Written on 11/8/15
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I think I used that to open a recap once before. Dickens is going to come after me. On another beautiful Sunday at Heinz Field the Pittsburgh Steelers were involved in one of the most exciting, entertaining and dramatic games I’ve ever seen. They beat the Oakland Raiders 38-35 on an 18-yard FG by Chris Boswell with four seconds left, potentially solidifying their spot as the leader for one of the two AFC Wild Card berths. Potentially, because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a foot injury that will keep him sidelined for an indefinite period of time. An extended absence, combined with the losses already suffered, would make a deep playoff run incredibly unlikely.
This is the type of Steelers team I’ve been expecting to see ever since camp opened back in July. Offensively they weren’t perfect, but they finally lived up to expectations. They put up 38 points on 597 yards of total offense and, after the defense gave up a late TD to tie the game, drove the length of the field in the last 75 seconds with Landry Jones at the helm for the winning score. Defensively, more negatives than positives. They were physical and continued to create turnovers, but this time the opponent’s huge yardage total resulted in 35 points, the most they’ve given up all season. The win raises the Steelers record to 5-4, with all five wins coming, oddly, against teams in western divisions. The Cleveland Browns come to Heinz Field for a divisional game next Sunday before the Steelers get their much-needed bye week.
*Ben Roethlisberger was taken to a local hospital for evaluation before the game even ended. He suffered a sprained left foot. The diagnosis seems to be best-case given other potential outcomes. The timeline for his recovery is uncertain at this point.
Matt Spaeth and Terence Garvin were inactive due to injury. Le’Veon Bell was place on the injured reserve during the week ending his season.
It was a record-setting day for the offense, even if it wasn’t perfect. It demonstrates what a powerhouse they can be even with some of their stars on the sidelines. No team in NFL history has ever had a tandem with 300 and 200 yards from scrimmage which Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams did Sunday.
*Antonio Brown has to be wondering what it would have been like to play this entire season with Ben. It sure feels like all the NFL single-season receiving records would have fallen. Sunday he broke both the Steelers single-game receptions and yardage records finishing with 17 catches for 284 yards, breaking the old marks of 14 and 253. He was brilliant and good thing because he happened to be the only receiver in sync with Ben. On the Steelers first scoring drive he accounted for 79 of the 83 yards which included an 11-yard catch and run on 3rd-and-9 from the Oakland 23. He ran a short cross and caught the ball at the 21. He then put a classic stiff arm on David Amerson at the 19 and scampered for the first down. You might not see a better stiff arm from a receiver all year. Brown also had a 13-yard catch on the sideline in the first half where he was able to get both feet down. You have to see it to fully appreciate what a remarkable move it was to stay in bounds. And when the Steelers needed it most, with Ben on his way to the hospital, he made the game-winning play. He took a slant from Jones, broke ankles with his other-worldly ability to change direction instantaneously, and went 57 yards to set-up the winning FG. He had over 100 yards receiving in both halves, had three catches for more than 40 yards and, just to show off, added 22 yards rushing on two carries. A nice, fresh 306-yard day, a Steelers record and 7th best in NFL history. As I said earlier this season, the only guy who can shut down AB is…..Mike Vick. He’s uncoverable.
*DeAngelo Williams was today’s co-star. It’s time to stop saying “he’s not Le’Veon Bell” every time DWill’s name is mentioned. As Bell’s understudy he’s gained 374 yards and scored 5 TDs in three starts. He’s been one of the ten best backs in the NFL when he’s played this year, averaging 5.3 yards/att,, third best in the league (min 80 att). Sunday he ran for 170 yards and had 2 receptions for 55 more, a career-high 225 total yards. His catches were the two longest by Steelers running backs this season, yep, longer than any Bell had. His biggest play was the last play of the third quarter. With the game tied at 21 and the Steelers facing 2nd-and-9 from their own 10, he went over the left side behind great blocks by Roosevelt Nix and David DeCastro for 53 yards. They scored 7 plays later. That was his biggest play, but the one he’s going to enjoy most in the film room on Monday is the one where he destroyed Oakland edge rusher Aldon Smith with a block in pass coverage. At 32, Williams is still getting it done. A huge off-season pick-up for the Steelers
*Martavis Bryant didn’t have a great game, 3 catches in 7 targets for 31 yards, but his 14-yard touchdown catch if the fourth quarter will make the season-ending highlight reel. He caught a quick WR screen and juked three guys to go in for the score.
*I wasn’t sure we’d see 5th rd pick Jesse James dress at all this season. He got a helmet for the first time Sunday and made the most of his opportunity. He played a surprisingly high 30+ snaps, was excellent blocking, notably providing a fantastic seal block to help spring Bryant for his TD and then catching his first career TD (a six-shooter?) just three plays later.
*The Steelers were 4-6 in the red zone, stopped with a 4th-and-inches with just 33 seconds left in the half on the 19 and on the 1 for the game-winning FG. Solid work.
*It probably isn’t fair to list Ben under The Bad, but I don’t have an Uneven category. Last week, coming off a four-week layoff, Ben played poorly registering his first three interception game under Todd Haley. He was better Sunday, but I still didn’t think he was sharp. He was continually off-target with his throws and made a very bad decision trying to force a ball to AB that led to another interception. I’m sure the injury was a factor, but now, with the foot sprain, there is going to be another layoff and questions about how many weeks he will need to get back to being the player he was at the start of the season. An interesting note as Ben finished the day 24-44 for 334 yards. Since the start of 2010 when Ben has had 40 or more pass attempts in a game, the Steelers are 4-19, 2-15 since 2012. They got the win yesterday, but he wasn’t around to enjoy it at the end.
*After the punt block on the Raiders opening drive of the second half the Steelers took over at the Oakland 46. DWill ran for no gain and then 3 yards and Ben threw incomplete behind Darrius Heyward-Bey on 3rd down. They have to get points out of that kind of field position.
*For the second week in a row, the wide receivers not named Antonio Brown didn’t play well. It’s hard to know who is at fault when a pass is behind/in front of a receiver. Maybe the route wasn’t the right depth, maybe the wideout sat rather than continued to cross. Bryant, Markus Wheaton and DHB had 4 catches for 29 yards on 13 targets. They have to be better and more productive.
*Center Cody Wallace was called for two illegal procedure penalties as he appeared to double-clutch the snap on each occasion. Not good.
*Nitpicking, but if AB keeps the ball in his downfield arm when going out of bounds on a third down catch he probably gets the first down and the Steelers don’t have to settle for a FG with 33 seconds left in the first half.
The bend-but-don’t-break defense that we’ve seen much of this season broke repeatedly on Sunday. While the defense has been great at limiting points this year, largely because they’ve been able to generate turnovers, they been giving up an alarming number of yards. The Raiders put up both the yards and the points in this one, putting 35 on the scoreboard on 440 total yards, 6.4 per play.
*The defense continues to create turnovers and got two Sunday including another fourth quarter end zone interception for the second week in a row and the third on the season. Ross Cockrell picked a terrible Derek Carr throw with 4:31 left in the game and Mike Mitchell forced a fumble in Steelers territory recovered by Jarvis Jones just two plays after Roethlisberger’s interception in the third quarter.
*The Steelers got little pressure on Carr, registering no sacks on the day.
*After correctly using their timeouts, the Raiders made their game-tying drive look easy. They went 69 yards in 7 plays and only used 1:00 to do it. I’m not sure why Keith Butler was aggressively blitzing in that situation and leaving the middle of the field to be exploited. Carr and the Raiders took advantage of it.
*The Raiders went through the Steelers like the proverbial hot knife through butter on their opening possession. After an incomplete pass on first down, Latavius Murray gained 44 yards on a running play against the Steelers nickel defense, the longest rushing play against the Steelers on the season. Michael Crabtree caught a 22-yard TD pass on the very next play.
*On Oakland’s second TD Amari Cooper was left wide open in the end zone. He won’t make an easier catch all season. It’s this type of miscommunication this late in the season that is concerning. And if it was Ryan Shazier or Lawrence Timmons who was responsible for the coverage you have to question why.
*Mike Mitchell needs to play to the whistle. He’s been very good this year, but his celebration on his hit on Murray while the ball was still loose is unnecessary. Mitchell also had a chance to recover a fumble and possibly score earlier in the game, however, after going out of bounds he established one but not both feet in bounds before scooping it up. The ball reverted to the Raiders as a result. Mitchell needs better field awareness or understanding of the rules. Or both.
*I have no idea why the Steelers defensive schemes still often rely on Lawrence Timmons carrying tight ends down the middle of the field. Isn’t that one of the reasons they drafted Shazier?
*After limiting explosive plays much of the season the Steelers gave up 6 plays of 20+ yards in this one including Oakland’s second, third and final offensive play of the game.
*Special teams coverage was excellent and they forced a turnover that immediately led to the Jesse James TD. Roosevelt Nix put his helmet on the ball on a kickoff return and Anthony Chickillo recovered on the Raiders 6.
*On the Raiders opening possession of the second half they forced a punt and went after punter Marquette King. Bud Dupree got a piece of the ball limiting the punt to 25 yards.
*Kicker Chris Boswell had his first miss, but hit from 34, 38 and 18 for the game-winner.
*New acquisition Jacoby Jones returned two punts for 2 yards and four kickoffs for 20.8 yard average and looked bad doing it. He also let a punt bounce and be downed when he should have made a fair catch. More of that and he may not be around long.
*Antonio Brown did get a chance to return a punt around midfield with just 6:18 left in the game and the Steelers up 35-28. If he didn’t have clear sailing on the return, this is an obvious place for a fair catch. Brown tried to return it and was stripped with the Raiders recovering on the Steelers 39. The Raiders gained 50 yards on the play. Poor decision.
*Chris Boswell missed his first FG, a 41-yarder, and maybe more importantly had a kickoff go out of bounds after the team went up 35-21. It gave the Raiders the ball at the 40 and the scored in only 4 plays, using up just 1:52.
*Todd Haley play design in the red zone and on 2-point conversions continues to be excellent. The Steelers have become formidable in both areas.
*I like Mike Tomlin’s aggressiveness in going for 2 after TDs. The Steelers converted their fourth this season, the NFL single-season record is 6, but I have no idea how Tomlin makes his decisions when to go and when not to go for two.
*On the Steelers opening drive the faced a 4th-and-4 from the Raiders 34. Tomlin decided to go for it, eschewing a 51-52 yard FG just as he did last week against Cincinnati. Last week I thought he should have kicked the FG up 10-6 late. This time I liked the decision. It was unsuccessful as Ben threw incomplete to AB on the sidelines on a pass he’s a bit lucky wasn’t picked and returned. Later in the half, at the 2:00 warning down 14-11, Tomlin faced another choice with 4th-and-1 from the Oakland 3. Again he chose to go for it and again I liked the decision. This time they were successful as DeAngelo Williams scored the TD.
*Getting the ball back on the 20 tied at 35 with 1:15 left and Landry Jones at QB, Tomlin could have run the clock out and gone to OT. He was aggressive and played to win it there. Great decision. It paid off.
*Last week I wrote about the Mike Tomlin’s decision not to use his TOs before the 2:00 warning:
Clock management is rarely black-and-white. My concern is getting the process right. If that happens the players still have to execute in order to get the results. If you read this column each week you know I think the Steelers rarely get the process right.
After Ben’s third INT there was 2:44 left in the game and the Bengals were on the Steelers 26. The Bengals ran on first down, gained 1 yard. Mike Tomlin could have called TO, but he chose to let the clock run. 38 seconds of game time ran off until the clock was stopped due to the 2-minute warning. The Bengals proceeded to run the ball two more plays, using 9 seconds, and then kicked a 44-yard FG using four more. After the ensuing touchback the Steelers got the ball at the 20 with 1:47 left and 1 TO.
In my mind Mike Tomln traded 38 seconds of game time and a mandatory clock stoppage at the 2-minute warning for control of 1 TO. That doesn’t seem to be a good trade-off to me. If he wanted to keep the TO he could have used 2 of his 3 TOs before the 2-minute warning and he would have saved 9 seconds. (Yes, I understand the plays might not have occurred in exactly the same fashion. Maybe Dalton actually fumbles a third snap or throws a third pick. Sure maybe he throws for a first down.) That time certainly would have been useful at the end of the game.
Amazingly the Raider were confronted with an almost identical situation this week. With 2:51 left the Steelers had a first down on their 40. A short pass gained 3 yards and Oakland called TO at 2:41. On the next play Williams rushed for 1 yard and Oakland called TO at 2:36. Facing 3rd-and-6 Mike Tomlin had to decide whether to throw to try to win the game or run to make Oakland use its final TO. I have no problem throwing the ball in the down-and-distance situation. Unfortunately the Steelers were penalized twice and ended up facing a 3rd-and-21. You absolutely cannot throw the ball there. It was an horrendous decision by Tomlin. They Steelers punted the ball back to the Raiders on their own 31 with 2:15 remaining (and a TO). They had 28 more seconds than the Steelers did the week before. Hopefully Tomlin took note.
*I didn’t understand Keith Butler blitzing as aggressively as he did on Oakland’s last game-tying drive.
*The final handoff the game to DeAngelo Williams with 11 seconds left and the Steelers on the Raiders 10 was a completely unnecessary risk. Bad choice that didn’t burn the Steelers.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Some questionable calls both ways, but the zebras did not decide the outcome.
Up Next: The Steelers take on divisional foe the Cleveland Browns (2-6) at Heinz Field. Kickoff Sunday is scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.