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Five things we learned from Steelers 31, Packers 28

November 27, 2017 GMT

Five things we learned from Steelers 31, Packers 28:

1. The offense sizzled on third down and inside the red zone.

Keeping the chains moving on third down was an issue earlier in the season and contributed to the Steelers’ low scoring output throughout the first half. Against Green Bay that was no longer a problem.

The Steelers converted 8 of 13 third-down opportunities against the Packers, their most productive game of the season in that area.

The tone was set on a first drive in which Ben Roethlisberger completed passes to six players and targeted a seventh. A flip to Le’Veon Bell on third-and-1 gained 2 yards. Later in the drive, he found Jesse James for a 10-yard completion on third-and-6.

In the fourth quarter, an 11-yard pass to Eli Rogers on third-and-6 moved the chains, and Bell gained 11 yards on a third-and-1. This preceded Roethlisberger’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown that pushed the Steelers in front 28-21.

The Steelers also scored touchdowns on all three of their trips inside the red zone which enabled them to surpass 30 points for the second game in a row.

2. Joe Haden’s fractured fibula can’t heal quickly enough.

Cracks that were starting to form in the pass defense are now full-blown openings with water pouring through the founation.

A unit that ranked first in the NFL late in the first half of the season suddenly is giving up long touchdown passes at an alarming clip. Add three more to the ledger after Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley completed deep passes of 39 and 55 yards. The defense also gave up a 54-yard score when Jamaal Williams took a screen pass and ran unimpeded for a touchdown.

Keeping score, the Steelers have permitted six pass plays of at least 39 yards in the past three games. Five of those touchdowns have eclipsed 50 yards.

The big plays have coincided with Haden’s departure late in the first quarter at Indianapolis. Not all of the blame can be placed on his replacement, Coty Sensabaugh, even though he was beaten on the 55-yarder to Davante Adams early in the third quarter.

Artie Burns also struggled and was out of position when Reggie Cobb hauled in the 39-yarder and ran untouched into the end zone to give Green Bay a 7-6 lead in the first quarter.

The Steelers were fortunate to overcome the big plays against the Packers. They might not be so lucky when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots comes to Heinz Field in three weeks. A return by Haden by that point, even if unlikely, certainly couldn’t hurt.

3. Cam Heyward is making a strong Pro Bowl push.

The Steelers have intensified their push for Heyward, their defensive captain, to get year-end recogntion. They brought him to the podium for postgame interviews after the 31-28 win, a policy usually reserved for the likes of Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown.

It was a sign that they want singular attention focused on their standout defensive lineman. And with good reason. All Heyward did against the Packers was collect two more sacks and another quarterback hit. He also finished with six tackles.

A year after missing the second half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Heyward leads the Steelers with nine sacks, setting the standard for the rest of the defense.

4. The tight end remains a vital part of the passing game.

One game after James caught five passes for 21 yards and a touchdown, he caught three more balls for 32 yards against the Packers. Included was a third-down catch on the opening drive that led to a 1-yard touchdown pass to the forgotten tight end, Xavier Grimble.

With Vance McDonald missing another game because of an ankle injury, Grimble got 20 snaps and was the surprise choice for the shovel pass that resulted in the touchdown on fourth-and-1 on the opening series. Grimble took the toss and bulled into the end zone on just his second reception of the season.

5. The Steelers have found an unexpected source to return kicks.

It wasn’t the return of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint that sparked the improvement on kickoff returns. Rather, it was the unveiling of Martavis Bryant in the end zone that helped the Steelers get off to a good start.

Bryant joined Toussaint as the deep return men and took the opening kickoff 38 yards to give the Steelers prime field position. This led to the touchdown pass to Grimble and 6-0 lead.

Bryant’s return easily was a season best for a unit that specialized in the touchback. It was the first time Bryant had returned kickoffs since his college days at Clemson, and he had only started taking them in practice earlier in the week because of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hamstring injury.