Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Steelers Trading Mike Tomlin to the Redskins is Crazy. Or Is It….?

If there’s one thing Pittsburgh Steelers fans hate more than a 1-4 start, it’s head coach Mike Tomlin.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, fans want to blame him for the team’s failures. That is certainly understandable right now, and those #FireTomlin hashtags have no doubt multiplied in numbers over the past few weeks, thanks to a horrible start to the 2019 season that has been aided greatly by the year-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Without No. 7 around to pick up so much of the slack, every coaching decision is magnified (see the intercepted Wildcat pass from the 12 yard line.)

And when you’re only winning 20 percent of your games, the people aren’t going to like what they see when they look under the microscope.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Redskins, FedEx Field 2016

Might Mike Tomlin don the sidelines at FedEx Field on a regular basis? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

This is going to be the greatest coaching challenge of Tomlin’s career, and trust me, few fans are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is (Devlin Hodges will start in place of the concussed Mason Rudolph as the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers on Sunday Night Football). It doesn’t matter how badly injuries have compromised his roster. If the 2019 regular season continues on its current downward trajectory, Steelers fans will put 100 percent of the blame on Tomlin’s shoulders and will want him gone.

  • Might Steelers fans get their wish this time? 

The Redskins, off to an 0-5 start, fired Jay Gruden last Monday, and almost immediately, rumors began to surface that Daniel Snyder, the team’s “Boy Billionaire” owner who Myron Cope once suggested should go stick his head in a can of paint, was extremely interested in Mike Tomlin as his team’s next full-time head coach.

That wouldn’t happen in the immediate future, of course, not unless the Steelers fire Tomlin mid-season, which would be extremely out of character for them. And with the way the Rooney family has treated its head coaches over the past 50 years, it’s unlikely that the likely first losing season of Tomlin’s tenure would lead Art II to consider a change at head coach.

  • But maybe Art Rooney II doesn’t have to fire Mike Tomlin.

Maybe they don’t have to deal with the ugliness of terminating a man who has won more consistently than any Steelers coach ever has over his first 12 seasons.

Mike Tomlin signed a one-year extension with the Steelers this past summer, which was a departure from the past, when the team would always give its head coaches two-year extensions. This quickly led to speculation that the organization wasn’t too pleased with Tomlin’s performance in recent years.

It’s certainly no secret that some minority Steelers owners aren’t the biggest Tomlin supporters, and when you couple that with the one-year deal, maybe the Rooneys are starting to consider another direction for the franchise.

But replacing a head coach is a messy process, especially for a team like the Steelers that hasn’t actually had to do it for over five decades — Chuck Noll retired in 1992; and Bill Cowher resigned in 2007.

And both of those were voluntary changes. The last time the Steelers fired a head coach was when Dan Rooney let Bill Austin go in late 1968, before man had even walked on the moon. 

However, if the Steelers can trade Tomlin’s rights to the Redskins for, say, a premium draft choice, that might be a different story. It’s no secret that Snyder isn’t afraid to over-spend for players and coaches, and while it seems ludicrous that he would part with a 2020 first-round pick that will surely be in the top five, you just never know with that boy billionaire owner.

It’s hard to say where these rumors started, but even though Tomlin dismissed them at his weekly press conference last Tuesday, they will likely persist until the Redskins hire a new head coach (veteran Bill Callahan was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season).

  • As for Steelers fans, these rumors are the kind of red meat they need right now.

1-4 starts are no fun for anyone, especially fans who love their football team as much as Steelers fans do. Steelers faithful need a distraction. They need something else to focus on besides the failures of the football team.

For some, the dismissal of Mike Tomlin as head coach has been something of a crusade since shortly after Super Bowl XLIII, when he supposedly won a championship with Bill Cowher’s players. (Why don’t we ever ask why Kevin Colbert only wins Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s players…? Just Say’in.)

When it comes to Mike Tomlin, one has to wonder where his mind is at right now. Despite his rough exterior and macho persona, the man is a human being. Fact is, he’s never been fully embraced by a large segment of the Steelers fan base. You can draw your own conclusions as to why, but that is a fact.

  • Does he want to stay in a city that has so much disdain for him?

Do you think he’s sick of hearing that he won a Super Bowl with another coach’s players? Do you think he’d relish the kind of autonomy he’d likely have in Washington, which would be a departure from the democracy that the Steelers organization has always been (even under The Emperor Noll)?

  • Do you think he’d feel flattered by the kind of money Daniel Snyder would no doubt throw at him?

Daniel Snyder isn’t an easy man to work for, and the Redskins, a once-proud franchise, have been an ongoing joke for a very long time. But money talks. Also, Mike Tomlin, like most head coaches, has a huge ego. You don’t think he’d like the challenge of turning the Redskins around? He wouldn’t have to deal with the criticisms of those who think he only benefited from the furniture that the last tenant left behind.

It would be his show. It would be his vision.

  • And for many Steelers fans, it would be a new era in Pittsburgh, one that they’ve been calling for for many years.

“It all starts with the coaches,” many fans are fond of saying. And, for so many, it begins and ends with the head coach. It’s never the players fault. The other team gets no credit.

If you have the right man in place, you’ll win. (Never mind that, when asked about the Steelers remarkable run of success since 1969, Dan Rooney always insisted that it started with the players.) 

According to many Tomlin critics, he’s never been the right man for the Steelers head coaching job.

  • Maybe the Rooneys are starting to feel the same way. Maybe Tomlin is, too.

Right now the tea leaf reading from several of the team’s most trusted beat writers, you know, guys who actually know and talk to the people whose opinions count on a regular if not daily basis, are telling us that the rumors are ridiculous. 

But come early January, Steelers Nation will find out if those rumors about Mike Tomlin to the Washington Redskins aren’t so crazy, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dice Roll: Steelers Cut Fred Johnson, Jayrone Elliott, Activate Trey Edmunds, Paxton Lynch

With Mason Rudolph and Jaylen Samuels ruled out for Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup against the Chargers, the Steelers cut Fred Johnson and Jayrone Elliott and activated Trey Edmunds and Paxton Lynch.

While there was some hope that he could play, as of this writing Mason Rudolph remains in the NFL concussion protocol. Rudolph could still be cleared, but the Steelers will start Devlin Hodges with Paxton Lynch backing him up.

Trey Edmunds,

Trey Edmunds in the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

This amounts to a minor bit of irony, as Paxton Lynch was the Denver Broncos first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Devlin Hodges spent opening day browsing the want ads after spending the summer on the Steelers training camp roster.

Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, has been with the Steelers since early 2018, after joining the practice squad when Le’Veon Bell began his hold out. The Steelers activated Trey Edmunds last season when James Conner got hurt. Edmunds appeared in 4 games on special teams but did not get a carry.

Trey Edmunds will backup James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., but could see action in the offense. Edmunds is a fullback by trade, and Roosevelt Nix has been declared out of the game.

Steelers Hope to Bring Back Johnson and Elliott But….

According to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers plan to bring back both Jayrone Elliot and Fred Johnson. That could very well happen, but the Steelers have had a bit of bad luck with cutting and resigning roster bubble players this season.

Before opening day the cut preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper, when they activated Johnny Holton, only to lose him on waivers to the New York Giants. They also planned to bring back wide receiver/kick returner Diontae Spencer to the practice squad, but he got claimed by the Denver Broncos.

  • Of the two, resigning Fred Johnson appears the higher priority.

Fred Johnson’s play in preseason was strong enough that some in the organization see him as a potential future starter. Given the aging Steelers offensive line and the dearth of draft picks to replace them, the Steelers need to stockpile potential where they can.

Finally, Steelers free agent corner Steven Nelson will not play, leading Artie Burns to see his first extended action since the beginning of the 2018 season.

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NFL Concussion Protocol be Dammed Steelers Should Sit Mason Rudolph vs Chargers

Twitter can be addictive. Which is why I don’t neither stay logged into it on my desktop nor my mobile devices. But yesterday afternoon a retweet caught me by surprise.

mason rudolph, mason rudolph nlf concussion protocol

Mason Rudolph practices while in Step 4 of NFL Concussion Protocol. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette via Twitter

The original tweet was from Matt Freed, a photograph from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It does of course show Mason Rudolph throwing the football at the Steelers practice facility on the South Side.

The fact that Mason Rudolph is able to go out and throw a football a few days after suffering a hit that knocked him unconscious is a welcome sign. The sight of Mason Rudolph laying there motionless as JuJu Smith-Schuster signaled frantically for the medical staff to take the field was harrowing.

  • Early word was that Mason was doing well, but was not talking to the press as he was in the NFL’s Concussion protocol.

Can players practice while in the NFL’s Concussion Protocol? Well, according to the NFL’s 5 step guidelines, they can. After a player has rested and proceeded through the light exercise phases of the protocol, he entered Step Four: Step Four: Football Specific Activities.

Per Joe Ruttner’s reporting in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Mason Rudolph not only threw, but was running reps with the scount team, which would put him in Step Five of the NFL’s Concussion Protocol which Step Five: Full Football Activity/Clearance.

In pure football terms this means that if Mason Rudolph can make it through a week’s practice without showing signs of a concussion, he and not Devlin Hodges could actually start for the Steelers on Sunday Night against the LA Chargers.

Given that the Steelers will take the field without Jaylen Samuels and James Washington and with other key starters such as Vance McDonald and James Conner already having missed portions of games with injuries, this is a welcome sign in pure football terms.

  • But football is not the only concern here.

Mason Rudolph’s long-term health is. I do not pretend to be an expert on concussions, but everything we know indicates that if a player has suffered one concussion they’re more susceptible to other concussions and this is at its highest immediately after a concussion has been suffered.

  • NFL Concussion Protocol be dammed, the Steelers should sit Mason Rudolph for the Chargers game no matter what.

Sit him out for a week. Give him the bye week off, and give him 3 full weeks before he’s exposed to the risk of another concussion. Mike Tomlin has always deferred to his medical staff when it comes to clearing an injured player to return. That is as it should be.

But concussions are different. Isaac Redman once admitted he lied while in the concussion protocol to return to play. Hines Ward once lashed out at Ben Roethlisberger for NOT lying about having headaches so that he’d be able to play. After retiring, Troy Polamalu admitted to having suffered far more concussions than had ever been publicly diagnosed.

One would hope that Mason Rudolph would be smart enough NOT to do that, but one never knows, which is exactly why the decision should be taken out of his hands.

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Steelers Can’t Get a Break: Jaylen Samuels Knee Surgery Sidelines RB #2 for a Month

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin dropped a bit of a bomb when he announced that running back Jaylen Samuels has his knee scoped and will be out for close to a month. Yes Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before, only in 2019 it is hitting theaters earlier.

To be fair to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers did at least attempt to upgrade their number 3 running back slot when they drafted  Benny Snell Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. Benny Snell only has 6 rushing attempts to his name, and while his 5 yard average might look impressive, 23 of those came on one run in the Steelers loss to Seattle.

  • Nonetheless, Benny Snell is now Steelers RB number 2 behind James Conner.

The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their practice squad and will likely activate him before Sunday Night’s game against the Chargers. The Steelers brain trust of course built the roster with Ben Roethlisberger in mind. But now they don’t even have the luxury of Mason Rudolph starting, as Devlin Hodges will get the nod this week.

Sadly, a Steelers Tomlin-era tradition of struggling to keep RB 1 and RB 2 healthy continues.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Steelers Cut Xavier Grimble

The Steelers also made another move prior to Sunday’s loss against the Ravens, when they waived tight end Xavier Grimble with an injury settlement. The move is slightly puzzling. The Steelers rarely wave players on injured reserve, as the last time they did so was when they cut Bruce Gradkowski in the fall of 2016.

Xavier Grimble had entered 2019 as the Steelers number 2 tight end, but that role appeared to be too big for him. Certainly Grimble, unlike Jesse James, wasn’t able to hold his own in Vance McDonald’s absence.

  • On paper the presence of Nick Vannett would appear to make Grimble expendable.

And restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, so the move makes salary cap sense for the Steelers. Still, if either McDonald or Vanett were to go down for an extended period, Grimble would have been available for the 2nd half of the season.

No one would have looked to Grimble as a savior in such circumstances, but at least he’d have brought more experience than Zach Gentry. With that said, it is entirely possible that Xavier Grimble asked for his release, as he’ll be free to latch on to another team.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens – F’s for Two Key Groups

Taken from the grade book of a furious teacher who watched in dismay as his students did well enough on the test to pass only to fail because THEY FORGOT TO PUT THEIR NAME ON THEIR papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mark Andrews hurdles Minkah Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph was 13 of 20 for one TD and no interceptions. The coaches took the training wheels off a bit, and Rudolph did OK, but his downfield accuracy left a lot to be desired. He made a phenomenal play just as he got KOed. Devlin Hodges entered the game and played far better than anyone had the right to expect him to. Grade: B

Running Backs
James Conner ran well, but his carries were limited. Jaylen Samuels didn’t run as well, and his interception while running the Wildcat was disastrous. Sure, he didn’t call the play that never should have been called, but he did throw the pass, and it went right to the Ravens. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 3 catches on 3 targets including one that set up James Conner’s touchdown. Nick Vannett had one pass thrown his way. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster again showed that he is a legitimate big play wide receiver catching all 7 passes thrown his way. James Washington reappeared, making 3 catches including two of great consequence. Diontae Johnson caught 5 passes but he fumbled the ball, which mercifully went out of bounds. While it’s not fair to scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster, there’s no sugar coating the fact that his fumble was fatal. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once and had good time to throw. The run blocking looked to be a little better, but it is hard to be sure because the Steelers really didn’t try to establish the run. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit in tackles, Cam Heyward had a sack, a tackle for a loss, and two more QB hits. Javon Hargrave had a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Baltimore ran the ball well coming into Pittsburgh. The defensive line slowed them down. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Devin Bush was second in the unit in tackles, and caught his first interception, even if it should have been overturned on replay it was a heads up play by the rookie. T.J. Watt added another sack and dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Bud Dupree had a sack in overtime. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton had a stand out game with an interception prior to the 2 minute warning. He also batted another pass away and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Kameron Kelly had an interception, and you didn’t hear the names of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds much. And that’s good. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers special teams gave up another long run, which didn’t result in points but it does highlight their weakness. Worse yet was the Steelers kick return team who averaged 15 yards per return. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return for 13 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect and Jordan Berry pinned the Ravens inside the 20 twice.

When your coach defers on the toss in overtime because he’s worried about how bad his return team is, things are bad. Grade: D

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
So, the Steelers go into a show down with a division rival, starting their backup quarterback who gets hurt three plays into the second half. Their 4th string quarterback comes on, leads a comeback, forces overtime, only for the Steelers to lose because of a fumble in OT.

  • So that’s a phenomenal reflection on the coaches. Right?

Well, yes it is, but it is also much more complicated. Mike Tomlin claims that the Steelers weren’t planning on deploying a gimmicky offense going into the game. Fine. Let’s take him at his word.

But the Steelers started the first two series using those gimmicks, and the Wildcat pass was a disaster which set up an easy 7 points for the Ravens.

  • Sure, the Steelers offense put up enough points to win given the circumstances.
  • Sure, the Steelers defense kept the team ahead in take aways and put in a strong effort.
  • Sure, the game turned on a fumble in overtime, which is decidedly NOT the coaches’ fault.

But Jaylen Samuels never should have been passing from the Steelers 12 yard line. Never. This is a case where one bad call is indeed a difference maker in a game. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He’s one of the few on that side of the ball with no premium draft or free agent pedigree. Fans and Twitter general managers regularly scheme to find ways to take him out of the lineup. But while he might not have the freakish athletic talent of some of his peers, he’s a hard hitter and he gives it all on every play.

Against the Ravens this player returned to the lineup with a vengeance, leading the team in tackles and notching a stat in just about every category save for an interception and, for that reason, Vince Williams is wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Ravens.

 

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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Mason Rudolph’s Competition Isn’t Ben Roethlisberger Its Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield

The 2019 regular season is four weeks old, and the Steelers are 1-3 and without their best player, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for the remainder of the year.

  • In Roethlisberger’s place is second-year man Mason Rudolph, and while he’s looked pretty decent so far, it’s obvious the shoes he’s trying to fill are enormous.

And that’s why, regardless of the hope one may have that the Steelers can actually recover from this shaky start and compete for the AFC North crown, how legit can they really be without their best and most important player?

Fair point. The position of quarterback is essential to success in the NFL. And when a quarterback’s status and level of play is truly at the franchise level, how he goes is how his team goes, and if he goes down….look out below!

Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2019 season

Mason Rudolph’s competition isn’t Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA Today, via BTSC

However, you might also say that, when discussing the position of quarterback, it’s all relative. What I mean by that is, where do the other franchise quarterbacks reside in the AFC in 2019?

Obviously, the great Tom Brady lives in the weak AFC East. The heir apparent to Brady’s throne as the most dominant quarterback in all the land, Patrick Mahomes, is wreaking havoc out in the AFC West. Philip Rivers, a veteran whose abilities and individual achievements have rivaled Roethlisberger’s since the two first came into the league in 2004, also calls the AFC West home.

Andrew Luck used to get top billing in the AFC South, but now he resides at home. Deshaun Watson has displayed franchise quarterback tendencies, so you might say it’s his turn to claim the top bunk in that division, but that division isn’t the AFC North.

  • And that’s the point of this piece.

If the Steelers were in any other division in the AFC, I wouldn’t like their odds at all of competing for anything but a decent draft pick in 2020 (which would actually be in the second round, since they just traded their first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick).

Obviously, Dalton, despite a decent enough career that may have been better had he not been with the Bengals, has long since proven he’s no franchise quarterback.

As for the youngsters in the division? While the hype surrounding both Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield has been at a franchise level, their play has yet to reach those heights….at least on a consistent enough basis.

With 1,110 passing yards, 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions, and legs that should be weaponized and have already carried him to 238 yards and another score, Jackson, a decorated college quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, appears to be on his way to the franchise level in only his second season.

As for Mayfield, who was the first overall pick by the Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft, he also appears to be well on his way to the elite level. Through 17 starts, he’s already passed for 4,872 yards, 31 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

It’s those 20 interceptions that may give one pause, however. Also, Mayfield and the Browns have gotten off to a slower start than anticipated in 2019, despite the Super Bowl hype that surrounded them in the offseason.

As for Jackson and the Ravens, who both looked unstoppable over the first two weeks playing against lesser competition, they’ve fallen back down to Earth these last two games and, like Cleveland, are 2-2.

Both Mayfield and Jackson have the draft pedigree (Jackson was also a first-round pick in the 2018 draft) and raw talent to make it as top level quarterbacks in the NFL.

But they’re not there yet. And while they both certainly have the edge in experience over Mason Rudolph, who will be making just his third-career start on Sunday afternoon, when the Steelers take on Lamarr Jackson and the Ravens in a very important Week 5 match-up at Heinz Field, the gap isn’t that great.

While a player like Tom Brady, with his experience and accomplishes, might seem light years ahead of Mason Rudolph, when it comes to Mayfield and Jackson and their time in the NFL, it’s like night and later that night.

While Mason Rudolph wasn’t one of the stars of the 2018 draft class of quarterbacks, he was occasionally in the discussion when talking about the ones who could actually become something at the pro level.

The jury is still out on Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick, but as the Steelers try to recover from their rocky start to the season and actually gain equal footing with the likes of Baltimore and Cleveland, it’s important to remember that the same can be said for both Jackson and Mayfield.

Mason Rudolph doesn’t have to match the play of a future Hall of Fame quarterback in 2019. He just has to run the same race as a couple of fellow 2018 draft picks.

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals – A’s for Achievement & Innovation

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down a full letter grade for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football 2019

Diontae Johnson catches a 43 yard touchdown in the Steelers win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph’s first start yielded a video game like passer rating of 124.6 as he completed 24 of 28 for two touchdowns and zero interceptions. But those numbers are a product of play calling designed to protect him. Rudolph made a few mistakes, but he also flashed some impressive play making potential. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner had the best night of the season by far, running for 4.2 yards per carry on 10 carries, and catching 8 passes. What was most impressive was the grit and determination which drove Conner, evident on his touchdown catch and another Red Zone carry. Jaylen Samuels operated the Wildcat for the Steelers to great effect. It was an unconventional evening for the Steelers, but one that worked. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry saw his first extended NFL action, and made a tremendous block on Jaylen Samuels touchdown. His effort combined with that of the other tight ends was critical to the Steelers success. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Any game plan that only sees JuJu Smith-Schuster targeted 4 times does not, by definition, feature the wide receivers. Diontae Johnson may have benefitted from a blown coverage, but if he continues to score touchdowns on deep passes, he will force opposing defenses to take note. James Washington remains nearly invisible in the Steelers offense, which is beginning to get worrisome. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
By his own account Mason Rudolph wasn’t touched. That’s saying something given that he tends to hold on to the ball a little longer than he should. The Steelers run blocking was better, as the line was particularly effective in springing the running backs on outside runs. Still, the failure on 4th and short is disturbing. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward spoke loudly during the week about the need for everyone to step up, and he spoke even louder on the field with 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for losses and 3 quarterback hits. All on an injured quad. Javon Hargrave got a sack and Stephon Tuitt hit Andy Dalton twice. An excellent night for the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Mark Barron ended the Bengals first entrance into the Red Zone by defending a pass and his interception blotted out any chance of a Bengals comeback. Devin Bush had his first sack and dropped 3 ball carriers for losses. T.J. Watt had a sack and a half, 3 quarterback hits and recovered the fumble on Bud Dupree’s strip sack that ended another Cincinnati trip to the Red Zone. The Bengals tight ends were a non-factor. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton was swatting passes like flies. Joe Haden almost had an interception. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson’s names weren’t heard much all of which were good signs. The Steelers front seven put the Bengals in several 3rd and long situations, and they only converted 5 of 17 of those, which is on the secondary. Grade: A

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
The Steelers returned no kicks, and the Bengals only returned two kickoffs to little effect. Jordan Berry boomed off two punts, averaging 49.5 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking including a 49 yard field goal. Grade: B+

Coaching
Keith Butler has taken a lot of grief for a long time. Much of it is understandable. The Steelers have 7 first round picks playing for them, and performance has not matched the investment of draft free agent capital.

  • But against the Bengals, the Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance.

Sure, right now Cincinnati looks like the NFL equivalent of a Junior Varsity team, but the Steelers defense should dominate under those circumstances. They dominated.

Randy Fichtner’s took a lot of heat before the game for his vanilla game plan against San Francisco, and then took heat for resorting to the Wildcat and other gimmicks to beat The Bengals.

  • Who cares?

The Steelers were playing without their fullback, without their number 1 tight end and with a first year starting quarterback in search of his first win. What was Randy Fichtner supposed to do? Alternate between the Wishbone and Run’n Shoot?

  • No. Instead, Fichtner came up with a game plan that did what it was supposed to do – score enough points to win.

Things get pretty bleak when you’re 0-3 NFL team, yet Mike Tomlin kept his players focused and did not shy away from innovating. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Six days before the Monday night game, this gentleman wasn’t even wearing a Steelers uniform. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he informed that the Steelers had been trying to get him in the Black and Gold for some time.

Now we know why. He literally walked in off the street to start for the Steelers in this game, and he made two critical catches as well as contributing to the blocking game. For that Nick Vannett wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Monday Night win over the Bengals.

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