It certainly wasn’t pretty but a win is a win and that’s just what the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up Sunday at Heinz Field over the depleted Denver Broncos.
Early on it looked to be a runaway win for the Steelers as Broncos’ second-year quarterback Drew Lock left early with a right shoulder injury, but the Steelers took their foot off the gas and had some mental mistakes leading to some back-breaking penalties that kept the Broncos in the game.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Terrell Edmunds came up with a huge 4th down sack of backup quarterback Jeff Driskel deep in Steelers’ territory, forcing a turnover that set up a 59-yard game-clinching run by James Conner to move the Steelers to 2-0 on the season.
Let’s get to some grades.
QB — B
The deep ball to rookie Chase Claypool showed that Ben Roethlisberger is all the way back, but it wasn’t all great for Roethlisberger on Sunday.
He was off on a few throws and also threw a terrible interception (kudos to him selling the block in the back on Alexander Johnson on the return). However, he showed real zip on the ball on intermediate throws and really succeeded firing strikes on out routes to the sideline all game long. Plus, his touchdown throw on the run to Diontae Johnson was a thing of beauty, while showing flashes of vintage Ben by extending the play.
Overall, the first two weeks of the season have been a really good start to Ben’s comeback season.
RB — B-
Well, well, well, all those Conner doubters are quite silent this week.
Healthy and carrying the load as the lead back on Sunday, Conner was allowed to get downhill and played well against the Broncos’ defense. He was again his shifty self and ran with anger, barreling through defenders much of the game. His 59-yard game-clinching run was great to see because the Steelers finally gave him a pulling guard and a fullback as a lead blocker, and he forced missed tackles in the process.
One week after having a career game, Benny Snell came crashing back to earth with just four touches on the afternoon, fumbling away the football in the process. Snell’s day overall? Four touches for one yard.
Jaylen Samuels flat-out isn’t good. I think we all know that by now. Samuels had one catch for 4 yards – a key third-down catch, but he nearly gave away the football deep in Pittsburgh territory on a screen pass that bounced off his hands.
WR — B
Johnson is maddeningly talented. He is so slippery in space and has really good hands overall, but his ball security is a disaster and he has focus drops at times.
He’ll flash with elite-level body control and insane twisting catches and then let the easy throws bounce off of his hands. All that said, it’s pretty clear Roethlisberger loves throwing the football to him, having targeted him 23 times in two games.
Claypool had the biggest play of the game, burning Essang Bassey for an 84-yard touchdown down the left sideline for his first career touchdown. The rookie out of Notre Dame finished with three catches for 88 yards.
JuJu Smith-Schuster quietly had a good game as well, catching seven of eight targets for 48 yards, moving the sticks multiple times throughout the game. James Washington was also quiet, hauling in just three passes for 22 yards.
This is a really talented group that will only get better as they get more comfortable with Roethlisberger.
TE — C
Eric Ebron had his best game in a Steelers’ uniform, hauling in three passes for 48 yards. However, he once again was bad as a blocker, no rep worse than the 3rd and Goal run late in the first half out of shotgun in which he was blown up, leading to the TFL.
Vance McDonald has absolutely disappeared as a player in this offense. His blocking is below average at this point and he’s just not finding much success as a receiver, dropping one Sunday while adding one catch for three yards.
OL — B+
Much, much better this week for the Steelers’ offensive line.
I thought Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor looked pretty solid Sunday in their first starts of the season in place of Zach Banner and Stefan Wisniewski. Dotson really moved some people around on the ground and looked adequate as a pass blocker.
Okorafor seemed to set the edge of the pocket well on Sunday, providing Roethlisberger plenty of protection throughout the day.
Inside, I thought Maurkice Pouncey and Matt Feiler had really strong days as run blockers and helped negate inside pressure in the pass game.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the bounce back the Steelers’ OL showed Sunday against a good Broncos’ front seven. Denver had just three quarterback hits and one sack on Sunday.
DL — C+
I wasn’t too thrilled with the run defense, especially early as the Steelers tried run blitzing often, leaving some huge lanes.
However, the defensive line turned it around an really set the tone, led once again by Tyson Alualu, who is having a breakout season for the Steelers as a starter.
Alualu recorded five tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits and a pass deflection on Sunday, wrecking the interior of the Broncos’ offensive line.
Cam Heyward had another really strong game, combining with TJ Watt for half a sack, while Stephon Tuitt was mostly quiet, finishing with just one tackle. However, the Notre Dame product did record two quarterback hits.
If they can clean the run defense up again, this defensive line could be the best in football.
LB — B-
Yes, Watt and Bud Dupree combined for three sacks and a forced fumble, while Devin Bush and Vince Williams combined for 13 tackles and three tackles for loss. However, much like the defensive line this group struggled against the run early and really struggled against the pass, especially late.
Devin Bush had a huge pass interference penalty (bad call) called against him and struggled to stay with Noah Fant in coverage, while Williams was beat by Melvin Gordon III for a touchdown on a wheel route.
I would have liked to see Dupree a bit more disciplined against the run, especially early, but they cleaned it up. Plenty of room for improvement with this group, even when they put up the stats that they did.
DB – C
Penalties, penalties, penalties. Regardless of how you feel about the calls, they happened and they were huge.
Mike Hilton had a really strong game off the edge on Sunday, but he had a boneheaded roughing the passer penalty that extended a drive and immediately led to a touchdown.
Minkah Fitzpatrick had multiple penalties on Sunday and missed a tackle early on in the game that led to a splash play for Denver. Joe Haden looks like he’s lost a half a step and got turned around a bit on Sunday. Add in a flag and it was a tough day. However, he picked off a pass that helped set up a Steelers’ score.
Edmunds had probably the most up and down game. He dropped an interception early, but at least he made a play on the ball. He later had a penalty that extended the Broncos’ possible game-winning touchdown. However, he came up huge with the fourth-down sack.
This group is making me a bit nervous early in the season, but all that said, it’s early.
Special Teams — B+
The return game is really rounding into form, thanks to Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud. Finally, the Steelers have some juice in the kick return game. McCloud’s 49-yard return was huge and was the longest the Steelers have had since Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard return against the Browns in his rookie season.
Johnson had a long punt return called back due to a block in the back penalty on Cam Sutton, but overall he showed his shiftiness and speed. That said, he’s still making the mistake of catching punts inside his own 10-yard line. That has to stop.
Chris Boswell drilled every kick on Sunday and never made us hold our collective breath. Dustin Colquitt on the other hand….man. That looks like a failed signing. The veteran averaged just 41.8 yards per punt and had a number of punts Sunday come up small. His leg just doesn’t appear to be there. The Chiefs moved on from him for a reason after a long, long time. Did they know something the Steelers didn’t?