The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen better days than they are currently experiencing. The black-and-gold have dropped three straight games, after losing to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders in consecutive weeks. Now they turn their attention to another AFC opponent, the New England Patriots, in Week 15.
Today in the Black-and-gold links article, we take a look at how the Steelers defense cannot simply focus on Rob Gronkowski Sunday, but also remember how lethal Josh Gordon can be. The Steelers know all too well how Gordon can take over a game, and stopping him will be a job which should fall on Joe Haden’s shoulders in Week 15.
Let’s get to the news:
By: Kevin Gorman, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Bill Belichick said the New England Patriots playing the Pittsburgh Steelers “almost feels like a division game,” a nod to the rivalry that has developed between two of the top teams in the AFC.
That feeling must be multiplied for Josh Gordon, who played hero for the Cleveland Browns in the season opener against the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Gordon caught a 17-yard touchdown with 1 minute, 58 seconds remaining in regulation to tie a game that ended in a 21-21 draw, helping the Browns end their 19-game losing streak.
That gives Gordon, who was traded to New England in September, something of an edge when the Patriots visit Heinz Field on Sunday. With this being his second meeting with the Steelers, Gordon already is familiar with their multiple coverage defensive schemes.
“Josh has done well in his adjustment and transition to a new team,” said Belichick, calling Gordon “fluent” in the Patriots offense. “He knows the offense well now to go out and do what we need to do every week.”
Gordon is the latest reclamation project to shine under Belichick’s rule, following the likes of Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount, Martellus Bennett and James Harrison. They serve as examples of the differences in discipline between the Patriots and Steelers, who have shown no interest in adding players who could be potential distractions.
After spending his first four seasons with the basement-dwelling Browns, Gordon is focused on getting his first taste of the postseason with the Patriots. That should give him all the incentive in the world to beat the Steelers, something he did only once in six games in Cleveland.
“It’s different. That’s for sure,” Gordon told ESPN late last month. “It’s exciting. It’s motivational for me and for everybody. I’ve never really got the opportunity before, considering the circumstances. So it’s great to have the opportunity now.”
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gordon is dangerous on his own, as evidenced by his first two NFL seasons. As a rookie in 2012, he had 50 catches for 805 yards and five touchdowns. The next season, Gordon had 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record back-to-back 200-yard games.
Gordon did that despite his drug and alcohol problems that led to him serving two suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, not to mention the Browns never establishing a starter at quarterback. Now, he’s catching passes from Tom Brady, arguably the game’s greatest quarterback ever.
Where Gordon’s statistics (39 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns) might appear pedestrian compared to Steelers 1,000-yard receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, Gordon is averaging 18 yards per catch, has a pair of 100-yard games and fell just short of another with five catches for 96 yards against Miami last week.
“Shoot, he’s a big man that can run,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, noting the Patriots spread the ball around to create mismatches. “He’s a deep-ball guy. If you look for anybody that’s going deep for them, it’s probably him.”
That’s just another thing for the Steelers to contend with on a checklist that starts with Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski and includes Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson. Heck, two years ago, the Steelers couldn’t stop Chris Hogan, a former lacrosse star who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC championship game.
But the Steelers already experienced firsthand that Gordon can make momentum-changing plays, even if it wasn’t enough to beat them.
By: Chris Adamski, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
1. A lot on the line
Sunday’s game could play an immense role in determining the future of Artie Burns with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While it’s typically shortsighted to put too much stock into one game, it’s almost impossible to ignore the magnitude by which Burns’ performance against the New England Patriots could shape his career going forward.
The Steelers must make a decision this spring on if they want to pick up Burns’ fifth-year option before he begins his fourth NFL season in 2019. Last year, the rate for the fifth-year option for a cornerback taken outside the top 10 (Burns was picked No. 25 in 2016) was almost $9.1 million, a number that will only increase this coming year.
Let’s say Burns gets beat for a few big plays Sunday and gets benched again. There’s seemingly no conceivable way the Steelers could consider committing a (likely) eight-figure future salary to him, right?
On the other hand, what if Burns has a solid game in a Steelers win, regains his starting spot and helps the Steelers into the playoffs?
With Joe Haden entering his 30s, Coty Sensabaugh an impending free agent and nothing else in regards to a proven NFL outside cornerback on the roster, how could the Steelers not pick up Burns’ fifth-year option?
2. The 100/1,000 club
Barring injury, the Steelers are likely going to finish the season with a pair of 100-catch, 1,000-yard wide receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster (91 catches and 1,234 yards through 13 games) and Antonio Brown (86 and 1,063). Assuming Brown gets 14 more receptions and Smith-Schuster nine over the next three games, they will become the first set of Steelers teammates to hit those single-season milestones.
And as it stands now, just four other WR duos in NFL history have pulled the 100/1,000 trick — although the race is on against Minnesota’s Adam Thielen (103/1,236) and Stefon Diggs (88/915) as to whom will get there next.
The most recent 100/1,000 teammates were Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas in 2014.
The Steelers’ record for receptions in a season by a pair of teammates is Brown and Le’Veon Bell (212) in 2014. The most by a pair of Steelers wide receivers in a season is 190 by Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress in 2002. Both are in jeopardy.
3. Ringing the Bell
Bell, as is well known, sat out this season. Judging by uniform number and production alone, one might have thought he perhaps was traded to the Giants.
New York rookie Saquon Barkey is doing quite the Bell impersonation at just 21 years old. The Penn State rookie with the similar body type and skillset to the erstwhile Steelers running back is arguably having a season that even the two-time All Pro Bell never matched.
With three games left in the season, Barkley has 1,124 rushing yards, a 5.4 per-carry average, 78 catches, 629 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. If he keeps that pace over the final three games, Barkley will finish with 1,383 rushing yards, 96 catches, 774 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns and 2,157 yards from scrimmage.
In Bell’s five years in the NFL, he never had a season in which he matched what Barkley is on pace to do as a rookie in regards to rushing yards, yards per carry, catches or touchdowns.
(For more, click the link in the headline...)
By: Chris Carter, DKPittsburghSports
• Where scheme beat team: Normally, this section is about a key strategy that one team used to attack the opponent. But this week is about a scheme the Steelers used to beat themselves.
They knew coming into this game that the Raiders were a bad team. The way you beat bad teams is to use your strengths to overwhelm their weaknesses. The Raiders rank 17th in the 32-team NFL against the pass with a 247.7 yards per game average, while ranking 31st against the run, allowing 144.5 yards per game. And don’t let the Raiders’ pass defense ranking fool you. They only rank that high because opponents are protecting leads and running the ball. A more accurate depiction is their opponents’ combined 107.5 quarterback rating, which ranks 31st.
So when Mike Tomlin sat down with Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger, there should have been a plan to use their two best weapons — Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster — exclusively, with targets all over the field. They should have come early and often, and challenged the Raiders’ defense to cover deep passes and the superior routes that Brown and Smith-Schuster use to exploited defenses.
But how many times did they have Roethlisberger throw deep passes?
Each time resulted in a first down: Smith-Schuster caught 19-yard and 20-yard passes, and a third target that fell incomplete drew a defensive holding penalty on the last touchdown drive.
But that was it. A deep target is when a quarterback throws the ball at least 15 yards downfield. It makes sense for the Steelers to take advantage of two elite receivers with deep shots that result in splash plays and quicker scores. The Raiders didn’t double team Smith-Schuster and Brown all game, either, and when Roethlisberger targeted Brown outside the numbers it worked.
(For more, click on the link in the headline...)