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Positional Grades: Steelers vs. Patriots

New year, same offense for the Pittsburgh Steelers, all while wasting another strong defensive performance.

It’s starting to feel more and more like the 2019 season all over again, and not in a good way.

Hosting the New England Patriots Sunday at Acrisure Stadium for the home opener, the Steelers came out lifeless on offense, scored just one touchdown for the second straight week and left a very good defensive performance out to dry once again. Unlike the Week 1 win in Cincinnati, the Steelers simply couldn’t overcome some offensive ineptitude in the loss.

Let’s dive into some grades and attempt to turn the page on another lackluster offensive performance as quickly as possible.

QB — D+

Once again, there was a lack of pushing the football down the field or using the middle of the field from quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Some of that can be talked up to the game plan, as he alluded to after the loss, but overall he really struggled in the home opener Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.

Trubisky couldn’t see the field well at all on Sunday, missing a number of open receivers, though he wasn’t helped out in some situations on tight window throws by receivers. His interception in the first half was one of the worst ones you’ll see too, as he started down the in-breaking route on play-action, never saw the linebacker and threw it right to the Patriots.

Outside of some puzzling decisions he had in the game, he failed to use his legs, which were a serious issues for the Patriots the last time he played them while as a member of the Chicago Bears. He was hesitant at times, took some silly sacks in the loss, and just really didn’t add much of anything to the offense.

Add in his disastrous mechanics that has him fading away from throws or throwing off his back foot, there’s so much to be desired at the quarterback position right now.

RB — C+

After struggling in Week 1 as a runner and lacking any impact in the passing, Najee Harris was better in Week 2 and looked fully healthy, like he’s said he is. Though the numbers still aren’t eye-popping, Harris ran the football 15 times for 49 yards, providing the Steelers with a relatively consistent rushing attack overall on the afternoon.

Along with his impact in the running game, Harris provided a bunch of offense through the air, hauling in five passes for 40 yards, making defenders miss in space after the catch to help the Steelers offense move the chains when they needed it the most. I’d like to see Harris be used a bit more in the passing game outside of check downs moving forward.

Behind Harris, Jaylen Warren looked good in limited action, rushing for 15 yards on four carries, providing some relief behind Harris offensively. Not only was he solid in the run game, he again looked good in pass protection, providing Trubisky time in the pocket when on the field.

WR — C

Diontae Johnson had a really solid game, finishing with a team-high six catches for 57 yards and made another spectacular catch, this time on a 2-point conversion diving towards the front pylon to make the catch, drawing the Steelers back within three at 17-14. Still, he was limited to mostly outside routes to avoid some of of the coverages the Patriots were deploying, which was ridiculous to see the Steelers let the Patriots’ defense dictate their attack.

Chase Claypool had a strong performance once again, hauling in four passes for 26 yards, making his plays through contact on the day, moving the chains on a pair of catches.

Rookie George Pickens finished with just one catch for 23 yards on a go route late in the first half against Cover 2, one of the few times Trubiksy pushed the football down the field. Gunner Olszewski didn’t see any targets on the afternoon, but he did add one rush for 18 yards on the first offensive drive for the Steelers after the muffed punt.

TE — C+

It was nice to see Pat Freiermuth get some usage in the middle of the field, including on his 8-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to bring the Steelers within three after Johnson’s 2-point conversion. He had a few tough plays that he didn’t make on the afternoon, including one throw that bounced off his hands in the first quarter and then one that bounced off his facemask later in the first half.

Typically, Freiermuth makes those plays, but he was unable to come up with them on Sunday, which caused some struggles offensively overall.

OL — B-

A much, much better performance in this one from the Steelers’ offensive line, especially in the run game.

Yes, the rushing attack numbers don’t look like they should, but the Steelers were able to get into a rhythm Sunday against the Patriots on the ground due to the offensive line up front. Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole, James Daniels and Chukwuma Okorafor all did a nice job getting some push up front and creating some seams for Harris and Warren.

In pass protection, the Steelers’ offensive line did a really good job providing Trubisky with plenty of time to throw. While Trubisky was sacked three times, he ran into those sacks himself as he had plenty of time to throw the football in those instances. On the day, the Patriots recorded just three quarterback hits on Trubisky in 33 pass attempts.

It’s still not perfect overall, but the offensive line made some strides.

DL — C-

Against a run-heavy New England offense, the Steelers defensive line held up well through three quarters. The fourth quarter was a much different story as New England got a ton of movement up front in the final 15 minutes, helping the Patriots close out the game.

Without T.J. Watt in the lineup, the Steelers were forced to be a bit creative up front, moving Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, DeMarvin Leal, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley and more all around. It didn’t result in any pressure rushing the passer, giving Mac Jones all day to throw, and ultimately ended up in the Steelers being dominated at the point of attack late in the loss.

Cameron Heyward led the group with five tackles and a pass breakout, while Ogunjobi added three tackles. Leal flashed a bunch finishing with two tackles and a pass breakup, but overall the group just didn’t get much movement in the run game and generated very little pass rush.

LB — C

Myles Jack was around the football a ton on Sunday, recording a game-high 13 tackles for the Steelers, but many of them were after good runs by the Patriots. It’s great to see him around the football making plays, limiting the big plays on the ground, but I’d like to see him making more plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Same with Robert Spillane and Devin Bush. Spillane finished with seven tackles after taking over for Bush, who left with a foot injury in the loss. Bush recorded four tackles. Through three quarters the Steelers were solid downhill against the run, but as the game wore on in the fourth quarter that changed drastically.

Outside, Alex Highsmith got off to a fast start, rushing the passer well in the first half, recording a hit on Mac Jones that helped lead to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception in the first half. Outside of that though, he struggled in the run game and didn’t generate much pressure in the second half, finishing with just four tackles.

Opposite Highsmith, Malik Reed and Jamir Jones had some decent reps for the Steelers. Reed recorded four tackles, while Jones recorded one tackle. Neither generated much of a pass rush though, which is a concern moving forward.

DB — C+

Ahkello Witherspoon’s rep on the 44-yard touchdown by Nelson Agholor was disastrous. He played it very well until the ball arrived and failed to make a play on the football, not taking into account that Agholor could go up and get the football. That gamble by Witherspoon backfired as the touchdown really changed the game, resulting in the loss.

Cameron Sutton’s dropped interception is really hard to move on from. That would have been a huge swing in the game for the Steelers, but instead resulted in a swing for the Steelers as on the next play Olszewski muffed the punt, the Patriots recovered and three plays later took a 17-6 lead.

Levi Wallace also struggled in coverage at times as well, as the Patriots ran a ton of crossing routes, allowing underneath routes to work consistently throughout the afternoon.

At safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick was again terrific, picking off a Jones pass that he baited the Patriots’ quarterback into. He finished with six tackles in the game and played with that same chip once again. It’s great to see. Terrell Edmunds was very solid as well, breaking up a pass on third down at the sticks, finishing with four tackles.

Special Teams — C-

The Olszewski muffed punt is incredibly difficult to get past. That’s exactly what he was signed for, but that mistake loomed large in the loss as one of the largest game-changing plays of the afternoon.

Outside of that muffed punt the special teams was really good for Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell was terrific, drilling both field goals, including from 52 yards. Pressley Harvin III was outstanding on the day. He averaged an absurd 51.8 yards per punt, including a 69-yard punt that nearly resulted in a splash play for the Steelers early in the game.

Coverage on special teams was terrific as well. Miles Boykin was downfield consistently making tackles, finishing with two tackles on the afternoon. That muffed punt on special teams just looms far too large though.

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