By David Todd
The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday to take on a winless team for the second week in a row. Coming off a home loss to winless Tampa, they were desperate for a win…and they got it, but it wasn’t pretty. The Steelers won 17-9 behind their best defensive performance of the season highlighted by a Brice McCain’s 22-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The defense held rookie QB Blake Bortles and the Jags to 243 total yards and 12 first downs and played a very solid second half for the first time this season.
Offensively it was another enigmatic performance.The Steelers gained 372 total yards and were 8/16 in converting third downs but were only able to put 10 points on the board. Coordinator Todd Haley said coming into the game the offense needed to do a better job of translating production into points. That did not happen Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown all had good statistical days, but the offense only put up points in the second quarter and now, ten halves into the season, has played well in only three of them.
Shamarko Thomas suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter playing special teams and did not return.
Ryan Shazier and Ike Taylor were inactive while Ramon Foster returned to his starting left guard spot.
*Le’Veon Bell is playing as well as any back in the game not named DeMarco Murray. Not only has he shown great vision and patience, he is consistently able to get yards after contact. On the Steelers second possession Bell was hit cleanly at the line of scrimmage on a 2nd-and-3 yet was still able to drive his legs and turn the run into a 4-yard gain and a first down. Late in the game he should a great sense of down-and-distance converting a short pass on 3rd-and-9 into a first down by going straight up field. On the last drive he again showed his awareness staying in bounds to keep the clock running. Another excellent performance.
*On the next to last play in the first quarter Maurkice Pouncey demonstrated the athleticism that got him a big contract in the offseason. On 1st-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 44, Pouncey pulled right. Marcus Gilbert made a very good block sealing the end and Pouncey cleared out Paul Posluszny. Solomon Wilcots actually made a good call on this one noting Bell was “slow to the hole, fast through it.”Bell gained 29 yards on the play, 15 of them after shaking a shoulder tackle by one of the Jags defensive backs.
*LaGarrette Blount’s numbers won’t jump out in this one, but he is an incredibly physical back with good speed who is tough to bring down. He continues to impress.
*Justin Brown had three catches in this one and one in particular stood out as he took a monster hit and held on.
*The offensive line won’t like the final sack tally with four against, but they did a good jog in the run game and generally gave Ben plenty of time.
*The Steelers have put up 17 points in their last six quarters against winless Tampa and Jacksonville teams. The Jags averaged 38 points against and had a banged up secondary, but the Steelers offense scored no points in the second half. This offense has to do better. Scoring 27 points is going to have to be a regular occurrence for this team to win consistently. Sunday didn’t engender any confidence that they can do that despite continued gaudy yardage totals.
*Roethlisberger’s numbers look okay in this one, but it was a rather pedestrian effort. As we often say on The Terrible Podcast Ben likes his receivers “college open,”meaning he likes to see them having beaten their man rather than “throwing them open.”The last two weeks have been good examples of that. Ben has taken 9 sacks and most of them are on him, not the offensive line. The term generally used is “coverage sacks.”The problem is that Tampa & Jax are porous, banged-up secondaries. Good on Ben for not forcing the ball into tight windows, but he has to do a better job of throwing the ball away.
*Up 10-9 and driving Ben fumbled deep in Jacksonville territory for the Steelers only turnover. Goes without saying, even though he did in his postgame press conference, those mistakes can’t happen.
*The Steelers red zone problems showed up this week. After converting 2-3 opportunities last week the Steelers were only 1-4 Sunday. The play calling was suspect as the Steelers didn’t try to run the ball one time. One play stood out to me. Early in the 2nd quarter the Steelers faced a 2nd-and goal from the Jags 4. Brown lined up against man coverage wide to the boundary side, right. He ran a fade which was designed to be a back shoulder throw to the pylon. Not an easy win for the 5’11”Brown. The pattern would have been more effective if Brown drove the DB inside for a few steps to create separation and then came back to the pylon. It seemed an odd pattern given the down, distance and coverage. Ben got sacked on the following play and the Steelers settled for a FG.
*A Markus Wheaton drop killed the opening drive. It’s the first clear drop I recall seeing from Wheaton this year, but it was a great throw by Ben that resulted in a three-and-out rather than a first down.
*Once a narrative is established in the NFL it is difficult to change, good or bad. Heath Miller, once was of the best blocking tight ends in the game, is not that any longer. He completely missed a block on a wide receiver screen when he was split wide. Still a useful player Heath is not the dominating blocker he once was.
*Lance Moore had a big catch for 26 yards, his first of the season. He immediately got up, spiked the ball and got a five yard delay-of-game penalty. When chastised by Mike Tomlin on the sideline he turned and appeared to have a few things to say. Not his smartest move.
*The defense finally played a full 60 minutes. Sure it was against a rookie QB, but they had already lost to a QB making only his 12th start a week earlier (Mike Glennon, Tampa) and almost lost to a QB making only his fourth start the opening week of the season (Brian Hoyer, Cleveland). The defense did it’s job in this one keeping the Jags out of the end zone and getting one of their own.
*Brice McCain had a great week of practice and he took that work to the field Sunday. McCain did a really good job as the nickel corner in the slot and highlighted the day with his 22-yard interception return for a TD. No one would have expected this, but it may turn out that McCain is the most productive of the Steelers four notable defensive free agent signings from the offseason.
*Jason Worilds had probably his most impactful game of the season to-date, which is a pretty low bar. Worilds registered a sack and was able to get consistent pressure off the left side, but if he wants another big payday this offseason he has to continue to do better.
*Cortez Allen had his second interception in as many weeks. Allen’s ball skills have never been the question, it’s can he be a league-average or better corner with just average speed.
*The Steelers were playing a banged up Jacksonville wide receiver unit on Sunday so it wasn’t the stiffest test, but their defensive backs were good across the board. Gay, Allen and McCain (and probably Mike Mitchell, we’ll see on the tape) each had his best game of the season.
*On a 3rd-and-8 with just over ten minutes left in the game, Jacksonville had the ball on their own 33 and completed a 7-yard pass to Allen Hurns. It looked like a certain first down but Lawrence Timmons came up and made a perfect tackle keeping Hurns a yard short of the sticks and forcing them to punt. The Jags would only run three more offensive plays the rest of the game.
*The last of those three play Brett Keisel tipped a Bortles pass forcing and incompletion and giving the offense a chance to close it out.
*The Steelers opposition has scored on all five opening drives this season and the Steelers have given up 22 first downs in those five drives (h/t Mark Kaboly). In fact the opposition had scored on each opening drive off the second half as well until the Steelers stopped the Jags in this one.
*Cam Thomas can’t play. He continues to get blown off the ball. I would expect Stephon Tuitt’s role to continue to increase from here. Tuitt did make his presence felt on the Steelers lone sack.
*When does Troy jumping offsides have a negative risk-reward? How ‘bout now.
*After back-to-back offsides on the kickoff after the Steelers first score they pooched the kickoff. This was a really good decision as the Jags fair caught the ball and only ended up starting at their 27.
*The Steelers coverage teams were good with Vince Williams leading the way with a couple big hits. One almost took out team doctor Jim Bradley who is supposed to operate on me a week from today.
*The Steelers were offsides on back-to-back kickoffs, something I’ve never seen before. Vince Williams and Antwon Blake the guilty parties in this one. Four of the team’s seven penalties were on special teams.
*The return game has rarely provided the Steelers with a big play this season and more of the same Sunday. Dri Archer has yet to make an impact.
*Special teams captain Robert Golden racked up two more penalties in this one and now has committed four on the season.
*The Steelers committed 7 penalties for 50 yards in this one. Not perfect but certainly much better than in previous weeks.
*As discussed above the play calling in the red zone left something to be desired.
*The play call late in the game to get Antonio Brown has fifth catch of the game and extend is 5/50 record has been hotly debated. I didn’t have a problem with the call. It’s a very safe pass. At the same time I understand why others didn’t like it. Ben and Tomlin discussed it and wanted to get the ball to Brown. He’s been the Steelers best player this year and they rewarded him. I’m not big on rewards in-game and this record is about as obscure as it gets. But I’m not going to kill coach or player for doing it.
Big Officiating Calls
*Not much impactful in this area.
The Steelers will take on the 2-2 Cleveland Browns Sunday, October 12 at FristEnergy Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.