We are on the precipice of true fall. Soon, warm mornings will give way not to summery afternoons, but will remain acceptably tepid until nightfall. Not long after that, when the trees begin to shed their leaves and transform surrounding vistas into vibrant mosaics of autumnal hues, the clouds will appear heavier, the days will become appreciably shorter, and the gentle kiss of a brisk wind will evoke feelings of easement and warmth. Unless, of course, you cheer for the Steelers, in which case fall will be replete with indignation and self-loathing. We’re on to Cincinnati! Stock report!
The offense: Subterranean
Mason Rudolph’s acceptable-looking box score—174 passing yards on 14 completions with a pair of touchdowns—belies just how grim his first career start was: If you discount Rudolph’s 74-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster and 39-yard touchdown pass to wide-open Diontae Johnson, Rudolph accumulated just 52 passing yards on his other 25 passing attempts. His QBR was seven. Choke me with piano wire.
Putting aside the objectively quantifiable metrics, Rudolph displayed some fleeting glimpses of okayness. For instance, the above-mentioned touchdown to Smith-Schuster came on a pass that was laser-guided by a supercomputer into Smith-Schuster’s mitts perfectly in stride, and the one to Johnson came in part because Rudolph kinda shoulder-shimmied 49ers cornerback Jason Verrett into thinking that the pass was gonna arrive near the first-down sticks, which was just enough for Johnson to sneak into the deep secondary undetected. Moreover, on a 2nd and 15 on Pittsburgh’s opening drive of the second half, Rudolph tactfully stepped forward in a collapsing pocket to dodge a free-running Dee Ford, rolled to his left, escaped the clutches of Arik Armstead, and shifted his gaze upfield in search of an open receiver. To this point, the play was genuinely Roethlisbergeresque. Rudolph did punctuate this play by mindlessly throwing a pass across his body in the general vicinity of Smith-Schuster, which was summarily picked-off by K’Waun Williams, but the first half of it did effectively demonstrate that Rudolph possesses the presence of mind to detect oncoming blitzers and adjust his reads accordingly.
And that’s good news for Rudolph, because if the offensive line continues to perform as poorly as it did on Sunday, he’s gonna spend a not insignificant chunk of the season under intense pressure from opposing front sevens. The acrimonious departure of Antonio Brown—and to a lesser extent, Le’Veon Bell—has negatively impacted the Steelers offense in manifold ways, but it’s apparent that losing offensive line coach Mike Munchak to Denver last offseason has had an even more pronounced effect on the Steelers’ rushing and passing attacks. The offensive line is ostensibly one of the league’s topmost units (three of its constituents—guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey, and tackle Alejandro Villanueva—made the Pro Bowl last season) but has to this point done very little to create running lanes (Pittsburgh ranks 28th in rushing and its 3.8 yards per attempt is the eighth-worst mark in the league) and is allowing linebackers, ends, and tackles to pressure the quarterback with more regularity than we’ve grown accustomed over the past four or five seasons. (At this point, I would encourage you to check out Dave’s write-up about the line, in which he expounds on various line-specific concepts; it’s a solid and informative read).
In elucidating the offensive woes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call specific attention to James Conner’s lamentable performance. Through three games, the 2018 Pro Bowler has amassed 97 yards on 34 carries—his 2.9 yards per carry average is the fifth-worst mark in the league among runners with 30 or more carries; interestingly, he ranks just ahead of Bell—and has scored only a single touchdown. He was awful again Sunday, gaining just 43 yards on 13 carries and effectively handing the game away with a fumble late in the fourth quarter. Of course, Conner’s inability to emerge as anything resembling a factor in the run game is largely attributable to the aforementioned offensive line concerns, and while his fumble Sunday could not have come at a more inopportune moment, it was only the fifth one of his career, so to indicate that he’s “fumble prone” is not entirely fair. Having said that, Conner isn’t doing his line any favors, either.
Most Difficult Runners to Bring Down on First Contact (2019)— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) September 24, 2019
1. Malcolm Brown - (37%)
2. Austin Ekeler (53%)
3. Justin Jackson (53%)
4. Damien Williams (57%)
5. David Montfomery (57%)
6. Derrick Henry (57%)
Last / 50. James Conner (89%)
Put differently, a gentle breeze or Steelers defensive back could impede Conner’s forward progress with little effort. Per Pro Football Reference, Conner has broken two tackles this season. Conner, a six-foot-two, 230-pound person, is averaging 0.8 yards per rush after initial contact. That is patently incomprehensible.
The question now is whether the Steelers’ ineptitude will endure or if, by some miraculous happenstance, the offense will coalesce into a balanced and effective scoring machine. History suggests that, once October hits, Pittsburgh’s offense generally settles into something of a groove; common sense dictates that, with a second-year quarterback, struggling backfield, underperforming offensive line, and dearth of receiving talent, the Steelers are doomed—unless the coaching staff modifies the schematics.
A thing I noticed Sunday was that the Steelers offense, save for Rudolph under center, looked more or less the same than it did under Roethlisberger, at least functionally. This is—and I cannot possibly overstate this—categorically ridiculous. To expect Mason Rudolph to jump into an offense that was tailor-made to cater to and accentuate Ben Roethlisberger’s best attributes—namely, his near-clairvoyant pocket awareness and his unparalleled ability to extend broken plays—is setting him up for failure. The fact that the league’s best teams employ the smartest coaches is not a coincidence. When the Ravens sent Joe Flacco to the pasture to die a dignified death midway through the 2018 season, they completely rebuilt their offense to suit rookie Lamar Jackson, a decision that enabled a Baltimore team that looked dead on arrival to rally and make the postseason. The Ravens are now one of the league’s best teams and Jackson’s playing like an MVP candidate. Mike Tomlin is a shrewd coach, but too often he steadfastly adheres to empty platitudes (“The Standard is The Standard”) and “the system.” It is flatly apparent that the system is broken, and to forge onward with a broken system would suggest that Tomlin might not be fit to lead this outfit beyond 2019.
Pragmatics: Trending up*
*depending on your current disposition
There are, in my opinion and from what I have observed online, two prevailing viewpoints concerning the Nick Vannett trade. (Because the trade involved the Steelers, ambivalent discourse is notably absent from the proceedings).
On one hand, trading a fifth-round pick for young player who fills a position of dire need is a sensible and pragmatic decision, one that leaves the Steelers in better shape today than they were a week ago. This trade is fine.
On the other hand, trading a fifth-round pick for what could be a building block but what is currently an expiring contract is a hasty and reactionary decision, one that a team a piece or two away from contention makes to goose their championship aptitude. The Steelers...do not appear to be a team anywhere close to contention. This trade is dumb.
I am of the opinion that this trade is fine (The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out earlier that the likes of George Kittle, Richard Sherman, and Stefon Diggs were drafted in the fifth round, which is a sound argument but fails to consider the literally hundreds upon hundreds of busts selected in the draft’s late stages), but I am admittedly a little baffled as to why the Steelers decided now, in 2019, in the midst of what is by all indications a lost season, that they are comfortable offloading draft capital for tangible commodities who can produce immediately. Where was this sense of urgency during the prime Killer B years? Imagine if the Steelers had traded the picks used on Artie Burns or Bud Dupree to acquire players who don’t completely suck! In that alternate reality, perhaps Bell accepted a market value contract, Antonio Brown kept his wits about him, and Roethlisberger never got injured. And Tom Brady retired.
Anyway, back to exploring the (increasingly bleak) present, Vannett is a nice player, one whose career box score is somewhat at odds with the kind of well-rounded player he is. At worst, Vannett represents an immediate upgrade over Xavier Grimble as a blocker—and God knows that, in light of the offensive line concerns, the Steelers need all the blocking help they can get—and he’s a solid special teams player; at best, he’s an enormous middle-of-the-field target who runs well (4.8 second 40-yard dash at the Combine) and doesn’t drop many passes. This trade is fine.
Defense: Stock slightly up
The Steelers “forced” five turnovers against the 49ers. This is accurate. Note, that two of these turnovers were the result of poor exchanges and one came because the running back bobbled a should-be reception directly into the arms of T.J. Watt. (Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception and forced fumble were both legit forced turnovers, and both were terrific).
Look past the five turnovers, though, and you’ll notice that the Steelers allowed nearly 450 yards of offense, sacked Jimmy Garappolo only once, and surrendered 26 first downs. It’s worth bearing in mind that the 49ers ran 73 offensive plays last Sunday, an outcome for which the Steelers offense is absolutely culpable, but the Niners did average a healthy 4.2 yards per run and 8.1 yards per pass. The Steelers did better, but the defense is still a work in progress.
The Bengals are next, and they are remarkably even worse than the Steelers. Even with a new quarterback, shoddy offensive line, and inconsistent defense, the Steelers should win this game.
Weekly food take
Ghost pepper chili! Here’s what you’ll need:
-1 small can whole peeled tomatoes (I used San Marzano but anything’s fine)
-About a pound each (or more mmmmmm meat) each ground beef (80-20 is ideal) and ground pork
-1 can lager
-1 can dark red kidney beans (bonus points if you find spicy ones)
-5-6 dried arbol chili peppers
-2-3 dried guajillo chili peppers
-2-3 dried ancho chili peppers
-4-8 ghost peppers (if you cannot find ghost peppers, using habanero peppers is fine)
-1 medium onion
-1 red bell pepper
-4-5 gloves garlic
-Spices to taste (I used salt and pepper, plus paprika, smoked paprika, cayenne seasoning, dried oregano, some cumin, some ginger, a few generous glugs of scorpion pepper hot sauce, and a two packed tablespoons of brown sugar to balance the heat)
- Remove the stems and seeds from the dried chili peppers; transfer peppers to a glass bowl. Cover de-seeded/de-stemmed peppers in 2 cups boiling water and let steep for 10-15 minutes. Once peppers are thoroughly saturated and soft, dump the contents of the bowl in a food processor (or blender) along with the ghost peppers (with seeds and veins removed, if you’re a coward), one garlic clove, salt and pepper. Blitz until smooth.
- Brown the beef and pork in a large pot or saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove the meat from the pot once cooked through and set aside, but do not drain completely; the fat is a terrific thickener down the line. Add diced onion and red bell pepper and cook until just soft, making sure to scrape all the leftover brown bits from the pan. Add remaining gloves of diced garlic. Cook for about a minute until very fragrant.
- Turn heat down to low. Add the beer, tomatoes, meat, pepper puree, spices, and beans to the sautéed veg. Simmer for an hour or two.