Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Raiders

One week after picking up a monumental win on the road at the Buffalo Bills, the Pittsburgh Steelers returned home to Heinz Field and dropped a tough 26-17 decision to the visiting Las Vegas Raiders in a game in which the Steelers lost both Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to injuries after already being without Joe Haden and Devin Bush, and then watched starting right guard Trai Turner get ejected late in the the third quarter, wrapping off a difficult loss in a game many thought would be a Steelers’ win.

Coming out of this one, I’m not as down as I expected to be if the Steelers were to lose to the Raiders, considering Las Vegas looks like a very solid team led by Derek Carr and an efficient offense paired with a sound, smart defense with a good pass rush. Knowing the Steelers dealt with so many injuries today too has me feeling about as good as I can be with a loss as I am right now.

It stinks to drop to 1-1, no doubt, but there’s simply no way this was your typical Steelers-play-down-to-opponent loss we’ve seen in the Mike Tomlin era. Give credit where credit is due.

That said, I’m still very, very concerned with the Steelers’ offensive line and the offense in general. They continue to look really rough, almost like watching paint dry. Unable to really get anything going offensively leads to a talented defense — already dealing with depth issues — becoming gassed in the second half.

Let’s move onto grades and try to get past this loss.

QB — C-

Look, Ben Roethlisberger is taking far too many shots in the pocket behind a porous offensive line. I’m concerned about his health throughout the season, because he’s taking a beating.

That said, he’s also just not performing very well overall. He’s not on the same page with Diontae Johnson a lot, is taking far too many downfield shots and throwing into space, wasting plays, and just really isn’t providing the offense with the spark many expected.

However, it’s still very early in the Matt Canada era and growing pains were expected. Roethlisberger’s prayer he threw up in the first quarter was ugly, but after that he was fine — nothing good, nothing bad. He did what he could getting rid of the football quickly behind the line of scrimmage, utilizing the middle of the field to JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, and connected on a downfield shot to Chase Claypool to set up a Steelers’ touchdown. Earlier in the game, Roethlisberger hit Johnson down the same sideline for 41 yards.

There’s just some concerns there with Roethlisberger that I have right now that has me questioning what this offense can even get to down the stretch. Lots of time left though.

RB — B-

I feel so bad for Najee Harris right now. Like I said earlier, I expected growing pains, but he just has absolutely no room to operate with on the ground behind the rebuilt Steelers’ offensive line. Harris rushed for 38 yards on 10 carries, including a long of 14 yards. Take away Harris’s 14-yarder and he averaged just 2.6 yards per carry. Not great, Bob!

Where Harris did make plays though was in the passing game where he received more work than he did in Week 1. Harris hauled in five passes for 43 yards and did a great job breaking a tackle and getting into the end zone on his 25-yard touchdown, diving across the goal line for the score.

He’s probably going to get even more work in the passing game on short check downs and option routes out of the backfield as the Steelers need to get the ball into their playmakers hands more often, and take some pressure off of Roethlisberger and the offensive line moving forward.

WR — C

Johnson turned in a strong day in the home opener, finishing with nine catches for 105 yards and a score, showing his ability to get work open with the best of the best in the NFL. The last touch of the game for the young receiver was rather baffling though as he took a meaningless hit on a play that didn’t matter and was down well after the game. Just a stupid all-around decision from the Steelers’ offensive coaching staff.

I did not like the way Johnson failed to work through contact on Roethlisberger’s early interception, giving up on the play leading to an easy interception from the Raiders.

Chase Claypool came up with a big 52-yard catch down the left sideline in the fourth quarter, but with all the targets downfield he struggled to complete plays and didn’t draw any penalties.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was really good on Sunday, coming through with a number of first down catches, finishing with six receptions for 41 yards and added a 3-yard rushing touchdown, showcasing his tackle-breaking abilities.

TE — C-

It might be time for rookie Pat Freiermuth to move into the true starting role ahead of Eric Ebron at this point. Freiermuth was solid on Sunday, finishing with four catches for 36 yards, working over the Raiders in the middle of the field. He was a solid check down option over the middle as the Steelers were in comeback mode.

Freiermuth was also a fine blocker through live viewing, providing a couple of key blocks on the Smith-Schuster touchdown and Harris’s 14-yard run.

As for Eric Ebron, he was once again below the line as a blocker and was below the line as a receiver, dropping his lone target in the game. We might be seeing the changing of the guard at the position as Ebron was rather quiet after that.

OL — D-

This group is really, really rough.

From Trai Turner getting ejected for absolute stupidity spitting on an opponent and Kendrick Green roughing it up after the whistle trying to establish dominance, to the Raiders racking up 10 quarterback hits and two sacks, the offensive line was largely an embarrassment on Sunday.

Dan Moore Jr. continues to struggle here and there on pass rush reps allowing pressure, but he hasn’t really shown much of anything in the run game.

Kevin Dotson was average on Sunday; he’s struggling to create much of anything in the run game, while Turner was basically invisible until the ejection. His pocket will be much lighter this week. At right tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor is nearly unplayable at this point. He gives up far too much pressure and allowed a sack on the day, and he’s a non-factor in the run game as he simply can’t move people off the spot.

I don’t know how this group gets even noticeably better week to week aside from just adding reps under their belts.

DL — B+

It’s a shame Tyson Alualu may be lost for the season due to the ankle injury he suffered early in the loss to the Raiders because he was pretty solid early in the game. Now, the Steelers are down yet another key defensive lineman, hurting the depth the Steelers seemingly had in the trenches on the defensive side of the football.

Following Alualu’s exit, I thought Cam Heyward was phenomenal once again. Heyward recorded a tackle for loss, broke up a key third down pass at the line of scrimmage and finished with seven tackles, once again being a force inside for the Steelers.

Chris Wormley was fine in limited action, finishing with a tackle and batting a pass at the line of scrimmage. With Alualu likely lost for the season, Wormley will have to step up in a big way for the Steelers, at least until Stephon Tuitt returns.

LB — B-

Prior to getting hurt in the second quarter, T.J. Watt was once again phenomenal rushing the passer. Watt recorded a sack and forced his NFL leading 14th forced fumble. Unfortunately, the Steelers couldn’t recover the ball. Once Watt exited, Melvin Ingram really showed what he could do in an expanded role. Ingram recorded a sack, drew a holding penalty and was all over the place for the Steelers.

Alex Highsmith was rather quiet, finishing with three tackles and a tackle for loss, but he seemed to draw some serious attention at times from the Raiders, who were certainly worried about the speed rusher opposite Watt and Ingram. Second-year pro Jamir Jones got some run too with Watt down, finishing with two tackles and a quarterback hit. Hopefully Watt doesn’t miss too much time.

Inside, with no Devin Bush due to a groin injury, I thought Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert were fine in place of the standout Steelers’ linebacker. Spillane flew around, made some plays around the line of scrimmage and held his own in coverage, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles and a tackle for loss. Schobert more than held his own in coverage, helping limit Raiders’ tight end Darren Waller to just five catches for 65 yards, though Waller came up with some big catches on Schobert in coverage late in the game, and gave up a big catch to Foster Moreau down the seam.

DB — C-

Aside from Henry Ruggs’ touchdown, the Steelers secondary was okay on Sunday, holding the Raiders’ passing game mostly in check without Joe Haden. That said, I really did not like seeing the Steelers blitzing Minkah Fitzpatrick so much, especially one week after the Steelers were super creative with him in coverage. You’d think the Steelers would have made sure Minkah was roaming around in the secondary with Haden down, but that wasn’t the case.

James Pierre was below the line on Sunday struggling in coverage at times, but it was nice to see him get additional run and learn on the fly, which will make him better in the long run. Cameron Sutton was rather quiet as well, playing almost exclusively in the slot from watching live with Haden out, forcing guys like Justin Layne and newly-acquired Akhello Witherspoon onto the field. Witherspoon was in coverage on Ruggs’ 61-yard game-clinching touchdown.

I did like what I saw from Terrell Edmunds, especially around the line of scrimmage. Edmunds finished with six tackles and two tackles for loss and really looked comfortable living around the line of scrimmage.

Special Teams – A-

Hats off to Chris Boswell for hitting the longest field goal in Heinz Field history Sunday, drilling his 56-yard field goal to make history.

Aside from Boswell, I liked what I saw from rookie punter Pressley Harvin III, who averaged nearly 50 yards per punt and down three of his four punts inside the Raiders’ 20 yard line, including one inside the 5 yard line.

Kick coverage was rather strong too, though the Steelers’ special teams had one gaff on a 16-yard punt return by Hunter Renfrow. I did like what I saw from Ray-Ray McCloud on his 32-yard kick return, though I hated seeing him get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a kick return that put the Steelers at their own 8 yard line.


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