It was far from aesthetically pleasing, but the only thing that matters is that the Pittsburgh Steelers hung on late for a 21-18 win Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland over the Browns to start the season 1-0.
Following each regular season game this season, I’ll take a shot at grading the position group’s performances from the Steelers’ perspective.
QB — B-
Things started off very poorly for Ben Roethlisberger Sunday, throwing a number of screen passes for little to no gain, but in the end, Roethlisberger turned in a decent showing on the road, throwing for 263 yards, two scores and one interception on the day.
Early on, Roethlisberger and the offense looked disastrous on the road (per usual), but the Steelers woke up for the most part, thanks to Antonio Brown’s heroics and Jesse James’ two scores.
Roethlisberger threaded the needle at times to Brown, kept some plays alive for big plays down the field to AB and fired a laser into James for the Steelers’ first offensive touchdown of the season.
However, an interception in the second half was typical road Ben, and the ensuing circus/dirty play by Ben diving at Emmanuel Ogbah’s ankle was in one word: stupid. Coming from a team captain too. Embarrassing.
Overall, Roethlisberger wasn’t the problem offensively, and when he got rolling, the offense was able to move down the field as 7 hooked up with AB consistently. Big Ben has to be much better next week against the Minnesota Vikings at home if the Steelers want to improve to 2-0.
RB — C
Here’s the thing with Le’Veon Bell: I don’t think holding out of training camp affected his play today.
At one point, Bell had just three touches on the ground and one target through the air midway through the second quarter. That’s more on play calling than on Bell being ready.
Granted, maybe the decision not to give him touches early was on him holding out of camp, but with the offense stalling, there’s no reason Bell shouldn’t have gotten the ball more.
Regardless of play calling, Bell touched the ball just 13 times for 47 yards, including 10 rushes for 32 yards. Late in the game with the Steelers needing to put the game away, Bell found his footing, but against Cleveland he wasn’t even close to his typical self.
Behind Bell, rookie James Conner got some burn against the Browns, rushing for 11 yards on just four carries.
Sunday’s performance against Cleveland on the ground wasn’t even close to Pittsburgh Steelers football.
WR — B+
If I were grading Brown just by himself, he’d get an A+++++.
AB was absolutely fantastic against the Browns on Sunday, hauling in 11 passes for 182 yards, including some ridiculous contested catches in traffic. It was almost as if AB picked up right where he left off last season.
Without AB’s performance on Sunday, who knows what the Steelers do against the Browns. I’d probably lean towards a loss, but fortunately AB showed up.
Opposite AB, Martavis Bryant was mostly quiet in his first official game back for the Steelers, hauling in just two passes for 14 yards.
Once again — much like in the preseason — the Steelers tried to force feed the ball to Bryant on screen passes. They clearly didn’t work. If Bryant is going to get back into the fold quickly, he needs to run the full route tree. Take the kid gloves off.
Eli Rogers wasn’t any better against the Browns, catching just two passes for 11 yards on five targets and wasn’t really a factor in the middle of the field.
Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster had a game to forget as well. The rookie second-round pick had two big holding calls that wiped out good gains for the Steelers. He’ll need to fix that in practice this week or he could find himself inactive next Sunday.
TE — A-
Jesse James: Redzone vulture.
The Outlaw came through with two touchdowns on the day, hauling in one from 8 yards and one for 2 yards. He was fortunately all the offense the Steelers needed on the day.
Outside of the two touchdowns, James finished with six receptions for 41 yards.
The third-year tight end took offence to Mike Tomlin’s comments about the TE group being “JV” during camp, so Sunday was a step in the right direction for James.
Vance McDonald, whom the Steelers just traded for last week, had a big drop in the middle of the field early in the game and wasn’t targeted again. McDonald also had a big holding penalty on the Steelers’ first drive of the game, pushing them back into their own territory.
Certainly a debut to forget for Vance.
OL — D
This grade might seem harsh, but this unit was pretty bad on first watch live.
Alejandro Villanueva had a rough time trying to block Carl Nassib and Ogbah for the much of the day in pass protection, while Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert had issues getting a push in the running game.
Maurkice Pouncey had a phantom holding call go against him, but it’s still a penalty in the books.
Fortunately, this unit showed some life late in the game as the Steelers were able to salt the game away. But there’s no denying that the starting five had a rough time trying to block the Browns all game long.
DL — A
Stephon Tuitt left the game for good following the Browns’ first drive, but when on the field Tuitt lived in the backfield.
Along with Tuitt, Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave had great games up front, while Tyson Alualu filled in quite well for Tuitt for the rest of the game.
Heyward turned in three tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss, while Hargrave turned in the same stat line.
Alualu recorded five tackles in place of Tuitt, playing a huge part in the Steelers holding the Browns to just 57 rushing yards (2.3 yards per carry) on the day.
LB — A-
Have yourself a debut, TJ Watt!
Holy smokes does he look great.
In his first career start for the Steelers, Watt turned in two sacks and an interception, recording more sacks in his first game than Jarvis Jones had in his rookie season.
Along with the two sacks and interception, Watt added seven tackles, leading the Steelers in tackles.
Anthony Chickillo, starting in place of the injured Bud Dupree, had a heck of a game as well, recovering the blocked punt on Cleveland’s first possession in the end zone for the touchdown, while also recording two sacks and six tackles for the Steelers.
Inside, Ryan Shazier took a bad penalty on a late hit on DeShone Kizer’s slide, but overall Shazier had a strong day, finishing with seven tackles and one quarterback hit as he flew all over the field for the Pittsburgh defense.
Vince Williams did a nice job as well for the Steelers, recording five stops and showing good range sideline-to-sideline, but Williams was slow to scrape over on Isaiah Crowell’s 2-point conversion run, allowing the Browns running back to walk in untouched.
DB — C+
Joe Haden led the Steelers’ secondary in tackles in his Pittsburgh debut, finishing with six stops and a sack off of a corner blitz on Kizer.
William Gay had a good day as the nickel backer, finishing with five stops, but Gay had a bad hit on Ricardo Louis that resulted in a personal foul and he had a dropped interception that hit him in the numbers after he jumped a route.
Mike Hilton looked good in coverage in his Steelers debut out of the slot, while Artie Burns struggled at times, allowing Corey Coleman to beat him inside for a touchdown while also getting called for a pass interference earlier in the game.
At safety, Sean Davis had a pass interference call on him in the first quarter, allowing the Browns to score from one-yard out two plays later, while Mike Mitchell and JJ Wilcox left the game with injuries.
Special Teams — A+
A blocked punt for the first time since 1998 deserves an A+.
Tyler Matakevich did a great job of splitting the gap on Cleveland’s first punt to come in unimpeded for the block on Britton Colquitt’s punt, allowing Chickillo to race into the endzone to recover the block, putting the Steelers up 7-0.
Outside of the blocked punt, Jordan Berry had a great day punting the ball, averaging 45.8 yards per punt on six kicks, while playing a big part in shutting down Jabrill Peppers in the return game.
Eli Rogers showed some flashes returning punts, averaging 10.7 yards per return on three attempts, while Chris Boswell didn’t miss an extra point in the win.
Outside of the players, I was very disappointed in the coaching, namely play-calling offensively. I know it’s tough to fault the calls more than the execution, but the number of screen passes from the Steelers early on was atrocious, and the inability to get Bell the ball more than 13 times can’t happen, regardless of how much time he missed in camp.
Add on the 13 penalties and it’s clear there’s a ton to clean up this week from a coaching and execution standpoint for the black and gold.