Winners and Losers of Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 3 Performance
There were numerous reasons for disappointment, and the close score—and the tied game at the end of regulation—doesn't quite tell the story of just how poorly Pittsburgh played.
So, it should come as no surprise that there were clear losers on the Steelers squad based on Sunday's performance. But there were also some winners.
Let's take a look at who helped and who hurt the Steelers' effort in Week 3.
Winner: WR Antonio Brown
Though it took until Week 3 for Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to score his first touchdown of the season, his presence has been the one constant bright spot for Pittsburgh's offense.
Of Ben Roethlisberger's 69 completions so far this year, 26 have belonged to Brown, accounting for 354 of the quarterback's 741 yards.
That trend continued in Chicago on Sunday, with Brown catching 10 passes for 110 yards and a score. With Roethlisberger completing 22 passes for 235 yards, it's easy to see just how integral the wide receiver's presence is to the Steelers being able to move the football.
Brown has been even more crucial on the road this year. As ESPN's Jeremy Fowler pointed out, Roethlisberger has completed 21 of his 25 passes to Brown in two road games, for 291 yards; he's only completed 25 of his 50 passes for 206 yards to other Steelers wideouts.
Roethlisberger's—and therefore Pittsburgh's—day would have been far worse without Brown continuing to prove he's one of the NFL's most unstoppable receivers.
His performance was a shining moment in an otherwise dark day for the Steelers, who remain winless against the Bears during the Mike Tomlin era.
Loser: The Run Defense
Though so much focus has been paid on the Steelers' efforts to rework their pass defense, both by employing more man coverage in the secondary as well as more three- and four-man traditional pass-rushes up front, there were never many questions about their ability to stop the run.
There was no reason to: A season ago, Pittsburgh ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yardage allowed, and through their first two games in 2017 they seemed to be traveling the same path.
The Steelers allowed only 57 yards rushing to the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 and 91 to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2. And though the Bears are a run-heavy team, it seemed an obvious target to game-plan against leading up to the Week 3 game in Chicago.
However, Pittsburgh had anything but a good day when trying to stop the Bears' two-headed rushing machine of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, ultimately giving up 220 rushing yards on Sunday.
Howard led the way with 23 carries for 138 yards and two scores, including a 19-yard touchdown run that won the game for Chicago in overtime. Cohen added another 78 yards on his 12 rushes.
While the Steelers were without linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, that is no excuse: the latter had only played two snaps before suffering his biceps injury and the former missed most of Week 2 with his groin injury, yet Pittsburgh could still successfully stop the run.
Simply put, the Steelers were unprepared for something they should have seen coming and then were never able to make the necessary adjustments to improve the situation.
The result was the Bears' duo of backs running at will on Sunday and the Steelers leaving Chicago with another signature loss to a team they should have been able to beat.
Winner: The Pass Defense
At least the Steelers' defense weren't embarrassed entirely on Sunday. While their ability to stop the run ground to a halt, their pass defense showed a few measures of improvement, allowing only 84 yards in the air to the Bears and quarterback Mike Glennon.
Glennon completed 15 of his 22 passes, and though he threw a touchdown, he was also picked off by Steelers safety J.J. Wilcox and sacked twice. And the coverage held up as well, with no pass traveling further than a lone, 17-yard grab by Bears tight end Zach Miller.
It's cold comfort, of course, with that same defense gashed by Chicago's running backs and the Steelers exiting the game with their first loss of the season. But it should be noted this is the third week in a row that Pittsburgh has allowed under 200 yards passing to their opponents. Perhaps the tweaks they've made to their pass defense are starting to pay off.
The hope, though, is that it is not at the expense of defending the run. The next true marker of improvement will be the ability to successfully defend the run and the pass, rather than one or the other.
Loser: WR Eli Rogers
Steelers slot receiver Eli Rogers' stock continues to drop. So far this season, he has caught only six passes for 54 yards, averaging just 18 yards per game. A year ago, he had 48 catches for 594 yards and three touchdowns, a per-game average of 45.1 yards. So what has changed?
Rogers has been affected by the return of Martavis Bryant as well as the Steelers selecting JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2 of the 2017 draft. Their appearances on the field have thus decreased his playing time.
He went from playing 65 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps in Week 1, to 50 percent in Week 2 to just 32.8 percent in Week 3 against the Chicago Bears. He also didn't see a passing target in Sunday's game.
To make matters worse, Rogers also hasn't taken advantage of the opportunity he's been given as the Steelers' primary punt returner. He has returned eight punts so far this year for a total of 46 yards. The 24-year-old also muffed a return against Chicago, setting up the Bears within the Steelers' 30-yard line and leading to running back Jordan Howard's first touchdown of the game.
Rogers is getting fewer and fewer chances—by way of playing time—to make an impact on Pittsburgh's offense and is doing nothing of merit on special teams, either.
Don't be surprised if he continues to be phased out, given he's shown no reason to warrant being a key cog in the passing offense as he was a season ago.
Winner: TE Vance McDonald
The newest addition to the Steelers' tight end group, Vance McDonald, has not been much of a factor through the first three weeks of the season.
He has played only 34 total snaps on offense and another 11 on special teams, and he has seen just one passing target with no receptions. But he had a standout play on Sunday, and for that McDonald deserves some praise.
Steelers kicker Chris Boswell attempted a 35-yard field goal with six seconds to go in the first half against Chicago. That kick was blocked by Sherrick McManis and recovered by Marcus Cooper.
It appeared as though Cooper would score a touchdown off of the block, but with just one yard to go McDonald was able to catch up to the cornerback—because the Bears player believed he had already reached the end zone and slowed down—and swipe the ball out of his hands.
What would have been a 74-yard Chicago touchdown thus became a 73-yard return on Boswell's blocked kick. And though Steelers punter Jordan Berry batted the fumbled ball out of the back of the end zone, causing a penalty and giving the Bears a free play to kick a field goal with zeros on the clock, the alternative would have been much worse.
It's hard to say exactly what McDonald's role will be as the season progresses. But at least for Week 3 he was something of a hero, making the most crucial (positive) special teams play of the day for the Steelers.
Loser: Ben Roethlisberger on the Road
Over the course of his 14-year career, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been appreciably worse on the road than he is at home.
He has a career home completion percentage of 64.55 percent, compared to 63.67 on the road, and has thrown 175 touchdowns to 72 interceptions at Heinz Field and another 131 and 89, respectively, when playing elsewhere.
But those home and away numbers have seen a chasm grow between them in recent years and it's starting to become a problem.
On the surface, it doesn't seem so dire in 2017. Roethlisberger has a home completion percentage of 65.71 versus 61.55 on the road, and he has thrown two touchdowns and no interceptions at home while throwing three touchdown passes and one pick as a visitor.
Keep in mind, though, Roethlisberger has required Antonio Brown to have big games in both road contests in order to play as relatively well as he has. The wide receiver has a road catch percentage of 85.7 percent this year and 292 of his 354 receiving yards have come during the Steelers' two road contests. That's over half of Roethlisberger's road total of 498 yards this year.
Of those 354 yards, 127 have come after the catch. And of Roethlisberger's total 741 passing yards, 261 can be attributed to those gained after the catch. The QB is being bailed out by his receiving corps, particularly on the road, and by Brown most specifically.
A season ago, Roethlisberger was terrible on the road, completing only 59.36 of his passes and throwing nine touchdowns to eight interceptions. At home, he completed 70.8 percent of his passes and threw 20 touchdowns to five picks. And it's already looking like this trend is set to continue in 2017.
He's lucky to have Brown in his corner, but it should also be noted that it's the receiver's contributions that have helped prevent total disaster for Roethlisberger through two road games this year and not anything the quarterback has done to improve his performance on the road.
Winner: RB Le'Veon Bell
It's not been a good 2017 for Le'Veon Bell after holding out of team's training camp and four preseason games this summer. And it wasn't a great performance for him on Sunday against the Bears, either.
However, the running back showed signs of improvement. Plus, there were few bright spots for Pittsburgh on the whole, which puts Bell's performance in greater focus than it would otherwise.
Bell rushed 15 times for 61 yards—not a great output, but one that averaged him 4.07 yards per carry, which gets him closer to his 2016 average of 4.9 yards and a notable uptick from the 3.2 he averaged in his previous two games.
He also scored his first touchdown of the year, which closed the gap on the Bears to three points. Bell's six catches on seven targets for 37 yards was also his best receiving performance of the season.
Granted, Bell's 51.3 average rushing yards and 18.7 average receiving yards per game are a far cry from the 105.7 and 60 he was averaging in both categories a year ago. But he was a more notable contributor in Week 3 than he was in either Weeks 1 or 2 and give him something to build upon as the first quarter of the season comes to a close.
At the very least, he got his first touchdown of the season out of the way, and it was a score the Steelers sorely needed.
Loser: Mike Tomlin
Though Pittsburgh's loss to the Bears on Sunday was a team effort, with the offense, defense and special teams not doing enough for victory, the real blame needs to fall to head coach Mike Tomlin.
Sunday's performance fits a pattern that has emerged with the Steelers since Tomlin began the job in 2007—playing down and losing to teams Pittsburgh should comfortably defeat.
As Steelers Depot pointed out, Pittsburgh has now gone 11-6 in road games in which they were favored by seven or more points during the Tomlin era.
They have also suffered home losses while heavy favorites. These include a defeat at the hands of the then-1-8 New York Jets in 2007 when Pittsburgh held a 7-2 record, losses to the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders in 2009 when the Steelers had six wins (and the trio totaled that between them) and another loss to the 1-8 Jets in 2014. Pittsburgh also suffered a 34-3 road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 of the 2016 season.
There is one common thread to all of these disappointing losses: Tomlin. For whatever reason, he cannot motivate his players enough to take care of the business they should, particularly on the road.
A team as good as the Steelers have been under Tomlin's care should not have developed this problematic pattern, but it keeps occurring every season to the point where it has become predictable.
Sunday's loss to Chicago can be described as many things but surprising is not one of them.