It wasn’t pretty by any means, but a win is a win in the National Football League, and the Pittsburgh Steelers sit at 2-0 on the young season following Sunday’s sloppy win over the visiting Cincinnati Bengals, 24-16.
Sure, officiating was mostly poor across the board in the rain-soaked game, but the Steelers were able to do just enough across the board to hang on for the win. Much like I did late last season and into the playoff run, I’ll take a look at each position group for the Steelers and grade their performances.
QB — C
I understand that the ball was wet and conditions were largely terrible, but Ben Roethlisberger was very average for the most part.
Roethlisberger threw for just 250 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions (should have been three if Dre Kirkpatrick doesn’t drop one) and had a tough time with ball placement, accuracy and zip on his throws. I’ll chalk most of that up to the ball being wet and conditions being less than ideal, but there’s no skating around the fact that Pittsburgh’s star quarterback had an average game.
Another factor to keep in mind with Roethlisberger’s average game was the play of the offensive line up front (more on that later) and the fact that Roethlisberger had a tough time with his footing on drop backs on numerous occasions.
I did like the way Roethlisberger kept trying to take shots down the field to Sammie Coates, and I really enjoyed watching him scramble for 14 yards late in the fourth quarter to set up the final touchdown. That was vintage Ben on that play.
RB — A-
I’m starting to run out of superlatives to use for the play of DeAngelo Williams week-after-week. At 33 years old the veteran running back continues to produce at a high level in place of the suspended Le’Veon Bell, and Sunday’s rain-soaked game was no different.
Williams touched the ball 36 times (32 carries, four receptions) for 132 yards (94 rushing, 38 receiving) and one touchdown in the win, proving to be the workhorse Pittsburgh needed to win an ugly game.
Once again, Williams showed great patience, burst through the hole when it opened and power to finish off runs when delivering blows to Bengals defenders.
Outside of Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint touched the ball twice and ran hard behind his pads, while Daryl Richardson recorded a carry in the first half, giving Williams a blow.
One more week until Bell rejoins the fold and things get even scarier in Pittsburgh’s backfield. Good luck.
WR — B+
In crappy conditions the Steelers’ receiving corps dropped just one pass, and it came off the hands of Antonio Brown, who very rarely — if ever — drops passes.
Along with the drop, Brown had a very quiet day, hauling in just four passes for 39 yards on just 11 targets. Cincinnati did a great job of game planning against him and rolling coverage his way, but Roethlisberger missed him twice on plays that should have been massive gains, including Adam Jones’ diving interception in the first half.
Coates got loose for two beautiful deep balls from Roethlisberger and finished with two receptions for 97 yards on five targets, continuing to show just how valuable he is to the offense as the home run threat taking the top off of the defense.
Eli Rogers was very quiet and also fumbled a punt return that the Steelers were fortunate enough to recover, while Darrius Heyward-Bey also had a quiet day, matching Rogers with just one reception.
As a unit, the wide receiver corps hauled in just eight of Roethlisberger’s 17 completions in the win.
TE — A-
Jesse James continues to prove to be a good receiving target in the middle of the field for the Steelers, finishing with three receptions for 29 yards and one big touchdown hauled in between three Cincinnati defenders that he was able to high-point and haul in for the score. As a blocker, James struggled at times but that is to be expected with a young tight end. Throughout the game though, James continued to get better and better.
Xavier Grimble had a day to remember, hauling in his first career reception for a 20-yard touchdown by diving into the end zone after breaking a tackle from George Iloka. Grimble finished with two catches for 26 yards on four targets, providing Roethlisberger with another target at tight end.
David Johnson hauled in one catch for five yards and really stepped up as a blocker in the run game for Williams, Richardson and Toussaint.
OL — C-
In the run game the Steelers’ offensive line was strong for the most part, allowing Williams to get loose for some big runs, but as a whole the Steelers averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.
The biggest issue with the offensive line was in pass protection, where the unit really struggled to provide Roethlisberger with clean pockets as Geno Atkins and Will Clarke gave the offensive line problems, while Pat Sims and Carlos Dunlap knifed into the backfield on numerous occasions to pressure Roethlisberger.
Marcus Gilbert really struggled at right tackle with Cincinnati defenders shooting gaps on him to get into the backfield. Alejandro Villanueva was okay for the most part at left tackle but was beaten off the edge by Clarke for a sack, while Ramon Foster had his hands full with Atkins and Domata Peko.
Maurkice Pouncey really struggled at times in the run game but seemed stout in pass protection, while David DeCastro struggled in pass protection but was a mauler in the run game.
DL — B+
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt proved to be tough to block once again, registering a combined six tackles in the win, including two pass deflections and a fumble recovery by Heyward at the end of the game to seal the win.
With the two mammoths up front causing problems for the Cincinnati offensive line, it opened things up for the linebacking corps to fly around and make plays all over the field.
Along with Heyward and Tuitt, Javon Hargrave had a solid game providing pressure up the middle and really stood out to me on a Jeremy Hill reception where the big rookie nose tackle chased Hill down from behind down the field for the tackle. Granted, he got called for a horse collar penalty, but I absolutely loved the hustle.
LB — A-
Ryan Shazier — when healthy — is unblockable. Against the Bengals, Shazier was all over the field once again, leading the Steelers in tackles with 11 (five solo) and one tackle for a loss.
Much like I am with DeAngelo Williams, I’m running out of superlatives to describe Shazier at this point. “Beast” is a good one for this article.
Outside of Shazier, Lawrence Timmons had a strong game finishing with seven tackles (six solo) while fellow inside linebackers LJ Fort and Tyler Matakevich recorded special teams tackles.
At outside linebacker James Harrison came up with a forced fumble on Tyler Boyd late in the fourth quarter (it might not have been a fumble, but oh well), while Arthur Moats recorded a sack on a scrambling Andy Dalton.
Jarvis Jones also had a strong game off the edge with pressure and almost had an interception in coverage that bounced right off of his numbers.
Anthony Chickillo recorded two tackles in the win and continues to get quite a bit of run as a pass rusher in this 3-4 defense.
DB — A
Anytime you can hold AJ Green to just two catches and no touchdowns, you’re going to get a high grade from me.
That’s just what the Pittsburgh secondary did on Sunday, limiting Green to just two receptions for 38 yards on eight targets. That’s a big-time performance from a young secondary in a crucial early-season game at home.
Ross Cockrell had the biggest hand in holding Green to two catches, almost coming up with two interceptions in the process. Cockrell was called for an iffy pass interference on a deep ball targeted for Green, but other than that I felt the second-year Steeler was outstanding.
Along with Cockrell, William Gay was his usual self, coming up with big tackles in the open field and pass breakups to lead the secondary, while rookie Artie Burns showed flashes of great play in the win.
Burns broke up a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone intended for CJ Uzomah while also recording two tackles in the win. Burns did miss the initial tackle on Gio Bernard’s touchdown catch-and-run late in the game, but the rookie continues to grow into a role on this defense.
In the back half of the defense, Robert Golden continues to look like a stud in the secondary, recording nine tackles in the win playing all over the field, while Mike Mitchell continues to strike fear in opposing offenses as a physical thumper in the secondary.
Dalton did throw for 366 yards against the Steelers in this one, but it took 54 pass attempts (6.77 yards per attempt). I’ll take that any day.
Special Teams — B
Chris Boswell booted a 49-yard field goal straight through the uprights in poor conditions, so I was really pleased with his play, while Jordan Berry continues to boom punts down the field, forcing opposing offenses to start deep in their own territory time after time.
The Bengals started inside their own 10-yard line four times in the loss largely due to great punts from Berry, who averaged 47.1 yards per punt.
In the return game Rogers did fumble a punt return that the Steelers were able to jump on, while Brown didn’t really get much of a chance to break the big one.