By David Todd
The Steelers finally put one in the win column Sunday with a 19-6 win over the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium. For the fourth week in a row the Steelers fell behind early and it looked like it was going to be more of the same as the offensive line struggled and the defense couldn’t stop the run or the quick passing game. But starting at the end of the first quarter through the early fourth quarter the Steelers scored on five of six possessions while holding the Jets to only a second field goal. For the first time this season they didn’t turn the ball over on offense and the defense forced their first two turnovers to avoid becoming the first team in NFL history to record no turnovers in their first five games to start the season. Ben Roethlisberger was excellent and the offensive line, after a shaky start, performed better as the game went on. Defensively the tackling was much-improved and they limited big plays from a Jets offense, guided by rookie quarterback Geno Smith, that was missing its best playmakers. This was a must-win for a team with only the slimmest of hopes to contend for a playoff spot and the Steelers responded with a quality, workman-like performance in which they were clearly the better team.
After not suffering any season-ending injuries since three players went down in week one, the news out of this one is not encouraging. Newly-acquired tackle Levi Brown injured his triceps in pregame warm-ups after the inactive list was turned in. Brown was dressed and on the sideline but was ruled out before the game started. Brown missed the entire 2012 season with a torn triceps. The Steelers also lost tight end David Johnson after the first series with a hand/wrist injury. Johnson was just returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season. Mike Tomlin’s post-game comments hinted that both injuries could be serious and potentially season-ending. Brett Keisel missed the second half with injured ribs, but Tomlin said Keisel should be able to play next weekend.
*Two weeks ago former GM Bill Polian called Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Vikings phenomenal. Ben was even better against the Jets. Two plays in particular stood out though neither will make the highlight reel. During the second series of the game he dropped back to pass in his own end zone when Muhammad Wilkerson blew past Kelvin Beachum and had Ben dead-to-rights for a safety. Somehow Roethlisberger was able to shake off the Jets defensive star and throw the ball away to avoid the sack and safety. Later, on the first play of the fourth quarter facing a 3rd-and-10 from the Jets 12, Ben scrambled for ten yards, putting his head to down rather than sliding, gaining the first down by inches. Despite being 0-4, toughness and effort continue to be among Ben’s most impressive calling cards.
Ben’s decision-making was excellent throughout and he finished 23/30 for 264 yards, a TD and a passer rating of 113.8. And maybe most importantly, no turnovers for the first time this season.
*Antonio Brown continues to bounce back from a disappointing 2012. He is tied for second in the NFL with 41 catches despite the Steelers already having had their bye week and is fourth in average yards/gm at 99.6 and tied for third with 27 catches for first downs. In this one Brown caught 9 balls out of 11 targets for 86 yards and also drew a 25 yard pass interference penalty on Jets corner Antonio Cromartie. Brown had two spectacular plays that stood out. The first was a 3rd-and-15 from the Steelers own 27, where Brown caught a quick WR screen and gained 16 yards with a fantastic individual effort. That drive resulted in the first of Shaun Suisham’s four field goals. The second was a diving catch on 3rd-and-10 from midfield for 15 yards just before the two minute warning continuing another drive that led to points. Brown is on his way to his second Pro Bowl season.
*Last week I wrote, “It’s hard to underestimate the value of a healthy Heath Miller to this offensive.” Miller had another excellent game, catching six balls for 84 yards. It wasn’t all roses though as he got beat badly by an outside rusher on one play that led to a sack.
*Settling for field goals is a recipe for disaster in the NFL and the Steelers settled for four in this one including once when Antonio dropped a great back shoulder throw from Ben in the end zone and another time when they had a first down on the Jets 2-yard line. They went 0-for-2 in the red zone. They have to do better.
*The Steelers continue to have trouble running the ball gaining 73 yards on 26 attempts. Le’Veon Bell appeared to miss a couple big holes in the first half.
*In the first half Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum were both flagged for holding and false start penalties. Beachum also had a holding call in the second half. While the line played better as the game went on, left tackle continues to be a position of concern.
*I’m all for celebrations, that is part of the joy that sports brings. But after Mike Tomlin let it be known that he wasn’t thrilled with Le’Veon Bell’s flip into the end zone last week (giving him a pass because it was his first career TD), Manny Sanders flipped into the end zone on his 55-yard TD catch. The issue isn’t the celebration, it’s that that would be an incredibly stupid way to get injured.
*For the first time this season the Steelers were able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback and it led to three sacks and two interceptions. Smith came in as one of the league’s top-rated passers on throws of 15 yards or more, but on Sunday he was only 2-for-10 with an INT.
*Cam Heyward and Brett Keisel made a big stop on 3rd-and-1 from the Steelers 2-yard line on the Jets second drive, forcing the Jets to settle for a field goal. Heyward and Vince Williams performed very well in their first career starts.
*Lots of guys played well in this one, so singling out individuals means I’m certain to overlook someone, but Ryan Clark and Lawrence Timmons got the first two Steelers interceptions (though Clark dropped another) and LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds and Ziggy Hood all registered sacks.
*The Jets got the ball on their own 28 with two timeouts and 40 seconds left in the first half. They ran on first down, gaining six yards, using up nine seconds and their second time out. They got a first down on their own 44 and used their last time out with 19 seconds left. The Steelers can’t give up points there. They have to give the Jets the middle of the field and defend the quick outs. They didn’t. Geno Smith completed three passes for 35 yards, setting up a Jets field goal. Terrible.
*The Jets missed a big play opportunity early when Geno Smith overthrew Stephen Hill. The Steelers were in quarters coverage and Ike Taylor passed Hill onto Troy Polamalu on the post route. Hill blew by Troy who appeared to guess wrong and Taylor wasn’t going full out. An on-target throw from Smith and it would have been an easy touchdown.
*Shaun Suisham. Sushi. Money. 46, 33, 48, 32. 10-10 on the season. He also made an excellent tackle on a kickoff that appeared about to break into the open.
*Zoltan Mesko was a bit better after a terrible game against Minnesota. He averaged 45.5 on six punts.
*The Steelers are getting very little out of the return game. Amazingly the Steelers have only started one drive (out of 61 unofficially) on the opponents side of the 50. Some of that is on the defense for not getting more turnovers, but certainly some is also on a return game that isn’t producing. Antonio Brown looks content to fair catch most punts, returning only two of seven Sunday.
*While special teams coverage units were outstanding the first three weeks, they have not been as good the last two weeks. This week the punt coverage unit in particular seemed to struggle as the gunners were not getting downfield quickly.
*Shaun Suisham kicked one kickoff out of bounds. As good as he’s been, that is a really damaging penalty as the other team starts at the 40.
*After the loss to the Vikings Mike Tomlin said he would make changes and he did. There were changes in the Steelers lineup, the team went out and acquired an offensive tackle via trade and Tomlin banned games in the locker room. It’s hard to directly gauge the impact of each of these moves, but the Steelers responded with a solid effort and the coaches deserve some of the credit.
*Todd Haley’s play-calling was excellent. It started with a series of screens to open the game and slow down a very good Jets pass rush and continued with misdirection and gadget plays to keep the Jets off-balance. The highlight was Ben’s play-action, 55-yard touchdown to Manny Sanders on 3rd-and-1. Great formation, great call.
*Dick LeBeau’s record against rookie QBs since returning to the Steelers was 15-2 going into this one. The defense stepped up and LeBeau’s schemes made it a tough day for Geno Smith. 16-2.
*Dick LeBeau’s defense has to adjust better to the situation they faced at the end of the first half.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Not many questionable or impactful calls in this one. The Steelers benefitted from a questionable horse collar tackle call.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Baltimore Ravens next week at Heinz Field. Kick-off is scheduled for 4:25 EST. If the Steelers still aspire to make the playoffs, a divisional game with the Ravens a must-win.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.