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Week 3 Winners/Losers: Talent Leads the Steelers Offense, Not the Coordinator

The Pittsburgh Steelers move to 3-0 behind a comeback performance on both sides of the ball. There's a lot of potential that's being missed, though.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-0 after another sloppy performance in Week 3. It definitely was not pretty, but the job got done and looking back, there was plenty to acknowledge - both good and bad.

This week's winners and losers have a bit of an underdog feel. As players got hurt and younger guys stepped into roles, the Steelers found success.

I'm not saying Ray-Ray McCloud's return ability or Anthony McFarland's 20-yard run handed the Steelers a victory, but it certainly provided some insight into how deep this team really is.


Eric Ebron

All week, the theme was, "when will Eric Ebron find his stride in Pittsburgh?" That question was answered in the first series of the Steelers Week 3 game, and it took off from there.

Ebron finished with five receptions for 52 yards and his first Steelers touchdown. He was clearly Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target of the afternoon.

What the Pittsburgh offense saw in Week 3 was just how effective having a mismatch like Ebron is. There wasn't a defender on the field who could cover him, and when Roethlisberger took advantage of it, the outcome was usually positive.

Ebron, Mike Tomlin, or Roethlisberger seemed very uninterested in the thought that the new tight end wasn't getting enough targets through the first two weeks. They all said he'll get his chances to contribute.

Well, he certainly got it.

This is the beginning of what could be a very dominant pairing between Ebron and Roethlisberger. It's been a long time since Big Ben had a tight end with the abilities of Ebron.

Expect this to continue into next week. And the fact that it's another AFC South team - a conference Ebron scorched for 14 touchdowns in 2018 - only leaves more optimism.

Anthony McFarland

Anthony McFarland was active for the first time in his short NFL career and proved quickly why the Steelers were right to take a chance on him.

He finished his first game with 42 rushing yards on six carries, showing explosiveness and the change-of-pace ability the Steelers needed.

"Sometimes, game circumstances don't allow certain roles to develop," Tomlin said. "We like the overall trajectory of his game. He's been working hard and practicing hard and having professional detail in his work. We had trust in his abilities."

What we saw from McFarland was exactly what the Steelers have been hoping Jaylen Samuels would become. A strong third-down runner who can go from three yards to 15 in a blink of an eye.

His burst up the sideline for 20 yards showed us everything we need to know about McFarland - he's fast. For a guy who's only leaned on to be that quick hitter back, he's the perfect fit for the Steelers.

Ray-Ray McCloud

Can we pick an over/under for how long it'll take Ray-Ray McCloud to take a return to the house?

When Diontae Johnson left in the second quarter with a concussion, McCloud took over as the team's return man and likely won the job for the remainder of the season.

For a 5'9, 190-pound receiver, McCloud was breaking tackles on the outside and up the middle. Add his speed to the equation, and every time he touched the ball, you thought he was breaking out.

This could be the start of something special. Johnson is shifty and explosive, but McCloud looks like a natural returner. There's no reason to remove him until proven otherwise.

Mike Hilton

It's going to be impossible for the Steelers to replace Mike Hilton if he leaves in free agency. People have said that all offseason and through three weeks of the regular season, but right now, it's very apparent how important he is to this defense.

In Week 3, Hilton led the team with eight tackles, including a tackle for loss, and found Deshaun Watson's only interception.

He's inevitably becoming the team's best cornerback and possibly their most impactful defensive back. He's also made the 'Winners' list three weeks in a row - and he's just getting started.

"[Hilton]'s a tough little football player," Tomlin said. "He's a football player first, a nickel second. He's good in the run game. He's solid in the passing game as well. And that provides a platform for him to be noticed in a variety of spaces."

Chuks Okorafor

Around the middle of the third quarter, I looked at the stat sheet and realized I almost forgot J.J. Watt was playing.

At one point, Watt moved to the other side of the field to try and take on Alejandro Villanueva and immediately regretted it. After a play, he bounced back over to Okorafor, only to find more of nothing.

When you have two brothers competing for sacks - against each other - you're going to have your hands full as an offensive lineman. J.J. wanted to have a better day than T.J., but Sunday afternoon was not the Texans' defensive end's day.

The third-year tackle is making a name for himself in the starting lineup. The Steelers would love to have Zach Banner still, but they weren't wrong when they said both Banner and Okorafor were starting material.


James Conner

For the second week in a row, James Conner has eliminated all noise about not being a feature back. While the nerves of an injury are still prevalent, back-to-back 100-yard performances will keep fans' minds away from talking about replacements.

Conner has torched defenses in the last two weeks, especially in the second half. The team relied on him over Benny Snell to seal the victory in Week 3, which he did for the second week at Heinz Field.

Conner has won a starting job on your fantasy football team, he's earned the respect of fans and coaches, and until something changes, the Steelers backfield is his.

It's time to stop talking about replacing James Conner and start appreciating the runner he is when he's on the field.

T.J. Watt

T.J. Watt is expected to find the quarterback at least once a game. A sack for the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year finalist is really a typical weekend.

This week, it was important to not only find Watson but finish with more sacks than his brother J.J., who was nowhere to be found.

There was a moment in the fourth quarter when Watt disrupted Watson's release as he hit him on the sideline, leading to a Hilton interception and basically the end of the game.

He walloped Watson so hard he shook himself up after the play. Trainers came over to assist him on the sideline, but it only lasted a few seconds before he was back with the defense. When you looked back on the hit, you saw that anyone would've been shaken up after hitting someone that hard.

The biggest victory of Watt's day was getting to play a game with both of his brothers. And, more importantly, getting to have a better day than J.J.

"I tried to soak it up as much as possible," Watt said. "It wasn't a normal week. I tried to, especially towards the end of the game, take a moment and be able to see the guy that I've looked up to my whole life, playing football with my brother J.J. Just to see him go to work on the football field with my own eyes is something that I'll never forget, and I'm truly grateful that I was able to share the field with my brothers today."

He finished with two tackles for loss and a sack while J.J. recorded four tackles. In the battle of the brothers are defensive end, the youngest came out on top.


Steven Nelson/Joe Haden

Say what you want about the late-game efforts of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, these two have been a weak spot for the Steelers defense.

The entire secondary outside of Hilton hasn't met the standard last season set for them. Until that changes, it's a concern the team will need to focus on throughout the week.

Maybe it's the speed they've faced in the first three games. Maybe it was the ability of Watson to extend plays. Or perhaps, Nelson and Haden are a step behind this season and need to get it figured out.

Randy Fichtner

It's very evident that the Steelers' largest offensive deficiency is their play-calling. And that all starts with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.

Fans have called for the end of Fichtner's time in Pittsburgh since he's taken the reigns in 2018. After three years, I'm ready to agree.

The Steelers' inability to realize screen passes weren't working was the first part of the problem. Having to use three quarters to find out Benny Snell Jr. is the power back you should be using on third, and one is the second part.

At some point, Mike Tomlin needs to discover what this offense looks like when quarterbacks coach Matt Canada is calling the plays. It doesn't mean Fichtner's role is over, but his gameplan should be less of him and more of Canada. 

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.