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Steelers’ thrilling win sets stage for showdown with Patriots

The good news is this wild ride of a season took another thrilling turn Sunday night at Heinz Field. The Steelers overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Ravens 39-38 on Chris Boswell‘s 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left. The victory clinched the Steelers’ third AFC North title in four seasons.

The bad news is that the Steelers’ defense is a sitting duck for Tom Brady and the Patriots, who come to Heinz Field next week in a game the Steelers need to win to have any realistic shot at Super Bowl LII.

Get ready for Brady to neutralize the Steelers’ pass rush, as he always does, by surgically moving the ball up the field eight, 10, 12 yards at a time with that quick release of his. And guess who could be back on the field Monday night in Miami.

Chris Hogan.

That’s right, the guy the Steelers couldn’t cover during the AFC championship game in January.

And there’s this guy named Brandin Cooks who wasn’t even a part of that offense that hung 36 points on the Steelers 11 months ago.

Oh joy.

Can this Steelers defense stop the Patriots? Probably not.

But maybe they don’t have to.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Steelers (11-2) won a game while allowing 37 or more points for the first time in their history.

Can they do it a second time?

We figured back in August that this was the way the Steelers would have to win games. But looking at the schedule, we probably pegged Week 14 as a classic Ravens-Steelers scrum, 13-10, 20-17 perhaps. Instead, we got the highest-scoring game in the 21-year history of the rivalry, beating the 76 points the teams put up in the Steelers’ 42-34 win at Baltimore in 1997.

It’s asking a lot of any offense to score 39 points against the Ravens, who were ranked seventh defensively heading into the game. The Steelers not only did that but they torched the Ravens for 545 yards of offense, the most the Ravens have allowed since their inaugural season in 1996. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 of those yards, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games and the first one this year to throw for 300 yards against the Ravens.

The Steelers would not be Super Bowl contenders without Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and certainly not Boswell, who kicked his fourth game-winning field goal of the season.

But no one has pulled this team’s feet from the fire this season more than Antonio Brown.

With 11 catches for 213 yards Sunday, Bell has caught 39 passes for 627 yards over the past four games. He tallied 136 of those yards on five catches in the fourth quarter Sunday. That included a 57-yard play that set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Roosevelt Nix that pulled the Steelers to within 31-29 with 9:15 left. And it was Brown who brought the Steelers into field-goal range with a 34-yard sideline grab on third down with a minute left.

Does Brown deserve MVP consideration? Yes. Will he become the first wide receiver to win the award? Who cares. The Steelers have a championship they’re trying to win.

When it comes to accolades, Jesse James earned one Sunday night. This honor has been bestowed upon him pretty much since he caught his first career pass in 2015, but he never deserved it more than he did in this game. Even though Heath Miller retired two years ago, the tradition of the deep-throated “Heeeeeaaaaath!” salutes lives on whenever James catches a pass. The tight end caught 10 of them Sunday for 97 yards, both career highs. Those 10 receptions even matched Miller’s career high. Three of them came on the game-winning drive.

Terrell Suggs, ever the Heinz Field villain, sacked Roethlisberger on the drive’s first play, planting the Steelers at their own 8 with 2:25 left. Roethlisberger found James on the next three plays, including a 16-yard pickup on third-and-13. There wasn’t much of a “Heeeeeaaaaath” chant on that one. The crowd was probably busy exhaling. But “Heeeeeaaaaath!” rained down once more when James caught a 6-yard pass on the next play. Two plays after that came the 34-yard hookup with Brown to set the stage for Boswell.

Unlike Boswell’s field goals against the Colts, Packers and Bengals, this wasn’t quite a walkoff. The Ravens still had 42 seconds to get within Justin Tucker‘s intercontinental field-goal range.

For once, however, the Steelers played like they actually had 11 defenders on the field. Their only sack of the game couldn’t have come at a better time. T.J. Watt‘s sixth of the year essentially ended the game, securing the Steelers’ first three-game winning streak against the Ravens since their last championship season in 2008.

Without Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden, the Steelers don’t have anything that resembles their defense of a decade ago. They’ve been stopping opponents when they need to in certain spots, but it’s been a while since they’ve put together a solid 60 minutes.

The Patriots (10-2), meanwhile, haven’t allowed 20 points in a game since Week 4 after allowing at least that many in each of their first four games. They’re still 30th in the league with 375.7 yards allowed per game, but they’ve allowed their opponents to score touchdowns on less than 29 percent of their trips inside the red zone over their last three games. That stinginess will be tested against the Steelers, who have scored on seven of their last 10 red zone chances over their last three games.

Traditionally, the Patriots take away their opponent’s biggest strength on offense. Perhaps they put the clamps on Brown and take their chances with Bell, who is averaging less than four yards per carry despite leading the league with 1,105 rushing yards. But they also have to account for Bell as a receiver. He caught nine passes for 77 yards and a touchdown Sunday, running routes like someone whose uniform number is in the 80s.

Stopping the Steelers might seem like a daunting task for the Patriots, but they’re not losing sleep over it. Assuming they take care of business at Miami, they don’t need to win Sunday’s game as badly as the Steelers do. The Steelers need to beat the Patriots and win one of their last two games to earn the top seed in the AFC and avoid a trip to Gillette Stadium in January. The Patriots, well, they’ve shown they can win on a big stage at Heinz Field. The Steelers, as if anyone needs to be reminded, have never beaten Brady at Gillette Stadium.

So the Steelers probably have to beat the Patriots twice to get to Super Bowl LII, because if they lose the first time, they have little chance of winning the second time.

Their best chance to win the first time is to keep Brady off the field as much as possible.

That will be up to the offense, which is finally living up to its billing.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Bengals find another way to lose to Steelers

The Steelers did it again.

And so did the Bengals.

The Steelers defeated the Bengals 23-20 Monday night on Chris Boswell‘s third walkoff field goal in the last four weeks. They deserve credit for overcoming not only a 17-point deficit but also the mental burden of wondering if teammate Ryan Shazier would ever walk again.

The Bengals deserve credit, too, for finding yet another way to piss away a win over the Steelers.

Ben Roethlisberger has faced the Bengals 30 times in his career, including playoffs, and won 23 of those meetings. Monday night’s win was the Steelers’ sixth straight over the Bengals, their longest such streak against the men in the striped helmets since they beat them eight straight times from 1991 to 1994.

This did not look like the Steelers’ night, however.

The game got off to a bad start for them when Roethlisberger threw an interception on the game’s opening drive. And it got off to an even worse start when Shazier hurt his back making a tackle on the Steelers’ third defensive play. Shazier’s body was strapped to a board and he left the stadium in an ambulance. Fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams was in tears. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert stood next to Mike Tomlin providing updates on Shazier while the game was going on.

In the hours after the game, the news on Shazier seemed a little better. According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two players said the injury is a spinal-cord contusion. That’s what happened to Tommy Maddox in 2002 and he missed just one game. According to a statement released by the Steelers Tuesday afternoon, Shazier is expected to stay at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for the next 24-48 hours and undergo further tests.

The Steelers knew of no encouraging news during the game. On the sidelines and on the field, their focus in the first half wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be, and understandably so. But that’s part of the game, and it was the perfect opportunity for the Bengals to rise further from the ashes of their historically inept 0-2 start and move to within a game of the final playoff spot in the AFC.

Instead, the Bengals fell to 5-7 and their playoff chances are all but dead while the Steelers (10-2) can clinch the AFC North with a win or a tie against the Ravens on Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

The Bengals’ first win over the Steelers since 2015 was well within their grasp at Cincinnati Monday night when A.J. Green caught his second touchdown pass of the night from Andy Dalton with 31 seconds left in the first half, increasing their lead to 17-0.

Considering all that had transpired in the first half, it would have been understandable if the Steelers had just taken a knee and tried to get their heads right at halftime.

But they wanted to put points on the board before the break, and the Bengals obliged by yielding a 33-yard gain to Le’Veon Bell on a screen pass and giving up another 38 yards when Dre Kirkpatrick interfered with Antonio Brown. Those two plays set up Boswell’s 30-yard field goal.

Then in the second half, William Jackson assumed Jordan Evans pushed Bell out of bounds and let him jog into the end zone with a 35-yard touchdown catch that narrowed Cincinnati’s lead to 17-10.

That’s so Bengals.

This is the first team since the 1939 Eagles, according to ESPN, to start the season with two home games and fail to score a touchdown in either game, and the 2017 Bengals cracked open the history books again Monday night by committing a franchise-record 173 yards worth of penalties.

Kirkpatrick gets the game ball, or perhaps the game flag, for that. Two plays after Bell kept a drive going by gaining nine yards on a fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 36, Kirkpatrick interfered with Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter for 30 yards to set up Boswell’s 37-yard field goal that narrowed the Bengals’ lead to 20-13.

The Steelers committed enough penalties themselves to cost them the game had they played against a team with any kind of discipline. In a bizarro twist to this brutal rivalry, Vontaze Burfict was knocked out of the game by a guy who was still 18 years old when Burfict ended Le’Veon Bell’s 2015 season. JuJu Smith-Schuster floored the infamous Bengals’ linebacker with a block. The Steelers receiver was penalized for standing over Burfict and taunting him, and he also was suspended for a game.

Smith-Schuster still might be the youngest player in the NFL, but no longer is he the fresh-faced rookie with SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas. In his second NFL game as someone who’s old enough to drink, Smith-Schuster became a villian in the eyes of some, spray-painting his name in the alley of the NFL’s nastiest rivalry.

At that moment, some of Smith-Schuster’s teammates might have wanted a piece of him just as badly as Bengals fans did, because the penalty erased a 12-yard gain and moved the Steelers back to their own 34-yard line with seven minutes left.

But how can the Steelers beat themselves against a franchise with a trophy case full of nooses?

Roethlisberger picked up 60 of the 66 yards the Steelers needed on the next five plays. Throwing for 24 yards to Brown, 18 yards to Bell, five yards to Smith-Schuster and 13 yards to Jesse James. The final six yards came on a touchdown pass to Brown, and just as the Steelers had rallied to tie the Bengals, the Bengals rallied to tie the Steelers on the suspension scoreboard when George Iloka whacked Brown in the head after the touchdown.

The Steelers kicked off from the 50 with that penalty and Bengals started from their 12 and went three-and-out. The ensuing punt set up the Steelers at their 41-yard line with 2:42 left. The Bengals put up little resistance as the Steelers moved the ball 34 yards on seven plays, and a 43-yard field goal attempt became a 38-yarder when Josh Shaw apparently thought he was playing soccer and tried to block the kick with his foot after crossing the line of scrimmage well before the ball was snapped.

Boswell, just as much of a Bengals tormentor since 2015 as anyone, made his 24th field goal in 24 tries against Cincinnati to give the Steelers the win and improve their record to 10-2. Only four Steelers opponents have ever blown leads bigger than the 17-point edge the Bengals squandered Monday night.

It’s easy to forget that the deficit would have been bigger if it weren’t for Shazier. Holding a team to a field goal is trivial with his career and quality of life at stake, but that’s just what Shazier did by limiting Josh Malone to a three-yard gain on second-and-five.

Even though he spent most of it in the hospital, Shazier helped the Steelers win this game.

It’s unimportant whether it happens this year or next year, but there’s a chance Shazier can help the Steelers win more games.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers’ win over Packers is a familiar refrain

Here we go again.

That sentence was thrown around verbally, mentally and musically Sunday night during the Steelers’ more-thrilling-than-it-had-to-be 31-28 win over the Packers at Heinz Field.

The Packers took a 14-6 lead in the first quarter, and regained the lead in the third quarter when Brett Hundley threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams to make the score 21-14.

It was the third touchdown pass of the night for Hundley, who was making his fifth start this season in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers and entered the game with just two career touchdown passes to his name.

Here we go again.

The Packers owned all the momentum until Mike McCarthy called on Mason Crosby to attempt a 57-yard field goal in perhaps the NFL’s least hospitable stadium for field goal kickers. His miss gave the Steelers the ball at their 47-yard line, and Pittsburgh tied the game late in the third quarter when Ben Roethlisberger threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.

The third quarter ended with Cameron Heyward‘s second sack of the game, forcing the Packers to punt.

At that point the game was looking a lot like the Steelers’ Week 11 win over the Titans, when they slowed down after a fast start, let the Titans hang around and then pulled away in the fourth quarter.

Then NBC intervened.

Coming out of commercial at the start of the fourth quarter, the peacock channel kept with the Pittsburgh theme by playing “Ah! Leah!” by New Castle-born and Ellwood City-raised Donnie Iris.

Pretty cool, except that the last time NBC played that song heading into the fourth quarter of a Steelers game, it was the 2014 AFC wild-card game against the Ravens. The Steelers already were down 20-9, and ended up losing 30-17.

The DJ at Irish Exit, the preeminent Steelers bar in New York City, played that song before the Steelers’ Week 14 loss at home to the Dolphins in 2013. The Steelers lost that game 34-28, but would have won on a last-second lateral party if Brown hadn’t stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12-yard line. Had the Steelers won, they’d have recovered from an 0-4 start that year to make the playoffs.

“Ah! Leah!” is the signature track of Iris’ Back on the Streets album. Seven years before Wiz Khalifa was even born, Iris went all black and yellow on that album cover, donning a black bowtie and a yellow suit. When the LP came out in 1980, the Steelers’ 1970’s dynasty was coming to a close. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this song about a doomed relationship invokes painful football memories.

And sure enough, Le’Veon Bell fumbled the ball away in Packers territory less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.

Ah! Leah! Here we go again.

The defense bailed out Bell and the offense by forcing a three-and-out, and the Steelers took a 28-21 lead on Roethlisberger’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Brown with just under nine minutes left.

Since that 55-yard TD pass to Adams, Hundley had thrown five straight incompletions and was sacked three times. The Steelers’ defense seemed poised to close this one out, making us forget that it was sliced up for more than a half by an offense that was shut out by the Ravens at home last week.

But it’s not a Packers-Steelers game unless both teams combine for 50 points. In the previous three meetings between these teams, including Super Bowl XLV, they had combined for 73, 56 and 69 points. The Steelers’ defense obliged by allowing Hundley to drive the Packers 77 yards on 12 plays and tie the score on Jamaal Williams‘ 4-yard touchdown run with 2:02 left.

Baby, it’s no good. We’re just asking for trouble.

The Steelers couldn’t get into field goal range on the other side of the two-minute warning and had to punt, but the mercurial defense gave them a second chance when T.J. Watt sacked Hundley and got away with a helmet-to-helmet hit and Ryan Shazier made two successive stops on a taped-up ankle.

Then the Steelers saw once again what Brown can do for them.

With 17 seconds left, the best receiver in the NFL used every available blade of grass to keep his feet inbounds on a 23-yard pass from Roethlisberger. Then he caught another pass for 14 yards that brought the Steelers to the Packers’ 33.

Le’Veon Bell lost two yards on a screen pass, making Chris Boswell‘s job a little harder. For the Steelers to win the game, Boswell would have to kick a 53-yard field goal, which would top his career best by two yards. That’s just what he did, also tying the record for the longest field goal in Heinz Field’s 17-year history. Considering what Boswell has done for the Steelers, it’s about time he earned such a place in Heinz Field kicking lore.

It was the second time in three weeks the Steelers needed a walk-off field goal from Boswell to beat a backup quarterback. The kind of flies in the face of Mike Tomlin’s proclamation in an interview with Tony Dungy that aired on NBC before the game.

“We should win it all,” Tomlin said.

Ooooh, boy.

Tomlin also brazenly looked ahead to the Steelers’ Week 15 showdown against the Patriots, saying that it will probably be “Part I.”

Basically, Tomlin is putting the Steelers in the AFC championship game against the Patriots, and mixing the tracks with his answer to the earlier question, he’s suggesting the Steelers will finally get past the Patriots and reach the Super Bowl.

At least Tomlin wasn’t a total spoiler. He didn’t say where “Part II” was going to be played, so while the Steelers can pretty much book hotel rooms in Houston at least there’s still a little suspense about the winner of the Week 15 game at Heinz Field.

This year, Tomlin doesn’t need Facebook Live to provide the Patriots with bulletin-board material.

Ah! Leah! We ain’t learned our lesson yet.

If Tomlin is going to look ahead not only to one game against the Patriots but another one that doesn’t even exist yet, if it ever will, then Sunday night’s game was Part I of a Trap Game Trilogy. Part II is next week at Cincinnati on Monday Night Football and Part III will be on Dec. 10 on Sunday Night Football at home against the Ravens.

Hopefully NBC changes up its playlist. Or maybe ditches Carrie Underwood for a week and does an Iris/Khalifa collaboration for the opening theme. One can only hope.

Anyway, even though the Steelers survived Part I and they’re 9-2, they don’t look anywhere near ready to take on the Patriots. Their defense ranks fourth in the NFL overall and third against the pass and they’re second in the league with 38 sacks. But over the last five games, they’ve allowed touchdown passes of 54, 55, 75, 60 and 61 yards. This coincides with the loss of Joe Haden, and the Steelers can’t count on him returning from a broken fibula in time for Week 15.

We can only imagine what Aaron Rodgers would have done to the Steelers defense Sunday night, and Tom Brady comes to town in three weeks.

We’ve heard this song before.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers rout Titans, provide reminders of LeBeau Era

Who knew that a Dick LeBeau defense would be the first to allow the Steelers to score 30 points in game this season?

Not only did the Steelers break the 30-point barrier for the first time, they reached the big four-oh, beating the Titans 40-17 Thursday night at Heinz Field.

After scoring 20 points in two straight games, the Steelers put 20 and 20 together for a total that’s half of LeBeau’s age.

The former Steelers’ defensive coordinator returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since stepping down after the 2014 season and was greeted by Ben Roethlisberger‘s first four-touchdown game of the season. Three of those TD passes went to Antonio Brown, who hauled in 10 receptions for 144 yards.

We now know that the Steelers don’t need all these offensive fireworks to win football games. As it turns out, the key benchmark this season isn’t the offense scoring 30 but the defense allowing less than 20, which it did for the fifth straight game Thursday. Considering the defense was responsible for just 17 of the Jaguars’ 30 points in Week 5, that streak is really at seven games.

The Steelers hadn’t held opponents under 20 points in five straight games since the first five weeks of the 2010 season, when LeBeau was a newly inducted Hall of Famer and guiding a defense that would get the Steelers to the Super Bowl for the third time in six years.

Let’s face it. That 2010 unit, which forced 35 turnovers, was the Steelers’ last championship-caliber defense. The Steelers led the league in yards allowed and points allowed in 2011, but forced just 15 turnovers and proved to be a paper tiger against Tim Tebow in the playoffs.

That was the beginning of the end of LeBeau’s 11-year tenure in Pittsburgh even though there wasn’t much he could do about the aging of players like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton and James Farrior.

On Thursday, it wasn’t LeBeau’s job to do anything about Marcus Mariota‘s four interceptions and the five sacks he had to endure. Not since Oct. 1, 1984, in a 38-17 win over the Bengals, had the Steelers intercepted four passes and sacked the quarterback five times in the same game according to NBC.

LeBeau might remember that, too. He was the Bengals’ first-year defensive coordinator. Back then, he wasn’t witnessing the handiwork of his successor like he was Thursday.

The Steelers’ interceptions came from Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Robert Golden and Sean Davis. Of that quartet, only Davis was drafted by the Steelers. Sensabaugh, a journeyman who the Steelers signed during the offseason, was drafted in the fourth round by the Titans in 2012. Hilton and Golden weren’t drafted by any team.

Hilton has been a pleasant surprise all season, but Sensabaugh and Golden were pressed into duty because of injuries to Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, and Keith Butler deserves at least some credit for their production.

The Steelers have been vulnerable to the big play, however, and the absence of Haden and Mitchell has magnified that. The Steelers allowed touchdown passes of 60 and 61 yards on Sunday at Indianapolis and a 75-yarder Thursday to Rishard Matthews that cut their lead to 16-14 11 seconds into the second half.

The Steelers have allowed seven pass plays of 40-plus yards this year. The aforementioned 2010 squad allowed seven for the entire season. In most other categories, however, this defense is standing up well to that 2010 measuring stick.

With 34 sacks through 10 games, the Steelers are on pace for 54, which would surpass the 48 the 2010 team recorded. This season, the Steelers are allowing just under 17 points per game. In 2010, they yielded 14.5 points per game.

In the department that transcends both sides of the ball, wins and losses, the Steelers (8-2) are reaching heights that not even the 2010 team could reach at this stage of the season. This is the franchise’s best record through 10 games since 2004, when they went 15-1 in Roethlisberger’s rookie year.

The only other seasons the Steelers have been 8-2 since the days of the Steel Curtain are 2001 and 1983. None of those 8-2 teams got past the AFC championship game, but this year’s Steelers have at least proven something.

When they fell behind 17-3 at Indianapolis, it was reminiscent of the 17-0 hole they fell into at the 4-12 Jets in 2014 (a game they lost 20-13) and the 13-3 deficit they faced at 5-11 Baltimore in 2015 (a game they lost 20-17). They showed more fight this time and came back to win.

Unlike Sunday’s game against the 3-7 Colts, Thursday’s matchup wasn’t supposed to be easy. The Titans (6-4) had won four straight and were jockeying with the Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs for a first-round playoff bye. Three times in the game they narrowed two-score Steelers leads to one-score margins. The Steelers finally broke the game open against a good team with a 17-point fourth quarter.

The Steelers were much kinder to LeBeau during post-game handshakes than they were to his defense during the game. He’s still revered in Pittsburgh even though Butler is now out from under his shadow.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

Steelers take care of business in comeback win over Colts

No. Just no.

Just to make the search engines happy, let’s report that the Steelers defeated the Colts 20-17 Sunday on Chris Boswell‘s walk-off field goal.

But they trailed 17-3 early in the third quarter. This had the feel of one of “those” losses.

No. Just no.

If the Steelers had lost at Indianapolis Sunday, it would have been more vexing than their customary flops against weak opponents.

The Colts’ 3-6 record entering the game didn’t do their ineptitude justice.

This is a participation-trophy franchise that raised an “AFC finalist” banner to the rafters of Lucas Oil Stadium after reaching the 2014 AFC championship game and losing 45-7 to the Patriots.

This is a franchise that’s running Jacoby Brissett out there at quarterback because it put all its eggs in the Andrew-Luck-will-be-ready-for-Week-1 basket after Luck had shoulder surgery in January.

Those eggs all cracked, and the Colts were forced to scramble days before the season and trade Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for Brissett, their third-stringer.

That Patriots’ yard-sale piece threw two touchdown passes Sunday to receivers who are buried on the depth chart like he once was in New England.

Brissett threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief in the first half and a 61-yarder to Chester Rogers to give the Colts that 17-3 lead in the third quarter.

It was starting to look like the Steelers had no interest in the top seed in the AFC that’s right in front of their nose. Not only were they avoiding Luck on Sunday, because of injuries they’re also dodging encounters with Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson between now and the end of the season, and they have just two road games remaining on their schedule.

The Steelers (7-2) haven’t enjoyed a first-round bye in the playoffs since 2010, the last year they went to the Super Bowl. If they win their remaining games, including a home game against the Patriots in Week 15, they’ll have not only a bye but home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s that simple.

On Sunday, however, the Steelers looked like they were trying to make it complicated.

Antonio Brown dropped a deep pass that was right on his hands. Jordan Berry had to punt three times on the same play because of holding penalties. Martavis Bryant didn’t seem to understand the concept of forward.

Maybe the Steelers wanted to get another loss or two under their belts because they enjoy scoreboard watching so much in December.

No. Just no.

With Steelers fans ready to drown their sorrows in an Iron City, the only Steeler too young to drink once again came to the rescue.

JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the drive following Rogers’ touchdown. He set it up by catching a 44-yard pass from Roethlisberger.

The point-after was blocked, and Matthias Farley nearly ran it back for what would have been two points and a 19-9 Colts lead, but Jesse James caught him at the Steelers’ 2-yard line.

Suddenly, the Steelers showed some hustle. It’s like they remembered that first-round byes are for teams that take care of business against inferior competition.

This second-half spark spread to the Steelers’ defense, which except for those two breakdowns was its usual stout self (who knew in August that “stout” and “Steelers’ defense” would be used in the same sentence in 2017).

With 13 minutes left in the game, Ryan Shazier intercepted Brissett at the Colts’ 10-yard line. The Steelers tied the game soon after when Roethlisberger threw a 7-yard TD pass to tight end Vance McDonald. The offensive line, with all its starters healthy for the first time since Week 2, provided Roethlisberger enough time to find McDonald, who snuck through the coverage and had no one near him in the end zone.

Bryant caught the game-tying 2-point conversion. Bryant, Brown and Boswell put the finishing touches on their redemption songs on the game-winning drive.

Bryant caught a 19-yard pass on third-and-4 from the Steelers’ 31 with 53 seconds left. Brown, who was held to three catches, caught one for 32 yards on the next play to get the Steelers to the 18.

Boswell, who clanked a 37-yard field goal attempt off the goal post on the previous drive, ended the game by making a 33-yarder.

In a season in which 30 was supposed to be the magic number for the Steelers offense, they scored 20 for the second straight game. Thanks to their defense, the Steelers are 6-0 when scoring 20 or more points. They’re 1-2 when they don’t score 20, and in that one win they scored 19 at Kansas City.

Maybe it’s time to play 19 and 20 in the lottery. The former is Smith-Schuster’s uniform number and the latter is his age until Nov. 22. It’s not a stretch to say that he led to the Steelers to Sunday’s victory. He was the team leader in both receptions (five) and receiving yards (97).

Le’Veon Bell was held to 80 yards on 26 carries and Roethlisberger was typically pedestrian for this stage of his career, completing 19 of 31 passes for 236 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He did reach back about 10 years to escape pressure on that 32-yard pass to Brown that moved the Steelers into game-winning field goal range.

It’s been 10 years since the last time the Steelers were 7-2. It was 2007, Mike Tomlin’s first year as head coach. They sputtered to a 10-6 finish and a wild-card loss partly because running back Willie Parker broke his leg in Week 16.

The Steelers better hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Bell hasn’t finished a season healthy since 2013. Their Super Bowl hopes depend on his ability to do that this year.

And it’s looking more and more like Smith-Schuster will be just as indispensable.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers would be .500 team without T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster

With the Steelers’ bye week falling so conveniently at the midpoint of their season, it would be a good time to hand out midseason awards for 2017.

Instead, let’s take a look at one category where we’d have an interesting debate: Rookie of the Year.

It’s hard to decide between T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Here’s what we do know. The Steelers are 6-2 for the first time since 2011, but without Watt and Smith-Schuster, they’d probably be 4-4.

The Steelers don’t beat the Lions in Week 8 without Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown. Even that might not have been enough without the rookie receiver’s game-clinching, third-down reception on a shovel pass with a minute and a half remaining.

In Week 1, the Steelers might not have escaped Cleveland with a 21-18 win if it weren’t for Watt’s two sacks and one interception.

One of those sacks came with the Steelers leading 14-7 and the Browns at the Pittsburgh 9-yard line. The Browns had to settle for a field goal. Watt again came to the rescue in Steelers territory late in the third quarter, intercepting DeShone Kizer at the 17.

Sean Davis won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award as the Steelers’ rookie of the year last season, and that was before he broke up what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion in the Steelers’ divisional playoff win over the Chiefs.

Artie Burns likely received some votes for the award. The first-round pick shared the team lead with three interceptions. The second one of those picks was an underrated turning point of the Steelers’ 2016 season.

The Steelers had lost four straight games when they went to Cleveland in Week 11. The Browns moved to the Steelers’ 45 on the game’s opening drive. Cody Kessler attempted a deep pass to Corey Coleman that Burns intercepted. Had that pass been completed, the Browns would have had at least a first-and-goal. The Steelers won the game 24-9 and didn’t lose again until the AFC championship. But considering the Steelers’ lack of momentum heading into Cleveland, who knows how differently the game would have turned out if the Browns had scored first?

Contributions from multiple rookies over the last few seasons illustrates the fact that the Steelers’ drafts have improved. There were some years when the Steelers didn’t get much help from their rookies and the Greene award was pretty much won by default. Mike Adams won the award in 2012, for crying out loud. David DeCastro was the first-round pick that year but played just four games because he was injured in the preseason.

Le’Veon Bell had little competition in winning the Steelers’ 2013 rookie honor. Like DeCastro the year before, his season got off to a late start because of an injury. He didn’t debut until Week 4. By then, the Steelers already were 0-3. They probably don’t start the 2013 season 0-4 if they had Bell for the first three games.

It also might have helped if their first-round pick that year, Jarvis Jones, had more than one sack in his rookie season. Jones is Kevin Colbert’s only first-round bust, although the 2013 draft has proven to be fruitful with Bell and Vince Williams.

The 2012 draft yielded DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum, a two-year starter at left tackle. However, the Steelers didn’t get much of an immediate boost from their 2012 or 2013 drafts. That might have something to do with their back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

In 2014, the unveiling of Martavis Bryant coincided with a three-game winning streak that sparked a run to the Steelers’ first playoff berth in three years.

In 2015, Bud Dupree had four sacks in the first half of his rookie season. He wasn’t a huge reason the Steelers went 10-6 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs, but their top two picks the previous season, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, combined for 10 sacks in 2015.

The last Steelers rookie to make the Pro Bowl was Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, and that was the last year the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.

No, that doesn’t mean that the Steelers are guaranteed to reach the Super Bowl if Watt or Smith-Schuster earn Pro Bowl honors. But it shows that first-year dividends from the draft are almost a requirement to succeed in the NFL.

That said, Watt and Smith-Schuster have a better chance of making the Pro Bowl than any Steelers rookie since Pouncey, and since Pouncey’s rookie year this is also the Steelers’ best shot at the Super Bowl.

That’s not a coincidence.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers turn to JuJu Smith-Schuster in win over Lions

If you’re a Steelers fan and an NFL draft junkie, the moment JuJu Smith-Schuster was drafted doesn’t quite measure up to the moment Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

When Roethlisberger in that pinstripe suit spoke to his new coach on the phone, those of us watching on TV saw a turning point in Steelers history even if we didn’t know it at the time.

In those days, the first round of the draft took place on Saturday afternoon.

Now, the second round is prime time TV. When the Steelers drafted Smith-Schuster with the 62nd overall pick, he was on camera crying tears of joy.

Not as cool as Roethlisberger’s deferential phone conversation with Bill Cowher 13 years earlier, and there probably were some Steelers fans crying because their team took a receiver and not a cornerback.

On Sunday night, it was Lions fans crying in their beer.

Smith-Schuster caught seven passes for 193 and a 97-yard touchdown in the Steelers’ 20-15 win at Detroit.

What does Martavis Bryant have to say now?

There’s no denying the lightning-strike impact Bryant made as a rookie. His first career catch was a 35-yard touchdown that narrowed a 13-3 deficit to 13-10 on a Monday night against the Texans. The Steelers won that home game to improve to 4-3, and that started a three-game winning streak that snapped the Steelers out of a post-Tebow malaise of 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 and a 3-3 start in 2014. They’ve made the playoffs every year since.

The Steelers might not have made the playoffs in 2014 without Bryant, but who knows how many more games they’d have won if Bryant wasn’t suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season and all of last season?

That game in Week 7 of 2014 was Bryant’s first as an active player. Just by getting on the field in Week 1, Smith-Schuster accomplished something that Bryant couldn’t in any of his first three seasons.

And for a franchise that knows how to draft receivers who contribute right away, it’s hard to think of a better single-game performance by a rookie at that position.

According to Pro Football Reference, Smith-Schuster’s 193 receiving yards are second-most in Steelers history by a rookie receiver in a single game. Jimmy Orr holds the record with 205 against the Chicago Cardinals in 1958.

Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown reception tied the longest offensive play in franchise history. Bobby Gage ran for a 97-yard touchdown in 1949.

It’s not just the astronomical numbers that define Smith-Schuster’s game Sunday night. It’s also his emergence as a go-to guy in tight spots.

The Steelers clung to a 13-12 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter and faced third-and-9 from their own 3-yard line when Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster for the 97-yard touchdown that increased the Steelers’ lead to 20-12.

There was the third-down drop that killed the Steelers’ next drive, but Smith-Schuster ultimately killed the Lions’ hopes for a victory by catching a four-yard shovel pass on third-and-1 with 1:29 left.

How fitting it was that the 20 points the Steelers (6-2) scored match the age of Smith-Schuster, the NFL’s youngest player. He might not be old enough to drink and he doesn’t have a driver’s license, but his maturity under pressure has earned him WWJJSSD status.

Opposing defenders might want to know What Would JuJu Smith-Schuster Do when preparing to face the Steelers.

He could be the No. 2 receiver the Steelers have been looking for since Bryant’s career was sidetracked by his 2016 suspension.

He leads the team with four receiving touchdowns and his 24 catches are third on the team behind Brown’s 57 and Bell’s 35.

Drafting receivers in the third round seems to be a thing for the Steelers. They’ve done it five times since 2009. No other team has drafted more than three receivers in the third round during that time.

Smith-Schuster is starting to show why the Steelers weren’t going to wait until the third round to take him.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers defense shines again in win over Bengals

Oh yeah, the Steelers have Joe Haden.

Somehow a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback acquired from a division rival has flown under the radar this season despite playing more than 98 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps.

That’s a good thing. It means Haden, who the Steelers signed after he was cut by the Browns, hasn’t been noticeably schooled by an opposing receiver.

So when Haden made his 20th career interception Sunday, his first as a Steeler, it was a pleasant reminder that a former adversary is now on the Steelers’ side.

The pick came in the third quarter of the Steelers’ 29-14 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field, and it led to a 49-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that increased the Steelers’ lead to 26-14.

On the Bengals’ next possession, we were reminded that …

Oh yeah, the Steelers still have William Gay.

Gay intercepted Andy Dalton for the 13th pick of his career with three minutes left in the third quarter, with the help of a deflection by Sean Davis.

Even though his role has decreased, Gay played his 167th consecutive game Sunday. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL for a defensive player. He hasn’t missed a game since the Steelers took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He’s the only remaining member of that draft class and the third-most tenured Steeler after James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bengals’ next two drives were squashed by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. They both sacked Dalton on third down to force punts and rock the Heinz Field crowd.

It would be awfully hard to forget that Watt and Dupree are on this team. They’re two of the Steelers’ last three first-round draft picks. But two more players checked in with a “Remember me?” moment to help the Steelers (5-2) nail down this victory.

With 6:53 left in the game, the Steelers lined up to punt from their own 40, but Robert Golden took the snap and threw a 44-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey to set up Boswell’s fifth and final field goal.

Golden had his moment in the sun on defense early last season before Davis became a full-time starter as a rookie. Golden has been hard to identify on the field this year because he’s wearing a different uniform number, selling No. 21 to Haden.

Heyward-Bey always will carry some notoriety as the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. He hasn’t quite fulfilled the expectations the Raiders had for him, but in his fourth year as a Steeler he’s carved out a role on special teams and made a nice career for himself.

The connection between Golden and Heyward-Bey was longer than any play by the Steelers’ offense, which accounted for 420 yards and reached its highest point total of the season but still had trouble finishing. The Steelers converted just two of their 11 third downs and came away with one touchdown on six trips inside the red zone.

It looked like this would be the week the Steelers offense was going to have to live up to its billing and win a shootout when the Bengals matched the Steelers’ first two touchdowns.

Thanks to the defense, however, the game wasn’t a shootout.

It was a kickout.

Boswell essentially broke a 14-14 tie with his five field goals while the defense held the Bengals (2-4) to 19 yards in the second half. In three of the last four games, the Steelers defense has been responsible for 14 points or less. The 258.7 yards they’re allowing per game are second only to the Broncos (258.5) and the 16.6 points they’re allowing per game are second only to the Jaguars (15.7).

Speaking of the Jaguars, those losses to the Jaguars and Bears are a little more forgivable now, aren’t they? The Jaguars are 4-3 and the Bears are 3-4 after two straight wins.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are 5-2 for the first time since 2011. Not that 2011 evokes pleasant memories. That was the year the 12-4 Steelers were vanquished in the wild-card game by Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos.

The 2017 Steelers have forced 10 turnovers through seven games. The 2011 edition forced just three at that point and 15 for the season. Seven of the Steelers’ defensive starters that year were 30 or older, which helps explain that lack of tenacity and the two straight 8-8 seasons that were to come.

This year, the only thirtysomething starting on the Steelers’ defense is 30-year-old Mike Mitchell. That makes it reasonable to believe that even better days are ahead for this defense and the Steelers.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers beat Chiefs at Arrowhead, point season in right direction

Raise your hand if you played the Win-Loss-Win-Loss game with the Steelers’ schedule back in August and put Ws next to “at Chicago” and “Jacksonville” and Ls next to “at Baltimore” and “at Kansas City.”

We got it backwards.

We’re used to the Steelers failing to pick up the easy wins, but this year they’re juxtaposing those ugly losses with an impressive collection of road wins, including Sunday’s 19-13 victory over the previously unbeaten Chiefs.

It’s the first time the Steelers have taken down the league’s last undefeated team since 2004, when they knocked off the 7-0 Eagles at Heinz Field in Ben Roethlisberger‘s rookie season.

That was a week after they topped the 6-0 Patriots in Pittsburgh.

So in a sense, that makes Sunday’s win a historic one, but we also should learn from that history.

The Eagles and Patriots made the Super Bowl in 2004 while the Steelers were literally left sobbing after losing to the Patriots in the AFC championship game.

The lesson here is that while the Steelers have beaten the Chiefs in two tight games at Arrowhead Stadium in the last nine months, including last season’s divisional playoff game, it doesn’t mean the Steelers have vanquished the Chiefs for 2017.

It could mean, however, that if the Steelers do have to play the Chiefs again, they won’t have to contend with the noise at Arrowhead.

This win could come in handy when it comes to tiebreakers. The Chiefs (5-1) still own the best record in the AFC, but they’ll need a better record than the Steelers (4-2) to earn a higher seed in the playoffs. The Steelers, of course, have to stay ahead of the AFC South-leading Jaguars (3-3) because the Jaguars have the tiebreaker over the Steelers with their Week 5 win in Pittsburgh.

Yes, it’s too early to map out playoff scenarios, but just a week after this star-studded team’s 3-2 record was appreciated as if it were a pair of socks for Christmas, a first-round bye is back on the table and the Steelers at 4-2 are in a spot that seemed predictable with trips to Baltimore and Kansas City on the schedule.

But they reached this point in an unpredictable way.

Not only are the Steelers losing when they’re expected to win and winning when they’re expected to lose, but instead of their offense hiding their defense it’s the other way around.

The Steelers were going to hang 30 points on opposing defenses this year like Zorro carving a “Z” into the chest of his adversaries, but they haven’t hit the big three-oh once. They’re not even averaging 20 points a game. They’re 21st with 19.7 points per game. Meanwhile, they’re fourth in the league with 17 points allowed per game and tied for second with 20 sacks. That includes James Harrison‘s sack of Alex Smith that all but clinched the game with a minute left.

In his first significant action this season, Harrison schooled Eric Fisher just like he did in the playoffs last season, when a holding call negated a two-point conversion that would have tied a game the Chiefs lost 18-16.

Sean Davis ultimately broke up the pass on the two-point try in that game, and on Sunday he robbed Demetrius Harris of a touchdown by ripping the ball out of his hands on fourth down early in the fourth quarter with the Steelers leading 12-3.

Thanks to plays like that, nineteen points was enough for the Steelers to win Sunday’s game, and perhaps it was more important that the Steelers hit 30 in another department.

Le’Veon Bell carried the ball 32 times for 179 yards and a touchdown. It was just the fourth time he’s carried the ball 30 or more times in his career.

For the second year in a row, the Steelers turned to Bell after hitting rock bottom. Last season, they broke a four-game losing streak by handing Bell the ball 28 times for 146 yards in a 24-9 win at Cleveland. Of the seven games in which Bell has carried the ball 27 times or more, six have come since that game. The Steelers are 15-0 when Bell carries the ball 23 times or more.

Roethlisberger bounced back from his five-interception disaster in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars by completing 17 of 25 passes for 252 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Antonio Brown did most of the work on the touchdown, turning a pass breakup by Phillip Gaines into a 51-yard score that gave the Steelers a 19-10 lead with 3:24 left in the game.

It wasn’t the type of game that will put to rest any thoughts that Roethlisberger is past his prime, but with Bell carrying the offense Roethlisberger doesn’t need to have everything that he had in 2008 or 2010.

Bell will have to stay on the field as long as his teammates do, however, if he’s going to help Roethlisberger earn a third Super Bowl ring. The next season that Bell is healthy from start to finish will be his first. The Steelers didn’t workhorse him until late November last year, and by the AFC championship game he was done. This year, his body might have to hold up through at least 10 more 20-carry games.

If it does and the Steelers do encounter the Chiefs again, and if Smith keeps missing open receivers in crunch time and if Harrison is still Fisher’s daddy (at 39 he’s literally old enough to be the 26-year-old’s daddy), the Chiefs likely will head into the 49th season since their last Super Bowl appearance.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Is Ben Roethlisberger washed up?

Jaws dropped when Ben Roethlisberger said after the AFC championship game that he’s contemplating retirement.

After the Steelers’ 30-9 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday, their worst home loss in 11 years, Roethlisberger said something that suggests he won’t just be thinking about it after this season.

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was quoted as saying: “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.”

Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. This game isn’t the first sign that his skills are in decline. The evidence has slowly been mounting over the last few years.

Before we crunch the numbers, let’s put everything in perspective. Rain might have fallen Sunday at Heinz Field. But the sky isn’t falling. The Steelers are still 3-2. So are the Jaguars. That makes it hard to label this as one of “those” losses in which the Steelers fall to one of the league’s have-nots.

This could turn out to be a signature win for an up-and-coming team. The Jaguars entered this game with the league’s stingiest pass defense.

Even if the Jaguars win the Super Bowl, however, this loss won’t look any better in hindsight. For the Steelers, it’s only the third home loss by 21 or more points since Bill Cowher was hired as head coach in 1992.

Furthermore, no matter how well the Jaguars defend the pass, they should meet their match against a future Hall of Fame quarterback like Roethlisberger.

Unless Roethlisberger is past his prime at age 35.

He seems to be missing on a lot of deep throws this season. The eye test suggests he can’t connect on those passes like he used to. But before saying that for sure, we need data to back it up.

According to NFL.com’s Next Gen stats, Roethlisberger’s Average Air Yards Differential this season is minus-4.2, the worst in the league. This stat subtracts Average Intended Air Yards from Average Completed Air Yards. As NFL.com defines it, “Air Yards is the total yards gained on a pass attempt past the line of scrimmage before the ball is caught.” In other words, it removes yards after the catch from the equation and can help evaluate a quarterback’s production with his arm.

It’s not surprising that Roethlisberger is the worst in the league in this category following Sunday’s performance, but it isn’t just this game that’s dragging the number down. He’s been in the bottom five each of the last four weeks. He ranked in the bottom five in this metric only five times all of last season. For the year, his AYD was minus-2.9.

We might have seen the first signs of Roethlisberger showing his age in 2014, when his home/road splits started to deviate.

In 2012, Roethlisberger had a 97.2 passer rating at home and a 96.8 rating on the road.

In 2013, he threw 14 touchdown passes and seven interceptions both at home and on the road.

In 2014, he threw 23 of his 32 touchdown passes at home. Nothing to be alarmed about.

In 2015, however, he threw five touchdown passes and nine interceptions away from home.

In 2016, his passer rating was 116.7 at Heinz Field and 78.4 on the road.

His passer rating was 37.8 on Sunday. At home.

Maybe he doesn’t have it anymore.

He’ll take whatever he does have left to Kansas City next week. In a way, it’s fitting that the Steelers play there after failing to score a touchdown in three trips inside the red zone Sunday. They couldn’t score a touchdown at Arrowhead Stadium in last season’s divisional playoff game. It turned out they didn’t need any. Chris Boswell‘s six field goals gave them an 18-16 win.

It’s a safe bet they’ll need to find the end zone to defeat the last unbeaten team left in the league pending Sunday night’s game at Houston.

The Steelers could clean up much of the wreckage from Sunday’s disaster and reclaim their status as a Super Bowl contender by beating the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are Super Bowl contenders themselves.

There seemed to be this narrative wave that made Super Bowl favorites out of the Steelers after they advanced one round further in the playoffs each of the last three years and got Martavis Bryant back this year.

Has anyone given any thought to the Chiefs’ storyline? They made the divisional playoffs each of the last two years, coming agonizingly close to the conference championship game last year. Perhaps it’s their turn to go to the Super Bowl. Unlike the Steelers, they can beat Tom Brady in New England.

Right now, finding a way to win at Gillette Stadium isn’t high on the list of the Steelers’ problems. Their biggest problem would be if Roethlisberger’s best days really are behind him.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

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