Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts: Week 8 Recap
By: Dakota Arturo
Led by a historic performance by QB Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers shocked just about everyone, Vegas included, on Sunday afternoon with their 51-34 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts. The combined 85-point outburst made this Week 8 matchup the highest scoring affair of the 2014 season. Ben Roethlisberger’s 522-yard performance tied him with Boomer Esiason as the 4th highest single game total in NFL history, and made him the first QB in history to top 500 yards in a game twice (503 yds vs. Green Bay 12/20/09). Two passing TD’s and a William Gay pick-6 gave Pittsburgh a 21-3 lead early in the 2nd quarter, a lead they wouldn’t surrender thereafter.
QB Grade: A+
An A+ grade for Ben Roethlisberger (40/49, 522yds, 6TD, 0INT) simply doesn’t do him due diligence. Whichever way you choose to spin it, Roethlisberger’s performance goes down as one of the greatest in NFL history, and, without a doubt, the best in Pittsburgh Steelers history. If you want to look at it from a fantasy point of view, his 44 points (ESPN standard settings) ranks 8th of all-time. How about by QBR? The performance still ranks among the top 25 of all time (though the statistic is admittedly flawed as Charlie Batch’s 2010 Week 3 performance vs. Tampa Bay laughably ranks as the all time best). Big Ben now becomes the first ever QB to throw for 500+ yards on two separate occasions. Of his 9 incompletions, one came via spike, while three others were a result of drops by Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant, and three came via incomplete deep balls. Of Ben’s 49 pass attempts only two can be looked at critically; an underthrow intermediate pass to Lance Moore, and an overthrow of Antonio Brown on a slant over the middle that nearly led to an interception. Still, Big Ben came as close to perfection as one could reasonably expect out of any QB. If there’s anything to draw from this performance, it’s that Ben Roethlisberger is still an elite quarterback who sits in the 4-7 range of NFL QB’s, joined by the likes of Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan. With the low success rate of recently drafted QB’s, combined with the fact that Roethlisberger is set to become a free agent after the season, it’s time for Kevin Colbert to sit down with Ben’s agent and hammer out a contract extension that will allow him to retire a Steeler.
RB Grade: B+
LeVeon Bell (24rush-92yds-0TD, 6rec-56yds-0TD) continues to churn out spectacular performances as he solidifies himself as one of the NFL’s top runningbacks. Bell himself would have received an A grade if not for the struggles of the other backs. LeVeon struggled to find many holes early on, but totaled 36 rushing yards on the games final drive that enabled Pittsburgh to run out the clock. In the receiving game, Bell continues to be a reliable check down option for Big Ben when other receivers struggle to get open. Passes to the flats that would generally result in 1-2 yard gains occasionally go for first downs when the ball is in Bell’s hands due to his exceptional open field running. In fact his 355 YAC now ranks 2nd in all of football, behind only Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears.
Behind LeVeon Bell, LaGarrett Blount (6-21-0) fumbled in the red zone in a tight 42-34 game, giving Steeler fans a huge scare. Blount refused to go down, initiating contact with numerous defenders for a couple of yards before the ball was stripped out. Blount’s ability to pick up tough yards generally comes in handy, but in the red zone he has to know better and go down. FB Will Johnson was only in on 22% of offensive snaps, but made an impact in the run game, and caught 2 passes for 22 yards. Johnson continues to be a steady and underrated producer in the run game. Finally, rookie 3rd round pick Dri Archer saw just one snap, a designed screen pass to him which he dropped. Archer’s inability to run block has limited his playing time and designed plays to him have been extremely predictable. Overall, LeVeon Bell had another solid performance, but both Dri Archer and LaGarrett Blount have a lot of work to do.
WR/TE Grade: A
If not for a Darius Heyward-Bey fumble and a Martavis Bryant drop (that could have resulted in a 20-30 yard gain), this grade would have been A+. 9 different receiver’s caught passes from Ben Roethlisberger, and star WR Antonio Brown (10-133-2) put up, yet another, spectacular performance, thus extending his streak of 5+ rec/50+ yd games to a record 23. Brown’s 2 TD’s came within 4 minutes of each other in the 2nd quarter. He now ranks 1st in the NFL among WR’s in receptions (60), 2nd in yards (852), 2nd in TD’s (7), 2nd in 20+ yd receptions (13), and 5th in YAC (258). While big name receivers like Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, and Demaryius Thomas continue to garner most of the attention, Brown has quietly solidified himself as a top 3 WR in football. How he dropped to the 6th round in the 2010 NFL Draft remains a mystery to me. Everything was on display on Sunday for Antonio Brown. The open field ability was evident on his 47-yard TD reception as he evaded THREE Indianapolis defenders to find open field and get into the endzone. The route running ability and hands were on display on his 8-yard TD reception in which he ran right by Colts CB Greg Toler and made an unbelievable one-handed catch to put Pittsburgh up 28-10. The only way to sum up Brown’s performance in this one is that Antonio Brown simply did Antonio Brown things.
We all know what Antonio Brown can do on the field, but how the receivers behind him played may have instilled confidence into the fans more than anything. When we look back at this 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers season, the emergence of Martavis Bryant may be the biggest headline. Pittsburgh 4th round pick in the 2014 Draft, Martavis Bryant out of Clemson, was always overshadowed by Sammy Watkins, and inevitably fell to Round 4 due to his raw nature. Sure, the kid still has some kinks to work out, but his potential ceiling was on full display against Indianapolis. On the opening drive, Bryant (5-83-2) showed off his catching ability on a slant over the middle that produced a first down, and displayed his top-notch speed by beating his defender and hauling in a 52-yard deep ball from Big Ben. Later, on the first play of the 2nd quarter, Bryant ran a fade route, extended his hands, and made an exceptional turn around catch over his defender, resulting in a 5-yard TD reception. As stated earlier, his raw nature and a shoulder injury made him inactive for the first 6 games of the season, but Martavis definitely figures into Pittsburgh’s plans long term. Even if he struggles to catch passes, Bryant’s speed draws extra defenders and safety help at all times, thus opening the field for other receivers. Who benefitted from Bryant’s play? Well Heath Miller caught 7 passes for a season high 112 yards and a TD, and was wide open on numerous plays. Additionally, Bryant’s presence moves second year WR Markus Wheaton to the slot (#3 WR) where he excelled on Sunday, catching 5 passes for 56 yards and his first career TD. Overall, Antonio Brown did exactly as Steelers fans expected, but the emergence of rookie Martavis Bryant had maybe the greatest impact on this receiving corps.
OL Grade: A+
The production from Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is what marveled most people, but none of it would have been possible without the offensive line. In fact, Sunday’s win over Indianapolis may have seen the best performance from a Steeler offensive line in at least the last 5 years. If there are any conclusions to draw from this one, it’s that first year OL coach, and former Tennessee Titans head coach, Mike Munchak is having a huge impact on this team. Let’s not forget that Pittsburgh was facing a Colts defensive line that sacked Andy Dalton 4 times and produced 7 QB hurries just a week ago in a 27-0 win. Dalton had been arguably the most protected QB in all of football leading up to the game, and Indianapolis had no problems getting to him. So how did they fair against Pittsburgh’s offensive line? 0 sacks and just 1 QB hurry. One. Sure, Ben was able to connect with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant down field on numerous occasions, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the 5+ seconds Ben had in the pocket, thus allowing those routes to develop. The closest Indianapolis came to sacking Big Ben actually resulted in a 47-yard TD to Antonio Brown. The O-line gave Ben perfect protection, but DT Arthur Jones spun out of a Ramon Foster block and fell to the ankles of Roethlisberger. Ben simply stepped out of Jones’ reach, scrambled to the right, and hit a wide-open Brown for the TD. What has always made Roethlisberger so unique is his ability to extend plays. Due to the exceptional blocking of their line, Ben was able to extend the play, and Brown was able to shake off the 3 defenders covering his original route, finding open space and eventually the endzone.
If there’s one player to single out from Sunday’s win over Indy, it’s an unlikely one, Mike Adams. Adams, who went from 2013 starting LT to near training camp cut, performed admirably in pass blocking duties. The Mike Adams LT experiment went horribly last season, so one can only expect him to stay at RT. That presents a good problem in the hands of the coaching staff who expect starting RT Marcus Gilbert to return in the coming weeks. Could Gilbert slide to LT, with starting LT Kelvin Beachum sliding to swingman? We’ll see how the coaching staff handles the situation. Overall though, this offensive line gave Big Ben all day to throw in the pocket, and turned in their best performance in a long, long time.
DL Grade: B
Even without arguably their best lineman in Steve McClendon, the Steelers defensive line held their own on Sunday. Though Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward only registered one tackle and one pass deflection apiece, the stats don’t tell the story. Andrew Luck was under constant pressure, much of which can be credited to the push these two provided all day long. Rookie 6th round NT Daniel McCullers had his best performance of the season in very limited playing time, taking on double teams and getting a tackle. His sole tackle came on a stretch run in which McCullers evaded the double team and absolutely mauled RB Ahmad Bradshaw. With arguably no true nose tackle on the roster, McCullers’ development will be one to watch. Finally, it’s worth noting that rookie DE Stephon Tuitt saw more snaps than Cam Thomas (23-22) for the first time this season. Thomas’ struggles have been evident, and as Tuitt grasps the playbook, his playing time should increase. Overall, the defensive line only saw 10 runs come their way, but did a solid job of penetrating the offensive line and pressuring Andrew Luck.
LB Grade: A-
OLB Jason Worilds had his best game of the season, registering 3 QB hurries and pushing around RT Gosder Cherilus all day long. Additionally James Harrison had, without a doubt, the best game of his young season, sacking Andrew Luck and nearly forcing a fumble. As Harrison’s game conditioning improves, his performance should too improve. On the inside, rookie ILB Ryan Shazier returned from injury and notched 4 tackles and a QB hit. Shazier’s return sent Sean Spence to the bench and allowed second year ILB Vince Williams to re-emerge. Shazier ended up splitting time with Williams on Sunday (45%/55% respectively). One has to remember that the Steelers finished the 2013 season 6-2 with Vince Williams starting. Though he allowed a long reception to TY Hilton, in which Williams was caught in no mans land, Williams continues to prove himself as a strong tackler and reliable run stopper. It’s difficult to predict how Pittsburgh will allocate playing time to their ILB’s over the final 8 games, but there is a considerable amount of depth at the position. Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Terrance Garvin all figure into their plans behind star Lawrence Timmons.
CB/S Grade: C
The grade given to the secondary is extremely arbitrary as both William Gay and Cortez Allen deviate greatly from the grade. If the players were graded individually, Gay would receive an A/A+, with Allen receiving a D/F. “Big Play Willie Gay” led all Steeler defenders with 8 tackles, and jumped an Andrew Luck pass intended for TY Hilton, leading to a 33-yard pick-6. It’s funny to think that just 3 years ago, William Gay was the scapegoat of the Steelers defense; a liability in the slot who frequently got burned. Here we are, three years later, wondering what this secondary would be like without the consistent play of William Gay. Cortez Allen, on the other hand, topped his previous abysmal performances with his worst to date. A week after being benched for Brice McCain, and 7 weeks off of a fresh 5 year, $26 million extension, Allen got absolutely torched by Andrew Luck. With 1:56 remaining in the half, TY Hilton ran a post route on the right side of the field, and made Allen look hopeless with his fake inside step, leaving him wide open in the end zone for a 28-yard TD reception. Even when Cortez Allen stayed with his man, an extremely rare occurrence, he lacked the awareness to turn around, locate the ball, and make a play. This was evident in the 3rd quarter when Donte Moncrief ran a fly route, and caught a 31-yard TD pass over Allen, who had his back to the play. Those who have watched Cortez play over the past two seasons know he has great talent, but the production simply isn’t there. Even with his poor showing, he still played 62% of the snaps. I’d expect that number to dwindle over the coming weeks at the hands of Antwon Blake, who’s late game interception sealed the win for Pittsburgh.
Among the safety group, Troy Polamalu really stood out, especially against the run. Dick LeBeau dialed up many different blitz packages, something we hadn’t seen much of this season, and many involved Polamalu. Troy ended the game with 6 tackles and 1 sack. Mike Mitchell, coming off of two consecutive strong performances, was caught sleeping on multiple occasions. He lost deep cover on TY Hilton at least twice, part of which enabled Hilton to average 25.8 YPC on the afternoon. Overall, the safety play wasn’t great, but they were facing one of the premier quarterbacks in the league.
ST Grade: B
K Shaun Suisham went without a field goal for the first time all season, but managed to convert on all 7 PAT attempts. He did, actually, convert from 30 yards out, but the play was nullified on an offsides call against the Colts. Though Suisham is near automatic from within 50 yards, he struggles from 50+, and Mike Tomlin showed his lack of confidence in him by electing for a Ben Roethlisberger pooch punt over a 52-yard FG attempt. P Brad Wing on the other hand showed up to play, booting a 54-yard punt and pinning Indianapolis at their 10-yard line on his other punt. In terms of special teams coverage, Antwon Blake continues to excel as a specialist, and has already proven his worth to the team. What really brought the overall special teams grade down was kick return coverage. Mike Tomlin continues to employ his idiotic strategy of giving kick return duties to a slow running back, LaGarrett Blount being the recipient this time. We’ve seen this strategy employed in the past with Najeh Davenport and Mewelde Moore, and not once has it resulting in a long return. Though Dri Archer has struggled in return duties, he still gives Pittsburgh the opportunity to bring one back to the house. These struggles can’t be fully attributed to the returner though. Blocking on kick returns simply has to improve if Pittsburgh wants to start drives beyond their own 20-yard line.
Hero: QB Ben Roethlisberger
Goat: CB Cortez Allen
In conclusion, it is safe to say that Pittsburgh played their best game of the season. This win puts the Steelers on a 2 game winning streak, and places them right in the heart of the AFC wild card picture, where they’ll continue to battle it out with the likes of Baltimore, Buffalo, Houston, San Diego, and Kansas City. Up next, Pittsburgh hosts the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night football where they look to avenge their previous 26-6 loss.