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Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: An Unstylish Win

Prelude

Coming into this game, there were questions about which Pittsburgh Steelers would be returning from injuries after the Bye week. Ulysses Gilbert III hurt his back late in the week, but Jaylen Samuels was a full participant in the last three practices. Steelers pundits speculated on how much playing time T.J. Watt would play and whether this would result in Ola Adeniyi playing more defensive snaps.

The arrest of Anthony Chickillo last weekend resulted in his placement on the NFL Commissioner’s Exempt List. The Steelers did not claim Tuzar Skipper after the New York Giants waived him. They opted to re-sign Jayrone Elliot instead.

Last week, the Baltimore Ravens victory over the Seattle Seahawks overshadowed the other results. It placed even more importance on the Steelers beating the Miami Dolphins since Pittsburgh dropped from 10th to 11th on playoff position. Other teams did not help the Steelers too much on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns did lose as did the Kansas City Chiefs but most of the other games did not help the Steelers playoff position.

The Steelers Forecast

Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:

Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Miami Dolphins. First, there is the passing game with Mason Rudolph and perhaps James Washington returning. Then there is situational football including converting third downs & red zone production. On defense, Matt wants us to keep an eye on T.J. Watt and how much he plays. That also means to watch for Ola Adeniyi who will be the main OLB back-up. Also, how will the cornerbacks rebound after injuries to Steve Nelson and Joe Haden in Week 6? Will Cam Sutton have an opportunity to play more on the outside?  Finally, special teams may play a factor due to the Steelers tendency to start out slow after bye weeks.

Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch Monday night. This week, Tom focused our attention on Mason Rudolph versus the Dolphin’s man coverage. He points out that Miami has given up 27 passing plays that have gained 20 yards or more going into this game. Most have been from man coverage. Mason has not thrown many deep passes; Tom believes it is time for Rudolph to take the training wheels off and take a couple shots downfield perhaps using play action.

Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Dolphins prediction. Alex foresees a Steelers victory if they open up the passing game, the defense controls the line of scrimmage, and the defense continues to be opportunistic. However, if a Dolphin’s trick play works, Mason Rudolph struggles against man coverage, and corners, especially Joe Haden and Steve Nelson, can’t win contested catches it could be a loss. Alex predicted an awfully close 23-21 Steeler victory.

Dave Bryan identified the 7 keys to a Steelers victory. First, Dave believed Roosevelt Nix playing 15 offensive snaps or more (he played 20) as a lead blocker could open up the running game. Second, Mason Rudolph passing deep outside the numbers to take advantage of a weak secondary. Then, if Steelers don’t give the Dolphins short fields (rewind the 1st quarter) they are unlikely to score if they limit Preston Williams (Steelers gave up zero explosive plays). Fourth, the defense needs to force Ryan Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball very quickly. Fifth, releasing Vince Williams to rush the passer could result in turnovers (he had 2 QB hits). Sixth, the Steelers starting two possessions on the Dolphins side of the field could be huge (they had 1 at the Miami 22 and one start at the 50 resulting in 10 points). Finally, limiting RB Mark Walton who had 8 rushing and passing plays that gained 10 yards or more coming into this game (his longest two plays in this game was 9 yards).

You can compare these pregame guides to Alex Kozora’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game? 

Steelers Offense

First half

Steelers fans booed Pittsburgh’s performance in the 1st and early in the 2nd quarters for good reason. The first three drives were awful. One interception and another play that would have been an interception except for Mr. Sideline. The first drive was only two plays long. A potential third play was negated by David DeCastro’s false start. Mason Rudolph released a pass that he should not have let go on 2nd & 14. Xavien Howard jumped in front of JuJu Smith-Schuster to snag the errant pass out of the air leading to an early Dolphin lead.

The next drive was a little better gaining 38 yards. However, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster (who left the game with a concussion) marred it on one play by both being penalized. Foster for offensive pass interference (declined) and the accepted penalty for holding on Pouncey put them in a hole. Rudolph completed a pass to Vance McDonald to set up a fourth down just outside of Chris Boswell’s range.  The Steelers failed to convert leading to Miami’s second score.

Taco Charlton strip-sacked Rudolph on the third drive. David DeCastro recovered the fumble enabling the Steelers to punt instead of putting the defense back on the field near midfield and down 14-0 if the Dolphins recovered the ball.

The next two offensive drives gave us hope. Starting from their own 6-yard line, the Steelers marched 70 yards to the Miami 24 and finally got on the scoreboard with a field goal. One key play on this drive was Rudolph passing from the end zone on 3rd & 11. He completed the past to Diontae Johnson to keep the chains moving. A second key play was a 34-yard completion to JuJu.

The final offensive drive of the first half put Pittsburgh into the game. Starting at midfield following a turnover, the offense made good by scoring a touchdown. Referees penalized Diontae Johnson twice during this drive. The first was a false start and the second was the offensive pass interference that many believe was ticky-tacky. Instead of first and goal at the one-yard line, Pittsburgh had a 1st & 20 from the Miami 45. Rudolph attempted 4 straight deep passes only connecting on one which was the 17-yard completion to JuJu that had brought them to the 45. Then with Miami sending the house to blitz Rudolph on 3rd & 20, Diontae Johnson caught a short pass in the middle of the field and weaved all the way to the end zone. James Washington had a devastating block that was very satisfying to see replayed as Johnson scored. The offense started the game looking awful but finished the half with two scores.

Second Half

32 of the 39 yards gained on the second half opening drive were gained on two plays. Mason Rudolph completed a pass to Nick Vannett for 15 yards for a first down. James Conner ran the ball for 17 yards for another first down. That was about it before the drive sputtered. Chris Boswell missed a 54-yard field goal attempt.

The next drive started at Pittsburgh’s own 3-yard line following an interception. Washington caught a 21-yard pass on 2nd & 20 for a first down. Diontae Johnson converted a 3rd & 8 into a first down with an 11-yard reception. Then Rudolph threw a pass to JuJu that looked like it could be intercepted if the defender turned around. Instead, JuJu snatched the ball from the defender’s hands and top of his helmet like he was accepting a drink from a waiter with a serving tray. Touchdown! The Steelers take the lead for the first time in the game on a 97-yard drive.

The Steelers scored on their next drive to extend the leave. Taking over near midfield after a failed 4th down conversion attempt by Miami, the offense made some plays and got some help from the zebras. The referees called Ryan Lewis for defensive pass interference which took the Steelers from the 38-yard line to the 13. Conner finished the drive with a powerful 9-yard line up the middle.

Zach Banner was called for holding on the first play of the next Steelers drive. I did not understand the call since Banner was lined up on the left and the play was around the right side, so he was no where near the runner to impact the play. In any case, the drive didn’t go anywhere, and they punted.

The Steelers started the next drive at the Miami 22 following a strip-sack. They had to settle for a field goal when they failed to move the ball. The Steelers final drive was designed to eat the clock. Conner was hurt after a 6-yard gain which left Trey Edmunds as the only healthy running back left on the Steelers sideline. Trey failed to pick up a first down on 3rd & 1, though he did make the tackle following the Steelers punt.

Mason Rudolph started the game looking very tentative and throwing some inaccurate passes. He gained confidence as the game progressed. The offensive line had too many penalties. The receivers made some clutch catches. It was nice seeing Roosevelt Nix back on the field. An awful start but fine finish. Wrap it up, I’ll take it.

Steelers Defense

First half

The defense started the game by forcing Miami to punt their opening possession away. So far, so good. But then, Rudolph threw the interception giving the ball to Miami at the 26-yard line. Just over a minute after coming off the field, the defense was back on. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 17-yard completion to Jakeem Grant and the touchdown pass to Albert Wilson looked too easy.

Miami’s 3rd drive was their longest of the night. They marched 68 yards after the Steelers offense failed to convert a 4th & 6 play. The critical play came on 3rd & 14. Fitzpatrick was eluding the Steelers rush and competed a 15-yard pass to Devante Parker. He targeted Joe Haden on this drive who had to make three tackles after Dolphins caught the ball. A 14-0 Dolphins lead and we’re still in the first quarter. Not good.

Bud Dupree was the first Steeler defender to really assert himself. He sacked Fitzpatrick on a 3rd & 6 play to force a Dolphin punt. The Steelers offense managed a field goal on the ensuing drive to put some points on the board. Then, Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass to give the ball to the Steelers offense at the 50. They obliged with a touchdown drive to make it 14-10. We got us a ballgame.

Second Half

Minkah Fitzpatrick struck again on the Dolphins first drive of the second half. He intercepted another Fitzpatrick pass at the 3-yard line to end the drive. Arguably, Minkah should have batted the ball down since it was a 3rd & 10 play, but you never know what would have happened on the punt. If you can gain possession of the ball, take it.

The Dolphins would not get the ball back until there was just 3:11 left in the third quarter. The defense now has a 17-14 lead to preserve. The defense has stifled the Dolphins run game and pressuring Fitzpatrick who has to roll out to gain time to throw. On a 4th & 1 play, Fitzpatrick lunges for the first down as he is tackled by Cam Heyward and Joe Haden which is the initial call. The Jumbotron in the stadium shows Fitzpatrick’s knee down well before the first down marker. The stadium audiovisual team wisely shows the replay repeatedly and Mike Tomlin throws the challenge flag. It was clear to everyone in the stadium even the hundreds of Dolphin fans who showed up. Inexplicably, it took what seemed like over ten minutes for the officials to decide that he did not make it and spot the ball. Then, the officials had to do a measurement. If the sticks which are imprecise markers had shown a first down there would have been bedlam.

That stop led to another Steelers touchdown and 24-14 lead. Miami reached midfield on the next drive. Mark Walton was breaking a big run, but Mike Hilton forced a fumble after he had gained 9 yards. Steve Nelson recovered the ball at the Steelers 27-yard line. The offense could not exploit this turnover and punted the ball. This was when the Jumbotron crew queued Renegade. T.J. Watt responded by strip-sacking Fitzpatrick on the very next play, recovering his own forced fumble.

The stage was set. The Dolphins got the ball back following a Steelers field goal and down 27-14. Tick tock. On a 4th & 7 play Cam Heyward sacked the quarterback to give the offense the ball back to eat more clock. The Dolphins would get the ball back once more. But their final play was another T.J. Watt strip sack though this time Ryan Fitzpatrick recovered the fumble, but the final 40 seconds were used up. Tick tock. The game is clocked.

The defense came up huge by intercepting the ball, forcing fumbles, sacking the quarterback, or otherwise pressuring him. The offense responded by scoring a few times on the turnovers. Miami has no wins but played tough. Perhaps they wanted to improve the standing of the draft pick they got from Pittsburgh. In any case, next week will be a bigger test for the Pittsburgh defense.

Special Teams

Special teams play can be broken down into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).

Chris Boswell finally missed a field goal. I’m actually ok with this. If he had made it, the 54-yard attempt would have set a new career long for Boswell. It takes the pressure off from having to be perfect. He scored the Steelers first and last points of the game with a 42 and then a 41-yard field goal. The Dolphins did not attempt any field goals. Advantage Pittsburgh.

Jordan Berry punted 3 times averaging 46.7 yards per punt. Matt Haack punted twice averaging 46.5 yards a punt. Both of Haack’s punts resulted in the Steelers starting behind the 20. All three of Berry’s were returned. The Dolphins returned the first punt 14 yards to the Miami 30-yard line. They returned the second punt only two yards to the 28-yard line. Miami returned the last punt 19 yards to the 29-yard line. Even though their punt average was near even, Haack’s net punting average was 45.5 with only 2 return yards versus Berry’s 35 net punting average due to the 35 return yards. Preston Williams had a gaudy 11.7 punt return average compared to Ryan Switzer’s single return for 2 yards. Advantage Miami.

Chris Boswell kicked off six times. His first four kicks were short of the goal line. The first gave the Dolphins a starting position at their own 23-yard line, the next three gave Miami starting position from their 27 to 31-yard line. My guess is that Danny Smith ordered Boswell to kick them long after that. His last two went into the end zone for touch backs. Jason Sanders only kicked off three times. Two were touchbacks but Miami was penalized on one giving the Steelers a start at the 30. Ryan Switzer returned the other 25 yards to the 24-yard line. Pittsburgh’s median starting position after kickoffs was the 25-yard line. Miami’s median starting position was the 26. Even.

Still looking for that long Steelers punt or kick return. Other teams are managing to do it. Come on Danny Smith, make it happen.

Your Hot Takes During the Game

First Half Reader Comments

Predictably, Steelers Depot responded to a putrid start by logging 1151 comments on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. The comment count may have been much higher, but the Steelers finished the half doing better.

Jason Linuma led the way early in the game: “Playing down to a losing team Tomlin.” Jimbo responded, “oh no… It’s never Tomlins fault that the team is not properly motivated.”

Many folks wished Pdupuis’s sister to get well soon. “Not commenting much tonight but a little get well wishes for my sis in UPMC Montefiore would be greatly appreciated. Here we go Steelers!!” We all hope she recovers quickly!

Mitchfanm is not convinced Mason Rudolph is the future. At least not how he played in the first quarter. “For all you saying Ben is done … next year you better hope he’s back.”

Michael Cunningham shared many of our feeling about the state of NFL officiating. “the refs are ruining the NFL.”

The next few comments were made while I was booing the Steelers from the stands at Heinz Field early in the game. “I’m cool with Benching baron permanently,” by Trevgee. Then a Hyped-Up Hypocycloid, “Nobody prepares a team like Tomlin.” Nunya, “Mason looks terrible. Every pass has been a lollipop.”

GrumpyHighlander summed it all up: “Doomed…we’re behind in the first quarter.
Game is over…might as well stop watching.”

We were not happy campers whether watching the game from televisions, online, Steeler bars or from within Heinz Field. There was some relief in the second quarter, but the Steelers were still behind a winless Miami team 14-10 at the half. Yoi.

Second Half Reader Comments

Like clockwork, the Steelers play well, and the comments drop off.  Someone pointed out that when Steelers fans have nothing to complain about, they just sit and pout silently. Just 831 comments in the 2nd half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Well below the 1000 comment per half standard.

The “best” comment was looking back to what could have been. Alevin16 lamented, If only we had this Boz last year.” Kevin Schwartz agreed, “Seriously. I like to stay positive, but it would have swung 2-3 games.” Taylor Williams wondered, “We still don’t know what happened to him.” While the Intense Camel explained, “Injury.”

Timothy Rea wryly noted, “Miami coach is like… this @! #@ never happened when I was in NE!!!”

John Noh liked one defender in particular, “Thank you Minkah! Both INTs turned into TDs!!” Brian Martin adding, “Good point. Converting those turnovers to points was missing earlier in the season.”

Kevin Schwartz questioned an incompletion to James Washington, “Is it just me, or was that catchable?” Nelsonator762 replied succinctly, “It was.”

The GrumpyHighlander was conflicted about Mason Rudolph’s play: First, “Still throwing behind WRs….just off today.” Then, “Gotta give Mason credit. Still not looking great but he’s battled his way through. Shows heart.” Yusef (Ayub) observed, “He (Rudolph)needed the adversity and he’s passing that test.”

DarthYinzer appreciated the 97-yard drive after Minkah’s second interception. “As bad as we were playing. That was a fantastic drive.”

Alevin16 had a message for Alex Kozora: “The writer of the winner losers list must have burned thru one of those huge rubber erasers.”

I always enjoy reading through these comments.

Conclusion

Must admit, I was one of the fans booing from the stands during the first quarter. But I was also rocking after T.J. Watt responded to Renegade by strip-sacking Ryan Fitzpatrick. That’s the way it goes. I am either happy or sad at the end of a game. No in-between. Though, I was very unhappy with the Steelers putrid opening performance they did not panic and eventually prevailed. I’m happy … and relieved at the win.

The defense delivered big plays at key moments. The offense scored off several of the turnovers. This game should be a confidence booster for Mason Rudolph. I thought Stan Savran summed it up well on his radio show. Paraphrasing Stan, he said the question for right now is not whether Mason Rudolph is Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement; it is whether Rudolph can navigate the Steelers offense through this season well enough to sneak into the playoffs. I agree. I am focused on this season and not ready to give up on the team and start looking to the next season.

A shout out to Max F. who accompanied me to the game from Maryland. We got to hang out at some tailgate parties including meeting Jason Gildon at the Renegade Tailgate. We also met the Yinzer Pope just before he gave the Steelers his blessing at Stage AE. We met up with fellow Black & Gold Marylander Carol at a tailgate. We also got pictures with Art Moats in the Champions Club. We withstood some raucous Dolphin’s fans. There were more visiting fans than I am accustomed to at Heinz Field. Yoi. But by games end, they were quiet, and the guy I thought was such a jag off sitting behind me screaming in my ear early in the game turned out to be a nice guy from Youngstown of all places. Spent Tuesday shopping at the Strip District then heading back to Maryland listening to game recaps on the radio. I capped my day after game, by listening to the Terrible Podcast. The only thing standing in the Steelers way of reaching .500 is the Indianapolis Colts. I will be back to the Burgh for that game unless I end up in the jailhouse for some reason. Let’s go!

Your Music Selection

I always like to offer a music selection. Warning: I just finished watching 16 hours of Ken Burns PBS special on Country Music. It was an excellent series. My next few selections will be pulled from this genre. Here is Standing in My Way by Charlie Pride. And a double bonus: “The Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers and then the Carter Family performing – In The Jailhouse Now and Wildwood Flower.

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