Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Bengals

Call the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium Sunday afternoon whatever you’d like: ugly, heart stopping, brutal, etc. Make sure you call it what it was though: a win for the Steelers as a 53-yard field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell gave the black and gold a 23-20 win in improbable fashion.

After starting out red-hot with a pick-6 and four first-half turnovers, the Steelers fade in the second half and in overtime. However, they found a way to win, moving to 1-0 on the season with a pivotal win in AFC North play.

It was ugly, it was thrilling. It seemingly had everything. Still, many issues remain for the Steelers, at least on the offensive side of the football. Stars showed up, special teams matter…all of that.

Let’s dive into some grades.

QB — C-

Yes, Mitch Trubisky went out on a relative high note on the third and final drive of overtime Sunday, including the game-changing 26-yard throw to Pat Freiermuth on a broken play. Outside of that though, it was a major rollercoaster for Trubisky against the Bengals. At times, Trubisky didn’t trust himself and didn’t want to use his legs to pick up free yardage.

He made some boneheaded decisions, like throwing across his body on the run late into the middle of the field that thankfully fell harmlessly incomplete, and also just misfired on too many throws downfield.

That said, he did enough in the end to win, which is all that essentially matters after all. The stat line doesn’t look great, going 21-of-38 for 194 yards and a touchdown, but the offense didn’t look great throughout the game due to play calling and some struggles up front in the run game.

A win is a win though, and that’s what Trubisky has in his first career start as a Steeler. We’ll see what Week 2 brings. Hopefully he uses his legs a bit more and offensive coordinator Matt Canada moves the picket some for the quarterback.

RB — C-

It felt like a lot of 2021 all over again for Najee Harris and the Steelers’ rushing attack.

Running behind an offensive line that struggled to create much push at all in the run game, Harris finished with just 23 yards on 10 carries, which included a long of 11 yards. There was very little room to operate with on the ground for Harris and the Steelers. In the end, that ultimately ended in a nasty looking injury for Harris late in the game, though it sounds like he dodged a bullet. Harris also added two catches for three yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Warren looked strong in relief of Harris throughout the game, though he rushed for just seven yards on three carries. He was strong in pass protection and looked fantastic as a leader blocker on jet sweeps for Chase Claypool. We’ll see what is to come with Harris and his injury. It won’t matter much who is in the backfield if the line doesn’t start getting a more consistent push.

WR — B-

Diontae Johnson may have made the catch of the year and it’s only Week 1. Johnson’s toe-tapping, one-handed catch late in the game was spectacular. Through contact, twisting, leaping high into the air and snagging it with one arm. Thing of beauty. On the day, Johnson finished with seven catches for 55 yards.

Behind Johnson, Chase Claypool had a strong game, though made more of an impact as a runner than a receiver. Claypool rushed six times for 36 yards and added four catches for 18 yards, including a special one-handed catch in the red zone on a ball thrown behind him. He showed good hands throughout the day and was really locked in.

Rookie George Pickens didn’t get much run, hauling in just one pass for three yards, though he was open at times and Trubisky just missed him or wouldn’t even take a shot. That’s going to show up in the film room this week. Opportunities were there.

TE — B

Very much liked what I saw from the Steelers’ tight ends on the afternoon.

Freiermuth led the Steelers with five catches for 75 yards and came up with two big splash plays on a trick play and the broken play in overtime. He found himself open throughout the afternoon and made plays down the field when given the opportunity. His two catches in overtime led to the win in the end.

Gentry looked good as an extra blocker and had a great chip block in the first half. He also had a nice 32-yard catch and run on a screen in the first quarter that set the Steelers up for points. Hopefully the Steelers use the middle of the field more with the tight ends, especially after seeing the success the group had against the Bengals.

OL — D+

The offensive line did a great job keeping Trubisky upright, that much is true. Just one sack and five quarterback hits on 34 passing attempts.

That said, there was no push in the run game.

Overall, the Steelers average just 3.4 yards per carry, rushing 22 times for 75 yards on the afternoon. Thirty-six of those yards came on jet sweeps to Claypool.

Dan Moore Jr. had a holding call in the game, Mason Cole dealt with an ankle injury that caused him to leave the game before returning, and backup JC Hassenauer had a bad snap that nearly led to disaster for the Steelers. In the end though, Trubisky was kept upright and was able to make plays when it mattered. That has to have the offensive line feeling good moving forward.

Still, limitations are there due to the offensive line, which could make play calling a real challenge moving forward.

DL — A-

Heck of a performance by Steelers’ defensive line on Sunday against the Bengals.

Cameron Heyward took rookie left guard Cordell Volson’s lunch money all game long, recording two tackles, a sack, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hits, countless hurries and a fumble recovery on a strip sack from Alex Highsmith that popped the football into the air.

He was a game wrecker from start to finish.

Larry Ogunjobi flashed at times in his Steelers’ debut, though he didn’t land on the stats sheet. He paired with Heyward, Tyson Alualu, DeMarvin Leal, Chris Wormley and Montravious Adams to hold the Bengals to just 3.9 yards per carry, limiting Joe Mixon to just 82 yards on 27 carries. Outside of a 31-yard run on fourth and one, Mixon rushed just 26 times for 51 yards.


LB — B+

Prior to the injury, T.J. Watt was again absurd.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year had six tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, two pass deflections and an interception in the win. He was unstoppable, wrecking  new Bengals’ right tackle La’el Collins throughout the game.

Opposite Watt, Alex Highsmith was fantastic. nine tackles, three sacks, two pass breakups. Otherworldly game for the young pass rusher. The Steelers are going to need it going forward. I think he’s in for a monumental year in his third year, even without Watt.

Malik Reed and Jamir Jones looked serviceable in limited action, with Jones tipping a pass at the line of scrimmage on a screen that would have likely gone for a score, and Reed recording one tackle and some servicable reps in relief.

Inside, I loved what I saw from Myles Jack and Devin Bush. Jack is the real deal. He finished with 10 tackles in the win and was all over the place. Bush looked a lot better in the Week 1 win. He flowed down the line of scrimmage very well, was around the football a ton and really attacked downhill with conviction. Great first step for him, finishing with five tackles. He also had a great rep in coverage downfield on running back Samaje Perine out of the backfield.

I am not ready to watch the Robert Spillane DIME backer package throughout the next 16 games. He’s simply not good in coverage and is a real liability. He’s fine playing downhill, but in space he’s a mess and teams will go right at him schematically.

DB — A

Minkah Fitzpatrick played the best game of his career, bar none. Fourteen tackles, a pick-6, blocked extra point, a handful of big hits in support, a key breakup in the end zone late in the fourth quarter as well. He did everything, and he’ll need to do a lot more moving forward.

Along with Fitzpatrick, Cameron Sutton was really good throughout the game. He had a key interception on a great play in the slot, broke up a pass in the end zone late for the Steelers’ defense recording a goal line stand, and was just all over the place for the black and gold Sunday.

Same for Ahkello Witherspoon, who recorded an interception while freelancing in zone coverage, jumping a route for the interception. I didn’t like the way he played the Ja’Marr Chase touchdown to tie it with no time left, but overall it was a good day for him.

I did like what I saw from Terrell Edmunds in the box. He recorded six tackles and created some pressure on blitzes, giving the Steelers the ability to change up some looks. Arthur Maulet also had a big playin the box as a blitzer late in overtime, sacking Burrow and forcing a fumble.

Great performance overall for the secondary. Lots to like there, especially against a great receiver corps.

Special Teams — B+

Chris Boswell should have ended the game earlier in overtime for the Steelers, but his field goal attempt drilled off the left upright. He bounced back in a big way though, nailing the 53-yarder to win the game and finished 3-for-4 on the day on field goals.

I loved what I saw from Gunner Olszewski on his lone punt return of the afternoon, ripping off 20 yards. He is exactly what the Steelers wanted when they signed him in free agency.

Punter Pressley Harvin III shook off some struggles early to finish well in the game. He punted eight times, which is far too many, and averaged 48.5 yards per punt, downing one inside the 20 yard line, with one going for a touchback.

Coverage was great on the day, led by Miles Boykin, Connor Heyward and Benny Snell Jr. Really nice day overall on special teams. The Steelers showed just how important special teams are, especially after the Bengals lost their long snapper and struggled in the kicking game late.

Add in the blocked extra point that literally saved the game for the Steelers and it’s just a good day to be Danny Smith.

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