The Steelers knocked out the opponent’s QB, got a handful of sacks including a strip-sack, stole an interception, broke rookie Jerry Jeudy’s rib for daring to come across the middle, got a safety, enjoyed a dominating performance by NT Tyson Alualu and his EDGE rushing cohorts, got three fantastic plays from Terrell Edmunds (!), got a 100 yard rushing day from James Conner, a nearly flawless performance from their two first time starters on the OL, a couple of superb Roehtlisberger TD throws (including yet another 80+ yard bomb to yet another deep threat)… and yet somehow needed a last-second sack from Terrell Edmunds to close out the Broncos’ hopes. This game had all the mischievous hobgoblins of an upset loss that we’ve all come to know and love: dropped passes, fumbles, questionable officiating, and defensive lapses on 3rd and long.
Maybe they weren’t flirting with disaster, but they at least caught disaster’s eye and asked for its phone number.
So, should we be happy that the Steelers won? Realistic that a 5-point win in the NFL is an above-average victory against any team? Sure. It’s much better to learn from the mistakes you made during a close victory than to taste the bitterness of your mistakes in a close loss. But mistakes there were aplenty.
It began with Diontae Johnson dropping the ball on the first offensive touch on an end-around and continued for pretty much the entire day on offense, capped by a Benny Snell fumble just as the Steelers were about the deal the coup de grace and put Denver out of its misery. In between? Here’s an uncomprehensive list of mistakes and sloppy play:
• Minkah Fitzpatrick with a couple of bad angles, a missed tackle, an unnecessary PI that converted a 3rd down, and a horsecollar tackle that put the Broncos in 1st and goal. Not the best afternoon for Minkah. We’re not at “concerned” level yet, but he’s had a slow start to the season.
• Eric Ebron with a drop and a goal-line blocking fail that cost the Steelers 4 points before the half
• One of Terrell Edmunds not-so-fantastic plays, a blown coverage resulting in a Fant TD
• James Washington and Jaylen Samuels with drops
• JuJu running a 3rd down pattern short of the sticks
• Diontae Johnson dropping a 3rd down conversion
• Chris Wormley getting blown off the ball on a late-game run play.
• Matt Feiler losing his block on the Snell fumble
• Ben failing to pull the ball back after Justin Simmons jumped JuJu’s route and throwing a duck for an INT with the game well in hand
• Tomlin using a Timeout only to kick the Ball before half. (If you’re going to go for it go for it right away, have 3 TOs to get the ball back before half with a defensive stand. The ended up getting the ball back after using a TO before 3rd down, but with not enough time to run a play
You put all of that together and you turn a 17-3 game into a nail-biter of sorts.
Good teams win games where they make mistakes. Great teams keep their foot on the gas and put away inferior teams who are down 14.
I’m not saying the Steelers are a finished product at this point, but they have to get better at putting games away, something that’s nagged at them for a decade. You can’t get in a position where a great play or two from your opponent or some questionable officiating gets the underdog back in the game.
Oh, and as for officiating, the only the questionable about it was “How many horrid calls can there be in one game?” Officiating around the league seemed to revert to pre-covid awfulness in general. In the Steelers-Broncos matchup, the lowlights included:
• two ridiculous PI calls against the Steelers, one ridiculous OPI on the Broncos
• two missed PI calls on the Broncos, including an egregious miss of obvious PI (DB pulling Ebron’s jersey from behind) that would have converted a 3rd down and put the ball in the red zone
• a phantom block-in-the-back call against Cam Sutton (his defender simply dove toward the ballcarrier and gave the appearance of a block in the back) that negated an absolutely electrifying punt return from Diontae Johnson• a no-call on Matt Feiler getting held by one DT so the other could get the sack AND a no-call on said sacking DT for tackling Ben by the facemask. A 2-fer!
• a (thank Jobu) missed holding call on Chuks Okorafor that would have negated the Ben- DJ TD
• an absurd roughing the passer call against Mile Hilton, where he hit the QB less than a second after the ball was out AND the hit was outside the pocket, reducing the protections the QB is supposed to get
Speaking of Hilton, he had maybe the best game of his career. He had a sack, a QB hit, a deep pass breakup, and most definitely won his matchups with some highly-regarded young WR in the middle of the field.
If the mistakes and he officiating weren’t enough to make it close, the Steelers playcalling at some key moments certainly was. In particular, the series when the Steelers took over with the score 17-3 and immediately started driving down the field, keyed by Ben hitting throw after throw underneath soft coverage. He had only one miss in like two quarters of play, and IIRC that was a drop. So it was that they found themselves with a 1st and 10 at the Denver 42. The playcall was pretty much the only thing you just cannot do vs. Denver: a wide run. I spoke about this on the podcast… wide runs and short screens are really the only things Denver’s defense stops consistently. The result of this play was a 2 yard loss.
2nd and 12, play call is a RB screen… predictable enough that Jeremiah Attaochu went straight for the RB off the snap, knocked Snell straight backwards 5 yards, and then tackled him once Ben unadvisedly threw it to him. A drive throwing downfield that was destroying the soul of Michel Omedija and Vic Fangio turned into 3rd and 16. Ben had lots of time on the next play and started to throw to JuJu but it appeared that 7 tried to pull the ball back once he saw Simmons break on the ball. The result was a duck that Simmons knocked out fo the air with one hand and intercepted. I’ll have to see the All-22 to be sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Simmons grabbed or hit JuJu. JuJu seemed to think so. Just not a good series AT ALL.
In general, too many screens and not enough Ben-friendly football. They’ve been protecting Ben and trying to stick to this mindset that running the football and throwing screens is a way to keep from taking too many risks in the passing game––not just INTs but risks to Ben’s elbow. The result is a clear delineation: when they let Ben wing it, the vast majority of the time the outcome is positive. When they try to be careful or cute with screens and 2nd/3rd and long screens and draws at the expense of putting the game in Ben’s hands, momentum is stifled. Teams breathe a sigh of relief. This is a team that needs to get back to 2018 offense if it wants to get serious about scoring and avoiding close results like this one, because eventually you’re playing with fire and going to get burned. Fitchner has to be better, and the answer is right in front of him: lean on Ben and give him the keys.
Of course, the true turning point was, after a fabulous Ben throw-on-the-run/great catch by DJ in the end zone and a terrific special teams tackle, the stadium crew played Renegade, the fired-up D shut down the Broncos for a 3 and out, and the punter was tackled for a safety by Derek Watt and Jaylen Samuels, giving the Steelers the ball back with great field position and a seemingly insurmountable 26-14 4th quarter lead. But all of that went away with Feiler’s mis-play and Snell’s second fumble of the year (a trend that will get you in the coach’s doghouse FAST.). Make that kind of mistake against a team with a better QB and better offense and you might end up on the short side of the scoreboard when the game goes final. You absolutely cannot fumble the ball in that situation, even if it means taking a knee when you see an oncoming defender. Without that fumble––even with a 3 and out and a punt––the narrative of the game is completely changed. A first down or two there, and it’s game over.
Some positives not to lose sight of: Terrell Edmunds, STs units, and OL.
Edmunds made a few standout plays, which may or may not mean he’s turning a corner, but after all the criticism, he deserves some praise. I’ll double-check the All-22 but I think he came all the way from the other side of the field to knock away what would have been an impressive 3rd down throw and catch by Driskel to Courtland Sutton along the sideline. He also knocked the ball away from Melvin Gordon on what was probably a red-zone TD, otherwise. Then, of course, he ended the game with a well-timed sack on 4th down. He had some ups and downs but it’s nice to report some ups for a change.
I’ve been following the Steelers intently for almost 50 years and it’s hard to remember this franchise ever having a better overall STs situation. And that is DESPITE some horrendous punting. The FG kicker has missed 3 kicks the past two seasons, the FG holder this year has made a couple of dandy saves on snaps that went askew, the coverage units have been solid to even A+ (Watt and Claypool have stood out), and the returners… WOW.
Diontae Johnson’s punt returns were absolute beauties––ARE territory. So bold and elusive in the open field. It’s criminal that his PR return TD got called back––but that would have cost us the Claypool 84-yard TD. Ray Ray McColud hasn’t gotten many opportunities (largely because his judgment/training about whether bring the ball out of the EZ has been stellar) but he’s nearly broken a return for a TD in two straight games. Also, it’s worth noting that the blocking on the returns has been outstanding, especially compared to previous years. I noticed some great efforts from Samuels, Dangerfield, Spillane, and Sutton.
The two young OL were pretty dang impressive in this game. Dotson missed one run block on a trap play that turned a 12-yard run into a 3-yard run. He also failed to pick up a blitz protection shift that resulted in a pass knocked down on 3rd down. Other than that, he was outstanding. Early in the game, he shoved Pro-Bowler Jurrell Casey out of the club and then, on Conner’s rushing TD, Dotson buried Josie Jewell into a crumpled piece of paper. I thought he might have Hurt Jewell, actually, so bent in two as he was. Solid in pass pro, even in a few other stunt pickups… amazing start for his first-ever in the NFL.
Chuks might have impressed me even more. He looked smooth in his dropstep, used his length to catch and absorb every pass rusher he faced… he may not have faced Von Miller, but I’m not taking him off the field any time soon.
If I’m doing a FA/future stock report after 2 weeks, it looks like this:
Trade Decastro, sign Feiler, sign Banner to team-friendly deal, extend Chuks.
2021 OL: Chuks, Feiler, Pouncey, Dotson, Banner/draft pick
Let JuJu walk, since JW is being groomed into more short pass game.
2021 lineup: DJ-Claypool-JW-draft pick
Subject to change and especially if the cap goes up (keep Decastro and send Feiler back to RT).
Basically, I think the optimist would say the Steelers were able to overcome a lot in this game and the pessimist would say “but most of what they overcame was self-inflicted!”. Both would be correct. And the defense’s stamina will likely not fade as much when we’re 3-4 games into the season. Better to have teachable moments and room to grow in a game that ended up with a W, but there are things to work on. Next test is facing a superb QB and an opponent who is desperate to avoid 0-3 after playing perhaps the two best teams in the league.