More than any other game so far during the 2018 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 23-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium was a coming-of-age performance by some young players who likely will be leading this team for years to come. First and foremost, James Conner continued to absolutely obliterate any lingering thoughts of Le’Veon Bell among the faithful of Steelers Nation by racking up 163 yards of total offense (107 yards rushing and 56 yards passing). When Conner wasn’t gashing the Ravens’ defense for crucial first downs, JuJu Smith-Schuster (7 receptions for 78 yards) was doing a convincing impression of Steelers’ legend, Hines Ward, whether by snatching passes in crucial situations to move the sticks or delivering crunching blocks on the edge for Conner and others.
Playing the game with a broken index finger on his left hand, Ben Roethlisberger scared the daylights out of Steelers fans everywhere early in the final quarter when he remained on the turf and appeared to be seriously hurt after being taken down hard near the sideline after a sprint out of the pocket. Overall, Ben certainly didn’t have one of his better games as a pro — completing 28 of 47 passes for 270 yards. While his play was generally competent, Ben continues to be nagged by tipped passes that lead to near-interceptions. While Ben has never been particularly adept at dumping off the ball on screens and other short passes, he came perilously close on Sunday to having some shorter throws picked off.
But the play of Conner and Smith-Schuster — combined with an outstanding cameo appearance by backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs — more than compensated for Big Ben’s less-than-stellar outing. The result was a fairly dominant performance through four quarters of football by the Black-and-gold, despite the modest, 7-point advantage at the final gun. The combination of Conner’s slashing runs and JuJu’s possession catches simply was too much for the Ravens’ defense. While Antonio Brown caught a TD pass and made a few more stick-moving catches, he ranked as only the fourth Steelers receiver on Sunday with 42 yards.
Defensively, we’re also seeing the continued improvement of two more youngsters, Terrell Edmunds and Mike Hilton, in the secondary. Excellent coverage by the Steelers’ DBs, plus defensive pressure on Joe Flacco, were key reasons why Baltimore managed only 16 points. Furthermore, Flacco hasn’t exactly been playing like a guy who signed a monster, 3-year contract extension in 2016 worth $66.4 million — including a $40 million signing bonus plus $44 million in guaranteed money. In fact, what once were only whispers that Flacco’s days as a starting quarterback might be numbered now have nearly become an audible roar among the Ravens’ faithful.
As for the Black-and-gold, their destiny this season increasingly is being entrusted to a handful of young, breakout stars who have seized their opportunities to prove they already deserve to be included among the NFL’s best. In fact, with Conner at running back and Smith-Schuster now challenging No. 84 as the team’s go-to receiver, the Steelers’ offense might be even better now than it was with Bell in the lineup. This new identity was particularly evident during the fourth quarter in Baltimore when, despite the Ravens desperately needing to get the ball back, the Steelers’ offense was able to possess the ball and burn precious minutes off of the game clock. At that point, it was refreshing to realize that the Steelers actually could afford to be more conservative and still move the sticks — a theme which extended throughout the game.
Apparently, the Conner/Smith-Schuster tandem is providing the same catalyst effect in Pittsburgh’s offense that Bell previously had brought to the table. Regardless of Bell’s undeniable talent, forcing opposing defenses to account for two additional impact players rather than only one appears to be helping the Steelers’ offense become even more versatile and less predictable. As much as he might dislike the stats, Brown’s production has dropped this season in direct relation to the rising production of Smith-Schuster. Whereas, in previous seasons, teams found they could make the Steelers’ offense one-dimensional by doubling Brown, that strategy isn’t working so well in 2018.
As platooning of young players continues to be a distinctive feature of the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, Head Coach Mike Tomlin admits he’s opening the door for other youngsters to step up and seize the moment. Joshua Dobbs certainly appears to have gotten the memo, and it’s difficult to imagine that his clutch, 22-yard bullet to JuJu in the fourth quarter (with his back to his own goal post) wasn’t inspired at least in part by the prime examples set by No. 19 and No. 30. Despite their tender ages, these kids are proving the NFL stage isn’t too big for them.
While tougher tests remain on their schedule during the second half of the 2018 season, this win was significant because the Steelers demonstrated the ability to move beyond the distractions affecting their cohesion last season and, with the Bell saga beginning in Week 1, the same thing appeared to possibly be developing this past September.
But what we’re seeing now is a mostly-veteran team which looks entirely comfortable following the lead of its young, dynamic stars. Quite clearly, these youngsters are having the time of their lives in the process of making big names for themselves in the NFL. This is exactly the kind of infectious enthusiasm which can help the Steelers surmount the obstacles remaining in their path and hopefully enable them to take that next big step come playoff time.