Following the Steelers' 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers, it felt as if someone should've awarded three stars, like CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.
In the Steelers' case, two are superstars and one appears to be well on his way.
The First Star would have to go to Ben Roethlisberger. Sometimes it's easy to forget how special Roethlisberger is as a player. He seems to have taken his game to an even higher level at the start of this season. His touch on deep passes has never looked better. He has dropped a handful of deep balls in the bucket in just two games. It looked like the Steelers offense might get off to another slow start, but Roethlisberger's pinpoint pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey on third-and-8 kept the second possession alive and opened up the floodgates. More than I ever can remember seeing, he's taking advantage of single coverage with deep passes to the outside on third down. Roethlisberger also appeared to audible to the play action on the 35-yard touchdown pass to DHB in the second quarter. He appears to be completely on top of his game.
The Second Star belongs to Antonio Brown. The chemistry between Brown and Roethlisberger is fun to watch. Brown has the ball skills of a center fielder. On his 59-yard reception, Brown sprinted to clear past the safety before he looked up to find the ball. He then immediately adjusted to the inside to make the catch. There aren't many receivers who have that good of ball skills. The only guarantees in life seem to be death, taxes, and weekly special plays from Antonio Brown.
Third Star goes to Ryan Shazier. More wow plays from this special talent. At one point, I had to laugh at how many tackles he was making. It felt like he was everywhere. He even impressed me with his closing speed on plays he didn't get to. In appears to only thing this superstar-in-the-making needs to do is stay healthy and get more games under his belt to reach that elite level.
If I could give out two more stars, I'd award them to Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward. It was exciting to see Tuitt consistently flash the dominant potential he displayed the last quarter of last season. Both Tuitt and Heyward appear to be catching on to the one-gap scheme quicker than I anticipated.
Two weeks, two sacks for Bud Dupree. His ability to bend the arc after his great hand use on the 49ers right tackle was impressive. It's early, but he's already doing things most rookie outside linebackers haven't been able to do. The hope here is that the Steelers have another superstar-in-the-making.
That would leave the Steelers a back-end superstar away from returning to one of the better defenses in the league (as ideally the Steelers would have star players on all three levels). Mike Mitchell played as well as he's played as a Steeler. Yesterday, he talked about how good it feels to finally be playing healthy. He believes he is one of the best safeties in the league when he's healthy. Let's all hope he can stay healthy and prove it. At this point, I'm not ready to disagree with his self-assessment.
Defensively, the Steelers were able to match and exceed the physicality of the 49ers offense. The run defense looks like it should be a strength against teams using two or more tight ends. Daniel McCullers and Steve McLendon were immoveable down near the goal line. I almost wanted the call to stand when Mike Tomlin threw the red flag to review a third-quarter spot down inside the five-yard line. I didn't quite get my wish when the call stood. But the defense didn't disappoint. Despite being first-and-goal at the two, it never felt like the 49ers would get in.
Zero turnovers, dropped passes, sacks, and miscommunications went a long way to helping the Steelers score 43 points. Only four negative offensive plays the entire game on two possessions. Both led to punts. Two penalties and a negative line-of-scrimmage pass play to DHB on the opening drive lead to a punt. A negative line-of-scrimmage pass play to Brown on the opening possession in the third quarter helped lead to a three-and-out.
Having two guys who can take the top off the coverage is a luxury most NFL teams do not have. I'm happy for Heyward-Bey. He seems to be a great teammate who worked really hard to be a good receiver. I had written him off as a capable wideout. It's nice to see he can be more than a quality special teams player. I'm happy for him as a person. Hopefully he can continue to make plays for a couple more weeks. DHB as the fourth wideout will fit when the Steelers choose to use four wide receiver packages (although if I'm Todd Haley, I don't think I could ever bring myself to take Heath Miller off the field, either).
While it's mainly good things this week, I still look at this game with caution. The Steelers had four extra days to prepare while the 49ers had to travel across the country on a short week after a late Monday Night win. Considering the league likely knew the Steelers would be without Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant early in the season, it feels like the league served this game up for the Steelers on a silver platter after sending them to New England on opening night.
Teams can sometimes be flat after blowout wins. Worse yet, opponents with decent talent like the St. Louis Rams are more dangerous after a bad loss. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers respond this week in a game in which the Steelers should have too much talent to get upset.