Positional Grades: Steelers Vs Cardinals

We’re starting to sense a theme here with the Pittsburgh Steelers: Ducks fly together, and the offense has to not kill the Steelers to give the defense a chance to win games.

So far, it’s working as the Steelers have won 7 of their last 8 games, including three straight to place them firmly in the AFC playoff picture with just three games remaining.

On Sunday in Phoenix, the defense bent but didn’t break just enough, picking off Kyler Murray 3 times, while Diontae Johnson had the best game of his career, ripping off an electrifying punt return for a touchdown and hauled in a 2-yard touchdown on a dart from Devlin Hodges, helping Pittsburgh do just enough to pick up a 23-17 win on the road.

Let’s get to some grades and enjoy this one.

QB — A-

Aside from a throwaway, a batted pass and a miscommunication on an RPO, Hodges was nearly perfect on Sunday. He didn’t kill the Steelers, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, made some great plays with his legs and had at least 4 wow throws that helped the Steelers matriculate the football up and down the field on Sunday.

You’d like to see a couple more deep shots in this game to take a defender or two out of the box to help the run game, but overall he was smart with the football, took what the defense gave him, and knew when to make plays with his legs.

The 2-yard touchdown to Johnson was an absolute dart from the far hash, while the back-shoulder throw to Deon Cain was a thing of beauty. Then, his third-down throw to Johnson scrambling to his left was an NFL veteran throw. This guy has some talent to work with, and it’s helping the offense have some sense of balance, all while not turning the football over.

RB — B-

Benny Snell Jr.’s stat line isn’t going to look pretty (2.6 yards per carry, fumble lost), but I liked what I saw from him against a stacked box.

He ran with conviction and bad intentions, consistently falling forward against a stacked box. While the numbers don’t look great, the product was perfectly fine for me.

Along with Snell Jr., Kerrith Whyte Jr. continues to be quite the find. He’s explosive as all get out, and consistently makes plays with the football in his hands. He’s an ideal third down back moving forward.

I liked what I saw from Jaylen Samuels as a receiver on Sunday, especially early, but he just doesn’t have the lateral speed to get east to west when running out of the gun, which is what the Steelers predominantly do. He had a solid game though, helping Pittsburgh move down the field early in the game, setting up a field goal.

Right now, this running backs room is playing some good football. I can’t wait to see it with James Conner back in the fold this week.

WR — B+

Just 19 pass attempts total makes it tough for a wide receiver room to make a huge impact, but Johnson was outstanding on Sunday, carving up the Cardinals’ secondary, mainly against Patrick Peterson.

Johnson caught a big out-route along the right sideline to move the chains, made a great contested catch on his 2-yard touchdown, toe-tapping in the front left corner of the end zone for the score. Then he did a great job late working back to the football on a third and 13 throw from Hodges outside of the pocket. One week after having a poor game against the Browns, Johnson had arguably his best game of the year.

James Washington was rather quiet, at least on the stats sheet, but he did have a huge third down catch on a slant route to move the chains, and drew a big pass interference penalty to push the Steelers down the field.

Cain continues to really impress me in limited looks. His 22-yard back-shoulder catch was a great adjustment from the Clemson product. When he gets targets he makes things happen.

TE — C-

That’s one target for the tight ends and below average blocking once again for the Steelers’ tight ends.

It’s been a theme all season and it’s showing no signs of getting better. The Steelers aren’t utilizing the middle of the field well with Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett, and neither are making the expected impact as blockers for the Steelers.

Yes, the Steelers faced stacked boxes all day long against the Cardinals, but the tight ends simply aren’t getting it done right now in either phase of the game.

OL — B+

Hodges was sacked three times, but I counted two of those on him. Really, I thought the offensive line was pretty darn strong on Sunday as the Cardinals’ pass rush was mostly non-existent throughout the game, while the run game was serviceable against stacked boxes.

I thought David DeCastro was once again terrific inside, while Ramon Foster turned the clock back a bit, looking spry and healthy in the run game.

Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler did nice jobs on the edges against Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones, allowing just one sack (Jones) and just one quarterback hit in the game (Jones).

Maurkice Pouncey looked refreshed out there, which was great to see. The Steelers pounded the football throughout the game on Sunday, and that mentality started with Pouncey’s return.

DL – A

Man, the defensive line was terrific on Sunday.

Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu helped bottle up any semblance of a run game for the Cardinals, helping hold Arizona to just 71 rushing yards on 22 carries (3.2 yards per carry).

Heyward and Hargrave were both credited with sacks in the win, while Aluala continues to play well in Stephon Tuitt’s absence, although I’d like to not see him in space on Kenyan Drake on a swing pass into the flat.

Overall though, this unit set the ton for the defense, forcing the Cardinals to be one-dimensional early.

LB – A+

Really, this group was phenomenal on Sunday.

Bud Dupree continues to play at an incredibly high level, and that showed right away on Sunday. He made a terrific play on Kyler Murray in the backfield, and probably should be credited with 2 sacks in the win. Pay. The. Man.

TJ Watt also had a great game, intercepting Murray in the end zone to end a scoring drive while also recording a tackle for loss, pressuring Murray on the final throw of the game that led to an interception, and generally causing havoc in the backfield of the Cardinals.

Inside, I thought Vince Williams and Mark Barron had really strong games. Both recorded sacks, and Barron led the Steelers in tackles. He played well in DIME and wasn’t really tested in coverage.

Williams played really well against the run, flying downhill to make a few stops. Devin Bush was a bit of a disappointment though. He just didn’t show up much during the game, recording just two tackles. That might have a lot to do with the Cardinals running east-west, rather than north-south.

DB — A-

Aside from two throws, the Steelers’ secondary really clamped down on Arizona’s receivers, forcing the Cardinals to sustain drives, rather than the explosive-play scores.

Christian Kirk beat Steven Nelson on an over route for 31 yards, while David Johnson caught a 24-yard touchdown over the outstretched Terrell Edmunds for a score. I didn’t think Nelson did anything wrong on the Kirk catch as it was a great route and combination as well as a strong throw by Murray, while Johnson’s TD was a great throw as well. Edmunds needs to take a better angle though and needs to work on his vertical jump.

Joe Haden has put together back-to-back rock star weeks, which is just what the Steelers needed on Sunday. Haden made two strong plays on the football, resulting in two interceptions to help the defense carry the weight again. His first interception was a thing of beauty, baiting Murray into throwing that out route.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is on a turnover draught, but he made arguably the play of the day, tackling Murray in space on a read-option with a ton of open field around him. His read and react skills were superb, his angle was great and his change of direction was phenomenal. What a play.

I thought Mike Hilton played really well in the slot too, playing a key role in keeping Larry Fitzgerald quiet on the day.

Special Teams — B-

Johnson’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown was incredible. He has speed for day and he’s so elusive in the open field. That was great to see him put it all together on that one.

The coverage units were strong on Sunday, as was the kicking game. Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry continue to get it done at a high level. Not much more can be said than that in the kicking game.

However, the botched fake punt was a disaster, as was the converted fake punt by the Cardinals. I get why Tomlin wanted to try the fake, considering the looks the Cardinals gave on the previous four punts, but just punt the ball away and let your defense win the game.

As for the fake punt by the Cardinals, I won’t blame Danny Smith because Arizona hadn’t shown a fake punt almost all year. Kameron Kelly was right in position to make the tackle and whiffed. That’s on Kelly, not Smith.

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