Winners and Losers of Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 2 Performance
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain undefeated through two weeks of the 2017 NFL season, thanks to their 26-9 win over the visiting Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. But like their Week 1 win against the Cleveland Browns, it was not a perfect performance.
Here are the Steelers players and positional units that were winners and those that were losers following the victory.
Winner: LB Anthony Chickillo
A week ago, backup Steelers outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo was called into starting duty on the left side while Bud Dupree worked his way back from a shoulder injury. Chickillo was impressive in his spot start, with six total tackles (four solo and two for a loss). He sacked Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer twice and had two additional quarterback hits.
On Sunday, Chickillo's number was called again after starting right outside linebacker T.J. Watt exited the game with a groin injury. Again, Chickillo performed well, with five total tackles—two solo and half of a tackle for loss—and a quarterback hit.
Not only has Chickillo quickly proved that he's a reliable backup, he's also shown his versatility, handling both the right and left linebacker duties. There has been no considerable drop-off in the Steelers' pass rush with Chickillo in place of Dupree or Watt, which means that if Dupree's shoulder problems recur or Watt's groin injury lingers, the Steelers should have no concerns with Chickillo taking either of their places this season.
Loser: 3rd-Down Offense
A year ago, the Steelers offense did not have the help of wide receiver Martavis Bryant and was without the services of running back Le'Veon Bell for the first three games, with the former serving a full-season suspension and the latter a shorter one. Yet, the Steelers had little trouble moving the football, ranking 10th in third-down conversions, earning a new set of downs 42.7 percent of the time.
But this year, though the Steelers offense is at full strength, these conversions are not coming with the same amount of ease. Against the Browns in Week 1, they converted five of their 13 third downs, and on Sunday, even with the benefit of home-field advantage, they converted only three of 13. That dropped their third-down conversion percentage to a paltry 30.8, the sixth-worst in the league.
The Steelers are fortunate that their plays have outgained both of their opponents' thus far and that their red-zone attempts have produced touchdowns. And it should be noted that both Cleveland and Minnesota have tough defensive fronts. But that doesn't completely explain away why the Steelers' conversion rate has dropped 12 percent from its 2016 level.
Pittsburgh has one of the best collection of offensive talent in the entire NFL, making their struggles to move the ball even that much more confounding. It took two long Vikings' pass interference penalties for the Steelers to score touchdowns on Sunday, while the rest of Pittsburgh's drives ended either in punts or field goals. The Steelers won't be seeing those kinds of penalty-induced gifts every week, so the offense needs to shake off its rust and start extending drives on its own.
Winner: The Secondary
The Steelers' beleaguered secondary got a break on Sunday when starting Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford was ruled out with a knee injury. In Week 1, Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards for three touchdowns and no interceptions while taking just one sack in a decisive defeat of the New Orleans Saints. It seemed as though the Steelers were headed toward a similar fate or at least a similar passing threat in Week 2.
But Bradford's injury forced backup Case Keenum into the starting job, and the Steelers secondary was the biggest beneficiary. In Week 1, Bradford's big and accurate arm led the Vikings to eight completions of 20 or more yards. Under Keenum, they had just three. Keenum ended the day with just 20 completions on 37 attempts and 167 passing yards, averaging only 4.5 yards per pass. Though he did not turn the ball over, he also threw no touchdown passes and was sacked twice.
Though it was less the Steelers secondary stepping up to shut down Minnesota's passing attack and more the result of a backup quarterback steering the Vikings offense, Pittsburgh's cornerbacks and safeties at least had an easier day than they would have had if Bradford were healthy and able to play on Sunday. It was a win for the crew, by default.
Loser: Team Discipline, Again
In Week 1, the Steelers showed an uncharacteristic lack of team discipline, drawing 13 penalties for 143 yards and giving the Browns five first downs due to the flags. But it was easy to explain that away—the Steelers were on the road, after all, and rust is not uncommon for any NFL team.
However, the Steelers did not clean up their penalty problem against the Vikings in Week 2. The Steelers drew double-digit flags again—10—for 72 yards. Though the penalties only led to one Viking first down, there was no reason for the Steelers to struggle with discipline given what had happened in the previous game and the fact that they had the benefit of playing at home.
With 23 penalties already, the Steelers lead the league in drawing flags and have given up 215 yards. Like last week, the penalties did not cost Pittsburgh their chance at victory, but there's no doubt that it eventually will, should this continue.
The Vikings had 11 penalties called against them for 131 yards, with four of the flags yielding a new set of downs for Pittsburgh. But that won't be the case every week; the Steelers must continue to focus on cleaning up this problem area before it costs them more than yards.
Winner: WR Martavis Bryant
In Week 1, Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant's long absence from the league was apparent in the fact that he was not a major part of the team's offensive plans. Though targeted six times by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Bryant caught only two passes for 14 yards. Meanwhile, fellow Steelers wideout Antonio Brown burnt the Browns with 11 catches on 11 targets for 182 yards.
But Week 2 was all about Bryant. With Brown held in check by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes to the tune of just five catches for 62 yards, the Steelers needed Bryant to step up. And he did, as his three catches (from just four targets) earned Pittsburgh 91 yards. He also had a 27-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Bryant's game is all about making big plays and scoring touchdowns, both of which he put on display against Minnesota. He's an important part of the Steelers' offensive formula, either being Roethlisberger's primary target in situations like Sunday's when Brown is bottled up or drawing coverage to himself in order to free up Brown. Getting Bryant back in the mix is crucial to the Steelers' success, so his return to form on Sunday was certainly welcomed.
Loser: WR Eli Rogers
This summer, the Steelers were expecting to have a training camp battle for the starting slot receiver job. Incumbent Eli Rogers, rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and the since-released Demarcus Ayers were among those vying for the honor. But with Smith-Schuster and Ayers dealing with various injuries during camp, Rogers earned the nod by default.
However, Rogers' job appears to not be as secure as he had hoped.
In Week 1, Rogers saw four targets and caught two passes for 11 yards while playing 65 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster was active and on the field, playing 41.7 percent of the team's offensive snaps, but saw zero passing targets.
Though Rogers' targets went up against the Vikings as did his catches and yards (to seven, four and 43, respectively), his overall playing time went down, appearing in only 50 percent of the Steelers' offensive plays. He also struggled as a punt returner, with his two returns netting minus-one yard. At the same time, Smith-Schuster saw his role expand, playing 51.4 percent of the Steelers' snaps and catching three passes on four targets for 16 yards and a touchdown.
With Smith-Schuster's stock apparently on the rise and Rogers not showing much on special teams, it may just be a matter of time before the rookie becomes the Steelers' dedicated slot receiver while Rogers slowly slips into the shadows as a backup. It certainly looks as though Rogers will be the one most affected by Smith-Schuster seeing increased playing time.
Winner: DE Cameron Heyward
Cameron Heyward had three straight years as a dominant force on the Steelers' defensive line. From 2013 to 2015, Heyward totaled at least 50 combined tackles. He had 5.0 sacks in 2013, 7.5 in 2014 and 7.0 in 2015 to go along with his numerous contributions as a run-stopper. But his 2016 season was cut short; Heyward suffered a torn pectoral muscle in November after totaling 21 tackles and three sacks.
Now that fellow starter Stephon Tuitt is working his way back from a biceps injury, the Steelers have needed Heyward to step up. And the defensive captain has not failed to deliver.
In Week 1, Heyward had three tackles—one solo and 1.5 for a loss—as well as a sack and an additional quarterback hit. In Week 2, he did even better, disrupting both the Vikings' running and passing offenses to the tune of six tackles (including 1.5 for a loss on Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook) and two quarterback hits. Heyward's presence was felt on the field in Week 2, with his efforts helping limit the Vikings to under 150 yards passing and below 100 yards rushing on the day.
Through two games, Heyward is Pro Football Focus' ninth-ranked interior defender as well as the Steelers' highest-ranked defensive player. He has provided stability and leadership—necessary considering 2017 free-agent signee Tyson Alualu is starting in place of Tuitt at present—but also is playing at a high level, much as he has for most of his starting career.
Loser: LT Alejandro Villanueva
Sunday's game was a bad one for Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Not only did he have to leave the game in the third quarter due to heat-related issues, he was also being manhandled throughout the day by defensive end Everson Griffen.
Villaneuva gave up a sack to Griffen as well as multiple other quarterback pressures, and he also was flagged for a false start. His poor performance is only further highlighted by how well his teammates on the line performed. Pro Football Focus named right tackle Marcus Gilbert and guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro as three of the team's top five players against the Vikings; meanwhile, Villanueva ranks just 32nd among offensive tackles and has a pass-blocking rating of a disappointing 49.1. Gilbert, in contrast, ranks 11th.
It was an uncharacteristically bad performance for the left tackle. Villanueva gave up only 4.5 sacks a season ago, something that led to the Steelers signing him to a four-year, $24 million extension in July. Perhaps the heat was to blame and a bounce-back in Chicago is ahead for Week 3. Because the Steelers cannot afford to have Villanueva take a step back, especially with the rest of the line performing at such a high level.