AFC North: Shaun Suisham

All-AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
AM ET
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

 
The Steelers placed six players on ESPN.com’s All-AFC North team, including unanimous selections in wide receiver Antonio Brown and outside linebacker Jason Worilds. First, some background on how the team was selected. All four ESPN NFL Nation reporters who cover the respective teams in the AFC North on a daily basis voted on the squad, and we voted based on players’ specific positions in the case of the offensive line. That is why David DeCastro and Marshal Yanda are not the guards on the team. Both play right guard, and DeCastro got the nod over Yanda even though the latter has been voted to the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver and inside linebacker were clearly the strength of the division. Brown, A.J. Green and Josh Gordon were all unanimous picks at wide receiver. All three are headed to the Pro Bowl and deservedly so. Lawrence Timmons had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but he didn’t make the All-AFC North team because of the depth at inside linebacker. I voted for Timmons but can’t quibble with the selections of Daryl Smith and Vontaze Burfict. Each had outstanding seasons. Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham makes the team in most other divisions but had no chance against Justin Tucker. Cameron Heyward stated his case at defensive end with a breakout season. But he didn’t become a starter until the fifth game of the season, and Bengals defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were the picks at the position.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell justified his pick at running back with a strong finish that included 214 of his 860 rushing yards in the Steelers’ final two games. He is one of the main reasons why the Steelers are so excited about their offense heading into the offseason. Ben Roethlisberger was the obvious choice at quarterback. The 10-year veteran played every snap and had one of the best statistical seasons of his career. Roethlisberger is almost a lock to be added to the Pro Bowl squad, assuming a couple of the quarterbacks voted to the team bow out because their team has made the Super Bowl or are nursing an injury.

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' season is riddled with what-ifs. In (dis)honor of their eight losses here are eight things that shaped their fate.

Near miss in opener: The Steelers took a shot deep down the right sidelines after getting a safety on the opening kickoff, but Emmanuel Sanders couldn't haul in Ben Roethlisberger's pass. It would have been a good catch but it turned into the kind of near-miss that defined Sanders' season as much as the big plays he delivered. You have to wonder if the Titans would have recovered had that play led to a touchdown and an early 9-0 Steelers lead. Instead the Steelers lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending knee injury on the first drive of the season and didn't score when Isaac Redman fumbled out of the end zone.

Hard to handle in Cincinnati: The Steelers were leading 3-0 in the second quarter when tight end David Paulson lost a fumble at the end of a 34-yard catch and run. Had Paulson held onto the ball the Steelers would have had a first down on the Bengals' 16-yard line. They would have been looking at least a 6-0 lead with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggling with his accuracy. That play pivoted the game toward the Bengals and loomed large in a 20-10 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTerrelle Pryor left the Pittsburgh defense in his wake en route to a 93-yard TD run.
Off and running in Oakland: Terrelle Pryor broke free for a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and that set the tone for another bad trip to Oakland. A handful of Steelers were caught out of position on the scamper, and that run exceeded the number of passing yards Pryor had (88). It also set an NFL record for longest run by a quarterback. The Steelers seemed to be a step slow all afternoon and the loss blunted any momentum they had generated following back-to-back wins.

Not so automatic: Shaun Suisham missed just two field goals all season and was as good as any kicker this side of Justin Tucker. But his misses couldn't have been timed any worse as both came in what turned out to be a three-point loss in Oakland. Nothing is as hard to comprehend about what happened this season then Suisham losing it for one game -- and one game only in an otherwise outstanding season. Both of his misses came inside of 35 yards and Suisham blamed himself for the worst loss of the season afterward.

Costly drop in Baltimore: The Steelers nearly rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, but Sanders dropped a 2-point conversion pass that would have tied the game, and the Ravens recovered the ensuing onside kick. The Steelers were nearly out of offensive linemen by the end of another brutal battle of attrition with their archrivals, and the injuries that decimated them up front might have put them at a disadvantage in overtime. On the other hand, the Steelers clearly had the Ravens on their heels after scoring three touchdowns in the second half. And they would have loved to take their chances in overtime.

No doubting Thomas: A backup running back playing on a bad wheel turned in the biggest play of the game when he broke free for a 55-yard run to set up the Dolphins' go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins blocked the play well though Troy Polamalu said after the Steelers' 34-28 loss that he had not gotten to his assigned gap. The run propelled Daniel Thomas, who played on an injured ankle, to only the second 100-yard game of his career and first since his rookie season in 2011. It also led to another improbable loss for the Steelers.

Almost a miracle: The Steelers came within inches of pulling off what would have been one of the greatest endings in NFL history. Sanders caught a pass at around the Steelers' 40-yard line and triggered a series of laterals after he gained about 5 more yards and tossed the ball back to Jerricho Cotchery. The ball reversed field and ended up tucked under Antonio Brown's left arm. Brown weaved his way through the Dolphins defense with no time left on the clock and reached the end zone. Officials however, correctly ruled that he stepped out of bounds at the 12-yard adding another heartbreaking chapter to the Steelers season. Brown probably could have avoided stepping out and still scored but snow made it difficult to tell where he was on the field. No single play epitomized the Steelers' near-miss season than this one.

No call shuts door on Steelers: Wouldn't you have loved to hear what Mike Tomlin was yelling at his TV when he noticed the Chargers were lined up illegally before Ryan Succop's 41-yard field goal attempt? Succop should have gotten a mulligan -- and moved 5 yards closer -- after barely missing the field goal that would sent the Steelers to the playoffs but no penalty was called. A quick whistle may have also cost the Steelers in overtime when Eric Weddle was ruled down before a Chiefs player ripped the ball out of his arms and raced into the end zone. Tomlin is a member of the NFL's competition committee and you can bet he will have plenty to say on the state of officiating.

Tomlin grilled about late-game decision

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
7:15
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PITTSBURGH -- First there was the foot that shouldn't have been on the field.

Now there is the knee that should have been on the field -- specifically after a penalty gift wrapped by the Packers gave Mike Tomlin the chance to mostly bleed the clock dry and still provide Shaun Suisham with an easy chip shot to beat Green Bay.

Tomlint
Tomlin
Tomlin, of course, played for the touchdown and the Steelers lost the game because of it.

At least that's what you might have thought had you watched or listened to Tomlin's weekly news conference without knowing what had happened in the Steelers and Packers' first meeting since Super Bowl XLV.

The first seven questions -- after Tomlin made it sound like the second comings of Jim Brown, Otto Graham and Ozzie Newsome were suiting up for the visiting Browns on Sunday -- were related to his clock management at the end of the Packers game.

A game that the Steelers won, 38-31.

Whether or not Tomlin stood by his strategy needed to be asked, especially since he might have viewed the end of the game differently after getting a chance to analyze it away from the crucible of competition.

But Tomlin stuck by his decision, whether people disagree with it or not. He also explained at length his reasoning for playing for the touchdown instead of the field goal.

There wasn't anything more he could do, which is why the seventh-year coach seemed generally perplexed when questions about his decision at the end of the game kept coming.

“I'm sorry I'm not answering the question to your satisfaction,” Tomlin said, “but that's my opinion, that's how I felt and I'd probably do it again.”

Monday morning quarterbacking is the domain of fans and the media. It is a requirement for the latter, something Tomlin, like many coaches, has rarely shown any inclination to try to understand.

He is going to get questioned. He is especially going to get questioned at his weekly news conferences since Tomlin's postgame news conferences are so notoriously short.

But there is a difference between pressing a coach for answers on strategic or personnel moves and overkill.

To review: Tomlin didn't want to rely on a field goal because of the weather and poor field conditions. He felt confident about putting his defense back on the field to preserve the win. He agrees to disagree with those who say he should have kicked a field goal after nearly killing the clock. He wouldn't do anything differently.

Oh and here is another reminder: the Steelers won the game.

Steelers keep playoff hopes alive

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
11:05
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Ben Roethlisberger Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers survived a wild second half on the road against Green Bay.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A punter with a distinct Aussie accent completed arguably the most important pass of the game.

A defensive end who hadn't played more than 10 snaps since the middle of November produced a sack and recovered a fumble that led to the late touchdown that set up a wild finish at snowy Lambeau Field.

A defense that might have taken the field with only some light clean-up work had coach Mike Tomlin played the percentages needed to make a last-second goal-line stand to preserve the Steelers' 38-31 win against the Packers on Sunday, ensuring Pittsburgh's playoff hopes survived another day.

The victory came in spite of the Steelers. But the improbable nature of the win seemed as apropos as the snow that coated the field at legendary Lambeau three days before Christmas.

The Steelers' alter ego has tried to sabotage this season countless times already -- including several times against the Packers -- and yet this team still ticks.

The Steelers are 7-8, and they will go into their final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. They still need a lot to happen, but the Steelers should be able to at least take care of their own business next Sunday -- and in less dramatic fashion than what transpired at Lambeau.

They play the 4-11 Browns in a 1 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field, which suddenly will have many fewer empty seats than recently expected.

"There's a chance," defensive end Brett Keisel said with a smile. "And we're going to fight."

And that is the rub on the latest edition of the Steelers, who have shown a knack for responding when pushed to the brink.

And you thought the Steelers had no identity.

"I think tonight showed there's no quit in this team," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "That's who we are."

Now let's talk about where they are with just one game left on the schedule.

"Still not going to talk about it, because we have to take care of our business," Roethlisberger said of the "P" word. "I don't even know what the scenario is, but I'm sure it's still pretty crazy."

It got a lot less crazy by the end of the afternoon games Sunday.

The Steelers got what they needed in wins from the Bills and Jets, and they can live with the Chargers beating the hapless Raiders.

They almost didn't hold up their end, squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead before scoring a late touchdown and then hanging on for dear life.

A compelling if not always cleanly played game -- the teams combined for 16 penalties -- could have turned following a bizarre sequence in the third quarter.

The Steelers' defense made an inspiring stand after Le'Veon Bell lost a fumble at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. Steve McLendon blocked a short Mason Crosby field goal attempt, and Ryan Clark scooped up the loose ball.

Clark tried to lateral it to William Gay, but when the ball landed on the turf, Ziggy Hood swatted it out of bounds. Officials ruled that there had never been a change of possession, and they awarded the Packers the ball and a first down after an illegal batting call on Hood.

An irate Tomlin tried to challenge the call, which was made after a lengthy discussion among officials, but it was not reviewable. Tomlin seethed about the call even after the game.

"They screwed it up in my opinion," Tomlin said.

The Steelers nearly did the same after rebounding from that deflating swing with a pair of touchdowns.

They blew a 10-point lead before Keisel pounced on a loose ball that was a result of a Troy Polamalu strip-tackle with just less than two minutes left in the game.

The Packers delivered an early Christmas present when Nick Perry hopped offside before Shaun Suisham's 27-yard field goal attempt.

The Steelers had a first down at the 5-yard line with 1:35 left in the game. With the Packers having only one timeout remaining, Tomlin could have killed much of the clock and sent Suisham out for the equivalent of an extra point.

"I'm not into that," Tomlin said of having Roethlisberger take a knee twice after Bell had reached the 1-yard line. "Given an opportunity to score, we are going to score."

The score held up because rookie Shamarko Thomas chased down Micah Hyde after a 70-yard kickoff return, and the Steelers' defense had one more stand in it -- albeit barely.

The story of the game, at least from the Steelers' vantage point, could have been questionable coaching decisions and the sequence that gave the Packers that ball back after a blocked field goal.

Instead, the story was punter Mat McBriar throwing a 30-yard pass -- on his second read, no less -- after a perfectly called fake punt that served as a precursor to a wild third quarter.

It was Keisel, who still has trouble putting weight on his injured heel, making two of the biggest plays near the end of the game -- and near the end of his Steelers career.

It was about the improbable adding up to what seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago: the Steelers having a chance to play beyond Dec. 29 this season.

"You've got to give our whole team credit for continuing to fight," Keisel said, "for continuing to believe."
Will Allen Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWill Allen (left) helped set up the Steelers' first touchdown during a 21-point first quarter.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers’ odds of making the playoffs were of the hit-the-lottery variety even before play started Sunday. They only increased after the Miami Dolphins held off a late rally to beat the New England Patriots and lengthen the list of what needs to happen for the Steelers to sneak into the playoffs, a list that is now longer than Troy Polamalu’s hair.

Against this backdrop and on a frigid night when an angry wind cut like a bad breakup, the Steelers seemed ripe for anything but what transpired at half-empty Heinz Field.

But in a season that has made little sense, it made perfect sense that the Steelers turned in their most inspired performance of 2013.

They clobbered the Cincinnati Bengals early and owned a quarter in which they had all too often been dominated this season. The Steelers, who had scored 43 points in the first quarter in 13 previous games, put up nearly half that total in the first 15 minutes Sunday night.

They dazed the Bengals with a three-touchdown barrage, and looked like the team playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs, not the one that is guaranteed back-to-back non-winning seasons for the first time since the late 1990s.

Cincinnati never recovered from the role reversal that left the Steelers with a sense of satisfaction, if not at all closer to the playoffs, following a 30-20 win.

“When you get the question a lot during the week -- 'What do you have to play for?' -- I think people are kind of looking for you to maybe have an opportunity to come out flat, and we didn’t do that and I’m excited about that for this team,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “I’m excited about that for the leaders and also for the young guys. To see the people come out and compete the way that they did when seemingly to the outside world we had nothing to play for, it was good for us.”

It also had to leave the Steelers wondering what might have been had they put together more all-around performances like the one they used to flatten the Bengals.

Five of the Steelers’ eight losses this season were by a touchdown or less. Their two most recent setbacks were by a combined eight points.

As much as injuries decimated the offensive line and breakdowns unmasked a once-fearsome defense, the Steelers are only a handful of plays from being 9-5 instead of 6-8. Among the what-ifs for the Steelers this season:

  • What if they hadn’t forgotten how to tackle against the Minnesota Vikings in London?
  • What if Shaun Suisham, who has been as automatic as a kicker can be, hadn’t missed a pair of chip shots in a three-point loss in Oakland?
  • What if Emmanuel Sanders had hung onto the two-point conversion pass in Baltimore?
  • What if the defense had protected a fourth-quarter lead against Miami instead of yielding a late 55-yard run to a backup running back who was playing on a bad knee?

“We can’t woulda, coulda, shoulda,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said.

Clark delivered a similar message after the Steelers improved to 6-8 by building the early 21-point lead and then holding off the Bengals.

“The NFL won’t give us an opportunity to go back and play those games over,” Clark said. “You don’t get the Tennessee Titans game back. You don’t get the Oakland Raiders game back, games that you feel like you should have won going in and also could have made plays to win the game.”

Clark talked in front of his locker, still clad in his entire uniform save for the helmet. Maybe the 12-year veteran wanted to bask in the win as long as possible, as it came in what could be his penultimate game in a Steelers uniform at Heinz Field.

Clark will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he is one of a handful of veterans who are viable candidates to be playing their last game with the Steelers on Dec. 29.

Maybe that reality, the likelihood that more turnover is coming to a team that had been able to resist it for so long, is why Steelers players did not collectively look too deep into the win against the Bengals. They simply wanted to enjoy the respite from what has been an incredibly frustrating season.

Perhaps they didn't want to think about how much they had squandered before putting together their most complete performance of the season.

There will be plenty of time for that after the season is over. The Steelers showed Sunday night that they are serious about finishing strong, even if 8-8 is unlikely to get them anything beyond the distinction of a non-losing season.

“I’ve said for a bunch of weeks now that there’s going to be no quit from me. I think tonight was a good example of that,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Everyone fought hard from start to finish. We just wanted to come out and show we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to the end.”

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 13

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
10:00
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A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Nick WassPittsburgh's offensive line took good care of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the Ravens.
O-line keeps Big Ben clean again: I thought the offensive line played one of its better games of the season. It is difficult to understand why the Steelers didn’t use their no-huddle offense more before the second half, because the line did not seem all that bothered by the crowd noise. It certainly wasn’t rattled by it. The Steelers had just one pre-snap penalty -- right guard David DeCastro was flagged for a false start in the second quarter -- and the Ravens did not sack quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The line has given up one sack over the past three games, and Roethlisberger has not been sacked in the past two games. Not that any of that mattered to DeCastro after the Steelers fell to 5-7. "It’s a tough one to swallow," he said. "I thought we played OK. We didn't run the ball efficiently in the first half. We protected Ben OK, but it wasn’t enough."

O-line dealing with more injuries: How healthy the offensive line is moving forward will be an issue considering four players from that unit left the game with injuries. Coach Mike Tomlin provided the minimum on those injuries (ankle, knee, etc.), and it looked like starting center Fernando Velasco might have been the only one to suffer a potentially serious injury. Velasco hurt his right ankle, and he left M&T Bank Stadium in a walking boot and crutches. Injuries to Kelvin Beachum (knee) and Mike Adams (ankle) forced the Steelers to use three players at left tackle, and DeCastro hurt his foot. Defensive end Brett Keisel left early in the first quarter after aggravating a foot injury that had sidelined him the previous two games.

They like Ike: Torrey Smith ended up 7 yards shy of becoming the third consecutive wide receiver with at least 100 receiving yards and a touchdown while getting covered primarily by cornerback Ike Taylor. And Smith drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty on Taylor on a third-and-7 play in the second quarter. The Ravens were 6-of-8 on third-down conversions in the first half, and Taylor's penalty led to one of five Justin Tucker field goals in the two-point game. Smith's 54-yard catch set up the Ravens' only touchdown. It also went down as the 10th play of at least 50 yards that the Steelers have given up this season.

Not so special: The Steelers' special teams gaffes were costly -- and will likely hit Tomlin's wallet after he almost wandered onto the field during Jacoby Jones' 73-yard kickoff return while watching it on a scoreboard Jumbotron. I think Tomlin made an honest mistake and that there was no intent by the seventh-year coach to slow down Jones, who flashed through a huge opening on the left side on the way to the longest play of the game. What hurt the Steelers more than Jones' return was the botched field goal attempt in the second quarter. Kicker Shaun Suisham started his approach too early, and he never had a chance to attempt a 50-yard field goal. "We were doing it on a slow cadence to slow their pass rush," Tomlin said. "I don’t think Shaun heard the cadence." The Ravens took advantage of the short field after Suisham, who ended up with the ball, was tackled for a 12-yard loss, and they kicked a field goal. "I don’t think he did anything to beat himself up [over]," long snapper Greg Warren said of Suisham.
Emmanuel SandersRob Carr/Getty ImagesEmmanuel Sanders was unable to hold onto the conversion attempt that would have tied the game.

BALTIMORE -- Fernando Velasco sat in front of his locker as a trainer fit his right foot for a boot and then adjusted the crutches that the Steelers center needed to walk out of M&T Bank Stadium.

The Steelers were a lot like Velasco at the end of another classic slugfest with their bitter rivals and mirror image.

Banged up following a valiant effort, the Steelers are also in need of some assistance after losing a 22-20 heartbreaker to the Ravens in a game each team badly needed to win.

For all that prevented the Steelers from sweeping the Ravens for the first time since 2008 -- the early play-calling was as mystifying as it was conservative and there were assorted special-teams blunders -- they had the home team right where they wanted it after Ben Roethlisberger calmly flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery on fourth down.

The Steelers called the same exact play on the two-point conversion that would have tied a game. Roethlisberger went to the other side of the field this time, noting that that Chykie Brown had just entered the game at cornerback for the injured Jimmy Smith and had man coverage on Emmanuel Sanders.

Roethlisberger threw a quick, back-shoulder pass to Sanders, and the ball sailed through the hands of the player who fashions himself as a No. 1 receiver.

A lame onside kick attempt by Shaun Suisham sealed the Steelers' seventh loss in 12 games, and the defeat means Pittsburgh has to win its final four games just to give itself a chance of making the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team.

“I don't expect any quit,” a resolute Roethlisberger said after almost pulling off one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. “We haven't quit to this point. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to fight my butt off all the way to the end.”

The Steelers did just that after falling behind 13-0 and after injuries scrambled their offensive line more than usual. They also saw one of their players knocked out cold but were, oddly enough, the team penalized in the name of safety.

Le'Veon Bell, who had the best game of his promising career, appeared to score a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. It came after a frightening collision with Smith near the goal line that caused Bell's helmet to pop off just before he fell across the goal line. A prayer circle quickly formed as medical personnel tended to the concussed Bell, and by the time he had been helped to his feet a rule that is supposed to protect players had taken the touchdown off the scoreboard. Since plays are ruled dead the moment a runner's helmet comes off, the ball was placed at the 1-yard line following a booth review of Bell's score.

The Steelers needed two more plays to score their third touchdown of the second half against a Ravens team that has one of the best red-zone defenses in the NFL. But they ultimately came up a play short in yet another Steelers-Ravens game that was was tighter than a shrunken turtleneck.

One thing that bodes well for the Steelers staying together and at least making a run at 9-7 is how quickly players were to accept blame for the loss.

“It's my fault that we lost,” Sanders said. “It's something I've got to deal with, but I'm not going to let it hold me down. Redemption Sunday is coming up.”

Sanders acknowledged that Brown did a good job of shielding the ball from his line of vision on the two-point conversion, but added, “That's no excuse. I consider myself a big-time player. I've got to come up with those plays.”

Troy Polamalu said the Steelers' defense didn't make enough plays even though it kept the Ravens out of the end zone after Baltimore's first possession of the game.

“Their defense played better than ours,” the Pro Bowl strong safety said. “That's what won them the game.”

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, said he could have done more to help he Steelers win even though he played brilliantly in leading the Steelers back from double-digit deficits twice in the second half.

Roethlisberger completed 28 of 44 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, and he had the Ravens' defense on its heels by the end of the game.

Had the Steelers attacked more in the first half than they did in the final two quarters they may have never needed Sanders to make what would have been a tough catch to send the game into overtime.

But an insipid offensive game plan made it look like the Steelers were playing not to lose when they had every reason in the world to do whatever it took to win.

The Steeler managed just 98 yards on total offense in the first half, and they didn't score before halftime for the first time this season. The Steelers went with a no-huddle attack almost exclusively in the second half.

“Maybe we should have done it earlier and maybe I should have voiced that more, so I'll take that [blame] myself as well,” Roethlisberger said.

Such selflessness in defeat isn't easy to muster, especially given all that was on the line and all of the good the Steelers did only to wind up with a loss.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “I appreciate the effort of the guys, but we didn't come down here with effort in mind. We came here to win.”

That's what made Roethlisberger and Sanders such a compelling sight as the latter walked to his locker after the loss that the Steelers may not be able to overcome. Roethlisberger pulled Sanders close and talked to him.

"That's for us," Roethlisberger later said of the conversation. "In general [it was], 'Keep your head up.'"

The Steelers will try to do the same.

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

November, 28, 2013
11/28/13
11:43
PM ET

BALTIMORE -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

What it means: The Steelers' most heartbreaking loss of the season also dropped them out of contention in the AFC North. At 5-7, the Steelers probably have to win their final four games to make the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team. The offense started slow but finished with a flourish and the defense played well enough for the Steelers to win. Who knows what the outcome may have been had a tying two-point conversion pass not gone through Emmanuel Sanders' hands? The last of a handful of Sanders' drops allowed the Ravens to escape with a two-point victory.

Stock watch: Special teams cost the Steelers a chance to even their record and sweep the Ravens for the first time since 2008. A botched field-goal attempt in the first quarter -- kicker Shaun Suisham appeared to be on a different snap count than everyone else -- cost the Steelers three points. It also gave the Ravens a short field that they turned into three points. In addition to that six-point swing, the Steelers gave up a 73-yard kickoff return that led to a Ravens field goal. And Suisham's feeble on-side kick attempt sealed the loss for the Steelers.

Best foot forward: Fans booed lustily when a shot of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin flashed on the M&T Bank Stadium scoreboard late in the late third quarter. The pro-Ravens crowd had good reason to jeer the seventh-year coach and not just because of their general dislike of the Steelers. Tomlin had his foot on the field right before Jacoby Jones raced past him on the way to a 73-yard kickoff return. Tomlin should have been hit with an unsportsmanlike penalty, and the non-call turned out to be significant as the Ravens had to settle for the third of Justin Tucker's four field goals.

Worilds brings more heat: With LaMarr Woodley again sidelined by a nagging calf injury, Jason Worilds excelled again at left outside linebacker. The fourth-year veteran continues to push his way into the Steelers' future plans -- and perhaps Woodley out of Pittsburgh. Worilds collected two sacks and made eight tackles, and that was just in the first half. Worilds may have been the best defensive player on the field, and he now leads the Steelers with six sacks. Woodley, who can't seem to stay on the field, has five sacks, and he is looking more and more like a candidate for the Steelers to part ways with after this season if they can re-sign Worilds, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

What's next: The Steelers get an extended break before returning to action Dec. 8 against the Dolphins at Heinz Field. The Dolphins got off to a promising start but their season has been engulfed in turmoil since the allegations of locker-room bullying turned into a national story. The Dolphins, who will be 6-6 at best after Sunday, haven't beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh since 1990.

Grading the Steelers

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
11:45
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Marked improvement from the New England debacle.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t flashy, but he didn’t need to be in completing 18 of 30 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw a bad interception early in the game when Bills safety Jairus Byrd read him the whole way on a deep pass to Markus Wheaton. Byrd’s interception set up a field goal that gave Buffalo its only lead of the game. Grade: C+

Running backs: The Steelers stayed committed to the run, and as a result they rushed for 136 yards. Le'Veon Bell averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, but he scored a touchdown. Reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones combined for 54 yards on 10 carries. Grade: B

Wallace
Brown
Receivers: Antonio Brown continues to build a strong case for the Pro Bowl, catching six passes for 104 yards. Brown set a team record for most receptions (67) through the first nine games of a season, but he needs a little more help. Emmanuel Sanders totaled just 13 yards on his four catches, and tight end Heath Miller was a non-factor in the passing game. Grade: B-

Offensive line: The Steelers used tackle Mike Adams as an extra tight end early and often, and the line more than held its own against Buffalo’s vaunted front. The Steelers’ 136 rushing yards were their second-most this season, and they shut out Bills sack maestro Mario Willliams. Williams, who entered the game with 11 sacks, did not even record a tackle against the Steelers. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Bills couldn’t establish the run, and it started up front for the Steelers. They controlled the line of scrimmage in holding the Bills to under 100 rushing yards and almost 50 below their season average. End Cameron Heyward, the third-year veteran who recorded a sack, has shined since becoming a starter. Grade: A-

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons owned the middle of the field as he registered eight tackles and delivered a handful of jarring hits, including one on a sack of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. The Steelers still aren’t getting enough pressure from their outside linebackers, though Jarvis Jones recorded his first career sack. Grade: B+

Secondary: The maligned unit bounced back in a big way after getting torched at New England. It allowed just two receptions of 10 yards or more, and the Steelers’ defensive backs were solid in tackling, whether it was after a catch or in run support. Ryan Clark's interception set up a field goal. Grade: A-

Special teams: Take away a couple subpar Mat McBriar punts, and this group was nearly flawless. Brown broke a big punt return for the third game in a row and Shaun Suisham was perfect on three field goal attempts. Four of Suisham’s six kickoffs went for touchbacks, though one also ended up out of bounds. The kick coverage teams were solid as usual. Grade: A-

Coaching: The Steelers were disciplined on defense, and they did not allow the Bills to run the ball. They stuck with the running game even though the offense got off to another slow start, and that commitment set up a second-quarter touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery. The one negative: the Steelers had to settle for field goals after Brown’s punt return and Clark’s interception gave the offense short fields. Grade: A-

Midseason Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
9:00
AM ET

The Steelers lost five of their last seven games a year ago to finish 8-8 and with the first non-winning season in Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach. The season was framed, at least by optimists, as an aberration and deemed unacceptable by the organization that has won six Super Bowls.

If only people knew the Steelers’ second-half swoon in 2012 was but a precursor to what has transpired through the first half of this season.

The Steelers are 2-6 and need a miracle approximating the scope of the Immaculate Reception to make the playoffs. They have all but played themselves out of postseason contention before the leaves have fallen, leaving players as stunned as they are angry.

“If you would have told me in the offseason [that the Steelers would lose six of their first eight games]) I would have told you no way,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We’re the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a great organization and it’s a winning organization.”

It’s also one that has struggled in almost every aspect on the field, and the tough times the Steelers have experienced are reflected in their midseason grades:

OAKLAND, Calif. – Like the 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders, the postgame grades for the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t pretty:

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger looked out of sync early, and even a strong second half that included one of his vintage escapes prior to a short touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders wasn’t enough for Big Ben to bring back the Steelers. He threw for 275 and two interceptions, though a late pick was on Antonio Brown, who lost control of the ball as he was falling to the ground. Grade: C

Running backs: The Steelers averaged 1.8 yards per carry, and Le’Veon Bell was held to 24 yards. The backs didn’t get a lot of room running behind a line that the Steelers had to patch together because of injuries, but they didn’t make any plays either. They didn’t have a run longer than 8 yards as the ground game took a step back after a 141-yard performance against the Ravens: Grade: D+

Receivers: Brown caught nine balls for 82 yards but he couldn’t hang onto a third-down pass that would have been a big gain in the fourth quarter. On the Steelers’ next possession, Brown’s bobble as he was falling to the grounded ended up as a killer interception by Raiders cornerback Tracy Porter. Sanders had a solid game statistically but didn’t make enough of an impact. Even the normally sure-handed Heath Miller struggled with drops. Grade: D+

Offensive line: Injuries knocked starting guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro out of the game, but the next-man-up ethos that the Steelers preach didn’t translate into the line protecting Roethlisberger or providing many running lines. The Raiders dropped Roethlisberger five times, and he is on pace to get sacked 59 times this season. Grade: D

Defensive line: Brett Keisel played as well as anyone on the Steelers’ defense, and his fumble recovery early in the fourth quarter got the Steelers back into the game. The veteran defensive end also registered one of the Steelers’ two sacks, but the line did not dominate a Raiders front that is banged up and yielded nine sacks in Oakland’s previous game. Grade: C

Linebackers: LaMarr Woodley was the only one who put consistent pressure on Terrelle Pryor but he couldn’t get the Raiders quarterback on the ground. None of the other linebackers flashed, though Lawrence Timmons recorded eight tackles and forced a fumble. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones were nonexistent, and the latter has yet to make a significant impact on the Steelers’ defense. Grade: C-

Secondary: Troy Polamalu and Cortez Allen came up with interceptions, and Pryor threw for fewer than 100 yards and finished with a passer rating of 25.7. But Polamalu couldn’t shed a block on the play of the game, and he didn’t get any help from the back end of the defense on Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run that put the Steelers in an early hole. Grade: C+

Special teams: The Steelers found a new way to lose as the normally automatic Shaun Suisham missed twice – and from inside of 35 yards no less. Zoltan Mesko is still too inconsistent, and his bobble of a snap led to a partially blocked punt that set up Oakland’s second touchdown. Brown’s 44-yard punt return was the lone bright spot on a dismal day. Grade: F

Coaching: Mike Tomlin took the blame for the lethargic start, and it ultimately falls on him that the Steelers simply weren’t ready to play. The Steelers’ clock management was also an issue -- they had to waste a timeout in the final minutes of the game -- and they were way too deliberate while trying to rally from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Steelers didn’t quit on Tomlin, but we all know how this team feels about moral victories: Grade: D

Special teams a black hole for Steelers

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
11:00
PM ET
OAKLAND -- Shaun Suisham hit the mark on at least one thing before embarking on what had to be the longest plane ride of his life: his culpability in the Pittsburgh Steelers' third consecutive loss in Oakland.

“Look it’s no secret, the impact my missed field goals had on the game,” Suisham said after the Steelers' 21-18 loss. “I should have been better today and we lost because of it.”

The cruel irony for Suisham: the native Canadian is a huge hockey fans and his uncharacteristic misses gave the Steelers a dubious hat trick as they lurch toward the halfway point of the season,

The offense and defense had each lost games earlier this season. Special teams joined those units Sunday in a game that the Raiders seized control of early and then tried to give back to the Steelers in every way imaginable.

Oakland ultimately did not cough up the game because the Steelers’ special teams provided the Raiders with just enough cushion to move to 3-4 this season in spite of themselves.

Both of Suisham’s missed came inside of 35 yards. Zoltan Mesko bobbled a snap that resulted in a partially blocked punt and led to the second of Oakland’s three touchdowns. Suisham's onside kick at the end of the game bounced right to Rashad Jennings, who earlier had partially blocked the Mesko punt.

The sequence that best summed up the Steelers’ dismal special-teams play came near the end of the first half.

Mesko boomed a 30-yard punt that put Oakland in position to add to its 18-point lead. A Cortez Allen interception gave the ball right back to the Steelers, and Ben Roethlisberger drove to the Raiders’ 16-yard line.

But Suisham pushed a 34-yard field goal attempt just right when the Steelers needed points in the worst way.

The Steelers couldn't even claim to be lucky rather than good Sunday on special teams.

Far from it, in fact.

A Mesko punt appeared to bounce off Jacoby Ford in the second quarter as the the Raiders wide receiver was falling backward while trying to avoid fielding the ball. Shamarko Thomas came up with the loose ball, and his fumble recovery would have given the Steelers the ball at the Raiders’ 28-yard line.

Officials, however, ruled that the ball glanced off Antwon Blake's finger before it touched Ford and whistled the play dead.

Coach Mike Tomlin challenged the call but it was upheld.

The call, right or not, would have been a moot point had Suisham played anywhere close to the kicker who entered the game 14 of 14 on field goal attempts and made a 47-yarder before his two misses.

“I told him to keep his head up,” Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “He’s been leading us all year and don’t hang his head now. We’ve got to continue to stand by his back because we know in this league everything is not always going to be perfect.”

The Steelers didn't need their special teams to be perfect on Sunday. An average showing by those units probably would have led to the Steelers returning to Pittsburgh with a 3-4 record.

Instead the Steelers are 2-5 with a trip to New England next on the schedule. And the one thing we've learned about this team two months into the season is that it sure can find ways to lose a game.

Locker Room Buzz: Pittsburgh Steelers

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
8:52
PM ET
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Observed in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders:

Suisham
Taking the blame: Give Shaun Suisham credit for one thing: the veteran kicker at least answered questions after his two misses from inside of 35 yards cost the Steelers dearly. “We would have won the football game today if I was better,” said Suisham, who entered the game 14-of-14 on field-goal attempts and made a 47-yard before his two misses.

On the mend: David DeCastro, on the other hand, did not feel like talking and cut a postgame interview short after just two questions. DeCastro’s pain emanated from more than just the Steelers’ loss. The right guard hurt his right ankle in the third quarter and did not return to the game. He and Guy Whimper (knee) are slated to get MRIs after the Steelers return to Pittsburgh.

Demoralizing loss: He had almost a hurt look in his eyes and his voice was softer than usual, which is saying something for strong safety Troy Polamalu. It was also telling about the number of opportunities the Steelers squandered in falling to 2-5. “I guess maybe that makes it more disappointing,” Polamalu said. “They made more plays, their defense played better than we did.”

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
7:31
PM ET

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A few observations from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum.

What it means: The Steelers’ season is back on life support after everyone, as coach Mike Tomlin might say, had their hand in the pile in the team’s third consecutive loss in Oakland. The defense allowed a 93-yard touchdown run by Terrelle Pryor on the first play from scrimmage. The Steelers' offense managed just 3 yards shorter than Pryor’s jaunt, the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history, through the first two quarters. The special teams were simply awful, and Tomlin did not put on a clinic, either, as the Steelers fell to 2-5.

Stock watch: The good times for kicker Shaun Suisham and the Steelers’ offensive line lasted exactly one week. Suisham, the reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, missed a pair of field goals from inside of 35 yards after making his first 15 kicks to start the season. The gaffes turned out to be huge after the error-prone Raiders insisted on keeping the Steelers in the game. The offensive line, meanwhile, is all beat up after starting guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro left the game with a concussion and ankle injury, respectively, and did not return. Guy Whimper, who replaced Foster at left guard in the first half, was also knocked out of the game when he injured his left knee.

Inconsistency still an issue: Zoltan Mesko's days in Pittsburgh could be numbered. Mesko bobbled a snap that was partially blocked in the first quarter and set up the Raiders’ second touchdown of the season. He managed just a 30-yard punt near the end of the half and received an earful from Tomlin after he walked to the Steelers' sideline. Tomlin said last week that Mesko needed to eliminate the “junior varsity” punts from his game and become more consistent. Mesko was really good at times against the Raiders -- his 56-yard punt in the third quarter pinned the Raiders inside their 1-yard line -- but there was no middle ground for the punter who was already on shaky ground.

Next up: It doesn’t get any easier for the Steelers as they visit Tom Brady and the New England Patriots next Sunday in Foxborough. Brady rallied the Patriots from a 17-3 halftime deficit in a 27-17 win over the Dolphins on Sunday as New England improved to 6-2. The Steelers haven’t been good enough on the road -- or good enough period -- to think they can hand the Patriots their first home loss in five games.

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