The Steelers won their Week 8 game against the team that is likely the worst in the NFL. While it is always a good thing to win a game you should, and infinitely better than the alternative, a win like that doesn’t really move the needle of how the fans view the Steelers.
What should affect your view of the Steelers is the strengths and growth the Steelers showed in this game.
Let’s start with a defense that lost Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers best player before he was injured in Week 6.
T.J. Watt isn’t the only Steelers OLB playing great football
Bud Dupree is lined up just outside the LT.
Bud Dupree starts with a step to engage the LT. Then, seeing that the LT is doubling Cameron Heyward and the RG is coming across to seal him out, absolutely explodes into the backfield and lights up the RB for a loss. Dupree’s explosive athleticism has always been a weapon, but this season he is showing comfort on the right side of the defense, and his decision making has improved and sped up. But this is just a bonus play, because later in the game they would try a similar strategy of doubling Heyward and sending the RG at Dupree.
Dupree is on the right side of the screen, lined up over the TE.
This play is even better. The LT engages Cam Heyward and the TE hits Heyward to keep him out of the run lanes. Heyward responds by throwing the LT to the ground, and he is there to make the tackle. This is Cam Heyward being his usual dominant self, but the play works because Dupree pinches onto Heyward’s sied and gets inside the RG that is pulling to clear him out. Dupree gets inside the guard and anchors, forcing the RB to either cut really wide outside, or head back into the middle. This is the kind of plays that Bud Dupree has been making much more reliably this season, it will continue to be an important aspect of the Steelers defense as they try to continue to excel with Stephon Tuitt out.
Mason is finding his rhythm
I promised after Week 6 that I would revisit Mason Rudolph and his timing and anticipation. I hoped I would get to show improvement, and I’m happy and surprised to get to do just that.
Diontae Johnson is the WR at the top of the screen.
You may recognize this play as the 3rd down conversion that kick-started the Steelers offense. Diontae Johnson runs a great route with a sharp cut, but this time the ball is there in rhythm for an easy catch before the sideline. This is the exact improvement we’ve been waiting to see from Mason Rudolph, and it’s a big step. Any expectations that he could be a quality NFL QB were on hold because he hadn’t shown he could make these kind of throws.
Rudolph reads the defense, looks to Johnson, and makes the throw before Johnson cuts. This is good QB play.
Rudolph is still learning
But it wasn’t all roses, as Rudolph showed he doesn’t have that comfort level on all the plays.
Donte Moncrief is the WR closest to the bottom of the screen.
Moncrief makes a nice move on his release and is past his defender. No defender is between him and 6 points. The pass gets to him, but it is just too far out of bounds for Moncrief to bring in. But to really get what happened here we need a different angle.
Look at Rudolph’s helmet, he wants to go to McDonald, but McDonald is stumbling and by the time he gets balanced the LB is closing. That’s when Rudolph turns to look downfield to the wide open Donte Moncrief. Below you can see the moment Rudolph’s helmet is fully turned and he can see Moncrief.
Notice the arrow showing where Moncrief is on the field at this point. If you go back to the gif, you can count from that moment to the moment Rudolph slaps the ball and starts his throw. It’s almost exactly 1 second. Moncrief is running fast here, but not full speed. If we assume he’s running at 15 MPH that second would be more than 7 yards of turf his WR has covered in that span, and if we look at the point where Rudolph releases the ball we can see that distance has been covered.
Rudolph is toward the top right corner, you can see he is about to throw the ball. The arrow shows where that pass is going to end up.
Moncrief was on the right hashmark at the 27-28 yard line when Mason looks his way. Here Moncrief is almost to the numbers at the 19-20 yard line. Moncrief has traveled roughly 8 yards. Rudolph’s pass would end up about a yard out of bounds. If Rudolph had started his pass 0.2 seconds earlier that ball could have been safely in bounds for a big gain. If he had started his throw 0.5 seconds or less after seeing Moncrief it’s a TD.
That’s the NFL, that’s the difference between elite QBs and guys that get cut in the preseason. How fast can the QB process what they are seeing, make the right decision and get the ball in the air. Rudolph showed a quick read and decision on the conversion to Diontae Johnson, but here he doesn’t have it. It’s not that he’s incapable, he’s shown he can do it, now it is a matter of how long it takes Rudoph to get comfortable in different situations.
Ryan Fitzpatrick knows all the tricks
For a contrast to Rudolph’s inexperience all you have to do is look across the field to Ryan Fitzpatrick, a veteran QB who has stuck around not because of talent, but because he makes plays that earned him the nickname Fitzmagic. But it isn’t magic, it’s just high level play recognition and quick decision making.
3rd and 14 conversion on the Dolphins second TD drive.
This play doesn’t look like much, Fitzpatrick scrambles and finds a WR for a first down, but when you look deeper, this is an impressive play from the QB. Miami has 7 protectors blocking 3 rushers, and they are running 3 curl routes against Cover 3. Each WR is double teamed, with the curl defenders in the passing lanes and the CBs behind the WRs. The middle curl has 3 yards, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush between the receiver and the first down. Before Fitzpatrick scrambles there is nowhere to go on this play. Before this gif starts Miami had a RB outside their WR on top of the screen that Fitzpatrick called in to block and he audibled. The Steelers then moved, including Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick changing from more of a cover-2 look to Edmunds being deep middle and Fitzpatrick moving up to guard the first down line.
That’s important because the Steelers won the pre-snap chess match. The Dolphins are running man beating routes against cover-3 and have 7 protectors against a 3-man rush. Fitzpatrick steps away from Hargrave’s diving penetration, but he didn’t need to scramble like he did, he could have stopped there and been safe for several more seconds, but if we look from a different angle we can see how Ryan Fitzpatrick turned a defensive win into a new set of downs.
Fitzpatrick isn’t just scrambling, he is moving the whole play to the right and looking to Cameron Sutton’s right. Sutton starts moving right to cover for the threat of a QB run outside and the threat of a pass to the sideline for a first down. But as soon as he turns his hips Ryan Fitzpatrick starts the throw. By scrambling like he did Fitzpatrick moved Sutton out of a passing lane that was previously unavailable. If you mentally mark where Cam was standing when he turned his hips you can see the throw goes right through where he was.
A brilliant play by a cagey veteran QB, the kind of play that gets you the reputation as a magician.
Will the real “Fitzmagic” please stand up.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to the left of the screen.
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s second interception off a tipped ball was a big play in this game, and helped turn the fortunes of the Steelers around. The play is impressive because of how fast Fitzpatrick changes direction and gets to the ball. You can see it better zoomed in.
That is elite reaction time, agility and quickness, and that is the kind of interception we haven’t seen in Pittsburgh since #43 was making incredible interceptions off tipped balls.
Minkah Fitzpatrick might be even quicker than Troy, and that kind of elite ability tells us that we can expect more of these interceptions in the future. Turnovers don’t correlate to future turnovers, we’ve all heard that in a season where the Steelers are forcing turnovers at a rate we haven’t seen since 2010. But the turnovers are being driven by traits of the players we have added to the team, with 11 of the 19 turnovers being recorded by Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Mark Barron, there are grounds to believe that the Steelers will continue to be able to take advantage of opportunities that are presented them.
The Steelers didn’t win convincingly over the Dolphins, but they showed the traits that have gotten them back to a game away from .500, and they showed that there is hope for continued improvement. Hopefully there is enough improvement in the next week to help the Steelers get a win against the Colts.