The Steelers survived a rough, close, and controversial game against the Bears Monday night.
As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. A star performance
Chris Boswell had an incredible game Monday night. His missed extra point can easily be forgiven thanks to his game-winning field goal late in the fourth, but that wasn’t all. Boswell also managed to hit two 50+ yard field goals to go along with his kickoff fumble recovery — all while coming off of concussion protocol. It’s rare for a kicker to have such a star performance, but Boswell proved that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the only remaining “Killer B” on the Steelers’ roster.
2. Freiermuth is no fluke
Pat Freiermuth continued his breakout rookie season with a two-touchdown game, further solidifying himself as a key part of Pittsburgh’s offense. But Freiermuth hasn't just become a TE1 — he’s becoming a star. The rookie tight end has routinely made the best of every opportunity he’s had so far this year in both pass-catching and blocking. He’s shown the ability to be both a reliable security blanket and a big-play threat, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s the best player on the Steelers’ offense right now.
3. A win is a win
Were the referees more favorable towards Pittsburgh over Chicago on Monday night? Definitely. But it’s become tiresome hearing fans not consider Pittsburgh’s win to be a real one. Bad officiating can play a large part in a game, but it’s never an excuse for why a team won or lost. The Steelers have been on the wrong end of a bad call multiple times before, and although it’s infuriating, it’s always clear that they could have overcome it with better play.
It was the same situation Monday night. Chicago fans have every right to be mad, but that’s no reason for Steelers fans to not enjoy the win. In a weekend in which the Bills were held to just six points in a loss to Jacksonville and the Derrick Henry-less Titans destroyed the Rams, it’s best just to be thankful that the Steelers held onto the win. It doesn’t matter how ugly it was.
4. Defensive players of the year?
It was a rough night for every Steelers defender not named Cam Heyward or T.J. Watt. But Heyward and Watt still single-handedly kept it from being a complete disaster.
Cam Heyward has had a tremendous season although he hasn’t enjoyed the flashiest production. His stellar film and PFF grades have given him some defensive player of the year buzz, although there likely isn't a chance that any defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald has a chance at the award. However, Heyward’s interception early in the game was a rare splash play for the underrated veteran defender, who will hopefully gain some more recognition this year despite his slim chances at winning DPOY.
T.J. Watt, on the other hand, continued what could be a successful campaign for the award, recording three sacks and a pass defensed in a dominant performance. Despite his injury at the beginning of the season, Watt is only a half sack behind league leader Myles Garrett, who has played in two more games than the Steelers’ outside linebacker.
The Steelers have two of the league’s best defenders on their roster, and they have proved their worth by keeping the Steelers defense together in even the roughest games.
5. A step back
I’ve been singing the praises of the Steelers’ young offensive line, which has really progressed over the past few weeks. But they took a major step back against the Bears. It was most noticeable among the two rookies on the line, Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, who were more often than not driven back on their blocks rather than driving the defender forward.
As a result, the Steelers’ running game struggled, especially in the short-yardage scenarios the offense had been showing improvement in earlier this season. Pass-protection wasn't much better, with Ben Roethlisberger taking a few too many hits on Monday night.
One bad performance doesn’t mean that the Steelers’ offensive line is suddenly a bad unit again, it was just a reminder of the improvement that still needs to occur.
6. The Anthony McFarland experiment
Anthony McFarland was a healthy scratch against the Bears, which in turn asks the question of his future with the Steelers. It’s still early in the young running back’s career, but he's shown hardly anything during his time in Pittsburgh despite the fairly reasonable expectations of being a speedy alternative to Najee Harris a few times a game.
Instead, McFarland looks like he’s becoming the 2021 Steelers version of Jaylen Samuels, although he has no 2018 Patriots game to boost his resume. If the Bears game is the first of many such showings, or lack thereof, for McFarland, don't be surprised if the Steelers look for a new backup for Harris in free agency or the draft in 2022.
7. A defensive collapse
The Steelers’ defense, specifically when defending the pass, absolutely collapsed as the game went on against Chicago, and against a rookie quarterback no less. Terrell Edmunds was having trouble going against the 34-year-old Jimmy Graham, while Chicago had wide receivers and tight ends running free in the secondary for much of the game.
Perhaps the worst offender was slot corner Arthur Maulet, who was responsible for two major completions given up in the fourth quarter amongst some poor play throughout the game. Maulet has been a welcome surprise for most of the year, but his best play has come near the line of scrimmage, not in deep coverage. It will be interesting if the Steelers turn to Tre Norwood, or even moving Cam Sutton inside, in the upcoming weeks.
8. Game-winning drive
Ben Roethlisberger’s stat line has been surprisingly efficient over the Steelers’ winning streak, but anyone who has watched his games would tell you that his play hasn't always looked that good.
Roethlisberger has thrown a number of passes that probably should’ve been intercepted over the past few weeks, including a few against Chicago, a game in which he struggled with poor accuracy and velocity for much of the night. It’s incredibly clear that Big Ben is past his prime.
But that isn't to say that he’s forever stuck in a game-manager role for the rest of the season. Despite his flaws, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on an efficient game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to set up a Chris Boswell field goal. The fuel light may be on, but it’s clear that Roethlisberger still has some gas left in the tank.
9. We miss the ManningCast
Eli and Peyton Manning took the night off, leaving all of the viewers of Monday Night Football stuck on the main broadcast. And besides the announcers sounding like a Chicago sports network all night, there were some objectively bad mistakes.
It was declared that Cairo Santos’ 66-yard game-winning field goal attempt, that missed by a mile, hit the crossbar, all while the broadcast team also suggested the Bears go for two after tying the game, and somehow mixed up Najee Harris’ college experience with that of Josh Jacobs.
ESPN sportscaster Steve Levy, to his credit, had around as classy a response to the criticism as it gets.
Announcing a football game isn’t exactly easy, but the MNF crew turned in a near unlistenable performance. Perhaps ESPN should consider switching the ManningCast to the main channel in the future.
10. Special teams inconsistency
Chris Boswell had an exceptional night, but the rest of the Steelers’ special teams unit was wildly inconsistent against Chicago.
Well, long snapper Christian Kuntz had a solid game as well. Credit where it’s due.
Steelers rookie punter Pressley Harvin alternated between shanks and good punts the entire game, and although he’s still settling into the NFL environment, it’s about time for him to prove the Steelers made the right move in keeping him over Jordan Berry. However, he does deserve some credit for having good holds on all three of Chris Boswell’s field goal attempts in the game.
Ray-Ray McCloud was noticeable in the wrong way with a fumble that nearly lost the Steelers the game. It appears that he’ll keep his job as the team’s returner for now, but such mistakes are unacceptable. Big returns are nice, but the only priority for returning kicks and punts is ball security. McCloud has long struggled with fumbles, and it will be essential for him to correct that if he wants to keep his position.
11. Jet sweep city
The Steelers totaled six carries from their receivers on Monday night, two each from Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. It makes sense that the team kept going back to that play, as each receiver averaged over 5 yards per carry. The jet sweep, amongst other creative plays like the shovel pass, are becoming more and more common in Matt Canada’s Steeler offense. They will doubtlessly set up other plays in the future as well. The one key Canada staple still missing is that of play-action, which the Steelers still only run occasionally. Perhaps that will become more prevalent post-Ben Roethlisberger.
12. Less targets, more consistency
Diontae Johnson is an electric playmaker, but the Steelers overused him last year, which resulted in an incredible number of miscommunications and mental errors by the young receiver. The Steelers have lessened Johnson’s role in the offense this season, which has seemingly given him some breathing room. Johnson’s drop rate has certainly improved, and he’s making the best out of his opportunities yet again. Despite his limited targets, Monday night marks the second straight game in which a long catch-and-run by Johnson more or less secured the win.
With the Detroit Lions just around the corner, the Steelers must survive their second straight trap game.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.