The Pittsburgh Steelers are kind of beating the whole there’s no such thing as an ugly win paradigm to death, ain’t they? They defeated the Baltimore Ravens 39-38 on Sunday in a game that was equal parts dazzling and frustrating, requiring Ben Roethlisberger to lead yet another mystifying fourth-quarter comeback and Chris Boswell to kick yet another game-winning field goal in crunch time. This was despite Pittsburgh jumping out to a seemingly unsquanderable 14-0 lead that somehow became an 11-point deficit.
The early-season concerns surrounding Roethlisberger—the ones that led him to declare that he “might not have it anymore”—now feel like distant memories, like the narratives penned following Ben’s infamous five-interception game against Jacksonville happened in another time. It’s almost as if the timid, error-prone Ben from mid-October, the one content with handing Le’Veon Bell the keys to the offense, did retire and the gun-slingin’, no-huddlin’, chance-takin’ Ben Roethlisberger from 2014 took his place. As of this writing, Ben is second in the NFL in passing yards, fourth in touchdown passes, first in passes of 40 or more yards, and has gotten to within two points of his career quarterback rating for the season. On Sunday, he became the first player to throw for 500 or more yards on three separate occasions and he did so against a Ravens’ defense that hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer in any of its first 12 games.
I guess the lesson here is that Ben Roethlisberger should never be underestimated or written off. He’s guided the Steelers to an 11-2 record, which seemed almost unthinkable following the aforementioned loss to the Jaguars. Pittsburgh’s offense has finally transformed into the volcanic, scoreboard-wrecking dynamo we envisioned in the preseason, and this is largely attributable to Roethlisberger’s return to form. I fully believed that October Ben was done, but December Ben sure looks like he’s got a few more years left in him.
The entire defense: Stock down
In the spirit of remembering the mid-October Steelers, do you guys recall that, with Joe Haden anchoring the defensive backfield, the Steelers fielded debatably the league’s most formidable secondary? I certainly do.
We can see now that much of Pittsburgh’s success in limiting opposing passing attacks was the result of some fortuitous scheduling, as perhaps the best quarterback faced by the Steelers during the first seven weeks of the season was Alex Smith, whose early-season MVP candidacy has been tarnished by a run of relative ineptitude. But to have been so successful in the early stages of the season, only to see that dominance wiped away unceremoniously almost in the blink of an eye, is frustratingly confounding.
The hallmarks of a collapse and, in a way, a return to form for Pittsburgh’s secondary based on its woeful showings during the past three seasons, were evident from the start. The bad tackling, for one, has been an issue that’s plagued the secondary since Pittsburgh’s 21-18 victory over the Browns in Week 1. In fact, it was that same poor tackling that led the Steelers to suffer a loss at the hands of the lamentable Chicago Bears, a defeat that grows more embarrassing by the week. Had it not been for Roethlisberger’s heroics, bad tackling would’ve caused the Steelers to suffer a critical home loss to their biggest rival.
Alex Collins, who, in fairness, appears to be a more-than-serviceable workhorse running back, gained 120 yards on just 18 carries Sunday. Many of these were not the-offensive-line-created-gaping-apertures-to-run-through yards, but barreled-through-numerous-tacklers-like-a-runaway-freight-train yards. To be sure, the Steelers did give up plenty of “easy” yards by failing to correctly fill run lanes (Mike Mitchell, for instance, continues to fail to demonstrate even an elementary level understanding of this), but Collins gained most of his yards by being better at shedding contact than Pittsburgh’s defenders were at delivering it.
Joe Flacco, meanwhile, somehow only threw for 269 yards (it felt like 400), but had five completions of 20 or more yards. Pittsburgh, not ones to break from tradition, allowed their sixth 40-yard completion since Week 10 (here’s a fun stat: entering their Week 10 game against the Colts, the Steelers had allowed the fewest plays of 40 or more yards in the NFL—as of Monday morning, the Steelers have allowed the fourth-most such plays). For every stellar play, Artie Burns seems to make a handful of baffling miscalculations, while Coty Sensabaugh has further distinguished himself as essentially unplayable.
Of course, we’ve yet to give a requisite tongue-lashing to second-year safety Sean Davis, who had perhaps the worst game of his young career in Sunday’s win. He started strong by halting Baltimore’s first drive with an interception, but his evening quickly devolved into chaos shortly thereafter. Over the next 50 minutes, Davis blew coverages, missed tackles and committed two exceedingly unnecessary personal fouls (aptly named “unnecessary roughness”), one of which was the result of him reverse pile-driving a ball carrier into the ground. At least it looked cool.
The secondary was bad, but the front-seven deserves no reprieve. This group sacked Flacco only once (fittingly on the final play of the game, so better late than never, I suppose), and this lack of pressure certainly contributed to the secondary’s rough outing. As a whole, this is a defense that desperately misses Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden. Haden should be back before the end of the season, but not before Tom Brady and the Patriots get a crack at this outfit.
Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell: Stock up
Brown added yet another stanza to a 2017 season that might be his magnum opus, while Bell further manifested himself as the best multi-tool offensive weapon in the NFL.
Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, further extending his NFL leads in both categories. He now has 1,509 yards for the season, which is insane because: a) he’s only played in 13 games, b) there have only been 42 1,500-yard receiving seasons in NFL history, and c) only four players in NFL history have gained 1,500 or more yards in a season three times (Brown, Marvin Harrison, Andre Johnson, and Jerry Rice).
Brown is on pace to hit the 1,800-yard mark, though he probably won’t because it stands to reason that Pittsburgh’s Week 17 matchup against the Browns will be used as an additional bye-week for many of the starters. If Brown does ultimately surpass this threshold, he’ll be the first player ever to have done so twice. The same is true even if he only crosses the 1,700-yard mark. If Brown notches at least 1,686 yards by season’s end, he will be the owner of three of the 10 most prolific receiving seasons in NFL history, essentially cementing his spot in the Hall of Fame, if he somehow hasn’t already.
Here’s another fun stat: Le’Veon Bell only has 24 fewer catches than Brown, but has almost 1,000 fewer yards. What Bell’s 7.7 yards-per-catch average tells us is this: he’s kind of being set up to fail.
I don’t mean this as a pejorative, by the way. If anything, this paltry average is a testament to the trust that Ben Roethlisberger has in Bell’s playmaking ability. More often than not, Bell is catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage and being tasked with figuring things out from there. He has arguably been Ben’s go-to security blanket during Pittsburgh’s past four or five games, perhaps even more so than Brown. Bell is generating first downs in spades and providing Pittsburgh’s offense with a dimension that was noticeably absent at the beginning of the year. Oh, and he’s currently leading the NFL in rushing. If he and Brown maintain league leads in their respective categories for the remainder of the season, they’ll be the first duo to do so since 1991.
Martavis Bryant, kick returner: Stock down
He ran backwards into the end-zone on a kick return. Part of me wishes he’d have taken a safety, just so I could’ve seen the immediate and subsequent reactions. The Patriots are super good at exploiting less-than-obvious nuances, so I’m 100-percent certain that Bill Belichick will direct every kickoff to be booted to the one-yard line.
Walt Coleman’s crew: Stock down
That wasn’t pass interference, Walt.
Jesse James: Stock up
James set single-game career highs both in catches (10) and yards (97). The ironic Heeaaath chants are apparently a fitting sobriquet for the ever-reliable James.
Roosevelt Nix: Stock up
Nix probably bolstered his Pro Bowl case by using Tony Jefferson as a tchotchke to catch his first career touchdown pass.
Chris Boswell: Stock up
After Baltimore burned its penultimate timeout with 56 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced a 2nd-and-8 from the Ravens 28-yard line. Confusingly, Pittsburgh dialed up a pair of passing plays on that down as well as on the ensuing one, both of which fell incomplete. That’s the kind of play call that signals their confidence in Boswell. If we don’t pick up more yards here, whatever; our kicker will handle this. Boswell drilled a 46-yard game-winner, proving the Steelers right. (As an aside, if the Steelers exhibited good faith in Boswell—a dude who is the most clutch kicker in the NFL this season—why didn’t they just run out the clock instead of giving the Ravens and robotic kicker Justin Tucker a chance to boot a 75-yard game-winner?)
TV ratings: Stock up
Declining ratings have been among the most pervasive talking points this season in the NFL, but the league shouldn’t have to worry about that with the upcoming New England vs. Pittsburgh tilt.