Takeaways: this game had ’em, this season has them in abundance, the Steelers defense like Rolling Rock has 33, and I’ve got many. Maybe not 33 like they do, but here goes…
The fake punt was a mistake, doesn’t matter whose fault it is, doesn’t matter who took the blame. The takeaway is: even when you think you have communication set up with proper channels (the STs coach making the call from the sideline and all the players looking to him for the call)… things can get messed up. Professionals on the field have to be counted upon to do their jobs correctly, but sometimes with a young team/players it’s better to keep it simple. Minimize the need for perfect communication. But just remember that the next time they call a fake in an advantageous situation and one player out of 11 doesn’t get the call and bones the play.
Joe Haden has been getting considerable flak the last year and a half or so, but he’s been one of the Steelers best defenders in that span. Like any good corner, his best quality is a SHORT memory. On the Cards TD, he didn’t get the call right away, then identified that he had Clay in man to man, and then appeared to get a little caught off guard at the snap. He was slow out of his break, hit some traffic, and Clay came wide open for the TD. The takeaways from this: TWO TAKEAWAYS. Haden got his rewards for shaking off the bad play and being aggressive and brave on the two interceptions. On the second one, particularly, Haden came off of his sideline zone with a decisive break on the ball and an athletic dive and catch. That is just a seriously confident play, and it’s one many players with an earlier game mistake don’t even attempt.
The Steelers secondary has been fire since the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, and I have really noticed it in the play of Terrell Edmunds. Edmunds has been free to run to the ball and has been involved on a lot of stops. But. The Takeaway for this game will not be the many good plays that he made, but the one egregious play that he should have made but didn’t, a TD pass he attempted to catch but horribly misjudged in the air. If he simply plays that ball with good timing and doesn’t catch it, it would have been an excellent play. If he catches it, it changes his career narrative and might be a catalyst for him stepping up, which is in everyone’s interest. But the thing he lacks that Joe Haden has: the kind of career success to help you have confidence in yourself and confidence to not just be in the right spot and fulfill your assignment but to MAKE PLAYS. Mark my words: Terrell Edmunds is going to make a big play on the ball and his whole demeanor and play style is going to change. He’s soooo close and yet still far from being great.
I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy complaining about NFL officiating but I have to say: it may be as bad as I’ve ever seen. A couple of years ago, we had the whole going to the ground catch thing and then we had the absurd personal fouls against defenseless players, ticky-tack roughing the passer, and lowering the helmet to initiate contact penalties. All of that was absorbed by fans and, in most cases, they not only accepted it but have begun to think of good, physical football as dirty play––chalk one up for you, NFL. BUT. This whole pass-interference-can-be-reviewed rule change has become weaponized by the league to the point of absurdity. Interference calls on the field have been less logical than ever AND the penalty for virtually every challenge to these plays, no matter how ridiculous the call, has been loss of not only your timeout but also the loss of the opportunity to challenge another important play later, if you’ve already challenged twice. Which is more likely than ever, because the number of obviously missed calls that impact games––missed spots factoring in 1st downs, TD calls, turnover calls––seem to be called more improperly than ever. It makes me long for the days before replay, when the officials would huddle and one of them would watch the replay on the giant scoreboard so they could decide what happened. The Takeaway: I think all of this is some kind of psychological exercise to get us to accept all kinds of officiating shenanigans and incompetence. They are gaslighting us into questioning everything we see, so that we’ll accept as normal any call, no matter how outrageous. The saddest part is: between college football and the AAF, most of the solutions for improving officiating and getting the calls right have been or are being used. Review of serious PFs to make sure they meet the standard, an eye in the sky official to stop play and transparently review calls that seem obviously wrong, no matter what the call on the field, and generally not penalizing the teams as much if there are more bad calls to be reviewed. Add to that the available technology to put RFID in the ball, players (already exists), and sensors on the field and there would no longer be much argument about where the ball went out of bounds, or whether the runner’s forward progress reached the line to gain, or whether a player was offside or an OL moved first, or whether the ball crossed the goal line. This controversy and ridiculousness exist because they WANT it to exist.
Bud Dupree might not have literally taken the ball away as he has on 5 occasions this season, but he did almost single-handedly take away Kyler Murray runs to the right. Or escape from the pocket to the right. Bud did it largely with not good but FANTASTIC technique––keeping his outside arm free and not overcommitting to Murray once he got outside the pocket. I might have called at least one of those 3 TFLs a sack, but not sure what the standard is for deciding whether the QB is on a designed run or scrambling. Bud could have had 3 sacks on the day, but all of those plays were equally disruptive and worthy. The Takeaway: Somebody really good has been coaching this dude, and if we’re giving credit to that, his name is the often maligned Keith Butler.
Perhaps Butler has more time to coach his LBs because Mike Tomlin is calling the defensive plays––the HC was seen giving the calls into his mic in multiple sideline shots this week. The Takeaway: If Tomlin is calling the defensive plays, the defense is near the top of the charts in 2019, and the LBs are thriving (one of them has a great shot to be the DPOY), maybe the Head Coach is pretty good. Take that, haters! (It’s okay, I’m sure you’ll just criticize him for not making these changes earlier.)
I continue to be amazed that rookies, journeymen, and young role players off the street are valuable contributors to this team. Kerrith Whyte is making the most out of every touch and has even returned a kick past the 40! Deon Cain somehow couldn’t stick on an NFL roster, yet is out there making combat catches and blocking dudes. Justin Layne has stood out on the punt return team as the catcher for the gunner–I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better blocker at that task. He seems to have elite feet that always keep balance and stay in front of the gunner, which is a real outlier skill when you’re running backward at full speed. Takeaway: This season should be a lesson for the Steelers in the way they approach young players. Give them a chance to succeed, regardless of experience, let them fail, see how they handle it, replace the ones who don’t bounce back or can’t cut it, bring in new guys if you have to– whatever it takes. We might never have seen Diontae Johnson’s thing-of-beauty punt return TD if Ryan Switzer hadn’t gotten injured, and that would have been a damn shame.
Speaking of Diontae Johnson, his bounce-back yesterday was an exceptional answer to being pulled aside by coaches this week and challenged to be better and to display a better attitude as a teammate. It’s important to remember that he’s only a rookie WR, and rookie WRs on established teams rarely create as much output as he’s had to this point. The Takeaway: thusfar his 42 rookie catches are more than Mike Wallace or Plax, his 483 rookie yds are better than Emmanuel Sanders or Hines Ward, and his 5 rookie TDs are more than ARE or Santonio Holmes. Oh, and let’s not forget future GOAT Antonio Brown had 16 catches for 167 and 1 total TD as a rookie.
The Steelers surprised me by having success running the football vs a team that stops it pretty well. Devlin Hodges wasn’t asked to carry the team, but he made several high quality throws, including a fabulous backshoulder throw to the aforementioned Deon Cain, a perfectly on-target TD pass to the cone, and a very Ben Roethlisberger-esque escape from the pocket and throw downfield to convert a 3rd and 13 at the 2:00 warning in a 3 point game. Because of the immediate cut to commercial and network promos afterward, they didn’t even show a replay of what might have been the best play Hodges (and Diontae Johnson for that matter) made all season. Hodges understood the game situation was: get a 1st down, run, or be sacked– no incompletions. He saw the opening to his left, slid threw it, looked prepared to run for a few yards and slide down– but he kept his eye downfield, and when Johnson came back hard in a scramble drill automatic (deep guys come towards the QB and short guys go deep), Hodges found him for the 1st down. The Takeaway: We’ve seen this kind of play from Ben Roethlisberger in late-game situations so often, it’s part of his legacy. But this was special for a young guy with half of Ben’s talents but not an ounce less moxie. He’s been very efficient throwing it– it’s time to ask him to do more, something the team will need vs tougher opponents.
The Cardinals are not a great team, but winning 8 games out of the last 9 with any team against any level of NFL competition is a rare feat. To do so with two 1st-time NFL starting QBs, one of whom is a pure undrafted/rookie tryout guy and the other one who last seen untwisting himself from a pretzel shape after he tried to throw a ball with his feet in concrete… this is an incredible achievement. People will often say, “You don’t need a great QB to win a Super Bowl”, but the counter to that is, “You can win it all with a caretaker QB, but you’d better have an elite defense.” The Takeaway: I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing. They’re building and improving an elite defense and a complementary offense, even without the RB & WR who started the year atop the rotation of skill players. So why is it that no one (least of all us) takes the Steelers chances of winning a Super Bowl this year seriously? Is it because they have only beaten one team who currently has a winning record (by the way, that team–the Rams–suddenly looks like a Super Bowl contender themselves)? Is it because they have the longest of longshots as QB? Is it because we don’t believe in Mike Tomlin? Or we believe Baltimore is unstoppable (uh, don’t look now, but Baltimore looks great, but a whole lot less of a juggernaut than they did two weeks ago)? I can’t say what it will take to believe, but a win over a flawed but scrappy Buffalo team, with its dynamic QB (read: capable of extreme highs and lows) and legit defense might start putting thoughts of sugarplum fairies in little ones’ heads.
To that end, by the time we get to the end of the season, who is really going to look unbeatable? The Patriots have lost to every division leader. Houston just lost to Denver. Baltimore and San Francisco looked mortal vs a shell-shocked Steelers team with Mason Rudolph going full Rudolph in the SF game and with Duck Hodges rallying the team to what seemed to be an OT victory, only to have JuJu fumble the game away. The Steelers lost to Seattle, a team that two weeks ago was the likely #1 seed in the NFC… BY TWO POINTS. The Takeaway: barring a secret Ben Roethlisberger January return that would trump even Mario Lemieux’s un-retirement as the story of the year, if the Steelers decisively beat Buffalo and the Jets the next two weeks, I’m going to start to harbor a fantasy or three about how they might make a playoff run, even without a superstar QB. Duck is brave, has been making mostly great decisions with the ball, and he hasn’t yet been taken over by the blackness of his previous failures sucking out the soul of his confidence/swagger.
The Biggest Takeaway: it is absolutely ridiculous that this team is 8-5, looking seriously at the #5 seed in the AFC, hasn’t really been blown out by anyone aside from week 1 vs the defending champs and on a short week vs Cleveland. The coaching job overall and specifically with bringing along young QBs and making the change to Hodges before the season was lost, the bold move to acquire Minkah, the signing of multiple young players off the street who are having impact, the patience shown to Boswell, Berry, and the entirety of special teams– which are now arguably a strength of the team– the move to walk away from Bell’s demands, shitcan the best WR in the NFL, and just about everything else they did to make a capital T Team… it’s a special ride so far and I hope it continues for at least another week or 7.