Ray Fittipaldo's Steelers report card: A few low marks for the offense

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports 3 days ago

Quarterback: Mason Rudolph isn’t going to strike fear into many defenses, but he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. And with the way the Steelers defense is playing right now, that’s about all he has to do. Rudolph was 22 for 38 for 242 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He would have had more completions if his receivers could hang onto the ball. Big plays still aren’t a part of this offense. That probably has to change if the Steelers are going to continue winning. But in the meantime, being a game manager suits the Steelers just fine. Grade: B

Running backs: The Steelers are really missing James Conner’s presence in the running game. All they could manage was 42 yards on 27 carries. Jaylen Samuels led the Steelers with 29 yards, but he only averaged 2.1 yards per carry. Samuels also had one of the dropped passes that would have moved the sticks in the first half. Trey Edmunds made some plays, but not in the running game. He caught the crucial fourth-down pass that led to the field goal late in the fourth quarter. He also intercepted a pass when the Rams tried to fake a punt. If only he or someone else in the backfield could make a few plays in the running game. Grade: D

Receivers: Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald all had bad drops. McDonald’s drop likely cost the Steelers three points. Add in a bad fumble by James Washington late in the first half, and it wasn’t a good day for the receiving corps. The only reason the receivers didn’t get an F is Washington, who had six catches for 90 yards and the only offensive touchdown of the game. The receivers and tight ends have to start helping the offense. They were supposed to be one of the team’s strengths and they’re looking like weak links lately. Grade: D

Offensive line: A bad snap, a bad penalty and bad run-blocking dragged the offense down against a talented Rams defensive front. The Rams scored their only touchdown when center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler scooped it up and ran 25 yards for a touchdown. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva had a very costly holding penalty midway through the third quarter. While leading 14-10, Tony Brooks-James had a 15-yard run to the Rams 15 called back. The Steelers failed to get points on the drive, and the Rams went down and kicked a field goal. The number of negative runs the Steelers have on a weekly basis is astonishing. Maybe the return of Conner and fullback Roosevelt Nix will help some, but it’s on the line to get more movement. Even the pass protection wasn’t up to par as Rudolph was sacked three times. It’s hard to believe this unit is struggling as badly as it is given the number of Pro Bowlers who returned. Grade: D-

Defensive line: Cam Heyward might not get the accolades that Aaron Donald gets, but he’s a game-wrecker in his own right. The Rams had a hard time keeping him out of the backfield. He finished with a sack, three quarterback hurries and two passes defended. He also drew a crucial holding penalty. He’s stepped his game up after Stephon Tuitt was lost for the season. That’s what great players do. Javon Hargrave was almost as good. He had seven tackles and a sack, giving the Steelers a strong presence on the left and right side of the line. The Rams broke a few long runs and finished with 88 yards on the ground, but other than that it was a stellar performance by the guys up front. Grade: A-

Linebackers: T.J. Watt had two more sacks, giving him 9½ on the season. He’s playing like an All-Pro. Mark Barron, who was on the Rams team that went to the Super Bowl last season, played his best game as a member of the Steelers. The free agent pickup led the Steelers with 10 tackles and had a pass defended. Barron almost never left the field. He was the only linebacker on the field in passing downs and did a nice job in coverage. His teammates also gave him credit for helping learn Rams tendencies throughout the week. Vince Williams didn’t play a lot, but he did have a quarterback hurry that forced an interception. Grade: A-

Secondary: Minkah Fitzpatrick should be in the NFL defensive player of the year conversation, and right now he might be the Steelers’ best offensive player, too. He scored a touchdown for a second week in a row. One week after returning an interception 96 yards for a touchdown, he scooped up a fumble and returned in 43 yards for a score. He also had the game-ending interception when the Rams were trying to mount the winning drive in the final minute. Joe Haden also had an interception, and safety Terrell Edmunds was in coverage when the Rams tried to throw to the end zone on a crucial fourth down late in the game. Edmunds also had eight tackles. A tremendous performance by a unit that seems to get better every week. Grade: A+

Special teams: The punt return unit is an absolute mess. Ryan Switzer’s decision to field a punt at the 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter proved costly when Mason Rudolph was sacked for a safety on the first play from scrimmage after that to make it 14-12. Earlier in the game, Johnson fumbled and was lucky one of his teammates recovered it. The punt unit wasn’t much better. Artie Burns committed a holding penalty midway through the second quarter, which put the Steelers on their own 10-yard line. Robert Spillane, playing in his first game for the Steelers, committed two penalties. He was called for illegal procedure and for not lining up on the line of scrimmage. Then, with a little more than two minutes left, the kickoff return team lets the Rams return it to the 35, which gave them great field position for their drive to try to win the game at the end. The punt return unit did snuff out a fake punt, and Chris Boswell was perfect on the day, but with an offense that is struggling, the special teams have to be much better. Grade: D

Coaching: Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler are putting together a fearsome defense. Week after week, the Steelers are making a case to be considered among the top five defenses in the NFL. They held the defending NFC champions to three points. It was a masterful performance by Tomlin and his defensive staff. Fichtner continues to struggle dialing up successful plays for the offense. The fourth-and-1 play call from the 34 was gutsy. It was a crucial play on a drive that ended with a field goal and took eight minutes off the clock. But the offensive ineptitude kept the defense on the field way too much. The decision to throw three times from your own 20 with 1:24 to go before halftime was some bad in-game coaching on the part of Tomlin and Fichtner. The Steelers led 14-7, and the Rams only had one timeout. But by running only 27 seconds off, the Rams were able to get in position for a field-goal attempt. Greg Zuerlein missed a 56-yard attempt, but better decision-making wouldn’t have put his defense in that spot at the end of the half. Fichtner will be challenged to get more creative with what appears to be limited personnel. Grade: B-

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