The Pittsburgh Steelers are 9-2 due in large part to the fact that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown orchestrated what was, without hyperbole, a perfect play.
Tied 28-28 in the fourth quarter against Green Bay—a two-touchdown underdog (and at home, no less)—the Steelers had 17 seconds to march 30 or so yards to give Chris Boswell the opportunity to kick the longest field goal in the history of Heinz Field, a location where kickers generally go to die. Needless to say, overtime looked imminent.
Undeterred, Roethlisberger fielded the snap, dropped back five or six steps and uncorked an absolute rope towards his own sideline. Brown proceeded to do this:
Cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, both rookies, did what they could—which, on this particular play, was nothing. Ben had to make legitimately one of the best throws of his career to even put this ball in position to be caught, and even then, the success of this pass depended almost entirely on the recipient being a Hall of Fame receiver. Brown, meanwhile, had to not only catch the ball with his hands to ensure that he maintained indisputable possession almost immediately, but also drag both feet inbounds on a swath of turf roughly the same size as a postage stamp. To put it another way, Ben and Brown began that play with a little more than 3,700 square yards to play with, and ended it with about a centimeter to spare.
This 23-yard play, glorious though it was, only managed to land the Steelers at Green Bay’s 47-yard line. To set up a game-winning field goal, Pittsburgh still needed roughly 25 yards to feel confident, 20 yards to feel pretty good and 15 to have a fighting chance.
Inexplicably, the Packers, who had routinely double-covered Brown for much of Sunday’s contest, decided to put King (who, in addition to being a rookie, was presumably hobbled by an earlier shoulder injury) on an island against the best receiver in the NFL. The result, predictably, was a 14-yard pitch-and-catch from Ben to Brown, placing the Steelers right on the precipice of Boswell’s range. The Steelers then ran an additional, debatably ill-advised play, which dropped them back two yards.
This is important for several reasons. For one, Heinz Field is home to ostensibly the worst kicking surface in the NFL (to contextualize this, consider that NFL kickers convert somewhere in the ballpark of 60 percent of their field goals from beyond 50 yards; at Heinz Field, that figure drops to about 35 percent). It’s notable, too, that Boswell’s career-long kick was 51 yards, and the longest field goal ever made at Heinz Field was 53 yards. To give the Steelers their AFC-leading ninth victory of the season, Boswell would need to convert the most difficult field-goal attempt of his professional career. Yet Boswell, an iconoclast, made the kick anyway—with a bit of room to spare, I might add.
Those are some of the positives from Pittsburgh’s thrilling 31-28 win over the Packers. Now let’s suffuse the meat of this article with some negativity, shall we?
The secondary: Stock down
There was a point in NBC’s telecast at which Cris Collinsworth indicated that Brett Hundley must have “put in some work” in the week leading up to the game against Pittsburgh. And in a sense, Collinworth was probably correct. Last week in a 23-0 home loss to Baltimore, Hundley committed four turnovers and completed only 58 percent of his passing attempts, leading to a paltry 43.6 quarterback rating. That’s the kind of performance that demands retribution.
Then again, maybe playing against a defense that had allowed a handful of big passing plays in its previous two games serves as a crash-course to redemption. This time around, Hundley completed 65 percent of his passes, did not commit a single turnover, and threw touchdowns of 39, 54 and 55 yards, all of which were the result of blown coverages, blatant misreads or, as has become shockingly frequent, bad tackling.
After fielding one of the NFL’s most stout defensive backfields during the first half of the season, the Steelers have expectedly regressed towards the mean. Pittsburgh is in the midst of a six-game winning streak, so the recent run of ineptitude exhibited by the secondary has yet to negatively impact the outcome of any games. Still, with division games against Cincinnati and Baltimore during the next two weeks, and a showdown with the Patriots looming in Week 15, the secondary needs to tighten up—or, at the very least, learn to tackle better.
Le’Veon Bell: Stock up
Here’s something that surprised me: prior to Sunday’s game against Green Bay, the franchise record-holder for most catches by a running back in a single game was Franco Harris, who had 11 in a game that occurred like a million years ago. I thought for sure Bell would’ve held that honor, but I digress.
Bell recorded 12 receptions against Green Bay, securing a franchise record and pushing his season total to 61, which currently leads all running backs and places him 11th in the NFL overall. Bell is also leading the NFL in rushing, further exemplifying the absurdity of the early-season narratives concerning his level of conditioning.
Bell has touched the football 313 times this season, which is absolutely insane when considering that they Steelers still have five regular season games left to play. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but this usage rate has to be bordering on historic for a single running back. This is a hot take—and I’m sorry for making it—but I think the fact that Bell and Brown play on the same team inhibits their respective MVP candidacies. In any other circumstance, the NFL’s leading rusher gets MVP love, especially if said rusher accounts for a considerable share of the offense for a first-place team. Tom Brady or Carson Wentz will win the award, but Bell deserves to be among the top vote-getters (even if he’s averaging fewer than four yards per carry).
Performing in a professional capacity: Stock down
Aside from the missed tackles I mentioned earlier, Pittsburgh’s receivers dropped, by my estimation, five or six very catchable passes. Eli Rogers was responsible for two of these drops, which doesn’t bode well for his standing in the offense as JuJu Smith-Schuster recovers from a hamstring injury. Had Pittsburgh receivers maintained an admittedly unsustainable 100-percent catch rate, Roethlisberger would’ve finished Sunday’s game 39 for 45 with close to 400 yards.
Then again, performing in a professional capacity: Stock up
Rogers and Jesse James, who both had drops, also picked up key third downs at various junctures of the game against Green Bay, while Martavis Bryant, who is seemingly good for about one drop per game, scored his second touchdown of the season and actually looked somewhat akin to the volcanic No. 2 receiving threat we envisioned this preseason. On the other side of the ball, Cameron Heyward wreaked his usual havoc, registering a pair of sacks and forcing Hundley to hurry a non-zero number of passes. Heyward now has nine sacks this season, which places him in the top 10 in the NFL in that category. Please go vote for this man to make the Pro Bowl.
The offensive line manifested similar professionalism, holding the Packers to just a single sack, although this was a coverage sack and not the fault of the line which supplied Roethlisberger with a spotless pocket for five solid seconds (that’s like 75 minutes in football years), and paving the way for 120 team rushing yards. Some of the stuff David DeCastro did on designed passing plays for Bell and James was ridiculous and demonstrated precisely why this dude is widely regarded as the best guard in the NFL.
Steelers fans: Stock down
Here’s a fight! You’ll notice that this scuffle involves two Steelers fans throwing punches at each other, which is a palpable, albeit more visceral, representation of the current state of Pittsburgh’s fan base. I’d like to imagine this fight started because the one fan lauded Todd Haley’s play-calling while the other vehemently disagreed.
We have our disagreements here at BTSC, but I think we can all agree that, if you get into a physical altercation at a sporting event, you’re probably better off sitting at home trying your very best (and likely failing) to color inside the lines.
The game ball: Chris Boswell
Re: Career-long, record-setting overtime game-winner.
The Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
So, yeah, Ben is slinging it. Prime-time appears to be just what the doctor ordered to placate some of Ben’s 14th-year woes. In his last two games, Roethlisberger has amassed 750 yards and eight touchdowns, and it could be argued that neither of the interceptions he tossed against Green Bay were his fault. His touchdown passes to Bryant and Brown were works of art, and the soon-to-be-iconic 23-yard dime to Brown on the game-winning drive might have been one of the five best throws of his entire career. The Steelers are entering a pretty difficult three-game stretch, and they’ll need him to be at his best if they hope to steal the AFC’s top seed.