Sunday afternoon, early in the third quarter, things looked pretty bleak for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh, ostensibly the favorite to win the AFC, trailed the woebegone Indianapolis Colts, 17-3.
This result was not unexpected. For one thing, the Steelers have upheld a very confounding standard of incompetence against sub-.500 teams on the road since 2011 or so. This can be blamed on a lot of things. Ben Roethlisberger’s play, for example, takes a palpable and startling nosedive beyond the friendly confines of Heinz Field. It’s hard to maintain a winning edge when your primary catalyst morphs from Joe Montana to Mark Sanchez after a brief plane ride.
It’s also notable that Mike Tomlin was 0-3 after the bye-week from 2014 through 2016. The players, of course, are responsible for cultivating Pittsburgh’s innate badness against crappy teams, but the coaching staff also deserves its share of blame.
Nevertheless, the Steelers scored 17 unanswered points to defeat the Colts 20-17, pushing their record to 7-2 but stomping on the hearts of everyone who bet on them to cover the spread. Let’s dig in:
Special teams (but not Jordan Berry): Stock down
I’m very certain that the piping hot “Danny Smith sucks” takes have already matriculated into the annals of this fine website. You all get a pass this week.
Following an underwhelming offensive series in the first quarter, awesome Aussie Jordan Berry and his bazooka leg blasted a punt to the Colts that was downed at their 8 yard-line. As the ball was screaming through the upper atmosphere of Lucas Oil Stadium, long snapper Kameron Canaday wrapped his mitts around a nameless Colts gunner and threw said gunner to the ground, drawing a holding penalty. After presumably checking with someone more qualified than him, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano opted for a redo of the down. This time, Berry’s punt landed just inside the Colts’ 20 yard-line; but again, a whistle blew, and Sean Davis was flagged. Berry ultimately launched a third punt, this one landing in the arms of Chester Rogers at the Indianapolis 32 yard-line. For those of you not keeping score, the Steelers surrendered 24 yards of field position on a single play.
Later in the game, after Pittsburgh had finally scored its first touchdown of the day, Chris Boswell set up to kick the extra point to cut the Colts’ lead to seven. For the second time this season, Boswell’s attempt was blocked and subsequently recovered by a wide-eyed defensive back who benefited from some very fortuitous positioning. The Steelers engaged in pursuit. Thankfully, Berry and Jesse James (who seemingly missed the block that led to the. . .uh, block) combined to make a tackle 75 or 80 yards later to prevent the Colts from scoring two points, which, retrospectively, might have been the play of the game.
The final special-teams snafu occurred with fewer than four minutes on the game clock. Having scored 14 unanswered points to tie the game at 17 all, the Steelers set up to kick a go-ahead 37 yard-field goal. In a play that succinctly captured the general ethos of the game to that point, Boswell, who is among the most accurate kickers in NFL history, pushed his kick too far to the right, causing the ball to smack the goalpost and fall harmlessly to the turf. (Boswell, of course, did kick the game-winning 33-yard field goal not long after this miss, so we’ll cut him some slack).
Despite the chaos that suffused the remainder of his unit, Berry played an excellent game. He was called on six times to flip the field (officially, anyway) and he did just that, boasting a net average of 49.5 yards for the game.
Offensive play calling: Stock down
The Steelers were pretty hellbent on setting the edge in the run game, routinely pulling tight ends and guards from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage to lead the charge downfield. The Colts, however, were rarely fooled. Le’Veon Bell had more runs for negative yards or no gain on Sunday than he’s had in any game so far this season. Moreover, the Steelers, as they’ve done in every game but one to this point, called a reverse for Martavis Bryant, surprising exactly zero people. I’m a strong proponent of gadgety plays, but running the same reverse or double-reverse each week kind of negates the element of surprise.
The secondary: Stock down
It was a tale of two halves for Pittsburgh’s secondary. During the first 33 minutes of Sunday’s game, the Steelers lost Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell for the game (and probably longer), missed 600 or 700 tackles and allowed a pair of long touchdown passes. Coming off a game in which they allowed Matthew Stafford to amass 423 passing yards, the fact that Jacoby Brissett looked like Ben Roethlisberger is supposed to look was not a good sign.
Undeterred, the secondary bounced back, holding Brissett to fewer than 50 passing yards during the final 27 minutes of Sunday’s win. Although the Steelers have now allowed 10 plays of 25 or more yards in their past two games, they remain atop the AFC standings.
Undoubtedly, the absence of Haden and Mitchell will hurt. Not only does their absence make the Steelers’ secondary objectively less talented, it strips them of integral veteran intangibles. One could convincingly argue that Haden and Mitchell are the perfect complements to Artie Burns and Davis, a pair of second-year stars whose moments of brilliance are sometimes overshadowed by mental errors and inexperience. The secondary was already trending downward prior to Sunday’s game; playing without Haden and Mitchell for an extended period of time will do little to buck this trend.
The offensive line: Stock up and stock down
Ben, who was sacked only once, was provided with very clean pockets in which to dance, deke, and dunk. He danced well, particularly in the second half, connecting on a non-zero number of critical passes.
Bell had no such luxury. Some of Pittsburgh’s ineptitude on the ground is attributable to the coaching staff’s byzantine play calling. Still, when your star running back averages just 3.1 yards per carry against a team that allows a very healthy 4.2 yards per carry, policy dictates that your ticker gets moved downward.
The front seven: Stock up
It’s evident that Pittsburgh substantially altered its defensive game plan at halftime. That, or the Steelers’ defensive linemen and linebackers needed a half to recover from their bye-week jet lag. Regardless, the front seven feasted in the second half, collecting a pair of sacks, shutting down the Colts rushing attack and forcing an interception. Here are the drive charts that succeeded Indianapolis’ final touchdown:
-Five plays for 15 yards; punt
-Three plays for three yards; punt
-Three plays for two yards; interception
-Three plays for -13 yards; punt
-Six plays for 12 yards; punt
Obviously, it would’ve been neat to see Pittsburgh’s fourth-ranked pass rush burst through the Colts’ CFL-caliber offensive line like a pack of raging hell-beasts and feast on Brissett’s innards, but the Steelers will gladly take the three team sacks that came along with their seventh victory of the season.
JuJu: Stock up
JuJu Smith-Schuster, henceforth known solely as a mononym, led the Steelers in receiving for the second consecutive week, further establishing himself as one of the best young receivers in the NFL. JuJu grabbed five of his seven targets for 97 yards and a touchdown, displaying his impressive and multifaceted skill set in the process. That included running clean routes, getting open in the red-zone, making contested catches, running after the catch and stiff-arming some fools. With seven games remaining in the season, JuJu has a legitimate shot at cracking the 1,000-yard/10-touchdown threshold, which would put him squarely in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
Martavis Bryant: Stock up
A cursory look at the box score reveals that Bryant’s return to the lineup (he was suspended for Pittsburgh’s game in Week 8 for being a butthole on social media) was somewhat underwhelming. He caught only three passes for 47 yards, lost nine yards on a doomed reverse play and probably could have done more to combat a pass that was intercepted. However, Bryant also caught a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 17-17 and later gained 19 yards on a short catch-and-run to set up the Steelers in Colts’ territory with less than one minute remaining in the game.
Persistence and shifting the paradigm: Stock up
Contrary to the popular discourse, there is such a thing as a bad win, and Sunday’s victory over the Colts was just that for the Steelers. The offense looked flat, the defense was inconsistent, the game plan was hackneyed and ineffective and multiple important players suffered injuries.
But the Steelers are 7-2. It’s a lot easier to address the aforementioned concerns—including getting rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton up to speed to provide some extra depth in the secondary—after picking up a win and maintaining a division lead that grows more insurmountable by the week. Even if the Steelers did underperform against the Colts, the fact that they scored 17 unanswered points to win a road game is an achievement worthy of praise.
Game ball: Stephon Tuitt
Tuitt was a menace, collecting a sack, three tackles for loss and four quarterback hits.
Celebration of the Week
Here. I don’t believe that Bell will (or should) take a hometown discount this off-season, but I would not be shocked if he accepted a JuJu discount. The two of them are magic.
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
Ben, much like his teammates, followed up his worst first half of football this season by finding his rhythm in the second half. His statistics were modest, just like they’ve been all season, but not otherworldly, like so many of us probably expected. While the historic, Madden-level Ben of 2015 will likely never be seen again, his aptitude in leading fourth-quarter comebacks is rivaled only by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
One thing we saw on Sunday that we’ve desperately missed to this point was one of the classic broken plays in which Ben, draped in would-be tacklers like a wedding dress, found an open Brown, who has since deviated from his own script. The above play, a 32-yard gain late in the fourth quarter, set up Boswell’s game-winning field goal. Post-game, Roethlisberger discussed how “fun” these kinds of plays are, which can either be taken as “I’m going to really miss these kinds of plays when I retire in five months” or “I’m going to play for four more seasons so I can continue making these kinds of plays.” We’ll bet on the grey area this week and set the index at a strong 5.