Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Broncos

Well, that was much needed from the men of steel!

The offense showed serious life in the run game and through the air, the defense did just enough early on to hold on late, and a number of key players came through in the clutch, making plays to help the Steelers pull off a 27-19 win at Heinz Field Sunday afternoon over the Denver Broncos, improving to 2-3 on the season.

For the second week in a row, the Steelers ran the football efficiently, got after a short-handed Broncos’ front seven early and often, and Ben Roethlisberger hit most of the throws that he needed to, leading to the 8-point win at home.

Let’s dive into some grades.

QB — B

It was a much better performance overall from Roethlisberger, who started the game fast for the Steelers with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson on the Steelers’ opening drive, marking the second straight game the Steelers have scored on an opening drive, which is a great sign.

Throughout the game, Roethlisberger was able to hit throws he needed to, pushed the football down the field when he had to, and even took a shot in the middle of the field to Chase Claypool for a touchdown, taking advantage of an area of the field he hasn’t used much – if at all — this season.

He really threw the football well and didn’t have many accuracy issues overall, which is a good sign. That said, he did miss some throws on the day, including a wide open crossing route to Ray-Ray McCloud while under pressure, and misfired badly on an early throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the red zone. He also got a bit lucky as the Broncos dropped two would-be interceptions in the Steelers’ win.

Overall though, it was a much, much better performance from Roethlisberger, who has struggled mightily this season.

RB — A-

Have yourself a day, Najee Harris!

The rookie had his true breakout performance, rushing for a career-high 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, including a long of 20 yards in the win.

Harris consistently rolled downhill in the run game and was a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Harris even added two catches for 20 yards and helped the Steelers have serious balance on offense overall, which was much-needed.

Harris did leave the game with what appears to be cramps, so Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage had to carry some of the load. Neither were very good, though Snell helped drain some clock offensively, though he couldn’t pick up a first down in space. Snell finished with 20 yards on five carries, while Ballage rushed four times for no yards.

Harris was the star though, and that’s a great sign going forward for the Steelers’ offense.

WR – B-

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better receiver for the Steelers’ offense at the moment than Diontae Johnson.

Johnson has been fantastic early in the 2021 season and continued that on Sunday, opening the game with a 50-yard touchdown and then finished the game with just one other catch for 22 yards on the catch-and-run. The Broncos focused so much attention on Johnson that it opened up the passing game for guys like Chase Claypool, who feasted in the slot after JuJu Smith-Schuster left the game with a shoulder injury.

Claypool finished with five catches for 130 yards and a score, including an impressive 59-yard catch-and-run out of the slot on the very next play after Smith-Schuster left the field, dusting safety Kareem Jackson, who injured JJSS on the hit.

Cody White had some typical ups and downs for a young player. White had a key block on one of Harris’s big runs, but then had a bad drop on what should have been a 20-yard gain on the same drive.

Ray-Ray McCloud should get a ton of credit for breaking up a potential interception early in the game, sprinting in to make contact with Broncos’ defensive tackle Mike Purcell to ensure the big man couldn’t make the interception. As a receiver, McCloud should have had a walk-in touchdown, but Roethlisberger missed him badly while under pressure.

TE — B-

I really, really liked what I saw from this group overall in the run game. They were key in helping open lanes and getting to the second level to get hats on linebackers, springing Harris for chunk runs.

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry have really settled into the 12 personnel grouping, moving bodies in the run game. Gentry even had a terrific 13-yard screen pass that was perfectly executed. Freiermuth had just two catches for seven yards, but one went for a gain of four, moving the chains on a key third down.

Eric Ebron continues to slowly get phased out. He had just two catches for 10 yards and wasn’t on the field often.

OL — B+

This group was really, really good on the day.

The young linemen gelled in front of our eyes today, got after it in the run game and really made a difference offensively, allowing the Steelers to stay balanced and punch the Broncos in the mouth drive after drive, leading to Harris’s career day on the ground.

Pass protection was pretty strong too as the Steelers’ OL allowed just one sack and two quarterback hits of Roethlisberger — easily the best performance of the season for the young group.

All that said, there were some penalties on the day. Kevin Dotson called for a holding that killed a drive, as did Kendrick Green. Green was also called for an illegal linemen downfield, though it was an iffy call. Overall though, this group showed real, tangible improvements. That’s important moving forward.

Aside from a false start penalty, I thought Chukwuma Okorafor was really good in his return to the lineup on Sunday. He was

DL — C+

This group is still shorthanded and is struggling to stop the run on a consistent basis, which is a concern. However, hats off to this group against the pass, specifically Cam Heyward.

He’s a master at batting passes and getting into passing lanes, becoming an extra defensive back when he can’t get home on the pass rush. Heyward batted down two key passes on Sunday, helping the Steelers get off the field.

Henry Mondeaux recorded a sack on a beautiful spin move to the inside of Graham Glasgow, and rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk should have had his first career sack, if it was not wiped out by a penalty that the Steelers accepted.

I thought Isaiah Buggs was rather sound against the run in the second half, but there were issues overall with this group against the run early on that allowed the Broncos to stay balanced offensively.

LB — B-

This group was pretty solid overall early on as Devin Bush and Joe Schobert took away the Broncos’ top option in Noah Fant through three quarters. Once Bush went down though, the Broncos’ offense found life, moving the football down the field.

I really though Bush and Schobert was fantastic in coverage throughout the game, taking away the middle of the field for Fans and the running backs. Bush recorded a sack for the second straight week and was a real menace as a pass rusher. Schobert finished with five tackles and broke up a pass intended for Fans on the afternoon.

Robert Spillane was just fine in place of Bush, but the defense is sorely lacking in the middle of the field when Bush is out.

Outside, T.J. Watt had so much attention focused on him that he wasn’t able to make much of an impact as a pass rusher, though he did record two quarterback hits. Watt was terrific against the run though, setting the edge time and time again, and added a big tackle for loss early in the game.

Alex Highsmith struggled at times against the run and was out of position on Denver’s 49-yard run by Javonte Williams. Melvin Ingram continues to be so close to making a play in the backfield time and time again. He’s just missing out on sacks.

DB — C

Minkah Fitzpatrick receives a ton of criticism as of late due to the lack of plays, but he was really good on Sunday. Fitzpatrick played the run well and was sound in coverage throughout the game. Fitzpatrick led the Steelers with 10 tackles, largely against the run. His only real gaffe was on Williams’ long run.

Terrell Edmunds was fantastic on Sunday. He continues to put together a great season for the Steelers. He had great coverage on a throw into the end zone and was instrumental in taking away Fant throughout the game. He’s quietly showing he deserves an extension.

At cornerback, Joe Haden struggled throughout the game, as did James Pierre with Cam Sutton out, but the two bounced back in a big way late as Pierre made two great plays on the football late, ending the game with an interception, while Haden had a pivotal pass breakup in the end zone late in the game.

Arthur Maulet continues to impress overall out of the slot. Maulet had two tackles and broke up a pass in the game, but he was burned in coverage late in the fourth quarter as the Broncos clearly targeted him as the conflict player and made him make tough decisions.

Special Teams — B+

This grade is only a B+ due to the holding penalties on returns on Sunday.

Other than that, the special teams was really good for the Steelers. Chris Boswell continues to be money on field goals at Heinz Field, while Pressley Harvin showed off his big leg, averaging 59.5 yards per punt on his two punts, adding a 63-yard, field flipping punt in the win.

That’s what you want to see at this point in the season from the rookie punter.

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