The Steelers defeated the vile Ravens on Sunday, splitting the season series and further distancing themselves from the similarly despicable Bengals and toilet-organization Browns. James Conner was an amorphous, offensive workhorse, posting his fourth consecutive 100-yard game, leading the team in receiving, and assisting mightily in a masterful team blocking effort that held the Ravens without a sack on Ben Roethlisberger’s first 46 drop-backs (Stock up: offensive line!). Antonio Brown scored yet again — the sixth game in a row in which he’s found the end zone — and now leads the NFL with nine touchdowns. Only four players in league history have scored 18 or more touchdowns in a single season, but it isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brown becomes the fifth. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, had an effective game—albeit a somewhat inefficient one; he threw 47 passes, for goodness sakes—and finally seems to have left Road Ben, the lumbering doofus prone to hilarious mistakes and the statistical equivalent of Joe Flacco, in the past. He also caused most of Western Pennsylvania to suffer a massive, collective heart attack:
This is virtually identical to Aaron Rodgers’ injury last season, which occurred when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr landed on top of Rodgers and vaporized Rodgers’ clavicle. I thought for sure Ben was done for the year and thus I was fully prepared to dedicate my Sundays to cattle rustlin’, train robbin’, and stagecoach stealin’.
Miraculously—but predictably, given his flair for the dramatic— Roethlisberger returned to the game after one play. He said later that he “had the wind knocked out of him,” which led him to lay motionless and dazed on the turf for five minutes.
Well, Ben, you getting “the wind knocked out of you” knocked the wind out of my intestines, and now you owe me a new pair of pants and couch. I’ll send the bill this week. Stock report!
Stock down: Le’Veon Bell
Here’s an ominous Tweet:
Fairwell Miami— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) November 5, 2018
For those of you have somehow managed to avoid aligning yourselves right in the middle of the “Is Aware of Le’Veon Bell’s Whereabouts” and “Reads This Website” Venn Diagram, Le’Veon Bell is holding out and instead spending his off time in Miami. In the aforementioned Tweet, Bell bids adieu to luxury, presumably so he can make his obligatory return to Pittsburgh, sign the franchise tender, and play in what will almost certainly be the final 6-10 games of his Steelers career.
The problem with all of this is twofold. First, oh my God, can you even imagine the dank cloud of animus and awkwardness that’ll hang over the locker room upon his return? There is also the matter of Conner balling out. On one hand, it’s flatly ridiculous to indicate that inserting debatably the NFL’s best running back into the league’s fourth-best offense would negatively impact the vitality of things. On the other hand, you’d think that sports teams, just like any enterprise, value continuity, so it might behoove the Steelers to ride the hot hand.
I don’t know what Pittsburgh’s backfield will look like when Le’Veon Bell does return. If I had to guess, I’d say Bell will be eased in very slowly, allowing Conner to retain “lead back” duties for at least another couple of weeks. Eventually, I think it’ll be at least a 50-50 split, if not skewed slightly in Bell’s favor. He’s too talented to park on the bench if he’s in uniform. With games against the Chargers, the Patriots, and the suddenly-unstoppable Saints remaining, the Steelers need all the firepower they can get. But that’s neither here nor there, and I won’t waste any more of your attention with conjecture, since, despite everything I just said, it isn’t entirely clear if Bell will return at all.
What I do know is that Le’Veon Bell, noble as his cause may have been, probably cost himself some money, now and well into the future. In addition to the forfeiture of his game checks, Bell has ceded valuable snaps to a running back who’s producing at a level equaling, if not exceeding, his own. Conner’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season running behind the same offensive line that Bell averaged 4.0 yards per carry behind last season. If you extrapolate Conner’s current statistics to a 16-game schedule (and bump the figures down in an attempt to account for any natural regression), he’d finish with somewhere between 1,200-1,400 rushing yards, 600-700 receiving yards, and 17 or 18 total touchdowns. That’s extremely solid production from a player who was in line for maybe 50 or 60 touches this season. What’s evident, then, is that Le’Veon Bell is very good and very talented, and that James Conner is also very good and very talented. But both, to a certain extent, could be viewed as being products of a system. “System back” has been bastardized to the point that it’s now a pejorative, so I feel like Conner’s exemplary season could be leveraged by nefarious suitors to drive down Bell’s value.
It’s been a weird season to this point, though, so I fully expect Bell to return and go on an absurdly heroic run in the near future, gaining maybe 1,000 all-purpose yards and carrying the Steelers kicking and screaming through the postseason.
Stock up: Secondary
For the second week in a row, the Steelers kept Artie Burns sequestered to the bench; and for the second week in a row, the Steelers’ secondary looked like a functional, cohesive unit. Aside from three pretty egregious pass interference penalties (for real, turn your heads around, you guys), the secondary locked down a surprisingly-explosive Ravens’ passing attack (even if this isn’t entirely true at present, it sure was five weeks ago when Baltimore dusted Pittsburgh at home), limiting Flacco to just a shade over 200 yards passing. We’ll revisit this topic later when the Steelers’ defensive backs are forced to contend with the likes of Los Angeles or [gulp] New Orleans, but for now, I think we ought to be encouraged by the improvements we’ve seen from this group.
Stock down: Logic
What in the world was that play-call at the end of the first half? After forcing Baltimore into a punt on the penultimate drive of the first half, the Steelers, despite having 49 seconds remaining on the clock, despite them fielding the punt at their own 15 yard-line, and despite them getting the football back to start the second half (!!!), made the executive decision to score points, pragmatism be damned. Not only did this doomed endeavor fail spectacularly — the Steelers ran five plays and gained 10 yards — it nearly enabled the Ravens to put points on the scoreboard. On the first play of this series, Roethlisberger tossed an absolute duck in the general vicinity of Vance McDonald, who had to box out Tavon Young like a power forward just to prevent Young from snagging what would’ve almost certainly been a pick-6. McDonald caught the pass, but “fumbled” on his way to the ground; Young scooped up the loose ball and scored. Fortunately, the subsequent replay revealed McDonald was clearly down by contact. The whole sequence was an eerie signal from some unknown spiritual entity that the Steelers should have just taken their dadgum lead to the locker room and tried the whole thing again in the second half. Mike Tomlin was either blithely unaware of those red flags flapping violently in the wind or he didn’t care, because on the ensuing second down, Roethlisberger lobbed a screen to Conner with an almost cheerful indifference; the pass was tipped by a Ravens’ defender and nearly intercepted by C.J. Mosley. Regardless, it was now 3rd-and-long, there were 30 seconds left on the clock and the Ravens still had two timeouts. That gave them plenty of time to halt the Steelers on third down, field the punt near midfield and get in position for mechatron kicker Justin Tucker to nail a 50-something yarder to conclude the first-half proceedings. Thankfully, Conner scampered for 10 yards on that third-down play, enabling the Steelers to escape the half without further incident.
A buddy of mine texted me “Why” after that series ended. I still can’t answer that.
Stock up: Offensive game plan
The Steelers dominated time of possession, and it sure looked like they fully intended to do so. All told, Pittsburgh ran 76 plays — compared to just 56 for Baltimore — feeding the Ravens a healthy diet of inside runs, stretch runs, screens, and slants. Of course, Roethlisberger made the occasional improvisation (a dump-off over the middle to Conner during broken play comes to mind) and a gorgeous deepish ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster was dropped, but the game plan mostly involved consistently moving the ball downfield in 5-to-7 yard increments, picking up first downs like a metronome (they had 27 and were 10-16 on third down, which, dang). They also strung together five drives composed of nine or more plays, including a massive 15-play, eight-and-a-half-minute touchdown drive to begin the second half.
Stock up: Defensive game plan
In theory, Baltimore’s two-quarterback concept is fresh, innovative and exciting, but in practice it’s poorly designed, predictable, and the perfect encapsulation of how NFL coaches take fun/cool things from college playbooks and micromanage them into oblivion. I’m not keen on myriad defensive coaching principles, but even as a layman, I knew exactly what was going to happen when Lamar Jackson lined up behind center: he was going to take the snap, and he was either going to hand the ball to the running back or, if his read allowed, he was going to run the ball himself. Keith Butler, an intelligent football man, recognized this development and loaded the box with defenders whenever Jackson was under center to great effect. Baltimore averaged 3.8 yards per rush as a team, and Jackson amassed only 10 yards on his five carries. Lamar Jackson was one of the greatest, most explosive college football players ever, but the Ravens have ensured he’s little more than a tchotchke.
Stock up: Playoff hopes
The Steelers finally, mercifully look like they belong among the AFC contenders. Over the next eight weeks, the Steelers will play five games against teams currently within their respective conference’s playoff brackets — and one against Jacksonville, a team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last season, both times handily, at Heinz Field. This is to say that, at this point, a playoff berth is far from assured. But if the Steelers can navigate these treacherous waters, they’ll enter the postseason as battle-tested and, more importantly, cognizant of opponents they may very well meet again down the line.