Not many would have guessed at the beginning of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season that the young offensive player who would make the biggest jump during the season would be Roosevelt Nix. There were several in the Pittsburgh media that we're guessing Nix would be one of the players to get cut when Le'Veon Bell and/or Martavis Bryant returned from their suspensions.
DeAngelo Williams had 20 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown Sunday with Nix acting as his lead back. The threat of the run with Nix on the field opened the door for play-action passes of 59 yards to Antonio Brown and 23 yards to Heath Miller.
It was a great call on Williams' fourth-down touchdown run. Although, had Nix been on the field for Williams' second and third-down runs, maybe it wouldn't have gotten to to that point because those two made it look easy on Williams' first touchdown run of the afternoon. Looking at the tape, Williams' was clearly at the two-yard line when his knee touched down, yet the ball was spotted at the three. I think I'm putting bad spots second behind horrible pass interference calls as the most consistently irritating officiating gaffe.
Williams' two pass receptions are the types of receptions I had hoped the Steelers would execute with Bell -- safe checkdown-type passes that can lead to explosive plays. Williams' third catch was a well-designed pick play for a two-point conversion. I went out of my way to say that Mike Tomlin going for two point conversions would cost the team a victory before it would earn them one. Consider me wrong on that. The two-point conversion to Williams went a long way toward the game being tied late instead of the Oakland Raiders owning a one-point lead.
That wasn't the only decision I was on the wrong side of Sunday. I would have run the ball on the third-and-2 game-clinching pass from Landry Jones to Antonio Brown rather than risk having the Raiders get the ball back with plenty of time left to debt up a field goal on an incompletion. I also wouldn't have called a timeout on third-and-8 with under two minutes to go in the first half that help set up a field goal (thank you Jack Del Rio for conservatively running the ball on the third-down play). That said, there's no chance I'm throwing the ball on third-and-21 with 2:26 left and the Raiders down to one timeout.
There were many good play calls throughout the game, but a few bad ones stood out: Blitzing Mike Mitchell and leaving Lawrence Timmons to cover Michael Crabtree one on one to tie the game late could have been the most costly; and on second-and-1 from the 14 yard line, Williams suffered his only negative run of the day when Martavis Bryant's motion to fake a jet sweep seemed to draw the defense right to Williams. I don't see teams reverse type action seriously on second and one. Also, play-action is not going to work with Jordan Todman on the field unless you plan to use him more than once.
Both of Ben Roethlisberger's injuries have come at times when the Steelers have gotten pass heavy. Most of Roethlisberger's interceptions this year also came when he appeared to get impatient while he Steelers decided to rely heavily on the pass.
The Steelers have a very average 5-4 record. It looks like a team that's consistently inconsistent. One week they're great a against the run, but against Baltimore, Kansas City, and now Oakland the run defense was poor. Ryan Shazier has been down, up, then down again since he returned from injury. Shazier was the main culprit on the Latavius Murray 44-yard run. Inside linebacker play has been up and down throughout the year.
Nobody epitomizes inconsistent play more than Antwon Blake. Interceptions, big hits, forced fumbles mixed in with horrendous technique, missed tackles, and blown assignments.
The offense scores a lot one week and struggles to score points the next. I believe lack of identity is as much a part of that as injuries on offense. Defensively, injuries along the front seven and talent deficiencies on the back end are the issues there.
Most of the damage the Raiders did in the run game came against the Steelers' nickel defense when they had only six in the box. The Raiders ran the ball three times against the Steelers' base defense for seven total yards.
A strong safety that can play closer to the line of scrimmage would go a long way toward providing more consistent run defense. But part of me occasionally wonders how good the defense would have been with a surprise splash signing like Darelle Revis (allow me to occasional pipe dream). A shutdown corner like that would allow the Steelers give help to their other corners and more consistently drop a safety down in the box against dangerous passing teams instead of exposing themselves to six with six-man fronts.
Mitchell needs to learn to think the game beyond his initial assignment. Running out of bounds before recovering the fumble is inexcusable. As is celebrating while a fumble is on the ground. It's OK to play for yourself. All players do to an extent. But there has to be a good level of selflessness in championship players. Right now I don't see that in Mitchell. He's far too interested in spotlighting himself when he does his job than he is in being prepared for unexpected outcomes.
I was proud of the way Bryant bounced back, particularly fighting for a first down on his first catch after his deep ball drop.
Markus Wheaton looks like he's lost his confidence. He's out of sync. His inability to separate and be a reliable slot target has been may be the most disappointing lack of development in the offense. I would use Wheaton on kick returns again to help get him going. Then again, his ankle's bothering him.
Signing Jacoby Jones was a mistake. If not Wheaton, then I'd use Todman on returns. It's obvious Jones longer has it. I would release him and bring back Ross Ventrone to enhance the coverage units. I think Sam Jones might have more speed than Jaboby at this point.