Steelers’ first win of 2018 is collection of breakout games

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

That’s the good news.

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

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

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

Like Vance McDonald.

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

Almost literally.

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

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

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

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

In between McDonald’s pivotal receptions, the Steelers got more help from an unlikely source when Anthony Chickillo sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick to push the Bucs out of field-goal range and force them to punt.

After the Steelers took the lead, Mike Hilton terminated the Bucs’ next two drives. He recovered a fumble to give the Steelers a short field for Roethlisberger’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown that increased the Steelers’ lead to 16-7. Then Hilton intercepted Fitzpatrick deep in Steelers territory.

An undrafted cornerback who bounced between the Jaguars and Patriots practice squads in 2016, Hilton was a find for the Steelers last year with four sacks and two interceptions. He showed last night that he can be more than just a one-year wonder as long as the elbow injury he suffered isn’t too serious.

Hilton’s pick came on a pass that was deflected by Jon Bostic. An inside linebacker signed as a free agent, Bostic was thrown into the vast void left by Ryan Shazier‘s injury. No one expects him to do what Shazier did, but he did plenty in this game, leading the Steelers in solo tackles with six and tackles for loss with two. He added a sack on the Bucs’ opening drive of the second half, giving him two for the year. That’s 40 percent of the sixth-year journeyman’s career total of five.

For the Steelers’ defense to improve, role players like Bostic and Hilton will need to keep contributing here and there. Terrell Edmunds and Bud Dupree, on the other hand, are first-round draft picks who are expected to be game-changing, impact players.

And they were in this game.

Hilton’s interception was the first of three straight Tampa Bay possessions that ended in picks. Edmunds, the rookie safety, picked off Fitzpatrick on the next drive, and then Dupree turned his first career interception into a 10-yard pick-six to make the score 23-7. Dupree also had a sack, his second of the season, on the Bucs’ first drive of the second half. That sack as well as Bostic’s on that drive ultimately helped preserve the win as the Bucs’ settled for a field goal. Dupree added 1.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hits to hush the “bust” talk for at least a week.

The first half fittingly ended with more production from the fringes of the roster. Ryan Switzer, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Cowboys last year and traded twice during the offseason, caught his first career touchdown pass to give the Steelers a 30-10 halftime lead.

Were it not for that touchdown, the Steelers wouldn’t have held on for the win. Their 29th-ranked defense allowed 17 second-half points and the penalties kept coming. The Steelers are the NFL’s most penalized team and it isn’t even close. According to nflpenalties.com, 37 penalties against them have been accepted this year. The Bills are second with 28. The Steelers have been penalized for 361 yards. The Eagles are second with 266.

For the Steelers to make the playoffs this year, the offense will have to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the defense will have to force turnovers to make up for its inability to stop anyone. The Steelers forced four turnovers Monday night, but when the takeaways don’t come it would help if the Steelers cleaned up these penalties. That seems more correctable than the talent shortcomings on defense.

The defense did force a three-and-out on the Buccaneers’ last possession, thanks partly to one of Joe Haden‘s three pass breakups. Having him back is a boost. Then the Steelers needed a couple of first downs to seal the win. The first came on a vintage Roethlisberger play. He slipped out of a Gerald McCoy sack and threw an 18-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Then James Conner‘s 17-yard run took them to the two-minute warning, and it was victory formation time.

While holding off the Buccaneers’ furious rally to win the game, the Steelers made a dramatic comeback themselves to win another game.

While it was easy to forget that Le’Veon Bell even existed in the first half, his holdout was starting to loom like a Florida storm cloud over the stadium in the second half. The Steelers couldn’t sustain drives to run out the clock, and Conner had gained just 12 yards on his first 10 carrries.

But Conner broke free for 27 yards to stall the Bucs’ momentum after they had just pulled to within 30-27. He followed that up with a nine-yard gain. The Steelers had to punt on that drive, but Conner’s game-clinching 17-yard gain capped a 51-yard outburst on his last five carries. It was redemption for his fumble in Cleveland and it gave the Steelers a few points in their public-opinion battle with Bell.

It would be very difficult for the Steelers to trade Bell, so they have to plan to be without him in 2018. If Bell thinks he’s sticking it to the Steelers by sitting out, well, they stuck it back to him with the way Conner closed out the victory.

And, really, for the Steelers to win more than just one game they’ll need to overcome problems that one star player alone can’t fix. However, several complementary players might be able to plug the holes on a week-to-week basis. That’s what happened on Monday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers drove their fans to drink with the following first-quarter lowlights:

  • After going backwards two yards on their first possession, the Steelers allowed DeAnthony Thomas to return the ensuing punt 31 yards to the Steelers’ 10-yard line to set up the first of Patrick Mahomes‘ six touchdown passes. The Steelers succeeded in keeping the ball away from dangerous return man Tyreek Hill, but forgot that the guy who does field the punt still has to be tackled, and Thomas caught the Steelers napping.
  • Ben Roethlisberger fumbled a snap on the Steelers’ next possession, which went three-and-out. That led to the first of Travis Kelce‘s two touchdown catches, giving the Chiefs a 14-0 lead before the Steelers’ first positive-yardage play.
  • Chris Boswell missed a 49-yard field goal to end the Steelers’ third possession. He’s missed both of his field-goal attempts this year and he missed an extra-point try on Sunday. Boswell was quite possibly the difference between 13-3 and 9-7 last season. A Boswell meltdown is a headache the Steelers don’t need right now.

The Chiefs would have had a 28-0 lead in the first quarter if the officials hadn’t bailed the Steelers out of their next pratfall. Justin Houston strip-sacked Roethlisberger deep in Steelers territory and Chris Jones recovered the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. The play was nullified, however, when Orlando Scandrick was penalized for defensive holding.

The Steelers took advantage of that lifeline and tied the game in the second quarter. Throwing from his heels, Roethlisberger put the Steelers on the board with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James. He also threw touchdown passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington. He was almost over the line of scrimmage on his 14-yard scoring pass to Washington.

Much like their playoff loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers’ rally had a playground sort of feel to it, like their entire offensive gameplan was drawn in the sand.

The defense, well, they did shut out the Chiefs in the second quarter.

Then in the second half, the Chiefs remembered they can use Hill on plays from scrimmage, too. The first play of the third quarter was a 36-yard pass to Hill that led to Kelce’s second touchdown. The Steelers answered with James Conner‘s 1-yard touchdown, but the Chiefs made it 35-28 with Mahomes’ touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson.

We had always envisioned the defensively-challenged Steelers having to win shootouts like this. Don’t worry about the defense, the offense can carry this team.

Except that it didn’t.

The Steelers went three-and-out on their next possession and the Chiefs extended their lead to 42-28 on Mahomes’ 29-yard TD pass to Hill early in the fourth quarter.

During that drive, Antonio Brown showed he’s in midseason form by screaming at Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline. At least no Gatorade coolers were harmed. Mike Tomlin provided the sideline theatrics in the first half by giving his players a good ass-chewing after they had fallen behind 21-0. Um, maybe he should start doing that before games.

The whole Team Turmoil thing was an entertaining sideshow last year when the Steelers went 13-3, but this year the comedy will turn a lot darker if the Steelers (0-1-1) don’t start winning.

Speaking of turmoil, yeah, it might have helped Sunday if Le’Veon Bell was around. Conner crashed down to earth by gaining just 17 yards on eight carries. But if the Steelers don’t figure out a way to avoid falling behind 21-0 before all their home fans find their seats, they’ll need a lot more than Bell to become any kind of serious championship contender.

Entering the 2018 season, the Patriots and Jaguars looked like the biggest obstacles standing between the Steelers and the Super Bowl. Now the Chiefs have become one of those obstacles.

The Steelers had been a wall that the Chiefs couldn’t get over until Sunday. They ousted Kansas City in the playoffs two years ago and handed them their first loss last year.

So far it looks like Mahomes is the solution.

No other quarterback has thrown 10 touchdown passes in the first two games of a season, according to ESPN. The Chiefs moved up 17 spots in the first round of the 2017 draft to take him at No. 10, then traded away Alex Smith this past offseason and handed Mahomes the keys to the offense.

Those moves look brilliant so far, the kind of moves that have altered the AFC power structure much like the Jaguars’ hiring of Tom Coughlin as executive vice president before the 2017 season.

Before last season’s AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz, the NFL Network showed Coughlin walking into the stadium. The Steelers had been tweeting away about their inevitable rematch with the Patriots, and there was Coughlin, no-nonsense personified, reporting for work. It was an ominous scene for the Steelers.

The Steelers thought they could just show up and win that day, and it looks like that’s what they thought on Sunday.

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Tie looks better on Browns than it does on Steelers

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

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

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

He must be thrilled.

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

In this case, it’s a lot closer to a loss for the Steelers and it’s a lot closer to a win for the Browns.

This is the first time the Steelers have failed to defeat the Browns in a game since 2014. It’s also the first time the Browns haven’t lost a game to any opponent since Week 16 of the 2016 season.

There’s also this whole blown-lead thing on the Steelers’ side. They led 21-7 with 7:44 remaining when James Conner fumbled and Jabrill Peppers returned it 36 yards to the Steelers’ 1-yard line to set up a touchdown that got the Browns back in the game.

It’s unfair, of course, that the first mention of Conner involves his fumble. Replacing holdout Le’Veon Bell, Conner ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns and caught five passes for 57 yards. That’s 192 all-purpose yards. Bell has surpassed that only six times in his career, according to Pro Football Reference.

For more than 52 minutes Sunday, Conner was helping the Steelers beat both of their opponents.

What other opponent did the Steelers face other than the Browns?

Well, until Bell ends his holdout, the Steelers will be up against not only the opponents on their schedule but also Bell. If the Steelers struggle, then refusing to meet Bell’s contract demands will look like a bad idea. If they can win games without him, it will show that they’ll be ready to move on when some other team signs him to the megadeal of his dreams.

Does Bell win Round 1 of this standoff because of Conner’s fumble? It’s hard to say because this particular game isn’t decided on a scoreboard. Like the tie between the Steelers and Browns, we’re left wrestling with mixed emotions when it comes to Conner’s performance.

Would Bell have fumbled in that situation? Who knows? But it’s not like he hasn’t let the Steelers down before. This is the fourth time in his career that he’s missed Week 1. He missed two other openers because of suspensions.

Despite the fumble, the Steelers come out of Sunday’s game looking OK on the Bell front. And there is plenty of blame to go around, like Ben Roethlisberger‘s three first-half interceptions and his inability to hold on to the ball on two of his four sacks. It’s not like he hasn’t been sacked before.

Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, had two sacks and forced two fumbles, including Conner’s game-changing fumble. Garrett vowed that he was coming for Roethlisberger on the day he was drafted, and with both players finally on the field at the same time Garrett backed up his words.

Garrett is someone the Steelers will have to deal with if they want to keep the upper hand in this rivalry, but let’s not forget that T.J. Watt had four sacks Sunday. That’s the most by a Steeler in a single game since Joey Porter had four at Tampa Bay in 2001. It’s also the first time the Steelers have failed to win a game when a player gets four sacks.

The Steelers had seven sacks as a team and allowed the Browns to convert just five of 18 third-down attempts. One of the touchdowns the defense allowed came when the Browns took Conner’s fumble to the 1-yard line. The defense doesn’t look like the kind of liability that it was after Ryan Shazier went down last year.

That improvement was in vain, however, because of the Steelers’ sloppiness on offense. It also didn’t help that the Steelers committed 116 yards worth of penalties.

They’ll need to clean up their act, because their Week 2 and Week 3 opponents pulled off upsets on Sunday over teams that got a lot of preseason hype. The Chiefs, who come to Heinz Field on Sunday, defeated the Chargers 38-28 at Los Angeles. The Buccaneers,who the Steelers visit on Monday Night Football in Week 3, won 48-40 at New Orleans.

That first win won’t be easy to get.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.