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Steelers 20, Browns 13: Mike Tomlin keeps his doubters quiet for another week

By now, children all over the world have made a list of what they want for Christmas.

Steelers fans, meanwhile, have made a list of what they DON’T want for Christmas.

One thing Steelers fans didn’t want to see under their tree this year is two losses to the Browns in the same season, and the Steelers granted that Christmas wish with a 20-13 win over the Browns Sunday at Heinz Field.

The loss avenged their Week 11 defeat at Cleveland, and prevented the Browns’ first season sweep of the Steelers since 1988. That was the only year since 1971 in which the Steelers have failed to win six games in a season.

The last time the Browns won at Pittsburgh was 2003. That was the Steelers’ last losing season as they went 6-10 and it was the last year that they didn’t have Ben Roethlisberger, who was drafted in 2004.

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Steelers 16, Bengals 10: Steelers’ fate rests more on defense than QB decision

So many people are frantically buying turkeys this week for Thanksgiving, but duck might be the Steelers’ choice.

And when Santa Claus delivers presents to children all over the world on Christmas Day, Rudolph will be guiding his reindeer through the sky.

But Rudolph might not be guiding the Steelers offense next week.

Mason Rudolph‘s nose wasn’t too shiny on Sunday. Devlin “Duck” Hodges took over for the struggling quarterback in the third quarter and threw the Steelers’ only touchdown pass in their 16-10 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati.

So now Mike Tomlin is dealing with the first quarterback controversy of his coaching career. He has to decide whether Rudolph or Hodges will start next week against the Browns at Heinz Field.

Rudolph completed eight of 16 passes for 85 yards with an interception, and after the game Tomlin said that the Steelers’ offense needed a “spark.”

Hodges provided that spark, but whether Hodges or Rudolph starts next week, this offense still will have to keep rubbing sticks together to generate points.

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Browns 21, Steelers 7: Victorious Browns could be the big losers, and what about Colin Kaepernick?

As bad as Mason Rudolph and the Steelers looked in their 21-7 loss in Cleveland Thursday night, no one looked worse than Myles Garrett.

The Browns were seconds away from giving their fans 10 days to bask in a landmark win for the franchise, but Garrett came through in the clutch and saved them from all that happiness when he tore off Rudolph’s helmet and whacked him over the head with it.

He was ejected from the game along with teammate Larry Ogunjobi and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who got off a few kicks and punches when he got into the brawl to stick up for Rudolph.

The 305-pound Ogunjobi was ejected for coming up behind the 235-pound Rudolph and shoving him to the ground.

The incident started in the game’s final seconds when Rudolph didn’t seem to appreciate the way Garrett brought him down after he completed a pass. The two got into a shoving match and it escalated from there. Rudolph appeared to be pulling at Garrett’s helmet. It’s unclear if his hand was caught. Even if Rudolph was trying to take Garrett’s helmet off, it’s highly unlikely that it was with the intention of using it as a weapon the way Garrett did.

It was the second straight win for the Browns (4-6), who are now a game behind the Steelers (5-5) in a crowded AFC wild-card race. Now, however, they’ll have to fight for a playoff spot without their best defensive player for the rest of the season. Garrett, who entered the game tied for third in the league with 10 sacks, has been suspended for the rest of the regular season and playoffs (if the Browns make it) at a minimum, according to ESPN.com.

Ogunjobi has been suspended for one game. Pouncey has been suspended for three games and Rudolph will be fined, according to Pro Football Talk.

Before Rudolph was basically assaulted by Garrett, he took a beating on social media for his performance Thursday.

And it was bad.

Rudolph threw four interceptions, completing 23 of 44 passes, and fell to 0-2 in road starts.

Two of those four interceptions came in the final six-and-a-half minutes of the game. The score was still 14-7 when linebacker Joe Schobert picked off a pass intended for James Washington at the Steelers’ 24. Rudolph forced a throw into double coverage there. That pick led to the Browns’ game-clinching touchdown.

Then with 4:03 left Rudolph badly overthrew Vance McDonald and was intercepted by Juston Burris.

It was by far Rudolph’s worst game. but it’s way too early to conclude that he’s not the Steelers’ starting quarterback of the future.

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Steelers 17, Rams 12: Steelers stacking wins in Jenga-like fashion

The Steelers didn’t win a game this season until the last day of September. Now, less than halfway through November, they would be the No. 6 seed in the playoffs if the season ended now.

That’s right, after their 17-12 win over the Rams Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers (5-4) would win the three-way tiebreaker with the Colts and Raiders.

Speaking of breaking things, the Mike Tomlin bashers were getting ready to break the Internet when he kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 34 with 8:55 left and his team clinging to a 14-12 lead.

Tomlin landed on his feet and the Steelers kept the ball when Trey Edmunds, who hadn’t caught a pass in his career before catching two Sunday, snagged Mason Rudolph‘s 6-yard delivery.

Edmunds, the older brother of Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds, also had an interception to go with his two catches. That came on a fake-punt attempt at the Rams’ 29 in the third quarter.

The Steelers got nothing out of that, but Edmunds’ fourth-down catch from Rudolph did ultimately lead to Chris Boswell‘s 33-yard field goal with 2:46 left, points that the Steelers needed.

It turns out that Tomlin pretty much had to risk national ridicule for the Steelers to pull out this win. They wouldn’t have had those points without that fourth-down conversion and the Rams could have attempted a go-ahead field goal when they reached the Steelers’ 30 with 1:25 left. Think the Steelers would have lucked out in that situation two weeks in a row?

The Steelers have been “stacking” wins, as Tomlin likes to put it. That stack, however, has been Jenga-like.

There was Adam Vinatieri‘s Shank-Heard-‘Round-The-World last week. There was a 14-0 deficit against the then-winless Dolphins the week before. Two weeks before that, the Steelers flirted with blowing a 24-0 lead against the Chargers in Los Angeles.

The stack might be wobbly, but this is what’s called a four-game winning streak. Without Ben Roethlisberger and without James Conner for the last two games, the Steelers don’t need to apologize for these wins. They’ll try to add another Jenga block to the stack Thursday night in Cleveland.

Even the No. 5 seed in the AFC became more realistic for the Steelers thanks to the Browns’ 19-16 win over the visiting Bills (6-3) on Sunday. Don’t expect the Browns to be as helpful on Thursday night in front of the Dawg Pound.

What would help the Steelers is if Conner returns from his shoulder sprain, and it looks like that might happen, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via Pro Football Talk.

Conner’s return wouldn’t come a moment too soon.

The offense accounted for only 10 of the Steelers’ 17 points Sunday and 19 of their 26 last week against the Colts. Without Conner, the Steelers have averaged 2.5 yards per rush over the last two games.

James Washington has been a nice bright spot, even if he did lose a fumble Sunday. Rudolph’s former Oklahoma State teammate set career highs in receptions (six) and receiving yards (90) for the second straight week. He scored the Steelers’ only offensive touchdown when he caught a 3-yard pass from Rudolph to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. He also caught two third-down conversions on the aforementioned field-goal drive that provided the final margin of victory. The first came on third-and-4 from the Steelers’ 46 for a 19-yard gain and the second came on third-and-2 from the Rams’ 27. Those catches helped the Steelers drain eight minutes from the clock before the Rams got the ball back down five with 2:39 left.

Rudolph might have completed more than 22 passes on his 38 attempts if his receivers did a better job of hanging on to the ball. He also could help himself by breaking his habit of taking safeties. He took one for the second straight week Sunday. The Steelers can’t keep handing over two points like that in these games in which field goals loom so large.

The Rams’ offense scored only three of their 12 points Sunday. The other nine points were caused by the Steelers’ foibles on offense. The Rams had a 7-0 lead seven seconds into the game when Maurkice Pouncey‘s snap sailed over Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler recovered the ball for a 26-yard touchdown.

The Steelers countered with Washington’s touchdown and took a lead that the Rams never could pry away from them when Minkah Fitzpatrick scored a touchdown for the second straight week. The safety acquired from the Dolphins for next year’s first-rounder returned a Jared Goff fumble 43 yards to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick also made the game-clinching interception, his fifth of the season, with 45 seconds left.

During this four-game winning streak, Fitzpatrick is third on the team with 12 points scored. For the second straight week, he provided points that the Steelers wouldn’t have won without. In Week 6, Devin Bush‘s fumble-return touchdown turned out to be necessary in the Steelers’ 24-17 win.

This defense sacked Goff four times Sunday. T.J. Watt had two of them and is fifth in the league with 9.5. Cameron Heyward added a sack and Javon Hargrave‘s sack forced the fumble that Fitzpatrick picked up for the touchdown.

Watt is on pace to surpass James Harrison‘s single-season team record of 16 set in 2008. Fitzpatrick is on pace to grab more interceptions in a single season than any other Steeler in this century.

The Rams were just 1 of 14 on third-down conversions. That’s the Steelers’ best third-down defense in a single game since they denied all eight of the Eagles’ third-down attempts in a 27-3 win at Heinz Field in 2004.

The Steelers defense is doing things it hasn’t done since the days when they went to the Super Bowl just about every other year. The 2019 defense still has to figure out quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson for the Steelers to think about any kind of long playoff run. But it won’t face that challenge until after Christmas.

For now, the Steelers’ job is to keep handling quarterbacks like Goff who have plateaued after early success in their careers.

Also falling into that category is the guy they’ll see Thursday.

The Browns all but printed 2019 playoff tickets after Baker Mayfield‘s rookie year. It’s been fun to laugh at the Browns after their 2-6 start this year, but they lit a match with Sunday’s win. Mayfield has gone two straight games without an interception after throwing at least one in each of his first seven games this season.

Most Steelers fans old enough to drive remember the last time the Steelers went to Cleveland on a Thursday night. They lost to a 1-11 Browns team in 2009. That memory coupled with the Browns’ newfound momentum should make Steelers fans cautious about Thursday.

The Steelers have a chance to win their fifth straight game and get to 6-4 with no trips outside of Pennsylvania or Ohio until Dec. 8 and no games against teams with a winning record until Dec. 15.

That all seems rosy, but without a win Thursday that Jenga stack will collapse and make a big mess.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers 26, Colts 24: Steelers win counts in horseshoes — and in football

The Steelers always seem to be the ones carrying the horseshoe when they play the team with the horseshoes on their helmets.

The Colts signed Adam Vinatieri from the Patriots after the 2005 season to replace Mike Vanderjagt, whose time in Indianapolis infamously ended when he missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds of a 21-18 playoff loss to the Steelers.

That victory helped carry the Steelers to their long-awaited fifth Super Bowl title.

Fourteen years later, Vinatieri pulled a Vanderjagt.

The 46-year-old gave some fan a nice souvenir when he shanked a 43-yard attempt so far to the left that it missed the net behind the goal post at Heinz Field. That kick would have given the Colts a one-point lead with 1:11 remaining.

Instead, the Steelers took a knee and won 26-24.

The 2019 Steelers have no clear path to a championship like they did after they vanquished the Colts in 2005, and the Ravens became a bigger obstacle with their win over the Patriots Sunday night, but this win does get the Steelers to .500 for the first time this season.

This is the kind of game that went the Steelers’ way in 2017, but not in 2018.

Two years ago, four of the Steelers’ 13 wins came on last-minute field goals by Chris Boswell.

Last year, the Steelers might not have missed the playoffs if Boswell had made his only field-goal attempt at Cleveland in Week 1 or if he had been able to send the game into overtime with a 40-yarder at Oakland in Week 14.

Boswell made all four of his attempts Sunday and is 17-of-18 for the season, his only miss a 54-yarder last week.

If we didn’t know this already, we learned Sunday that if any more games come down to the kickers this season, the Steelers (4-4) figure to have an advantage.

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Steelers 27, Dolphins 14: Steelers untested against middle-of-the-pack teams

The Steelers didn’t lose their sense of humor during their bye week.

They defeated the Dolphins 27-14 Monday night at Heinz Field, but not before letting this 0-7 team take a 14-0 first-quarter lead and a 14-10 lead into halftime.

This came two weeks after the Steelers came dangerously close to blowing a 24-0 lead against the Chargers in Los Angeles, winning that game 24-17.

Very funny, guys.

We know the 2019 Steelers like to toy with our emotions, but what else do we really know about this 3-4 team?

The teams they’ve beaten have a combined record of 3-20. The teams they’ve lost to have a combined record of 26-4. They can bench press the bar, but we don’t know how much weight they can handle.

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Steelers 24, Chargers 17: Fifteen thoughts from Sunday’s game

The Steelers improved to 2-4 with a 24-17 win over the Chargers Sunday night. From Devlin Hodges to Devin Bush, let’s break down the game and the Steelers’ season in general with these 15 fun facts and figures.

  • This was the Steelers’ first win in a West Coast city other than San Diego in almost 20 years. Since beating the 49ers 27-6 on Nov. 7, 1999, the Steelers are 4-10 in the Pacific time zone.
  • The Steelers’ wins over the Chargers in 2000, 2005 and 2015 all came in San Diego. The franchise moved to Los Angeles in 2017. This was the Steelers’ first game in Los Angeles since Week 13 of the 1994 season, when they defeated the Raiders 21-3 in the Raiders’ last year in Los Angeles. They were 2-2 against the Raiders and 0-9 against the Rams when those teams played in Los Angeles. The last time they played the Rams in LA, they lost 27-0 in Week 2 of the 1993 season. A rookie named Jerome Bettis scored his first career touchdown against the Steelers.
  • The Steelers have won their last two road games against the Chargers, both with backup quarterbacks. Michael Vick completed 13 of 26 passes for 203 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Week 5 of the 2015 season. The date of that game was Oct. 12, four years and a day before Hodges completed 15 of 20 for 132 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • Since Ben Roethlisberger took over as the Steelers’ starting quarterback in 2004, the Steelers are 12-11 without him in games that count. Their actual record is 15-12, but four of those games came in Week 17 when they rested their starters.
  • Hodges is the second young Steelers quarterback who’s been thrown into the fire this season, but it helps that Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked only five times, the fewest in the league. That should put to rest any fears of a dropoff after offensive line coach Mike Munchak went to Denver.
  • No account of Sunday’s game would be complete without mentioning Devin Bush. He gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when he scooped up a backward pass that Melvin Gordon couldn’t handle and returned it nine yards for a touchdown. On the next series, Bush intercepted a Philip Rivers pass that was tipped by Tyson Alualu to set up James Conner’s 12-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Bush also led the Steelers with seven solo tackles in the game.
  • Bush is making a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The only other Steelers to win the award were Mean Joe Greene (1969), Jack Lambert (1974) and Kendrell Bell (2001). Bush, who the Steelers traded up 10 spots to get in the 2019 draft, leads the league with four fumble recoveries. Lambert holds the single-season team record with eight in 1976. Bush leads all rookies and is 12th overall with 32 solo tackles this season, and he and Giants linebacker Ryan Connelly are the only rookies with two interceptions.
  • The Steelers are third in the league with 20 sacks, but they have no one in the top 20 in the league in that category. T.J. Watt leads the team with four, and eight players have at least one sack. Watt is tied for the league lead in quarterback hits with 14. Guess who he’s tied with? J.J. Watt.
  • Bud Dupree has quietly made the Steelers look smart for picking up his fifth-year option. The 22nd pick in the 2015 draft has three sacks, which puts him on pace to surpass his career high of six. He’s also on pace for career highs in tackles for loss (12, he has five now) and quarterback hits (13, he has five now).
  • The Steelers defense had been among the worst in the league early in the season, but through Sunday’s games the unit is 15th in yards allowed per game, according to NFL.com. Their passing defense is 15th and their rushing defense is 16th.
  • That rushing defense allowed just 32 yards on Sunday. It was the first time since Week 6 of the 2017 season that the Steelers have allowed 32 rushing yards or less. In that game, they won 19-13 at Kansas City.
  • After their bye next week, the Steelers face the 0-5 Dolphins at home on Monday Night Football. If they can manage to win that game, they’ll be in a better position than the 2013 team that also was 2-4 after six games. That team infamously started 0-4, won two straight and then lost two straight to fall to 2-6 halfway through the season. The Steelers lost only two more games after that by a total of eight points and still had a chance to make the playoffs after playing their last game. They just didn’t get the help they needed in other games.
  • We have to look at that 2013 team because that was the low point of the Mike Tomlin era and we’re using it as a measuring stick for bad starts. If the Steelers can stay ahead of that team’s pace, they’ll have a better chance of not leaving their playoff fate in another team’s hands. Their schedule sets them up to go on a run. Not only do they have a bye and then three straight home games, but in their final 10 games they face only three teams that currently have a winning record. Those games could go a long way toward sorting out playoff tiebreakers. The Steelers host the Colts (3-2) in Week 9, the Bills (4-1) in Week 15 and visit the Ravens (4-2) in Week 17.
  • Yeah, the Steelers started 0-3, but the three teams that beat them in those games, the Patriots, Seahawks and 49ers, are a combined 16-1. So it’s fair to say that those were the three toughest games on their schedule, and they had plenty of chances to win two of those games
  • If the Steelers want another shot at facing teams that good, they’ll have to take care of business against teams who, like them, are in the middle of the pack in the NFL.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers 27, Bengals 3: Steelers defense keeps getting better

The Steelers won a game for the first time this season Monday night, beating the Bengals 27-3 at Heinz Field.

In doing so, the Steelers allowed three points or less for the first time since Week 16 of the 2011 season, when they blanked the St. Louis — yes, the St. Louis — Rams 27-0 in Pittsburgh.

In other words, since Before Tebow.

No, this doesn’t mean that the Steelers defense is once again the championship unit that it was for about a decade before noodle-armed Tim Tebow signaled the end of that era in the 2011 AFC wild-card game.

It does mean that despite not having a win to show for it until Monday, this young and growing defense has shown progress for four straight weeks.

In Week 1, the Steelers defense was inept against Tom Brady.

In Week 2, the Steelers had four sacks and allowed just seven points in the first half before Russell Wilson did Russell Wilson things in the second half.

In Week 3, the Steelers defense played well enough to beat the 49ers. T.J. Watt recovered a fumble with less than seven minutes left and the Steelers leading. But the defense was asked to make one extra stop because of a James Conner fumble, and Jimmy Garoppolo threw his first touchdown pass of the game to give the 49ers the 24-20 win.

The Steelers defense still can be solved by the likes of Brady, Wilson and Garoppolo.

But not Andy Dalton.

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Steelers’ future depends on Mason Rudolph

Daniel Jones and Kyle Allen have been the talk of the town this week in the NFL.

Mason Rudolph?

Not so much.

Jones, chosen with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, led the Giants from an 18-point halftime deficit Sunday to a 32-31 win in Tampa Bay, completing 23 of 36 passes for 336 yards with two touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns.

Allen, who went undrafted in 2018, completed 19 of 26 passes for 261 yards and four touchdowns in his second career start Sunday as the visiting Panthers defeated the Cardinals 38-20.

Rudolph, like Allen a second-year player, went 14-for-27 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Steelers’ 24-20 loss at San Francisco.

Why can’t Rudolph be more like Jones and Allen, Steelers fans might ask?

Well, how do we know he’s not? He’s played just a game and a half while Jones has played in one game and mopped up in another and Allen has played in three games.

The Steelers, who drafted Rudolph in the third round last year with the 76th pick, certainly believe in him. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have traded next year’s first-round pick, which has the potential to be very high, to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

By making that trade after Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season, the Steelers (0-3) took themselves out of the market for an elite quarterback like Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert or Jake Fromm in next year’s draft.

This means that the organization is in trouble if Rudolph flops as the starter this season. He doesn’t have to create a quarterback controversy. He just has to show enough for the Steelers to feel confident that he can succeed Roethlisberger in three or so years.

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Seahawks 28, Steelers 26: Ben Roethlisberger out for the season. Now what?

How’s this for a punch to the gut?

The Steelers fell to 0-2 with Sunday’s 28-26 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field, but the news on Monday was a lot harder to swallow.

Ben Roethlisberger will have surgery on his right elbow and is out for the season.

It’s not like the Steelers haven’t started 0-2 before. Heck, they started 0-4 in 2013 and damn near made the playoffs.

But Roethlisberger missing pretty much the entire season? That’s something this organization hasn’t dealt with since it drafted the quarterback in 2004.

Roethlisberger had never missed more than four games in a season despite taking quite a licking in his career. He’s been the Stretch Armstrong of quarterbacks. In Week 3 of the 2015 season at St. Louis he rode off on a cart, a scene that usually signals the end of someone’s season.

He missed only four games.

Every once in a while throughout Roethlisberger’s career Steelers fans have had to hold their breath when he’s been shaken up, but he’s almost always stayed in the game.

Roethlisberger clutched his elbow after throwing a pass during the first half of Sunday’s game, but he’s done things like that before and it almost never turns out to be anything serious. For all his durability, he has been a little overly demonstrative when it comes to certain bumps and bruises.

However, this might not be something that happened during the game. According to Dianna Russini of ESPN, teammates said that Roethlisberger had felt discomfort in his elbow all week.

This could be a wear-and-tear kind of thing. Nothing that’s happened on the field has directly knocked Roethlisberger out for a season, but then again Father Time doesn’t wear shoulder pads. And it could be that this all-powerful dad that has dictated the length of so many football careers is starting to clear his throat to tell the 37-year-old Roethlisberger that it’s time to get ready for bed.

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