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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.

 

Steelers sharpen their focus, rout Ravens

Let’s get this straight.

The Steelers lose to a Bears team that has lost its three other games by an average of 16 points, then they go and win at Baltimore for the first time since 2012.

When we print out those Steelers schedules in April, we pretty much pencil in  an “L” next to “at Baltimore” and work around it.

Not this year.

Winning in Baltimore is the kind of thing that Super Bowl-caliber Steelers teams do. They won there in 2008 and 2010. They failed to make the playoffs after Charlie Batch led them to a win at Baltimore in 2012, but remember they lost Ike Taylor for the season in that game and that’s a big reason they dropped three of their last four.

So does Sunday’s 26-9 win over the Ravens absolve the Steelers of their loss at Chicago? Or do the Steelers (3-1) still have to explain their slip-ups against weak competition?

Perhaps one reason the Steelers weren’t fully prepared against the Bears is that the national anthem controversy, to put it delicately, presented them with certain distractions that no other team had to face.

It’s not unprecedented for a Steelers team with Super Bowl talent to be preoccupied with non-football matters right before a game and come out flat against one of the worst teams in the league.

According to the NFL Network’s “America’s Game” documentary on the 1979 Steelers, the players on that team were discussing the World Series, in which the Pirates were playing the Orioles, just before taking the field to play the 0-6 Bengals in Cincinnati. They lost 34-10, but still went on to win Super Bowl XIV.

Yes, the subject matter was much lighter, but the point is that football really should be the only thing on players’ minds in the moments before a game.

It looked like the Steelers learned that lesson despite Alex Collins‘ 23-yard run on the first play from scrimmage on Sunday. They eventually forced a punt and then kept the ball for 16 plays on their first possession, which resulted in a field goal.

At the time, it seemed like the Steelers should have come away with more than a field goal after such a long drive, but their 3-0 lead was not insignificant. It was the first time they had even led at Baltimore since that 2012 game. Another Chris Boswell field goal midway through the second quarter increased that lead to 6-0. It was the Steelers’ biggest lead at Baltimore in 15 years.

That’s right. You have to go back to that magical year of Tommy Maddox in 2002 to find a Steelers’ lead of more than four points at Baltimore.

Sunday’s lead grew to 13-0 when Cameron Heyward forced and recovered a fumble at the Ravens’ 28 to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Le’Veon Bell. It was the first of two touchdowns for Bell, who finally decided to start his season in October after essentially using September for his training camp. Bell broke out for 144 yards and caught four passes to share the team lead in receptions with Antonio Brown.

Steelers not named Antonio Brown caught some passes for a change, and that helped the Steelers score their next touchdown.

Two of Martavis Bryant‘s three receptions came on back-to-back plays. The first was a 24-yard connection with Ben Roethlisberger on third-and-six from the Steelers’ 46. Bryant then caught a 19-yard pass and two plays later No. 19 made it 19-0 when Roethlisberger threw JuJu Smith-Schuster an 11-yard touchdown pass.

If opposing defenses have to start thinking twice about double-covering Brown, this Steelers’ offense might finally start lighting up scoreboards.

Not that the Steelers really were expected to break the 30-point barrier in Baltimore. These rare wins in Baltimore aren’t supposed to be pretty. That said, the Steelers looked as good Sunday as they have all season.

And since the Pirates aren’t in the playoffs, there should be nothing to divert the Steelers’ attention from the Jaguars next week at Heinz Field.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers again fail to bear down against weak opponent

Another face plant against a cellar-dwelling opponent.

Another collective face palm across Steelers Nation.

The Steelers did it again. They lost to yet another team they should have had no problem beating, upholding a dubious tradition that’s been an unfortunate undercurrent of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach.

With sole possession of first place in the AFC North right there on a silver platter after the Ravens’ 44-7 loss to the Jaguars in London, the Steelers fell 23-17 to the Bears in overtime at Chicago on Sunday.

The Steelers lost to a winless team (0-2 or worse) for the fifth time in the last six years. Since 2012, they’ve lost nine games to teams that have finished the season 6-10 or worse. There’s a good chance this becomes the 10th.

This has passed the point of getting tedious. What can we say now that we haven’t said after all those previous flops?

Plenty.

For one thing, Mike Glennon improved to 6-15 as a starter. Two of those wins have come against the Steelers. It was obvious early in this game that the Steelers (2-1) haven’t learned from their history against inferior teams, and history repeated itself in an uncanny way.

On the first play of the game, Ben Roethlisberger threw a deep ball that went through Martavis Bryant‘s fingers. Maybe a little overthrown, but Bryant should have had it. Like the Steelers, the Bears (1-2) went three-and-out on their first drive, but Eli Rogers muffed the punt.

Now, the Steelers are used to Bryant letting them down, but Rogers? It was a costly mistake by the reliable slot receiver, because the Bears needed just 29 yards to take a 7-0 lead on a 3-yard run by Jordan Howard, who gashed the Steelers for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including the 19-yard game winner in OT.

When Glennon and the 0-3 (and eventually 2-14) Bucs visited Pittsburgh in 2014, Roethlisberger was strip-sacked on the third play of the game and the Steelers spotted Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead in a game they eventually lost 27-24 on Glennon’s game-winning touchdown pass with seven seconds left.

Glennon didn’t have to be a hero Sunday. He threw for only 101 yards. Instead, it was Howard and Tarik Cohen, who added 78 rushing yards on 12 carries.

The Steelers’ epic fails in their run defense and on special teams almost weren’t enough to lose this game. The Bears did all they could to hand this game to the Steelers. They fumbled the ball five times, but the Steelers could only recover one of them. The Bears also pissed away four points at the end of the first half when Marcus Cooper recovered a blocked field goal and ran it back for what would have been a touchdown if he hadn’t slowed down to start his celebration before reaching the goal line. Vance McDonald knocked the ball out of his hands and into the end zone and punter Jordan Berry knocked it out of the end zone.

With the first half apparently finished, the Steelers went into the locker room, but after the play was reviewed, Berry was penalized for the illegal hit. The Bears were awarded an untimed down at the half-yard line. They committed a false start penalty and had to settle for a field goal and a 17-7 halftime lead.

If it weren’t for those three points, the Steelers would have won 17-14 because they held the Bears scoreless in the second half. Had Berry just recovered the ball in the end zone, it would have been a touchback and the half would have been over. It would have helped if Berry knew that, but it’s not exactly a shocker that someone doesn’t know the rules on a team that’s second in the league with 29 penalties, including an illegal formation and an illegal shift on Sunday and an illegal formation on a field goal attempt in Week 2.

Perhaps the players should be quizzed on the rules this week as they prepare for their game at Baltimore. A lot of the guys would be taking this quiz in the trainer’s room. Who knows how differently this game would have turned out if T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt were healthy and if Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster were protecting Roethlisberger. Foster left the game in the first quarter with a thumb injury. The other three guys were inactive.

With boys of summer Chris Hubbard and B.J. Finney trying to protect him, Roethlisberger was sacked three times Sunday. The first led to a fumble. The second came on third-and-3 with the Steelers in Bears territory with 11 minutes left in the game. The third came on a three-man rush with 22 seconds left in regulation, squashing any chance at a game-winning field goal.

On their previous possession, the Steelers had the ball at their 38 with 5:12 left and the score tied 17-17. They could have worked the clock for the game-winning score, but Hubbard was called for holding on the first play of the drive and the Steelers went three-and-out.

This supposedly explosive offense is 25th in the league with a 32 percent conversion rate on third downs and 16th with 21.3 points per game. Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Bryant have been on the field together for three straight games. They hadn’t even played together in two straight games since 2014. The problem now is the offensive line can’t stay healthy. If Gilbert and Foster aren’t back soon, or if Hubbard and Finney don’t break through those training-camp ceilings, it’s only a matter of time before Roethlisberger misses some games and the Steelers once again find themselves having to win nine straight just to make the playoffs.

Then again, it won’t take the 1985 Bears or the 1975 Steelers to win the AFC North in 2017. The Steelers still can own first place in the division if they win at Baltimore Sunday, and at least they’re not looking for answers in the wake of a 37-point loss. The Ravens had built their 2-0 record by beating the Bengals and Browns, 0-3 both. Based on that, as well as their rendition of the London Sillynannies on Sunday, the Ravens might not be that good.

But right now, neither are the Steelers.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers can’t let Pennywise the Quarterback beat them

Normally, this is the kind of week where we wave the caution flag about a Steelers letdown.

The Steelers take their 2-0 record to Chicago Sunday to face the 0-2 Bears, who are in the bottom 10 of the NFL in points scored and points allowed.

On one hand, the Steelers have been bitten by so many underdogs over the last half-decade that it’s hard not be a little apprehensive about this game.

On the other hand, when was the last time the Steelers lost to a really bad team?

It seemed like they did when they lost at Miami, which was 1-4 at the time, in Week 6 last season. But that was the start of a six-game winning streak for the Dolphins, who finished 10-6 and visited the Steelers in the AFC wild-card game.The Steelers didn’t lose to a team last year with a record worse than 7-9, and that was at Philadelphia in Week 3. The Eagles improved to 3-0 with that win and weren’t a bad team at the time they played the Steelers.

Last season was the first since 2011 in which the Steelers didn’t lose to a team with a record of 5-11 or worse.

But just when we think the Steelers are past the point of stumbling against inferior foes at least once a year, we’re once again haunted by a face from the embarrassing past.

No, Mike Glennon doesn’t have the “It” factor as a quarterback. But his freakish height (6’7″) and cone-shaped face make him about as scary-looking as Pennywise the clown, even if the Bears were anything but penny wise in signing him to a three-year, $45 million contract.

Glennon, you may recall, led the winless Buccaneers to a 27-24 comeback victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 4 of the 2014 season. It was one of just two wins for the Buccaneers that year.

If “It” can come back and haunt Derry, Maine every 27 years or so, Glennon could resurface after three years and torment the Steelers once again.

Is John Fox sure it isn’t time for Mitchell Trubisky to make his debut as an NFL starter?

Better yet, how about Trubisky enters the game to replace Glennon because the journeyman quarterback is no match for the Steelers defense?

DeShone Kizer and Case Keenum have combined for 326 passing yards and one touchdown against Pittsburgh. The Steelers must continue to take advantage of the fact that they haven’t faced a real quarterback yet. If another NFL bottom feeder coaxes them into the sewers like Georgie Denbrough, they could be staring .500 in the face when they head to Baltimore.

As long as Joe Flacco is healthy, losing at Baltimore is no paranormal phenomenon for the Steelers, it’s an occupational hazard. Ben Roethlisberger is just 2-6 in his career there as a starter. The Ravens’ home-field advantage will be a little compromised this year because they’ll be coming off a game at London on Sunday. They asked the league not to give them the customary bye the week after their London game, but they probably didn’t think about the possibility of the Steelers awaiting them after their trip across the Atlantic.

Still, we can’t count on wins at Baltimore when trying to map out the course of a Steelers season. The Steelers have lost there four years in a row, and if a loss there this year drops them to 2-2, they’ll look like just an ordinary team and not a Super Bowl contender.

For that matter, wins at Chicago can’t exactly be penciled in on the rare occasions that the Steelers play at Soldier Field. They’re 7-18-1 all-time against the Bears, their lowest winning percentage against any NFL team that still exists (they lost their only game against the St. Louis Gunners in 1934), and they’re 1-11 at Chicago.

The Steelers’ only win in the Windy City came in 1995, 37-34 in overtime. The players held hands on the sidelines when Norm Johnson kicked the winning field goal. It was the second of eight straight wins in a year in which the Steelers reached Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers should win their 10th straight regular-season game Sunday without any hand-holding. This isn’t the Losers’ Club. There should be no need to stand in a circle holding hands vowing to reunite if Glennon ever again becomes the stuff of Pittsburgh nightmares.

If history tells us that it takes Super Bowl-caliber talent for the Steelers to win at Chicago, well, the Steelers can provide more evidence that they have just that.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers 21, Browns 18: Ugly Steelers win is nothing to worry about

On the surface, the Steelers’ 21-18, season-opening win in Cleveland Sunday was a lot more interesting than it had to be.

The Browns encapsulated nearly two decades of misery into the first seven minutes of the game. Their first possession ended with a punt that was blocked by Tyler Matakevich and recovered in the end zone by Anthony Chickillo for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead.

Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer was sacked twice on the Browns’ next series, and it looked like Steelers fans could once again start laughing at the Browns.

It turned out to be no laughing matter, however. The Steelers needed nearly 58 minutes to secure this win over a team they normally have no trouble beating. Does this mean that we need to pump the brakes on the lofty expectations we’ve set for the Steelers? Does this mean the Steelers aren’t Super Bowl material?

No, it doesn’t.

Steelers wins at Cleveland have pretty much been a given. The Steelers are 15-4 there since the franchise re-joined the NFL in 1999. But it doesn’t mean that a Dawg Pounding is a prerequisite for a championship season. In 2008, the Steelers squeaked past the Browns 10-6 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

No, the Steelers didn’t dismantle the Browns Sunday. They just did what they had to do to win a division game on the road, and that’s just as much a mark of a title contender as a dominating performance.

The Steelers didn’t have their best stuff. They had to reach deep into their toolbox to find what they needed to put together this win. The only Steeler to find the end zone aside from the aforementioned Chickillo was Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. The second one didn’t exactly look planned. Like a kid trying to skim rocks on Lake Erie, Roethlisberger sidearmed the ball to the tight end from two yards out to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead in the third quarter.

James’ two touchdowns are a career high and his six receptions tied his previous mark. It would have been understandable if James were tempted to ask Mike Tomlin “Is that varsity enough for you?”

Chickillo had two sacks to accompany his touchdown. Playing in place of an injured Bud Dupree, Chickillo excelled in a next-man-up role. Newly acquired cornerback Joe Haden also had a sack in his revenge game. Any sack from a cornerback is a nice little bonus.

The Steelers also had contributions from a player who they hope is a consistent source of production. T.J. Watt became the first Steeler with two sacks and an interception in his NFL debut. Watt still needs 74 sacks to pull even with his brother’s career total, but he’s already matched J.J. Watt‘s one interception, although the latter has one pick in a playoff game.

It’s too early to tell if T.J. Watt is anything close to his brother, but one player who has proven to be just as valuable as J.J. Watt is Antonio Brown. The guy who embarrassed the Steelers on Facebook Live in January saved them from an embarrassing loss Sunday with 11 catches for 182 yards.

The Steelers were mired in a 7-7 stalemate when Brown jump-started the offense with a 50-yard reception late in the first half. It was the Steelers’ first play of 20 or more yards. Five plays later, Roethlisberger threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to James to give the Steelers a 14-7 halftime lead.

The defense couldn’t close the deal on this win, allowing the Browns to pull within 21-18 on a Kizer touchdown pass to Corey Coleman and a two-point conversion with 3:40 left in the game. So Brown was the closer, with the help of an offensive line that gave Roethlisberger enough time on the play to keep pondering retirement.

Brown caught a 38-yard pass in triple coverage that essentially burned the Browns’ last two timeouts with two and a half minutes left. After stopping the clock, Hue Jackson unsuccessfully challenged Brown’s catch. Then it was kneel-down time after Le’Veon Bell‘s 15-yard gain before the two-minute warning.

That was Bell’s longest run of the day, and his rusty performance is one of the reasons the Steelers had to fight tooth and nail for this victory. Bell gained 32 yards on 10 carries and earned a knuckle-lashing from a ruler-wielding nun at Saint Vincent College for missing training camp. Another authority clad in black and white — the officials — punished the Steelers for their 13 penalties, docking them 144 yards.

Assuming Bell regains his sea legs and the Steelers clean up their play, they should win games a lot more convincingly.

Sometimes, however, you just have to win ugly, and that’s what the Steelers did Sunday.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Predicting each game of the Steelers’ 2017 season

The Steelers already are entering the 2017 season with high hopes, and what we saw on Thursday night did nothing to diminish those expectations. We caught a glimpse of an AFC landscape in which the Patriots aren’t invincible.

Now that the countdown to the Steelers’ season opener can be measured in hours and not days or weeks, it’s time to take a look at each game and predict a win or a loss.

In other words, it’s time for The Win-Loss Game.

The consensus has been a lot more wins than losses for the Steelers in 2017, and a few more wins in January. But there are a few “ifs.”

The Steelers’ offense will be just about unstoppable if Martavis Bryant can stay clean. The defense will be better if Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave and T.J. Watt turn out to be good draft picks and if Ryan Shazier can stay healthy.

Some unexpected holes forced the Steelers to acquire cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Vance McDonald and safety J.J. Wilcox in last-minute moves.

The Steelers are sure to face other unforeseen hurdles in their quest to win their seventh Super Bowl, but at least they didn’t have the top overall pick in the draft and use that pick on a player who will miss the first few weeks of the season with a high-ankle sprain.

And that brings us to …

Week 1: at Cleveland

Myles Garrett will have to wait a little while before he can “chop down” Ben Roethlisberger as he vowed to do after the Browns took him with the No. 1 pick in the draft. DeShone Kizer, however, will make his debut. The Steelers didn’t fare well against rookie quarterbacks last year. Unless Kizer is another Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz, however, the Steelers should have little trouble in their season opener. Look for a pick-six from Joe Haden in his revenge game.

Steelers, 27-14 (1-0)

Week 2: Minnesota

The Steelers go from facing a rookie quarterback in Week 1 to Sam Bradford in Week 2. It won’t always be this easy. In general, the opposing quarterbacks will get tougher and tougher as the season goes on.

Steelers, 31-23 (2-0)

Week 3: at Chicago

It was Week 3 when Carson Wentz and the Eagles shredded the Steelers last season. Mitchell Trubisky probably won’t be starting by Week 3, so the Steelers should improve their all-time record at Chicago to 2-11 against Mike Glennon.

Steelers, 19-17 (3-0)

Week 4: at Baltimore

The Steelers go to Baltimore after their first 3-0 start since 2010. It was the Ravens who foiled their first 4-0 start since 1979 with a 17-14 win in Week 4. Jeremy Maclin is now paired with a quarterback who knows how to throw the ball down the field. That spells trouble for the Steelers.

Ravens, 17-16 (3-1)

Week 5: Jacksonville

The Jaguars’ defense could surprise some people this season, and they keep this game close. Let’s not forget that Blaine Gabbert and the 5-11 Jaguars came within a Hail Mary of beating the Steelers at Pittsburgh in 2011.

Steelers, 16-13 (4-1)

Week 6: at Kansas City

In the divisional playoffs at Kansas City in January, Chris Boswell kicked six field goals and the Steelers won. This year, he’ll kick seven field goals and they’ll lose. Or maybe the Steelers will just score three touchdowns.

Chiefs, 23-21 (4-2)

Week 7: Cincinnati

Marvin Lewis is entering his 15th season as the Bengals’ head coach. Yes, you read that right.

Steelers, 35-17 (5-2)

Week 8: at Detroit

From Joe Flacco to Blake Bortles to Alex Smith to Andy Dalton to Matthew Stafford. Even if the Steelers’ defense starts to fulfill its potential by this point in the season, it will have its hands full. This will just be the Steelers’ fifth trip to Detroit since Chuck Noll was hired. They’re 2-2 in the previous four with both losses coming on Thanksgiving. This will be two days before Halloween. Fans will be treated to a Sunday-night shootout.

Steelers, 43-38 (6-2)

Week 10: at Indianapolis

The Steelers will come off their bye week and face the Colts for the third straight season. In three of their last four games against them, they’ve faced Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Scott Tolzien. Andrew Luck could miss a few games to start the season, but chances are he’ll be back in time to face the Steelers for the second time in his career. The Steelers won 51-34 at Heinz Field the previous time in 2014. Get ready for another shootout.

Steelers, 41-35, OT (7-2)

Week 11: Tennessee

If Marcus Mariota proves that all the offseason hype was warranted, this will be no reprieve for the Steelers’ defense after facing Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck. But the offense will score 40 for the third straight week on Thursday Night Football. It’s a short week for the Steelers, but they play just two more road games the rest of the season.

Steelers, 41-21 (8-2)

Week 12: Green Bay

We’ll see just how much this defense has grown when Aaron Rodgers comes to Heinz Field for a Sunday-night game. The Packers won at Pittsburgh in each of Chuck Noll’s first two seasons as Steelers coach. They’ve lost all four of their games in Pittsburgh since then, but they won’t lose this one. Including Super Bowl XLV, these teams have averaged a combined 66 points in their last three meetings.

Packers, 35-31 (8-3)

Week 13: At Cincinnati

The Steelers return to AFC North play for a couple of weeks and get a semi-breather in terms of opposing quarterbacks. This is the fourth straight year the Steelers visit Cincinnati in December. Steelers wins at Cincinnati have become just as much a part of December as egg nog and reindeer.

Steelers, 13-9 (9-3)

Week 14: Baltimore

The Steelers eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention in Week 16 last year. This win might do the job in 2017.

Steelers, 24-21 (10-3)

Week 15: New England

Unless what happened on Thursday night is the first sign of a decline, Tom Brady will be the final exam for the Steelers’ defense, at least for the regular season. The No. 1 seed in the AFC could be at stake here. The last time the Steelers beat the Patriots was the last time LaMarr Woodley had two sacks in a game. That’s how long it’s been. Once again, the Steelers will probably have to win at New England in January to get to the Super Bowl.

Patriots, 27-21 (10-4)

Week 16: at Houston

Santa Claus will deliver sacks of toys to children all over the world, and the Watt brothers will be reunited on Christmas Day. Speaking of sacks, it might be too much to ask T.J. Watt to have as many sacks this season as his big brother, J.J. Watt. But it’s realistic to expect T.J. Watt to match in his rookie season the six sacks that another J.J., Jarvis Jones, had in his entire career. The Steelers might need this game to clinch a first-round bye. They’ll have to grind out a win against this defense.

Steelers, 16-10 (11-4)

Week 17: Cleveland

Hopefully, the Steelers won’t need to win this game and we see lots of Landry Jones and James Conner. That would mean Myles Garrett might have to hope Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t retire before he gets his chance to chop him down.

Steelers, 24-7 (12-4)

Playoffs

Divisional round: Oakland

We’re going to take a stroll down Narrative Street here to create more text so it’s harder for the eye to look down and take a peek at the result.

First, the non-spoiler stuff. The Steelers finish 12-4 for the first time since 2011 and get a first-round bye in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In this scenario, they get the No. 2 seed and host the third-seeded Raiders in the divisional round. Despite wins over both the Patriots and Steelers, the Chiefs have to settle for the No. 5 seed because the Raiders win the AFC West.

Starting with the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers and Raiders faced each other in the playoffs six times in a 12-year period, but this will be their first postseason meeting since 1983.

Let’s face it. Steelers fans are spoiled. The Steelers have had a lot of success but also a lot of breaks. The biggest break of them all was the aforementioned Immaculate Reception. It’s been 45 years since Franco Harris scooped up the ball and scored the game-winning touchdown against the Raiders to give the Steelers their first-ever playoff win, and it can be argued that the Steelers have had a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl in at least 30 of those seasons. This is one of those seasons.

Fueling the optimism is the fact that the Steelers have advanced one round further in the playoffs in each of the last three years. There’s also a sense that as long as Ben Roethlisberger is around it’s only a matter of time before the Steelers get back to the Super Bowl. They haven’t made it in seven years, but that still gets overshadowed by the three Super Bowl appearances they made in Roethlisberger’s first seven seasons. Among the breaks they’ve had this century is that other teams have taken care of the Patriots every year they’ve made the Super Bowl.

Will that happen again this year? It won’t matter, because the Raiders will take care of the Steelers in the divisional round. The storyline just seems too tidy and too good to be true for the Steelers to go from the wild-card game in 2014 to the divisional round in 2015 to the conference championship last season to finally conquering the Patriots and getting to the Super Bowl this season.

Heck, even the 12-4 regular-season prediction assumes that Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell stay healthy. Those are far from givens.

Ten years ago, the Steelers overcame a 28-10, third-quarter deficit only to fall to the Jaguars 31-29 in a wild-card game at Heinz Field. That Jaguars team was coached by current Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. The Raiders are a team on the rise, and as Roethlisberger again ponders his future, Steelers fans might have to come to grips with the fact that 2005, 2008 and 2010 was as good as things will get during the Roethlisberger Era.

Raiders, 28-24

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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