What is being called one of the two best games of the year so far in the NFL happened to end in heartbreak for the Pittsburgh Steelers as Sunday’s home loss to the Dallas Cowboys marked four straight losses this season, dropping the Steelers’ record to 4-5.
While it was a fun game to watch for both sides, some age-old issues popped up yet again at the worst possible time for the Steelers in the last-second 35-30 loss.
Like I do every week, I’ll take a shot at handing out positional grades for the Steelers based on their performances on Sunday.
QB — A
Ben Roethlisberger bounced back in a big way against the Cowboys, throwing for 408 yards and three touchdowns to go with just nine incompletions in the loss.
Granted, most of his passes against Dallas were short, quick throws designed to get the ball to his playmakers in space, but when he had to, Roethlisberger made some terrific throws, including strikes to Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for touchdowns, as well as some impressive throws down the seam to Jesse James.
Once again, Roethlisberger put up a great performance at home when the Steelers needed it the most. You really can’t find fault in his performance other than a few questionable throws on 2-point attempts.
RB — A+
In my opinion, Bell played the best game I’ve ever seen him play from an aesthetic standpoint. Sure, he only racked up 57 yards on the ground (3.4 yards per carry), but he looked explosive on some runs and really showed just how special he is at making defenders miss.
As a receiver, Bell was nearly unstoppable and really added a much-needed element to the offense, providing Brown with some breathing room.
The most impressive part of Bell’s performance was easily his knack for making defenders miss in a phone booth, allowing himself to pick up extra yardage.
WR — B+
Brown had a monster game for the Steelers, racking up 154 yards and a score on 14 receptions, getting back to the game-breaker he has always been for the Steelers after a few rough weeks.
Much like Bell, Brown really exceeded at making defenders miss, picking up important yards after the catch.
But outside of Bell, it was a mostly quiet day for Steelers receivers.
Eli Rogers had another strong performance, hauling in four passes for 42 yards and one score on five targets, including an impressive twisting touchdown catch while falling to the ground for the Steelers.
Cobi Hamilton came up with a huge 39-yard catch in double coverage to start the second half leading to a Chris Boswell field goal, but that’s just five catches on seven targets (Sammie Coates had one target on a deep ball) for Steelers receivers not named Antonio Brown.
Fortunately for the receiving corps, Bell was able to take some of the heavy load off of Brown as a pass catcher.
TE — B-
James had a terrific day as a pass catcher, hauling in four passes for 59 yards on four targets, providing the Steelers with a key piece to push the ball down the field in the middle of the field.
Along with his pass catching exploits, James seemed to improve as a blocker, but is still nowhere near being serviceable in that department.
Ladarius Green finally made his Steeler debut and hauled in three passes for 30 yards in the loss, showing he can be a consistent factor in the middle of the field, but his snap count was lite, so it will be interesting to see how he fares next week at Cleveland.
OL — B-
Pittsburgh really struggled to get much of a push on the ground, making Bell’s job much harder as a runner against a tough Dallas front seven. That’s concerning, considering the offensive line is healthy. Running the ball has been difficult the last two weeks for Pittsburgh, so they’ll need to right the ship in that department next week.
It was good to see Maurkice Pouncey in the lineup after having a procedure on his dislocated thumb this past week, but David DeCastro dealt with some injuries in the game, leading to a brief appearance from BJ Finney.
While the group up front did a nice job of protecting Roethlisberger for the most part, they need to get going on the ground to give this offensive group more balance across the board.
DL — F
The Pittsburgh defense line got absolutely destroyed by the Dallas offensive line in the running game as Pittsburgh allowed Ezekiel Elliott to rack up 74 of his 114 rushing years BEFORE first contact on Sunday.
That’s an absolutely embarrassing stat for a run defense that has been downright terrible the last few weeks outside of the Baltimore game.
It’s troubling because Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are relatively healthy and on the field, yet they can’t seem to help slow down opposing running games.
There’s really not much to add here. Just let those stats above sink in for a second.
LB — D
Much like the defensive line struggled to set the tone against the run, so too did the linebacker unit, which really struggled to get downhill against the Cowboys and get off blocks in the second level.
Ryan Shazier had a really strong game as he continues to show he’s arguably the best defender on this defense (take that for what it’s worth), recording a team-high nine tackles in the loss.
However, Shazier had a key part in Elliott’s two late touchdown runs, getting buried by Ronald Leary on the first one before overrunning his gap, allowing Tyron Smith to wall him off on the game-clinching run.
Lawrence Timmons had a nice stat line with six tackles on his own, but he really had a tough time getting off blocks and filling lanes.
Anthony Chickillo looked really good to start the game, flying all over the field, providing the Steelers with a good rush off the edge forcing a fumble by Dak Prescott on a strip sack on the first possession of the game.
James Harrison recorded a sack for the second straight game, but was mostly obsolete against the run, as was Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats.
DB — C
For the most part, I felt that Sean Davis, Robert Golden, Mike Mitchell and William Gay played strong games in the secondary for the Steelers, while Artie Burns was taken behind the woodshed by Dez Bryant.
It’s curious to me that Burns is being left on an island against opponents’ No. 1 receivers, but maybe the struggles right now pay off in the long run for the rookie corner.
While Burns will get a lot of heat from Sunday’s game, Cockrell had a dumb late hit penalty in the second half, giving free yardage to Dallas, while Davis came up with a bad facemask on the Dallas game-winning drive.
The mental mistakes have to be cleaned up.
Special Teams — B
Man, Jordan Berry is really special as a punter. Against Dallas, Berry downed two punts inside the Cowboy 20-yard line, averaging 43.7 yards per punt. While that average looks low compared to what he’s done in recent weeks, that number would be much higher if the punt coverage team doesn’t give up a 39-yard punt return to Lucky Whitehead in the second half.
Boswell was 2-for-3 on field goals against the Cowboys with his only miss being a 55-yarder before halftime that had the distance but was wide right. And for the second week, Boswell had a tough time with a kickoff, punching one out of bounds leading to a flag that drew the ire of Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith.
Fitzgerald Toussaint had a really nice return on a kickoff, showing great vision and speed to get around the corner for a 33-yard return, while Brown added a 22-yard punt return to set the Steelers up in great field position.