Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Eagles

Everybody who was enraged when the Steelers passed on Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft to pick some wide receiver from Notre Dame, reveal yourselves.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let's focus on why the Steelers wake up today with a 4-0 record for the first time since 1979, which will bring us back to that non-Dobbins pick in the most recent draft, before turning the focus toward the most significant regular season Steelers-Browns game in maybe a generation.

But first, the path from 3-0 to 4-0 was navigated because an offense that had been along for the ride through large portions of the first three weeks of the regular season jumped behind the wheel and drove the car against the Eagles, And it was a good thing it did, because the defense hadn't played like that since the bad old days of 2018 when scoring 28-plus points in a game wasn't good enough three different times.

Against the Eagles, the offense was a model of consistency based on every significant statistical measurement, including this most significant one: the Steelers had nine possessions in the game, minus the one at the end where the idea was to kill the final 130 seconds while protecting a two-score lead, and on those nine possessions they scored on six of them – five touchdowns and a field goal.

Four of those touchdowns were scored by second-round pick Chase Claypool, with a fifth called back on one of a handful of awful calls by referee Ron Torbert and his crew. Maybe Claypool's career afternoon was made necessary by a first half back injury that sidelined Diontae Johnson, but there's no doubting the rapport he has developed with Ben Roethlisberger, a rapport that cast him as the go-to guy in quite a few of the game's significant moments.

Claypool finished the 38-29 victory with catches totaling 110 yards and three touchdowns, and he also ran the ball three more times and scored another touchdown. Of his seven receptions, six either converted third downs or ended up on the scoreboard, or both, and two of his three runs either converted third downs or ended up on the scoreboard, or both.

The most impressive of all the plays he made came on a third-and-8 from the Philadelphia 35-yard line in the fourth quarter with the Steelers clinging to a 31-29 lead. After the offense broke the huddle and lined up, Roethlisberger looked over the Eagles defense and then stepped away from the spot where he'd receive the snap. He obviously was changing the play, and once the ball was snapped Claypool was where he was supposed to be in order to be on the receiving end of a laser down the middle that became an icing-on-the-cake touchdown.

"That's a new formation we put in this week," explained Roethlisberger, "with Ray-Ray [McCloud] in the game, taking the back out, and we went to it a couple times today. So we expected them on that particular play to kind of go with an all-out blitz. We had a play called to get the ball out quick and hopefully try and beat the blitz. They sat back in a cover-2 zone, and it just wasn't what we expected. I saw that, and I changed the play. I think the coolest part about the whole thing is we've never run the play I called with that formation or that group on the field. So Chase [Claypool] has never been in that spot. Ray-Ray has never been in that spot. The other three kind of know what they were supposed to do, but, yeah, we changed the play, and I can't say enough about Chase getting down the middle of the field and kind of making that play for us."

It was the type of offensive performance the Steelers are going to require moving forward through a schedule that could require them to out-score some of the high-powered offenses in five upcoming games against the Ravens, Browns, and Cowboys. And first things first, it will be the Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field.

Going into the weekend's games, the Browns were the NFL's most prolific rushing team, were ranked fourth in points per game, and tied-for-second in red zone efficiency. In their 32-23 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday, they scored two touchdowns and kicked two field goals on their first four possessions, finished the game with 124 yards rushing, converted 10-of-17 (59 percent) on third downs, and were 2-for-4 in the red zone.

The Steelers defense came into the weekend ranked 19th in the NFL in third-down conversions allowed, and the unit did absolutely nothing against the Eagles to improve that. In fact, things almost certainly got worse after Philadelphia converted 10-of-14 (71 percent), which went a long way in helping the Eagles climb back from a 31-14 deficit to a place where a successful field goal would have put them in the lead late in the fourth quarter.

As dynamic as Claypool was in the game, the Steelers defense seemed to be an enabler for Travis Fulgham's candidacy for a spot in the next Pro Bowl. Fulgham caught 10 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. Five of Fulgham's receptions converted third downs, and one of those third-down conversions was good for his touchdown.

"It was a hodge-podge of things," said Coach Mike Tomlin when asked about his defense's issues on third down. "First, I want to compliment (the Eagles.) They had a good plan, a good execution of plan. They had guys like No. 13 (Travis Fulgham) stepping up and making combat catches. We had guys in position. They made some plays. They made some plays on the football. Carson (Wentz) made some throws. He stood in there in the face of adversity and made some throws. I don't want to discredit them entirely. Could we be better? Certainly. We had a roughing the passer. We gave up a ball down the middle on a long yardage situation. We had things we need to focus on and do better, but I'd be remiss if I didn't compliment them for their plan, and also the execution of the plan in some of the areas that I mentioned."

Hodge-podge is a good description of the defense's performance throughout. On the plus-side, there were five more sacks, 11 more hits on the quarterback, and a couple of interceptions. But that was balanced by the 71 percent conversion rate allowed on third downs. There was a 74-yard touchdown run by Miles Sanders, but that was balanced by him gaining only 6 yards on his other nine carries. There were touchdown drives allowed that covered 75, 76, 75, and 80 yards, but then there was a second half that began and ended with takeaways.

Next week, the Steelers will be stepping up in class against a Cleveland offense that will pose their defense's stiffest test, and hodge-podge doesn't seem like it will be good enough to get the job done. But while the Steelers will be working on their defensive deficiencies and plotting how to contain the Browns, Cleveland also will have some issues facing their own defense.

One of those will be how to handle a 6-foot-4, 238-pound wide receiver who can run you over or run by you, and whose rapport with the franchise quarterback is getting stronger every week.

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