Did the end justify the means? Nobody playing professional football in the NFL wants a participation trophy, that's why they even keep score in preseason games where the outcome is rather meaningless actually. After putting their health and well being on the line for over 3 hours on game day, the players want to experience the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat. Nobody gains satisfaction from the underwhelming mixed emotions of a tie.
The mixed emotions are always present because every game ending in a tie score; an extremely rare occurrence actually, are filled with unforgettable moments and mishaps that leave the combatants wondering what might have been. Every card carrying member of Steelers Nation; my family and I were left exhausted after experiencing a roller coaster of emotions, felt emotionally drained after being totally invested throughout the game.
For a game that ended without a victor, the Steelers sure look like losers at first glance. For a young team striving for consistent improvement, Sunday's game was anything but for the Steelers. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger being ruled out after testing positive for COVID late Saturday was a precursor of things to come. The Steelers played unfocused and undisciplined throughout the afternoon.
The Steelers met every criteria necessary to lose a game to a inferior opponent. Devastating turnovers, missed opportunities on offense and defense, missed tackles galore, special teams gaffes, and ill timed penalties will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Steelers were actually fortunate to not lose the game to the previously winless Detroit Lions.
Now the Steelers have some serious soul searching to do, especially as they prepare to enter the second half of their schedule, where the level of competition ramps up considerably, and they are suddenly dealing with a wave of injuries on both sides of the ball.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Alex Highsmith
There were a few notable performances by a handful of players on a afternoon far more frustrating than enjoyable. Even on the darkest and dreariest of days, there can always be the rare glimpse of sunshine. Najee Harris, Cameron Heyward, James Pierre, Chris Boswell, and Alex Highsmith all played above the line while their teammates were crash landing all around them. Since Harris will once again be a focal point in my Rookie Review article later this week, I will focus on the other deserving young men.
Heyward continues to be targeted by opposing offensive lines, and his incredible performances thus far this season has definitely caught the offensive coordinators attention. He remains productive even as game plans are designed to limit his effectiveness. We are starting to see the first signs of fatigue and frustration from Heyward, which is understandable, considering the absence of assistance he has received from his line mates on occasion. Even with the extra attention created when T.J. Watt was knocked from the game injured, Heyward finished the game with 2 QB sacks.
James Pierre saw his snap count shoot up once Joe Haden went down with a foot injury. Pierre's aggressiveness and tackling prowess really stand out on a defense severely lacking in both attributes. He made two drive stopping tackles in the open field after aggressively attacking the play and submarining under the lead block attempts of larger opponents. Although he maintained excellent coverage throughout the game, his confident physicality stood out the most to me. Pierre is too good to be spending so much time on the sidelines.
Sometimes truly exceptional players reach a level of excellence where they make the spectacular moment seem commonplace. I fear Boswell has reached that pinnacle for many Steelers fans. It's got to the point where 50+ yard field goals at Heinz Field for Boswell are expected more than appreciated. Although Heinz Field is renowned as one of the toughest stadiums in which to make such kicks, I feel strangely confident every time that Boswell lines one up. I am honestly more concerned with the hold and the blocking than I am his accuracy or leg strength on such occasions. I have little doubt he would have won the game in overtime for the Steelers if given the opportunity. That's a special talent, folks.
That brings me to my selection for the Steelers performer trending up the most at the moment: Alex Highsmith. Highsmith spoke openly in the week leading up to the game about his disappointment in his own production thus far this season. He dedicated plenty of blood, sweat, and tears into transforming his body in the off season. Specifically in increasing his explosiveness, needed to complete his pass rush attempts, and the functional strength necessary to set an effective edge against the running game. I would say mission accomplished on both accounts, almost.
Highsmith has been a superior run defender this season, an ability that was once considered his biggest weakness at the conclusion of last season. His hardwork is most evident in his impressive upper body development and ability to manhandle blockers. He regularly abuses tight ends who have the misfortune to be matched up with him. He played another strong game against the Lions, even beating double teams to bring down the ball carrier on a couple of occasions.
Highsmith must continue trending upwards, especially with T.J. Watt being considered week to week. Highsmith has generated respectable pass rush pressure this season through a variety of bull rush and bend techniques made possible by his newfound strength and explosiveness. While it's true he hasn't been able to cash in with the QB sack often enough, he has helped generate sacks for teammates, like he did on both of Heyward's sacks on Sunday. He appears almost fully recovered from the groin injury that limited him earlier in the season. Time for the young man to take the next step in his development.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Devin Bush
This section of the article had no shortage of worthy candidates; ranging from players, coaches, and officials. Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth have been two of the most consistent offensive performers for the Steelers this season, but both players let the team down in the most inopportune moments on Sunday, especially in overtime. Just how bad was it? Beyond the turnovers by both players, Freiermuth actually dropped a easy completion, for Pete's sake. It was bedlam, I tell you. Dogs and cats living together in perfect harmony. A telltale sign of the coming apocalypse arguably.
The play calling at times during the game was incredibly confusing. Throwing the football 50 times with your backup QB is never a good idea, especially when the aforementioned QB is seeing his first action of the season. What makes it even more puzzling was the fact that Harris was actually very effective throughout the game, averaging over four yards a carry and finished with over 100 yards rushing. At one point, the Steelers had first and goal from the seven yard line, but the Steelers called three straight passing plays. They were all incomplete, I might add. Unconscionable.
In an unwanted flashback to the second half of the Seattle Seahawks debacle, the Steelers once again apparently forgot how to compete and tackle against the run for half the game. I mentioned to my family that it looked like the Detroit Lions ball carriers had baby oil all over them, because the Steelers defenders were slipping and sliding off them with ease. It would have been comical if it wasn't so disappointing. The one thing you can control in any situation is your own effort, nothing else. The Steelers defenders lack of effort was unacceptable all around.
The biggest culprit for the Steelers defense was Devin Bush, in my opinion. I have been hesitant to direct criticism toward the young man, because I always want to be fair in any constructive criticism, especially when the recipient is working their way back from a devastating knee injury. That being said, Bush has really been a disappointment this season. He no longer resembles the fast and physical inside linebacker that the Steelers traded up to select with the 10th selection of the 2019 NFL Draft. At the half way point of the season, the Steelers have to be concerned whether he will resemble his pre-injury self at any point this season.
Bush is absorbing the action, rather than reading and attacking. His speed seems to be returning, and he showcases it on occasion. That leads me to believe he is gaining confidence in his surgically repaired knee. However, he appears to be allergic to contact, undoubtedly a requirement to play inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is caught up in the wash far too often, where he struggles to disengage from blockers. He is taking bad angles to the ball, after being slow to diagnosis the play. As I mentioned earlier, he lacks the technique and intensity to complete the tackle when he actually reaches the ball carrier. Regardless of the reasoning, whether it be physical or mental or both, Bush needs to step up his game in a big way.