The Pittsburgh Steelers return to action after a week off, out on the west coast to face off against the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. The NFC Super Bowl representatives two years running are not quite having the encore season they were hoping for, but have been trending upward recently.
The Steelers have been trending upward as well, riding a two-game winning streak prior to their bye, and have gotten healthy over the break. No players are out for this game due to injury, which is certainly a welcome change of pace. Of note is that rookie first-round outside linebacker Bud Dupree is in line to make his first career start. This is largely a semantic change, as he already leads all outside linebackers on the team in snaps–as well as sacks.
Inactive for the Steelers are the following:
LB Anthony Chickillo
WR Sammie Coates
CB Doran Grant
T Byron Stingily
QB Mike Vick
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint
DE LT Walton
Inactive for the Seahawks
WR Paul Richardson
CB Tye Smith
RB Marshawn Lynch
CB Cary Williams
LB Eric Pinkins
C/G Drew Nowak
C/G Kristjan Sokoli
Worth noting is that Cary Williams is a healthy scratch. He was starting opposite Richard Sherman. Activated from the PUP List yesterday was Jeremy Lane, who may start in his place.
In pre-game news, the early games have not broken in the Steelers’ favor, both in terms of their hopes of climbing back in the division race, and for building or maintaining their lead in the Wildcard race.
Entering the day, they were the only non-division leader in the AFC with a winning record at 6-4, but five teams were at 5-5. Four of those teams won, with the one loss coming against another 5-5 team, and even that result was a disappointment. The victor was Kansas City, who already beat the Steelers this season.
The Seahawks won the coin toss and deferred, sending Jacoby Jones back deep to field the opening kickoff, which went for a touchback. Heath Miller lined up wide on first down in a three tight end look, found by Ben Roethlisberger for a seven-yard gain. Bobby Wagner prevented Miller from making the catch on second down. On third and three, Roethlisberger looked deep and incomplete for Martavis Bryant, resulting in a three-and-out. Jordan Berry‘s 43-yard punt was fair caught by Tyler Lockett at the 30-yard line.
The Steelers defense opened in the nickel, which has become their base package this season. Russell Wilson found Lockett for 11 yards on first down. Thomas Rawls picked up seven, and then 17 across midfield on back-to-back runs.
From the 36, Wilson fired incomplete to Rawls. After a false start, Fred Jackson got his first carry for four yards. On third and 11, Cameron Heyward notched his fifth sack of the season for a big stop and a loss of eight yards. The ensuing punt was downed at the 14-yard line.
Following an incompletion and then a four-yard pass to DeAngelo Williams, Roethlisberger found Miller for nine yards and the Steelers’ first first down on his sixth straight pass. Roosevelt Nix caught his second pass of the season for six yards. From the 35, Williams got his first carry of the game for about six.
Off play action, Roethlisberger found Miller yet again for his third reception of the game down the seam, this for 17. At the 43 of the Seahawks now, Will Johnson caught a short pass for five yards over the middle. Williams’ second carry picked up close to seven near field goal range.
From the 31, Antonio Brown caught his first pass on a screen pass that looked to be read well from the beginning, but he still picked up two yards. On second and eight, Williams was stopped after about three. Roethlisberger looked like he threw early under pressure on third down in the direction of both Brown and Bryant, incomplete. Chris Boswell gave the Steelers the early lead with his 15th field goal of the year.
Bryant got a bit of an earful from Roethlisberger on the sideline after running the wrong route on the previous play. Lockett’s first return was a rare good one against the Steelers’ coverage unit, out to the 34-yard line.
On first down, Steve McLendon brought Rawls down after a two-yard gain. Rawls made a tackler or two miss for a 10-yard gain, beating through a hit from Will Allen. From the 46, he brushed off contact from Antwon Blake for six. Wilson’s second-down pass was incomplete. On third and four, Wilson was forced to throw it away with the blitz coming. Lawrence Timmons did a good job of containing the edge. Jones back to field the punt, the ball was downed inside the 10.
Roethlisberger went back to Miller for the fourth time on first down for eight yards. On second and two, Roethlisberger’s pass over the middle was incomplete. He looked deep on third down after an offside, knowing it was a free play, and an automatic first down.
From the 21, five wide, Roethlisberger threw to Williams, bouncing off the first tackler for an extra four or five yards. On second and two, Brown came back for a back shoulder throw for 15 yards. Nearing midfield, Markus Wheaton grabbed his first pass of the game over the middle for 21.
At the 35-yard line now, Bryant picked up a few yards on a screen pass. Roethlisberger looked vertical for Brown incomplete against Sherman. Back to Miller, the veteran picked up just four to set up fourth and two. After bluffing going for it at the end of the first, the Steelers did go for it to start the second after coming out in a field goal formation. Landy Jones lined up as the holder and threw in the direction of Landry Jones. He was intercepted by Lane, who returned it all the way to the 24.
Wilson’s first pass was tipped at the line by Heyward. On second down, Rawls was stopped after about four yards. On third down, Wilson found Lockett over the middle threw a pick, with Mike Mitchell making the stop after 11 yards, setting up first and goal at the nine. Rawls picked up six yards getting low and weaving through traffic down to the three. On second down, he fought for about two yards after being stopped near the line, but J.R. Sweezey, the right guard, was flagged for unnecessary roughness, making it third and goal from the 16. But Wilson threw a strike to Doug Baldwin for the touchdown with nobody covering him.
Jones got a running start on the return, coming out of the end zone, returning the ball out to the 36-yard line. A horse-collar tackle at the end of the return added another 15 yards, so the offense starts at the Seahawks’ 49. On first down, Williams picked up four on a draw. Bryant did well to hold on to the second-down pass for six yards, but inches short. On third and inches, Roethlisberger ran the sneak for the conversion.
Roethlisberger looked deep for Bryant incomplete, with the two handfighting. An eight-yard reception to Miller was undone by an offside to make it second and five instead of third and two. Roethlisberger found Wheaton for another big catch and a gain of 19 yards inside the 15. From the 14, Williams fought for about four up the middle. A reverse end around to Bryant somehow found the sideline for the first down and more, ruled a touchdown, his first rushing score of his career. The Steelers retook the lead at 10-7, a nice response after a big mistake. Bryant broke two tackles and fought through contact at the goal line.
In the meantime, Miller was taken to the locker room during the break to take a look at his ribs, deemed probable to return. Lockett was stopped short of the 20 on his second kick return. Ryan Shazier then left for the locker room for the concussion protocol. Based on how he walked off, it doesn’t seem likely he will return to this game.
James Harrison made the stop after a one-yard gain on first down. From the 15, Wilson was forced to tuck and slide at the line of scrimmage with William Gay coming in to pressure, technically going down for a sack and a loss of two. On third down, Wilson found Jimmy Graham for 17 yards on a crossing route with Ross Cockrell in coverage.
Jevon Kearse picked a pass off the dirt for seven yards on first down. Mike Tomlin successfully challenged the ruling, and the call was reversed, ruled an incompletion. On second and 10, Wilson threw a screen to Baldwin, but the Steelers set up to defend it well for no gain. On third and 10, however, Wilson found Graham down the seam between the coverage for 18.
Across midfield, Blake made the tackle on Graham after three yards. On second and seven, Harrison made the initial hit on Rawls, with Timmons finishing for a loss of four. On third and 16, after a false start, Kearse this time held on through a scraping effort from Cockrell for 22. Down to the 33, Kevin Smith was wide open for 21. From the 12, Wilson hit Kearse at the goal line to get back into the end zone and retake the lead, found between Blake and Mitchell.
Roethlisberger has 2:10 and three timeouts to come up with a response before the Seahawks get the ball back after the half. Jones let the ball go out of bounds for the touchback.
Starting from the 20, with Miller back, Brown’s target was incomplete, defended by Sherman. On second down, Bryant double-clutched a pass for close to 10 yards at the two-minute warning. Bryant came off to have his knee looked at. On third and one, Roethlisberger was successful again on the sneak as the clock continued to run.
30 seconds later, Roethlisberger escaped and threw to Bryant down the field, who straight up dropped it. Wheaton grabbed another difficult catch for the first as the Steelers used their first timeout. From the 44, he bought time and once again found Wheaton down the field after scrambling, this for a 41-yard floater over Wagner.
Down to the 15 with 1:05 left, it was Wheaton again for his fifth reception for nine yards, giving up over 100 for the day. From the six, Williams punched it in for the score, his sixth of the year. Roethlisberger found Jesse James shallow in the end zone for the two-point conversion to go up 18-14, but Seattle has time and three timeouts to answer.
With 56 seconds remaining, starting from the 20, Wilson threw to Jackson for eight out of bounds. Wilson just barely escaped a Jarvis Jones sack by turfing the ball, but the officials ruled it intentional grounding for not reaching the line of scrimmage with the ball and no target. On third down and a loss of two, plus a 10-second run off, the Seahawks picked up about five and went out of bounds.
Jones fielded at the 18, returned to the 40, but a hold negated the return. The Steelers took a knee to end the half with the lead.