As they often do, the Steelers used their unexpected bye week to get some rookies more involved. One of those young players was their top draft choice, a masterpiece-potential work of art acquired from Canada via the Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, who enjoyed his coming-out party. This week we remembered the career of Gale Sayers… and Chase Claypool nearly duplicated his rookie record of 6 TDs, scoring 4 and having #5 taken away by a completely bogus penalty call.
Claypool even managed to steal the spotlight away from one of the most dominating opponent performances in recent memory, the 10 catches for 152 yards and 1 TD day for the best WR in the NFL the past 2 weekends, Travis Fulgham. They don’t ask ‘how’, they only ask, “how many.” And the answer this week is: 4. 4 TDs for Claypool, and 4-0 for the Steelers. Should’ve have been 5 and 5, but who’s counting).
AB never had 4, Lev Bell never had 4. Bettis never did it. Franco Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Lipps… you name it: none of them had more than 3. You have to go back to the great forgotten Steeler WR, Roy Jefferson, who had 4 in 1968 or Halfback Ray Mathhes in ’54 (I’m sure Swiss can tell you more about him) to find Claypool’s equal… and the Steelers defense needed all 4 of those TDs.
The Eagles came in as more or less a desperate and undermanned team, which perhaps made them a bit more dangerous than they might have otherwise. The Steelers defense actually shut them down, with 2 interceptions, 5 sacks, 7 TFL, and what should have been a strip-sack forced fumble. But it was the things they didn’t do that got Philadelphia back in the game and made it a much closer affair than it deserved to be at the outset:
1. they didn’t commit Defensive pass interference nor rough the passer, but were called for both on drives that appeared to have cost them 11 points
2. Mike Hilton missed a tackle at the line of scrimmage and neither Terrell Edmunds nor Steven Nelson could buy a holding call on the WRs who grabbed them, hung on for dear life, and got away with it… result, a 71-yard TD run for Miles Sanders
3. they couldn’t figure out how in the hell to cover Eagles Travis “Megatron” Fulgham
It was basically feast or famine for the Eagles. Aside from the questionable defensive penalty calls, targets of Fulgham, and the Mile Sanders TD run, the Eagles rushed 15 times for 17 yards, Wentz had 10 completions for 106 yards on 22 attempts (4.8 YPA), and the Eagles had 89 net yards on 42 plays––a ridiculous 2.1 yards per play.
But they don’t take away the long runs or completions to the guy you can’t stop, so the reality was 29 points that the defense gave up, which was not great by our expectations nor by the standard they’ve set for themselves. However, it’s worth noting in a league where all the rules favor the offense and scoring is at nearly an all-time high, the Steelers defense hasn’t given up 30 points in over an entire season’s worth of games––not since the 33 in week 1 of last year’s lackluster start. To put that in perspective, 29 teams have given up 30 or more in a game this year, and the Steelers have the longest streak of <30 pt games in the league (19) The Pittsburgh #Steelers have the longest current streak of allowing opponents <30 points: 19 games. The next closest teams are Chicago (15) and Denver (14). Every other team in the NFL has allowed 30+ in 2020.
Yesterday’s performance was much worse in terms of perception than it was in reality, though, because they had chances to absolutely throttle the Eagles on every drive and just couldn’t put them away. Credit a determined Wentz and a WR who was so obscure before his last two games that even I had to look it up to remember where he went to school (Old Dominion). Maybe it was just a bad matchup in a game where they were trying to take away other things or perhaps it’s a problem area that they’ve got to get figured out before other teams try to exploit it. To the workshop they go and we’ll have to await the results. As I say every week, at least you’re trying to work these things out after a win and not lamenting them after a loss. At least, on the Eagles last possession, Bud Dupree had a statement sack––exploding off the line and past Jordan Mailata––and Terrell Edmunds broke up a pass without getting flagged… but the Steelers were thisclose to coughing up a 17 point lead.
With all the letdowns (relatively speaking) that kept the Eagles going, it was a game where the offense needed to step up and have their defense’s back… and they did that and more. They’re clearly still a work-in-progress, with Ben not quite dialed in with the long ball and the running game distribution of work still getting figured out, but yesterday was a sign that the potential is there for this team to be far better offensively than predicted. The addition of some smart minds in the coaches room and a semi-bye week to work in some new players and concepts were both important, but the return of all that Ben Roethlisberger means to this team is incredibly evident.
Just yesterday, he adjusted pass protections and kept the NFL’s leading sack team to 1 sack. He adjusted run calls and RPOs masterfully, more often than not making great choices and keeping the chains moving. And, on maybe the game’s most crucial play late in the 4th quarter, he noticed the Eagles worst pass-defender (indeed, Nate Geary is statistically the worst pass-defender in the NFL) lined up on the Steelers hottest WR, called a play at the line of scrimmage that the team hadn’t practiced with that personnel––and one that the guy who caught the ball had never heard in an audible adjustment. Ben somehow communicated the routes to everyone, looked off the safety, and casually threw to a wide-open Chase Claypool for the TD that sealed victory. Ho-hum.
Things of note:
The Steelers personnel usage and multiple formations look much, much more like Fitchner’s Memphis offenses, who would regularly swap 3 or 4 players between snaps––something that wasn’t yet in vogue. We can credit Matt Canada for encouraging and refining these looks or for perhaps convincing Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger to buy in but it would be unfair based on history to think Fitchner isn’t influencing this as well. Ben’s buy-in is huge, too––his job is a good deal more complicated with all the eye-candy presnap and different ball fakes he has to both orchestrate and execute. If I just think back on the key plays for the Steelers offense, I see Chase Claypool being moved around to create mismatches, Ray McCloud (of all people!) getting the ball on the jet sweep and taking it for 58 yards, a WR screen for a TD behind the immortal blocking trio of Vanc McDonald, James Conner, & Trey Edmunds, goal-line handoff to Chase Claypool that looked nearly unstoppable, heavy looks, Ebron split out wide to move defenders away from the ball––utilizing 11 different skill players and 2 OL as eligibles. Kudos for all the work put in during a season with no OTAs, no pre-season, and limited practice time to make this offense respectably updated for the 2020 era.
However, I think the fake jet sweep counter toss must have been unstoppable in practice can be buried along with the heavy formation with an extra lineman. Neither of those worked yesterday, and the extra OL formation pretty much has never worked well for the Steelers. Perhaps they will motion to a spread formation from that heavy package, getting Alejandro Villanueva 1-on-1 against an unsuspecting safety who didn’t face any of the service academies? That would have a better chance of working than trying to telegraph the plowing of beef into even more beef.
Speaking of those 13 players used as eligible receivers, one who wasn’t used (other than in victory formation) was Jaylen Samuels––somewhat surprising in a game where the short passing and multiple formation looks were such a big part of the plan. And it’s certainly worth noting that the Steelers offense put up 38 points without a 100-yards rusher and with barely any targets of Diontae Johnson or JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Former Houston Cougars QB Greg Ward was another bright spot for Philly–– did anyone else notice the Eagles’ #84 doing the AB84 TD celebration after his score? Let us hope we never have to see the real thing in another uniform.
Anthony McFarland continues to show some flash as a change-of-pace RB but Benny Snell looks pretty much like the pedestrian player from 2019. Thank goodness Conner looks healthy, because Snell and Samuels have done next to nothing in the past 3 games. It’s a long season, though, and chances are you’ll need everyone at some point.
Eric Ebron made a really nice play on an underthrown ball from Ben that led to a Steelers TD, but his catch and fumble gave the Eagles late life and, in general, he couldn’t come down with a couple of balls you need him to grab in crunch time. He did do some decent blocking work in the run game, but his false start also was a killer. You take the good with the bad when it comes to Ebron, but they to need him to play better going forward.
Ben missed on a couple of throws, notably a skinny post to Claypool late in the 2nd quarter, where Ben tried to put some snazzle on it and it sailed over Claypool’s head… but with the emphasis on taking what the defense gave him and simply exploiting matchups, he had a nice day. If you add in the DPIs and the two fantastic throws that were nullified by two outrageously bad penalty calls (OPI on Claypool & illegal man downfield on Kevin Dotson), Ben’s numbers would have been 32/39 for 340 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT, and a 137.2 Passer Rating. Pretty nice game for a guy who to my eye is playing at around 80-90% peak Ben.
What does it all mean? 4-0 is 4-0, baby. Next week they have to fend off the Browns Super Bowl and the desire to kick the shiznit out of Myles Garrett. It should be an interesting matchup and the kind of game to which #7 brings his best. Hopefully, his defense can bring theirs, too.