PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS ARIZONA CARDINALS
The Pittsburgh Steelers got a key player back. They activated Maurkice Pouncey after he served his two-game suspension. However, two other players remain unavailable. JuJu Smith-Schuster cleared the concussion protocol but could not practice due to his injured knee. He ended the week running straight ahead but not cutting. James Conner continues to nurse his injured shoulder. He participated in some practices with the scout team.
NFL 100 ALL-TIME TEAM
Also, during the week, the NFL continued to name their top 100 all-time team as they celebrate the 100th year of the league. This week the NFL announced defensive backfield players selected to their all-time team. The NFL selected cornerbacks Mel Blount and Rod Woodson to their list. Both very deserving players. But the selectors snubbed safeties Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell. Both are glaring omissions. The Hall of Fame has an opportunity to correct the slight by placing both in the hall this year.
Blount and Woodson join four other Steelers on the all-time team. Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Chuck Noll all made the team earlier.
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Arizona Cardinals. Matt shined the spotlight on T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Watch them. Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray is their leading rusher. If Watt and Dupree keep Murray in the pocket and sack him a few times, the Steelers should be in decent shape. The defense limiting Murray’s production will neutralize their other offensive weapons.
Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch this week. Vance McDonald should have a big game based on the Cardinals past performance. Look for Haason Reddick covering McDonald one on one. Tom laid a marker down. McDonald should amass five receptions, 60 receiving yards and at least one touchdown.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the 7 keys to a Steelers victory against Arizona. First, a six or seven play drive in the first two series would be a pleasant change. Second, keep Murray contained inside the pocket on drop backs and get him down on the ground quickly when he runs to the edges. Third, use tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett early and often on Sunday. Fourth, the offense ends the giveaway streak. Fifth, Devlin “Duck” Hodges tests young and banged up cornerbacks deep multiple times at the right time. Sixth, Randy Fichtner gets their offensive linemen on the move in the running game particularly to their left side. Seventh, the Steelers avoid committing silly unforced penalties.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Cardinals prediction. Alex foresaw a win if the defensive front remains disciplined, the offense creates several explosive plays, and the tight ends produce yardage. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if Chandler Jones or Terrell Suggs strip sack the duck, the defense can’t contain bunched receivers, or cannot defend four receiver sets. Alex predicted the Steelers winning 28 to 17.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex’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?
The offense possessed the ball four times in the first half. They opened and closed the half with scoring drives. While we appreciate a score anytime the offense gets the ball, scoring on the opening drive and to close out a half is a super way to start and finish a half. Of course, touchdowns are preferable over field goals.
STEELERS SCORE ON OPENING DRIVE
The opening drive included twelve offensive plays that consumed eight minutes from the game clock. Fichtner fooled many by ordering up a passing play to start the offense. Hodges completed a short pass to Jaylen Samuels who scampered 18 yards. Kerrith Whyte electrified the crowd by racing 13 yards to just convert a second and 13 play into a first down. After Arizona sacked the Duck, he completed a seven-yard pass to Trey Edmunds on third and 13. Jordan Hicks targeted Trey with a helmet to helmet hit and the referees properly penalized him for unnecessary roughness advancing the ball to the 31-yard line. Then Benny Snell ran three straight times for another first down at the 19. On third and three, Hodges competed a pass to Samuels for no gain, but Hicks clearly hit him helmet to helmet. It is baffling why officials did not penalize Hicks a second time and even eject him. Samuels did have to be checked for a concussion. Such head hunting has no place in today’s football. Regardless, the Steelers settled for a field goal.
OFFENSE TURNS OVER BALL FOR 20th GAME IN A ROW
The Steelers received a huge boost from Diontae Johnson’s punt return for a touchdown. The Steelers got the ball back after the defense forced Arizona to punt. On the first play from the 34-yard line, Benny Snell fumbled, and old Steelers nemesis Terrell Suggs recovered the ball. Just like that, the turnover gave Arizona new life and they were back in the game with a field goal instead of the Steelers extending their ten-point lead.
The Steelers third drive did not score points, but the offense did push the ball into Cardinal’s territory. Hodges completed a 22-yard pass to Deon Cain on third and five to put the ball just past midfield. On third and seven, Vance McDonald caught his only pass for three yards. I am not sure if this is the play, but McDonald later left the game due to a concussion, but he recorded no more receptions and was out of the game by halftime.
FINAL DRIVE YIELDS POINTS
The game was tied when the Steelers got the ball with 1:51 on the clock and all three timeouts available. The offense gained three first downs on this drive. The first was a Hodges to James Washington completion for 12 yards. Then Hodges scrambled 22 yards for another first down. Finally, Diontae Johnson brought the ball to the 23-yard line on an 18-yard reception. But then Chandler Jones knocked the ball out of Hodge’s hands. An alert Matt Feiler fell on the ball to retain possession at the 36-yard line. Whyte ran up the middle for ten yards allowing Chris Boswell to break the tie to end the half.
Steelers conducted four drives in the second half. Two produced points and ate over eleven minutes. Just enough offense to hold a lead built and preserved by a special team score and big defensive plays.
ONE STEP BACK, TWO STEPS FORWARD
The Steelers scored to end the first half and received the ball to open the second. Unfortunately, they could not exploit the opportunity. Devin Hodges scrambled and tried to reach the ball out for a first down but was just short. The Steelers punt after just three plays.
The offense got the ball back thanks to Joe Haden’s interception. Benny Snell set up a second on one on his nine-yard run up the middle. Hodges converted it and then Snell ran for five more yards on the resulting first down. Jaylen Samuels gained nine and then Snell another four. Like a one-two punch. Hodges went to the air but threw an incompletion. The referees penalized Arizona as Byron Murphy interfered with James Washington’s attempt to catch the ball. Diontae Johnson followed that play by gaining 14 yards on a reception for first and goal at the two-yard line. Suggs stopped Snell for no gain but used Snell’s facemask as an aid. Two plays later Hodges completed a short touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson to cap the drive.
SPECIAL TEAM PLAY MAKES IT INTERESTING
T.J. Watt’s interception in the end zone prevented an Arizona score and gave the ball back to the offense at the 20-yard line. Washington caught an eight-yard pass for one first down but then the drive stalled. Two straight Snell runs went nowhere. On third and eight Hodges threw to Diontae Johnson, but Patrick Peterson smacked him down with only two yards gained. Most people would say that a punt was the logical move on fourth and six from the Pittsburgh 40-yard line. Jordan Berry fielded the snap hesitated and then inexplicably ran with the ball. Two Cardinals smashed into him jarring the ball loose for the Steelers second turnover. Arizona scored the touchdown that Watt prevented just five minutes earlier.
OFFENSE JUST GOOD ENOUGH
Pittsburgh started their last drive at the 16 following the prior debacle. There was 6:38 on the clock. Plenty of time for Arizona to either tie the game with a field goal or even take the lead. The offense responded with Hodges completing a ten-yard pass to James Washington on the first play from scrimmage. Byron Murphy interfered with James Washington a second time to give the Steelers another first down. DJ went around the left end for a further first down. Alejandro Villanueva’s false start created a third and 13 at the 26-yard line. Duck completed a pass to Diontae Johnson who gained 17 yards for a first down and as importantly stayed in bounds to keep the clock moving to get to the two-minute warning. Arizona dropped Snell for a three-yard loss at the 12 but had to use their second time out. The Steelers attempted a bubble screen with Diontae Johnson open but Hodges threw the ball awkwardly and it fluttered to the ground stopping the clock. The Cardinals expended their last timeout after Whyte’s five-yard run. Pittsburgh kept it close by scoring three instead of seven, but Arizona had to score a touchdown.
The offense was simply good enough.
The defense faced five Arizona drives in the first half. They forced Arizona to punt on the first three. Arizona began their fourth possession just 34 yards from the goal line following Snell’s fumble. After holding the Cardinals to a field goal, Arizona came back to gouge the defense for 85 yards and a touchdown to tie the game late in the first half.
CARDINAL PUFF: THREE DRIVES; THREE PUNTS
Mark Barron sacked Kyler Murray on the third play of the game. Larry Fitzgerald could not prevent the ball from hitting the ground on third and 17. Even if he caught the ball, he was well short of a first down. Arizona punts their first drive away. Bud Dupree’s offside negated a Javon Hargrave sack, but the Steelers held the Cardinals on third and five. The Cardinals punt again and Diontae Johnson runs it down their throat for a touchdown. The Steelers swarming defense rattled the Cardinals offense. The crowd noise from the many Steelers fans may have contributed to Maxx Williams false start. The Cardinals punt for the third time in a row.
DEFENSE HOLDS ONE DRIVE TO THREE, THEN BREAKS DOWN ON ANOTHER
Following Snell’s fumble and a running play Murray completed three straight passes for 25 yards. Javon Hargrave stopped Kenyan Drake for a short gain, but the Cardinals have a first and goal at the three-yard line. Steven Nelson stops Christian Kirk for no gain following a short pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick tackles Murray scrambling to his left for a one-yard loss. Vince Williams sacks Murray pushing the ball to the 12. Superb goal line defense by the Steelers limiting the Cardinals to three points.
The Cardinals marched 85 yards to score a touchdown just after the two-minute warning. The defense could not stop the Cardinals on this drive. The key to this drive was Arizona’s success on first downs. David Johnson ran for six yards on the opening play of the drive. Pharoh Cooper caught a five-yard pass on another. Kenyan Drake caught a short pass then scampered 18 yards on first down. Drake then followed that first down up with a ten-yard run. Christian Kirk’s four-yard reception was the Cardinals least successful first down of the drive. Murray threw to Kirk again on first down for a six-yard gain. Murray completed the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay. The defense gave up a long drive that allowed Arizona to tie the game.
The Steelers scored at the end of the half to give the defense a narrow lead to protect.
The Cardinals had four second half possessions. They threatened to score twice, and did score once but never gained a tie or took a lead. The defense came up with some big plays to prevent that from happening
HADEN HALTS AN ARIZONA DRIVE
The Cardinals started their first drive of the half at the 39-yard line following a 29-yard punt return. Terrell Edmunds bottled up Kyler Murray for a seven-yard loss to set up a fourth and eight at the 41-yard line. Arizona direct snapped the ball to Chase Edmonds as two Steelers appeared to block themselves out. Kameron Kelly may have been able to stop him, but Chase just made the first down and the drive continued. A few plays later A.Q. Shipley made a bad snap that Murray recovered and appeared to intentionally ground the ball. Instead, the referees called Tyson Alualu for defensive holding. I’ll leave it to the replay on what should have been the correct call. Arizona got to the Pittsburgh 26-yard line when Joe Haden intercepted a pass at the 23-yard line. The defense neutralized the scoring threat.
WATT PUTS OUT THE LIGHT ON A SCORING OPPORTUNITY
The Steelers increased their lead to ten points and kicked off to Arizona with two minutes left in the third quarter. Christian Kirk went 14 yards on third and six. Kirk then went 31 yards to the Pittsburgh 26. Steelers nation was getting nervous. Arizona called timeout to start the fourth quarter. They must have saw something that needed adjustment. Kenyan Drake ran for nine yards and then three more yards for the first down. On third and nine Joe Haden tackled Kirk to prevent a first down. On fourth and two in a two-score game most would opt to kick a field goal. Not Arizona. Murray threw the ball into the end zone and T.J. Watt intercepted the ball to stop another Cardinals scoring threat.
BUMBLED FUMBLE LEADS TO EASY ARIZONA SCORE
The defense did give up a touchdown following the Jordan Berry fumble. Murray eluded defenders for an eight-yard gain. Then he completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to David Johnson. Just three points separated the teams.
SACK, SACK, INCOMPLETE, INTERCEPTION
The offense extended the Steelers lead to six points. Arizona got the ball at their 25-yard line with 1:42 left in the game but no timeouts. Arizona had to pass the ball. The defense sacked Murray on first and second down. Cam Heyward sacked him on first down. Javon Hargrave strip-sacked Murray on second. Murray recovered the fumble, but Bud Dupree was there to tag him down. Murray missed Larry Fitzgerald on third and 22. A fourth and 17 was set up when Watt got a little overanxious to rush the passer. Murray passed deep to Christian Kirk, but Joe Haden intercepted the ball to give the ball back to the offense for the duck formation.
Three interceptions in one half trumped the touchdown given up. The offense, defense, and special teams played complementary football at the critical moments of the game.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).
Boswell kicked off five times. His first three kickoffs did not reach the goal line. Pharoh Cooper returned Boswell’s opening kickoff from the one-yard line to his own 33 before Mike Hilton tackled him. A holding penalty brought the ball back to the 23-yard line. Cooper fielded Boswell’s second kick at the one-yard line. he returned it 19 yards with Tyler Matakevich and Jordan Dangerfield combining to stop him at him at the 20-yard line. Cooper’s third return just made it to the 18 when Robert Spillane tackled him. Boswell kicked his last two deep for touchbacks.
Zane Gonzalez kicked off four times. His first two kicks were touchbacks. The Cardinals switched tactics on the next two. On the fourth kick, Kerrith Whyte fielded the third Arizona kickoff three yards just inside the goal line returning the ball just 12 yards. Whyte caught the ball at the four-yard line but only advanced to 12 yards to the 16-yard line.
TACTICAL DECISIONS ON KICKOFFS
It was interesting to see the two approaches. Pittsburgh kicked off short trying to pin Arizona behind the 25 early in the game. Meanwhile Arizona was satisfied with touchbacks. In the second half with the Steelers leading and Arizona trying to catch up; Boswell easily kicked it to the back of the end zone while Gonzalez kicked short. Arizona did force Pittsburgh to start from their own 12 to open the second half and the 16 later in the game. Advantage Cardinals.
Jordan Berry punted twice averaging 48 yards a punt. Berry’s first punt only traveled 27 yards but was fair caught at the 15-yard line. Any punt that results in the opponent starting behind their 20-yard line is a successful boot. Berry launched his second punt 69 yards. Pharoh Cooper got the ball at the ten-yard line and returned it 29 yards. Spillane finally tackled him. Berry demonstrated that he can punt long but outkicked the coverage unit unless some holding was going on. Berry’s fake punt that he fumbled faked everyone out. I’m sure he was the only person on the field who guessed he would try to run with the ball. A major fail.
Andy Lee punted three times averaging 55 yards a punt. Arizona bottled up Diontae Johnson who only returned the first punt two yards to the 22-yard line. Lee successfully reversed the field position. His next punt was his longest. It went 60 yards which Diontae returned 85 yards to score a touchdown. I credit most of the return to Diontae’s running skills. However, at about the 35-yard line a Steeler stepped in front of a would-be tackler using a blocking technique Danny Smith introduced this season to limit blocks in the back. It worked. Diontae signaled for a fair catch at the 34-yard line on the last punt. Pittsburgh was preserving a lead and did not want to risk a turnover. The fake punt on fourth and six resulted in a first down and extended a drive.
LONGER NOT ALWAYS BETTER
The longest boots by both punters resulted in long returns. Arizona returned Berry’s 69-yard punt 29 yards. Diontae Johnson returned Lee’s 60-yard punt for a touchdown. The Steelers return unit did not commit a penalty. Excellent job! However, the outcomes of the two fake punts were drastically different. Advantage Cardinals.
Chris Boswell made all three field goals attempted. He capped the Steelers opening drive with a 30-yard field goal. His 37-yard field goal to end the first half put the Steelers back in the lead for good. His last field goal extended the Steelers lead that meant Arizona needed a touchdown to win not a field goal to force overtime. Lee converted his only field goal attempt for Arizona’s first points of the game. While I always prefer a Steelers touchdown over a field goal, it is important to keep putting points on the board and Boswell’s nine were the difference in the game. Advantage Steelers.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST
- A six or seven play drive in the first two series. The Steelers first drive had 13 plays for 51 yards and a field goal. It lasted eight minutes.
- Keep Murray contained inside the pocket on drop backs and get him down on the ground quickly when he runs to the edges. The Steelers limited Murray to six rushing yards and sacked him five times.
- Use tight ends early and often on Sunday. McDonald received one pass and Vannett did not have any targets.
- The offense ends the giveaway streak. Benny Snell fumbled on the Steelers second possession. Jordan Berry then ran an ill-advised fake punt and fumbled the ball away.
- The Duck tests young and banged up cornerbacks deep multiple times. He only passed 19 times with four passes going 15 yards. But referees penalized rookie Byron Murphy twice for pass interference.
- Fichtner gets their offensive linemen on the move in the running game particularly to their left side. Snell ran left four times for just one yard.
- The Steelers avoid committing silly unforced penalties. Officials penalized the Steelers just four times for 20 yards.
Four of Seven make this a Close Affair
The Steelers successfully completed just four of seven tasks. The two turnovers were especially egregious. The Cardinals scored ten points off their turnovers. The Steelers early lead plus the defense containing Murray including five sacks plus intercepting his passes three times proved to be the difference in the game.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 754 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Well below the standard but the Steelers were hanging into the game with a narrow 13-10 led by the end of the half.
The few times television cameras panned the stands it was apparent a lot of Steelers fans were in the stadium. Steelers Depot regular Ravens Team Gynecologist was at the game and observed, “I think it’s 3 to 1 Steelers Fans in here!”
Axel had the top comment of the first half with “Ryan Switzer, it was nice knowing you.” Diontae Johnson’s magnificent 85-yard punt return for a touchdown gave Steelers fans a new appreciation of the special teams.
Ddrews 1914 liked the defense containing Murray. “Man, Minkah is a smart disciplined football player.” Murray was on the loose, but Fitzpatrick dropped him for a one-yard loss on a second and goal play at the three-yard line. The Cardinals would settle for a field goal after Vince Williams sacked Murray on the next play.
B Harris reluctantly accepted the field goal to end the half. Like other Steelers fans he wanted more. “I’ll take the 3, and the ball coming out of the half. Tomlin needs to tell Randy to stop bull$#&++: *”, and let Duck play some football.”
Many folks agreed with Alevin16 who was happy with a new purchase. “Glad I bought that home defibulator.”
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
A slow start finished strong with 1010 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. The game became too close for comfort, but interceptions soothed our nerves.
Tom White said “Edmunds gotta have the worst ball skills in football. Between him and Barron.” It looked like he misjudged the ball and stepped slightly forward just missing he ball as it landed in the receiver’s hands for a touchdown. Yoi.
Michael Cunningham liked the duck extending a play and whipping the ball to Diontae Johnson to set up a first and goal near the end of the game. “That was a major league NFL fastball and very quick reaction too. Duck knows how to play this game … you either have it or you don’t”
Wvupittsburgh is impressed with Kerrith Whyte’s speed. “Whyte’s presence makes plain how badly the Steelers need speed on O. He has another gear that the other backs just don’t have.”
FranchisePunter has a moniker for Diontae that folks like: “Dynamite Johnson!!!”
Chad Weiss likes what’s happening with this year’s Steelers. “Hard to play much better than Duck did. Run the ball and play defense is formula for success”
Ddrews 1914 had the top comment for the whole game: “8-5 for this team with a big game next week…. unbelievable.” Who would have thought this a few games ago?
RMSteeler like all but the most cynical Steelers fans appreciates the effort of the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers. “Most entertaining season in 10 years. But, my heart….”
I told all of you, #SteelersNation is a force in AZ and where ever we go. Coolest sight to see all those towels waiving. It gave me chills & such pride for what this team is doing & has done. We came, we saw and we won.
— Stevi Lynne (@slrg777) December 9, 2019
Honestly, I am happiest when the Steelers win 45-0. But this season has been exciting. Excitement includes a state of agitation since we cannot foresee the outcome. The Steelers face a lot of adversity. They lose the starting quarterback. The back-up shows some flash then fizzles. Now we have a quarterback that the team cut at the end of camp. He’s now three and 0 as a starter.
The starting running back and number one wide receiver injured. An assortment of back-ups and practice squad players step up at critical times. The defense has developed into a weapon. Interceptions forced fumbles and sacks. Oh my!
Mike Tomlin’s evaluation was spot on. All three phases, offense, defense, and special teams created big plays but all three made mistakes as well. Even professional teams very rarely achieve perfection. What is wonderous is that many of the players making big plays on offense are unheralded. The defense living up to its pedigree as are the specialists.
Up until now, the offense has produced just enough. This coming Sunday night, they face a much better defense. Can the Duck and company produce enough points to beat the Buffalo Bills? Can the defense corral another young talented quarterback? We will see. Regardless, the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers enchant me.
Are you a Steeler Believer? I am. Not a trace … of doubt in my mind!