I’d wager that, in the Summer of 2018, a large percentage of even diehard football fans of your Pittsburgh Steelers had next to no idea who half the guys who played yesterday were.

Devlin Hodges
Deon Cain
Telvin Jones
Benny Snell
Kerrith Whyte
Jaylen Samuels
Nick Vannett
Matt Feiler
B.J. Finney
Diontae Johnson
Steven Nelson
Cam Sutton
Zach Banner

Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and James Washington were more familiar college players, but I doubt anyone remembered seeing Terrell Edmunds on a football field going into Latrobe last year. None of them had ever been seen an NFL field.

Yesterday’s Steelers game was more reminiscent of a preseason game than a December division game against a longtime rival. And not only did these young players make the expected mistakes, they also made enough great plays to take down the AFC North’s preseason paper champs, the Cleveland Browns.

Let us take a moment to appreciate the 2019 Cleveland Browns and their contributions toward the organization’s continued path of ‘excellence’.

They dumped the moribund head coach Hue Jackson, added significant pieces at WR, RB, LB, EDGE, DB to go along with top-in-the-draft picks Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield… and became everyone’s preseason darling. Unfortunately, the work they did to retool their OL hasn’t panned out at all, Garrett got himself suspended for the season, and the Browns head-hunting safeties knocked themselves right out of the game. Mike Tomlin had the most appropriate response to all this sound and fury, signifying nothing––when asked how he would deal with the Browns all-pro level talent on offense, Tomlin famously yawned. That sums up my personal feeling on the Browns, i.e.: who gives a crap?

But the opponent on this day, they were, and the Steelers no-name cast found a way to not only win but to serve notice that they’re not dead yet.

And, oh by the way: their defense is pretty good.

As per Steelers PR:

Missi Matthews @missi_matthews19h
Over their last 10 games of 2019, the Steelers rank 1st in the NFL in takeaways (28), 1st in QB hits (78), 1st in passes defended (65), 1st in forced fumbles (17), 1st in fumble recoveries (13), 2nd in interceptions (15), 2nd in sacks (38) & tied for 3rd in defensive TDs (3).

That’s pretty good for a unit that has a terrible defensive coordinator and a head coach who is carried to his underachieving success by his HOF QB and who rode the coattails of Bill Cowher’s players and never built a defense of his own.

The turnaround of this defense and the resiliency of this offense are nothing short of unbelievable. I mean, seriously, if you said before the season:
“I predict the Steelers will lose Ben to an injury in Week 2, Sean Davis & Stephon Tuitt will be lost for the season, Bud Dupree will prove he wasn’t worth a contract extension, James Conner and JuJu will miss multiple games, Mason Rudolph was terrible… so, they’re going to be hideous and probably 5-11 or worse.”
…every person reading this would be nodding in agreement.

I honestly can’t remember a game since the strike/replacement players year where the offense was an undrafted rookie QB throwing it to an underachieving 2nd year guy as the #1, a rookie WR having a terrible day, and two guys who weren’t on the team when these two teams met 2 weeks ago + a rookie RB and 3rd down back… That was pretty much surreal.

The Steelers braintrust seemed determined to play “just don’t kill us, kid” football, which did more to kill us than even what Mason Rudolph put on tape, but (thankfully) a free play offsides created by a great hard count by Hodges finally gave the opportunity to starting throwing it downfield… with tremendous results. The WRs other than Johnson made incredible plays on the ball when given good throws to work with. Hodges lost some of his apparent early jitters and the whole team seemed to lift. Maybe next week, they won’t feel compelled to wait until down multiple scores before letting the offense offense.

After a couple of early missteps avoiding pressure––trying to escape right and into the pass rusher rather than stepping up in the pocket––Hodges’s confidence seemed to soar and he made mostly smart decisions and good throws. Even his interception was a good read. Will have to wait to see the all-22, but it appeared that Diontae Johnson had inside position against a CB playing off-coverage with no safety help to the inside. This is a throw I want my NFL QB to make 100% of the time–– it’s nearly a sure reception or at worst DPI. For whatever reason, Johnson half-heartedly stopped on the route and it became an easy pick.

And, sure, the choice to attempt a left-handed pass while being sacked on a 3rd and goal play or throwing it away while trying to kill the clock––where taking a sack is a much better outcome––young player mistakes. At least this QB makes the kind of mistakes that seem correctable. I mean, you can see where Hodges will fail when he fails: he’ll make a poor decision when trying to make a play… but I prefer that instinct than the one which is rooted in the fear of making a mistake.

But one thing Duck got right: throw it to James Washington. Washington has been very consistent for the past few weeks, but since Duck Hodges took the reins, here’s James Washington’s statline:
8 targets
6 rec
203 yards
75% Catch percentage
25.4 yards per target
2 TD

To put that in perspective, here are his season numbers before that stretch:
46 targets
24 catches
375 yds
53.3% catch percentage
8.15 yards per target
1TD

Washington is reborn! That would be a pretty tough pace to keep up but, for the moment, James is doing everything expected of him and more–– deep balls, 50/50 combat catches, a threat that defenses have to notice and account for. Early to definitively make the assessment, but it sure looks like the Steelers picked the right WR again, without having to spend a top 50 pick.

Even though the early returns suggest prospect Diontae Johnson will follow suit, he had a rough afternoon on Sunday. He had been excellent for the last month, but for whatever reason, he was frustrated yesterday, got a personal foul, helped create an INT, had a great grab in crunch time, but committed the sin of going out of bounds in a situation where it cost his team 40 seconds in a one-score game. DJ will have better days–– let’s hope the playcalling and QB play can work to keep him more involved and less frustrated, because he can be a valuable piece going forward.

The same is true for Vance Mcdonald, who may not have gotten a lot of targets, but who sure made a huge play when called upon to convert a 3rd down late in the game. That’s the lesson for skill players when the QB and or OL is struggling––it will be frustrating at times and you must resist the urge to try too hard. You have to put in the work, be patient, and wait for the game to come to you. It won’t surprise me if everyone gets a bit more involved on offense going forward. Let’s hope, like Deon Cain, Kerrith Whyte, and Tevin Jones, they make plays when called upon.

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Special teams also had a notably solid day, with Chris Boswell adding to his outstanding bounce-back season and Kerrith Whyte even getting a kick return or two that didn’t look worthy of euthanasia. The blocking and coverage units seem to have a good mix now, with ST stalwarts like Dangerfield, Mataklevich, & Chickillo making the requisite plays, and newcomers like Justin Layne, Kam Kelly, and Johnny Holton making notable contributions. Keep it up and let’s not talk about you anymore.

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Obviously, the coaching job this team has done has to be acknowledged. There are a lot of moving parts and challenges: rebuilding a defense with bold moves (most of but not all of which have worked), dealing with a young set of offensive skill players and an inconsistent approach on offense that may have its roots in what the HC wants to do/limitations of the players involved/the OC or all of the above… but all of that pales in comparison to the task of convincing players, young and old, to believe in themselves and that they can win. In that effort, Mike Tomlin has worked a miracle to this point.

I mean, they are 7-3 without Ben as the starter. Their defense is close to the best in the NFL. They are clearly in the playoff hunt with 4 games to go.

Yet, they made a boatload of mistakes on Sunday–mistakes that won’t cut it in a playoff run, let alone a postseason game. Managing the game and the clock late with smart decisions. Presnap penalties. Lining up wrong penalties. Officials are fucking crazywrong penalities. Mixups in coverage. WR stopping on routes. Missed blocks in run game.

The room for improvement is there, but it’s way better to talk about fixing mistakes after a spicy division win. The best appears yet to come.