Le’Veon Bell gambled… and lost

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell

A month ago, I sat at my computer and I wrote all the reasons why Le’Veon Bell was needed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I stated he had won the standoff and had proven his point. The Steelers, at the time, sat 1-2-1 and had a few dismal rushing performances by James Conner and the offense.

To me, it seemed, Bell was the missing link to get this team straightened out. Now, it seems to me, Bell missed his window of opportunity. He should have returned when Conner was struggling because it’s over for him in Pittsburgh now. Conner is the man now. He’s doing everything Bell does, perhaps better in some phases of the game (getting into the end zone).

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So what should the Steelers do when Bell returns? They shouldn’t play him. I wouldn’t cut him, don’t let him walk for free to the Patriots or some other contender this year but I’d deactivate him. I wouldn’t let him near the team.

At this juncture, with the team on a roll, heading into Baltimore and then into the second half of the season; whenever Bell shows up, he’ll be nothing but a distraction, a locker room menace and an unwelcome source of drama. His time in the Burgh’ is done.

Don’t get me wrong, he was one heck of a player, and still is. His skill set could absolutely help this team on the field but he’s just not worth the headache he brings along with the talent anymore.

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James Conner has done everything right. He’s run the ball, he’s caught the ball, he’s put the ball in the end zone nine times in seven games and he’s blocked as well as anyone could ask for. He makes peanuts compared to Bell and he’s performing at the same level as Bell, minus the drama.

There is no reason for Bell to be here anymore, other than to keep him away from a contender. The Steelers haven’t missed him this season, specifically during this three-game win streak. The locker room is certainly sick of answering all the questions about him while he’s away, imagine how annoyed they’ll be with the questions when he comes back.

Sure, he’ll publicly be welcomed by the players and coaches, what else are they supposed to do or say?

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But if you think for a second Bell can walk into that locker room and have everyone welcome him with open arms, you’re crazy. If Conner were struggling, that may be the case, but he’s not. Conner has earned his place as the teams starting running back. He’s shown he can play with the best in the league.

He’ll get his chance to show that again this week when the Steelers visit the Ravens for the second of two matchups between the bitter rivals.

In the first game, Conner has a dismal 19 yards on nine carries. That won’t happen again. He will get the ball 25 times on the ground and he will make good use of those 25 carries. I think he’ll get 100 yards. He’ll get another five catches for 50 more yards and he will lead the team to a 24-20 victory.

Could Bell do all that? Yes, absolutely.

Should he be given the chance upon his return? No, absolutely not.

This is James Conner’s team, Le’Veon Bell needs to stay home.

Le’Veon Bell gambled… and lost appeared first on Steel City Underground.

AFC North: Steelers, Bengals are Week 8 winners

SCU AFC North Preview

In our pregame analysis of the eighth week of the 2018 NFL regular season for the teams in the AFC North, we noted that the Baltimore Ravens would need outstanding defense to keep the Carolina Panthers contained, that the Cincinnati Bengals would need to harass Jameis Winston and give Andy Dalton the help he needed on offense, and predicted that there would be a definitive winner in the second meeting between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers after the pair tied in Week 1. All of those insights were spot-on, so let’s wrap up Week 8 and recap what happened and what the division looks like moving forward.

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Cincinnati Bengals 37 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34

Bengals win by a claw in a nailbiter

It sounds silly, but it’s true. Cincinnati entered Sunday’s contest having lost two gut-wrenching games in back-to-back weeks (to the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs) and was looking for redemption. Tampa Bay, who has had a bit of an identity crisis in 2018, went down early but righted their ship to nearly steal a win at Paul Brown Stadium. What was a big lead suddenly turned into the Bucs storming back and the Bengals desperately hoping to hold on for the win.

The Bengals offense was firing with Joe Mixon burning up the turf in the ground game and Dalton finding Tyler Boyd again and again to create a performance that saw Cincinnati finish the first half of the game with 307 yards of offense and four touchdowns, leading 27-9. Boyd and Mixon had their 100-yards (112 and 114 respectively) in their statistical categories.

Then things got topsy-turvy and a bit unpredictable for both teams. DeSean Jackson burned William Jackson deep. Adolphus Washington earned his first sack as a Bengal when he dropped Jameis Winston. The Cincy defense couldn’t keep running back Peyton Barber out of the end zone, though, and the soon the lead was reduced to 27-16. As the Bengals defense kept getting bit by injuries, they nearly gave up the game when Winston was benched due to poor play – he was picked by Jessie Bates and Jordan Evans –  and Ryan Fitzpatrick entered the game.

In four possessions, Fitzpatrick worked his magic for 18 points. In the second half of the game, the Bengals offense was forced to punt five times and their defense allowed 25 brutal points. With just around a minute remaining on the game clock, the teams were tied at 34-34.

Cincinnati can thank a 23-yard toss from Dalton to A.J. Green that set up a nice angle for Randy Bullock to nail the game-winning field goal. As they head into their bye, there are about a million things this Bengals team needs, including some healthy squad members.

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Baltimore Ravens 21 – Carolina Panthers 36

Loss a “punch to the gut” per Ravens’ Yanda

To beat a surging Panthers team, the Ravens entered the game understanding that it would require their defense come up big in stopping Cam Newton if they hoped to give Joe Flacco a chance to put points on the scoreboard offensively. What happened? Not that. Behind a battered offensive line that was minus Alex Lewis and James Hurst, Flacco finished the day with just 22-of-39 passes completed for 192 yards and two interceptions. “It was definitely a punch to the gut,” offensive guard Marshal Yanda said after the loss. Flacco was sacked twice for a loss of 14 yards but was able to toss one pass for a touchdown in a game that saw Lamar Jackson enter and Flacco’s rating posting at 56.8 to Newton’s 116.9.

Without Marlon Humphrey (thigh), the Ravens weren’t able to generate much defense either. Newton was able to run the Panthers offense with little-to-no real pressure from Baltimore. “Mentally and physically, we lost this game,” C.J. Mosley said following the loss. “At the end of the day, we know what we have to do next week.” After entering the game leading the league in fewest yards and points allowed on defense, not to mention being the leading defense in sacks, Baltimore left too many plays on the field and Newton took advantage. Newton was able to keep them guessing with misdirection plays and led the Panthers in rushing (ten carries for 52 yards and a touchdown) in addition to passing (21-of-29 for 219 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions).

Suddenly, Baltimore is looking at a meeting with AFC North rival Pittsburgh that could result in them falling below .500 and going to 1-3 in the division heading deep into the season with some tough opponents still left to be played on their schedule.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 33 – Cleveland Browns 18

The Browns are… back to being Brown-like

The Steelers weren’t concerned about all the changes Cleveland had made with their roster between their meetings in Week 1 and Week 8. In fact, regardless of any changes, the Steelers made it clear that they were moving full speed ahead with the team they roll with, so to speak. No Le’Veon Bell (yet again)? No problem. James Conner just grabbed the ball and rushed for around the same amount of yards the entire Cleveland offense produced (and added two touchdowns). T.J. Watt ate and ate and ate, walking away with seven tackles, a sack, one tackle for a loss and about a billion pressures. Add Joe Haden‘s two takeaways and the Steelers looked like champions (in those throwback jerseys, too).

So, I may sound biased but the Browns are looking very Brown-like after the loss. With news that Hue Jackson and Todd Haley are both out the door, it makes you wonder how Baker Mayfield feels about the culture in Berea now. The trade deadline has now passed and the Browns made no moves before time ran out despite Browns general manager John Dorsey saying – in the press conference that addressed the firings of Jackson and Haley – that he’d be working the phones in order to improve Cleveland’s football team. Things look bleak after an early run that had fans across the NFL excited for the Cleveland Browns in general.

The next opponent for Cleveland is the Chiefs… yes, those Chiefs.

Division Standings Through Week 8

Team W L T PF PA Streak
PIT 4 2 1 204 172 W3
CIN 5 3 0 221 237 W1
BAL 4 4 0 197 137 L2
CLE 2 5 1 169 210 L3

AFC North: Steelers, Bengals are Week 8 winners appeared first on Steel City Underground.

Steelers subpackages and playing time altered course in Sunday’s win

Pittsburgh Steelers offense

Each week we’ll take a look at the composition of the Steelers wins and losses (and ties too) by examining the team’s snap counts on offense and defense. Here’s a look at the makeup of last week’s game.

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Offense

Player Snaps Pct
DeCastro 71 100%
Villanueva 71 100%
Feiler 71 100%
Foster 70 99%
Brown 70 99%
Pouncey 70 99%
Roethlisberger 70 99%
Smith-Schuster 56 79%
Conner 56 79%
James 40 56%
Hunter 38 54%
McDonald 27 38%
Switzer 19 27%
Grimble 13 18%
Okorafor 12 17%
Nix 10 14%
Samuels 7 10%
Ridley 6 8%
Heyward-Bey 2 3%
Finney 1 1%
Dobbs 1 1%

Not much stood out from this week’s snap counts that was too out of the ordinary. James Washington was inactive on Sunday, while Matt Feiler stepped in for an injured Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.

There were upticks in playing time for some of the players in jumbo packages, particularly Chuks Okorafor and Rosie Nix. Ryan Switzer also played more than in recent contests.

RB Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State, made his first appearance of the season by getting a small amount of carries on seven snaps, while Darrius Heyward-Bey also made his return following a brief injury period.

The last piece that sticks out is the note on Washington: veteran Justin Hunter jumped in and played his most snaps since Week 1.

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Defense

Player Snaps Pct
Davis 64 100%
Edmunds 62 97%
Haden 62 97%
Heyward 54 84%
Dupree 53 83%
Watt 53 83%
Sensabaugh 48 75%
Tuitt 44 69%
Hilton 43 67%
Bostic 42 66%
Williams 42 66%
Hargrave 24 38%
Burnett 23 36%
Chickillo 22 34%
Fort 21 33%
Alualu 19 30%
Sutton 15 23%
McCullers 9 14%
Dangerfield 4 6%

The main players in the secondary played most of the game again, but the biggest surprise on Sunday was disciplinary action against CB Artie Burns who not only lost the starting role to Coty Sensabaugh, but failed to play a single defensive snap. (Sensabaugh was injured during the game and replaced by Cameron Sutton.)

With a mostly healthy squad, the Steelers deployed Morgan Burnett as a third-down linebacker, often paired with L.J. Fort. Fort continues to see a lot of playing over the Steelers last three wins, as the defense has made adjustments since their slow start in September.

Another name to continue keeping an eye on is Dan McCullers. Once thought to be on the roster bubble in training camp, the big man continues to see spot duty, clogging holes and becoming an immovable object on the Steelers defensive line.

 

Statistics courtesy of the National Football League

Steelers subpackages and playing time altered course in Sunday’s win appeared first on Steel City Underground.

Tomlin presser: AFC North football, James Conner and facing the Baltimore Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin holds his weekly press conferences every Tuesday. Each week, we will take a glimpse at what stood out from coach’s comments about the previous week and heading into the Steelers next game.

Opening Statement

Good afternoon. I’ll start with a quick assessment of our last game like I always do. It was good to come out of a bye and get a win. It was good to come out of a bye and get a divisional win. Some of the things that have characterized some of our negative performances did turn up at the early portions of the game and we have to continue to work hard to work through those things in terms of finding rhythm early. Didn’t get much done in the first quarter of the game, penalties were an issue there. We turned the ball over and we acknowledged last week that Cleveland was the best in the world at producing turnovers. So, to do go into a stadium acknowledging that somebody is really solid in an area and still not have a good enough performance in that area is troubling. We have to do a better job at ball security. That is going to be catastrophic to our efforts if we do not improve in those areas. We have to get the ball more on the other side and I think those two things work hand in hand. We are not producing enough turnovers. I think we have nine in seven games. I think we were talking about 20’s even last week prior to playing Cleveland in terms of their output so they are setting the standard there. We want to be in any of those conversations. We believe getting the ball will help us in our efforts. We have to get the ball more. We have to do a better job of maintaining possession of the ball. We are still continuing to work to improve in terms of our technique and our awareness from a penalty standpoint in an effort to reduce those to improve our chances of winning. That first series of the game we converted a 3rd-down and 2. We got a penalty that pushed it to 3rd-and-11 and we were punting. Those are more than just plays, those are possession, and possessions obviously are significant. You look around today’s NFL, particularly the dominant teams, you can’t afford to waste possessions. It’s just the reality of it but we found our footing. We made some splash plays. I thought our big people controlled the line of scrimmage as the game wore on, our offensive line, our defensive [line]. Whether it was producing running lanes for James Conner and protection for Ben [Roethlisberger] on offense or minimizing the run so we were in favorable possession down circumstances on the other side and then we were able to pressure Baker Mayfield and try to get him off of his spot and create some negativity and win those downs. As the game unfolded I thought those things became more evident but obviously, we have more work to do.

We’ll continue to do it this week, we’ll do it with an edge as we prepare for more AFC North ball. That is significant for us, our third consecutive AFC North game, this one being on the road. Our senses are heightened obviously. From a health standpoint, Ben [Roethlisberger] has a fractured index finger on his left hand. It didn’t prohibit him from being effective in the second half of the game but obviously we’ll look at it in terms of his availability this week and how it might affect him in a practice setting and so forth. Not anticipating it being an issue for him in-play or in-game but I did talk about it after. I wanted to give you guys an update. Coty Sensabaugh will be managed day-to-day with his toe and see what that means for his availability. Marcus Gilbert missed the last game with a knee. He’ll be given an opportunity to participate this week and see what that participation looks like in terms of his availability. I also will mention Matt [Feiler] who filled in place of him did more than a serviceable job, but we’ve come to expect that from Matt as well as the others. We don’t have backups, we have starters, and starters waiting. The standard is the standard of expectation so guys like Matt, B.J. [Finney] and others and there have been many already this year make that phrase reality with their above-the-line performances and we are appreciative of that.

As we prepare for Baltimore, we prepare with an edge. Lke I said this is a significant game for us and for them. They are a 4-4 team. I know they are fighting to stay in the hunt as are we. It’s at their place. They are coming off of two consecutive losses. They have a quality team and hadn’t been that long ago since we’ve played them but there are some significant things to acknowledge as we prepare for them.

On the defensive side of the ball, the pressure that they put on the quarterback is a signature of their play. I think they have 27 sacks or so. It’s [Terrell] Suggs and company, they do it the way they do it. They get after your quarterback, they are really good blitzers, they beat blocks, they put consistent pressure on your passer. They couple that with tight coverage. They are the number one defense in football. I think they are number two against the pass. They have a veteran safety tandem in [Eric] Weddle and [Tony] Jefferson. They do a lot, they are very versatile, their pre-snap looks are challenging, they’re interchangeable by concept or even thoughtfully. Sometimes you will see a concept and Jefferson will do it, the next time you’ll see it in the game and it will be Weddle doing it and that just speaks to the versatility and cohesion that they have within that tandem that makes operating from the offensive side more difficult. They also have Jimmy Smith back. They didn’t have Jimmy Smith the last time we played them. We have a lot of respect for him. He’s a quality shutdown corner. I’d imagine they are excited about having him back in the fold to go along with the other quality cover men. C.J. Mosley had missed some time leading up to our last game so our last game was our first game I think back for him. Boy I am seeing the benefits of consistent availability when it comes to C.J. Mosley, you name a situation, he’s a guy in the middle of it. Whether it is coverage, whether it is rush, whether it is interior run, perimeter run, he is a vertical player, he’s a horizontal player. His name is in every discussion when you are talking about what they do on defense so he’s finding his rhythm. I know he missed some time there early, he’s a big-time contributor to their efforts.

On the offense side of the ball it’s all about Joe Flacco and the utilization of weapons and how multiple they are in the ways that they challenge you from a personnel standpoint. Got a myriad of tight ends, I think they have four on their roster. They have been suiting all four of them and I am talking about high pedigree guys. Guys like they have had [Mark] Andrews and their first-round pick [Hayden] Hurst who didn’t play against us last time, so we have to be ready for the tight end personnel groups, the gapping and things. The use of multiple tight ends produces and their flexibility in it. The athleticism of those tight ends allow them to not only play traditional multiple tight end ball but also spread you out and challenge you in ways that Joe [Flacco] is comfortable doing from a spread standpoint.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Quality special team’s unit as always. Their specialists are top notch. We are excited about the opportunities that the journey presents. This weekend is not different than any other. Our hair is standing up for obvious reasons. It’s AFC North football. It’s a road game in Baltimore. Got to love the National Football League.

Did a call or something you saw come in from other coaches to go for it one 4th-and-one?

No, we are thoughtfully aggressive. I am not going to speak to anything specifically that was the tipping point but those that know us know that we play and play to win. We do not live in our fears.

Were you trying to play off of momentum for later in the game I assume?

You can assume. I am just playing to win.

It seemed that Baltimore controlled the line of scrimmage last game, is it critical to make that happen against this team?

I don’t know if they controlled the line of scrimmage as much as they controlled possession downs. Usually, when you are losing possession downs, it’s because they are left for you unfavorable for you offensively or they are very manageable for your opposing offense. We didn’t do good enough on possession downs. We didn’t do well enough on possession downs, and some of them were very manageable for our offense and some of them were long for their offense. As I look back, at it particularly in the second half of play, where the game really unfolded we didn’t do enough on possession downs. We didn’t get off the field on defense and we didn’t sustain drives on offense. I thought that was probably the singularly most deciding factor in terms of how the game unfolded.

You’ve had several touchdowns in the two-minute drill at the end of halves. What’s been the catalyst for that?

We work it hard. You guys watch us in training camp. We work it every two or three days. You have an expectation when you work the way that we’ve worked in that area specifically. Hopefully our guys have that expectation as well. I know that the results are probably indicative of those expectations, but when you put time into something, you expect the result of that work and I think we’re getting it in that area.

Do you believe that your team’s level of physicality has increased from earlier in the season?

You know, I haven’t thought about it. I like to think that that’s the case, and this is why – I think that the better you have an understanding of your job, the better that you have an understanding of how your job fits into the bigger picture, there’s a couple things that happen. The more that you communicate, and the faster people play, and I think good communication and fast play produces physicality. It produces certainty in movement, and I think that allows guys to play fast and free and thus, more physical.

Why didn’t Artie Burns play many defensive snaps last week?

He was late to a Saturday walk-through, and then it was my choice not to play him. You know, we’ll keep working with Artie [Burns]. He had a good week of practice last week. I don’t want to make more out of it than what it is, but he was late, and we wanted to be focused with the guys who were wired-in appropriately where they needed to be in the hours leading up to kickoff. And so, he suffered the consequences of that. We’ll roll that ball back out and get back on task with him and others this week.

If Coty Sensabaugh can’t go, do you feel comfortable with Artie?

I’ll let you know after I watch this week’s preparation, not only in regard to him, but Coty [Sensabaugh]. We’ll let his availability be our guide in terms of whether or not he plays, and I mean what I say when I say when I say that.

Is Cameron Sutton involved in that, too?

He’s been involved.

But I mean is he a possibility if Coty can’t go?

Anybody on the 53 is a possibility including Brian Allen.

Re: Baker Mayfield making a comment about the Steelers defense being more proactive than reactive:

I’m not aware of his comments. I’ll just say this – we build a plan week-in and week-out and we generally stick to that plan. We try not to be reactionary in thought. Part of being good in this league is eliminating problems before they happen, and if they do happen, you better eliminate them quickly. So, I think that’s always our mentality in terms of how we build plans or address issues or circumstances.

James Conner saw limited carries the last time you played Baltimore. How much does he have to do with controlling the time of possession and possession downs you were talking about?

You know, oftentimes the running game or opportunities in the running game, are controlled by game circumstance. We got down by 14 and then we didn’t convert third downs in the second half, so we didn’t have enough snaps. That’s going to minimize the total number of carries, so you can paint whatever picture you want regarding the run game the last time we played them. It never came to fruition for a number of reasons.

Your home crowd is chanting James Conner’s name. Your quarterback has been so vocal in talking about how much he likes to play with him. What is it about him that people like so much?

He’s run for 100 yards in three-straight games. I mean that’s not hard to figure out.

They never chanted Le’Veon Bell’s name and he’s done that.

I’m sure they have.

Re: Baltimore’s personality

They play defense, and generally, they play football the way that they play football. They have continuity. I think continuity allows you to do that with Coach [John] Harbaugh in the lead. But also, Coach [Don] Martindale, might be new to the coordinator job, but how many years has Martindale been in Baltimore. They’ve got great continuity, and so as they go through changes, it’s not changes. Some of the names have changed over the years, but a lot of their talent is homegrown and developed. It used to be [Duane] Starks and [Chris] McAlister. Now it’s Jimmy Smith, for example. It used to be Ray Lewis, and there’s C.J. Mosely. [Terrell] Suggs has played forever and probably will continue to play forever. But I think continuity lends itself to that personality that you speak of that remains consistent.

Can you speak of the difficulty of keeping continuity despite personnel changes?

Continuity is good, provided that it’s positive. When it’s not, you’ve got to make changes, obviously. So, I don’t think a lot about continuity. I think a lot about being competent and competitive and good. Continuity is just kind of born out of those things if you’re just continuously focused on those things.

Talk about Mike Hilton coming from a practice squad player to becoming a significant part of your defense.

Mike’s [Hilton] story is probably reflective of a lot of stories. Mike just works hard every day and takes advantage of opportunities given, and when he does, we give him more. He wants to be a central reason as to why we’re successful, and he’s anteing up and kicking in daily. Those sub-package defenders don’t get enough credit. They might not be classified as starters, but guys like Mike Hilton and Morgan Burnett and L.J. Fort are significant contributors to our effort. I’d be remised if I didn’t mention we had all three of those sub-package defenders available to us last week and that’s probably why our third down performance in particular probably looked the way it looked. We haven’t had a lot of games this year where all three of those guys were available to us, so it speaks to that continuity discussion, whether it’s over the long haul, you’re talking about an organization over the course of years, or you’re talking about a unit week to week. Mike has missed some time with injury. Morgan has missed some time with injury. Fort has missed some time with injury. It’s good to have all three guys available. I think that increases our chances of being successful in the significant possession downs in which they operate.

With today being the trade deadline, as long as you’ve been here, you’ve kind of held on to draft picks. Why is that so important to you?

We believe in homegrown talent. We invest time and resources into the development of players. Players buy into what we’re selling and work their tails off to improve and be reasons why we’re successful. I think it’s difficult to walk about from relationships when people are invested. We’re invested, the players are invested. It is what it is.

Do you expect any movement for the Steelers today?

I haven’t thought a lot about it to be honest with you. I’m sure the phone may ring. We’ll see what happens. But more than anything, I’ve just been focused on preparing for Baltimore.

Do you expect Le’Veon Bell back this week?

Any other questions? You all have a good evening.

 

Transcript provided by the Pittsburgh Steelers

Tomlin presser: AFC North football, James Conner and facing the Baltimore Ravens appeared first on Steel City Underground.

The Good, Bad and Ugly from Week 8 – Browns

Pittsburgh Steelers offense

Coming out of the bye week the Steelers found themselves having moved up into first place in the division (thanks to the Browns, Ravens and Bengals all putting out below the line efforts last weekend).

The Steelers, overall, have a solid record coming off bye weeks (); however, in the last few seasons it’s been drifting towards the not so good (). The Browns, as we all have said repeatedly, are not the same old Browns. They have a good defense, with arguably the best young pass rusher in football in Myles Garrett. Baker Mayfield has taken over the offense, and the Browns have managed to win twice as many games this season (2) as they have in the past two season combine (1).

It started off worrisome, but by the time the clock ticked down to zero, the Steelers walked away with a dominating victory. With everything that has transpired in the past few days in the city of Pittsburgh, it was a brief moment of normalcy.

Let’s look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly from Sunday’s Steelers/Browns game.

Good

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James Conner

146 yards rushing, 2 TDs/5 receptions 66 yards – 212 total scrimmage yards

James Conner was the catalyst for Sunday’s victory. His swagger and attitude seemed to infuse the entire team. Conner’s physical running style, his power and aggressiveness were contagious. By the end of the game, the Browns defenders simply looked like they had had enough.

When Conner came back into the game on the Steelers final drive, he took the handoff, and the Browns parted like the red sea. Myles Garrett, being blocked by a pulling David DeCastro, made a halfhearted swipe at Conner, but after that, he rumbled 22 yards untouched for a historic TD.

Historic because Conner is now the only players in the history of the Steelers franchise to rush for more than 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in 3 straight games. Nobody else has ever accomplished that. Not Franco Harris. Not Jerome Bettis. Not Barry Foster or John Henry Johnson.

Not even Le’Veon Bell.

James Conner was more than just good on Sunday – he was the catalyst.

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Antonio Brown

6 receptions, 74 yards, 2 TDs

When you look at Brown’s numbers for Sunday, it may not seem like it warrants being called out. However, you may be forgetting that Brown was being covered by Denzel Ward, the first round draft pick of the Browns out of Ohio State. Ward, in case you didn’t notice, is good at football. Ward has shown that he may be developing into one of the top corners in the league.

And yet Antonio Brown had success. 2 TDs and 6 receptions.

But let me tell you why he’s really getting a Good call out this week. Late in the third quarter, James Conner took the ball off the right side, following a pulling Ramon Foster, and he took it 12 yards for a touchdown.

Part of the reason that run worked was that Antonio Brown was down there doing his best Hines Ward impersonation – throwing a consistent block on a Browns defender and opening up the lane for Conner.

I love that stuff.

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Bud Dupree

Bud Dupree takes a lot of heat from Steelers Nation. If you just look at his stat line from yesterday (4 tackles, 2 quarterback hits), you will be shaking your head as to why he’s getting highlighted here.

Sometimes you have to look beyond the numbers.

Dupree was a force off the left side. He was in the backfield consistently, pressuring Mayfield, forcing him to scramble or hurry his throws. He lined up in the middle, coming in hot like Ryan Shazier often did. He forced a holding call in the end zone that resulted in a safety.

For all the heat he gets, it’s only fair to give him credit when he deserves it and Bud Dupree deserves a nod for his efforts Sunday.

But speaking of that safety…

Bad

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That Free Kick

To steal a line from ESPN – C’mon Man!

So many one liners (You had one job!) and memes come to mind over this monumental blunder.

The scenario is this – the Steelers get a safety, and the Browns have to free kick the ball to the Steelers. By rule, the Browns have the option to either kick off or punt the ball, but in either case the kick is what is known as a “free-kick”. It’s the same thing as a kickoff. It means that if the kicking team manages to cover the ball – IT’S THEIR BALL!

So the Browns execute the free kick, and for some unknown reason Roosevelt Nix signals for a fair catch. At the same time both Antonio Brown and Ryan Switzer are converging on the ball. Rosie bails, AB runs past the ball and Ryan Switzer lets it bounce. The ball rolls to the Steelers 23 yard line where the Browns fall on it and…TAKE POSSESSION.

Even Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove didn’t initially realize what had happened. If you go back and listen to their call they are both surprised when the ball is given to the Browns, wondering if maybe it hit a Steelers player and bounced off.

C’mon guys – you gotta know the rules! If you’re on special teams, you need to know the difference between a free-kick and a punt. This could have a been a play that turned the game around, and in fact was followed by penalty after penalty by the Steelers defense, effectively giving the Browns a touchdown (they then missed the extra point).

The best thing I can say is that it didn’t turn the game around, and the Steelers followed with a drive that left no doubt about that.

Ugly

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I admit, at the beginning of this game it felt a lot like the first game in Cleveland. By the end of it however, it felt completely different. This was the most physically dominating performance by the Steelers in a while. They imposed their will on the Browns, and despite a few hiccups, the game was never really in doubt. By the second half, even after the free kick debacle, that paranoia, that elevation of the heart rate, that nagging sensation that somehow, they just might blow it – it never surfaced.

Let’s hope this is a springboard for the way the rest of the season unfolds. The road does not get any easier.

Conclusion

Embed from Getty Images

I admit, at the beginning of this game it felt a lot like the first game in Cleveland. By the end of it however, it felt completely different. This was the most physically dominating performance by the Steelers in a while. They imposed their will on the Browns, and despite a few hiccups, the game was never really in doubt. By the second half, even after the free kick debacle, that paranoia, that elevation of the heart rate, that nagging sensation that somehow they just might blow it – it never surfaced.

Let’s hope this is a springboard for the way the rest of the season unfolds. The road does not get any easier.

The Good, Bad and Ugly from Week 8 – Browns appeared first on Steel City Underground.

Steelers 41, Falcons 17: T.J. Watt must keep leading defense

The Steelers have taken a defensive player in the first round of the draft six years in a row and counting. Before 2013, their longest string of first-round defensive draft picks had been two years.

That draft strategy hadn’t exactly paid off through the first four weeks of the 2018 season. Part of the problem is that only two of those six selections have made a significant impact.

One of them is Ryan Shazier, and we all know that losing him has been a big blow. The Steelers need someone else to become the heart of the defense.

There’s no open audition to fill that need. There’s one guy who has shown he can do it. He’s the only other one of those six first-rounders (Terrell Edmunds gets a pass, too early to judge him) who isn’t a bust candidate, even if he had been barely visible over the last three weeks.

T.J. Watt had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Falcons at Heinz Field. He also led the team with eight tackles, including six solo tackles, according to ESPN.com.

Watt put up similar game-wrecking numbers the only other time this season that the Steelers defense has looked respectable. He had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and 10 tackles (not to mention the tie-salvaging blocked field goal) in the 21-21 Week 1 stalemate at Cleveland.

In the three games in between, Watt totaled three quarterback hits, 10 tackles and no sacks.

The Steelers took Watt in the first round of the 2017 draft, and he seemed destined for stardom after a two-sack game with an interception in a Week 1 win at Cleveland. He plateaued as the season went on even if it was still a thumbs-up rookie campaign with seven sacks.

Take away Week 1 games in Cleveland, however, and Watt entered Sunday with five sacks in his first 19 career games.

Not to blame Watt for the Steelers’ defensive woes in weeks 2-4 this season. Nobody could tackle against the Ravens. But the Steelers could use a little more consistency from Watt. His performance on Sunday can’t be a once-a-month kind of thing.

At the same time, Watt isn’t the only Steelers defender who made a difference on Sunday. The Steelers sacked Matt Ryan six times with Cameron Heyward adding 1.5 sacks and Jon Bostic sharing a sack. L.J. Fort, who helped fill in for an injured Vince Williams, had a sack and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that made it 41-17 and really put the game away with less than four minutes left.

The Steelers also racked up 11 tackles for loss. Heyward, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo all had 1.5 of those. Fort had one and Bostic and Javon Hargrave both were credited with half of a negative-yardage tackle.

Joe Haden had five tackles, but his biggest contribution didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Not under his name, anyway.

Haden held Julio Jones without a catch for the first three quarters. All five of Jones’ catches for 62 yards came with the Falcons down at least 17 points.

It’s a big reason the Steelers were able to beat a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber for the first time in more than two years.

This victory evened the Steelers’ record at 2-2-1, and oddly enough it also evened the career passer ratings of Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. They’re tied for seventh on the active list at 94.0. The last time the Steelers beat a quarterback with a career passer rating above 90 was Week 1 of the 2016 season, a 38-16 road win over Kirk Cousins and the Redskins.

Football fans chanting “De-Fense!” in unison is one of sport’s most clichéd rituals. But there seemed to be a deeper meaning when the Heinz Field crowd did it early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

The Steelers led 27-10 and the Falcons had the ball in Steelers territory when the chant started. There was a feeling that not only were the fans asking for a stop, but that they also were saluting the maligned unit for what it had done in the first three quarters. It was an electric moment, even if it was followed by a brief but scary flashback.

The Falcons scored a touchdown on that drive to pull to within 27-17 with 12:28 left. Just about every Steelers fan of legal drinking age might have felt like reaching for the bottle at that point, because most people old enough to drink are old enough to remember the Falcons’ visit to Heinz Field in 2002, when the Steelers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and settled for a 34-34 tie.

Antonio Brown and James Conner made sure history didn’t repeat itself when they covered 75 yards in less than three minutes, with Roethlisberger throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass to Brown to make it 34-17.

Brown caught six passes and registered season highs with two touchdowns and 101 yards. Conner ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Steelers in their most convincing win of the season not only on the scoreboard but in their staredown with Le’Veon Bell.

Conner averaged 5.2 yards per carry and also caught four passes for 75 yards. It looked on Sunday like Bell would have to earn playing time if he ever does decide to re-join the Steelers.

Who knows when and if Bell will report. It seems he and his agent are talking to reporters more than they are the Steelers. The only thing that is becoming increasingly clear when it comes to the Steelers’ running back situation is that they won’t have to draft one in the first round next year.

Maybe the Steelers will draft a defensive player in the first round for the seventh straight year, but thanks to Watt and the rest of the defense on Sunday, Steelers fans don’t have to dive into mock drafts just yet. With an opportunity to pull to within a half-game of first place in the AFC North next week at Cincinnati, there’s still a lot to play for this season.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Ravens 26, Steelers 14: Defense fails early, Roethlisberger falters late

How bad is the Steelers’ defense?

It’s reached the point where all it takes to beat the Steelers is an adequate starting quarterback.

The Steelers fell to Joe Flacco and the Ravens 26-14 Sunday night at Heinz Field, falling to 1-2-1.

Flacco is the last career starter that the Steelers defeated, and even then they gave up 38 points in a 39-38 Week 14 win last season.

Since then the only quarterbacks the Steelers have beaten are T.J. Yates, DeShone Kizer and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick likely lost his starting job Sunday during the Buccaneers’ 48-10 loss to the Bears. Remember when the Steelers and Browns played to a tie while Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers were upsetting the Saints in Week 1? All of a sudden the Steelers’ Week 3 game at Tampa Bay looked a lot tougher.

Well, the Steelers won that game, but it remains their only win and it proves very little considering what transpired in Chicago on Sunday.

Since Week 15 last season, the Steelers have failed to beat Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Patrick Mahomes and Flacco. The talent level among that group varies widely, but what ties them together is that they all have held down starting positions in the NFL at one time or another.

It doesn’t take an elite quarterback to solve the Steelers’ defense these days. All it takes is a competent one.

And the only reason the Steelers managed to beat Flacco in Week 14 last year is that Ben Roethlisberger was better.

He wasn’t better than Flacco on Sunday.

Roethlisberger completed just three of his last 13 passes, including an interception with 3:15 left that allowed the Ravens to kick the last of their four second-half field goals that turned out to be the difference in a game that was tied 14-14 at halftime.

The Steelers’ defense isn’t good enough for them to overcome that kind of performance by Roethlisberger. They allowed 451 yards, including 355 through the air. It’s the first time since 1954 that the Steelers defense has yielded more than 400 yards in three consecutive games, according to Pro Football Reference.

That defense dug the Steelers a 14-0 hole after one quarter. Going back to last season’s playoff loss to the Jaguars, it’s the third straight home game in which the Steelers have allowed at least 14 points in the opening quarter.

The Ravens shredded the Steelers defense like lettuce on a Primanti Bros. sandwich on the game’s opening drive, moving 75 yards on eight plays. Flacco threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to John Brown to make it 7-0.

Then came the same kind of hair-pulling moment that lowlighted the early moments of the Steelers’ two previous home games. Vance McDonald went from embarrassing Chris Conte last week to being embarrassed when he caught a pass and allowed Tony Jefferson to take the ball away from him as if he were a thief pilfering a purse from an elderly tourist. That gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers’ 31-yard line and they flipped that into a 1-yard touchdown run by Alex Collins and a 14-0 lead.

The Steelers damn near fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter after Flacco connected with Brown for 71 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 2. But Coty Sensabaugh forced a Collins fumble that Terrell Edmunds recovered and the Steelers eventually turned it into a field goal to pull to within 14-6.

McDonald repaired his stock somewhat on the Steelers’ next possession when he broke Jefferson’s tackle and dragged two other Ravens on a 33-yard reception that led to Roethlisberger’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown and a 2-point conversion throw to James Conner that tied the game 14-14.

But that was all the Steelers’ scoring.

It’s the first time since 1993 that the Steelers have failed to score in the second half in two straight games.

It’s nice that the Steelers defense shut out the Ravens in the second quarter, but allowing four field goals in the second half wasn’t going to cut it in a situation where the Steelers couldn’t afford to give up any points.

Wouldn’t it be great if the value of second-quarter scoring was enhanced like some kind of lottery power ball? The Steelers have out-scored their opponents 73-10 in the second stanza this season. All that really means, however, is that opposing offenses have the luxury of a siesta before finishing their job in the second half.

Players like Artie Burns and Sean Davis have taken their share of the blame for the Steelers’ defensive woes, but it might be time to look at T.J. Watt.

Since his three-sack game in Week 1, Watt has no sacks and just three quarterback hits. More splash plays from him would help.

The Steelers also could make a splash by adding a player to their defense.

And that’s where Le’Veon Bell inevitably comes in.

The Steelers, and all the scribes, pundits and bloggers who agreed that Bell was asking for too much money, have to stick to their guns and press forward without Bell.

Conner ran the ball nine times for 19 yards on Sunday. He’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry for the season. But we don’t yet have to confront the possibility that the Steelers made a mistake by not paying Bell because when it comes to the offense, Sunday’s loss is on Roethlisberger even if he was facing the No. 2 defense in the league.

That said, it’s looking more and more like the only way the Steelers can save their season is to trade Bell and get some defensive help in return.

The Steelers are tying to move Bell, according to NFL.com,  and are seeking a second-round draft pick and a “good” player in the deal. It would behoove the Steelers to get a “good” defensive player if they can swing a trade.

But trading Bell would be a complicated matter. He would first have to sign his franchise tender, and he won’t do that unless he knows there’s a long-term deal in it for him after the 2018 season. He would somehow have to be convinced that his new team has long-term plans for him and doesn’t want to risk his health this season any more than he does.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and the likelihood of a trade is remote. But the Steelers have to keep trying, because if their defense doesn’t get better in a hurry their chances of making the playoffs will be just as slim as their chances of trading Bell.

The Steelers currently aren’t good enough to overcome a top-tier defense or stop any non-backup quarterback.

That’s a bad combination.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Big Play Highlights from Week 16

The three NFL teams that were sporting the worst records going into week 16, ALL WON. The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars were all winners.

The Ravens-Steelers game was one of the best of the season. Although it doesn’t mean much to Baltimore, it will go down as a classic in the rivalry

http://www.footballbetting.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/NFL-week-16-Broadband-High.mp4

 

Week 16 had 2 quarterbacks go down with severe injuries. Derek Carr of the Raiders and Titans QB Marcus Mariota. Thoughts go out to those guys. Also, Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett, lets hope for a quick recovery.

Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs