Well, it took some time, but we finally got four quarters (more or less) of A-game Steelers football. It sure seemed fun from this side of the screen. Here’s how the participants (and some commentators) told the story:
“…it was crazy, because I was on the sideline just sweating, and guys are like, ‘look, we’re about to get this thing going.’ They just had that confidence. They had that confidence, and I really liked that.”
— Avery Williamson
This quote comes from mid-week last week – after the comeback against the Dallas Cowboys. I think it illustrates one of those things I love pointing out: the Steelers have one of the strongest, most confident, and most mentally tough team cultures in football.
Mike Tomlin has always talked about not “blinking” in the face of adversity, and his players believe it in their bones. It helps to have Ben Roethlisberger on your team, but this squad came back from a 1-4 start last season, to go on a 7-1 run and nearly make the playoffs without Big Ben. (Their wk. 6 overtime loss to Baltimore last year featured two 10 point comebacks, despite the Steelers playing their third string QB.) It’s the same fortitude you might remember from Max Starks on the sidelines in Super Bowl 43, just after Larry Fitzgerald caught the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, telling his teammates, “this is fine; we’re in good shape; we were made for this.” It’s the same fortitude that the 2015 Steelers showed, coming back from 17 points down against the eventual champion Broncos in one of the best games of the era. Or the 2017 team, with their half-dozen late-game comebacks as well.
It’s easy to forget that not every team has that kind of resilience or genuine confidence. I loved hearing Williamson gush about it. This place is special.
“Steelers come out with two tight ends and an extra lineman on the field…”
— Announcer Jonathan Vilma
This came on the Steelers’ first offensive play of the second half – a 1 yard run by James Conner. It was, if you recall, followed by a run on 2nd down as well, which also went nowhere. Here’s the thing: when you start a drive with your jumbo package on the field, you’re telegraphing to the defense that you’re going to run the ball. That’s not a great way to build a running attack. It will come as no surprise that the Steelers passed deep (and failed to convert) on third down, and punted away.
When the offense got the ball back, they ran a Claypool jet sweep on first down (no gain) then passed eight straight times, before Conner got another first down carry (11 yard pickup). That pass-happy drive resulted in a touchdown, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain. But then, the next drive started with another Conner run on 1st down (from the shotgun; 1 yard), followed by five straight pass plays and a punt. And the next one was a 3-and-out, with three straight passes.
If you’re doing the math, the Steelers ran 22 plays in the third quarter: 17 passes and 5 runs. They scored one touchdown, and punted three times (the third coming on the second play of the fourth quarter). They were milking a 22-7 lead (extended to 29-7) all quarter.
As Vilma repeatedly mused, this is not going to protect a lead against a better team.
(Side note: Vilma also said, astutely: “that’s one too many fly sweeps” after Chase Claypool went nowhere in the second quarter. And I think he’s right. The jet sweep was effective in the first few games because it was a surprise. No one’s getting fooled anymore. The Steelers ran three of them on Sunday – two with Claypool, one with Ray-Ray McCloud. They netted negative-4 yards. Just like the wildcat last year – which worked beautifully for a game or two, then became a huge liability – it might be time to put this one back into the drawer for a while…)
“The Steelers finally got a closer – Benny Snell Jr.”
— Me (in December 2019)
Speaking of rushing… This line is actually from an article I wrote last fall, when Snell was on the rise late in the season. At the time, it was becoming clear that Snell ran stronger as the game progressed (his first half YPC at that point in the season were 2.76; in the second halves he’d rushed for 4.97, and in the fourth quarters alone, 5.64). Particularly without a passing attack to keep opposing defenses honest, this seemed really remarkable.
I saw a similar phenomenon (in limited sample size) against Cincinnati. Through 3.5 quarters of play, the Steelers had attempted 17 rushes, and amassed 31 yards. (Note: I’m counting a James Conner 1st quarter attempt that was nullified by a penalty, but not counting Ben Roethlisberger’s scramble.) That’s a miserable 1.82 yards per carry. Snell took over in the final series and carried four consecutive times for 20 yards (again, including one carry that was nullified for holding). That’s 5.0 yards per carry, at a time when Mason Rudolph was clearly not going to pass, and when the Steelers were obviously bleeding the clock to go home. You might argue that the Bengals were just trying to go home too, but their fake punt on the previous series would suggest otherwise. Cincinnati wanted to finish the game strong. And Snell still ran well against them on four straight carries.
As far as I can tell, Benny Snell (a healthy, hard-running late-game clock-eater) played himself out of the rotation by fumbling in each of the first two games. That was understandable for a while, but with the running game absolutely floundering, it seems lunacy to keep a viable option on the sideline all game.
As one more point of reference, Snell rushed 18 times for 91 yards (5.1ypc) and a touchdown, in his only appearance vs the Baltimore Ravens (wk. 17 last year). Against the Ravens two weeks ago, and in the wk. 6 overtime loss to Baltimore last season, Conner rushed a combined 23 times for 77 yards (3.3ypc) and a touchdown. That doesn’t make Snell objectively better than Conner, but couldn’t we at least give this kid another shot, while the running game is underperforming like this?
“What a hit from Vince Williams – we could hear it up here in the broadcast booth.”
— Vilma and Kenny Albert, as Williams flattened Samaje Perine
I include this as a shout-out to one of the unsung heroes of the Steelers defense. Vince Williams currently leads the team in combined tackles, as well as solo tackles and assists. And he’s currently tied for the league lead in tackles for a loss (with T.J. Watt). I’ve said for years that Williams reminds me of Larry Foote — a solid, unglamorous worker who earns his paycheck by doing the job, not by reputation. But he’s really probably eclipsed Foote at this point in his career. He likely won’t make the Pro Bowl this season, but I’d argue that he deserves to.
“We have to establish a relationship with Joe Burrow.”
— Mike Tomlin
And the “Understated Threat of the Year Award” goes to Mike Tomlin. I love this line. I have nothing to offer beyond repeating it. Tomlin and Roethlisberger almost never lose to rookies, to Heisman trophy winners, to hot-shot up-and-comers, or to the Bengals. Joe Burrow checks all four boxes, and it looks like he’s found himself in a familiar relationship with the Steelers now too, whether he wanted to or not.
“I’m doing great. My body enjoyed the week off. My mind, from teaching pre-K all week, did not.”
— Ben Roethlisberger
Ben looked sharper and more driven this week than I’ve seen him all season. Moreover, he threw down field in that mid-range (7-15 yards) more than I remember all year. The deep connection with Diontae Johnson was cool to see, but I was honestly more excited about all the throws that traveled 8-12 yards in the air (as opposed to two-yard dinks that receivers had to scramble to make into six). Perhaps a little pre-K was all he needed to get that mojo firing.
“He’s the leader of our team. Seeing what he did in that Dallas game. Everyone saw he went down for a quick second, just showing his pride for the game, how much he loves the game, how much he loves our team, just going out there still playing, limping on the field.”
— Terrell Edmunds, on Big Ben
I mused last week that the defense might have gotten a little fired up when Ben got hit in the knee just before halftime. And it looks like that might have been true.
One of my biggest irritations with NFL commentators and fans is the assumption that Ben Roethlisberger is a drama queen for milking his injuries. I’ve watched this guy play with a separated shoulder on his throwing arm, legs so wrecked he had to wear a platform shoe to make them even, bone fractures in his throwing hand so bad he had to wear gloves because he couldn’t grip the football barehanded, and a nose shattered so badly mid-game that the doctors compared the X-Ray to “cornflakes.” And that’s not even to mention the off-season where he nearly got killed on a motorcycle, and then had emergency appendix surgery a week before the season began, then was in the starting lineup by week 2. I’m sure Ben doesn’t give a crap about these narratives, but they annoy me to no end. So it’s satisfying to see hard-hitting defensive starters calling the guy a galdiator.
As for this week, I thought Ben took several after-the-play shots against the Bengals. All unflagged. I don’t know how long he’s going to have to play in this league before he gets the “franchise quarterback” treatment, but clearly we haven’t gotten there yet. In any case, at least (as with last week) he seems to play better with a little pain. Maybe the refs and hot-takers are doing us a favor…
“And it’s Big Ben and Claymation”
— Dan O’Toole and Jay Onraite (Canadian ESPN highlights)
I caught a clip of the Canadian Sports Center on Sunday night, when they were running highlights of the Steelers/Bengals game. (I had no idea that it was an entirely different operation up north.) In any case, they referred to Chase Claypool as “Claymation” at one point. I know Claypool isn’t super-hot on “Mapletron” as a nickname (I hear he tried to push for “Air Canada” but it didn’t take). Maybe Claymation would be better? Hmm. Maybe not.
“…it’s really fun, because a lot of times people talk about there’s not enough footballs to go around. I don’t sense that at all from any of them. I’m not trying to force anybody the ball. I’m trying to get guys the ball that’ll make plays, and that’s right now kind of everybody”.
— Ben Roethlisberger
This seems like a good place to note that Diontae Johnson, who caught 6 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, did all his damage in first half – not because he was shut down in the second half, but because Ben didn’t need to force him the ball in the late-game. That’s exciting. I’m reminded of 2015, when the Seahawks blanketed Antonio Brown and took away Martavis Bryant, and so Ben fed Markus Wheaton to the tune of 201 yards and a touchdown. The difference in this case is that there are five or six legit gamers, and so you hardly notice when a receiving threat disappears for a while.
“TJ you made my kid’s day after the game with the gloves & sleeve! Keep ballin out!”
—Tony Janicki (Steelers fan)
“He will grow into the gloves!!!”
— T.J. Watt
The Steelers make it easy to root for them.
I know it’s not apples-to-apples, but I can’t help comparing this exchange to the post-game Q&A with Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, whose spectacular game-winner was the play everyone’s talking about today. Asked about the hail mary catch long after his adrenaline had time to subside, Hopkins calmly described the play by saying he “dunked on” the Bills players. “There was three of them. They were in position; it was just a better catch by I.” I know a lot of people love that kind of bragging (Sports Illustrated called it “next level”), but I watched that Q&A and thought, “you know, you’re kind of a jerk; I hope somebody takes it to you next week.”
I never mind attitude and excitement in the moment. I always thought Richard Sherman got a bad rap, for example, because someone put a mic in his face when he was still exploding with adrenaline and emotion a few years back. And William Gay’s endless touchdown dance is still one of my favorite penalties of all time. But I don’t have a ton of patience for this kind of emotionless rub-their-face-in-it arrogance. I know not everyone can have Troy Polamalu’s grace, but even Antonio Brown never stepped on his opponents to spotlight himself like this.
As good as Hopkins is at WR, T.J. Watt is just as dominant as an OLB. And notice how Watt spends his public time: talking up his teammates, joking with his brothers, and engaging with fans in a way that puts the fans front-and-center. People talk about the “Steeler way” sometimes. I’m not always sure what that means, but in this case – whether it’s JuJu Smith-Schuster throwing his touchdown ball to his dad in the stands on his birthday, or Chase Claypool getting more excited about winning than piling up stats, or Cam Heyward’s consistent leadership and heart, or Watt doing little things to make someone else feel special – this is a team that rarely embarrasses me as a fan. Thanks for the class, guys.
“I don’t regret [wiping my cleats with the Terrible Towel] at all. For me, it was fun. They all looked at it as disrespect, but it was fun.”
— T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Speaking of guys named T.J., let’s take a look at the other end of the “class” spectrum. I don’t want to spend any more ink on this guy than necessary, but let me just say, I’m not sure Houshmandzadeh understands that you can laugh at someone (which means you’re having fun) and that can still be disrespectful. In fact, that usually how disrespect works.
In any case, you know what was fun for me, T.J.? This play:
Oops. That may have been disrespectful...
“Cam Sutton has forced a fumble in the Steelers past three games – longest active streak in the NFL.”
— Missi Matthews, Steelers Reporter
Cam Sutton has forced a fumble in the #Steelers past three games - longest active streak in the NFL.— Missi Matthews (@missi_matthews) November 16, 2020
This is not only impressive (and underreported), but it also indicates something great: on the previous play, Cam Sutton had jumped a route and missed it, allowing Tyler Boyd to dash for 20 yards and a first down. Then the very next play, he forced a fumble. That’s called “making up for your mistake.”
“Boswell has never missed a kick against Cincinnati”
— Announcer Kenny Albert
Steelers special teams had a great make-up game too, after a sloppy day against Dallas. Boz is another of those unsung heroes, and Jordan Berry is looking like Ray Guy lately, to say nothing for Ray-Ray McCloud and the Steelers coverage teams.
The Bengals’ fake field goal was annoying to me as a Steelers fan – mostly because that 39 yards count against the Steelers (and I’m petty enough to care about those things) – but it was meaningless in the flow of the game. So why am I mentioning it? Because I’m baffled as to why the Bengals did it. It strikes me as a catastrophically bad decision. Cincinnati was trailing 36-7 halfway through the fourth quarter, so even if they’d scored on that return, there was no chance it would amount to anything. All it did was put a trick play on film, so now future Bengals opponents know that this is in the Cincinnati arsenal. The Bengals are a rising team, and they’ll be on the cusp of winning more games this year (much closer than they were Sunday). This might have been a useful gadget to surprise someone with. Trick plays, of course, work best when the opponent doesn’t realize you might call them. But no special teams coach is going to get caught by that one again. And for no reason at all.
I hope it was worth it.
“Did I hear a 9er? 9-0 @steelers
— Brett Keisel
And of course, Steelers icon Brett Keisel (and David Spade/Chris Farley) takes us home with a reminder that there’s only one undefeated squad in the league.
P.S. I posted part 2 of the “Midseason Awards” polls a little late last week and it got swallowed in the pre-game article-flow. (My mistake, not the editors.) If anyone wanted to weigh in on that and missed it, here’s the LINK.