The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near. I woke up Sunday morning and drove up to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers last regular season game of the season. Leading up to the Sunday, the big stories that local Pittsburgh sports media appeared focused on were the Steelers announcement of the team MVP, the validity of Chris Boswell’s injury designation and Keith Butler’s gaffe in a coordinators corner interview.
The credentialed sports journalists voiced collective outrage at Ben Roethlisberger being “spurned” by his teammates. One well-known journalist suggested the Steelers do away with voting for their own MVP. Several stated that placing Boswell on injured reserve was “closing the barndoor after the horse got out.” Many called out Keith Butler for being “clueless” because he brought up Tyler Eifert as a threat during a Coordinator’s Corner interview. Really? With a game just days away that could decide the team’s playoff chances?
Alex Kozora wrote about Butler’s interview but put it into context, “To be fair, Butler was asked about Eifert, he didn’t bring him up on his own.” He also included the audio of the interview, so you could hear the exchange between Bob Labriola and Butler for yourself. Alex also has an article on why he believes Butler should be fired.
Dave Bryan was one of the only persons to post a clip of Chris Boswell’s final PAT kick where he appears to twist awkwardly. He at least was researching to see when Boswell may have been injured instead of jumping to the conclusion that the Steelers were icing him for other reasons.
#Steelers K Chris Boswell did have to kind of skip out of the way to avoid a block attempt during final XP attempt against #Saints so maybe that's when he tweaked something. pic.twitter.com/okBUhi8Mzm
— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) December 28, 2018
Steelers Depot did produce articles on all three issues but posted 117 pieces between Monday and Saturday that covered a lot of what was happening to the team as they prepared for this game in addition to these three pundit’s favorites. This is one of the reasons that most of my Steelers news is coming direct from the Steelers such as Steelers Live or from Steelers Depot.
Onto the game.
The Steelers Forecast
The Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these three articles prior to kickoff you can reread them to see how close to the mark they were:
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s success without Antonio Brown on field. The return of James Conner. Stopping Joe Mixon. More base defense featuring Javon Hargrave. T.J Watt should be good for at least one more sack. The “nuances of the defensive play-calling.”
Alex Kozora predicted the factors that would lead the Steelers to win or lose the game. In sum, the Steelers win if they stop the Cincinnati Bengals run game, play zone in 3rd & short or medium plays to contain Jeff Driskel, and offense wins the edge on running plays & screens. Alternatively, they lose if Ben Roethlisberger throws a lollipop to the Bengals safeties, Alex Erickson breaks big returns, or Matt McGrane misses a key kick.
Dave Bryan laid out the five keys to victory. 1. Neutralize Geno Atkins. 2. Limit Driskel’s scrambling. 3. Exploit Darrius Phillips in the slot 4. Throw to tight ends when covered by linebackers 5. Bottle up Joe Mixon early in the game.
How bad was the Steelers offense in the first half? They faced a Bengal defensive team that end the season ranked last in the entire NFL is passing yards given up, 29th in rushing yards given up and 30th in points given up. The Steeler’s offensive “juggernaut” managed just nine first downs in five possessions in the first half. Three punts and a pick 6 on their first 4 drives. The Steelers did finish the half with a field goal but had great field position starting the final drive from their own 45-yard line.
JuJu was unable to break through two defenders and ended a yard short of the 1st down marker on the first drive. The Steelers then had a three and out. Then Ben threw into coverage on what many thought was a free play. No flag was thrown, and Bengal safety Shawn Williams scored on the pick 6. Some guy names Christian Ringo sacked Ben on 3rd and 5 to end another drive. The referees called Ramon Foster for unnecessary roughness which made it 3rd and 25 so instead of being in place for a touchdown, they ran the ball to set up a field goal to end the half. A putrid performance.
The 2nd half was a little better but not by much. The first two drives end up with punts. The Steelers finally find the end zone for the only time in the game on the third try. Then two field goals for the final two drives. There were Bengals players going down all game. At one point, I counted five that were on the ground requiring assistance from trainers. Yet, the Bengals stayed right in this game.
The Steelers started their first drive from their own 45 but only netted four yards. The Bengals could even afford to decline an offensive pass interference call on James Washington. The defense again set up the offense well giving them ball at their own 47-yard line. The offense responded with a 5-yard drive and punting from just across the 50. Ben’s 47-yard completion to James Washington finally got the offense going. The longest Pittsburgh completion was followed but the Steelers longest run as James Conner rumbled 16 yards. In the red zone for just the second time in the game, JuJu made a great run after catch to score from 11 yards out.
Maurkice Pouncey was penalized for holding and then being too far downfield on a pass to stymie the next drive. Vance McDonald converted a 3rd down rumbling over a defender to excite the fans. Jaylen Samuels also picked up a 1st down on a 4th & 4 that was clutch the penalties stuck the offense and put the field goal unit back on the field. The game winning drive featured James Conner getting a 20-yard catch. James Washington caught another 1st down catch. The big play was Eli Roger’s clutch catch to put the Steelers within McCrane’s range at the 24. A performance good enough to win but against a unit that had no business keeping it close.
The Bengals had only three drives in the first half. Hargrave, L.J. Fort & Tuitt combined to tackle Giovanni Bernard near the line of scrimmage. He had four yards on a pair of carries. Joe Haden made a sure tackle of Alex Erickson. three and out. Joe Mixon was also held to four yards on two carries on the next drive. Unfortunately, Driskel converted two 3rd & 8 plays, one with his arm the other with a 12-yard scramble. Then the defense buckled down. Tuitt & Anthony Chickillo sacked Driskel. Morgan Burnett defended a pass where, yet another Bengal was injured as Cody Core landed on his arm. Then Tuitt tipped a 3rd down pass at the line of scrimmage. Good shutdown.
The tone of the Bengals last drive of the half was set by Mixon’s first effective run of the game. He went eight yards to set up second and two. T.J Watt and Fort sniffed out a short pass and prevented a 1st down but Mixon got it on a 2-yard plunge. This set up Driskel to throw the ball and he made three 1st downs with his arm. Watt then stripped the ball from Driskel, but he was able to recover his own fumble. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Alex Redmond (he had two on the day) pushed the Bengals out of field goal range, however, a 13-yard pass to Erickson put them right back in it. Former Steeler, albeit briefly, Randy Bullock then kicked a 49 yarder for three. Still a good half for the defense who was keeping Pittsburgh in the game.
Cincinnati managed just three points on six possessions in the 2nd half. The first four drives ended in punts. A momentary letdown led to a game tying field goal, but the defense then forced a turnover on downs to preserve the victory.
Copying a Pittsburgh tactic, Driskel threw long pass to John Ross on the opening play. The ball fell harmlessly to the ground and now they were in a hole. Bud Dupree stopped Mixon at the line of scrimmage. Then Watt strip sacked Driskel; but he recovered his own fumble again. Still, the Bengals had to punt from deep and the defense gave the offense great field position.
Since Pittsburgh’s offense was so inept, the Bengals still led and could run the ball. On the next drive, Mixon went 21 yards on the first carry. Dupree was just offside by a fraction negating his sack of Driskel. Heyward made up for it two plays later by getting his own sack. Again, they gave the offense great field position. On the next drive Coty Sensabaugh defended a pass to Auden Tate. Fort stopped Mixon for no gain. Then Burnett and Fort stopped Bernard from gaining much after the catch to force a third punt.
The defense forced a fourth punt in as many Bengal drives when Terrell Edmunds tackled the catch of C.J. Uzomah prevented much YAC. Then Fort tackled Mixon to prevent him converting the 3rd down.
Following a long Pittsburgh drive that put the Steelers in front for the first time at 13-10, Heinz Field was feeling good. With 8:35 left to play the lights dimmed and we rocked to Renegade. A short kick put the ball at the 34-yard line. Joe Mixon shocked everyone with a 51-yard run on the first play to take it all the way to the 15-yard line after what seemed like a game’s worth of missed tackles. He must have been gassed since Bernard came in but could only gain 3 yards. Offsides on Hargrave made it 3rd and 2 but Heyward came through with his second sack of the day. Lucky to escape with just a field goal after the defense had its biggest lapse of the day.
The defense preserved the victory on the final drive. Edmunds made a tackle to make it 4th and 5. Out of time outs, Driskel threw deep to Josh Malone, but it was incomplete. Well done defense.
I watched Matt McCrane closely during the pregame warm-ups. He was hitting consistently from 35-45 yards out. As he backed up the ball seemed to have a harder time making its mark. I saw him try three 50 yarders. The first going away from the river. The flags on the goalposts were sagging so seemed like little wind. He was short by a quite a bit. He did hit two from 50 going in the opposite direction. Maybe he was warmed up. I figured his effective range would be 47-48 yards out meaning the Steelers would have to be at the 30-yard line before lining him up. He was 3 for 3 and his 47-yard kick was from the 29-yard line. He also drilled his extra point. However, he has trouble getting the ball deep on kickoffs. The Bengals were able to return all four of his kicks but only averaged 21.8 yards a return. Good coverage. The problem was the Bengal’s still were starting from their own 35 after a couple short kickoffs. I don’t think this was by design.
A lot of people have drawn the conclusion that Jordan Berry will not get any better and it’s time to cut ties. I’m not sure yet. I still have nightmares of Pittsburgh bringing in multiple punters like Zoltan Mesko and having problems. I believe Berry does have range but has sacrificed that for longer hang times. Speaking of punters, Kevin Huber picked himself off the ground after two punts. He had a long conversation with a referee during a commercial who then went to speak to Marvin Lewis. I don’t know what the explanation was, but no flags were thrown but Huber was clearly unhappy and was limping at one point.
Kameron Canady’s name is not mentioned often which is a very good thing for a long snapper. However, he was called for holding on a punt which is at least the second time this season. Did look like he had close to a headlock on a defender during the replay which gave them 10 extra yards.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was very exercised after an early punt. He went up to two or three officials pleading his case. I did not see what happened. Later in the game, he was called for an illegal block above the waist on a Pittsburgh punt. What confuses me, is why would a gunner be blocking when he is trying to get down the field to tackle the returner. Part of the mysterious NFL rulebook I suppose.
Just like the 10-3 score, the 919 1st half comments were below the standard. Marcel Chris Chauvet had the most “liked” comment: “In case anybody was wondering how good the Steelers offense would look without Antonio Brown… 3 points in the first half against the 32nd ranked defense in the NFL.” Mr. Wirez filled us in on the pregame coverage: “Anyone catch CBS pregame show? They ripped the state of the Steelers and Tomlin’s goofy decisions. Specifically, his clock mgt and challenges, but preparedness for crap teams…. They MUST be reading the comments section at Steelers Depot. Lol”
There was a lot of exasperation. Dave Bryan, our fearless leader, led off the commentary with, “Ok, hopefully this isn’t it, but if it is, thank you for visiting the site this season and thanks to MM (Matt Marczi) for these great game threads.”
The Steelers eventually won and Depot respondents met the standard in the 2nd half with 1015 comments. Terry summed up many Steelers fans sentiment by stating that “WELL it sucks but any good team would not have had to rely on the Browns winning to get into the playoffs.” Rob was “Shocked they didn’t flag him for landing on the QB.” This was after Cam Heyward landed on Driskel after his second sack. I am glad the referees quit calling these penalties.
When a Steelers win was in question, Chris92021 saw a silver lining, “If this embarrassing loss brings about massive changes, it will be worth it.” Chad Sanborn and a segment of Steelers Nation “hope that Tomlin is fired this offseason and Butler too. Another disappointing year by and over rated coach.” The Intense Camel is frustrated at the lack of complete games, “Defense plays light out – Offense can’t get a first down. Offense unstoppable – Defense can’t stop a nosebleed. -This team 99% of the time.” While, Ryan72384 predicts, “Mayfield is going to give us headaches for years. Dude is a gamer.” Yoi.
— Beaver Falls Hosiery (@subBurgher) December 30, 2018
63,874 fans attended the game which is about 93.4% of its official capacity. I’d estimate that nearly 60,000 remained as Heinz Field showed the last two minutes of the Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game on the Jumbotron. A good portion of the Steelers remained on the field sitting on the grass looking up at the screen as the Steelers fate was decided. For the first and most likely the last time ever, I was twirling my Terrible Towel chanting “Let’s Go Browns!” with thousands of other Steelers fans. It was not to be, but it was a special moment shared by Black & Gold players and their fans.
A disappointing season. But a friend put it in context for me. I met with my high school classmate Paul Daugherty who is a longtime writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer just prior to him heading up to the Press Box. I was lamenting on the underperformance of the Steelers and how disappointing it was. Paul pointed out to me, “Dude, I’ve been covering Cincinnati sports for 31 years. My first year there the Bengals were in the Super Bowl.” Yoi, that would be soul-crushing. On to the 2019 season folks. Here We Go!
Your Music Selection
In the 2018 Memorial Day Weekend: Steelers Friday Night Five Questions, I committed to play songs that Steelers Depot respondents suggested might be the new Steelers anthem if Renegade by Styx was ever replaced. Here is entry 38 of 45 from DirtDawg1964: We Own It by 2 Chainz & Wiz Khalifa.