What a fun win that was for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Some frustrations with the lack of balance in penalties, and a major scare with Ben Roethlisberger aside, it was an entertaining game to watch on Sunday as the Steelers held on for a 23-16 win at M&T Bank Stadium over AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens.
James Conner continues to impress, as does an offensive line that is not only racking up rushing yards, but also protecting Roethlisberger quite well. Offensively, the Steelers are firing on all cylinders, but defensively the Steelers seem to be putting things together, penalties aside.
The pass rush was mostly a disappointment against a banged up offensive line, as was a secondary that was called for a number of pass interference calls, but the defense never really broke on the day, holding the Ravens to just 16 points in the win.
Like I do every week, I’ll attempt to hand out grades for each position group from Sunday’s game for the Steelers.
QB — B+
On a day in which the Steelers emphasized getting the ball out quickly against the Ravens’ pass rush, Ben Roethlisberger dinked and dunked his way to a good day in Baltimore, throwing for 270 yards and two touchdowns, adding a rushing touchdown in the win as well.
Roethlisberger feasted over the middle of the field, carving up the Ravens on crossing routes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, adding passing touchdowns to Brown and Conner in the red zone.
The veteran quarterback took what the Ravens gave him, consistently working underneath the Ravens’ coverage schemes.
The scare came when Roethlisberger scrambled to his right in the fourth quarter, getting dragged down on the ball and his right shoulder by Za’Darius Smith. It appeared to just knock the wind out of Roethlisberger, but it certainly scared Steelers Nation because of how he landed and reacted.
Once Roethlisberger left the game for a snap, Joshua Dobbs came in and bailed the Steelers out, throwing a strike to Smith-Schuster on 2nd and 20 for a 22-yard gain, moving the Steelers out of the shadow of their own end zone out to the 27 yard line.
RB — A+
Once again, Conner put up an outstanding game for the black and gold, helping the Steelers chew up a ton of clock late, rushing for 107 yards on 24 carries, adding a career-high seven receptions for 56 yards and the Steelers’ opening touchdown.
Early on, Conner chewed up yards, sitting at 65 yards on just eight carries, but from there the Ravens loaded the box, which not only slowed Conner down, but forced the Steelers to move away from the running game.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was clicking with his receivers on the day. Conner played a big role late, helped the Steelers run their four-minute offense, running the clock down on the road, primarily on the ground.
Not only is Conner a grinder in the backfield, but he’s an explosive runner too, adding another 20+ yard run to his ledger this season, giving him eight on the season.
WR — A-
As I mentioned when talking about the quarterbacks, Brown and Smith-Schuster were fantastic in the middle of the field.
When the Ravens brought blitzes, Brown and Smith-Schuster consistently worked open in the middle of the field, giving Roethlisberger an outlet to get the football to.
Brown finished with five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon, making a defender miss in a telephone booth for the touchdown. He was big on third down too, beating Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr over the middle multiple times on shallow crossing routes to keep possession for the Steelers.
Smith-Schuster played the same role for the Steelers, finishing with a seven receptions for a team-high 78 yards. He’d have another catch and 20+ yards if his catch early in the third quarter in which he took one heck of a shot from Eric Weddle wasn’t called back due to holding.
Smith-Schuster made a number first down catches, with none bigger than the 2nd and 20 conversion from Dobbs with the Steelers up against their own goal line.
James Washington got a hat again and turned in two catches for 17 yards, but he was slow to get out of his break in the third quarter on a third-down target, resulting in an incompletion. To be fair, it appeared Smith had ahold of him, which is the case Roethlisberger was making as the pass fell incomplete.
Ryan Switzer was very active on Sunday too, hauling in three passes for 21 yards, each of which went for a first down. Randy Fichtner did a nice job of scheming up some plays for Switzer to get the ball quickly and move the chains.
TE — B-
It wasn’t a great day, but aside from Smith-Schuster’s big catch from Dobbs, Jesse James made the play of the day, hauling in a 51-yard catch on a double move early in the fourth quarter that led to a Steelers field goal after Roethlisberger re-entered the game.
James had a holding call that wiped out Smith-Schuster’s catch down the seam before that big hit from Weddle, but overall James had a strong game as a receiver and a blocker.
Vance McDonald struggled with catching the football early, dropping the ball twice late in the first half that the Ravens thought should have been turnovers. McDonald finished with three receptions for 25 yards, serving mostly as a decoy at times in the middle of the field.
OL — A-
The big fellas up front helped the Steelers rush for 4.2 yards per carry on the afternoon, and allowed just one sack and one six quarterback hits in 48 drop backs in the win.
Alejandro Villanueva had a whale of a game for the Steelers, shutting down Terrell Suggs like we’ve never really seen a Steelers tackle shut down 55 in purple. Villanueva has a nasty two-handed chop that he pulled out early and often on Sunday, stunning Suggs, often knocking him to the ground in the process.
Aside from AV, Ramon Foster got on the move a lot in the run game, opening up lanes for Conner to dart through, while Maurkice Pouncey did a nice job climbing to the next level in the run game while also holding off Brandon Williams in pass protection.
David DeCastro played another strong game for the Steelers, working well in space, while Matt Feiler filled in admirably at right tackle once again. He moves well when pulling in the run game, and is an anchor in pass protection. Steelers might have a future starter on their hands in Feiler.
It’s hard to say enough about this group. It’s simply dominating right now, which has led to Pittsburgh’s resurgence after a slow start to the season.
DL – B-
When it comes to stats from Sunday’s game, you won’t see Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward lighting up the board, but the two veteran defensive ends were pretty solid on the afternoon, consistently pushing the pocket into the lap of Joe Flacco, while also teaming up to down Baltimore’s run game.
As a unit, the defensive line helped the Steelers hold the Ravens to just 3.8 yards per carry in the win.
Heyward was mostly held all game long and rarely got a call in his favor, but he was a menace for Alex Lewis on the afternoon, while Tuitt helped seal the win late, bowling through Orlando Brown Jr. for the sack in the final minute.
Tuitt and Heyward each had two quarterback hits on the afternoon.
Javon Hargrave was rarely seen on Sunday due to the Steelers being in nickel and dime often, but when he was in he was strong against the run, controlling Baltimore’s center with ease.
LB — C-
Coming into Sunday’s matchup, seeing the Ravens missing two starting tackles it was easy to see a scenario in which Bud Dupree and TJ Watt dominated as pass rushers.
That wasn’t even close to being the case on Sunday.
Yes, Dupree drew a big holding call on Jermaine Eluemunor when he sprinted past him at left tackle, but other than that, Dupree was mostly quiet as a pass rusher, often finishing a step or two away from hitting Flacco.
Dupree finished with just one quarterback hit and had a half a sack with Vince Williams, but he wasn’t winning off the edge like he did last week against Cleveland.
Watt finished with five tackles and played the run well, but he was mostly swallowed up as a pass rusher against Brown Jr., including getting buried into the turf with Brown Jr. falling with all of his weight onto Watt.
Anthony Chickillo is starting to develop into a decent reserve, coming on in relief at times on Sunday to finish with four tackles and one tackle for loss. He’s not much of a pass rush presence at all, but he’s solid against the run.
Inside, Williams and Jon Bostic played well against the run down the stretch after getting off to a slow start. Williams added half a sack in the third quarter, pinning the Ravens back deep in their own end.
LJ Fort saw the field a lot in dime, but didn’t record a tackle in the win. That’s not to say Fort was useless either. He was good in coverage, getting good depth in the middle of the field.
DB — D+
Sean Davis and Mike Hilton were fantastic on Sunday, but the rest of the secondary – especially Morgan Burnett – was largely awful.
Davis was the Steelers’ leading tackler with nine stops on the afternoon, coming up for big licks in the middle of the field, while Hilton continues to be the piece the Steelers must have on the field.
Having Hilton in the slot allows the Steelers to do a number of different things under Keith Butler without sacrificing coverage skills or the ability to blitz. Hilton was fantastic again on Sunday, recording four tackles, two tackles for loss, and one pass deflection, which came in the end zone on Mark Andrews. He’s making a strong case for Pittsburgh’s best defensive player.
Outside of those two, I thought Burnett was dreadful. Burnett allowed two early catches for 50 yards, one of which was a spectacular catch down the steam by Chris Moore that Burnett couldn’t do anything against. It was a perfect throw and a great catch, but Burnett was clearly a step or two behind. Later in the game, Burnett was called for pass interference on Andrews in the end zone, setting up Alex Collins’ 1-yard rushing touchdown.
Outside of his one pass breakup in the end zone on Andrews, Terrell Edmunds was hit or miss. He was called for a pass interference in the second quarter that allowed the Ravens to gain 33 yards on the way to a field goal, while Coty Sensabaugh also had a rough day in the coverage department, getting called for pass interference down the left sideline.
While I find it ridiculous that the Ravens build their offense around the chuck and pray approach with Flacco and his receivers, the Steelers’ secondary — especially corners — needs to do a better job of turning and finding the football in these games.
Joe Haden was mostly meh on the afternoon too. The Ravens did a nice job of getting him on the move into the middle of the field, where he struggled to run with Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree at times.
It’s important to note though that the secondary helped hold the Flacco and the Ravens to just 5.6 yards per completion. That’s pretty good for the Steelers when Baltimore wasn’t throwing the ball down the field hoping for a penalty flag.
Special Teams — C+
Chris Boswell and his extra point woes returned on Sunday as the Pro Bowl kicker missed an extra point in the win. Fortunately for the Steelers, he was money on his only field goal attempt, pushing the Steelers to a 10-point lead at 23-13.
He needs to get the extra point issue corrected. That’s his fourth missed extra point in eight games.
Jordan Berry was solid in the punting game, dropping one inside the 20 yard line to pin the Ravens deep. He did average just 41 yards per punt, but he punted on a short field in two of his three times kicking the ball away.
Aside from Boswell’s missed XP, the penalties on special teams are beginning to be overwhelming, as are the decisions made.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was called for holding on a punt return, pushing the Steelers back inside their own 15 yard line, while Boswell had a short kickoff following the Steelers’ first touchdown of the game, setting the Ravens up at the 37 yard line.
Earlier in the game, the Steelers elected to have Roethlisberger pooch punt the ball, rather than have Berry come in and try to pin the Ravens deep. Weddle made a great heads-up play, sprinting back to where Roethlisberger pooched the ball, resulting in an 18-yard return, later leading to a Ravens field goal.
Switzer was really good as a kick returner, taking a kickoff back 31 yards to set up a Steelers touchdown.