Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Patriots Punk Out Steelers 33-3 in 2019 Season Opener @ Gillette

So much for the Steelers catching the Patriots at just the right time, huh?

Tom Brady completed 24 of 36 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns, as the Steelers opened up their 2019 regular season with a 33-3 blow-out loss at Gillette Stadium.

The Steelers defense started the game by forcing a New England punt; after that, it was all offense all the time for the Patriots, as they scored on seven of their next eight possessions.

  • The first came via a 20-yard touchdown catch and run by Josh Gordon to make it 7-0.

Like they normally do, the Patriots methodically built a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Needing to establish momentum, Pittsburgh’s offense faced two key short-yardage situations.

Philip Dorsett III, Kameron Kelly, steelers vs patriots

Philip Dorsett III scores as Kameron Kelly, watches. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

The first came with 7:46 left in the second quarter. Facing a third and one from their own 44, the Steelers tried a pitch out to running back James Conner, who subsequently lost four yards, forcing a punt.

Not surprisingly, the Patriots marched 80 yards on eight plays and took a 17-0 lead with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Phillip Dorsett III.

The Steelers were faced with another short-yardage situation on their following drive–this time a fourth and one from the New England 47. Unfortunately, Donte Moncrief couldn’t hold on to a catchable pass, and the Patriots closed out the quarter with a Stephen Gostkowski 41-yard field goal to make it 20-0 at the half.

The Steelers had their best drive to open the second half, with the key play coming on a 45-yard pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver James Washington that set the offense up at the New England 18. One play later, Moncrief dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Five plays later, the Steelers faced a third and goal from the one, but a fade pass from Roethlisberger to Moncrief fell harmlessly incomplete. Instead of going for it, however, the Steelers settled for a Chris Boswell 19-yard field goal to make it 20-3.

  • Four plays later, it was over, as Brady found Dorsett for a second touchdown–this time from 58 yards out–to make it 27-3.

For the night, Roethlisberger completed 27 of 47 passes for 276 yards and one interception. Juju Smith-Schuster, in his first game as the team’s number one passing target, had six catches for 78 yards, while Washington caught two for 51 yards. As for Moncrief, he did manage to catch three passes, but for just seven yards.

  • The Patriots defense shut down Pittsburgh’s ground game, as Conner managed just 21 yards on 10 carries.

As for the Steelers defense, it looked as helpless as ever against Brady and Co., as it allowed 465 total yards. The Patriots were seven of 14 on third downs, and Brady was only sacked one time.

Next up for the Steelers is the home-opener at Heinz Field, as the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh for a 1 p.m. kickoff next Sunday afternoon.

 

 

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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All In: Steelers Resign Joe Haden. Its Both a Risk and the Right Move

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 off season by extending cornerback Joe Haden’s contract by 3 years. The new deal is for 32 dollars and includes a 16.2 signing bonus.

  • It says here that the Steelers resigning Joe Haden is the right move, but one that carries some risk.

Before explaining why, let’s fess up and eat a slice of humble pie. When Cleveland unexpectedly released Joe Haden this time two years ago, yours truly published a missive titled “Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?.” The Steelers had struggled to find quality quarterbacks and had made a series of attempts at rehabilitating other team’s cast offs.

Those efforts included trading with Cleveland to get Justin Gilbert a year earlier, a move that ultimately failed.
This is one time when a blogger is pleased as punch to be wrong.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Steelers immediately inserted Joe Haden into the starting line up, and Joe Haden became an immediate leader of the group. People forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half of 2017, as the Steelers defense carried the team to a 7-2 record.

  • Joe Haden’s presence made that possible.

Joe Haden gave the Steelers what they have craved since Ike Taylor began to fade – a quality cornerback. But he also became a leader both on and off the field. Indeed, while most outsiders peg the demise of the Steelers defense to Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion suffered in Cincinnati, the Steelers defense had actually begun to slip when Joe Haden got injured against the Colts.

  • Perhaps most importantly, Joe Haden gave the Steelers secondary, and in fact the entire defense something it has lacked – playmakers.

The best example of that came last season during the win over the New England Patriots, when Joe Haden made a leaping catch to intercept Tom Brady in the Red Zone. That’s exactly the type of defensive spark the Steelers have needed in games like that, but been unable to find.

Opportunity Costs and Risks

Every long-term contact signing contains risks and carries opportunity costs. Joe Haden is 30 years old, and cornerback is a young man’s game. Ike Taylor was 31 years old when he signed is 3rd contract from the Steelers, and while Ike delivered two solid years of play, he began to slip in 2013 and by 2014 he was done.

  • Likewise, the decision to sign Joe Haden means that the Steelers will not be able to extend the contracts of Sean Davis or Javon Hargrave who are both 25.

While Sean Davis is injured, and still must deliver, Javon Hargrave played exceptionally well down the stretch in 2018 and figures to the type of season that will allow him to cash in as a free agent.

But given the fact that the Steelers have had far better luck at replacing quality defensive lineman than then have had with replacing quality NFL cornerbacks, it is a wise risk to take.

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Guess Again: No, Steelers Didn’t Cut Diontae Spencer In Favor Of Ryan Switzer

Like every other NFL team, the Steelers had to reduce their roster down to 53 players on Saturday in the annual league-wide mandated cut-down day.

  • There weren’t any shockers, for sure, but there may have been a mild surprise or two.
  • One cut that may, I say, may, have shocked some people was the cutting of CFL punt-return sensation, Diontae Spencer.

After putting together a couple of All-Star worthy seasons up in Canada, many believed Diontae Spencer could be the answer to Pittsburgh’s less-than-stellar punt return game over the past couple of seasons. Yes, with now former receiver Antonio Brown getting phased out of that part of the game over his final few seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers just couldn’t find anyone to bring the occasional spark to punt returns like Brown did.

Ryan Switzer was decent enough in 2018, after Pittsburgh acquired him in a trade with the Raiders right before the start of the regular season, but Spencer’s resume suggested he could be a level or two above merely decent.

And while he wasn’t the story of the preseason, Diontae Spencer did show enough in two or three of his punt returns to make it clear that he was the closest thing to a true play-maker, difference-maker, that the team had on its roster.

But Diontae Spencer’s talents in the return game weren’t enough to keep him on the roster, especially when he was so limited as a receiver and, at 5’8″, 163 pounds, a gunner-type player on special teams.

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer
Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

 

It also didn’t help Spencer’s case that the Steelers only kept five receivers. That is what really doomed him. It wasn’t a matter of Pittsburgh keeping Switzer over Spencer. It was a matter of camp sensations such as outside linebacker Tuzar Skipper and inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III simply being way too good to cut or risk signing to the practice squad.

If the special teams abilities of Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo were deemed to be very valuable despite the limitations each displayed at their respective positions, sacrifices were going to have to be made elsewhere, hence the decision to part ways with a one-trick pony punt-returner.

When you really think about it, under no circumstances would a player as limited as Spencer make a receiving corps made up of just five players. If Switzer was suddenly considered disposable, it’s unlikely Spencer would have been the first receiver to get the nod as the fifth. My guess is Johnny Holton, who brought much more to the table as both a receiver and an all-around special teams player, would have gotten the nod.

  • Is Ryan Switzer less spectacular as a return man than Spencer was during his short stay?

Yes. But he’s much more capable as a receiver (and it also doesn’t hurt that Ben Roethlisberger has endorsed his abilities). You also have to remember that Diontae Johnson, a rookie receiver the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, may yet grow into the role of punt returner while he hones his game at his actual position.

  • Finally, while the role of punt returner is a valuable one, it’s not nearly as valuable as that of a player who can wear many hats.

Diontae Spencer wore just one hat in Pittsburgh, and that’s why he’s out shopping for another NFL team.

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Saying Goodbye: Steelers Cut Eli Rogers, Trade Jerald Hawkins to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their roster cut downs yesterday and while Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not unload any major surprises on the fan base, the team did part way with two veterans.

  • The biggest and perhaps most difficult move was the decision to cut veteran wide receiver Eli Rogers.

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, spent the year on injured reserve, and emerged as their starting slot receiver by the end of training camp in 2016. By season’s end, Eli Rogers was their defacto number 2 wide out.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That role was probably a step too big for Rogers, but no one can deny that Rogers 48 catches and 3 touchdowns equaled phenomenal production for a player that few fans had even heard of going into August. In 2017 Eli Roger’s production dipped, thanks largely to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant‘s presence, but Eli Rogers played extremely well in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on all five attempts.

However, Eli Rogers did well grabbing 12 of 14 balls thrown his way during the season’s final 3 weeks, as Rogers gave the Steelers a legitimate 3rd wide receiver. Going into training camp, Eli Rogers was seen as competing with Ryan Switzer for a roster spot. While this writer asserts that Eli Rogers is a better wide out than Switzer, Switzer is a better return man, and with James Washington and Donte Moncrief that’s a trade off the Steelers can afford to make.

Steelers Trade Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay

The Steelers also traded Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay, exchanging a 7th round pick and Hawkins for Tampa Bay’s 6th round pick. The Steelers of course drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hawkins had a strong training camp, only to get injured in the Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints.

Hawkins would be back in 2017, only to get injured in spring practices in 2018. Word was he was not fully recovered going into 2019 and effectively found himself behind undrafted rookie free agents.

Credit Kevin Colbert for getting a 6th round pick for a player that the Steelers were going to cut anyway.

Other Steelers Who Got a Visit from “The Turk”

The Steelers cut a host of other players to reach the roster limit. Those cuts included:

Quarterback:
Devlin Hodges

Running Backs:
Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian and Malik Williams,

Wide Receivers:
Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, Eli Rogers and Diontae Spencer

Tight Ends:
Micky Crum, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Trevor Wood

Offensive Line:
Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassanauer, Patrick Morris and Damian Prince

Defensive Backs:
Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jhvonte Dean, P.J. Locke and Trevon Mathis

Linebackers:
Jayrone Elliott, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Sutton Smith and Robert Spillane

Defensive Linemen:
Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles and Conor Sheehy

Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry held off their respective  challenges from Matthew Wright and Ian Berryman.

Marcus Allen, Derwin Gray, Trey Edmunds, Patrick Morris, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Robert Spillane have already returned to the Steelers practice squad. One spot remains open, and Jim Wexell points out, it could be filled by either Sutton Smith or Johnny Holton.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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How I Learned of Rocky Bleier’s Incredible Comeback Story

Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.

The Super Steelers were a national phenomenon. Growing up as the child of “Pittsburgh Expats” in the Washington DC suburbs, names like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris (although I thought his name was Frank O’Harris) and Jack Lambert were well known to me before Super Bowl XIII, which is the first Super Bowl I’m old enough to remember.

Rocky Bleier, Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier comeback

Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:

Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”

  • That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.

But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.

My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):

“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.

In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.

  • After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.

My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.

While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)

  • I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.

I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.

Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.

  • Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.

Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”

When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.

In 1976, Rocky Bleier ran for 1030 yards, during a 14 game season, which complemented Franco Harris’ 1128 yards, making the duo only 1 of six tandems to pull off twin 1000 yard rushing efforts in a single season.

Rocky Bleier, ESPN "The Return"

Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.

  • Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.

No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.

But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.

 

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Steelers Report Card Following Pittsburgh’s 17-7 Preseason Win vs. Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their 2019 preseason winning streak to 2-0 with a 17-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Staff writer Tony Defeo delivers his Report Card where he pulls no punches as he “calls it as he sees it.”

mason rudolph, steelers vs chiefs preseason, Darron Lee

Mason Rudolph evades Darron Lee. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, AP, PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the second-straight game, Ben Roethlisberger did not dress. Mason Rudolphstarted and played the majority of the first half. Like a week earlier, Rudolph looked much more confident and comfortable in Randy Fichtner’s offense. On the night, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards. His night could have been even better, had he not been victimized by some drops and fumbles.

Joshua Dobbs entered the game late in the second quarter and, much like last week, he found James Washington downfield on a 43-yard pass. Late in the first half, just one play after hitting Eli Rogers on a pretty 25-yard pass, Dobbs was intercepted in the end zone on a high throw that was intended for rookie Diontae Johnson. As for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford entered the game early in the fourth quarter and completed just two of four passes. However, one of those passes was a pretty 24-yard touchdown to the rookie Johnson. Grade: B+

Running BacksSteelers, Report Card, grades,
James Conner got the start, and put in a workman like performance, with six carries for 28 yards. Second-year man Jaylen Samuels looked really good, as he tallied four carries for 26 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. As for Benny Snell Jr., the rookie from Kentucky carried seven times for 16 yards. But even though it was another quiet night, he did look decent on blitz pick ups. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started the game but didn’t have any receptions. As for Washington, the second-year man continued to shine, tallying four receptions for 78 yards. Donte Moncrief, the veteran free agent pick-up fumbled the only pass that he caught on the night.

After missing the Buccaneers game with an injury, the rookie Dionte Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Johnson would have had another score, but it was called back on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers kept his hat in the ring in the competition for the slot receiver role, with two catches for 31 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Veteran Vance McDonald started and had just five yards on one reception that he fumbled out of bounds. Xavier Grimble didn’t do much to inspire hope that he can be the number two tight end, catching one pass for 13 yards and showing the old alligator arms while dropping another. Rookie Kevin Rader had two receptions for 20 yards, but he also committed a holding penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Most of the starters played and put in a good night’s work. As for the work put in at right tackle by Chukwuma Okorafor, the second-year man from Western Michigan continued to struggle in his bid to win the swing-tackle job, and he was beaten badly on the Chiefs’ lone sack on the night. Grade: B

Defensive Line
There were no standout performers on the defensive line, but Stephon Tuitt started his first game of the preseason, while Javon Hargrave started his second. Rookie Isaiah Buggs recorded two tackles, while Daniel McCullers, the veteran whose job he could possibly take, did nothing noteworthy. Grade: C

Linebackers
Rookie sensation Devin Bush was held out of the Chiefs’ game for unspecified reasons, but the linebackers continued to shine, especially the outside linebackers. Starting his first game of the preseason, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his career–preseason or otherwise–as he recorded three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was a handful all night, as was T.J. Watt, who seemed to be in the backfield often and recorded two quarterback hits. As for Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie continued to push for a spot on the roster by posting a sack and recovering a fumble. Mark Barron started again at inside linebacker and looked decent in pass coverage. Tyler Matakevich also started and led the defense in tackles with seven. He didn’t look so hot in pass coverage, as he had a hard time keeping up with Chiefs tight end Deon Yelder on a 25-yard catch and run. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III had another active night, posting four tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden did not start. Veteran free-agent pick-up Steven Nelson did and looked decent in coverage. Surprisingly, so did fourth-year man Artie Burns, who started at corner, opposite Nelson. Burns had one pass defensed and forced a fumble while making a tackle in run support. Mike Hilton didn’t dazzle in pass coverage, but he was his usual disruptive self while blitzing. Cam Sutton recorded two tackles–including one for loss–but was victimized in coverage on Kansas City’s lone touchdown. As for the safeties, Sean Davis got his first start of the preseason, posting two tackles and recovering a fumble. Jordan Dangerfield posted two tackles, while Kam Kelly had one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell didn’t have any field goal attempts on the night, but he did convert on both of his extra point tries. Matthew Wright connected on his lone field goal try from 46 yards away.

Jordan Berry averaged 45.7 yards on three punts, while Ian Berryman averaged 36 on two, downing one inside the 20.

It was a quiet night for kick-returner Johnny Holton, who averaged 36 yards on two returns. The rookie Johnson nearly fumbled while fielding his first punt and only tallied 11 yards on three returns. As for Diontae Spencer, he again looked like a real find, returning two for 49 yards–including one for 38. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
It’s hard not to go with Artie Burns for the night he turned in.

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