PIT-CIN grades: Ryan Shazier stars in Steelers’ win

Here are the top takeaways and highest-graded players from Pittsburgh's Wild-Card win over Cincinnati Saturday night.

| 9 months ago
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

PIT-CIN grades: Ryan Shazier stars in Steelers’ win


Here are the top takeaways and highest-graded players from the Steelers’ 18-16 victory over the Bengals Saturday night:

Cincinnati Bengals

–Having lit up Antwon Blake for 196 yards on 12 completions during the regular season, the Bengals passing game led by quarterback A.J. McCarron (-5.1 PFF game grade) failed to find the same weakness in the Pittsburgh secondary on Saturday night. Blake (+0.9) was targeted five times, twice while covering A.J. Green (+1.5), surrendering only one completion for eight yards. McCarron threw a poor interception during the first half, which led to Pittsburgh points, and until the fourth quarter struggled to muster much offense as the Bengals once again came up agonizingly short of a playoff victory.

–Rounding out a fine season with another multi-pressure performance was Geno Atkins (+3.4), who took his season total for pressures against the Steelers to 14, falling one shy of the five pressures he recorded in each of the two regular-season encounters. His four defensive stops tied a season high, and his tremendous effort as a pass-rusher led to his four pressures (one sack, three hurries) and his highest game grade since Week 15.

–While he didn’t produce the seismic plays that Ryan Shazier did for the Steelers defense, the Bengals did have their own ultra-productive linebacker Saturday night in Rey Maualuga (+2.8), who tied his highest grade of the season and set a career-high with eight defensive stops. It will be fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict (-0.5) who steals the headlines for the right (a would-be game-winning interception) and wrong (a 15-yard personal foul penalty for his hit on Antonio Brown on the game’s final drive) reasons from last night’s game, but Maualuga was a consistent presence for the Bengals Saturday night, limiting the Steelers offense to help keep the game within reach while the Bengals offense struggled to find its feet.

–For those wondering, both Burfict (-0.5) and Adam Jones (-2.0) finished with negative grades due in large part to the negative penalty grades they earned for those two personal-foul penalties on the final drive.

Top performers:

DT Geno Atkins (+3.4)

MLB Rey Maualuga (+2.8)

DT Pat Sims (+2.8)

RT Andre Smith (+2.7)

DE Carlos Dunlap (+1.8)

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

–A playoff game against a bitter rival is as good a time as any to turn in the best performance of your career, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (+9.5) certainly did that last night for the Steelers. Shazier’s career to date has been a story of plays made and plays given up in largely equal measures, but last night he was simply making them. Included in them were two pivotal forced fumbles to take points off the board for the Bengals — the second of which, against RB Jeremy Hill with less than two minutes to go, saved the Steelers’ season.

–The extent of Ben Roethlisberger’s (-0.7) injury will be clearer in the coming days, but the Steelers will be thankful to him as well as their defense and the Bengals’ ill-discipline for pulling them through in this game. When Landry Jones (-3.1) came into the game he produced a nine-snap performance that nearly, and probably should have, cost the Steelers their place in the playoffs. This was not a vintage Roethlisberger performance, but he did just enough to threaten field goal range even before Vontaze Burfict (-0.5) and Adam Jones (-2.0) took over with their personal-foul penalties.

–A subpar end to the season capped off what had been a largely quiet second half of the season by Cameron Heyward, but the Steelers’ top defensive lineman turned in a productive display (+1.6) last night in the Steelers’ victory. His nine pressures (one sack, one hit, seven hurries) were his most in a single game since his destructive (+9.8) showing against the Chargers on Monday Night Football way back in Week 5. The Steelers haven’t had Heyward at his best in the second half of the season aside from one game — if he can be as destructive against the Broncos as he was in Week 15 (+5.8), he could help send the Steelers to the AFC Championship game.

Top performers:

LB Ryan Shazier (+9.5)

RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (+1.9)

WR Antonio Brown (+1.7)

DE Cameron Heyward (+1.6)

OLB James Harrison (+1.6)

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Bengal Fanatic

    I have been a Bengal fan for their entire history. The person who should receive the most negative grade for last night is Marvin Lewis. His failure to control his players is shameful. Time for a new head coach in Cincinnati.

    • Sam Doohan

      Lewis really seemed to be trying his best. Seemed like every play he was talking to Burfict and a couple of times it appeared that he had told Burfict to calm down or sit on the bench. And Burfict walked away, acting like he’d calmed down and then went on to get in trouble again. Burfict has been absolutely determined to get himself in trouble in every game against the Steelers. He’s a grown man and if he’ll lie to his coaches to get another chance to make an ass of himself then he deserves the criticism.

      • James Winslow

        Well I guess he doesn;t get the respect of his player, trust me dude they need someone else/ .

      • McGeorge

        Belichick would have benched the player until the player listened.
        Yes it hurts the team in the short run (missing the player on the field) but it helps in the long run by maintaining control.

        • Sam Doohan

          In the regular season maybe, and I’d agree Lewis should have handled this back then, when then Bengals had locked a playoff birth and could survive missing one of their better players for a game or two. That’s on him. He should have handled this before now.

          But look at the situation Lewis was in. They were behind for most of the game. At the time Burfict was getting into scraps he was also making great plays. It really harms the D to pull him. Remember, this is before that big sack on Ben when the Steelers were moving the ball. How can you possibly justify pulling an important playmaker on D when any score would almost certainly put the game out of reach.

          Once the Steelers got rolling they scored on three straight drives starting before half time so when do you sit Burfict? It was only because they were losing that Burfict got so chippy but that was the time he was needed the most. Remember, the Bengals still had no points going in to the fourth quarter. They kept Burfict in the game exactly so they could get that big sack that set them up to score.

          Maybe Belichick would do something else but he’s a totally different guy with a totally different team. He has a built a team and a culture that is all about professionalism; even if a player did act out that badly he’d be extremely confident that the next man up would be prepared to step in and contribute. Bill is a great coach, absolutely, but he’s had a decade of non-stop success to build that culture. Players buy in because he’s shown it works. Players adopt the professional culture because they believe it’ll give them the best chance to win. But no other team has that. Even if coaches try to be so strict the players won’t respect it unless it comes with tangible results. And of course most teams push for ‘passion’ from their players to get them playing well and in that culture benching a guy just for being (from the players perspective) too passionate is going to be a knock to the whole team especially when he’s your Mean Joe big hitter type.

          Benching Burfict wouldn’t have made a difference to the game. His big penalty wouldn’t have happened but his bit plays (huge sack, forced fumble, interception) wouldn’t have happened either. Removing that big sack alone keeps Ben in the game, keeps the Steelers driving and keeps the Bengals out of field position to get their first points. Without that change in momentum they probably just lay down and the game turns into a blowout.

          I genuinely feel that if Lewis benched Burfict even just for a short while he would have lost his job. Yeah, with hindsight we look at those last penalties and say someone should have done something but without him there making big plays (driven by his passion remember) the Bengals wouldn’t even have been in the game.

          You can look at that game and say ‘Well, Lewis needs to keep his guys in line’ but that’s a far less damning criticism than ‘Lewis sat down the best player in a critical situation in a critical game against a division rival’. Sure he’d have had a reason, but the big picture is ‘Win the game’. In the playoffs that’s the only thing that matters.

          As it played out, Lewis can honestly say ‘I put in the guys who gave us the best chance of winning’ and that’s why he kept his job. Discipline matters in a team, obviously, but winning the discipline battle at the cost of ending your season is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Keeping Burfict in means the game was close. The Bengals came up just short. Even without their QB they made it a game. And yeah, Burfict lost it for them at the end but he was why it was competitive. Lewis put the game first, played the best players he had and it very nearly worked out.

    • Stephen J Brady

      He just needs to get rid of Burfict. A thug will be a thug. Pacman has calmed down a little bit besides that penalty, he’s been pretty thuggish in his history too.

      • Jared Rosen

        http://i.imgur.com/mtnGvLU.gif

        I guess that’s calming down a bit…

        • Izach

          Exactly pacman ain’t calmed down, he’s probably just gotten better at hiding it from refs most games,

        • Stephen J Brady

          lol, I meant off the field. Maybe he just hides it better.

      • Izach

        Vontaze isn’t the problem it’s pacman, vontaze was the main reason steelers weren’t up by 30 seriously every other play he was dominating a block or hitting a ball carrier, and he still had impact plays, if anyone should be fired/cut it should be pacman and hill those 2 lost that game vontaze positive far out weighed his negative, the media driven story of burfict a over played he’s just the new “Suh” who was just the new “James Harrison” who was the new “Albert haynesworth who was just the new “Rodney Harrison” etc media just needs a bad guy they should go after Odell this bad

    • James Winslow

      lewis should be fired, he can’t win a big game.

      • shaunhan murray

        Im a steelers but I still think Lewis is a good coach.It tends not to end well when u get rid of a very successful coach

  • Paddy Holland

    Neutral observer of this game. I can’t understand how Shaziers helmet to helmet hit on Bernard is not a flag. When compared to the Brown hit it seems that defenselessness is more important than leading with the helmet and recklessness is more egregious than an intention to hit with the helmet. It seems the call was correct according to rules which is madness. The league is supposed to be getting serious with player safety, I can’t swallow that when that hit goes uncalled.

    • Ryan

      Legal hit bro

      • Adam

        It was technically illegal because you aren’t allowed to use the crown of your helmet to hit a runner unless he’s inside the tackle box within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that call made. Plus Cincinnati’s fans were disgraceful last night, so they can go kick rocks.

    • Sam Doohan

      The defenseless part is almost always the thing that gets stuff called. It takes a really egregious case of leading with the helmet to get flagged against a runner, like when the refs believe it was intentional. Shazier was definitely up high, and the helmets made contact but he’s running upright leading in to the hit and he doesn’t aim for the helmet and that just doesn’t get called against a runner. Don’t get me wrong, I think Shazier was aiming to put a big hit on Bernard, going for the fumble or to knock Bernard off his stride but I don’t see him trying to injure the guy. He runs up and makes the tackle against a guy running towards him and the result was a nasty hit but one that’s always going to be part of the game because, well, these are big strong guys hurling themselves at each other.

      • Paddy Holland

        I understand that defenselessness is key but Bernard is not exactly hurling up the field when he turns to face shazier. I think an argument to the effect that Shazier didn’t intend to lead with the helmet or didn’t intend to hit (a relatively upright) Bernard high is just untenable. I think that once you have those two things you need a reason not to call the penalty. The guys who force fumbles chop at arms and aim for the ball. To outlaw hits like this one would not compromise the ability of defenders to dislodge the ball. I support the chiefs, i like defence, i enjoy watching good defences play good defence. I don’t like some of the added efforts to protect qb’s whilst hanging other positions out to dry (including defenders).

      • anon76returns

        Bullshit. Shazier dropped his head so that it was crown first straight into the RB’s helmet. That is 100% avoidable, and needs to be avoided if the league is serious about limiting concussions (for both the runner AND the defender). That was terrible form tackling, not just “big strong guys hurling themselves at each other”.

    • Madi

      The results of the hits are the same (unconscious man), but the hits are as different as night and day, and intention (to me) is the biggest part of it.

      Gio Bernard caught the ball and took a total of 5 steps with it. As far as the rules are concerned, he was a running back, running with the ball. The unfortunate part is that he was facing/running backwards at first, so he didn’t see Shazier coming. Shazier tackled a ball carrier.

      Antonio Brown jumped for a ball, and couldn’t reach it. The ball sailed by. Burfict SAW the ball sail by, but kept angling towards Brown, hunkered down, and delivered the blow anyway, as Brown is landing from his jump.

      Burfict hit a defenseless man in the head because he wanted to. Because he wanted him hurt. Shazier laid a big hit on a ball carrier.

      • Paddy Holland

        ok. I understand this position and appreciate that the hit was legal under current rules. However, if intention is critical, then what should be made of an intent to lead with the helmet and hit with the helmet, especially when hitting a ball carrier high. You pointed out, as did i think Mike Carey, that Bernard was not a defenseless receiver as he had completed the catch and made a move upfield as a ball carrier. I wouldn’t dispute that. However, what can Bernard do to protect himself? You want forced fumbles, hit the ball. The primary point of contact was helmet to facemask.

        Burfict’s hit was abysmally reckless and dangerous and even he had the limited to fortitude and benevolence to lead with the shoulder.

        I just don’t think that these sort of hits and incidents are inevitable in football and that so long as such a hit is legitimate, talk of protecting players is hollow. you can’t have legitimate hits causing unconsciousness (head hitting the ground being an exception).

        • anon76returns

          Shazier’s hit WAS NOT legal under current rules. He led with the crown of his helmet. Seriously, does nobody here remember 2013? In order to avoid concussions, they changed the rules so that leading with the crown by a RB or a defender was a foul, and everyone thought it was going to be the end of football. Here’s a refresher, in case you don’t recall:

          http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1578475-nfl-crown-of-the-helmet-rule-the-end-of-football-as-we-know-it

          Shazier’s hit was absolutely a foul, the refs blew it, and then Shazier egging on the fans and opposition lead directly to the rest of the ugliness in the game.

          • McGeorge

            The refs say Shaziers hit, and they reviewed it because of Tomlins challenge.
            Why didn’t they call it?
            Is it really so cut and dry that it should have been called?
            Was it a missed call?
            Or was it deemed incidental contact?
            What was the refs reasoning for not calling it?

            I could be wrong, but during the game they had a former ref (Mike Carey) commenting that it was legal, and a fumble.

          • anon76returns

            As a fellow Broncos fan you should know that Mike Carey’s % on getting calls right is way below 50%. He’s terrible.
            I have no idea why they didn’t call it, but all the discussion on air was whether or not the RB had become a runner (by the rules he had). None of the discussion was about the crown of the helmet rule, which everybody made a huge deal about in 2013 when the rule was changed. The refs should have called it, but once they missed the call on the field they couldn’t belatedly throw the flag during review.
            It clearly wasn’t incidental contact- it’s not like Shazier’s head was up and they bumped facemasks. He had his head down in full battle ramming position.

          • Alex K

            Not a foul. Look at the rules again.

          • anon76returns

            LOL. OK

            Rule 12, Article 8, section g:
            There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to:
            If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or
            facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.

  • Jared Rosen

    I’m curious about your grading on the Shazier forced fumble on Bernard. Does your grading change if that play is flagged? That kind of hit is penalized very often so do you rely on the refs opinion or make your own call?

    • Stephen J Brady

      You rely on if the play stood or not. Was that a serious question?

      • Jared Rosen

        Yeah it’s a serious question. If PFF is looking at every player on every play and see things the refs don’t see, does that factor into grading? If an OL gets away with a hold, what does that player get graded? PFF must have a policy but I’m just not aware what it is.

        • Izach

          They don’t care about that stuff if it’s not called its graded as if it didn’t happen, if flag does happens they its and instant negative grade for the player who got flagged, that’s why penalty grades affect grades so much

          • theowl

            It is a fair question. It is my understanding PFF grades on play, not results. I’m pretty sure this is true on plays that are not penalized.

            For example if a QB throws an eighty yard TD on a flat pass, the QB will only get graded on the flat pass. Another example… say a RB slips in the backfield for a 4 yard loss. The first defender to the RB will get credit for the loss, but PFF will give a negative grade to the HB, not a high grade for the defender.

            So, what if a player gets called for a penalty, but it was an obvious mistake by the official?

          • Izach

            As far as my understanding PFF does not engage in weather something was or was not a penalty thus if it’s called no matter how “ticky-tacky” the flag was its a negative grade

          • theowl

            I’m sure you are correct. Just emphasizing another aspect of PFF’s grading that I hope will be improved in the future. Seems a little counter to what PFF is trying to do.

          • anon76returns

            From what I’ve seen they usually ignore it. Generally a penalty-free game is awarded a +0.1 penalty grade (depending on snap count). You fairly often see a +0.1 grade on guys that had penalties, presumably because the PFF grader disagreed with the call by the ref. And certainly e.g. a defender that gets a good sack that is wiped away by an unrelated defensive holding call in the secondary still gets grade credit for the sack, so it’s not purely a results deal.

          • theowl

            Nice. Great to see there are at least a few people actually looking, reading and thinking.

            On a semi-side note… I’m really hoping this site and OTC don’t get overwhelmed by PFT hooha commenter types.

      • Madi

        It’s a good question. I don’t know what PFF does, but I have an opinion what they should do. Shazier’s should his grade NOT be lowered if they’d thrown a flag, because if they’d thrown a flag, they’d have been wrong. It was a clean hit. PFF has the benefit of slow-mo and replay. They’d be stupid to use it and base their grades on errors.

        Furthermore, Shazier’s grade should be RAISED from what the refs ruled, because he didn’t just force and recover a fumble – he also returned it for a TD. That was erroneously taken away by the refs. PFF should be able to restore it in PFF’s grade.

        • anon76returns

          He lead with the crown of his head. That is against the rules, precisely because it leads to the sort of outcomes that everybody saw with Bernard. The league is trying to reduce concussions, and the rules were changed in 2013 to eliminate precisely those sorts of hits.

          As far as PFF grading, you see all the time where PFF disagrees with a ref call (DPI, roughing the passer) and a guy who receives a penalty in the game doesn’t get his grade lowered. Unfortunately it looks as if they didn’t do the opposite here- Shazier’s grade should have been lowered (and the positive grade from forcing a fumble negated) even though the refs held onto their hankies.

          • Madi

            When have you seen it called? On an open field runner.

          • anon76returns

            I don’t recall the last time I saw that blatant of a lead with the head tackle. Certainly that was the first I can remember since the rule went into effect for the 2013 season.
            It was blatant, it was against the rules, and it was clearly the sort of thing that leads to concussions, which the league is trying to reduce. It was a terrible non-call.

          • Madi

            “Never.” Got it.

          • anon76returns

            LOL!
            When was the last time you saw somebody drop his head and target another player’s head when making a tackle? Brandon Meriweather comes to mind-, he was not only called for the foul, but was repeatedly suspended for it.

          • Madi

            “Drop his head and target another player’s head” is your opinion. He was targeting the ball carrier. Tackling. What we know for sure is there was helmet to helmet contact on a ball carrier, and to answer your question, I see that ALL the time. Every game.

            The Meriweather comparison is perfect – for Burfict! Burfict’s hit on Brown is a lot like Meriweather’s hit on Todd Heap. Ball gone, defender saw the ball gone, and still angled towards player and delivered blow to the head. Malicious intent. You can’t possibly say the same about Shazier, who was tackling a ball carrier. A ducking of the head at the last minute doesn’t tell you jack about intent. Turning towards a defenseless receiver who doesn’t have the ball and still delivering a blow tells you lots about intent.

        • Stephen J Brady

          I don’t think it matters. All that matters is what was called on the field. We can’t start getting into maybes and what ifs.. Even “pickable” balls are borderline irrelevant. Especially when Cam Is throwing.

  • Izach

    I have no idea how Rey had a better grade than vontaze, no penalty could be enough to lower burficts grade that much, I’m unaware how many penalties he got, but I know they didn’t have as many as Pittsburgh did, and multiple flags weren’t on vontaze, he was a beast all offer the field often times the single defender to even make an impact on the play, sacks INTs, run stuffs, TFL, down field tackles, even doing other players job.

    • Madi

      “No penalty could be enough”?

      The Bengals are gonna win!

      *Burfict penalty*

      Bengals lose!

      That’s enough for me. I also think it’s fair to give Blair Walsh a negative grade on the day, despite being 3/4.

      • Izach

        Actually it was pacman who really messed it up, a 45 yard FG in rain with a 3rd string kicker isn’t a lock, pacman is to blame. Also his penalty was avoidable and unnecessary, vontazes happened during play. Beside without burfict steelers are up 30-0 no turn over no 3rd down sack on Ben, no Landry jones in the game going 3-out and multiple huge plays would have led to extended drives, as far as I kno vontaze got a -2 for the flag no way he was at 1.5 for the game before that last play, take away that last penalty and burfict was just as good if not better than ryan shazier and he got 9.5 grade.

        • Madi

          Holy cow. Are you saying Burfict’s penalty was anything but avoidable and unnecessary?? During a play or not, it was an intentional blow to the head of a defenseless player!

          We don’t even need to get into the field goal and penalty dynamics (Jones’ penalty wouldn’t have happened without Burfict’s, Burfict’s penalty gave the Steelers a chance they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise and Jones’ just made it easier, etc.). If you think Burfict’s hit was just a football play, we have nothing to talk about.

          As good or better than Shazier?? While you’re playing “What if” you might remember Shazier scored himself a TD that would have made it 22-0, and Burfict never gets that sack on Ben. The refs negated it with an erroneous whistle.

          • Izach

            Shazier hit on gio was worse than burficts hit on brown, shaper led with head, burfict with shoulder, he didn’t launch or extend, either if brown caught the ball he wouldn’t have got hit in the head either only reason it was a head shot was because he turned around after tipping ball.

            He’ll Deion sanders himself said it best after the show, vontaze even let up on the hit, and it could have been much MUCH worse. I don’t get sucked into the media driven story of vontaze, I actually watch the plays and see for myself, he’s no different than James Harrison or ryan Clark on that hit.

            Side note refs did royally mess up shaziers TD but at best that’s. +2 to his grade and burficts penalty is a -2 at worst that’s only 4pt differential but they have a 10pt difference between them. Take away both those plays and there is no way they were still that far apart

          • Madi

            Hmm, I guess I should have watched the play instead of only listening to the media. Thanks for the advice!

            Plus, if Deion Sanders of the media agrees with you, well that says it all.

          • Izach

            Lol see was that so hard to admit haha

        • Stephen J Brady

          Well, if he hadn’t shouldered Brown in the head WAY after the catch was missed, they would’ve won the game. He’s a thug and can’t control himself.

          • Izach

            Like I said before that hit is unavoidable, he’s not a thug, he’s just playing football ppl who otherwise have just never been in that situation, it’s clearly obvious Burfict let up on the hit, didn’t aim for his head, and led with shoulder not with head, save the thug label for player who deserve it like Odell Beckem, he’s a thug on the field, vontaze could be emotional but he wasn’t malicious in any way

          • Alex K

            That hit was intentional. Burfict didn’t even ATTEMPT to tackle Brown. Why? Cause he knew the play was over. Just a quick headshot to injure the Steelers best WR as they attempted to move into scoring position.

            Burfict should have been suspended after trying to injure Cam Newton and then again after lunging at Ben’s knees in the previous Bengals game.

          • Izach

            the hit was intentional sure, every defender intends to hit the WR, the head shot wasn’t, he doesn’t attempt a tackle because he wants to “lay the wood” to knock a ball out, so he’s going for the hit but last second he sees brown didn’t catch ball so he lets up and just runs by, but he already started going in for the big hit, if you watch brown he only gets the head shot because he turns around looking for the ball, if he makes the catch he curls up and vontaze getting square in the back and brown would probably have dropped he ball. Don’t buy into the media driven narrative, it’s a penalty it a fine, but it was unavoidable and just football. Everyone who’s mad at vontaze should just as if not more enraged with shaziers hit because it was helmet to helmet, and be even more upset about Odell from a couple weeks ago those hits were even more dangerous and even more preventable

  • Thomas Bell

    This may seem random and off topic, but shouldn’t Burfict have been penalized for running the ball into the tunnel….delay of game or taunting, etc.?

  • Josh Stewart

    Woohoo! Go Fitz