The Pittsburgh Steelers experienced two late-season losses in a row when they were defeated by the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers (Weeks 12 and 13), but on Alumni Weekend, not everything was a wash. There are still some positives to be taken away from Sunday night's game regardless of the final score. Many of the stats that stood out highlight personal achievements that have helped the Steelers, as a team, to be as successful as they have been to this point in the 2018 NFL regular season.
Conner joins Harris, Bettis in Steelers history
James Conner has continued to have a strong second season as Pittsburgh's number one running back. It seems appropriate that on Alumni Weekend, while the Steelers franchise celebrated the anniversaries of Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XLIII at Heinz Field with many past players that Conner would join Franco Harris (1979) as the only players in franchise history with at least two rushing touchdowns in five games in a single season. Conner also joined Jerome Bettis (Nov. 3, 1996) as the only Steelers players with two rushing scores in the opening quarter of an NFL game, dating back to 1991.
Conner, who totaled 74 yards from scrimmage (14 receiving, 60 rushing), scored two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter. Those runs into the end zone increased his season total to 13 scores (12 rushing being the fifth-most rushing touchdowns by a Steelers player in a single season in team history). Conner has become the first Steelers player since 2010 (Rashard Mendenhall: 13) to record a minimum of 12 rushing touchdowns in a season.
Conner hasn't just been strong in the run game, however. On Sunday, he increased his 2018 reception total to 52 - the fourth-most receptions by a Steelers running back in a single season.
Offensive line getting it done
Offensive linemen rarely get many accolades. That's a shame, really, because Pittsburgh's offensive front has been performing at a high level in 2018. It hasn't just been Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and David DeCastro. Matt Feiler, Chukwuma Okorafor, and B.J. Finney have stepped in as needed and shown how well Mike Munchak has developed this squad.
The line gave Ben Roethlisberger all the time in the world to run the offense on Sunday, only allowing one sack on the night to the Chargers. They've only allowed 17 sacks all season (tied with the 2016 NFL season). Those 17 sacks allowed rank the line positively at No. 4 in the NFL through 13 weeks behind the New England Patriots (16), Indianapolis Colts (14), and New Orleans Saints (13).
The offensive line has done a good job protecting Big Ben and are ranked No. 2 (behind the Saints) in lowest quarterback hits allowed (45) and have allowed Steelers rushers to gain 1,117 combined yards on 263 attempts.
On Sunday, receiver Antonio Brown broke a tie with Hines Ward (6) for the most 1,000-receiving yard seasons in team history by recording ten catches for 154 yards (15.4 yards-per-catch average) and a touchdown against the Chargers. It is Brown's seventh such season in his NFL career (sixth consecutive) reaching the 1,000-receiving yard mark (dating back to 2013). Those six consecutive seasons is the longest in Steelers history (Ward, 4, 2001-04) and tied him for the 10th-longest streak in NFL history.
Speaking on another squad that often gets overlooked, the defensive line for the Steelers has seen marked improvement as the season has progressed and part of that has been a result of the play of Javon Hargrave at defensive tackle. On Sunday, Hargrave brought Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers down for a sack (loss of four yards), increasing his single-season career total to 6.5 sacks and quarterback takedowns to 10.5. The sack in Week 13 moved Hargrave ahead of Gerald Williams (6.0, 1990) and Gary Dunn (6.0, 1982 and 1983) as the franchise leader at nose tackle with the most sacks in a single season (since the stat became officially recorded).
Continuing with the defensive line, end Cameron Heyward registered four tackles (one solo), two quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss against the Chargers. Heyward has 299 combined tackles on his career through Week 13; he has 36 on the 2018 season alone. Heyward also has 6.0 sacks on the season, 43 in his career.
Undrafted free agent L.J. Fort (University of Northern Iowa, 2012) has emerged in 2018 as a linebacker the Steelers can rely on to be aggressive in his play. On Sunday, Fort led all Steelers defenders with a game-high 12 tackles (nine solo). Fort is ranked fourth on the team with 35 combined tackles (30 solo) and blocked a Chargers punt in the second quarter of the game.
Pittsburgh held Los Angeles to a total of two rushing yards in the first half of Sunday night's game. That total tied the defense as the third-fewest rushing yards allowed by a Steelers defense in the first half of a game at Heinz Field since the stadium opened in 2001. The three previous games that the Steelers defense held opponents to two or fewer rushing yards in the opening half of a game include: Nov. 15, 2015 - Cleveland Browns (-6 yards), Oct. 31, 2004 - New England Patriots (-1 yard), and Oct. 29, 2001 - Tennessee Titans (2 yards).
The Steelers’ two rushing yards allowed in the first half tie as the sixth-fewest allowed by Pittsburgh’s defense in the first half of a regular-season game dating back to 1991.