Where do I even begin tonight?
Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field started off so well for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but thanks to an utter collapse in the second half on both sides of the ball, and two gift touchdowns (three, if you include Keenan Allen’s bizarre catch) helped the Chargers bounce back for a 33-30 win on the final play of the game, dealing a massive blow to the Steelers on national television.
The loss drops the Steelers to 220-1-2 at home when holding a 16-point lead. There’s no way to come out of this game feeling good about much of anything, but that’s why the season is 16 games long and not 12. There’s still a lot of play left for the Steelers to get back on track.
Let’s try and fight through these grades.
QB — C-
Ben Roethlisberger started out red-hot, dropping a dime to Antonio Brown down the left sideline, setting up James Conner’s first rushing touchdown of the game before later firing a strike to Brown in the back of the end zone between 3 defenders, stretching the Steelers’ lead to 23-7.
But much like the Baltimore Ravens game on Sunday night at home in Week 4, Roethlisberger seemingly disappeared after that, missing Justin Hunter for a touchdown and underthrowing Vance McDonald for an interception deep in Pittsburgh territory. He had some disastrous throws mixed with dimes much of the night.
Roethlisberger did lead the Steelers down the field on the final drive of the game, tying the score at 30-30 on a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels, but if he doesn’t miss a couple of throws and doesn’t turn the football over again with the Steelers driving, this game might be a bit different, even with Pittsburgh’s defensive struggles.
RB — B+
Conner ran well for the second straight week, but his lite workload continues to be puzzling, especially with the way the Steelers were rolling up front on the ground early in the game.
Conner punched in two early touchdowns giving the Steelers a 13-0 lead, before ending up with 60 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on 15 carries, adding another 14 yards on 3 receptions before leaving with what looks like a high ankle sprain.
The second-year running back certainly wasn’t the issue on Sunday night. Once he left with an injury, I thought Samuels played well in his role, finishing with 3 catches for 20 yards and a touchdown, adding 5 rushing yards on 2 carries. Most of his work came on the final drive of the game. He’s a fine third-down type back.
I’d just like the Steelers to give Conner more work, especially when they were up 16-7 and 23-7 in the first half, and even 23-15. You don’t need to get conservative, but you also don’t need to turn almost one-dimensional.
WR — A
So much for Brown being a possession receiver, eh? Sometimes the Pittsburgh media can’t get out of its own way, much like the Steelers.
Brown went off for 10 receptions for 154 yards and 1 touchdown in the loss, helping the Steelers’ offense get off to a fast start in the first half. He torched a good Los Angeles secondary much of the night, but the Chargers made adjustments late; Roethlisberger didn’t seem to make the follow-up adjustment to get JuJu Smith-Schuster going.
Smith-Schuster was fine after putting up a monster performance the previous week. The second-year receiver came back to earth, finishing with 49 receiving yards on 6 catches. He was mostly non-existent for stretches in the second half.
Ryan Switzer is one tough dude. For the second week in a row he took a massive shot over the middle on a crossing route. He popped up from the 15-yard penalty on Jatavis Brown, but later entered concussion protocol. Switzer finished with 9 yards on 2 catches.
It got so bad late for the Steelers that Roethlisberger reverted to throwing a jump ball in the end zone for Darrius Heyward-Bey. That’s less than ideal.
It’s also important to note that the Roethlisberger miss to Hunter wasn’t Hunter’s fault at all. He had nobody within 20 yards of him on his route and Roethlisberger flat-out missed him.
TE — B-
The tight end room didn’t do much of substance this game as Vance McDonald finished with 4 receptions for 28 yards, and Jesse James added 1 reception for 7 yards.
One of the biggest plays that the tight ends were involved in was obviously the Derwin James interception on a duck intended for McDonald up the seam inside the 10 yard line, but the one that might be overlooked is the 3rd and 5 on Pittsburgh’s second-to-last drive of the game where Adrian Phillips was draped all over him…no call. That’s tough.
OL — A-
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: the holding call on Ramon Foster on Conner’s 22-yard run on the first drive of the second half was bogus and really seemed to flip the game on its head.
After that, the Steelers seemingly fell apart. They went from the Chargers’ 22 yard line following Conner’s run to the Chargers 48 before punting 2 plays later. On the Steelers’ next drive Alejandro Villanueva was called for a hold on Melvin Ingram on a screen to Conner, pushing the Steelers back again, stalling another drive.
Prior to those two penalties, the Steelers’ offensive line dominated a strong Los Angeles front. Villanueva shut down Joey Bosa and Ingram in impressive fashion, while Matt Feiler more than held his own until the second-half sack by Bosa.
Foster, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey were really good all game long, with Pouncey throwing the key block on Conner’s first rushing touchdown. This group played really well and gave Roethlisberger a ton of time in the pocket, while also helping Conner rush for 4.0 yards per carry and 2 scores in the red zone.
DL — B
This grade would have been a lot higher if the Steelers’ run defense held up down the stretch.
Javon Hargrave is really having a breakout season for the Steelers. He’s a monster along the interior of the defense against the run and the pass. Hargrave finished with 4 tackles, a sack and 2 quarterback hits in the loss. Mike Pouncey had a tough time with him much of the night.
Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt also played well for the most part, finishing with a combined 6 tackles, a tackle for loss, 2 pass deflections, and 4 quarterback hits. This group appeared to be a bit gassed down the stretch, which led to Tyson Aluala being on the field for the Chargers’ go-ahead touchdown drive on which Justin Jackson gashed them over and over again on the ground.
LB — D
Aside from LJ Fort, who had a breakout game for the Steelers (team-high 12 tackles), this group was dreadful against the run in the second half and was woefully non-existent against the pass. Some of it is lack of talent, and some of it is scheme. According to Next Gen Stats from the NFL, Allen was targeted 9 times with a linebacker as the closest defender. That’s asking to get torched by a great offense.
Vince Williams had 5 tackles and a quarterback hit, but he looked a step slow on the Chargers’ final 2 drives. Jon Bostic was basically overtaken by Fort when it comes to playing time, yet he was on the field on a key 3rd and short situation covering Allen of all people, allowing an easy pitch-and-catch with Rivers, setting up the game-winning field goal.
Outside, TJ Watt was a half step away from getting a sack much of the night. He was really good coming off the edge, but in the end it didn’t affect much with Philip Rivers. Watt finished with just 1 tackle and 1 quarterback hit, but he was constantly in the backfield.
Props to Bud Dupree for playing through a partially torn pectoral muscle in a big game, finishing with 4 tackles on the night. He wasn’t much of a factor rushing the passer, but he played the run well.
Ola Adeniyi looked serviceable in his first career NFL game, drawing a holding penalty on Russell Okung, finishing with 1 quarterback hit. He looked explosive at times; he just needs to get back into football shape.
DB — F
That might be Sean Davis’ worst game of his Steelers career. Davis missed a number of tackles, took out Joe Haden on a likely interception for the veteran cornerback that led directly to an Allen touchdown on the fluky bounce, and rarely was a factor in coverage. The Steelers need to simplify things for the third-year safety again. He hasn’t looked right since the bye.
Terrell Edmunds had an average game. Yes, he had a sack of Rivers on a blitz and made a huge hit on Austin Ekeler that might have been a fumble, but he was absolutely undressed by Jackson on his touchdown run, shaking Edmunds in the open field for a bad missed tackle.
Haden should have had that interception, but Davis decided to take his head off, allowing the ball to pop up into the air where Allen corralled it for the score. Aside from the potential pick, Haden looked a bit off again. It might get worse with Josh Gordon and Michael Thomas still on the schedule.
It was nice to see Marcus Allen get some run with the first-team defense. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon on a few plays. I’d like to see him get more of a look as that dime linebacker that can cover tight ends and play the run with physicality. This was a decent step in the right direction for the rookie.
Coty Sensabaugh is a soft defender, I’m sorry. He could have broken up a few passes Sunday night with some physicality, but he bounced off of receivers, leading to third-down conversions.
Mike Hilton played well in the slot again, but it’s so odd to me that he doesn’t get much run on top receivers in the slot, like Allen late. He has shown he’s arguably the best Steelers defensive back time and time again, but Keith Butler doesn’t seem to trust him in big spots.
Special Teams — D-
Chris Boswell’s extra-point yipps are back, as are Danny Smith’s most-penalized units in the game.
That final stretch with the three straight offsides flags were ridiculous and should lead to Smith being let go after the season. That’s not to mention the holding call on a Ryan Switzer kick return that set the Steelers back deep in their own end, leading to a punt.
Then you have the longest punt return for score against the Steelers in 11 years. Yes, Brian Allen was clearly blocked in the back. That helped spring Desmond King for the score, but the Steelers also missed 2 tackles on that punt return touchdown.
Jordan Berry was really good on Sunday night, blasting a 63-yard punt early in the game that pinned the Chargers deep. He also boomed the punt that King returned for the score. He didn’t do much wrong on Sunday night.
Special teams are mostly a disaster though, and it starts with Smith.