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Lessons from Week 15

Two games left and the Steelers control their destiny through the Division Title. Despite no TDs thrown by Ben, Bell being held to under 50 rushing yards and getting no sacks, the Steelers scored early and never looked back. The scoreboard will show a close game, but that wasn’t the way for most of the game.

Protecting a lead usually means a need for running the football, but the Steelers managed to eat the clock by passing the football.

Offense: No 100 yard rushing, no passing TDs, no problem.

  • Believe it or not, it was only the 2nd game this season where Ben didn’t throw for a TD. Still, Roethlisberger spread the football out to 5 receivers, relying mostly on Brown. There could have been more yards and a TD, if not by a couple of overthrows/drops (not by much) to Moore and Bryant. Dislpayed character. I liked his approach while trying to go for it on a 4th and 1 close to midfield, but someday he needs to really go for it: most teams are aware that this situation is just to try to draw a flag from the defense. At least, he didn’t punt the football in that situation. His confidence in his receivers continues to grow, as shown on throws to AB at the corner, Bryant at the endzone with close coverage, Wheaton on a crossing pattern (who made an unbelievable catch), as well as some throws to Bell and Miller having close coverage. Big throws from him in the 4th quarter, for the 2nd consecutive week, led to Steelers long scoring drives.

Bell had what could be called a subpar game by the media, while still being able to gain 119 yards (47 rushing, 72 receiving) and scoring 2 rushing TDs (and setting up a FG after a 44 catch and run).  He was in for all 59 offensive snaps, keeping Harris on the sidelines, with Archer being inactive. 37 counter, the play that gave him more than 100 yards against Cincinnati wasn’t as effective this week, but he was able to score from it against Atlanta. He had 25 touches, and while it doesn’t seem to be a high number, keeping him fresh for the playoffs would be smart, at least he could have a little rest while running 5 receiver sets. Either way, Bell continues having a solid performance this season, and is most likely headed to the Pro Bowl, with –perhaps- some All Pro considerations.

  • Brown, Wheaton and Bryant accounted for 18 receptions for 220 yards. Brown and Wheaton excelled on different plays, and a couple of them will probably make the season highlights: AB’s reception at ATL 1 yardline, while tiptoeing to get the catch (upon further review), and Wheaton making a nice display of awareness by grabbing a pass with his backhand just an instant after he turned around to see his QB. Jordy Mercer (Pirate’s shortstop) should take notes on that one. While the statsline will show a couple of drops by Steelers WRs, both were while attempting one-handed catches (by Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant). Heyward Bey played only on Special teams, while Lance Moore had extended playing time (21 snaps, close to Bryant’s 25). An awkward penalty against Antonio Brown for taunting killed a drive, which isn’t common but shouldn’t happen again.
  • Our offensive line had a contrasting performance: Keeping Ben clean for most of the game (allowed 1 sack), but struggling to open lanes for Bell (3 tackles for a loss). For most of the game, they gave Ben time to throw, and also made blocks downfield. This unit committed no holding penalties and didn’t have false starts, helping the offense keep drives alive. Once again, the statsline doesn’t show everything: Both Steelers possessions inside the red zone ended with Bell’s rushing TDs, and this unit is responsible for those. Adams once again played for Gilbert, providing good pass protection for most of the game. Despite that, he’ll probably be headed back to the bench as soon as Gilbert is back, missing an opportunity to show growth and readiness.

Defense: Where are our blitzes, part VIII?

  • Our front 7 held Atlanta running backs to 70 rushing yards, while playing from behind the entire game (and also added 27 on Ryan’s scrambles). Heyward is making a silent case for a Pro Bowl berth, getting big stops, creating pressure and even batting the ball. Tuitt is also getting a lot of playing time, which is making him get more and more comfortable with his role on defense. Even when they hurried Ryan from time to time, pressure by Steelers DL was non-existent for most of the game.
  • Solid performance by ILBs: With Timmons all over the place and a working rotation of Vince Williams and Sean Spence (who combined for big stops on 3rd down and for a loss), this unit provided a solid performance. Spence and Williams playing at a high level allowed the staff to take it easy on rehabbing Shazier, who played for just a bunch of defensive plays (4, to be exact), on which he managed to make 2 tackles.
  • OLBs didn’t create enough pressure. The only sack for the Steelers was made on a brutal hit from Worilds on Ryan, drawing a flag on what, at all sights, was a clean shot. Moats and Jones rotated, but struggled to create pressure. Look for Moats to change to the left side as soon as Harrison gets back. As with ILB, the OLB group can benefit of having a crowded depth chart.
  • William Gay provided an early turning point, while returning an INT for a TD (leading to a 13-0 score at the time). Last week he had another pick, called back. Blake was targeted often, but managed to keep the ball in front of him most of the game. McCain showed he isn’t afraid of tackling, while keeping close coverage on his receivers. Everyone wants to have Pro Bowlers at this position (and for the Steelers, that hasn’t happened in a long time), but reliability also comes with non-pro bowlers. If this trio is able to stay healthy and concentrated, Cortez Allen could be the next player headed to the Front Office as soon as the season ends. This unit has been exposed, but not all of it is their fault. Some responsibility lies with the front 7 not being able to create pressure or force opposing QBs into bad throws, and with the Safeties for frequently being caught out of spot.
  • Polamalu and Mitchell weren’t a factor once again. Both came down on injuries (and both returned), while being substituted by Will Allen who made his presence felt in the game as soon as he was inserted in the lineup. So far, this unit gets my vote as top underperformers of the year. Shamarko should be getting playing time, but has been relegated to Special Teams.

Special Teams

The kickoff coverage team kicked smart and away from their playmaker. Although they let Hester return a kickoff for 27 yards, he was contained other than that. Suisham converted on 2 field goals (both from 38 yards), and Wing had 3 punts (one of them good for 55 yards, while the other 2 were inside ATL 20 yardline). For the 2nd consecutive game, the Steelers had a big return (31 yard punt return for AB), and for 2nd consecutive game the Steelers were unable to capitalize from it, being forced to punt.

Just wondering

  • If that Worilds hit had happened against Roethlisberger, any chance of it drawing a flag?
  • Where were they at the beginning of the season? So far, Bryant, V Williams, Spence, Moats, Gay, McCain, Blake and Tuitt are having extended playing time, in comparison with where they were at the beginning of the season. Most of them young talent (with Moats and Gay the experienced exceptions), which has played up to the standard (at least as good as the people who were ahead of them at the start of the regular Season).
  • And, suddenly, all rumors about Ben’s injured wrist/hand disappeared, despite amid reports of being broken.
  • Settling for FGs instead of getting into the endzone has become an unpleasant habit for the Offense, while having fast starts crossing the field, but falling short to score TDs. Offensive scheme and gameplan is designed, sometimes, to get things going after a couple of drives. But that only results when you can get and sustain a lead (which happened thanks to Gay’s pick-six). This same approach can work against KC, who don’t have a dangerous passing game, but must be fixed before season finale.
  • Still wondering why isn’t Coach LeBeau using more blitzes, while giving opposing QBs enough time for their receivers to get open.
  • No KC receiver has scored a TD so far this Season. Wonder what the odds makers think about their chances of getting it this week.
  • Kudos to Haley and Ben, for that 4th and 1 conversion to end the game. Aggressive playcalling with great execution. Similar approach as taken against Baltimore (week 9)
  • Buzz around the league: Bell having a subpar game, being a human. After gaining 117 total yards and scoring 2 TDs? Really?
  • Shazier, McCullers and Shamarko Thomas played a combined 10 snaps on Defense.
  • And that week 17 game vs Cincinnati looks more and more probable to get pushed into primetime (6th time for the Steelers this season).
  • … which leads to growing asking prices for tickets to get into that game at Heinz Field.
  • After a couple of disappointing seasons hoping for help during the last 5 games, finally, the Steelers approach the stretch controlling their own destiny.

What comes next?

The Steelers receive desperate Kansas City Chiefs, who are playing for their lives: one more loss, and they will be eliminated from playoff contention. KC hasn’t had a receiver catching a TD all season (since 1950, no team has had a complete season without having a WR catching a TD pass). Can the Steelers keep that streak alive? No matter what happens with this game, if the Steelers win vs Cincinnati, they will get in, at least as a Wild Card, while winning both remaining games means Division Title. I’ll break out these scenarios later this week, on a reviewed Week 16 playoff picture.

Meanwhile, the Ravens visit the Houston Texans, Cincinatti will host Denver Broncos, and Cleveland visits Carolina (which is still alive).

By the Numbers

1st winning season for the Steelers since 2011

2nd in the NFL: Roethlisberger in Passing Yards, Bell in rushing yards

3 interceptions returned for TDs by William Gay this season, a Steelers Record

5 consecutive games where the Steelers commit less than 5 penalties

8 Games featuring 300+ yards passing by Roethlisberger this season

30 Consecutive games with 5+ receptions and 50+ receiving yards by Antonio Brown, an NFL record

115 Receptions by Antonio Brown, a Steelers record (for 1498, one yard shy of tying his own Steelers record from last season)

5003 passing yards –  Roethlisberger’s projection for 2014 season.

About Ricardo M.

Ricardo (WWW) has been a member of the Steelers message board for years, and a Steelers fan for much, much longer.