Like most of us under the flag of the Terrible Towel, I have been holding my breath every time I see Ben Roethlisberger do something he’s literally done thousands of times in his life: throw a football. During the “updates” from “camp”, I literally felt fear and then relief after each throw. I was wondering how long that feeling of anxiety would last. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones, because it sure looked like Ben had similar apprehension and it seemed like both he and we got over it after he got hit a couple of times and got tired of handing the ball off on nearly every 1st and 2nd down in the first half. At some point it was just like, ‘forget all that and let’s make some plays!’
Let’s be honest: if the Steelers had won by 30 but Ben’s arm wasn’t right, we’d be despondent today. If they’d have lost but Ben looked like himself, we’d be disappointed but hopeful. What we got, though, was a game where the Steelers looked committed to easing Ben back to NFL football, his arm looked fine––even great at times––AND we got a win. Mission accomplished for week 1.
As I suspected they would (listen to last week’s podcast), the Steelers used this game to get their run game in sync. It was right out of the Todd Haley “run, run, and hey Ben, bail us out on 3rd down” playbook. With no preseason games, it was very hard to hit the ground running (pardon the pun)–– run game has so many moving parts. As I like to say, run game takes all 11 players to make it work, and a mistake or failure by any of the 11 can doom the run play. Running as much on 1st and 2nd down is hard on an offense, but I have to admit you could see the results. The execution of the whole offense on run plays kicked into gear in the second half and they looked downright dominant doing in in Q4, vs. a team that will be pretty good against the run.
Some of that was Benny Snell Football who took over for James Conner at some point and took over the job. He might not even give it up if Conner 100% healthy for week 2. He was that good. Gimpy, tentative, and ineffective is no way to go through life, son. It’s entirely possible that Conner would have worked his way out of the early-game funk and made something out of the better execution later in the game, but BSF actually did it in some realm other than the imagination. He’s still not going to hit a ton of Homeruns, but the physically-revamped Snell looks like a fit for tough running that is a good fit for this offense and the rotation of running backs.
Is Conner healthy enough to start week 2? Is Anthony MacFarland in the concussion protocol? Will BSF start anyway? Hard to say. Regardless, Conner just blinked in a contract year where he has playing time competition on his heels and had no wiggle room for blinking. He might end up being the bell cow envisioned by the Head Coach, but the writing is on the wall that he’s not getting a big contract from the Steelers at the end of the year, if that was ever a real option.
As for the passing game, once the OL tightened up the ship and once the playcalling moved towards more passing flow, the complementary nature of the Pittsburgh receiving threats came into focus. Eric Ebron had a very impressive game, even though he didn’t light up the stat sheet. He converted a key 3rd down with a spectacular route––just uncoverable in off coverage on an over route because he’s so quick off the blocks. Whew, that was fun! On the TD to James Washington, not only did the Steelers perfectly execute a rub route by running defenders into one another, the threat of Ebron going to the middle opened up the throwing lane.
JuJu did a lot of JuJu-type things that erased the memory of 2019, with two TD catches he earned with great routes and a fumble recovery which involved him diving into a pile of 6 NY Giants and somehow fighting for the ball. Huge play. Chase Claypool flashed signs that help you understand why he was the Steelers top draft choice last spring. The catch he made along the sideline was athletically spectacular and staying inbounds after the game-clinching end-around was mentally spectacular. JuJu has mojo with 7, and he’s currently the guy who Ben looks for when he needs a conversion or a TD in the Red Zone.
One unexpected element from having no fans was that a lot of the huddle talk could be picked up via the SkyCam mic. The Giants first series playcalls could all be heard, including the call on 4th down for “no play” attempt to draw the Steelers offside. Before the James Washington TD referenced above, Ben could be caught giving instruction to Ebron about how he wanted him to get the LB to bite so that there’d be space for the throw. I’m sure the teams will hate that we got that glimpse into the huddle but, if even just for one night, it was fun.
And James Washington had something to say about falling behind in the pecking order, scoring a TD, with a spectacular and determined run after the catch that brought to mind a Steeler WR named Hines Ward. He ran over and through defenders and simply refused to be stopped.
On the downside, Diontae Johnson battled through an inconsistent night. Some of that is no doubt an unfamiliarity with Ben, some might have been that he was fighting playing with a nagging injury… but muffing a punt deep in your own end is a great way to get canned as the Punt Returner. Dropping a few catchable passes, considering the push from Claypool and Washington for snaps and targets is also something that is going to have him seeing less time on offense if it doesn’t get addressed. I love the player but these are growing pains that have to be both endured and rectified.
Also, the addition of Watt as a fullback was a big dud. Bringing him into the game cut the run game momentum the Steelers were getting with pulling guards and TE. Snell didn’t really look interested in following Watt’s block, partly because it took so long to get happening and partly because he just looked like he hasn’t run behind a fullback very much recently. When you consider the offensive options available and their run game success from 1 back, the offensive snaps are going to be few and far between for Watt. Which is okay, since he’s here to lead the Special Teams units.
Special Teams weren’t great in this game, which isn’t a big surprise nor big concern, since this was like exhibition game #1 for those guys. Also, in Boswell’s defense, the missed PAT seemed to get pushed by the kind of wind gust that is common at the Meadowlands––traditionally one of the windiest stadia in the NFL––and he did execute a great kick from a poor snap and last-minute hold placement later in the game. Stuff like DJ’s punt muff and Boswell kicking it OOB may have been aided by the elements, but that is unacceptable-level performance for a team where they just need STs not to lose the game for them.
A STs bright spot was seeing a world-class Kick Returner bringing one back in the Black and Gold, something that hasn’t been seen since the days of Stefan Logan and young AB. Ray Ray McCloud came within about a fingertip of taking his first Steelers’ KR to the house. Great KR just look different and they see the field as a series of opportunities, not obstacles. I’ll be shocked if teams kick to him, but if they do, he’s going to take one for 6 before too long. Also, kudos to a punter that didn’t look terrible and to STs blocking units, which seemed to do a good job under the circumstances.
The Steelers secondary struggled a bit with zone coverage calls and execution, but some of those quick throws in the seams are just hard to defend with base defense. That’s Vincenzo Williams covering a WR territory or Evan Engram getting the best of a SS… this stuff happens. The deep TD was a function of unlucky playcall on D (full blitz into max protect) and perfect playcall on O (Engram forcing Minkah’s attention from centerfield to down low––naturally where he expects the ball to go vs a full-out blitz where the ball has to come out quickly. Minkah moving around might have cost the steelers on the other NYG TD, where Minkah came down in the box and Nelson was left to defend both a fade and slant with no help. That’s probably not the situation they want to put themselves in when calling a play, but it’s way better to learn from these lessons after a win.
The Front 7, however… Wowza! Banzai! Eureka! Yahtzee!!! Sure, New York’s OL is a hot mess, but not only did the entire front 7 have an outstanding game, they did it with TJ Watt getting the “James Harrison” treatment from officials. On the throwback pass to Barkley that converted a 3rd down, Wat was tackled. Andrew Thomas, having seen TJ Watt for a couple of quarters, started departing a step or two before the snap, which still didn’t help very much. Watt had what should have been a strip sack (thankfully it wasn’t, since the Giants recovered in the End Zone) and a spectacular interception snag, where he clearly hid behind a lineman and then popped up into the throwing lane. Also, you try taking an NFL fastball from 10 feet away and making the catch look easy.
Bud Dupree was on fire from the get-go. Granted, he’s playing against on of the worst LTs in the NFL, but I guarantee the Giants when practicing those runs off tackle to the right never imagined that the weakside EDGE would get to the ball carrier right about at the point of the handoff. That is just sick talent. I might go as far as saying Dupree is the #1 priority in the offseason. When you run a 3-4 and have two young EDGE players like that, you figure out a way to pay. Highsmith and especially Ola were active and are fantastic depth players, but Watt and Dupree are terrorizing guys over the course of the past year and a half or more.
Terrell Edmunds hasn’t come around yet, although he looked in position to grab an interception on the play where Watt got it, instead. He’s not even terrible––he just has Sean Davis disease right now: playing everything too safe. Too deep a drop, to late to react, too tentative to believe his eyes. I maintain that he thisclose to breaking out. I only hope he makes it happen sooner rather than later. I think he needs a splash play or two to help him believe he can do it. If that comes, he could explode the way Dupree has.
All in all, Ben looks great, the defense looks great, coaching deserves a gold star for preparing the team under some truly trying circumstances and lack of familiarity, and it’s mostly cause for optimism if you’re a fan of the team. If only it weren’t for the injuries.
Although the team’s depth this year is a remarkable improvement from years past, some of that great OL depth is now put to the test as it appears likely Zach Banner is gone for the season and Wisniewski/Decastro are huge unknowns in terms of availability. The team will be able to put out an acceptable starting 5, even without Banner, Decastro, or Wisniewski (which is amazing) but the depth will surely be a crapshoot should any more starters miss snaps. A short week of preparation doesn’t help, either. Next man up is in full effect, though.
At least the Denver Broncos aren’t coming in fresh off a dominating performance and with the Von Miller/Bradley Chubb duo in tow. Let’s all just hope no setbacks for Ben and the rest will take care of itself.
1 down, 18 to go.