The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2020 regular season at the New York Giant’s home field. This is the first regular season game Pittsburgh has played with no fans in the stands. The Covid-19 pandemic eliminated preseason games and most NFL teams have not hosted any spectators due to the state health departments in their respective states. Here in Maryland, I could not even watch the game from my regular Steelers bar. They can have a limited number of people inside but had to close by 10PM so I ended watching the game from home. Frankly, I did not notice the lack of fans at the stadium. I muted the national broadcast and listened to Steelers Nation Radio who were viewing the game from Pittsburgh. Rob King, Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley did not miss a beat. It did take a little longer to learn about injuries to players but the play by play was solid and it sounded like they were there not hundreds of miles away.
Ben Roethlisberger’s return after his elbow surgery was the biggest question in this game. At least to this average Steelers fan. Also, how dominant would the defense be against a middling Giants team. David DeCastro was unavailable for the game. That meant Steve Wisniewski and Zach Banner would be starting at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Add that Matt Feiler was moving to guard after playing tackle for much of last season and it is a patchwork line this week.
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 Giants. Matt wanted us to watch how Ben Roethlisberger meshed with Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Matt also directed us to the tight end play and the offensive line especially with DeCastro’s injury. On defense, Matt focused our attention on the defensive backfield. He was looking for improved play by Terrell Edmunds and how coordinator Keith Butler deployed Minkah Fitzpatrick. Plus, would Cameron Sutton and Sean Davis play any defensive snaps in dime formations. For special teams, who would be returning punts. Finally, punter Dustin Colquitt was in his Steelers debut. How good are his punts and how well does he do as a holder in the kicking game?
Tyler Wise identified the key matchup to watch this week. Tyler focused our attention on tight end Evan Engram versus the Steelers linebackers and safeties. How will Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett scheme to get Engram open? Will the Steelers defense effectively communicate and cover Engram? Engram caught two of seven targets for nine yards. Great read!
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the five keys to a Steelers victory against the Giants. First, prevent Saquon Barkley gaining more than 125 yards from scrimmage. Second, outside linebackers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree strip the ball from quarterback Dan Jones. Third, James Conner returns to his 2018 form. The Steelers need to run effectively to relieve pressure on Ben. Fourth, the Steelers must score touchdowns when they reach the red zone. Fifth, the offense and specials teams avoid turnovers that give the Giants a short field.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Giants prediction. Alex foresaw a win if the offensive line reaches the second level, special team units avoid mistakes and the pass rushers pressure the quarterback to create turnovers. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if Saquon Barkley controls the game, Ben and the new receivers miscommunicate on routes, and the Steelers play sloppier than the Giants. Alex predicts the Steelers winning 27-14.
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 Steelers started the game with a huge special team miscue. However, they finished the first half strong with a brilliant two-minute drill scoring drive that put the Black and Gold into the lead for good.
WEAK RESPONSE BUT THEN TIE THE GAME
The Steelers fell behind 3-0 exceedingly early. The offense responded with a three and out. James Conner ran twice for five yards. Then Conner recovered an aborted snap. A very weak initial drive by Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense got the ball back and the offense conducted a six-minute drive that Boswell capped with a game tying field goal. The key play was Chase Claypool’s beautiful sideline catch for 28 yards that converted a third and nine into a first down. Benny Snell made his first appearance gaining nine yards on two carries.
OFFENSE EXPLOITS A SHORT FIELD
Ben Roethlisberger was tentative in another three and out following a Giants touchdown. T.J. Watt woke the offense up with his interception that gave Pittsburgh the ball on the Giants 36-yard line. Eric Ebron caught his first pass as a Pittsburgh Steeler gaining 18 yards and a first down following a delay of game penalty. Personally, I’m not sure the timekeeper had reset the play clock. Ben Roethlisberger connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster to score a touchdown on their first trip into the red zone. However, they were still losing 9-10 due to a missed point after touchdown attempt
THE PATTERN: THREE AND OUT FOLLOWED BY A SCORE
The Steelers offense had the ball six times in the first half. The pattern established was a truncated drive followed by a score. The Giants sacked Ben to start a drive. Then his third down pass bounced off Eric Ebron’s hands. The Steelers got the ball a final time 78 yards from the goal line with 1:32 to go in the first half. Ben passed the ball seven times for 67 yards and scrambled once for 11 yards. Ben’s 21-yard pass to James Washington took the Steelers up near midfield. JuJu caught two for 31 yards. Ben’s scramble took the Steelers into the red zone for the second time of the game. The Steelers and Giants exchanged timeouts. Then Ben found Washington who bulled his way into the endzone. He is country strong. The Steelers take their first lead of the game.
Two of four possessions capped by scores. The Steelers punt on the first possession. But are in the victory formation for the final one.
ANOTHER SCORE OFF OF A DEFENSIVE TURNOVER
The Steelers avoid a three and out to open the half thanks to a 14-yard Benny Snell run. The offense did not see the ball again until just over three minutes left in the third quarter. Heyward’s goal line interception gave the ball to the offense at their own 20-yard line. JuJu opened the drive with a nine-yard catch. Snell then ran the ball 21 yards but fumbled. An alert JuJu was there and outwrestled four or five Giants to keep the drive intact. Diontae Johnson picked up a first down. But then missed one. Johnson made up by catching an 18-yard pass and a third trip to the red zone.
Unfortunately, Ben had no one open and held onto the ball a little too long taking a 12-yard loss on the sack. Chase Claypool’s 11-yard catch brought the ball back into the red zone, but it was now fourth down. Boswell chipped the ball in to make it 19-10 and a two-score lead.
OFFENSE SMELLS BLOOD; FINISHES STRONG
Ben Roethlisberger looked increasingly comfortable as the game wore on. Snell’s running gave the passing game breathing space. Diontae Johnson converted two third downs with a pair of 11-yard receptions. Then Benny Snell ran 30 yards to take the ball into the red zone for a fourth time. Ben tossed his third touchdown pass of the game to JuJu who celebrated in the end zone. The only work left was to exhaust the Giants last timeouts and eat up the clock. Claypool ran for eight yards to convert a fourth and one. Ben somehow managed to kneel to finish the game.
James Conner injured his ankle early in the game, but Benny Snell stepped up. However, the Steelers lost offensive linemen Stefen Wisniewski and Zach Banner on successive plays on the final scoring drive. With Dave DeCastro already injured, the Steelers will have to dig deep to remodel their offensive line for week two. I felt especially bad for Banner who has worked so hard to get his first start at right tackle. Seeing him crying on the sideline was awfully hard.
Steelers fumble puts pressure on the defense early in the game. Key turnover puts the Steelers back into the game after ticky tacky penalty extends a Giants scoring drive.
EARLY GUTSY DEFENSIVE STAND SAVES FOUR POINTS
The defense forced the Giants to punt on the game’s opening drive after giving up a couple first downs. However, Diontae Johnson muffed the fair catch which extended the drive. The Steelers goal line defense faced the Giants on their own three-yard line. Bud Dupree stopped Saquon Barkley on the first play. T.J. Watt defended a pass intended for Darius Slayton on the second play. Giants quarterback missed tight end Evan Engram on the third. A gutsy stand that saved four points.
QUESTIONABLE CALL EXTENDS DRIVE AND GIANTS SCORE
Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett went to juggernaut Saquon Barkley on their second drive. Keith Butler and his defense said no. Three straight plays featuring Barkley netted minus three yards. Bud Dupree’s tackle in the backfield hammered the point home.
Garrett changed the pace on the next drive by going to the air. The Giants picked up two first downs with 11- and 12-yard passing plays. Quarterback Daniel Jones went for short strikes to make the defense chase the ball. Tyson Alualu tackled a runner for a two-yard loss. Then on third and nine Joe Haden defended a pass intended for Engram. After a hesitation, a referee’s whistle could be heard. Officials dinged Haden for defensive pass interference. The replay looked close to a clean play. As an average Steelers fan, I say it was a bad call. The Giants struck fast. On the very next play Jones connected with Darius Slayton for a 41-yard touchdown. Minkah Fitzpatrick may have bitten on a receiver underneath.
WATT OUTFOXES JONES AND DEFENSE FORCES TWO PUNTS
Following the Giants first touchdown and down 3-10, the Steelers offense went three and out. T.J. Watt leaped up out of nowhere to intercept Daniel Jones pass near the line of scrimmage. His interception shifted the momentum and woke up the offense who wasted no time in driving down the short field for a touchdown and within one after a missed PAT attempt. The defense stopped the Giants near midfield on the next two drives forcing punts.
The Giants reached the Pittsburgh 44 on Saquon Barkley’s 38-yard catch. One of his few positive plays. But then Evan Engram clearly pushed off Terrell Edmunds for offensive pass interference. Vince Williams sacked Jones on an inside rush. The nice clean hard shot put the Giants in a deep hole. On third and 27 Wayne Gallman gain 14 yards and the G-Men punted. On the next drive the Giants started with three negative plays. Bud Dupree flushed Jones and Stephon Tuitt collected a sack. Tyson Alualu penetrated the line of scrimmage to bring Barkley down for a two-yard loss. Damion Ratley then false started. The stadium sound crew piped in visiting Steelers fans to emulate a realistic Steelers away game. Barkley gained five of 18 yards needed on third down and the Giants punt again.
The Giants moved the ball a bit, but the defense was making plays that helped spark the offense and kept the game well within reach. The Steelers finish the half up 16-10.
The Giants had just three drives in the second half. The defense allowed the Giants two long drives and stuffed another. Fortunately, the defense held the Giants to just six points including stopping a two-point conversion.
DEFENSE BENT BACKWARDS BUT DOESN’T BREAK
The Giants marched 81 yards on 19 plays during their first possession of the half. The drive lasted almost nine minutes. Jason Garrett upped the tempo and the mix of players had Steelers defenders running all over the field. The defense allowed five third down conversions including a third and 14 and a fourth down conversion. Bud Dupree and TJ Watt disappeared during this drive. The defense looked gassed. The Giants reached the four-yard line and were certain to score. Suddenly, Bud Dupree chased down the quarterback who threw a wounded duck. Cam Heyward positioned at the goal line intercepted the ball for a touchback. The Steelers offense responded by setting up a Chris Boswell field goal off this huge turnover. A ten-point swing in the game.
THREE AND OUT HELPS STEELERS EXTEND THE LEAD
The defense did not take the field again until the fourth quarter and a 19-10 two score lead. Joe Haden corralled Sterling after a short four-yard gain. Barkley’s frustration continued. TJ Watt nailed him for a one-yard loss. He ended up with more rushing attempts than yards gained on the ground. (Barkley did gain 60 receiving yards). On third and seven, Dan Jones began to scramble but Mike Hilton leapt like a cheetah bringing down a gazelle. The sack pushed the Giants to their 34-yard line and a punt giving Steelers decent field position.
DEFENSE TOO LOOSE BUT TIGHTENS TO KEEP TWO SCORE LEAD
The defense gave up a 14 play 75-yard drive in the final Giants drive. But with 5:23 left forcing the Giants to chip away instead of making long plays kept the clock moving. The Giants started with three straight first downs including Daniel Jones scrambling 13 yards. They gained yardage, but the Steelers did not give up any huge plays. The Giants scored their touchdown after the clock sounded the two-minute warning. Daniel Jones missed his target on the two-point conversion which kept the Steelers with a two score lead 26-16.
The Steelers defense did not play a perfect game. Indeed, they gave up several long drives to a middling offense. However, they did prevent Saquon Barkley from taking over the game and made big plays at critical times.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goal kicking and blocking field goals plus any missed PAT attempts.
Boswell kicked off six times. Five of his six kicks were touchbacks. Boswell kicked one ball out of bounds in the second half. The Giants were able to start at their own 40-yard line, but the defense limited the damage by forcing a three and out
Graham Gano kicked off four times. The first two were touchbacks. He opened the second half with a kick that went to the one-yard line and Ray-Ray McCloud returned it 33 yards to the 34-yard line. Jabrill Peppers just caught his ankle otherwise he may have gained a lot more. His final kickoff was an onside attempt that JuJu Smith-Schuster gathered up to keep the ball in the Steelers hands. Advantage Steelers.
In his Steelers debut, Dustin Colquitt punted four times averaging 45.8 yards a punt. Defensive back Jabrill Peppers returned three for 39 return yards driving Colquitt’s net average to 36 yards per punt. He returned the first punt eight yards up to their 44-yard line. Next Colquitt booted a 59-yard punt, but Peppers broke some tackles and gained 20 yards before long snapper Kameron Canaday tackled him at the Giant 35-yard line. Peppers returned another long Colquitt 50-yard punt 11 yards to midfield. Colquitt did pin the Giants at nine-yard line on his shortest punt. A 35 yarder after the Steelers first drive of the second half stalled. The punt coverage unit requires retooling.
Graham Gano punted five times averaging 38.6 yards a punt. Diontae Johnson returned three punts for 13 yards so Gano matched Colquitt’s net at 36 yards a punt. All four of his punts had the Steelers starting at or behind the 25-yard line. Diontae Johnson muffed a fair catch extending the Giants opening drive and led to a field goal. He fair caught the second at the 18-yard line but did not look comfortable. Johnson attempted to return the third but only gained one yard falling at the 16-yard line. The Giants downed the fourth at the Pittsburgh 22. Diontae Johnson did return the final punt for 12 yards after gathering it in traffic. He made it to the 25-yard line, Pittsburgh’s best field position following a Giants punt. Will Mike Tomlin stick with Diontae returning punts? Advantage Giants.
Chris Boswell made both his field goal attempts. A 41 yarder to tie the game early. He added a 36 yarder in the second half to give the Steelers a two-score lead. Notably, Boswell missed his first of three extra point attempts. Not sure if this involved Colquitt’s hold or if he just shanked the kick. Gano made both his single extra point attempt and one field goal to start the game. Advantage Giants.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST REVIEW
- Limit Saquon Barkley to less than 125 yards from scrimmage. Barkley gained six yards rushing and 60 in the air. Mission accomplished.
- Outside linebackers pressure the quarterback and strip him of ball. Watt and Dupree did not sack the quarterback or force any fumbles. But Dupree’s pressure led to a sack on one play and an interception on another. Watt intercepted the ball. Mission accomplished.
- James Conner in 2018 form and run game relieves Ben. Conner only gained 17 total yards before ankle injury took him out of game. However, Benny Snell ran 113 yards in relief. Snell accomplishes the mission.
- Steelers score touchdowns from the red zone. The Steelers scored three touchdowns and a field goal during red zone opportunities; 75% equals mission accomplished.
- Avoid offensive or special team miscues giving Giants short field. Diontae Johnson fumbled punt let to three Giants points to open game. Poor punt coverage gave Giants good field position. Mission fail.
A rocky start with the fumbled fair catch. However, the Steelers defense forced key turnovers. Benny Snell ran well taking pressure off Ben who threw three touchdowns. The Steelers hung in the game and eventually took the lead and held it.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 1,193 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Excellent job Depot respondents! A horrendous start but the Steelers hung in there and took the lead for good late in the first half.
In this surreal pandemic laden year, Dave Bryan garnered the top comment with his simple greeting, “Greetings and thank you for being with us again this season.” Alex Kozora also scored high with a similar greeting, “Here We Go! Thanks for being with us, guys.” Many respondents simply want the distraction of Steelers football from all the craziness going on in the nation.
While the referees threw few flags in this game, one caught our attention when the stripes picked on Joe Haden’s tight pass defense. Thomas Johnson led the way with “Wow a bs pi call. Was commenting yesterday about how nice the referring was. Should have known the refs would be wonky in this game.”
MitchFanM wondered liked Bud Dupree’s play. He said, “Bud was trolling us for 2 yrs.”
Chris92021 likes the impact of a new addition to the coaching staff. “Those rub routes, that is all (Matt) Canada.”
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
A strong showing of 1048 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. The score was close to start the half, but the Steelers extended the lead in the fourth quarter. The Giants scored a touchdown but the failure of the two-point conversion kept a two-score lead for the Steelers.
The Steelers won the game but did not escape unscathed. Zach Banner’s knee injury late in the game drew many comments. DirtDawg1964 observed “Dang. Not sure how good Banner is but that dude fought hard for a starting gig.” Axel lamented “Banner crying…. not good. Poor guy worked his azz off…….looks like a torn acl.”
Steely McBeam did not like Ben’s sacks. “Can’t be a Steelers game without a bad sack by Roethlisberger.” Bearorbull replied, “We ride with our riverboat gambler.”
Early in the second half, Darth Yinzer was still admiring the end of the first. “Really liked that end of half drive by Ben.”
L Garou saw JuJu as one of the stars. “Great game JuJu. The fumble recovery was big…” Doug Brunker liked rookie Chase Claypool. “More Claypool please.”
First, watching from home I did not notice the absence of fans in the stands. Muting the national broadcast saved me from listening to the social justice and other non-football talk. I’m fine with the folks that want to listen in on the player’s messages but for me gameday is time to focus on the job at hand. As Mike Tomlin described to questioning reporters, “I’m fine with whatever messages a player has as long as it’s done with dignity and class.” Some may disagree with an opinion, but the Steelers organization supports players voicing their respective views. I agree.
The Steelers Nation Broadcast crew did an excellent job announcing the game remotely. Rob King, the temporary replacement for Bill Hillgrove did a very credible job.
I liked the tempo of the game. Few penalties and no long waits during “instant” replay reviews. Hope it is a trend that continues.
Ben Roethlisberger looked more and more comfortable as the game progressed. My blood pressure spiked every time I saw him grab at his knee or rub his arm. Seeing him with the wrap over his arm and hearing the Mason Rudolph was warming up before his terrific two-minute score at the end of the first half did cause momentary panic.
Three big injuries in the first game! I hope that all three are not serious. However, Zach Banner’s knee sounds like it may be the worst injury. Benny Snell looked good in relief of James Conner after he hurt his ankle. Stefen Wisniewski’s pec injury may cause a shakeup of the offensive line if he cannot play against Denver. Will Dave DeCastro be ready?
The two-minute drill to finish the first half was an offensive gem. The defense made the plays when most needed. Bud Dupree made a statement in this game. Watt and Heyward with big turnovers. The special teams need work especially punt coverage. Hopefully, Diontae Johnson sorts out his ball handling on the returns.
Football season is here in a chaotic 2020. Still Steelers win. Wrap it up and I’ll take it.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. The 2020 football season is now underway. The Steelers start with a win. 15 more games in the regular season. Hope to get to see the Steelers play in person. Here is Time is on My Side by the Rolling Stones.