The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2016 season as one of the two featured games on Monday Night Football visiting FedEx Field to take on the Washington Redskins. The Steelers hadn’t been to Landover since 2008 when they struggled early, falling behind 6-0 after the first quarter, before turning things around and rolling to a 23-6 victory in front of so many Steelers fans among the 90,000 that the Skins had to use a silent count to run their offense. The script wasn’t much different this time around. The Steelers again started sluggishly, trailing by an identical 6-0 after the first quarter, but they got rolling in the second quarter and blew things open in the second half on their way to a comfortable 38-16 victory.
Much has been made of the Steelers offense and their very public proclamations that they feel they can score 30 points a game. This was a good start. After 8 plays and 37 yards resulting in a punt and an interception on their two opening drives, the Steelers put up 400 yards of offense and 38 points scoring on six of their remaining seven drives (discounting a last-play kneel down). Their stars were stars. Ben Roethlisberger went 27-37 for 300 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT and threw the ball brilliantly. Antonio Brown had eight catches for 126 yards and 2 TDs and again demonstrated that he is basically uncoverable and DeAngelo Williams chipped in with a tidy 143 yards rushing on 26 carries, (his third highest output since 2010. He’s 33), 2 TDs and another 28 yards receiving. Ho-hum.
The Defense was good enough. They loaded up to stop the run and challenged Kirk Cousins to beat them. He couldn’t. The Skins passing numbers look solid, but Cousins threw two picks and converted few big plays. The tackling and pass rush left something to be desired, but two turnovers and a couple fourth down stops helped limit the Skins to only one TD and three FGs.
*Ryan Shazier suffered a knee injury and didn’t return in the fourth quarter but said afterword that his knee is fine and it was largely precautionary that he left the game. Mike Tomlin had no update at his press conference on Tuesday. But Shazier looked fine walking around when I saw him Tuesday afternoon.
Markus Wheaton, Cody Wallace, Roosevelt Nix and Senquez Golson were inactive due to injury. Golson is likely to miss the first half of the season with a lisfranc injury.
The Steelers were efficient and dynamic on potential possession changing plays going 9-14 on third down and 2-2 on fourth down, meaning they kept drives going on 11 of 14 occasions. It’s unlikely we’ll see numbers that good again this season. Last year they converted 39% of third downs and 33% of fourth downs. The offense also scored touchdowns on all three red zone opportunities. They converted at a 57% TD rate in 2015 which was 13th best in the NFL and a 52% rate in 2014 which was 19th best.
*First the first time in his career Ben Roethlisberger came into this season discussed as a front-runner for league MVP. Monday night he showed why. Roethlisberger’s development as a QB has been fascinating. Always physically-gifted, much of the discussion now focuses, rightly-so, on how cerebral he’s become. Not something many would have foreseen even five years ago. Football Outsiders has developed a stat called ALEX which is designed to measure a quarterback’s aggressiveness by looking at the depth of passes in relation to the first-down marker. In his preseason ranking of teams Robert Mays noted,
“Last year Roethlisberger had the highest ALEX of any QB since 2007, which makes sense to anyone who has recently watched the Steelers. They love throwing deep no matter the situation, and they’re going to do it with or without Bryant.” Spot-on. And we saw it on display Monday night.
I discussed this often last year. In 3rd or 4th-and-short the Steelers know other teams are likely to stack the box resulting in man coverage on the outside. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates or Darrius Heyward-Bey lined up wide, the Steelers love that matchup. On the Steelers third drive they faced a 4th-and-1 on the Skins 29. Brown got man coverage against Bashaud Breeland on the left. Roethlisberger saw it, went play-action and delivered for a TD and a 7-6 second quarter lead the Steelers would never relinquish. Ben’s performance throughout the game, particularly on 3rd and 4th downs was outstanding. One poor throw to AB late on third-and-short stands out because it was one of only two or three bad throws on the night. Ben’s other TD throw to AB was his best throw of the night. It was a perfect throw over Brown’s outside shoulder to a spot only Brown could catch.
Roethlisberger led the NFL in QBR in week 1 became the first player in NFL history to complete 500 passes to three different teammates (Heath Miller 540, Hines Ward 512 and AB 502). He also continues to climb up the NFL all-time leaders lists. Monday night he passed Dan Fouts for 12th in most passing yards in NFL history (43,295) and he passed Joe Montana for 13th in most touchdown passes in NFL history (275). Pretty good company.
*The Steelers offense continually makes it difficult to decide in what order to list the performances. Let’s go with DeAngelo Williams next. Williams turned out to be one of the great free agent signings of the Kevin Colbert-era with his performance last year, but at age 33 there was some question as to whether he could deliver again. At least for one week, question answered.
Williams led the NFL in rushing in week 1, becoming the oldest RB with 100 rushing yards and 2 rushing TD in a game since Jerome Bettis in 2005 Week 14 vs Bears. He continues to show the great patience and vision that he showed last year and the ground game really started to roll in the second half when Williams rushed for 108 yards and both of his touchdowns. His night was highlighted by a 15-yard run over the left side where he sliced between two Skins defenders and went virtually untouched for the score.
*It doesn’t seem fair to be the third dog on the offense when all Antonio Brown did was go out and show, again, why he is the best receiver in football. Both touchdown catches were outstanding but two other catches he made may have been even more impressive. He made a one-handed catch for short yardage early in the game with a defender draped all over him. An insignificant play in the larger scheme but an incredibly impressive reception demonstrating his strength. Much more significantly, on the Steelers third drive, down 6-0 they faced a 3rd-and-8 from their own 27. Ben threw to Brown on a deep-in on the right side that Brown went up for, made an excellent hands catch and pulled it in with a couple DBs all over him. The Steelers offense rolled from that point on. Every week I try to come up with new superlatives for AB. The best way to describe Monday night’s outstanding effort? Routine.
*I’ve been singing Eli Rogers’ praises all preseason and he had a strong debut game with six catches for 59 yards and a TD, all in the first half. Rogers showed his elusiveness out of the slot catching passes for 19 and 20 yards. With the ball in his hands he looks almost like Antonio Brown. Another weapon for an offense full of them.
*The offensive line was excellent. Ben was rarely hit, the ground game rolled and penalties were few. Alejandro Villanueva got beaten for a strip sack, but Maurkice Pouncey made a great play to get the ball back. This should be a position of strength all year.
*A mixed bag for Sammie Coates. A drop early on a wide receiver screen was poor but he made a nice catch down the sideline later in the game for a 42-yard gain on another great play by Ben off a bad snap. Coates got a larger opportunity because of the injury to Markus Wheaton. It will be interesting to see what his role is next week.
*The Steelers had one turnover on an apparent miscommunication between Ben and Eli Rogers. I’m gonna bet on the veteran. Rogers was supposed to press his route more to the inside to create more space. He then turned the wrong way and the pass deflected up and was intercepted. Rogers is a fast learner. I wouldn’t expect it to happen again.
This is what I wrote after a week 10 Steelers victory over the Cleveland Browns last year:
The bend-but-don’t-break defense that we’ve seen much of this season was back after struggling last week. The defense has been great at limiting points because they’ve been able to generate turnovers and they got three more this week. The run defense was solid, the pass defense, not so much, giving up 372 yards. Not many notable individual performances one way or the other.
Pretty much the same Monday night. The run defense was stout, but they did give up 329 yards through the air. They got two interceptions including another red zone interception (they led the league last year with five red zone interceptions) and stopped two fourth down conversion attempts and other than Ryan Shazier there weren’t many notable performances.
*Shazier was very good before leaving with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. He broke up a potential TD pass in the first quarter when he was in man coverage on Jordan Reed and he recorded his third career forced fumble and second career interception on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. His speed is disruptive and he was central to the Steelers plan to contain Reed. If he can stay healthy I think he can be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
*Robert Golden looked good at safety making a couple key tackles on third downs early in the game to stop Skins’ drives.
*The Steelers held the Skins to 3-10 on third down and 0-2 on fourth down.
*Starting with the first play of the game the Steelers missed too many tackles.
*Keith Butler decided to play relatively conservatively with his defensive scheme, rarely blitzing, daring Kirk Cousins to beat them. Cousins didn’t, but the lack of pressure the defense was able to generate rushing four is a concern.
*Lawrence Timmons can’t run with guys anymore. He needs to come off the field in obvious passing downs.
*Ross Cockrell had a chance for a red zone pick in the first half. It wasn’t an easy plays and he may have been obstructed by Arthur Moats, but he didn’t make it.
*Jordan Berry and Chris Boswell picked up right where they left off. It looks like the Steelers have one of the better special teams duos in the NFL.
*This is nitpicking, but I’m sure Danny Smith would like better coverage on the one kickoff and punt that were returned.
*Great game plan on both sides of the ball, although I’m sure they would like better execution on the defensive side. Aggressive on offense and conservative on defense, both sides outcoached their counterparts.
*Again nitpicking, but the Steelers didn’t need to use their timeouts at the end of the first half when they did. They were better off running clock to ensure the Skins got the ball back with as little time as possible if they scored quickly.
Big Officiating Calls:
*I thought the refs did a reasonably good job in this one. I think they got the AB non-fumble right and I thought the pass interference call on Ross Cockrell late was a bad call, but overall they weren’t a huge factor in the game.
Up Next: The Steelers have their first home and game their first divisional game next week when they host the Cincinnati Bengals, sans the suspended Vontaze Burfict. Kickoff at Heinz Field is scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after 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.