Steelers Safety Morgan Burnett Is Reportedly Seeking His Release


It was first reported on Saturday by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network and NFL.com that Morgan Burnett, the veteran safety the Steelers signed last March, wants released from his three-year deal in time to shop around for another team in free agency this March.

“Spoke with #Steelers S Morgan Burnett, who tells me he wants released from his deal before free agency. During his time in Pittsburgh, he felt he played out of position as a dime LB. Burnett, with 2 yrs left on his contract, wants a new start & a chance to play safety again.”

That Tweet from Rapoport obviously means his source isn’t a Steelers insider or just an anonymous source. It’s Burnett, himself, which means the report is legit.

Does this mean the Steelers will grant Burnett his wish?

It’s easy to see where the veteran safety is coming from, especially after Pittsburgh unexpectedly drafted Terrell Edmunds, also a safety, in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft just weeks after Burnett was brought into the mix. However, Burnett, who just turned 30 on January 13, certainly didn’t help his cause for playing-time, missing five games due to injury during the regular season–including Week 1 vs. Cleveland.

Burnett, a strong safety by trade, wants to find a team where he can play the role that best suits him.

Burnett seemed destined for the strong safety position last year, which ultimately led to Sean Davis, in his third season out of Maryland, switching to free safety, following the release of Mike Mitchell last spring.

But following the drafting of Edmunds, the Steelers made no secret of their plans to utilize their safeties more in dime linebacker roles, especially after failing to land one of the young, stud inside linebackers who could have taken the place of Ryan Shazier after Shazier suffered a catastrophic spinal injury near the end of the 2017 campaign.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, by releasing Burnett, who signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal, the Steelers would free up over $3 million in cap space, while also taking a $2.8 million hit in dead cap money.

To his credit, Edmunds did start 15 games in his rookie season, and while he did appear to struggle a ton and was mostly unspectacular, it’s hard to envision the Steelers holding him out of the lineup in 2019 in favor of a veteran who also made little impact in 2018.

Therefore, it’s easy to envision the Steelers granting Burnett his wish of being released.

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Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Mike Tomlin Can’t Win With His Own Super Bowl Talent, Just Bill Cowher’s

You know the old refrain by now. Yes, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach since 2007, has won a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLIII, following the 2008 season), but he won that Super Bowl with the talent bequeathed to him by Bill Cowher, who passed on to the great network in the sky and became an NFL studio analyst for CBS.

  • You see, Mike Tomlin never has been and never will be a great coach with great game-day abilities.

He simply stepped into the perfect situation with so much stock-piled talent (and let’s not forget about a coaching staff that included Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator), and not only did he auto-pilot Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm, he road the team’s coattails to another Super Bowl appearance two years later.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

Unfortunately, after Mike Tomlin squeezed every last ounce out of Bill Cowher’s players and coaching staff, he’s been unable to duplicate the same success with his own talent and a coaching staff that he mostly hand-picked. (By the same token, Kevin Colbert is only able to win Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s talent, but that’s another rant.)

You know the old refrain by now. Despite having Super Bowl-level talent–the very best talent in the league, they say–all of these years, Mike Tomlin has wasted the latter portion of Ben Roethlisberger’s career by failing to bring home a seventh, eighth and possibly even a ninth Super Bowl.

Many say that Mike Munchak, the Steelers universally loved and respected offensive line coach, should replace Tomlin as head coach. Why? Look at what he did as head coach of the Titans. Over a three-year period, Munchak some how, some way managed to squeeze 22 wins out of a roster that wasn’t nearly as talented and Super Bowl-capable as the one Mike Tomlin has had to work with since he exploited Bill Cowher’s talent and then hand-picked his own awesome talent.

What about that John Harbaugh, the tough-as-nails head coach of the Ravens? Sure, he’s only made the playoffs twice and has just one postseason win since guiding his team to a Super Bowl victory following the 2012 campaign. But look at the inferior talent Harbaugh has had to work with all these years.

  • Let’s be real, has the Ravens roster been as fully-stocked with Super Bowl talent as Pittsburgh’s?

Of course not. No team in the NFL has been able to assemble the level of talent the Steelers have put together in recent years. As has already been established, Pittsburgh’s roster is really, really talented–the best in the league, they tell me.

All of these other head coaches–Harbaugh, Munchak, heck, even Bill Belichick–have been doing more with less, while Mike Tomlin has–and I simply can’t emphasize this enough–done less (much, much less) with more.

What does this all mean? I think it’s obvious. It means Mike Tomlin has been a fraud all along, and once Bill Cowher’s Super Bowl talent pool ran dry, he was exposed for his coaching incompetence, this despite once again having Super Bowl-level talent.

If Mike Tomlin can’t do more than he’s done with all of this Super Bowl talent, the Rooney family owes it to the fans to find a coach who will step right in and guide this incredible roster–the very best in the NFL, I hear–to a title.

That’s right, the Steelers need a man who can take Mike Tomlin’s players — the very best the league has to offer –and win a Super Bowl with them.

It would be the perfect situation for any head coach to step right into.

 

 

 

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Art Rooney II on Antonio Brown’s Future in Pittsburgh. Did the Steelers President Tip His Hand?

Art Rooney II spoke with Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on the Antonio Brown situation, and while the Steelers President didn’t close the door on Antonio Brown remaining in Pittsburgh, he left little doubt about which way that door was swinging.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown future with Steelers

Happier times. Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown announcing his 2017 contract extension. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via the Washington Post

Art Rooney II made it clear the Steelers were not going to release Antonio Brown outright, but he also clarified that the team would not be hamstrung by the salary cap implications of trading him. But perhaps his most telling quote came when Dulac asked him about Brown coming to St. Vincents:

Asked if it would be hard or easy to envision Brown being at training camp in Latrobe, Rooney said, ‘As we sit here today, it’s hard to envision that. But there’s no sense on closing the door on anything today. There’s snow on the ground. We don’t have to make those decisions right now.’

Mind you, this came from a man who once wrote off Antonio Brown’s “Facebook Live” incident as a “minor annoyance.”

None of this is surprising. When asked if Antonio Brown quit on his team, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin offered no objections. And for those savvy enough to decode press reports, it is pretty clear that the Steelers are open to trading Antonio Brown.

  • And there’s a strong argument to be made for the Steelers-Brown divorce.

Abandoning your teammates is not a trivial offense. The Steelers cut LeGarrette Blount outright when he walked off the field during the Steelers 2014 win over the Tennessee Titans when coaches indicated that Le’Veon Bell would remain in the game. While the situation was a little different, James Harrison did the same in 2017 and the Steelers cut him at Christmas.

Ben Roethlisberger has spoken publicly about the incident, denied any friction between him and Brown in an effort to remain open to Brown coming back. Cam Heyward said he wanted Brown to remain a Steeler, but also made clear that Brown’s behavior is unacceptable. Fair enough, but while Roethlisberger and Heyward’s opinions count, neither man has decision-making authority.

Art Rooney does, and he’s made clear he’s ready to use it.

  • But the question must be asked, did Art Rooney II go too far and tip the Steelers hand?

This might be overthinking things, but if working closely with sales representatives who put together multi-million dollar deals has taught me anything, it is to never let on how much you want to buy or sell.

  • Did other NFL teams know that the Steelers might be considering trading Antonio Brown before Art Rooney II acknowledged it? Of course they did.

But being open to trading someone and wanting to ship someone out are two different things. Scarcity creates demand, and if the Steelers are seen as wanting to trade Brown, then it could make it harder to get fair value for him.

  • If that sounds silly, think of the position the Steelers were in last season with Martavis Bryant.

Martavis Bryant, despite under performing, despite the Steelers having stood by him through various suspensions, wasn’t happy to have to compete with JuJu Smith-Schuster for playing time, and demanded “I want mines.” He then took to Twitter to demand a trade. The Steelers stood firm and refused to entertain offers.

At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine Kevin Colbert took things a step further declaring:

Martavis was never offered in a trade. Teams have inquired about his availability. Because of media reports, we’ve quickly dismissed that and said he’s not available.

And then of course during the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers turned around and traded Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick, and used it to draft Mason Rudolph. Why did the Steelers change their mind?

Because Jon Gruden knew Pittsburgh wanted to keep Martavis Bryant, he offered them a deal that was too good to turn down.

  • Different dynamics drive the Antonio Brown situation.

What Martavis Bryant did in 2017 was out of line; Antonio Brown turned his back on his teammates in their “darkest hour,” and then had the nerve to test his coach by showing up and trying to force him to play him.

A year ago saying that Bryant wasn’t available via trade was simply saying, “We have a guy on a rookie contract who we think can still contribute.”

In contrast, imagine if Art Rooney II had said something like, “Obviously, this is a serious situation, but Antonio is part of the Steelers family. And you know how the saying goes, you praise you family in public, and admonish them in private. We’ll take care of things in house.” He’d have made himself look weak to the rest of the league. Worse yet, he’d have revealed himself as weak to the entire organization.

  • Instead, Art Rooney II has done the opposite. He has made clear that Antonio Brown isn’t going to dictate to the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization.

That’s the right posture to take. Hopefully his public stance won’t compromise the Steelers ability to demand trade terms that deliver fair value for shipping out a Hall of Fame talent out of Pittsburgh.

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Steelers Fire Joey Porter. Mike Tomlin Makes First of Several Anticipated Coaching Changes

In his postmortem press conference Mike Tomlin promised changes and is not waiting long to implement them. The Steelers announced that they will not renew outside linebacker Joey Porter’s  contract, effectively firing him.

  • Joey Porter of course played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006.

In fact, one of Mike Tomlin’s first decision upon becoming head coach was to let Joey Porter go a move, that while controversial at the time, paved the way for James Harrison to join the starting line up.

The Steelers went on to draft Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the 2007 NFL Draft (Lawrence Timmons was initially drafted as an outside linebacker, per the Steelers 2007 Media Guide.)

Joey Porter, steelers fire Joey Porter

Joey Porter during Steelers 2018 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via PennLive.

One of the reasons why Mike Tomlin parted ways with Joey Porter was because of an altercation that he reportedly had with Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers 8-8 Super Bowl hangover induced season following their victory in Super Bowl XL.

However, in February 2014 Mike Tomlin reversed course and brought Joey Porter back to Pittsburgh naming him as a “defensive assistant.” A year later when Mike Tomlim promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, Joey Porter got promoted to outside linebackers coach while Jerry Olsavsky was also promoted to inside linebackers coach.

Jarvis Jones never developed into a player, Bud Dupree has improved since his rookie year, but the consensus is that he still relies more on athleticism than refined skill. T.J. Watt appears to be blossoming into a legitimate Super Star.

  • Joey Porter’s return to the Steelers did not come without controversy.

After the Steelers January 2017 win playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, Porter was caught in a highly public altercation with a South Side bouncer.

A year earlier, Joey Porter presence on the field while doctors were attenting to Antonio Brown helped prompt Adam PAC Man Jones to touch an official, resulting in a 15 yard penalty, that set up Chris Boswell’s game winning field goal (remember those?) in the Steelers playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal with a Disruptive Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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