Well, it wasn’t pretty, and it sure was nerve-racking, but a win is a win and the Pittsburgh Steelers remain alive in the chase for an AFC North division title after Sunday’s 28-21 last-second win over the Cincinnati Bengals, thanks to a 31-yard pitch and catch from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown that bailed out the Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh needed to win at all costs on Sunday, and aside from two questionable decisions to settle for field goals – one of which after not challenging what looked to be James Conner’s third touchdown of the game – the Steelers really put together a complete game offensively.
Defense was another story. Despite allowing just 21 points to the fourth-highest scoring team in the NFL, there’s a bad taste in everyone’s mouths after the way the Steelers defense closed the game, letting the Bengals go 75 yards in nine plays to take a lead with just 1:18 left.
Fortunately, the Steelers improve to 3-2-1 on the year and head into a bye week before getting back into AFC North action in Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns.
Let’s take a look at some positional grades from Sunday’s win.
QB — A-
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t great on the day, but he was good. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Given a clean pocket all game long, Roethlisberger was able to pick apart the Bengals secondary, throwing for 369 yards and one game-winning 31-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown, using mostly his tight ends in the middle of the field against the Bengals.
Speaking of the middle of the field, how about that game-winning pitch and catch from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown on a quick slant, checking to it after seeing the Bengals bringing heat up the middle? That’s stuff of legend.
With a clean pocket, Roethlisberger had a ton of time to survey the field, mostly taking what the defense ended up giving him over the middle. I didn’t see Roethlisberger try and force many throws on the day, which allowed the offense to control the ball and methodically move the ball down the field. He did force one down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter to James Washington, but overall Ben was very solid.
And he worked his magic in Ohio when the Steelers needed it the most. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Ben and AB came through in the clutch.
RB — A+
Anyone still have doubts about James Conner being a capable lead back at this point?
Conner is having some sort of run as of late, rushing for 100+ yards and at least two touchdowns for the second straight week, helping the Steelers find important balance offensively.
Conner ran hard once again, looking line a bowling ball on the ground. He came into the game leading the league in forced missed tackles, and he continued to dominate in that area on Sunday, running through guys like Jesse Bates, Shawn Williams, and even Vontaze Burfict on Sunday, finishing with 111 yards and the two scores on 19 carries. Conner added four catches for 18 yards on the day, serving as a checkdown option for Roethlisberger out of the backfield.
WR — A-
After two early drops had fans and media members wondering if JuJu Smith-Schuster was worried about some form of retaliation from Burfict, Smith-Schuster bounced back in a big way, finishing with seven receptions for 111 yards on 10 targets, including a spectacular catch over top of Darqueze Dennard to set up a Steelers touchdown from the 1 yard line.
Smith-Schuster dominated over the middle throughout the game, but that was never more prominent than on the game-winning drive when Roethlisberger found him for 29 yards, setting up Antonio Brown’s 31-yard score.
Speaking of Brown, he had just one catch for nine yards in the first half on two targets, but he came up big when the Steelers needed him the most, even after taking another head shot across the middle from Burfict that saw him briefly leave the game to get checked for a potential concussion.
Brown finished with five catches for 105 yards, 48 of which came on his catch-and-run midway through the fourth quarter that eventually led to a Chris Boswell field goal.
Aside from Brown and Smith-Schuster, the Steelers didn’t get much else from their receivers on the day, as Ryan Switzer had one catch for seven yards. The Steelers saw James Washington and Justin Hunter get one target each.
Hunter got away with what looked like offensive pass interference on Brown’s game-winning touchdown, but those are the breaks of the game. That one came out in favor of the Steelers.
Clearly, it was all Brown and Smith-Schuster at receiver for the Steelers on Sunday. That’s starting to become a trend.
Aside from actually catching the football, Smith-Schuster likely saved the game for the Steelers by recovering McDonald’s fumble on third down from the Bengals’ 7 yard line.
TE — A
One week after having just one catch against the Atlanta Falcons, Vance McDonald saw his usage skyrocket again for the Steelers. Working over the middle of the field Sunday, McDonald hauled in seven passes for 68 yards, bowling through defenders once again, serving as an explosive weapon for the Steelers.
What was nice to see at tight end outside of McDonald was Jesse James and Xavier Grimble make an impact as receiving threats. James finished with five catches for 26 yards, while Grimble finished with two catches for 35 yards, including an impressive 22-yard catch and run down the right sideline on third down.
James still goes down way too easily for a 6-foot-7 tight end in the NFL, but he’s a reliable receiving weapon. If Grimble can start to get more work, look out.
OL — A-
One word to sum up the Steelers’ offensive line performance on Sunday? Dominant.
The starting unit kept Roethlisberger clean all game long, allowing the veteran quarterback to pick apart the Bengals’ defense.
Coming into the game the Bengals had 13 sacks as a team and had a fearsome pass rush off the edge from guys like Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson, and Sam Hubbard, as well as Geno Atkins up the middle, but the Steelers shut them down in the big way.
On the ground, Maurkice Pouncey was spectacular getting out in front of Conner, springing the second-year back for big gains, while Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro dominated the left side of the Bengals defense.
I was pleased with the way Alejandro Villanueva played at left tackle, keeping Lawson and Michael Johnson quiet, while Ramon Foster did a good job of working to the second level on the ground, getting a hat on Burfict, Nick Vigil, and Preston Brown to open lanes for Conner.
This is one of the best offensive lines in football, and it showed in a big way on Sunday.
The only thing that drops this to an A- is Pittsburgh’s inability to finish from the 1 yard line on three tries in the third quarter. The Steelers ran the ball just twice on the possession from the 1, but they didn’t get much of a push at all, causing Conner to get bottled up in the backfield.
DL — B-
While the defensive line did have a hand in the Steelers allowing Joe Mixon to rush for 5.8 yards per carry, this group was pretty good on Sunday, generating a pass rush throughout the game, while coming up with big stops on the ground when the defense needed it the most.
Javon Hargrave controlled Trey Hopkins at center all game long, pushing him all over the place, especially into lap of Andy Dalton time and time again. Hargrave recorded his third sack of the season and finished with five total tackles on the day.
Stephon Tuitt found his game again, collapsing the pocket a handful of times on his way to a sack in the win, while also recording five tackles and two quarterback hits. If we’re being fair, Tuitt had a major hand in Hargrave’s sack, blowing Alex Redmond into the backfield, forcing Dalton to step up into Hargrave’s bull rush.
Cam Heyward didn’t record a single stat on the day as he was very quiet, but I thought he played well against the run, tying up blockers and maintaining his gaps.
LB — C-
Aside from Vince Williams getting caught in coverage down the seam against AJ Green, I thought Williams was really good throughout the game, leading the team in tackles with seven, while recording a sack of Dalton in the win.
It seems like at first watch Williams was just caught in a scheme mismatch against Green down the seam. That’s not the matchup the Steelers wanted, but Williams did his best staying underneath Green, forcing Dalton to make tough throws.
Jon Bostic was really quiet on the day, coming off the field a lot in nickel and dime. When on the field, Bostic recorded two run stops, and also broke up a pass across the middle, hitting Cody Core the moment the football arrived, jarring it loose.
Outside linebackers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree weren’t much of a factor on the day, as neither really put together much of a pass rush on the day. Together, the two combined for just four tackles, but Watt did have a big third-down tackle after getting called offside, helping the Steelers’ defense get off the field.
Anthony Chickillo is a rough No. 3 edge rusher on this team. He struggled against the run, and gave up an easy touchdown to Tyler Boyd on a simple out route near the goal line.
The linebackers need to be better moving forward, plain and simple.
DB — C-
When seeing this grade, some readers will scoff at it, considering Dalton threw for just 229 yards in the win. However, it’s important to remember that the Steelers secondary was bailed out time and time again with drops from Green and Core, and a couple of holding calls that wiped out big plays from Boyd down the field.
Joe Haden didn’t shadow Green the entire game like he did last week against Julio Jones and the Falcons, but when he was on Green, Haden had a shot at two interceptions that he failed to come down with. There’s a reason he plays defensive back, but he has to make at least one of those plays.
Artie Burns needs to sit on the bench moving forward. He took a dumb penalty on Cincinnati’s go-ahead drive late in the game, and before that he had a boneheaded play on Boyd’s second touchdown right before halftime, giving Boyd a 10-yard cushion from the 10-yard line, and then backpedaled into his own end zone, making for an easy throw and catch from Dalton to Boyd to tie the game.
Coty Sensabaugh came in for Burns and played fine, which has been his calling card this season. Dependable isn’t the right word, but he’s playable there, allowing the Steelers to get some useable snaps from the veteran.
Cam Sutton got a lot of work in the slot on Sunday, matching up with tight end CJ Uzomah a lot. For the most part, Sutton played well despite Uzomah towering over him. Sutton finished with five tackles and a pass deflection on the day, matching fellow slot corner Mike Hilton’s stat line.
Hilton wasn’t as effective of a blitzer off the edge as he was against Atlanta, which left the Steelers secondary exposed at times.
At safety, Sean Davis recorded just one tackle and wasn’t much of a factor coming downhill against the run after taking a bad angle on a Mixon run before leaving the game briefly due to injury.
One week after the best game of his young career, Terrell Edmunds was rather quiet, recording just three tackles.
Special Teams — C+
The kicking game wasn’t really a problem at all, aside from a weak 36-yard punt by Jordan Berry early in the game.
This grade mainly falls on the kickoff coverage unit, which was downright terrible on Sunday, allowing Alex Erickson to average 45 yards a return, setting the Bengals up near midfield twice. That unit needs to clean things up. It looked like after Erickson’s two long returns, Roosevelt Nix had enough, putting a stop to the long returns himself.
I mentioned the kicking game. Boswell was very solid when trying to kick the ball through the uprights, going 2-for-2 on field goals and a perfect 2-for-2 on extra points. He struggled on kickoffs though, leaving one short at the end of the first half that led to Erickson’s first long return. He needs to get more consistent at kicking it out of the end zone on kickoffs.
Berry had the one short punt, but after that he was terrific, including a booming 69-yard punt that completely flipped the field for the Steelers. It was nice to see Berry respond in a big way, booming punts down the field.