The Pittsburgh Steelers offense was anemic in the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but who was to blame? Starting with the first half, we’ll evaluate and analyze the performance.
Najee Harris has a solid opening salvo running straight up the middle for a gain of 4. The play is everything we can hope for from our offensive line. The Steelers line up with a 2nd and 6 with an unusual formation that features 4 TEs that all go in motion, including Chukwuma Okorafor. Harris is stuffed for no gain and Okorafor is flagged for illegal formation. The blame should not fall on Okorafor as he lined up legally, but TE Eric Ebron was far too slow in covering up the line. There are no words to adequately describe how badly Ebron missed his block and Harris is stuffed for no gain. Chase Claypool regained the lost 5 yards with a nicely executed screen. On 3rd and 6, Ben Roethlisberger identified man coverage and targeted James Washington deep up the sideline. Washington had a step, but the ball was overthrown. One would wonder if Diontae Johnson could have made the play, but the bigger problem was how badly Kendrick Green was beaten and forced Roethlisberger to throw it early. Regardless, the Steelers have now gone 13 consecutive games without a score on opening drive.
Harris takes a pitch and turns the corner for what should have been an 11-yard gain. The play is called back when Green was flagged for holding. Green’s hold was not severe but he drew attention to himself by putting both hands up as to look not guilty, because it was not necessary and likely would have gone unnoticed. After a designed screen to JuJu Smith-Schuster gains 3 against the Bengals nickel coverage, the Steelers offense exploits the Bengals with a designed pick play that got Harris into open space. But Claypool does not even attempt to make the contact look incidental by not running through his route. The soft play made a subjective judgment call objectively easy. The sloppy play continued when Claypool let short pass go through his hands on 2nd and 23 that had the potential for him to run over 90 yards untouched. The drive ended with a meaningless screen to Claypool for no gain.
Roethlisberger is under center and gives to Harris for a grinding gain of two. A play action to Harris has multiple Bengals biting, but pressure was bearing down on him from Sam Hubbard when Pat Freiermuth looked confused about whether he should run a pattern or block. He chose wrong. Roethlisberger’s first two reads were Smith-Schuster and Claypool, but when neither adjusted, he was forced to throw an uncatchable ball to Ebron. Roethlisberger tried a hard count to draw the Bengals offsides, but the only to fall for it was Trai Turner. A delayed stunt blitz was recognized by Harris too late, and with Roethlisberger looking towards the big play with a pump fake, was hit as he threw it, leaving the ball hanging just enough to get intercepted.
14 yards of offense with 26 yards in penalties. Roethlisberger is under center with play action to Harris. Dan Moore Jr. looks like he is trying to block T.J. Watt with his arm hooking the defender and Turner is initially badly beaten with pressure coming up the middle. Though he recovers on the block, Zach Gentry can’t maintain his block and is beaten for the sack while Freiermuth again is caught in limbo between blocking and running a pattern. Note to Freiermuth and coaching staff: Block. Okorafor is only lineman to stuff his man at the line of scrimmage. A pitch to Harris out of an I formation with Derek Watt at fullback results in a gain of 4. Okorafor has quick feet and gets out ahead and the opening and Watt has a nice block. The Steelers get a 1st down on a weak PI call as Ben was under heavy pressure, with Turner getting beat again. Watt reenters the game and throws a mean block, but Kevin Dotson lets his man blow by him and the run by Harris goes for -3. The Steelers finally go up tempo and get some momentum, but it comes to a quick end after Roethlisberger settles for a short gain to Claypool when Washington had a opening on a go route, followed by Claypool running the wrong route on what should have been an easy first down.
Harris gets things going stiff-arming his way to a 7-yard gain off a screen. Another sit-down route, Freiermuth makes the catch for a 1st down. Roethlisberger finds himself in unfamiliar territory, with all day to throw but no one open deep and winds up taking a sack trying to extend the play. The loss is quickly made up for with Smith-Schuster in the middle of the field. Harris makes a killer stutter step to break a 14-yard run, only to have an unnecessary holding by Dotson call it back. Harris gets it back and more when he runs it up the gut for 20 and the OL is playing to its strength, simple straight forward blocking. The up tempo continues with a catch by Claypool and he drags the defender to a first down. Harris is held to no gain when Ebron as the lead blocker almost impossibly manages to make contact with nobody – there are kickers more willing to block than this guy. The Bengals collapse the pocket and force two quick passes by Ben, but Smith-Schuster and Harris make tough catches while covered. Harris takes a screen to the 4-yard line with a burst and jukes the defensive back so badly that only a grab of the ankle prevents Harris from taking it the final 4 yards for the score. A nicely executed flick to Freiermuth gets the Steelers on the board.
First Half Grades
Green: D+. He gets graded on a curve playing as a rookie at center, because his early penalties combined with multiple missed blocks hurt and must improve.
Okorafor: B-. Despite surrendering a sack, it was on the only play Ben really tried to extend it and vs. one of the leaders in sacks this year. Overall, he was solid and showed quickness moving out ahead on multiple pitches to Harris.
Turner: D-. The veteran of the group has to play better.
Dotson: D. He did okay-ish early, but was blown up in 2nd quarter and holding was bad.
Moore: D+. Gets graded on a curve playing as a rookie at LT, made no big 1st half mistakes, but was not overly good either.
Roethlisberger: B-. For all the criticism, Ben had a man bearing down on him almost every play. His best throw was negated by a Bengals penalty and missed a chance to make a big play to Washington on the 1st drive.
Ebron: F-. If there were a lower grade, he’d get it.
Freiermuth: D. Needs to learn how to block, until then, no comparisons to Heath Miller please.
Smith-Schuster: C. Bengals wanted to take him away and mostly did.
Claypool: F. The mistakes on his routes, drops and penalties negated his one quality catch.
Harris: A+. He carried the team, literally and figuratively. Had nearly 45 total yards called back by penalty (about 30 rushing).
Washington: Incomplete. Either he didn’t even get a real chance or he’s 4th string for a reason.
Mike Tomlin: F. No team should start this sloppy.
Matt Canada: F. One good drive in 2nd quarter doesn’t negate the horrible performance of the rest of the half.
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