The best games are the ones your favorite team wins, but by a razor-thin margin, which generally adds a couple megatons to the thermonuclear explosivity of the resulting takes. The Steelers defeated the Buccaneers 30-27 Friday night, nearly squandering what appeared to be a relatively cozy 30-10 halftime lead. Let’s get to the takes:
Stock up: Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger’s fifth passing attempt of the game was a fitting encapsulation of everything that Ben Roethlisberger is and can be. Facing a 1st-and-10 from near midfield, Roethlisberger fielded a shotgun snap and took a handful of steps back in the pocket, which subsequently collapsed. With myriad Tampa Bay defenders — including William Gholston, who probably should’ve sacked Roethlisberger — now within an arm’s length, Roethlisberger stepped forward, hips and shoulders squared to the sideline, and fired a pass off his weak foot in the general vicinity of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Justin Evans, very much cognizant of Roethlisberger’s schtick, jumped in front of the errant pass and intercepted it. It was quintessential Ben Roethlisberger; a moment of pure brilliance and Houdinian escapism sullied by an ambitious-but-ultimately-doomed bit of decision making. More pragmatically, it evoked this very valid concern: Was this going to be another one of those Ben Roethlisberger road games?
Discerning Steelers fan — it was not. Ben rebounded from that early mistake, completing all but seven of his next 33 passes and torching a depleted Bucs’ secondary for 353 yards and a trio of touchdowns. He orchestrated an absolutely masterful 75-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes of the first half (which was punctuated by Ryan Switzer’s first career touchdown grab — so big props to him), giving the Steelers a three-possession lead at the break and, based on the events transpiring thereafter, winning the game.
Ben now ranks second in the NFL in passing yards, and he’s not far behind in other meaningful, quantifiable measures of solid quarterbacking, such as passing touchdowns, quarterback rating, and first downs. In short, despite a shaky Week-1 start against Cleveland — which retrospectively appears to be somewhat of an outlier, as Ben’s been throwing heat since midway through the 2017 season — Roethlisberger is playing about as well as he’s ever played, and it’s clear — even with a bad defense (more on those jokers in a second) and inconsistent rushing attack — the Steelers can go as far as he takes them.
Stock up: The entire receiving corps
James Washington caught only two passes Monday night, but on each play I was sure it was Antonio Brown coming down with the ball. That’s lofty praise to give someone who, to date, has three catches for like 40 yards and a touchdown in their entire career. But I’m getting the impression that Washington may be the victim of circumstances. The Steelers’ offense is laden with talented play-makers, and there are simply too many mouths to feed. James Washington isn’t the kind of player who will give you five catches and 70 yards on a weekly basis, but he is the kind of player who will bail out his quarterback by making difficult, contested catches in busy parts of the field.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is, for the moment, very legitimately one of the 10 best receivers in the entire NFL. He’s emerged as Roethlisberger’s favorite target (statistically speaking, anyway) and, as a result, has manifested himself near the top of the league-wide receiving board. He’s amassed 100 or more receiving yards in five of his last six regular-season contests dating back to last season. This indicates he isn’t some unheralded receiver in the midst of a flukey early-season hot stretch — he’s an integral component of Pittsburgh’s volcanic passing attack. Barring some unforeseen complication down the line, he seems assured to cross the 1,000-yard threshold.
Of course, Smith-Schuster is an obvious beneficiary of all the attention being paid to Antonio Brown, who caught a touchdown against Tampa Bay and seemed just tickled to be back playing football after a complicated week off the field. There’s little doubt that Brown, despite whatever “issues” he was or was not dealing with following Pittsburgh loss to Kansas City in Week 2, is one of the singular, most exhilarating talents in the NFL, so getting him back on track has to be an encouraging development for Mike Tomlin and his staff. Invigorating, too, was tight end Vance McDonald transmogrifying Bucs’ safety Chris Conte into a meme with a dehumanizing stiff-arm en route to a game-altering 75-yard touchdown.
Conte would leave the game with a knee injury and Tuesday he was placed on IR, so I hate to make light of this but, c’mon, that was hilarious.
Stock down: The defense
On Tampa Bay’s first eight drives, the Steelers sacked MVP-candidate Ryan Fitzpatrick twice and forced four turnovers, one of which led to a defensive touchdown. They also stoned the Bucs twice in the red-zone, holding Tampa Bay to field goals on drives that seemed preordained to end in touchdowns. The defense played no small part in the Steelers holding a 30-13 lead with 6:01 left in the third quarter. It all seemed too good to be true.
And it was! After Chris Boswell missed a 47-yard field goal on Pittsburgh’s first drive of the second half, a kick that would’ve pushed their lead to 33-13, the Steelers’ defense allowed Tampa Bay to score touchdowns on each of its next two drives. The first, an exhausting 12-play drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters, concluded when Chris Godwin caught what resembled a Hail Mary pass in front of a totally befuddled Coty Sensabaugh; the second, a massive 92-yard drive, ended with Mike Evans toasting Artie Burns. Of course, both successful drives were thanks in large part to Fitzpatrick making pinpoint throws under duress and escaping collapsed pockets whenever necessary. There was FitzMagic plenty.
The Steelers finally pulled themselves together on Tampa’s fourth drive of the half, clamping down on their speedy outside receivers and forcing a three-and-out. A pair of rumbling forays by James Conner on Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive allowed them to close things out, thank God.
What’s clear about Pittsburgh’s defense is that it’s capable of playing at a championship level, just as it did in Week 1 against Cleveland (which admittedly looks a lot less impressive in retrospect since Tyrod Taylor is a categorically crappier professional quarterback than Baker Mayfield, but alas) and just as it did in the first half against Tampa. But its vigor is neither consistent nor sustainable. Joe Haden returned Monday and he was excellent, but the rest of the secondary is a mess. Terrell Edmunds looks like a nice player but wasn’t exactly a standout beyond intercepting an errant Fitzpatrick pass. Artie Burns has a name that perfectly reflects his abilities as a cornerback, and Coty Sensabaugh is barely a superior option. Mike Tomlin has all but confirmed that his strategy moving forward is essentially splitting the cornerback snaps between Burns, Sensabaugh, and the similarly woebegone Cameron Sutton to see who sucks the least. None of these players has any business starting for an NFL defense, let alone one harboring Super Bowl aspirations. Nobody — not the defensive backs, not the linebackers, and certainly not the coaching staff — can figure out how to slow down tight ends, and the pass rush was non-existent in the second half.
For years, it’s felt like Pittsburgh’s defense is caught in the middle of what it is and what it can be. After Monday’s near-debacle against the Bucs, I’m not sure we’re any closer to a resolution. To some extent, one could argue that all NFL defenses are victimized by a paradigm that obviously favors the offensive side of the ball. But it sure feels like Pittsburgh is particularly unable to figure things out defensively.
Stock down: Chris Boswell
If Bos hadn’t just signed an extension before the season, he’d have been cut this week. He’s now missed two extra points this season and has converted only one of his four field goal attempts. He was never going to replicate the historical marksmanship that defined him during the 2017 season, but the fact he’s developed a significant case of the yips is, frankly, startling. Incredibly, Boswell has gone from being perhaps the most reliable weapon in Pittsburgh’s arsenal to its foremost liability.
Stock down: The visual appeal of the product
The Steelers should absolutely be rebuked for the 13 penalties they committed against Tampa — an inexcusable number that points to just how undisciplined this team truly is. But for the purposes of this exercise, I’d like to focus on the four roughing-the-passing penalties that were called in aggregate.
Listen. Making the NFL less dangerous is an admirable goal, but it’s an arduous one to achieve. To effectively do so would require the policymakers to fundamentally alter the way in which the game is played, and for the players to follow suit. In revising the roughing-the-passer penalty, the NFL has taken steps to safeguard the well being of its most prized on-field components, but in doing so has infuriated defensive players and fragmented the fan base. Gerald McCoy, a player with bona fide Hall of Fame credentials who makes a living feasting on the corpses of quarterbacks, was forced to apologize to Roethlisberger mid-tackle for a hit that was deemed illegal. Jason Pierre-Paul was flagged for tapping Roethlisberger’s helmet with what’s left of his hand. For the Steelers, Sean Davis and Stephon Tuitt were each flagged for putting their body-weight on Fitzpatrick. Not one of the four aforementioned tackles had anything resembling nefarious intent, but all were penalized nonetheless. Defensive players, including Packers’ linebacker Clay Matthews, who twice this season has had bogus-but-technically-correct-based-on-the-rules roughing penalties levied against him, are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to effectively doing their jobs. At least one analyst interestingly speculated that the reason Pittsburgh defenders didn’t pile on a downed Chris Godwin before a should-have-been-touchdown in the second half is because they feared an unnecessary roughness penalty.
Needless to say, I think we now have our new Catch Rule.