Pittsburgh Steelers: Passing Grades on Post-Bye Week Report Card

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst INovember 3, 2009

DETROIT , MI - OCTOBER 11: Hines Ward #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a second quarter touchdown while playing the Detroit Lions on October 11, 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At 5-2, Pittsburgh is in a de facto tie for first place in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals. They technically are in second place by virtue of the Bengals' 23-20 win over Pittsburgh in Week Three.

But how do the Steelers grade out? Here's a look.

Top Offensive Performers

Ben Roethlisberger

First, let's have the statistics through seven games:

164 of 233 (70.4%), 2,062 yards, 11 TDs, 6 INTs, 20 sacks, 102.6 rating

Now, let's take a look inside the numbers.

Roethlisberger has the second-best completion percentage in the NFL, trailing only Peyton Manning. He's also one of the top passers in yardage and passer rating. But these statistics are more team attributes than actual individual numbers. 

Of his six interceptions, only two were the sole result of poor decision making by Ben.  He's also had a touchdown called back by penalty and one dropped by Limas Sweed.  Santonio Holmes also began the season with a series of poor games. Roethlisberger's numbers could easily be higher.

The best way to measure a quarterback's individual performance is to examine their intangibles and the way they utilize their physical skills. If Roethlisberger didn't already get a passing grade for his stat line, he gets one here. 

In the clutch, there is no one better than Roethlisberger. He has 18 career victories from behind in the fourth quarter or overtime. Judging solely on this season, Roethlisberger has gotten it done when the game was on the line. 

Ben also utilizes his physical tools better than most quarterbacks in the NFL. His mobility is his greatest weapon. He also uses his arm strength to get throws to Mike Wallace, the team's newest speed threat. 

Intangibles, for me, are broken down into decision making and mechanics. Ben doesn't have the best mechanics, but when he actually is dropping back, they are quite sound.  He throws extremely well from multiple arm angles and while on the run, so he's mechanically a very good quarterback.

His decision making has improved markedly this season and may be the single biggest improvement in his overall game from last season.

Also, Ben has shown increasing aptitude for running the offense and reading defenses.  Roethlisberger routinely checks down to secondary targets and does a phenomenal job of looking off defenders and using a realistic pump fake.

Overall Grade: A

Rashard Mendenhall

Again, let's have the statistics first:

78 carries, 418 yards (5.4 YPR), 4 TDs, 8 receptions, 69 yards, 0 TDs

I include receiving statistics for Mendenhall because he has been used increasingly on screen plays.

It's probably safe to say that the jury is still out on Rashard Mendenhall.  He's proved to be the tough inside runner the Steelers had hoped for when they drafted him in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but he still hasn't developed into a complete player.

It took a benching from coach Mike Tomlin to get Mendenhall to prepare effectively and professionally. Since, he has been dominant with one exception. 

In four starts, he has fumbled twice, losing both.

If there is an area for improvement that could be considered glaring, it would be in his mechanics. He runs tall, which is OK as long as you protect the football. Mendenhall doesn't. He holds it out and also makes unnecessary dives (like the one against Minnesota that caused one of those fumbles).

Mendenhall must take better care of the football. 

As far as the other areas of his game, he is solid. Mendenhall keeps his legs moving through contact, making him hard to bring down unless he is wrapped up low or taken off his feet. 

He also shows a toughness to run inside the tackles, something Pittsburgh has lacked since the departure of Jerome Bettis. He also has the ability to get outside and turn the corner, making him a very dangerous threat for opponents.

Overall Grade: B+

Hines Ward

Ward continues to be a force in his 12th NFL season. Here are the statistics:

42 receptions, 602 yards (14.3 YPC), 2 TDs

The two touchdowns aren't a good indication of how Ward has played. He hasn't been targeted near the goal line (that has been where Heath Miller has gotten most of the touches).

Ward is still the go-to receiver on the team, although rookie Mike Wallace is emerging as Roethlisberger's favorite third down threat.

Ward continues to be a devastating blocker and sure-handed receiver. He's on par to have his sixth 1,000-yard season and perhaps his second 100-catch season. He is one of the league leaders in receiving yards, which is something new.

There's not much to say about Ward. His game is well-known and this year is just another in a line of impressive years for the future Hall of Famer.

Overall Grade: A+

Heath Miller

Miller's statistics:

40 receptions, 353 yards (8.8 YPC), 4 TDs

Miller has been a favorite target of Roethlisberger's, particularly in clutch situations and in the red zone. 

Miller has improved every area of his game for a second straight season and is on target to shatter his career highs in all categories. 

The best improvement has been in his running after the catch, where he has become a beast. Miller was already tough to bring down, but he has now developed a bull mentality that carries him through would-be tacklers.

Miller continues to be an effective blocker and his presence has helped greatly as the Steelers have continued to allow their young offensive line to grow into a cohesive unit.

Overall Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive line gets graded as a group because pass- and run-blocking is done as a unit.

After struggling mightily in their first game, the line has improved each week. While Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 20 times in seven games, some of those sacks are due to his style of play and not the offensive line's performance. 

So trim five sacks off that total (at least).

As for the rushing attack, the line has blocked much more effectively for Rashard Mendenhall. Part of that is Mendenhall's willingness to hit the hole quickly. Part of it is a marked improvement in the play of left guard Chris Kemoeatu. 

Kemoeatu has been asked this season to play in a way not unlike Alan Faneca. He has slowly excelled, particularly at the pull-out blocks that Faneca was famous for. He is the team's most improved lineman through the first seven weeks.

The biggest area of concern is penalties and, more specifically, penalties committed by Willie Colon. Colon continues to struggle with the basic concept of lining up with his helmet in line with the belt of center Justin Hartwig. He seems to be good for at least one of these false starts per game.

Overall, the line is playing well and continues to improve even as the competition gets more stiff.

Overall Grade: B

Overall Offense

Overall, the offense has been excellent. They don't lead the league in any category, but rank in the top 10 in both yards per game (sixth) and passing yards per game (fifth). The rushing attack has steadily improved (currently 19th after starting in the bottom five).

Judging without numbers, the offense has performed well when the game has been on the line. The Steelers also seem to excel on long drives, which speaks to the ability of the offense to sustain.

I'm encouraged by the improvement of the blocking and running game and think that the Steelers will excel in these areas coming into the season's second half.

Overall Grade: A-

Top Defensive Performers

James Harrison

Harrison has had another stellar start to the season. Take a look at the statistics:

41 tackles (35 solo), 8 sacks, 4 fumbles forced, 1 pass defended

What's most surprising about Harrison's performance is that he has routinely been double teamed by opposing offenses. Harrison initially struggled with this, but has steadily developed the ability to overcome them.

Harrison continues to be effective in both base formations and blitz packages. He continues to be effective at blowing up blocks and has also developed some ability in coverage (although it's limited).

Overall Grade: A-

Troy Polamalu

You know it's been an interesting year on defense when your No. 2 performer missed most of the season with a serious injury. But looking through the players, it's hard to say that anyone really stood out besides these two stalwarts.

When he has played, Polamalu has been the force the Steelers are used to.  e continues to be most effective roving the field and simply making plays. 

The Steelers certainly missed his ability to cover a lot of ground, particularly in the center of the field, where tight ends and slot receivers roam. Now that he's back, I would expect more of the same.

Overall Grade: Incomplete

Overall Defense

It's strange to say that the Steelers have struggled on defense. Statistically, this unit ranks pretty well (first against the run, seventh in points allowed, eighth in yards per game).

They have struggled some against the pass, but it's hard to argue that a lot of issues with the pass defense were related to the team's injury situation.

The team has seemingly adjusted well to Aaron Smith's injury, although it will be interesting to see if one player (Ziggy Hood?) emerges as the every down replacement.

The biggest issue the unit has had has been playing a complete game. I would say that they did just that against the Vikings. Brett Favre may have passed for 331 yards, but he was not effective when it counted and the Steelers were also keying on the Vikings' rushing attack.

If the Steelers can play complete games against opponents rather than starting slow or fizzling late, they will once again emerge as one of the NFL's most feared units.

Overall Grade: B-

Special Teams

Jeff Reed

Reed's statistical line:

9 FG, 12 FGA (75%), 20/20 PAT, 59.3 yards per kickoff, 0 touchbacks

Two of Reed's three misses came in the Bears game, in a stadium arguably as difficult to master as Heinz Field. That doesn't excuse them, it just puts them in perspective.

I would argue the biggest problem this season with Jeff Reed has been his kickoffs, which have not been up to his usual booming leg. I'm also not enamoured with his attitude off the field.

Reed is the best kicker the Steelers have had since Gary Anderson in the 1980s and 90s. Anyone who thinks we would be better off with another kicker obviously has forgotten the days of Todd Petersen and Kris Brown.

Overall Grade: B

Daniel Sepulveda

Sepulveda's statistical line:

26 punts, 44.8 yards per punt, long of 58 yards, 10 punts inside the 20, 1 touchback

If there is one area where the Steelers have improved most on an individual level, it is in the punting game. Last year, neither Paul Ernster or Mitch Berger were particularly effective in replacing the injured Sepulveda. This led to issues with poor field position.

Sepulveda has a rocket and he also is adept at placing kicks inside the 20 and away from dangerous returners. 

Overall Grade: A+

Coverage Units

Last year, this was a position of strength. This year, it's become a weakness. The Steelers have allowed two returns for touchdowns and have also allowed several long returns. The units lack consistency and also seem to commit too many mental errors.

The tackling has been pretty poor and seems to be the biggest problem. Hopefully the bye week allowed the Steelers to focus their coverage teams into being more effective.  Nothing has really changed since last season, so it makes no sense for this group to struggle.

Overall Grade: C+

Return Units

Stefan Logan has been excellent on returns, providing the Steelers with a much-needed spark. It is likely he will eventually break for a touchdown, although his desire to cut back often robs him of that opportunity.

Logan has definitely been an upgrade over the returners the Steelers have used in the last five years and his speed makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.  He will only get better with experience.

Overall Grade: B+

Overall Special Teams

This unit has been good, if a little inconsistent. It certainly hasn't really cost the Steelers a game (as their defense has), but it hasn't been a game-changing factor (as the offense has) either. The units are steady, if unspectacular.

Overall Grade: B


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