Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Seahawks in Seattle for the first time since 2003 and came away 39-30 losers as their defense collapsed down the stretch. The offense put up 30+ points for the third straight week behind another outstanding performance by Ben Roethlisberger and a career-best game from Markus Wheaton, but on Seattle’s last five possessions they torched the Steelers D for 234 yards and 4 TDs on just 18 plays, a 13.0 yard/play average. Toss in four turnovers and a questionable late-game decision by Head Coach Mike Tomlin and it’s another loss from a game that looked very winnable. The defeat drops the Steelers to 6-5 and sets up three huge upcoming games with Indy, at Cincinnati and Denver over the next three weeks.
*Both Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier entered the NFL’s concussion protocol during the game. Early reports suggest Roethlisberger didn’t suffer a concussion and I expect him to be able to go this coming Sunday. Shazier looked unsteady leaving the field and I’m guessing he will be questionable until late in the week. Heath Miller suffered a rib injury and Sean Spence apparently suffered a recurrence of a prior hamstring injury. My early guess is that Ben will be the only to play this week.
The Steelers put up 30+ for the fourth time this season, the first time on the road, and the third game in a row. They punted on their opening drive for the second game in a row, but only punted once more and have now punted just three times in the past two games. The passing game appears unstoppable. If defenses choose to single cover the Steelers outside receivers, as the Raiders and Browns did, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant will torch them. Double the outside guys with help over the top and Ben will exploit the middle of the field with Heath Miller, Markus Wheaton and DeAngelo Williams. It’s a potent mix that just seems to be getting better.
*Markus Wheaton had a career-day. By a long shot. I’ve been waiting a long time for Wheaton to have a breakout game and had just about given up. And with good reason. Since Bryant’s return from suspension Wheaton had just 7 catches for 45 yards in the last 5 games, about a quarter’s worth of production from Antonio Brown lately. That finally changed Sunday. Roethlisberger found Wheaton early as he looked to exploit the middle of the field. And after some big catches it actually looked like Wheaton became a primary target as the game went on. 9 catches for 201 yards and a TD, the fourth-most single-game receiving yards in Steelers history. Hopefully a sign that Wheaton will be a bigger part of the offense going forward and someone defenses will have to account for.
*Ben was outstanding and if not for some drops from his receivers would have become the first QB in NFL history to throw for 500 yards on three separate occasions. He finished the day 36-55 for 456 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. The turnovers were significant and do take a bit of luster off of what would have been a top 5 career performance, but he is leading this offense to a new plateau. He is still as elusive as ever in the pocket, able to keep plays alive, and his reading of defenses and understanding of where to go with the football is the best its ever been.
*The Steelers offense really hasn’t missed a beat with DeAngelo Williams replacing Le’Veon Bell. The concern wasn’t what the team would lose in the running game, it was what would they lose in the passing game with Bell being the NFL’s best receiving back. The answer continues to be, almost nothing. Williams had 7 catches (in 7 targets) for 88 yards and he showled an outstanding ability to avoid tackles and gain yards after the catch. What a great offseason signing.
*The Steelers gameplan was obviously to come out and throw the ball against the Seahawks and the the OLine did a good job of giving Ben time to do that. Marcus Gilbert continues to have a quietly, outstanding season.
*This wasn’t Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant’s finest game. Brown got shutdown by Richard Sherman and Bryant had a couple significant drops. In Brown’s case, Sherman is an elite corner, but if you are the best in the game, more is expected. In Bryant’s case, he needs to continue to work harder to fight for balls and to try to high-point catches in traffic. It also appeared that Bryant ran the wrong route when he was supposed to run a clear out for Brown on the Steelers second drive, that could have resulted in a big gain or a TD. They settled for a FG.
*On two separate occasions in the second half the Steelers had third downs from the Seahawks 10-yard line. The first was a 3rd-and-9 from the 10 midway through the 3rd quarter up 18-14. Under pressure Ben took off running and was stopped at the 2. The Steelers ended up settling for a FG. The second was a 3rd-and-goal from the Seattle 10 with 3:43 remaining in the game and the Steelers down 32-27. Same situation, same result as Ben is tackled short of the end zone at the 3 and the Steelers settle for a FG. Ben has to realize what a low percentage scenario it is for him to actually score on a scramble from 10 yards out. Ill-advised.
The bend-but-don’t-break defense that we’ve saw the first half of this season has been broken badly two of the last three games. I’ve continued to point out that it is unlikely that the Steelers can continue to be one the best in the league in points-against and one of the worst in yards allowed. Those are eventually going to converge in one direction. What now is clear is that if the Steelers aren’t opportunistic and create turnovers, they aren’t capable of stopping anyone. The pass defense is in shambles.
*I thought if the Steelers were able to contain the Seahawks run game they would win and they did a excellent job against the run. Rookie-sensation Thomas Rawls was limited to 81 yards on 21 carries and Russell Wilson to just 14 yards on 4 carries. Unfortunately, I was wrong that that would be a difference-maker.
*The Steelers came out of the half up 18-14 and stuffed the Seahawks with two straight 3-and-outs, the second after an excellent kickoff return set up the Hawks at the Steelers 48.
*Pretty much everything in the passing game. The scheme, carrying out the assignments, the tackling—all poor. Other than that Mrs. Lincoln….I could catalogue play-after-play, but suffice it to say Antwon Blake and Will Allen should no longer be on the field. If there is a “standard” they haven’t met it and they certainly haven’t been above any line that I would use to evaluate performance. I don’t know if things can be overhauled after 12 games, but I’m guessing Matt Hassleback/Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton and Brock Osweiler are licking their chops.
*The Seahawks faced 7 3rd downs in the game of 10 yards or more. They converted 5. Here is a play-by-play of their conversions:
Score 3-0 PIT:
3rd and Goal at PIT 16
(12:18 – 2nd) Doug Baldwin Pass From Russell Wilson for 16 Yd TD
Score 10-7 PIT (the next three occur on the same scoring drive):
3rd and 10 at SEA 15
(7:15 – 2nd) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to J.Graham to SEA 33 for 18 yards
3rd and 10 at SEA 33
(5:56 – 2nd) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short middle to J.Graham to PIT 49 for 18 yards
3rd and 16 at SEA 45
(3:36 – 2nd) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to J.Kearse to PIT 33 for 22 yards
Score 32-30 SEA:
3rd and 10 at SEA 20
(2:01 – 4th) Doug Baldwin Pass From Russell Wilson for 80 Yd TD
Needless to say, that is some terrible defense as the Hawks converted 7-13 3rd downs.
*Kicker Chris Boswell three more made FGs and is now 17-18 in his career. The decision next training camp with both Boswell and Shaun Suisham under contract is going to be very interesting.
*Jacoby Jones had a good kick return and with a penalty tacked on at the end gave the Steelers their best starting field position after a kickoff of the season. Color me shocked.
*On a play that will mostly go unnoticed, Brandon Boykin did a great job on one kick return of holding onto his blocker as the return man burst up a crease. Once the returner committed to his path, Boykin shed his blocker and quickly made the tackle. It was a very good return, but if not for Boykin it might have gone for six.
*Shamarko Thomas took his second interference with a catch penalty of the season. It was a questionable call, but it’s an inexcusable penalty.
*The coverage unit gave up a couple long kickoff returns for the first time this season including a 54-yarder.
I feel like the recaps could be largely be about Mike Tomlin if I let them. Suffice it to say I no longer have any sense of how Tomlin makes decisions. He often says he uses his “gut” and I believe him because there is no other common thread of rationality that consistently shines through. I like his aggressiveness with 2-point conversions and going for it on fourth down, but I have no idea how he decides where on the field or when in the game he should or shouldn’t do those things. 1st quarter 4th-and-2, run a fake FG (which I’m fine with, see below), 3rd quarter 4th-and-1 from the Seahawks 2, kick the field goal. 4th quarter 4th-and-goal from the 3, kick the field goal. All I know is he “doesn’t live in his fears,” and I have no idea what the hell that means. If he doesn’t want the best offense in the NFL to have a shot to score from the 3, down 5 with under four minutes to go in the game, but would rather have his getting-torched-every-play defense on the field, we are afraid of very different things. Tomlin didn’t lose the game, but his lack of aggressiveness at the end, when it mattered most was….let’s just go with baffling.
*Conventional 2-point decision thinking is based on the fact that offenses score about 45-50% of the time on 2-point conversions and extra points are converted about 98% of the time. So using the probability of the expected value of each, the 2-point conversion should generate about .9-1.0 points per attempt (.45×2-.50×2), while extra points are about .98 points per attempt (.98×1). Roughly the same. And this is flawed thinking for an offense like the Steelers that is converting about a 75% rate historically. That means the average conversion should generate 1.5 points per attempt. Mike Tomlin has recognized that (somehow, I’m sure not through the method I presented above) and is taking advantage of it. My only question is why not do it every time in the first half and then be more selective as the game warrants in the second half?
*I like trick plays. I’m not going to be critical of the fake FG call and no, I don’t think it cost the Steelers the game. What I think it is fair to take issue with is A) if the defense recognizes that you have your backup QB on the field not your normal holder and immediately reacts properly to your formation shift, do you want to call timeout and re-evaluate? B) execution. Landry Jones is a QB. After the snap he has to do a better job of reading the defense (he did go from his first read, Heath Miller, to his second) and make a better decision. If he attacks the line of scrimmage back to the left, that play would have played out very differently.
*Blah, blah, blah, clock management. The Steelers shouldn’t have called their second TO after the long pass play downfield with 1:05 left in the first half and a first down on the Seahawks 15. They scored two plays and 9 seconds later. There was no need to stop the clock and potentially give the Hawks that much time. Fortunately it worked out for them.
Big Officiating Calls:
*The personal foul call on Lawrence Timmons for pushing Russell Wilson out-of-bounds was poor.
*Wheaton almost had another outstanding 28-yard catch on the sideline late in the game. After originally being ruled a catch, was challenged and overturned, properly in my opinion, as he bobbled it ever so slightly.
Up Next: The Steelers return to Heinz Field to take on the (6-5) Indianapolis Colts in a big nationally-televised AFC conference matchup. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:25 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.