Sunday at Heinz Field the Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in the unusual situation of having a two-game win streak but having lost their last two games at home. They took on a New York Giants team that had won six and a row and was looking to solidify it’s place in the NFC playoff picture. It was all Steelers in this one.
The defense again led the way in a 24-14 victory that raised the team’s record to 7-5 overall and 9-1 during the past three Decembers. The game was set up as a measuring stick for a defense that was coming off back-to-back games in which it held the opponent to single digits points but faced skepticism because of the caliber of the opposing QBs. No worry. The Steelers D treated two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Eli Manning just like they had Cody Kessler, Josh McNown and Scott Tolzien the past two weeks. Badly. The Giants offense finished the day with just 234 yards of total offense. The defense registered a safety, two interceptions, two sacks, five tackles for loss, seven passes defensed and three quarterback hits. They held the Giants to 56 yards rushing and limited them to 4-11 on third down and 0-3 on fourth down, including another 4th down stop inside the five yard line, their third in two weeks. The Giants scored their second touchdown with 26 seconds left to secure a second digit on the scoreboard. It was an impressive outing that moved the Steelers up to seventh in the NFL in scoring defense, which, at the end of the day, is the singular most important statistic.
The offense was good enough. It wasn’t as explosive as we have grown accustomed to at home the past couple of seasons, but solid performances by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown were supplemented by a career-best game from tight end Ladarius Green who has provided a much needed second option in the passing game the past few weeks. Kicker Randy Bullock, brought in Saturday due to a late injury to Chris Boswell, converted all three of his field goal attempts and an extra point to help secure the outcome.
*DL Javon Hargrave and Shamarko Thomas both left the game with possible concussions and did not return.
On Saturday the Steelers made a surprising, but necessary roster move. Kicker Chris Boswell apparently suffered a mild abdominal injury in practice on Friday and was a late addition to the injury report, listed as questionable for the game. The Steelers, according to league rules, had until 4 pm Saturday to make a move and they did, signing Randy Bullock as a precaution and releasing CB Al-Hajj Shabazz. The Steelers decided to go with Bullock, who, even if he’s released later this week, will now get a check for about $150K for two weeks of work. (Shabazz was claimed off waivers by Houston Monday afternoon.)
The inactive list was again mostly straightforward. RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Darrius Hayward-Bey and K Chris Boswell didn’t dress do to injury. Also not dressing were third-string QB Zach Mettenberger, TE Xavier Grimble, RB Daryl Richardson and OL Brian Mihalik.
The Steelers offense controlled the football dominating time of possession 34:08 to 25:52 and they outgained the G-men 389-234, but turnovers, penalties and dropped passes killed too many drives. 24 points was enough to secure an easy victory but I’m sure Todd Haley, Ben, et al weren’t particularly pleased with the performance.
*Ladarius Green gets the lead spot for his career-best performance. Green’s best game in his four years with the Chargers was a 5 catch, 81-yard effort back in 2013. Last week he had 2 catches for 67 yards, the fourth highest yardage total of his career. This week he had 6 catches on 11 targets for 110 yards. All career-highs. The day wasn’t perfect as Green had one drop and didn’t pull in a couple other contended balls, but the fact that he got four more targets than AB tells me he has quickly gained Ben’s trust. Green brings a completely different dimension to this offense with his ability to get up the seam. He’s more Eric Green than Heath Miller in my eyes and, as I’ve been saying all year, he is going to be a big part of this attack going forward.
*It says something about Le’Veon Bell when he puts up 118 yards rushing on 29 carries and catches 6 passes for 64 yards and the performance is viewed as somewhat ordinary. It was Bell’s third consecutive 100-yard game and he finally had a carry over 12 yards, which was his long the past two games and into the fourth quarter, busting through for 19 as the Steelers iced the game with a long, ball-controlling drive late in the game. Bell leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage/game with 146.4 and the Steelers are 18-3 when Bell has 20+ carries during his career.
Bell did fumble the ball away in this one, only the second lost fumble of his career. But as I mentioned after his third fumble of the season on the first play in the Cleveland game two weeks ago, Bell had gone the first 867 touches of his career only fumbling one time. With the fumble Sunday he has now fumbled four times in his last six games. Something to pay attention to going forward.
*Antonio Brown’s numbers, 6 catches, 64 yards, 1 TD, don’t stand out, but he made one of the best catches you will ever see on Sunday and it didn’t get enough attention. His TD catch was good, but not even as good as two he made last weekend in his first three-TD receiving game against the Colts. I’ll give more of the credit for this TD to Ben, but the catch AB made on the Steelers sideline in the third quarter was unbelievable. He caught the ball for a first down, had his left foot planted almost perpendicular to the sideline with less than an inch to spare as he came back toward the ball and tapped his right foot just in bounds as the ball hit his hands. My description doesn’t do it justice. Unbelievable.
*After a bit of a slow start the offensive line was very good against a really good Giants front four.
*Eli Rogers only got one target, but he made the most of it. On 3rd-and-17 in the second quarter he took a short screen and turned it into an 18 yard gain. The possession led to a FG. With the ball in his hands he runs like AB and OBJ. He needs to get more touches.
*Too many drops and penalties. A Jesse James drop killed the opening drive. Later Green and Bell had drops. Credit to Ben, immediately after the James and Green drops he went right back to them and they made big plays. Bell had his second illegal motion penalty in three games. That’s not good.
*The Steelers were 0-1 in the red zone and failed again on a two-point conversion. After being so successful the last couple of years, they have struggled of late.
This was the Steelers defense’s best performance of the season. They have transitioned both scheme and personnel over the course of the last six weeks. Five Steelers defenders, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell and Ross Cockrell played all 60 snaps while Stephon Tuitt played 58 and William Gay played 54. Starting with the loss in Baltimore they have developed a much more aggressive schematic approach and they appear to be playing faster and more physically. They held the Giants scoreless in the first half while building up a 14-0 lead, they made splash plays, they shutdown the run and were able to get consistent pressure on Manning who was chopping his feet uncomfortably in the pocket most of the second half, even turtling on the James Harrison sack. They held Odell Beckham Jr. to one catch for 10 yards in the first half and while he ended up with 100 yards receiving he wasn’t a big factor in the game. The unit has improved dramatically over the past month though questions still remain about the caliber of the competition.
*Lawrence Timmons had another good performance and made the most significant play of the game with his second quarter interception at the goal line, returning it 58 yards to set up the team’s first touchdown. Timmons also contributed to the Steelers 4th down stop at the goal line. With 9 minutes to go in the second quarter the Giants had 4th-and-1 from the 3. Timmons blitzed from the inside left. The Giants line blew the blocking as the right guard blocked down on the center and the right tackle took Bud Dupree off the edge. Timmons had a free run at Manning who threw quickly over the middle with Ryan Shazier breaking up the play. Had he had another second Manning might have seen OBJ on his left who was open on a stop route a step into the end zone.
*On the play prior to the fourth down play above the Giants had 3rd-and-10. Manning found OBJ on an out along the left sideline. Burns was able to push him out a yard short of the sticks. Not a play that many will remember, but a key to holding them scoreless. Both Burns and Ross Cockrell were solid in covering Beckham.
*Both safeties were exceptional. Sean Davis had his best game as a pro, making a bunch of tackles in the run game and getting his first career interception with a fourth down pick in the fourth quarter. I asked Mike Tomlin whether he talked with Davis about the game situation afterward, as the interception ended up costing the Steelers about thirty yards of field position. “I congratulated him on his first career interception,” was his response. It should have been a “teaching moment.”
*Mike Mitchell is playing the best football in his time with the Steelers. He has been a noticeable physical presence the past month and had two big passes defended. Mitchell has also done a good job of eliminating the dumb personal fouls from his game.
*James Harrison continues to be the Steelers best edge rusher. He drew a holding call and a subsequent safety in the first quarter and also had a sack and QB hit. Ironically Harrison was involved in the safety the last time these two teams played at Heinz Field eight years ago. Harrison had to fill in as the long snapper when Greg Warren got hurt in-game. He ended up snapping the ball over the punter’s head and out of the end zone costing the Steelers two points.
*Not a lot of bad Sunday. The Steelers have had some trouble defending screen passes lately and got beat for another score on a well designed misdirection screen by the Giants that looked much like the Cowboys ran a few weeks ago.
Danny Smith cannot be pleased with how his coverage units have performed of late. Mike Tomlin noted the loss of DHB and Shamarko Thomas at his press conference last week as a key reason. Things weren’t bad in this one, but Smith had to be really annoyed that the Giants were able to return a squib kick 38 yards in the last two minutes.
*Randy Bullock was playing golf on Friday. On Sunday he connected on field goal attempts of 44, 34 and 38 yards, his lone extra point and did a decent job on kickoffs. I’m pretty sure Chris Boswell’s abdomen is feeling much better today.
*It felt like the Steelers incurred a penalty on every special teams play. It was almost laughable.
*I understand the intent of a squib kick, but I’d like to see the empirical data showing the results are better than just kicking it deep. I understand in theory it disrupts the receiving team’s blocking and is less likely to result in a big return, but do we actually have data to support that?
The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit, particularly for the improvement in the defense. They have adjusted scheme and personnel, starting three rookies. And the 9-1 record during the last three Decembers points to a team that is improving and playing its best football as it approaches the playoffs.
*Mike Tomlin faced a very interesting decision with 2:29 left in the game up 21-7. The Steelers were facing a 4th-and-3 on the Giants 28. The Giants still had all three of their timeouts and the 2:00 minute warning. Should he go for it or kick a field goal? In thinking about this the outcomes, the results are almost identical with either choice. If the offense goes for it and succeeds (which is what happened), they bleed clock, force the Giants to use their TOs and basically win the game. If they fail, the Giants takeover on their own 28. If they kick the field goal and succeed, they are up three scores and the game is basically over. If they miss the field goal, the Giants takeover on their own 35. The only difference I see is the potential for a blocked field goal. With a new kicker I’m guessing that factored, at least slightly, into Tomlin’s decision to go for it. At the time I said I would go for it, but I still find the decision an interesting one.
*I’m never going to blame Tomlin for going for two, particularly in the first half. That isn’t the time to scoreboard watch or do math. If you think you can get it, go for it.
*It’s hard for me to blame the coaching staff for individual penalties, or popcorn as Mike Tomlin has recently referred to some of the Steelers mistakes, but they also aren’t blameless. The Steelers committed 12 penalties in this game. Too many. The Steelers are currently 12th in the league in penalties incurred, sixth in penalty yards.
*Ben McAdoo has obviously had a great deal of success in his first year as the Giants head coach, but you have to question them basically using just one personnel grouping for 95% of their offensive plays and 100% of their passing plays. I thought the decision to go empty set on their 4th down play on the 3 in the second quarter was a poor one.
Big Officiating Calls:
*There were a ton of penalty calls and it’s easy to point to a singular call or non-call as being wrong virtually every week, but I don’t think the officials had an impact on the outcome of this one.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Buffalo Bills (6-6) at the newly-named New Era Field, formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium and originally Rich Stadium. The Steelers have won five in row against the Bills including three on the road, and nine of the last ten. Kickoff 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.