Well, that was an eventful game.
It’s tough to see the Pittsburgh Steelers come so painstakingly close to upsetting the Baltimore Ravens, but there are a lot of positives to take from Sunday’s 26-23 loss at Heinz Field to the AFC North rivals.
Aside from Mason Rudolph’s scary exit from a game he was playing really well in (get well soon, 2), the Steelers’ defense looked pretty darn strong once again, forcing multiple turnovers while sacking Lamar Jackson a handful of times.
Offensively, Rudolph took some more shots down the field on Sunday, and Devlin “Duck” Hodges came on in relief and looked really comfortable and confident, letting it rip. The run game had a strong day once again, and JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged for a brief period before the game-changing fumble in overtime.
All that said though, 1-4 is 1-4, and that’s a tough pill to swallow knowing 2-3 and a possible tie for first place in the AFC North was right there for the taking.
Let’s check out some grades, shall we?
QB — B+
For the second straight week, Rudolph played well in the new-look Steelers attack. After last week’s play-it-safe mantra, Rudolph looked like he was trying to get the ball downfield more on Sunday against the Ravens, especially inside the numbers.
Rudolph hooked up with college teammate James Washington early for a big 26-yard gain, and then found Smith-Schuster on a crossing route, leading to a 35-yard touchdown. The traditional deep shots weren’t there in this game, but Rudolph looked much more comfortable taking shots past 5-10 yard area.
On the play he was concussed by Earl Thomas, that might have been Rudolph’s best play of his career, stepping up in a collapsing pocket and sliding left to extend the play before finding Diontae Johnson open on the left side of the field.
Once Rudolph went down Hodges came in and fired that thing all over the field, keeping the Steelers’ offense multi-dimensional in the second half, keeping Baltimore’s defense honest. Hodges moved the offense up and down the field and looked confident doing it.
That said, he threw a horrendous pass over the middle of the field while rolling right that Thomas picked off. Thanks to a defensive penalty though, the play was nullified, leaving Hodges to finish with a sparkling record on the afternoon.
RB — B-
James Conner looked pretty darn good for the second week in a row. This time though, it came on the ground where Conner gashed the Ravens’ defense when given the rock.
It’s frustrating he touched the ball just 14 times as a rusher, because he found success quite often against a soft Ravens front 7. Yes, the 3.9 yards per carry average doesn’t look great, but you can’t watch that game Sunday and feel like Conner underperformed.
Frustratingly, Randy Fitchner went back to the Wildcat on Sunday and saw Jaylen Samuels get bottled up consistently. Then, he even asked Samuels to pass. That worked out horribly as Samuels floated one right to Josh Bynes, setting up Baltimore’s first touchdown.
Neither back made an impact as a receiver out of the backfield as Conner wasn’t targeted, and Samuels had just 3 catches for 11 yards.
WR – C-
This grade would be a lot higher if Smith-Schuster doesn’t fumble that football in overtime. That can sound harsh, but it’s the truth. It cost the Steelers the game, and that’s the second time in seven games that Smith-Schuster has fumbled the football away late.
He’s a great player and all, but he’s got to clean up those minor details late in games.
Aside from the fumble, Smith-Schuster looked pretty darn good, shedding a tackle on his way to a 35-yard touchdown in the first half, and also worked well over the middle of the field against the Ravens’ secondary, finding himself open consistently.
I tried telling everyone to not be worried about James Washington. He has been getting open consistently, and we saw that again on Sunday. This time though, quarterbacks got him the football. Washington had the big 26-yard hookup with Rudolph early in the game, and later drew a key pass interference call in the third quarter that helped the Steelers keep the ball moving.
Johnson needs to make more happen in space once he catches the ball, but he’s doing well as a rookie. I didn’t like the offensive pass interference call he took in the first half on a ball that wasn’t going to be caught, and he had a least one drop working over the middle. This week, it seemed like Baltimore did all it could to keep him from taking the top off, and it effectively shut him down. His fumble on a “catch” could have been costly too. I’m still not sure he caught that football and made a football move.
TE — B
Vance McDonald looked good in his return to action after sitting out a week due to a shoulder injury.
The Steelers didn’t lean on him much as a receiver, but when he was called upon he came through, including running through a couple of tackles down the left sideline on a pass from Hodges that set up Conner’s 1-yard touchdown.
It’s hard to tell how much of an impact McDonald had as a blocker, but I did see him pulling and leading for Conner on a couple of successful runs.
Nick Vannett had a pass bounce off of his chest in the first half that was a bit frustrating, but he played well as a blocker when on the field. He’s a solid No. 2 behind McDonald. I’m happy with the depth there.
OL — B-
Again, I thought the push up front was good and the running game looked solid with Conner throughout the game, box score be damned.
However, some key penalties hurt.
Matt Feiler had a holding call in the fourth quarter that set the Steelers back, and Ramon Foster had a penalty called on him on the same drive that helped the drive stall.
Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro had quiet days, which is often a good thing for offensive linemen.
As a whole, the Steelers’ offensive line allowed just 1 sack and 3 quarterback hits in the loss.
DL — B
Early on the Ravens’ rushing attack was gashing the Steelers’ defensive line.
Some quick adjustments in that department helped turn the tide for the Steelers as Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward, combining for 14 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and 3 quarterback hits on the day.
Tuitt took a dumb penalty shoving Jackson out of bounds, extending the drive, but overall this group continues to play at a high level.
Tyson Alualu’s biggest contribution on the day came on Conner’s 1-yard touchdown where he served as the short-yardage fullback. He did add a tackle defensively.
LB — B+
Welcome back Vince Williams! I hope Steelers’ Nation starts to appreciate him more. It’s no coincidence the defense started to play at a higher level once Williams came in to replace the injured Mark Barron.
Williams finished the game with a team-high 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback hit defensively. He played all over the field and came through time and time again.
Devin Bush followed up a boneheaded play in which he jumped offside on 4th and 6, setting up a 4th and 1 that the Ravens converted by picking off a Jackson pass intended for Hayden Hurst up the left seam. That play by Bush was astounding as he made a juggling catch while falling to the ground. Aside from the pick I thought Bush held up well against the run game and made a play in coverage, breaking up a pass.
Tyler Matakevich came on late to spell Williams and played a strong game against the run, filling lanes with force, racking up 4 tackles quickly. He also had an awesome open-field tackle on special teams.
Outside, TJ Watt continues to play at a star level. He had his hands full with Orlando Brown Jr., but Watt was up to the challenge and recorded a sack at home for the 9th straight game. He was a force against the run too, recording 3 tackles for loss.
Bud Dupree turned in another really good game too, sacking Jackson once (coverage sack) while also playing stout against the run. He even broke up a pass in man coverage while guarding Marquise Brown (dadgummit, Keith Butler).
Poor Ola Adeniyi. The kid was just trying to make a play and the horrendous NFL officiating got in the way. That’s not roughing the pass. I’m sure Rudolph wishes Thomas did that to him on Sunday, instead of what transpired.
DB — A-
For those still thinking Minkah Fitzpatrick wasn’t worth the first round pick: what more do you need to see? This is the best Steelers’ defensive back the franchise has had since Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were in their heydays. That’s not saying much, but Fitzpatrick is as good as they come. He tipped the ball into the air to set up Kameron Kelly’s first career interception, and flew all over the field making stops left and right.
I’m not sure what the Kansas City Chiefs thought they were doing in letting Steven Nelson walk, but thank you. The free agent signee has been terrific through 5 games and continues to provide shutdown defense opposite Joe Haden.
Speaking of Haden, he was pretty darn good on Sunday too. This cornerback tandem is playing some strong football right now.
Mike Hilton had another really good game, picking off Jackson late in the first half to set up a field goal, and continues to play fast, physical football coming downhill from his slot corner position against the run.
It was great to see Cam Sutton get some run in the first half, and he broke up a throw in the end zone to keep the Ravens off the board.
Terrell Edmunds continues to look clunky in space; I’m not sure what’s going on there. He seems unsure of himself in space. That said, he’s reading quickly and getting to the ball, so at least that’s a key step in the right direction. Now, it’s all about finishing.
Special Teams – C-
Chris Boswell is perfectly fine, folks. The Boz is back for good. There’s nothing more to say there.
Jordan Berry is having a heck of a year, too.
The issues with special teams are twofold right now: coverage units and return units. Both are abysmal.
Justice Hill ripped off a 46-yard kickoff return and wasn’t touched until Boswell made the top near midfield (let’s not do that again for Boswell’s sake), while the Steelers were pinned deep repeatedly on kickoff returns Sunday, starting inside the 15-yard line 3 times. That’s inexcusable.
The Steelers averaged 14 yards per kickoff return on Sunday. I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen a team average that low of a number in a game on returns that they truly tried on.