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Steelers’ playoff loss brings anger, not heartbreak

Steelers fans have seen some heartbreaking playoff defeats.

Sunday’s 45-42 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field wasn’t one of them.

Hearts weren’t broken, but rather TV screens, drinking glasses, maybe a cell phone or two. Any object that could have been kicked, punched or thrown by angry Steelers fans was in danger Sunday afternoon.

The Steelers’ wildly entertaining 2017 season has come to a premature end. We laughed and cried with this team, from JuJu Smith-Schuster chaining his bike on the sideline to Ryan Shazier fighting to walk again. We tolerated anthem controversies and flying water coolers and celebrated last-second field goals.

This team, only the fourth Steelers team to go 13-3 or better, deserved a place in history.

Until Sunday’s pitiful performance, that is.

Last year, the Steelers laid their customary egg at Gillette Stadium but at least advanced a round further in the playoffs for the second straight year.

In 2015, the Steelers squeezed every last drop they could out of an injury-ravaged team before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Denver.

In 2014, the Steelers were one-and-done in the postseason but they at least ended a two-year playoff drought.

This year’s exit wasn’t so honorable.

The Steelers spent too much time guaranteeing wins over the Patriots and tweeting about contract gripes and not enough time preparing for this game. The Jaguars, meanwhile, set out to prove that their 30-9 win in Week 5 wasn’t a fluke by taking a little more than a quarter to recreate that 21-point margin.

Oh, the Steelers didn’t go down without a fight. Three times they battled back to within a touchdown, but unlike the Steelers’ wild-card loss to the Jaguars a decade ago, this wasn’t a comeback that fell agonizingly short. This was a comeback that could have been completed if it weren’t for some facepalm decisions by the Steelers’ braintrust.

Trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter, the Steelers faced fourth-and-1 at the Jaguars’ 21. Needing inches, Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball eight yards backwards to Le’Veon Bell, who lost four yards on the play.

In the second half, the Jaguars were hearing footsteps. Their lead was just 28-21. The Steelers forced punts on the first two Jaguars possessions after halftime. The second was partially blocked by Robert Golden, giving the Steelers the ball at the Jacksonville 48. Then on fourth down and about a foot, when Roethlisberger could have dove forward for a first down just as easily as Steelers fans could have reached and grabbed their Iron City, the Steelers instead decided to challenge A.J. Bouye, who yielded a 22.5 passer rating on balls thrown his way this season.

The pass to Smith-Schuster fell incomplete, and there went the Steelers’ momentum.

Twice more the Jaguars restored their 14-point lead, and twice more the Steelers answered to pull within a touchdown.

With his players furiously attempting to catch the Jaguars, however, Mike Tomlin wanted to outdo Todd Haley’s stupidity. After Bell took a lateral from Roethlisberger and ran for an 8-yard touchdown to make the score 42-35 with 2:18 left, Tomlin ordered an onside kick instead of using two timeouts and the two-minute warning to try to get the ball back.

The Steelers might have been a 9-7 team this season without Chris Boswell, but when it comes to onside kicks, Boswell will forever be known as Mr. Rabona. He couldn’t even get this one to go 10 yards, and three Leonard Fournette plunges later Josh Lambo kicked the game-clinching field goal.

Even trailing 45-35 with 1:45 left and no timeouts, the Steelers didn’t stop trying.

And the coaching staff didn’t stop blundering.

Martavis Bryant got to the Jaguars’ 5-yard line after catching a 42-yard pass with 47 seconds left. Rather than call for a field goal that the Steelers would need anyway and then try an onside kick when it would actually be appropriate, Tomlin kept the offense on the field and officially turned the final seconds into garbage time.

Smith-Schuster was the trash collector, catching a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger with one second left to make the final score 45-42.

If someone said before the game that the final score would be 45-42, you’d think the game would be a classic. But this could turn out to be the least memorable game in NFL history in which both teams broke 40 points.

Sort of like the 2017 Steelers season. A lot happened, but the disappointing end will make most of it very forgettable.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers never have easy time beating Jaguars

To get to Super Bowl LII, the Steelers most likely will have to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium, something they’ve never done.

Before that, however, the Steelers will have to do something else they’ve never done: beat Blake Bortles in Pittsburgh.

OK, so it wasn’t really Bortles who beat the Steelers in their 30-9 loss to the Jaguars this season. If any quarterback beat the Steelers in that Week 5 game, it was Ben Roethlisberger by throwing a career-high five interceptions.

Assuming the Patriots handle the Cinderella Titans Saturday night, this won’t be the first time the Steelers have hosted the Jaguars in a playoff game with the Patriots awaiting the winner. Ten years ago, the Jaguars beat the Steelers in a wild-card game before succumbing to the unbeaten Patriots the following week.

While the 2017 Steelers have a lot of things going for them that the 2007 Steelers didn’t, the only previous playoff meeting between these teams typifies how much the Steelers have struggled historically against the Jaguars.

Jacksonville, which entered the league in 1995 and until 2001 was a divisional rival of the Steelers in the old AFC Central, is one of just three AFC franchises that has an all-time winning record (12-11) against the Steelers. The other two are the Broncos (14-8-1) and Raiders (12-10). The Steelers haven’t beaten the Jaguars by double digits since 2001, and they haven’t beaten a Jaguars team that had a winning record since they won 17-16 at Jacksonville in 2004, Roethlisberger’s rookie season.

Exactly one year after Bill Cowher stepped down as Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin coached his first playoff game. Just like this year, the Jaguars had beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season. Fred Taylor scored the deciding touchdown in that 29-22 victory in Week 15. Taylor ran for 234 yards in a 34-24 win at Pittsburgh seven years earlier. No other player has run for that many yards in a game against the Steelers.

Another nemesis played a role in the Jaguars’ 2007 playoff win. Unlike this season, pick-sixes didn’t afflict the Steelers against the Jaguars in the regular season but rather in the playoffs. Rashean Mathis, who took three interceptions to the house against the Steelers in his career, picked off a Roethlisberger pass and returned it 63 yards to give the Jaguars a 14-7 lead, an advantage that eventually grew to 28-10 late in the third quarter.

The Steelers fought back and took a 29-28 lead on a 1-yard run by Najeh Davenport.

If you’re asking just who in the hell is Najeh Davenport, he was the journeyman pressed into starting duty when Willie Parker broke his leg in Week 16. As long as Le’Veon Bell stays healthy, it’s safe to assume the 2017 Steelers are better off at running back in the postseason than the 2007 squad.

One eerie parallel on the Jaguars’ side, however, is mobility at quarterback. David Garrard was no Bortles in that regard, but on fourth-and-2 from the Steelers’ 43 with 1:56 left and the Steelers clinging to that 29-28 lead, Garrard scrambled for 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal by Josh Scobee.

When it comes to painful playoff exits in Steelers history, that 2007 loss to the Jaguars is right up there with the Tim Tebow Game in 2011, Fitzgerald Toussaint‘s fumble in 2015 and Joe Nedney boasting his acting chops when a roughing-the-kicker penalty allowed him a second attempt at a game-winning field goal in overtime in 2002 at Tennessee.

Eight years after Scobee ended the Steelers’ 2007 season, he was a Steeler and missed two field goals in an overtime loss to the Ravens. That set the Steelers on a search that led to Chris Boswell.

So in a Rube Goldberg kind of way, Scobee has earned some amnesty for breaking the Steelers’ hearts in 2007. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sunday’s game came down to Boswell’s leg considering the way the Steelers’ 2017 season has gone as well as the difficulties they’ve had against the Jaguars.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

James Harrison is just having his mid-life crisis

Hopefully any Steelers fans who saw the solar eclipse of 2017 still have those safety glasses handy, because judging from the reaction in Pittsburgh they’ll need them to bear the sight of James Harrison in a Patriots uniform.

If Steelers fans think it’s hard for them to see Harrison in those threads, imagine how the Jets are going to feel on Sunday. Lined up across from Harrison’s menacing stare, they’re going to have to keep themselves from laughing.

Harrison in a Patriots uniform shouldn’t mortify Steelers fans. It should amuse them.

He looks silly in those clothes.

Harrison, who signed with the Patriots three days after being released by the Steelers, has a game face that could make the Demogorgon in Stranger Things curl up in a fetal position. But what good does that do when it’s surrounded by a helmet decorated with that cartoonish Flying Elvis logo?

This is Harrison’s mid-life crisis.

At 39, Harrison is one of the few NFL players literally old enough to go through a mid-life crisis. Very often a divorce is part of a mid-life crisis, and that’s what happened after 14 years with the Steelers. Sometimes, a shiny new sports car will get a man through his mid-life crisis. By putting on that Patriots uniform, Harrison is the NFL version of the middle-aged guy in the bright red convertible.

In other words, he looks like a jackass.

Apparently, he also acted like a jackass in his final weeks as a Steeler.

Harrison played just 40 snaps this season and was only active in five of the 14 games he was with the Steelers. Third-year linebacker Bud Dupree said on his radio show, via, that Harrison would leave the stadium when he found out he was inactive. Dupree also said that Harrison wouldn’t attend meetings, and another source told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN that Harrison would fall asleep at position meetings that he did attend and snore while linebackers coach Joey Porter was talking.

This is eerily similar to the LeGarrette Blount situation in 2014. The Steelers signed Blount as Le’Veon Bell‘s backup and he played in 11 games, but in a 27-24 win at Tennessee in which Bell ran for 204 yards and Blount didn’t get a carry, Blount walked into the locker room before the end of the game and bolted for the team bus before most of his teammates had even showered. The Steelers promptly released him and he was reunited with the Patriots. Six days after that game, he scored two touchdowns for New England.

Had Blount been a better teammate, the Steelers could have used him in the playoffs. Bell was injured in the regular-season finale, and with a backfield tandem of Ben Tate and Josh Harris the Steelers were no match for the Ravens, who beat them 30-17 in the wild-card round.

Blount, meanwhile, ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-7, divisional-round win over the Colts and the Patriots went on to win their fourth Super Bowl.

The Patriots, who somehow manage to benefit from loopholes like the Tuck Rule and the inability of the NFL to define a catch, benefited that year from the Steelers’ intolerance of a locker-room cancer.

That could turn out to be the case this year, too, and the knife would sink ever deeper into the Steelers’ back if Harrison has a hand in a Patriots’ win over the Steelers in the AFC championship game.

This possibility is why so many Harrison jerseys have been burned over the last three days. Perhaps the jersey burners should have thought things through, however, because while there’s a chance Harrison strip sacks Ben Roethlisberger to clinch a trip to the Super Bowl for the Patriots, there’s also a chance that Harrison’s days with the Patriots turn out to be as forgettable as Franco Harris‘ days with the Seahawks or Greg Lloyd‘s days with the Panthers.

When he played for the Bengals in 2013, Harrison had two sacks in 15 games. He wasn’t quite as effective in a 4-3 defense, which is the Patriots’ base formation. Sure, the Patriots mix up their defense and it stands to reason that they’ll find better ways to use Harrison than the Bengals did, and having Harrison would come in handy if the Chiefs come to Gillette Stadium for a playoff game. Harrison owns Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher. A holding call on Fisher against Harrison negated a game-tying two-point conversion in the Chiefs’ divisional playoff loss to the Steelers last year, and Harrison’s only sack this season clinched the Steelers’ 19-13 win at Kansas City in Week 6.

But what if Fisher is the only blocker that Harrison can still beat?

It could be that Harrison’s most valuable contribution to the Patriots will be intelligence on the Steelers’ inner workings. But the Patriots are 5-0 against the Steelers over the last four years. How much can he tell them that they don’t already know?

Whatever secrets Harrison does spill in New England, he’s helping the Steelers more by taking his act somewhere else.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers can’t catch break in crushing loss to Patriots

One word to describe the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Patriots Sunday at Heinz Field?


A little gallows humor.

Let’s get this straight. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Rob Gronkowski, who shouldn’t have been playing two weeks after trying to decapitate the 5-foot-11, 192-pound TreDavious White, carries the Patriots on their game-winning drive. Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s counterpart, Steelers tight end Jesse James, gets a game-winning touchdown taken away from him.

James, who unlike Gronkowski does not seem to be a complete buffoon off the field, had control of the ball and it didn’t move in his hands until it crossed the goal line. In the NFL, however, catches aren’t determined through any real rules. They’re a matter of interpretation. Let’s just have three officials sitting at a table by the goal line American Idol-style and awarding touchdowns based on how much they’re “feeling it, bro.”

That said, let’s not blame this loss entirely on the officiating. Did Ben Roethlisberger or Todd Haley watch Super Bowl XLIX? Are either of them at least aware of what happened in that game? If Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson weren’t scrubbing tire marks from their faces after their 42-7 home loss to the Rams, they’d be flashing back to Wilson’s ill-advised pass in that game that Malcolm Butler intercepted in the end zone with 26 seconds left.

Do Roethlisberger and Haley think that a team that has won five Super Bowls in this century isn’t prepared for a fake spike? Instead of letting Chris Boswell, who has won four games this season, get the game into overtime, Roethlisberger ran a play and threw a pass intended for Eli Rogers in the end zone with five seconds left.

Unlike another Eli, however, this one isn’t the Patriots’ kryptonite even though he did catch a touchdown pass in the game. Eric Rowe knocked the ball away and Duron Harmon picked it out of the air to secure the win for the Patriots.

Their late-game stupidity aside, the Steelers (11-3) played well enough to beat the Patriots for the first time since the last time they actually did beat them in 2011. During this five-game losing streak to New England, the Steelers had never even led until Sunday.

That lead was 24-16 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had a chance to add to it or at least kill some serious clock, but a holding and a false start stalled a drive and the Patriots had the ball with 7:38 left.

The playing of “Renegade,” which has become strategic in the second half of Steelers home games, didn’t work this time. The Patriots (11-3) drove for a field goal. The Steelers went three-and-out for the first time in the game. Sean Davis dropped the game-clinching interception and Gronkowski caught three passes for 69 yards to set up Dion Lewis‘ game-winning touchdown in the stadium where he played his college ball.

The Steelers’ four previous losses to the Patriots were softened by a resignation that set in long before the final seconds. Not counting a garbage-time touchdown with two seconds left in the Steelers’ 28-21 loss to open the 2015 season, the Patriots have led by double digits in the final nine minutes in each of those games.

There was no such emotional buffer this time.

Oh, we did have an entire minute to come to terms with this defeat after Gronkowski caught the two-point conversion to make it 27-24, but then JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a pass from Roethlisberger and zig-zagged his way 69 yards to the Patriots’ 10-yard line. Then Roethlisberger threw the TD pass to James and resignation was lost in a sea of Terrible Towels. We were allowed to believe that the Steelers finally beat the Patriots until the namesake of a legendary robber was robbed of the game-winning touchdown.

Not only do the Steelers know how Carroll felt after Super Bowl XLIX, they also know how he felt almost exactly 20 years ago when he was coaching the Patriots.

For all of the Patriots’ domination of the Steelers over the last 16 years, this was the first time they had beaten them the way the Steelers beat them on Dec. 13, 1997.

Smith-Schuster was a year old, Chumbawamba was Tubthumping its way up the Billboard charts, Donald Trump was still married to Marla Maples and the Patriots played their home games at Foxboro Stadium, where the Steelers trailed 21-13 with two minutes left and no timeouts. Rather than punt from midfield, Drew Bledsoe thought it would be a better idea to throw a pass to no one in particular, and Steelers linebacker Kevin Henry intercepted it and returned it to the Patriots’ 18. The Steelers tied the game and won it in overtime on Norm Johnson‘s field goal.

That game decided the host when the teams met in the divisional playoffs three weeks later, a game the Steelers won 7-6 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Now, we might be looking at history repeating itself in reverse.

The Steelers will have to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium to get to Super Bowl LII, if they can even reach the AFC championship game.

If the Steelers win their last two games, at Houston on Christmas and at home against Cleveland, they’ll have a first-round bye. But they’ll have to win those games without Antonio Brown.

When we’re done brooding about Sunday’s loss, we can wring our hands over Brown’s calf injury. The hope is that he can return for the playoffs.

With that in mind, a first-round bye would come in awfully handy.

Should we be impressed that the Steelers damn near beat the Patriots without Brown for three quarters and, for that matter, without Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden?

On one hand, it’s nice to think that the Steelers forged a mettle Sunday that will make them awfully hard to take out any time before the AFC championship game.

On the other hand, the Steelers can’t prove a thing until they beat the Patriots.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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.

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