I rarely write post-game analyses after Steelers games anymore, but I’ve been getting into arguments in the comments sections lately, and often found myself the only person taking a certain position. So rather than just keep grumbling in my apartment, I thought I’d toss these out to the hyenas and see what sticks. Here are a handful of opinions you all can crucify me for (or maybe even agree with). Have at it:
Opinion: Ben Roethlisberger played a great game on Sunday
Lots of people are claiming that Ben played “okay” against the Broncos. I’ve seen many references to a couple near-INTs. The phrase “game manager” has popped up a few times. I feel like I watched a whole different game.
The game I saw featured completions to seven different pass-catchers, with four of over 20 yards. I saw at least one near-INT that was more the fault of the receiver (I think Harris) who fell down on the route. I saw an offense that converted 7-12 on third down, with all 7 of those conversions coming through the air, including two touchdowns. I saw a 50-yard bomb to Diontae Johnson where the ball led Johnson perfectly, and a dart to Chase Claypool (splitting three defenders in the area) that looked like 2014 Ben. None of that is my definition of “game manager.”
Here’s the thing though: he’s not 2014 Ben. So if you’re comparing him to a version that’s seven years younger, I guess he just looked okay. But what I want from a 39 year old—good decisions, ability to read the defense and find the mismatch, the kind of calm that hits the right man (not just the stars), the kind of patience that knows when to go deep and when to hit the tight end for five—looks a lot like what I saw from Ben against Denver.
Speaking of Denver, remember Ben’s hero, John Elway? His last two seasons ended with title wins, but Elway was no longer the engine of the team. He still played well, but it was Terrell Davis’s team. That needs to be the case for Ben too. He can’t be the engine that motors this team anymore, but he can be the guy with his hands on the wheel. And that’s what I saw Sunday.
If I see THIS Ben for the rest of the season, I’ll be pretty happy.
Opinion: Benny Snell should be the Steelers’ closer
For a backup running back who has played a few strong ballgames, Benny Snell has a weirdly passionate anti-fan club. I’ve never really understood it (did Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala have haters like this?) but I’m not among them. In fact, in my opinion Benny Snell is the closer this team really needs.
I’ve been saying this since his rookie season. He’s a mediocre back in the first half of games, but he gets a legit burst the later it goes. In 2019, when I tracked the numbers, he was getting 2.78 yards per carry in the first halves, 4.97ypc in second halves, and then specifically 5.64ypc in the 4th quarters. And that was with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges scaring no one; the opponents knew a run was coming, but Snell still got better and better. I saw flashes of that against Denver as well.
Heading into the 4th quarter of the Broncos game, Steelers running backs (not named Najee Harris) had rushed for 1 yard this season. That includes Snell (3 carries for 1 yard) and Kalen Ballage (4 carries for 0 yards). Then, suddenly, when the team needed to bleed the clock, and didn’t have Harris available, there was Benny Snell, rushing 5 times for 20 yards. He rolled for 9 yards on his first play, then fought for yardage and fell forward on each carry, nearly manufacturing a 3rd down conversion by himself on his final touch. These aren’t starter numbers, and I wouldn’t want him as my guy in a late comeback (he doesn’t have the hands for a no-huddle offense), but I’m thinking of him as a relief pitcher. And I like it.
He can play special teams through the first three quarters; I don’t care if he logs a single first-half carry. But if the Steelers are in the lead in the 4th, this is a guy who can run out the clock and move the ball. And this team could use that kind of late-game punch.
Opinion: Jaylen Samuels should spell Harris mid-game
Whoo, boy. Lots of you are gonna hate this one.
Here’s my thinking: none of the Steelers backup running backs are getting a push in the early parts of games. Snell and Ballage are both supposed to be power backs, but neither of them can do anything (until Snell gets some 4th quarter carries, apparently). Meanwhile, I have yet to see anything from Anthony McFarland that makes me think he’s anything but a gimmick back (see also: Chris Rainy or Dri Archer). Maybe some of this will change going forward, but at the moment, backup runners aren’t running for squat. And Samuels won’t either.
But then there’s this other element: Ben has thrown to Snell and Ballage three times in their limited offensive snaps. They have yet to make a catch. If a backup running back spells Harris, we all know he’s not going to run for yardage; but he might catch a pass. So why not play with your best pass-catching back?
Important: neither of the last two claims are about who should start if Harris has to miss a game. They’re situational. But they make sense to me. Samuels can catch; if that’s what you need, play the guy who can do it.
Opinion: The Steelers offense is going to be good if it goes to the run for at least 50% of its production
I’m not sure this is that controversial, but I’m throwing it out anyway. The O-Line’s run-blocking was impressive against Denver, as was Najee Harris’ decision-making (which has not always been perfect this season). For my money, that two-pronged improvement is the key to everything:
If you run better, the defense can’t just attack the pocket. That will buy Big Ben enough time/space to (a) let the WRs get separation, and (b) step into his throws. The announcers referenced this in the game, and I think they’re right—there’s a lot of velocity and distance that comes from the lower body. If Ben is already dealing with a sore hip (which affects this), then preventing him from stepping into throws is going to make his passes a lot less decisive. Giving Ben enough space to throw deep will open up the underneath and mid-level passing (such as on Chase Claypool’s second half catch and run). Then the better the passing game looks, the more the holes will open up for Najee Harris…
One thing snowballs into another and another. But it has to start somewhere. The rushing offense can be the catalyst for everything. I think that’s the best possible move going forward.
Opinion: Danny Smith is having the best season of the three coordinators
Some of you are swearing at me now. If Benny Snell has an anti-fan club, the Anti-Danny Smith Society is a political party. And yet, the special teams look good this year.
Special teams penalties aren’t gone, but one gets the sense that those are never going to disappear. Otherwise, the day-to-day stuff has been solid—Chris Boswell is excellent as always, Pressley Harvin hasn’t been perfect, but as a rookie he’s looked pretty good, and the coverage teams haven’t allowed any disasters. But more importantly, the Steelers have blocked two punts, and returned them both for touchdowns (even if one was erroneously called back). That block-and-return against Buffalo changed the game in the opener. And the same would have been true against Green Bay if the officials hadn’t stepped in and screwed up.
The offense can play well, but has been spotty and inconsistent; the defense has been excellent for the most part, but prone to breakdowns (and for some reason they can’t get takeaways to save their lives this year). But the special teams have been fairly solid, and nearly won two games for this team. Credit where credit is due.
Opinion: Next-Gen Stat commercials are the worst thing in football this year
This isn’t really about the Steelers, and it might not even be unpopular, but I have to let out the steam somewhere. I detest these stupid ads. The worst ones are the ones that walk through a play to show us, “this had only a 3.1% chance of success, but look—it worked!” So 3.1%? Based on what? Most of these plays are one-of-a-kind plays, and we know that they were successful, so the truth is that they’re 100% likely to succeed (because these particular variables have never been lined up before, and this time it worked).
But that’s just a logic game. The truth is, these are terrible because the message itself is stupid. “Everything we did suggests that this shouldn’t be completed, but then it was!” All that tells me is that you guys must not know what you’re doing. “Look—we crunched a million numbers, and we were still wrong!” So why should I ever listen to you about anything? (Something similar can be said for the ridiculous “odds of winning” numbers they track on websites like ESPN.com, where the odds change slightly on every play. As far as I can tell, this is just a way of trying to quantify momentum. But we don’t need numbers for that—we can see it with our eyes.)
This stuff is meaningless noise, but I feel like the NFL (and its partners) are convinced that it’s brilliant, and we all can’t wait to see more of it. Because as we all know, the best part of football is meaningless algebra, right? Ugh.
Opinion: The Steelers will survive JuJu’s injury, even if it lasts a while
The Steelers have three starter-quality wide receivers (Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington), along with two starter quality receiving tight ends (Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron), and a pass-catching running back (Najee Harris). Ben Roethlisberger completed passes to seven different receivers against Denver, and none of them was Juju Smith-Schuster. (Also, James Washington wasn’t available, so those seven receivers only included two starting wideouts.) Manpower won’t be a problem for this team. Especially if the running game is more front-and-center going forward.
Juju’s veteran knowledge is not as easy to replace, but watching Claypool dive to the turf in bounds to keep the clock running on Sunday reminded me that this young receiving corps is not a bunch of rookies anymore.
If Juju is going to be gone next year (and odds favor it), then this should be a dry run for that roster. And I have a strong suspicion this team will be okay.