In a low scoring stagnant offensive performance by the Steelers, the defense shows up big in a 19-13 win, bringing Pittsburgh to a 7-6-1 record! In this article I will provide data from Pro Football Focus and takeaways from watching the film.
Let’s start with the offense:
The PFF grades are largely reflective of the poor offensive performance, topped this week by tight end Pat Freiermuth at 74.6, and tackle Dan Moore the only other 70+ grade. The lowest graded player was wide receiver Chase Claypool at 49.5, along with several starters discouragingly on the bottom left of the graph.
The Steelers offense got the ball to start the game and began with play action, bringing Claypool across the formation which drew two linebackers with him, creating space for wide receiver Diontae Johnson’s route short over the middle for the catch and run for 16 yards! On the following first down Pittsburgh went empty then motioned running back Najee Harris to the backfield for his first carry from pistol formation behind pulling blocks from left guard John Leglue and Freiermuth, and despite an impressive slither through the hole and fighting through a tackle by right guard Trai Turners man, was only able to gain two yards. Second and eight was an odd play where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went incomplete to Harris, with a two handed “chest pass” as you would see in a basketball game along with Moore and Leglue late off the snap. Third and eight now, Roethlisberger targets Claypool deep right who nearly makes a great contested catch, but the defensive back had a great pass break up forcing the punt.
After Pittsburgh’s defense provided a three and out, the offense returned quickly at 11:16 with a first down pass intended for wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud but was batted at the line incomplete. On second and ten Roethlisberger looked left on the drop back and had tight end Zach Gentry open, but instead hangs on and rolls out with Moore getting pushed back, eventually throwing to wide receiver James Washington but the pass was underthrown and incomplete. Third and ten now, and Johnson runs a short in route for the catch but runs sideways limiting yards after catch for the three and out. Another short drive, still no score.
With 7:41 in the first quarter, the offense returned down by seven with a Harris run but no room with tight end Pat Freiermuth losing his block allowing the tackle for only one yard. On second and nine Roethlisberger play actioned from pistol but passed up Johnson who was open, then dropped for the sack allowed with Moore missing his block. Third and 14 now, and Roethlisberger threw behind Harris on the screen pass incomplete for the second straight three and out! Steelers still down by three.
The offense returned with 1:06 in the first quarter, starting with a nice fake to Harris and reverse toss to Johnson with a great block by Freiermuth out in front for a ten-yard gain! The following first down Leglue got beat in the middle, but Harris was able to fight forward on the run for three yards. On second and seven Johnson got the screen and stiff-armed a tackler for yards after catch on the gain of six. Turner was penalized for a false start here, crucial mistake on third and short. Third and six now, and Roethlisberger targeted Harris in the flat and despite eluding three defenders was only able to gain three forcing the fourth straight punt. Stagnant offense, deficit is 10.
Pittsburgh’s offense got the ball back quick with 12:46 in the second quarter after the defensive takeaway, starting with some trickery from pistol and sending McCloud in motion who got the flip but then tossed to Claypool on the reverse with Harris and Johnson providing good blocks in front to spring him for 12 yards! The following first down was a false start on tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and third team penalty already! This set up first and 15 where Harris got the carry with center Kendrick Green pulling but embarrassingly pancaked by a linebacker who blew up the play for no gain, with Roethlisberger also taking a huge hit on the handoff. On second and 15 Roethlisberger got the quick pass to Freiermuth, breaking a tackle for yards after catch and good gain of 11. Third and four now, and Roethlisberger play actioned then targeted McCloud in the end zone, but the throw was out of reach and incomplete. No touchdown but capitalized on the defensive takeaway with a field goal, down by seven.
Finally getting the ball back after Tennessee’s 10+ minute drive with only 12 seconds left before halftime, Roethlisberger targeted Freiermuth on two straight plays, the first for 14 yards. After a timeout the second play gained seven where Pittsburgh frustratingly needed a deeper target for field goal range. After taking their final timeout with five seconds left, Roethlisberger found Washington who ran out of bounds on the 19-yard gain with just enough time for the field goal attempt, but the long 56 yarder was no good. Same old story for Pittsburgh’s offense, sloppy start, not sustaining drives, no first half points, still trail by ten.
The offenses’ first drive of the second half began at 11:26, Pittsburgh play actioned but former Steeler linebacker Bud Dupree came clean off the edge with Turner unable to get to him on his pulling block and Harris being pancaked allowing the second sack of the day on Roethlisberger! The Steelers got some yards back on second and 19 on an offsides penalty on Tennessee, setting up second and 14. Claypool dropped a screen pass here, thinking about the run and taking his eyes off the ball for a frustrating third and long. Third and 14 to be exact, and Roethlisberger elected the short dump off pass to Harris, which had no chance for the first down on the gain of six. Where’s the aggressiveness? Another short drive, deficit still 10.
With 7:07 in the third and the defense providing another stop, beginning with offsetting penalties on a Turner hold that unfortunately negated a deep defensive pass interference. Claypool got the jet sweep on the replay of first down, with a good block by Freiermuth to free him for a seven-yard gain. On second and three Harris ran into an initial hole up the middle by Turner, Leglue, and Green but the latter was pushed to the ground on the second level by a linebacker again stopping the run for two yards. Third and one now, play action to Harris who was then pushed back on his pass block, but Roethlisberger just gets it off to Freiermuth for five yards for a big third down conversion, but takes a huge hit to the head but amazingly holds onto the catch and stayed upright/shocked after the hit (that was penalized for 15 more yards) that would take him out for the game.
Gentry got the tight end screen on the following first doen, providing impressive yards after catch along with good blocks from McCloud and Moore downfield, then running over a defender to get past the sticks and 17 yards total! The offense is finally gaining momentum with a fifth straight successful play, this one a toss to Harris with a good pulling block from Okorafor and McCloud engaging his block to spring him to the sideline for the gain of seven! This set Pittsburgh up in the red zone for the first time on second and three, where Roethlisberger targeted Claypool who had a chance on the incompletion in the end zone, luckily Tennessee was called for pass interference setting the offense up on the one-yard line! First and goal was a run where Moore got pushed back, Green pushed to the ground, and Turner losing his block forcing a tremendous effort by Harris to fight, churn, and extend for the goal line but stopped just short. On second and goal we got a rare quarterback sneak from Roethlisberger but went down before putting the ball across the plane. Big third and goal here, and surprisingly a second Roethlisberger sneak in a row with more space between Green and Turner to easily get the touchdown! Third times the charm from the one-yard line, huge drive to cut the deficit to three!
With 50 second left in the third quarter the offense returned with good field position off the defensive fumble recovery down by three, and began with a fake to the right then toss to the left with Harris but too many defenders to block on the short two yard gain. On second and eight Roethlisberger found Washington for the catch on the out route just past the sticks and 12-yard gain to close out the third quarter.
The drive continued on first and ten to begin the fourth quarter, another miscue over the head of Harris on the screen pass falling incomplete. Green was beat late allowing his man to hit Roethlisberger’s lower legs, which was penalized for roughing and a first down, negating the catch and fumble by Washington caledl on the play, but all the hits on Ben are painful to watch. This set Pittsburgh up in the red zone, going with Harris on the ground with good overall blocks and battle from both teams on the gain of three. On second and seven Pittsburgh suffered another big penalty, a false start on Johnson setting up second and long. Washington got the short target on second and 12 after a Roethlisberger pump fake for the five-yard gain. Third and seven now, and Roethlisberger stuck with Washington as the target over the middle in the end zone, but was triple covered and falls incomplete. No touchdown was huge, settling for another field goal with good field position on another defensive takeaway, tie game.
The offense returned with 9:16 left in the game of another takeaway by the defense, starting with a screen to Johnson for a seven-yard gain. On second and three, Green was beat falling to the ground along with Leglue also getting beat, stopping Harris’ run for a loss of two. Third and five now, and Roethlisberger dropped back but an ill-advised step up into the pocket resulted in his third sack of the game! Another short field only resulting in a field goal, but gave Pittsburgh their first lead 16-13!
Another quick return thanks to the defenses fourth takeaway with 6:36 left, the offense began with a good run behind a good push from Turner, Okorafor, and Gentry, Harris was able to make a good cut on the successful gain of six! On second and four Harris got the toss but was cut off with Turner being pushed back, then reversed field but nowhere to go due to Gentry whiffing and falling, resulting in a five-yard loss! Third and nine now, and Pittsburgh ran a rub concept, but McCloud was knocked to the ground failing to free Johnson on the short drag route at the line of scrimmage, frustratingly wondering where the aggression is but come away with points again on another field goal! Six-point lead!
With a huge defensive stand to end the game, the offense was able to take a knee to secure the huge six-point win!
Now for the defense:
PFF credits the Pittsburgh defense largely but thought linebacker T.J. Watt should have been graded higher along with a slight bump for cornerback Joe Haden. The highest graded player this week is linebacker Derrek Tuszka at 92.7 on his 20 snaps, along with six others with 70+ grades. Wanted to note safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick have overlapping dots since both had 80 snaps with a grade difference of 0.1, with the former winning out. The below 50 grades this week were linebacker Joe Schobert, defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis, and linebacker Devin Bush with the lowest grade of 31.5.
Pittsburgh’s first defensive drive came at 13:23, opening things strong with nice hand usage and a sack from defensive lineman Chris Wormley! Tennessee ran for the first time on second and 18, with cornerback Arthur Maulet coming off the opposite edge and tracking the ball for a great tackle for only three yards! Third and 15 now, Tennessee ran a screen to the running back and with Pittsburgh playing off zone coverage was able to rally for the stop with Fitzpatrick making the tackle! Great defensive start, three and out, no score.
At 10:10 in the first quarter, the defense was put in a bad position by an explosive kick return and penalty, and allowed a successful run with Watt and Wormley unable to make the play at the line and Edmunds there but allowing yards after contact with defensive lineman Cameron Heyward combining to make the tackle on the gain of six. This already got Tennessee into the red zone on second and four, where quarterback Ryan Tannehill had his pass tipped by Heyward but still completed for the first down with Maulet in coverage and the tackle.
On first down linebacker Alex Highsmith and Mondeaux both worked off their blocks well and combined for the tackle on the short gain of two. Tannehill dropped back on second and eight, and Watt brought good pressure off a twist rush with Bush reacting well to undercut the route but dropped the interception on a huge missed opportunity! Third and eight now, and Watt got near Tannehill again who was forced to throw short against off coverage, where Maulet forced the run back inside, but Schobert and Highsmith missed tackle opportunities and Fitzpatrick finally making the tackle after 11 yards. This set up first and goal from the one-yard line where Tannehill took it in on the quarterback sneak with Mondeaux and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk pushed back easily for the score. Tough situation for the defense who can’t overcome, Steelers down by seven.
The defense was put in another tough position off a bad punt, allowing a 12-yard reception on first down where Fitzpatrick closed quickly on the tackle. Tennessee went to the line quick, and got Heyward to jump on the encroachment penalty setting up first and five. Davis, who just returned to the lineup, provided a great play shedding the block and working to the ball with Tuszka setting the edge and combining for the tackle. On second and two Tuszka chased Tannehill forcing the short throw with Edmunds in good coverage and making the tackle for only one yard. Third and one now, and Heyward gets in the backfield but runs to Tannehill instead of the rusher who got the hand off and ran behind a block that washed Wormley out, then Fitzpatrick came up for the tackle but a conversion and gain of eight!
The drive continued with a screen pass where Maulet came on the corner blitz disrupting the timing on the incompletion. On second and ten Tennessee got another successful run for nine yards on a toss with good blocking, linebacker Robert Spillane missing an angle, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon pushing him out of bounds. This set the Titans up in the red zone on third and one, and Heyward was caught up again in the backfield going with the back this time, but Tannehill decided to keep it for the scramble for two yards and the first down, with Fitzpatrick and Heyward continuing to pursue for the combined tackle. On first down Tennessee targeted the back on a Texas route going through his hands with Bush in trail coverage. On second and ten Watt set the edge well on the run with Loudermilk working through his block for the nice tackle for only one yard. Third and nine now, and Watt gets in Tannehill’s face on another pass to a running back where linebacker Marcus Allen had good coverage, making the tackle for only four yards and a third down stop! Good job tightening up and holding them to a field goal, down by ten.
With 14:18 in the second quarter, Loudermilk provided another good run stop on first down ripping around the tight ends block from a defensive end position for only two yards with linebacker Taco Charlton combining for the tackle. On second eight cornerback Cameron Sutton set the edge on the run where Wormley and Charlton combined for the tackle on another short run of three yards. Third and five now, Schobert came on the blitz pancaking the running back and getting the hit on Tannehill on the throw and catch for first down yardage, but great play by Maulet to force a fumble recovered by Fitzpatrick! Huge takeaway, still down by 10.
The defense returned down by seven with 10:30 in the second quarter, with Heyward getting the quarterback hit on the play action pass where Haden was beat deep, but the receiver thankfully dropped the easy catch opportunity. On second and ten, Tennessee went back to the ground with Edmunds making first contact but allowing additional yards with Sutton combining to finish the tackle of six yards. Third and four now, and Bush was late to react to a drag route allowing the catch and first down of five yards. On first down Watt got good penetration on the toss but the runner got outside, and thankfully Wormley worked down the line and Mondeaux came free off a missed block to combine for the stop for no gain! On second and ten Tannehill targeted the wide open running back on the short route from the slot for big yards after catch and gain of 18 where Schobert finally made the tackle.
On the following first and ten, Bush got into the backfield but missed the angle on the outside run where Highsmith worked off his block well for the solid tackle on the gain of three. Tennessee play actioned on second and seven, where Schobert got penetration but was blocked past Tannehill, targeting the running back short again in front of safety Miles Killebrew who made the tackle but gain of seven and another first down. Wormley over pursed the following run allowing the cutback lane, then Maulet missed a tackle with Fitzpatrick finally bringing him down on the gain of nine. On second and one Tannehill went for a deep pass to the end zone off a play action rollout where Witherspoon and Fitzpatrick had good double coverage. Third and one now, and Wormley over pursued his run fit again allowing another cutback where the running back fought hard through Heyward’s tackle to pick up just enough for the first down!
The following first down was a swing pass to the running back with space and Witherspoon unable to make contact, then Bush making the tackle but a nine-yard gain! This set Tennessee up in the red zone on second and one, Watt was sealed on the edge allowing the first down where Witherspoon and Schobert making the tackle. This long drive continued with the defense allowing five first downs thus far, but caught a break with Tennessee getting caught on a holding penalty on a great move around the edge by Highsmith setting up first and 20. Watt did a great job setting the edge here along with Wormley’s good hand usage and pursuit to allow the former to make the tackle for no gain! On second and 20 the Titans got a big chunk of the needed yards on a slot wide receiver screen where Schobert was blocked on a great cutback and Wormley had to make the tackle on the 13-yard gain. This set up third and seven in the red zone, and unfortunately another conversion where Bush showed blitz then dropped but lost the tight end in coverage where Fitzpatrick had to make the play on the gain of 15!
On first and goal Witherspoon provided great one on one coverage in the end zone forcing the incompletion! Tennessee was then penalized for a false start, and the following second and goal play was a pass where the receiver was open against Bush but went to the ground on the catch where Fitzpatrick touched him down on the five-yard gain. Third and goal now, and Pittsburgh dropped seven into coverage, forcing Tannehill to hold the ball allowing Heyward and Watt to combine for a huge sack, the second for Pittsburgh on the day! What a huge play to limit an incredibly long drive and hold them to a field goal, Steelers down 10.
The defense came on first to start the second half, with Wormley getting pushed back but coming off his block late to combine for the tackle with Fitzpatrick allowing a nine-yard gain. On second and one Heyward, Wormley, Bush, and Edmunds were all blocked well allowing a 12-yard run with Haden finally making the tackle. Heyward had enough on first down, working to the edge around his block to make the tackle for only one yard. On second and nine, Highsmith got the quarterback hit around the edge on the play action screen where Edmunds stayed clean, and great click and close for the tackle and loss of four! Third and 14 now, and Tannehill handed off on the delay run that got around Wormley with Fitzpatrick recognizing quickly and making a good tackle for seven yards and the third down stop! Encouraging sign keeping the drive short, still down by ten.
Another quick return with 10:10 in the third quarter, Highsmith set the edge and Wormley worked to the ball on the first down run with an impressive punch from Spillane on the lineman and good hit for the tackle on the three-yard gain. On second and seven, Tennessee ran outside behind a pulling wide receiver who pancaked Sutton, springing him to the second level and stiff arming and churning Fitzpatrick for a total of ten yards. Tannehill had all day to throw on first down, throwing incomplete deep with Edmunds and Fitzpatrick providing good double coverage. On second and ten Edmunds had another great read of a screen play and came up for another tackle for a loss, this time of three yards! Third and 13 now, and the defense comes up huge again with a sack from Watt, winning the edge on the tackle and tight end for the teams third sack on the day, and now Pittsburgh’s single season sack leader! Huge play to get the ball back to the offense, deficit still 10.
The defense returned with 3:04 left in the third quarter down by three following Roethlisberger’s sneak touchdown, but allowed another run success on first down of seven yards with Heyward washed out and Loudermilk pushed back, and Edmunds finally making the tackle. On second and three Schobert shot the run gap forcing the back to redirect and combining on the tackle with Highsmith for only two yards. Third and one now, and this third straight run gained four yards, with Spillane and Heyward losing the edge allowing the conversion where Watt made the tackle and nearly forced a turnover, but the original call of a fumble was overturned. On first down Tennessee stayed on the ground where Tuszka over pursued but Maulet was there to hit the running back at the line, but churned for a four-yard gain. On second and six Tannehill rolled out off play action with a deep target that was overthrown, with Fitzpatrick nearly making a stellar diving interception on the incompletion. Third and six now, Tannehill found the tight end for the short pass and Sutton came off his coverage assignment to make a solid hit and despite the receiver nearly being down forces a fumble that Haden recovered! Third times the charm after two near takeaways, with the defense getting their second takeaway of the game! Huge play giving the offense good field position down by three!
With 13:24 left in the game and a tie game, the defense allowed a big 15-yard run with Bush being pancaked, Sutton washed on the edge, and Edmunds debatably held allowing the lane on the sideline where Fitzpatrick finally pushed him out. Tennessee was then called for holding thanks to pressure from Bush setting up first and 20. Staying on the ground, the Titans only gained four yards thanks to Bush filling the hole and Schobert working off his block to combine for the tackle despite the line being pushed back. On second and 16, Tannehill found the tight end on a short out route with Edmunds providing good coverage and quick tackle on the gain of five. Third and a long 11 now, and the receiver found the soft spot in Pittsburgh’s zone over the middle and was able to fight for just enough yardage through Edmunds’ tackle to get the conversion! Back to the ground on first down, and Loudermilk worked down the line well limiting a would-be long gainer for five yards. On second and five, Pittsburgh closed the designed run gap, and the back was late to read the cutback where Loudermilk made stop along with Tuszka. Big third and three now, and Tannehill passed quickly but Charlton got up for a fantastic bat that was intercepted by Schobert and returned for 15 yards! Huge back-to-back turnovers by the defense and third of the game, keeping Pittsburgh alive, still tie game!
The defense returned with 7:20 left and a three-point lead, and Tannehill kept on the read option where Highsmith went with the back, allowing the edge on the scramble with Edmunds and Sutton blocked well and Bush finally providing a big hit but an 11-yard gain. On the following first down, the snap was botched and the Steelers out hustled Tennessee to the ball, with Watt getting the huge recovery, third straight takeaway, and fourth takeaway of the game! Enormous play from the defense and getting the offense the ball back yet again leading by three!
With 4:29 left in the game the defense returned with a six-point lead off another field goal and needing a big stand again, but start by allowing a big 20 yard run where Spillane, Wormley, and Heyward were blocked out and Fitzpatrick made the hit but drug further on the tackle. The following first down was another run from Tennessee, a six yarder where Watt lost the edge with Schobert and Edmunds making the tackle. On second and four they stayed on the ground for a third straight successful run, this time for seven yards with Wormley blocked low to the ground and Spillane washed passed the cutback lane with Watt making the tackle. The following first down was a run again, but the defense tightened up to stop it for three yards with Highsmith making the tackle unblocked on the edge. On second and seven, Edmunds and Spillane set the edge on the toss run with Maulet working off his block well to make a shoestring tackle for only one yard! Third and six now, Tannehill threw short of the sticks to the back where Schobert reacted quickly and made a solid tackle for only five yards for the third down stop! Tennessee went for another run on fourth and one with the game on the line, and no surprise another run where Schobert and Heyward shot inside with the former hit him behind the line along with Edmunds, but he churned for the needed yard and huge fourth down conversion!
The drive continued at the two-minute warning with a nine-yard pass to the open receiver, with Sutton reacting and making the hit quickly at the catch point. On second and one, Tannehill pumps then eludes Loudermilk who pancaked his blocker and nearly got the sack but instead a scramble for three yards. The following first down set Tennessee up in the red zone with 1:10 left, where Watt hit the back but took the brunt of the contact and was shaken up on the four-yard gain, forcing Pittsburgh’s final timeout. On second and six Tuszka came in for Watt and came up huge with a winning edge rush despite the hold providing a strip sack! Huge third and 14 now with Watt coming back right away replacing Highsmith with 53 seconds left, and Tuszka got a good push on the Tannehill throw to the sideline on the short gain of eight where cornerback Tre Norwood provided the tackle and good coverage on the third down stop! Here’s the game, fourth and six, 34 seconds left and in the red zone, and Haden made a terrific play staying clean of the rub route to make a strong and dire tackle just short of the stick for the turnover on downs! Can’t say enough great things about the defensive performance, coming up clutch and shutting Tennessee out throughout the second half for the huge win!!!
Last let’s look at special teams:
Really confusing grades for the kickers, with punter Pressley Harvin getting a slightly higher grade than kicker Chris Boswell. Yes, the latter did miss a 56-yard field goal before the half but made four others for more points than the offense, while the former had two especially poor punts and none that were particularly impressive. Ulysees Gilbert tops the special teams graph with a PFF grade of 71.6, and the 50 or below grades are Benny Snell and Marcus Allen.
Pressley Harvin’s first punt came at the end of the first offensive drive, a poor 27 yarder bouncing out of bounds at the 30-yard line. McCloud got his first punt return early in the first quarter making a guy miss at the catch point, then a nice cut to elude another for a good 17-yard return. At 10:30 in the first quarter, Harvin had good second punt attempt for 51 yards to the ten-yard line, but the Titans got an explosive 55-yard return with Benny Snell, Christian Kuntz, and Harvin missing tackle opportunities and finally tackled by Ulysees Gilbert on the play that appeared to be coming back, but the penalty was a block in the back on James Pierre adding 10 additional yards and allowing great field position! Harvin’s third punt was also poor, a high but short 32 yarder that went out of bounds at the 47-yard line allowing good field position again! McCloud’s first kickoff return came late in the first quarter, fielding it from the eight-yard line and spinning out of two tackles for a nice 20-yard gain. Harvin’s fourth punt came early in the second quarter, a better high 40 yarder going to the 15-yard line and fair caught. Chris Boswell got his first field goal attempt with 10:35 in the second quarter, able to connect from 36 yards to cut the deficit to seven. Justin Layne provided a tackle on the following kickoff return of 21 yards. McCloud fielded his next kickoff return from the four-yard line, making a good outside cut for 18 yards. Boswell attempted a long field goal before halftime, but he could not connect from 56 yards, unfortunate the offense couldn’t get him closer.
With 11:37 in the third quarter, McCloud fielded the punt at the 12-yard line, running quickly to the sideline and taking a big hit on the 11-yard return. Harvin’s first punt of the second half was a better 49 yarder, going to the 27-yard line, with Pierre timing his hit on the catch perfectly for the forced fumble, but the returner recovered and Pierre touching him down! McCloud’s next third quarter punt return seemed doomed with dancing around, but an impressive stiff arm sprung him to the sideline for an 11-yard return! The kickoff following Roethlisberger’s rushing touchdown went to the six-yard line, with Snell and Spillane combining for a solid tackle on the 19-yard gain. Boswell made his second field goal early in the fourth quarter from 28 yards out to tie the game! Then Boswell made another field goal with 7:26 left in the game, a 46 yarder for the first lead of the game! Boswell came through for the third time late in the game with a 48 yarder at 4:35 to make it a six-point lead that would secure the win!
STEELERS VS. VIKINGS WEEK 15 SNAPS AND SEASON TOTALS:
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