Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tennessee Titans: Week 11 Positional Breakdown
By: Dakota Arturo
The Pittsburgh Steelers scored the final 14 points of Monday nights contest en route to a 27-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The win pushes Pittsburgh’s record to 7-4, solidifying themselves as the AFC’s #6 seed heading into a bye week. RB Le’Veon Bell had himself a day, rushing for a career high 204 yards and a TD on 33 carries. 12 of those rushes came in a run heavy 4th quarter that led to Pittsburgh’s eventual come from behind victory. The Steelers outplayed Tennessee in nearly every department, out-possessing them by nearly 20 minutes, out-rushing them by 157 yards, converted 15 more 1st downs, and running 34 more plays. Yet big plays from the Titans offense, namely an 80-yard bomb from QB Zach Mettenberger to former Steeler WR Nate Washington, and red zone struggles for Pittsburgh (2/4 in Red Zone) kept the game close throughout.
QB Grade: B-
With Monday night’s victory, QB Ben Roethlisberger (21/32, 207yds, 1TD, 1INT) advances his career record against rookie QB’s to 18-0. Still, the win can’t be fully credited to Roethlisberger due to his struggles. On Pittsburgh’s second offensive possession of the game, Big Ben missed out on a potential 80-yard TD pass. With a 5 WR set, and facing a 3-man rush, Ben had all day to throw in the pocket (over 8 seconds), yet held the ball and took a sack. He kept his eyes on the left side of the field, looking for Antonio Brown, and missed a wide open Dri Archer who was running a deep wheel route up the right sideline. Archer was completely unaccounted for, yet Ben missed the perfect opportunity. Former Steelers QB Charlie Batch would later remark on Twitter, “Dri Archer did a nice job of turning up on the wheel route but Qbs rarely ever get to that read. The play is designed to go to AB on the IN”. Makes perfect sense, and he would know best, but Ben has to make that play with the time he was given. Later in the game, right before halftime, Ben threw his lone interception, a poor throw off his back foot and across his body that failed to reach the double covered Antonio Brown in the endzone. The play was designed to the right, with all targets being on that side of the field, so when Roethlisberger scrambled left, he should have thrown the ball away and settled for three.
So how exactly did Big Ben manage a B- grade with his 1st half struggles and subpar stat line? He simply got no help from his offensive line. Former Steelers assistant defensive backs coach and current Tennessee defensive coordinator Ray Horton dialed up blitzes all night long. Tennessee’s defensive game plan appeared to be calling all out blitzes, or dropping everyone in coverage, a strategy that can more easily be beaten through the ground. With that being said, Pittsburgh’s pass blocking was horrendous. I noted at least 5 occasions where Ben should have been sacked, yet escaped pressure and scrambled for a 1st down, or dumped the ball off. He also did a great job of staying in a collapsing pocket on numerous occasions to hit Heath Miller over the middle at the last possible second. It’s easy to blame Ben for the Steelers’ offensive struggles, but Tennessee’s defensive strategy combined with poor pass blocking led to uncomforting settings for Big Ben.
RB Grade: A+
Even though the RB corps received a perfect grade, there were a few negatives to point out. None of them involve Le’Veon Bell though. Firstly, rookie RB Dri Archer only saw 2 snaps, yet dropped a pass in the flats in his only opportunity. Archer anticipated the oncoming defender, Michael Griffin, and turned up field before securing the pass. This is not the first time we’ve seen Archer drop an easy pass. LaGarrett Blount also had a blown blocking assignment in his only snap. Blount, frustrating with his lack of playing time, proceeded to exit the playing field before the final whistle, resulting in him being waived. This incident wasn’t the only thing leading to this ultimate decision. Players in the Steelers locker room were apparently unhappy with his attitude, thus calling for this move to be made.
Le’Veon Bell made up for any gossip/disappointment created by the other running backs. Bell had a career day on the ground, rushing for 204 yards and a TD on 33 carries to go along with 18 receiving yards. Le’Veon displayed every part of his offensive skillset along the way. On Pittsburgh’s final offensive possession of the 1st half, Bell picked up 15 yards on 2nd and 3 to set up a redzone opportunity. Bell avoided a lunging defender at the line of scrimmage to create the yardage. It wasn’t the only occasion where Bell showed break-tackle ability as I counted at least 10 different broken tackles from Le’Veon. Bell also showed just how hard he can run to pick up extra yardage, something the offensive staff expected more so out of Blount. On Pittsburgh’s following offensive drive, Bell broke a tackle and picked up 12 yards and a 1st down before putting his shoulder down and delivering a crushing hit on S Michael Griffin. Consider me shocked at how hard Bell runs, and how durable he’s been this season after dropping 20 pounds in the offseason. Bell wasn’t done though. In his 74-yard 4th quarter (49 on final drive), patience and quickness were on full display. Pittsburgh continuously dialed up stretch to the left side on this final drive. Bell showed his patience, waiting for Will Johnson and David DeCastro to get in front of him, then would burst through whatever small opening he was given. He also sent defender Michael Griffin flying by on an outstanding cut back on the same drive, leading to yet another 1st down. Le’Veon Bell now sits 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards and 1st downs, behind DeMarco Murray in both categories, and has cemented himself as one of football’s top rushers. It also needs to be noted that the unheralded FB Will Johnson had himself a game. Johnson only saw 27% of offensive snaps, due to the limited role of the FB in today’s game, but made the most of it. Le’Veon Bell’s longest run, a 27-yard gain on the games first drive, can be credited to the block Johnson set on OLB Derrick Morgan. Johnson was superb on the final drive too. Lining up in an I-Near formation, Johnson and DeCastro would pull to the strong side, giving Le’Veon Bell tons of room to make things happen. As a limited offensive piece, Will Johnson may not make the headlines, but he’s a solid and necessary part of Pittsburgh’s ground game.
WR Grade: C+
After fumbling twice last week against the New York Jets, Antonio Brown (9rec-91yds-1TD) resurfaced with another dominant performance. Brown has now gone 27 consecutive games with 5+ receptions and 50+ yards, and is on track to total 1688 receiving yards on the season, a number that would be good for 7th all time in a single season (behind Calvin Johnson, Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Charley Hennigan, Marvin Harrison, and Torry Holt. Not bad company. Brown now ranks 1st among NFL WR’s in receptions (88), 1st in targets (123), 1st in receiving yards (1101), 1st in 1st downs (57), T-2nd in receiving TD’s (9), and 3rd in YAC (410). If any of those stats are indicative of Monday night’s performance, it’s the 1st downs. On at least 3 3rd and long opportunities, Ben Roethlisberger kept his eyes on the hot route, being Antonio Brown, before hitting Brown on a deep out route. The play has become automatic between the two. Brown commanded double coverage many times on the route, yet still sold an inside route before finding space and making the sideline catch. Spectators saw this exact phenomenon on Brown’s 4th quarter TD reception. Command double coverage, sell the route inside, fake out both defenders, make TD reception along sidelines.
Brown himself would have earned an A grade, but the young wideouts behinds him struggled. Markus Wheaton (1-6-0) had just one reception while being targeted 5 times. Fortunately, that reception came on a 3rd and 3 quick slant that kept the games final drive going, but Wheaton struggled beyond that. On one deep attempt, Wheaton was unable to break off his defender and make the catch, one that would have resulted in a significant gain. Here we are, 11 games into the season, and Markus Wheaton is yet to establish a solid level of comfort with his quarterback.. Rookie WR Martavis Bryant (2-11-0) also struggled mightily for the first time in his young career, hauling in just 2 receptions on 5 targets. The worst part of it is that Bryant could have easily had 2 TD receptions. On his first opportunity, at the Titans’ 20-yard line, Bryant ran a “stop-and-go” route, burning by CB Bridi Wreh-Wilson. Big Ben proceeded to throw up a lob ball to Bryant, severely underthrowing him, and allowing Wreh-Wilson to get a hand up and deflect the ball. The pass wasn’t good from Roethlisberger, but Bryant waited for the ball to come to him rather than going up and getting in. If Martavis comes back to that ball, it’s a touchdown. On the ensuing set of downs, in the goal line, Ben lofted a fade to Martavis in the back right corner of the endzone. Bryant didn’t make much of an effort at it, watching the ball drop over his head. Again, with more experience, Bryant would have come back to the ball and made an effort on it. Finally, in the 3rd quarter, Bryant ran a deep in and failed to secure another potential TD from Big Ben. Martavis Bryant has the ceiling of an all-star in this league, but needs to work on route running, attacking the ball, and catching. Beyond these 3 receivers, Pittsburgh utilized more 2 TE formations, so Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore saw a combined 19 snaps, contributing just 1 catch.
TE Grade: A-
Though both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth missed pass-blocking assignments on at least one assignment, they were still pretty damn valuable. Heath Miller picked up stunting linebackers multiple times, and was excellent in both run and pass-blocking duties, earning himself a PFF.com grade of +3.9. Spaeth was also called on more often than any previous game (48% of offensive snaps), and responded to the occasion by protecting Ben basically as well as the other lineman. It wasn’t all blocking though. Heath Miller was Pittsburgh’s second leading receiver, hauling in 5 catches for 71 yards in the few times he lined up at receiver. All of these receptions came under heavy traffic and set off the “Heeeaaaaaathhhhh” birds, obviously.
OL Grade: B-
The B- grade I awarded the OL is extremely arbitrary. If you were to grade each player individually, some would receive an A (Pouncey), with other bringing in failing grades (Gilbert). If you split the grading between run blocking and pass blocking, the pass protection segment would be graded at a D- with run blocking receiving an A+. PFF.com’s grading system seemed to agree with this. Kelvin Beachum was awarded a +4.5 grade while David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert were scored at -0.9 and -2.9, respectively. This is exactly why the PFF scoring system, while helpful, should be taken with a grain of salt. The only grade I remotely agree with is that of Marcus Gilbert who really struggled in pass protection on Monday. Gilbert was the weak link on offense, and Tennessee exploited it all night long. Pittsburgh was forced to provide help with 2 TE sets. When Marcus Gilbert wasn’t being driven back by his defender, he just completely whiffed on blocks, sending Big Ben running for his life. Gilbert also had the offenses lone false start penalty. Overall, Gilbert was credited with 1 sack allowed, which is lenient, and 4 QB hurries. Kelvin Beachum receiving a +4.5 is laughable. When Pittsburgh ran the ball on 3rd and 6 on Tennessee’s 33-yard line during their first drive, Beachum completely whiffed on his run block assignment, resulting in no gain and a field goal attempt. Beyond that, Beachum was pushed back by his assigned defender, whether Quentin Groves or Derrick Morgan, for much of the night. Still, Beachum had himself a descent night, but the +4.5 grade is an absolute stretch. David DeCastro’s -0.9 score is another one that left me scratching my head. DeCastro got pushed around a bit in pass blocking situations, but who didn’t. He executed a few “hook blocks”, as coined by Jon Gruden, which opened up running room for Bell up the middle. On the last drive he was simply outstanding. DeCastro pulled to his left on at least 3 consecutive stretch runs, blocking out the waiting linebacker and propelling Le’Veon to the next level. Overall, the interior line of Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro has emerged as maybe the NFL’s best run blocking interior trio. Maurkice Pouncey, too, was excellent in run blocking, as he always is. He’s so good at getting off of his first block and initiating linebackers at the next level, and Monday night’s game was no different. In the end, the Steelers’ O-line was terrible in pass coverage, surrendering 5 sacks, 7 TFL’s, and 8 QB hurries, yet excelled on the ground and did just enough to propel Pittsburgh to the victory.
DL Grade: A-
As a unit, the Steelers defensive line showed up on Monday night, holding Tennessee’s run game to just 49 yards on 15 attempts, good for a 3.3 YPC. Brett Keisel was the line’s star, deflecting two passes at the line of scrimmage (something he’s so good at), and providing excellent pressure on two different 3rd and 3’s, both resulting in punts. PFF scored Keisel’s performance as a +3.9, his best mark of the season. Cam Thomas, who resurfaced as the starting NT in the 2nd half, had himself a descent game, taking on double teams and executing. Though it wasn’t stellar, this will probably go down as Thomas’ best performance on the season (a testament to how bad he’s been). Rookie 6th round NT Daniel McCullers saw the start at NT and did a fine job. He only played 13 snaps, due to sparing playing time in the 2nd half, but burst through the line of scrimmage on Bishop Sankey’s lone TD run, almost making the stop in the backfield. The play was run to the opposite side of McCullers, so there wasn’t much he could do, but the big rookie continues to show signs of development. Rookie DE Stephon Tuitt only played in 4 snaps but made the most of it, inducing a holding call on G Chance Warmack, Tennessee’s lone penalty on the night.
LB Grade: C
Coming into Monday night’s game, ILB Lawrence Timmons ranked 3rd in the NFL with 94 tackles, good for 9.4 tackles per game. Against Tennessee, he only accumulated 3 tackles. PFF graded his performance as a season worst -2.7, largely due to the 2 passes that were completed to TE Chase Coffman over his coverage. ILB Sean Spence also had a poor showing on Monday. To his credit, he did have one nice tackle where he sniffed out a Bishop Sankey designed screen and avoided LT Taylor Lewan to make the play in the backfield, but beyond that he was bad. Spence missed an easy tackle in the backfield on a Sankey stretch to the right, a play that resulted in Sankey’s lone TD run. He was also caught in no mans land on a crossing pattern to WR Kendall Wright, a play that resulted in a 23-yard gain. Spence doesn’t have the size to come up and make big tackles, the way Lawrence Timmons does, so I’d expect to see his playing time dwindle upon Ryan Shazier’s return. OLB Jason Worilds was the other linebacker who failed to show up on Monday night. Worilds got beat in coverage against FB Jackie Battle on one occasion, and was absolutely manhandled by Titans RT Michael Oher. As a result, Zach Mettenberger had all day to throw for most of the night. James Harrison, too, failed to even record a QB hit, but at least succeeded in run defending duties. Harrison earned a +1.5 PFF grade. Arthur Moats also earned a positive grade from PFF, +1.6 to be exact, and did a good job of getting after QB Zach Mettenberger in the 11 snaps he participated in. The final positive note from this group came via ILB Vince Williams. Williams had a team high 7 tackles and vacated open holes multiple times, forcing RB Bishop Sankey to look elsewhere for running room. I’d expect Vince Williams to see more than 35% of snaps moving forward, especially considering Sean Spence played in 65% of defensive plays, though Ryan Shazier’s return could cloud playing time.
CB/S Grade: C+
Pittsburgh’s secondary struggled to contain QB Zach Mettenberger at times on Monday night, but did just enough to ensure a victory. CB William Gay starting things off with a bang, intercepting Mettenberger’s first pass, an out route intended for Justin Hunter, and bringing it to the house for 6. On ensuing drives, Gay provided lax coverage on WR Justin Hunter, then missed a tackle, leading to a 35-yard gain. Gay also gave up the big play, falling for a Nate Washington stop and go, and surrendering an 80-yard TD right before halftime. In typical Steelers fan fashion, people were calling for Gay’s head after the play, but any realistic fan would realize that Willie Gay is still, by far, Pittsburgh’s best CB. The TD to Nate Washington can also be attributed to S Will Allen. Allen bit on a Dexter McCluster slant route, thus isolating Gay and opening up the deep ball for Washington. WR Dexter McCluster also burned Allen on a 17-yard reception. To be fair, Allen had a TFL and made a couple of nice plays against the run, but remains a liability in the secondary with Troy Polamalu sidelined. The other safety, Mike Mitchell, also had a TFL and made some nice plays at the line of scrimmage but struggled in pass coverage. This was evident on Chase Coffman’s 4-yard TD reception in the 3rd quarter. Coffman, defended by 10-inch shorter Antwon Blake, made an easy play on the throw over Blake. Mitchell was in the vicinity, yet jogged over and made little effort to jar the ball loose. I’m still trying to figure out what Mitchell was doing on the play. Outside of that TD reception Antwon Blake didn’t play much, only appearing in 14 defensive snaps. He did a fine job in coverage, especially considering the fact that starting CB Brice McCain was average and still played every defensive snap. McCain allowed at least 5 receptions, notably one where he was too deep on a Kendall Wright curl route, then missed the tackle and proceeded to tack on 15-yards via facemask. I’d expect McCain and Blake to see a close number of snaps once CB Ike Taylor returns from injury.
ST Grade: C
For the fourth consecutive week, Pittsburgh’s special teams units struggled to produce. Shaun Suisham connected on both his FG attempts, including one from 49 yards out, and knocked down all 3 XP’s, but was iffy on kickoffs. For some reason he employed the strategy of squib kicking the ball to Tennessee’s 2nd line of returners, a strategy that simply didn’t pay off. In the first half, before Pittsburgh abandoned the strategy, Tennessee’s average starting field position was their own 32-yard line. When they went away from the strategy, Bishop Sankey still averaged around 30 yards per return. The punting game wasn’t solid either with Brad Wing averaging just 40.5 yards on his two punts, neither of which landed inside the 20. Markus Wheaton, the Steelers’ new kick returner, averaged 24.6 yards per return, a descent mark in comparison to previous totals, and figured to return kicks for the remainder of the season.
At 7-4, Pittsburgh sits in 2nd place in the crowded AFC North, and slots in as the AFC’s #6 seed. The Steelers will have a bye week before hosting the New Orleans Saints on 13 days rest. The bye couldn’t have come at a better time with Pittsburgh’s defense nursing a set of injured players. I’d expect at least 3 of Troy Polamalu, Steve McClendon, Ryan Shazier, Shamarko Thomas, Ike Taylor, and Jarvis Jones to return by Week 13. Additionally, CB Cortez Allen, whose been relegated to 5th string, may see an increase in playing time as he returns from his “time out”. This will also give the Steelers time to sort out how they’ll replace RB LaGarrett Blount, who was waived after Monday night’s shenanigans. Pittsburgh already signed undrafted rookie RB Josh Harris, out of Wake Forest, to their active roster, but one can reasonably expect them to look at their external options. Pittsburgh finishes the season by hosting Kansas City and Cincinnati in weeks 16 and 17, respectively. The three games prior to this, vs. New Orleans, @ Cincinnati, and @ Atlanta, should ultimately decide Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes. With the way the Steelers have played on the road this season, getting 2 wins out of those 3 contests would set them up pretty nicely heading into Week 16.
Hero: RB Le’Veon Bell, C Maurkice Pouncey
Goat: RT Marcus Gilbert, WR Martavis Bryant