

Steelers, 23-17 (4-0)

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James Washington could give Steelers scary wide receiver depth

A six-pack of Steelers thoughts, some longer than others, to crack open at the tailgate for Saturday’s preseason game against the Titans at Heinz Field:

Receivers

It doesn’t look like Martavis Bryant will win the Gruden Grinder award anytime soon.

The Raiders’ coach traded a third-round pick to the Steelers for Bryant, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle he hasn’t been thrilled with Bryant so far in the preseason.

The Steelers, meanwhile, snapped up James Washington in the second round after unloading Bryant.

Washington has seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns so far in the preseason. While no receiver should be expected to have the kind of career that Antonio Brown has, it’s not too much to ask Washington to have a better rookie year than Brown did. Brown caught 16 passes in 2010 before breaking out with 69 catches in 2011.

If Washington has a more productive rookie year than Brown did, if JuJu Smith-Schuster builds on his seven-touchdown rookie season and Brown remains in his prime, the Steelers could have their best wide receiver trio in recent memory.

They did have Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Brown on their roster in 2010 and 2011. But Brown wasn’t much of a factor in 2010 and Ward caught just 46 passes in 2011, which was his final season.

Brown, Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were teammates in 2012, but Sanders had just 44 catches that year before breaking out with 67 in 2013, his contract year. By then, Wallace was gone.

Last year might be the closest the Steelers have come to having three receivers in the prime of their careers, with Brown catching 101 passes, Smith-Schuster catching 58 and Bryant catching 50.

It’s not hard to see Smith-Schuster being better than he was last season and Washington being better than Bryant.

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Is Le’Veon Bell trying to become the most disliked running back in Steelers history?

Le’Veon Bell isn’t at training camp with the Steelers, but if his teammates really miss him at least they can listen to his new rap album.

According to 247Sports, Bell tweeted about the release of his new album on the same day the Steelers held their first training camp practice.

Assuming Bell doesn’t show up until after the final preseason game, this will be the second straight year he’s skipped camp after being assigned the franchise tag.

Bell can’t be blamed for trying to get as much money as he can. Even if the Steelers fan base perceives that as greed, it’s more than just that and his impending exit after this season that’s leaving a bad taste.

The two-time All-Pro running back was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season and the first three games of the 2016 season because of marijuana-related league violations. And this rap side gig creates an impression that his heart isn’t entirely into football. Even if it is, it’s not a good look to tweet about a new rap album on the first day of camp while he’s sitting out.

Bell is only 43 rushing yards away from passing Willie Parker for third on the Steelers’ all-time list. But he’ll never be No. 3 among running backs in the hearts of Steelers fans.

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Steelers’ young defensive players must reach their potential in 2018

All eyes will be on Bud Dupree this season. The Steelers exercised their fifth-year option on the outside linebacker, banking on a breakout season in 2018 after 14.5 combined sacks in his first three years.

There are tons of “Breakout Candidates” articles flying around the blogosphere for each team this time of year. We could do one for the Steelers, but their biggest breakout candidate isn’t necessarily one player. It’s half the defense.

And that’s the problem.

The Steelers could use a breakout season not only from Dupree, but from several other defenders who were early-round draft picks. These players haven’t been flat-out busts, but they’re not exactly standouts, either.

After taking Dupree in the first round of the 2015 draft, the Steelers took Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave in the first three rounds of the 2016 draft. Now’s the time for that draft class to bloom.

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