Tim Benz: 3 Steelers who deserve no blame for 2019 mess
There is plenty of blame to go around for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1-4 start in 2019.
Game-planning and play-calling have been atrocious at times from the coaching staff. Just look at the field goal in New England, the conservative game plan vs. the San Francisco 49ers, the overuse of the wildcat vs. the Baltimore Ravens.
The offense can’t turn turnovers into touchdowns.
The defense has given away three second-half leads, two in the fourth quarter.
The special teams return units are so bad, head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t want them touching the ball in overtime.
Aside from that, all four phases of the team have been excellent. See you at the Super Bowl.
Looking for silver linings has been tough. It’s hard to call anyone blame-free on this team right now.
But a few guys are close to escaping without any blood on their hands. Here are three candidates.
1. Chris Boswell
At the start of camp, who would’ve thought this guy would lead the list?
Boswell has bounced back from an awful 2018. Last year, Boswell missed seven field goals and five extra points. This year he’s made all 19 of his place kicks.
There have been numerous times this season where I have said out loud to whoever was listening, “Here’s the spot. Here’s the kick. This is where Bos shanks one. Here’s where 2018 Boswell comes back.”
But he hasn’t. Meet the new Bos, same as the old Bos.
Well, 2017 “old Bos,” I mean. The one that was 72-of-77 on place kicks that year and never missed in a pressure situation.
Yup. One thing is clear this season, for as bad as things are, you can’t blame “the Bos.”
2. Steven Nelson
I was skeptical of this signing for the Steelers.
Actually, I shouldn’t say skeptical.
After all, he was acquired to replace the Artie Burns-Coty Sensabaugh combination at the cornerback position opposite Joe Haden. So clearly an upgrade was coming.
Everyone had to be happy the Steelers were, at least, addressing the position.
However, Nelson came to Pittsburgh from Kansas City with a reputation as a feast-or-famine cornerback. He’d get you interceptions and passes defensed, with four and 15, respectively, in 2018.
Yet, it was thought by some that those numbers were inflated by volume because he was heavily targeted by opposing quarterbacks.
Since donning black and gold, though, Nelson has exceeded expectations and flipped scouting reports. He’s been 180-degrees different than his reputation. He’s hardly been visible in games. Often, that’s good for a cornerback. It means the opposing quarterback isn’t looking to attack you in coverage.
Nelson has two passes defensed and has needed to make only 16 solo tackles. Pro Football Focus rates him as the NFL’s 12th best cornerback so far in 2019, stating that he “has limited anything downfield through the first five games, allowing just five receptions on 10 targets 10 or more yards downfield for 86 yards.”
“I’m just staying steady, staying consistent,” Nelson said. “I’m not trying to do too much. Just trying to execute the plans.”
Tomlin has praised Nelson on multiple occasions.
“He’s doing great,” Tomlin said before the Steelers played the Ravens in Week 5. “I like his attention to detail. I like his professionalism. From time to time, we put him in awkward circumstances because of the nature of how we play. I just like everything he is doing so far.”
Nelson’s presence will come in handy this week as the Los Angeles Chargers can deploy Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and Michael Williams at wide receiver. They combined for 19 catches, 244 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers a year ago.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick
Speaking of the secondary, how about next year’s first-round pick?
As the Steelers keep losing and their traded 2020 first-round draft pick keeps rising up the board, the asking price to nab Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins looks more and more exorbitant.
That’s not a commentary on Fitzpatrick’s play. He’s been wonderful. That assessment goes beyond these two turnovers he was a part of in San Francisco during his first hour as a Steeler.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 22, 2019
Minkah Fitzpatrick now with a pick AND a forced fumble in his @steelers debut
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 22, 2019
Since then, he has done an excellent job limiting big plays against the Steelers defense since coming on board after the team’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2.
Consider these numbers from SteelersWire.com.
“Through the first two games, the Steelers defense was allowing 445 yards per game. Since Fitzpatrick joined the team, that number has dropped to 296 yards per game. In terms of just passing yards the number fell from around 320 yards per game to 170 yards per game.
The Steelers had two takeaways in their first two games and have had eight in their last three. Pittsburgh is also allowing almost 13 fewer points per game.”
So, yeah. He’s helped. A lot. And I can’t think of too many instances where he was to blame for things going wrong in losses against the 49ers or Ravens.
“We’ve done a really good job in the back end communicating,” Fitzpatrick said. “And when you do that, it helps to eliminate the deep balls.”
Nelson and Fitzpatrick have helped the back third of the defense to the point that Chargers coach Anthony Lynn referred to the Steelers secondary as “one of the best secondaries we’ve gone up against this year.”
So, as we searched for positives surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers, we started with the kicker and we ended in the secondary.
Following 2018, wrap your heads around that.