Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Vikings

Another slow start, another wild comeback attempt that comes up short for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

At some point, the Steelers need to not wait until late in the third quarter to find their footing on both sides of the football if they want to make a run to the playoffs down the stretch.

That’s exactly what happened in Thursday’s 36-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in front of a national audience as the Steelers saw Ben Roethlisberger put together another vintage fourth-quarter performance to drag the Steelers up off the mat, but in the end it was too little, too late for the men in black and gold.

The run defense remains an absolute dumpster fire, the offensive line is a total trainwreck, and one young receiver is more worried about getting his individual shine on rather than winning a football game.

Let’s get to some grades, shall we?

QB — B+

Yes, Roethlisberger really didn’t find his footing until midway through the third quarter, but a lot of that wasn’t on him.

The veteran signal caller really turned the clock back on Thursday night and had one of his best performances of the season, throwing for 308 yards, three touchdowns and one interception and had the Steelers in position to pull off a historic comeback, if not for a tremendous play by Minnesota safety Harrison Smith as time expired.

Roethlisberger had some of his best ball placement of the season on Thursday night and was really in command from the get-go. He was under siege right away, but never flinched and had the Steelers alive and well down the stretch.

He’s starting to play some really good football as of late, which offers some hope overall for a potential run to the playoffs.

RB — B

Lost in Thursday’s debacle was the strong performance by rookie running back Najee Harris.

Harris rushed for 94 yards and a score on 20 carries and added 10 receiving yards and a touchdown on three catches, setting the Steelers’ new franchise record for all-purpose yards for a rookie running back in a single season.

Harris ripped off an explosive run of 23 yards and really ran hard once again, making a number of Minnesota defenders miss in space.

The frustrating part of Harris’s performance once again is that he simply doesn’t have time or space when he touches the football, which forces him to create on his own. It’s great to see him get into the end zone twice, but he continues to take a number of hits and has to create on his own far too much.

WR — C

Sure, the numbers from the Steelers’ receivers look pretty darn good in the box score, but it was a rather frustrating performance overall from a talented group.

Claypool cost the Steelers at least 6 seconds on the final drive, had a bad personal foul penalty in the first quarter, missed a block on a third and short play that forced a punt, and was just generally a mess until the fourth quarter when he really started to make some plays. The full Claypool experience was in affect Thursday night, and not in a good way.

Diontae Johnson had a rough night overall with a couple of balls bouncing off his hands, which were on plays he should have made, including one in the end zone on an incredible throw from Roethlisberger. He also had a bad holding penalty that wiped out a nice run for the Steelers.

James Washington really stepped up on Thursday and played his best game of the season, making two key contested catches, including one for a touchdown, that brought the Steelers within a score. He has been mostly a disappointment this season, but Thursday night showed some life.

Ray-Ray McCloud somehow caught six passes for 32 yards on the night and did an incredible job getting out of bounds late in the game to preserve some time. He’s becoming a better receiver and is starting to garner more snaps.

TE — C+

Pat Freiermuth had a nice game overall, hauling in two passes for 32 yards and a touchdown, but all anyone will remember is the final play.

It was an incredible pass from Roethlisberger, one that Freiermuth should have held onto, but guys like Smith are paid to make plays as well, and that’s what he did. Freiermuth was certainly taking the final play hard after the game, but he’s a big reason the Steelers had a shot late, thanks to his touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

He also had a good night overall as a blocker, moving people off the point to open some space for Harris.

OL — F

I am just running out of words to say about this offensive line.

Yes, I understand that they’re playing their third-string left guard, but the problems run much deeper than that.

Kendrick Green has forgotten how to snap the football and is a mess overall as a blocker, constantly on the ground or just absolutely clueless when it comes to blitzes and communication. Dan Moore Jr. appeared to be turning a corner against Baltimore but regressed very hard on Thursday night, while Chukwuma Okorafor can’t seem to make much of a difference at all at right tackle.

Then there’s Trai Turner, whose best rep may have been getting Claypool to snap out of his bone-headedness late in the game.

This group needs rebuilt in a hurry. Instead of showing signs of life as a unit, they’re regressing late in the season. That’s never a good sign.

DL — F

When the Cincinnati Bengals ran all over the Steelers a few weeks ago, I said I never saw a Steelers’ defensive line get pushed around like that.

Two weeks later, it happened again.

I understand injuries have completely sapped this defensive line and teams are just double and triple teaming Cam Heyward to negate him, but guys like Henry Mondeaux and Chris Wormley were absolutely pushed around on Thursday night, as was Montravious Adams, allowing Dalvin Cook to rush for 205 yards and two touchdowns, doing whatever he wanted early in the game.

Mike Tomlin said he’s not afraid to overturn any stone to find something in the trenches, but it’s rather bare for the Steelers right now.

LB — D

I was pleased to see Devin Bush making some plays on Thursday night against the run and the pass, but in the end it still wasn’t good enough as the Vikings ran the ball at will against the Steelers’ front seven with Bush playing a large part in that. Yes, he had a tipped pass that resulted in a turnover and he did lead the Steelers in tackles, so there’s progress there.

Still, not good enough.

Joe Schobert was rather rough too, as he’s struggling against the run and simply isn’t making any type of impact plays in the passing game. It’s frustrating.

The Steeles also worked in guys like Marcus Allen and Buddy Johnson at linebacker on a short week, and both were rather rough. Allen allowed a key late completion downfield, and Johnson missed at least one tackle in my live viewing.

Outside, T.J. Watt was non-existent on Thursday night as the Vikings negated him much like the Bengals did: by running right at him. He can’t hurt you as a pass rusher if he’s defending the run and trying to get off blocks. Once he left the game with an injury Derrek Tuszka didn’t do much of anything in his place, finishing with just two tackles.

Alex Highsmith had a decent game before exiting with an injury of his own. Taco Charlton had a couple of nice pass rushes, including a hit on Kirk Cousins in the redzone, but like Tuszka he didn’t do much overall.

DB — C

Cameron Sutton played his worst game of the season as the Vikings absolutely torched him with Justin Jefferson early and KJ Osborne late. He’s not a No. 1 corner, but he had to be Thursday night against an elite receiver and it did not go well as he allowed two touchdowns on the night.

Akhello Witherspoon is starting to play really good football. He’s still a bit of an adventure as a run defender, but he picked off two passes and is really starting to find his footing as he’s playing with more urgency. Maybe the Steelers unearthed something there.

I thought Minkah Fitzpatrick was the Steelers’ best player on defense on Thursday night. He was a sound tackler, had a great hit on Osborne that was a bogus penalty and without his play against the run Cook might have run for 300 yards. He covers up so many issues for this defense.

Terrell Edmunds was dreadful as a box defender. He took bad angles against the run all night, was a step slow in coverage and just really looked lost at times.

Special Teams — C

Chris Boswell missed a field goal early in the game, which should have been a sign of the choppy waters ahead in Minnesota. That’s two weeks in a row he’s missed a kick (missed XP last week), which is a little concerning. Hopefully it’s just a blip on the radar.

Punter Pressley Harvin III struggled throughout the night, out-punting his coverage, allowing DeDe Westbrook way too much room to create on punt returns. You simply can’t be doing that when you’re struggling to cover overall.

McCloud had an average night returning kicks, averaging 20.7 yards per kick return, which isn’t quite good enough. He also let the final punt from former Steeler Jordan Berry bounce and pin the Steelers inside their own 5 yard line late in the game, which just cannot happen. Call fair catch.



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