Who’s tripping down the streets of the city
Smiling at everybody she sees?
Who’s reaching out to capture a moment?
Everyone knows it’s Windy
And with that magical smile on her face, chances are Windy is a Steelers fan this week.
How do you get to 9-0? A little defense, a little special teams, a little offense, and a little luck. The Steelers had plenty of all 4 on Sunday, and they rather easily chalked up their 9th win. The defense shut down the Bengals highfalutin native Ohioan QB, the Bengals had no answer for the Steelers Hall of Fame native Ohioan QB, and the wind and bounces of the ball just barely stayed out of the Bengals hands and fell into the Steelers fingers. Hey, the breeze blew in 9-0… we’ll take it.
I made a bet with a professional NFL analyst/media person before the season started: he was down on the Steelers chances, worried that Ben wouldn’t bounce back at his age, worried that the skill players and the defense wouldn’t live up to 2019, etc. He bet me that the Steelers would finish in last place in the AFC North. We decided on terms: if the Steelers finished last, I’d donate $100 to his favorite charity, if the Steelers finish 1st place, he’d donate $100 to the charity of my choice, if 2nd: $75, if 3rd: $50, and if 4th: $25. It’s going to be a good year for my charity, because the Steelers magic number to finish ahead of the Bengals is now 1.
The weather might have been the only thing that slowed the Steelers down today, with 25mph winds and gusts up to 50mph definitely impacted two teams that lean so heavily on the passing game for success. But after a couple of up and down offensive series, Ben got it going and nearly put together a 250-yard game in the first half. He had a TD pass in each quarter and, despite only 44 yards rushing on 20 carries, Ben somehow orchestrated 36 points on offense.
I’m sure it’s better if the Steelers get the running game back to being serviceable, but it sure seems like they’re beginning to understand that they’re close to unstoppable when they spread and fire at will with the passing attack. Ben is putting together a Rembrandt of a season… he is playing smart football, calling plays, moving the chains, putting the ball in the end zone, winning football games with his smarts, pump fakes, buying time in the pocket, accuracy, and, now working in the howitzer when the situation dictates.
The Steelers run game, in contrast, is no masterpiece. It’s currently a hot mess. Would you believe me if I told you James Conner had 4 carries for 39 yards in this game? It’s true! And that would be the narrative if he hadn’t gone 9 for -3 yards for the rest of the game. When they get it blocked up and Conner sees the hole, he gets downhill and they make hay. When Decastro gets blown backwards, a pulling Pouncey has to go around, AND Conner decides to go around the whole pile… they can give back 6 yards in a hurry. You remember that expression attributed to Darrel Royal? “When you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of ’em are bad.” Well, that describes the Steelers run game right now. Add that to the list of things to work on despite a 9-0 start.
If Decastro isn’t 100%, then playing Kevin Dotson is a necessity and has to happen now. If Decastro is 100%, he has to play better. The entire offensive line needs to pick up their game. And Ant Mac can’t return from the COVID list or get his feet moving fast enough. Conner is a specific tool, great for one or two things but being used for every job at hand. Snell is AWOL, ineffective, and not the answer. Samuels is that cool multitool you bought from an internet ad that now sits in your drawer, unused. If the answer isn’t Anthony McFarland, then they’d better find out what Kerrith Whyte is doing these days or see who’s out there on a practice squad somewhere, because this result, as the kids say, ain’t it.
The defense continues its march to being remembered as great*, with two more turnovers, 6 TFL, 4 sacks, and only 7 points allowed before a garbage time, bogus fake punt, and a meaningless field goal. As their head coach suggested he wanted before the game, they properly introduced young Joe Burrow to “AFC North football”. I guarantee you, he’s not looking forward to the rematch. He got banged and rattled and injured and, above all, completely bamboozled on 3rd downs. The Bengals managed to not covert a single 3rd down play in this game, something that’s nearly impossible to do in the NFL circa 2020.
* – Just before the last drive of Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin told his defensive players that if they wanted to be remembered as a great defense, they had to finish the job right now and win the game. Bear in mind, that was a legendary regular-season defense that had also steamrolled through two opponents in the playoffs. His point was: if you don’t help win the Super Bowl, you’re not a legendary defense.
What a bounce-back for the Steelers special teams units! Last week, they suffered all sorts of indignities, including but not limited to a missed PAT, a blocked PAT, a blocked FG, and a lateral punt return of circa 80 yards. This week? How about two clutch FGs in the gusty winds that Houston didn’t even want to let their kicker test today in Cleveland, some nice punt returns (including a 42-yarder that nearly went to the house), kickoffs that pinned the Bengals perfectly, and coverage units that totally neutralized the Bengals two excellent return guys, Alex Erikson and Brandon Wilson. Erickson in particular has been a Steelers killer in the past, and Brandon Wilson––the 2019 NFL leader in KR average who had a 49-yarder last week that keyed the Ravens victory––is one of the fastest NFL players ever measured by next gen stats. Erickson coughed up the ball after a great strip from Ola Adeniyi and Wilson kicked a ball and ended up tackled in his own end zone after picking it up. Fortunately for him, it was only a touchback, but both returners were taken out of the game.
And speaking of things taken out of the game, the hype for Joe Burrow blew out of the stadium with one of those 50 mph gusts. He actually made some nice plays, but if this contest showed anything, it’s that Burrow is in no way prepared for an AFC North game, played in the unfavorable elements that are a huge part of this division, and facing a defense as good as this 2020 edition of the Steelers unit. Someday, Joe may have a better supporting cast, and someday he’ll be more advanced in adjusting to the wind and/or adjusting to postsnap reads and defensive subterfuge… but that day appears to be a ways off.
The Steelers pretty much had this game well in hand from early on, but despite the easy win against a team they dominated, it’s easy to be concerned about the issues they continue to have: sloppy opening series on offense, inability to run the football effectively with James Conner, and blown coverage on defense. The bad news is: they probably need a bye week to work on these issues and iron them out, The good news is: they may, in fact, get a bye week if they keep winning football games every week. Their magic number for the #1 seed in the AFC and homefield throughout is 7… and that happens to be a very good number for the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2020.
Who is the Steelers team MVP to this point? Tyson Alualu may not be the #1 choice, but he has to be top 5. The run defense was terrible without him and was pretty solid with him back, even though he may not have been 100%. Just stay healthy, Tyson, because we’re gonna need you for Baltimore and then Cleveland with Nick Chubb.
Quick: Who’s the Steelers #1 receiver? They’ve got 5 guys with at least 3 TDs, Diontae Johnson leads the team in targets per game, JuJu leads in receptions & yards, Claypool in TDs & yards per target. And then there’s Eric Ebron and Ray Ray and oh, yeah, last year’s receiving yardage leader, James Washington. Most NFL defenses are designed to take away your top threat, so this ‘a little bit of Monica, a little bit of Erica’ offense is tough to defend. Even with no appreciable run game, teams haven’t been able to stop it for a whole game.
Diontae Johnson is probably playing to about 70% of his potential. He often fails to look for the ball in time, will break off his route at a mystifying spot, sometimes appears confused, isn’t always on the same page as his quarterback, and is susceptible to the ball going right through his hands at an inopportune moment. But, just like the offense he’s on––which often looks confused and dogged by mistakes yet scores and scores––Johnson helps you forget all the missteps by producing a smooth 6 catches for 116 yards and a TD. But even on his TD catch, his head barely got around in time before the ball arrived. Luckily, Ben’s throw embedded itself into Johnson’s hip in a way where DJ almost couldn’t have dropped it.
A great day of Special Teams play was highlihgted by Ola Adeniyi getting the glory for a good punch to force a fumble on punt coverage, but it was the oft-maligned and low profile Derek Watt who hit Erickson and stunned him, making him an easier target for the next guy in to knock the ball away. Specials right now have earned the right to be part of this team’s wins.
I know many of you were thinking that once the kickoff hit returner Brandon Wilson’s leg and went into the end zone, it should have been a safety. The rules, however are clear: when it’s the defense or kicking team that creates the ball momentum into the end zone, when the return team is tackled in the end zone or the ball goes out of the end zone, it’s a touchback. Think of it as a corrolary of the rule that makes a punt/kick into the EZ or a fumble into the EZ become a touchback. However, if the returner doesn’t recover that football and the kicking teaam does, it’s a TD––something that wasn’t all that far from happening on this play!
The NFL has been playing for 100 years. During those 101 seasons, the NFL has had an undefeated and untied team after 9 games 25 times. They’ve had an undefeated and untied team after 10 games 19 times. They’ve had an undefeated and untied team after 11 games only 16 times in history. So far so good, but two more wins in November and it’s truly rarefied air, historically.
The Bengals would have a hard time beating the Steelers defense on any night, even with the full complement of downs per series. I had to check to see if the officials were accidentally flipping the down marker from 2 to 4, but it turns out it was just the Steelers defense erasing 3rd down. The Bengals were an unreal 0 and 13 on 3rd down in the game. Sure, the conditions were less than ideal, but getting off the field on 3rd down was a huge part of this game becoming an easy win.
Ben Roethlisberger joked before the season that he was going to get someone to make him a homemade Heisman so that he could join every other QB in the division who had one. It seems pretty clear that Ben carries a few motivational slights onto the field, which might have something to do with him now being 9-0 vs the Heisman winning QBs of the last decade. Versus the current starting QBs in the AFC, Ben is a lifetime 4-0. Versus the two Ohio teams that bypassed the kid from Findlay and Miami, Roethlisberger is 48-9-1, and that doesn’t include the game where he came of the bench to beat Cleveland and their other Heisman trophy-winning QB, Johnny Manziel.
Ben was a tough, aggressive SOB in this game, looking more and more like his pre-injury gunslinger self. He narrowly avoided a serious knee injury on a cheap low hit from Sam Hubbard, and then just a few plays later threw a TD pass a few hours on the sundial before he absorbed an incredibly late hit from Carl Lawson. Perhaps the Bengals took T.J. Houshmandzadeh seriously when he called for Cincinnati to purposely injure Ben the way the Steelers purposely injured Carson Palmer. For the record, Kimo von Oelhoffen’s hit on Palmer was a light touch compared to Hubbard’s hit last night, and I can’t remember the last time a Steelers pass rusher hit a QB as late as Lawson did. Also, for the record, I almost got Houshmandzadeh’s name right from memory (missed that first ‘d’), had no clue how to spell Kimo’s last name, and it’s the first time I’ve had to google two names in one paragraph. (I should have just gone with Houshmandzadouche.)
Ben’s work in the intermediate zone––once the single most outlier part of his game, then greatly muffled in favor of more short passing––is once again popping. Ben was tearing apart the Bengals in that 15-20 yard range. And any question about his arm strength, deep ball accuracy, or willingness to let it rip have been completely eradicated at this point. His deep shot to Diontae Johnson was one of those “if-he-had-run-40-yards-downfield-and-handed-it-to DJ-it-couldn’t-have-been-more-on-target” kind of throws. He also got a bit lucky, narrowly avoiding an interception from Rod Woodson-worshipping and should-have-been-a Steeler safety Jessie Bates when he floated a ball to Eric Ebron on a 4th down attempt. good Ben/Bad Ben. He does make things exciting!
Here’s some numbers:
3-0 in the division for only the 3rd time in Mike Tomlin’s tenure.
67 straight games with a sack… 2 from the all-time NFL record streak
23 games in a row allowing fewer than 30 points.
4 more sacks, 2 more turnovers, 9 more QB hits, and 5 more tackles for loss this week. Pittsburgh’s defense is on pace for:
2020 116 TFL, 164 QB Hits, 64 sacks, & 28 turnovers
2019 90 TFL, 118, QB hits 54 sacks, & 43 turnovers.
2008 83 TFL, 86 QB hits, 51 sacks, & 31 turnovers.
And then the only numbers that count: 9-0.
Will they remain undefeated another week? All year? Through the Lombardi ceremony? The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.A1