Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

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

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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James Conner’s Fumble Hurt, But Not as Badly as Other Steelers Turnovers 21-21 Tie with Browns

If there’s one positive to take away from the Steelers very disappointing 21-21 Week 1 tie with the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, it’s that James Conner isn’t receiving the lion’s share of the blame.

Perhaps, if he were another running back, such as the one he started in-place of–superstar Le’Veon Bell, who continues to sit out rather than sign the $14.5 million franchise tag–Conner would be more susceptible to criticism.

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

After all, when a team is up by two touchdowns and in possession of the football midway through the fourth quarter, the offense is supposed to grind the clock out and go home with a win. And when you can point to a fumble by a running back that jump-started the comeback, why wouldn’t that running back be the goat?

While it is true that James Conner’s fumble, which tarnished an otherwise awesome day in-which he tallied 192 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, was the life-preserver that prevented the Browns from drowning in a game-long downpour, you can also point to some very egregious turnovers earlier in the game that, had the offense executed like the juggernaut it’s supposed to be, could have made Conner’s gaffe meaningless.

For example, how about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 15-year veteran, the future Hall of Famer, the two-time Super Bowl-champion, throwing into triple-coverage and getting intercepted by rookie cornerback Denzel Ward late in the first quarter of what was then a scoreless game?

Following a 27-yard connection to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster one play earlier, Pittsburgh had a first and 10 from the Browns’ 18-yard line and looked poised to get on the board first.

Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger, who has always been known as a gunslinger, wanted to make Antonio Brown his very next connection, hence the ill-advised throw into triple-coverage.

Moving on to late in the second quarter. The Steelers had a 7-0 lead and were on the positive side of the 50-yard line in-search of an even bigger lead before halftime.

Following an incomplete pass, Pittsburgh faced a second and 10 from the Cleveland 37-yard line. During his usual pre-snap maneuverings, Roethlisberger motioned for Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James to switch positions. Roethlisberger quickly found a wide-open James with a short pass that went right through his hands and into Ward’s for his second interception of the half.

  • Like Roethlisberger’s first interception, the Browns failed to capitalize with points, but they once again prevented Pittsburgh from scoring any.
  • That’s two interceptions that potentially wiped out anywhere from three to 14 points for the Steelers.

For the day, the Steelers committed six turnovers, with James Conner’s being the only one that led to points by Cleveland. Again, that makes him an easy target to blame.

But as some critics liked to remind us last December when the Steelers were denied a touchdown against the Patriots thanks to a replay reversal, there are many plays throughout the course of a game that help to shape the outcome.

James Conner had a hand in the Steelers losing a two-touchdown lead, but Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James also made sure Pittsburgh’s fourth quarter advantage wasn’t much, much bigger.

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Preseason Win over Panthers – “Joshua Dobbs Does He Stay or Go” Edition

It was a fun evening for the Steelers, who prevailed over the  Panthers, 39-24, in their fourth and final preseason game, Thursday night at Heinz Field. It was fun for the rookies and roster hopefuls, because the spotlight was on them. It was also fun for the veterans, because most didn’t have to play.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Second-year man Joshua Dobbs was the talk of the town, following Thursday’s final tuneup. “Should they keep Dobbs and get rid of backup Landry Jones?” many wondered quite vocally. And, why? Because Dobbs, who started and played most of the first half, put the finishing touches on a fine preseason, this time, completing eight of 12 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. Dobbs even added 18 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

Rookie Mason Rudolph also looked sharp, connecting on five of his nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Rudolph also showed off his legs (and mean-streak) by taking it in himself on a two-point attempt and then giving the business to the linebacker who was flagged for hitting him late after he crossed the goal line. Sure, these youngsters were going up against fourth and fifth-stringers, but impressive is impressive, so….. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Veteran Stevan Ridley looked impressive as the workhorse, toting the rock eight times for 39 yards. Other than Ridley, no other Steelers running back did much. Although, unknown Jarvion Franklin perhaps fulfilled a childhood dream by scoring a touchdown under the bright lights. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for the receivers who are locks to make the team. As for those hopefuls? While it was likely too little, too late for him, Tevin Jones did put something on tape with two scores. And Pitt’s Quadree Henderson scored a seven-yard touchdown in the same venue where he had many as a college player. It was another subpar night (and perhaps final night in black-and-gold) for Trey Griffey and Damoun Patterson, who combined for one catch for 15 yards. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Can you believe a Steelers’ tight end did something? That would be Bucky Hodges, who pulled in two passes for 43 yards–including a 36-yard reception that set up a touchdown. As for Jesse James, Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble? They were all nursing injuries of varying degrees, and we can only hope that one of them will be ready for Week-1 in Cleveland. Grade: D

Offensive Linemen
As you might expect, the Steelers starting linemen used up their remaining sick days on Thursday, but those super-subs, namely Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney and rookie tackle Chuks Okorafor acquitted themselves quite well, limiting Carolina to one sack. The Steelers also rushed for 108 yards as a team, so all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad night for Pittsburgh’s notable offensive line depth. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
It was also an uneventful night for the veterans of this unit, and of those youngsters and veterans looking to crack the talented defensive line, not much stood out. Although, Lavon Hooks did record a sack. Also, Carolina only rushed for 90 yards on 22 carries. Grade: C

Linebackers
Wow, after yet another impressive showing by Matthew Thomas, who tallied 11 tackles–including six solo–and recorded a strip-sack, recovered the fumble out of the air, and then proceeded to race 75 yards down to the Carolina one-yard line, one has to wonder if the UDFA out of Florida State is already the Steelers’ most-talented inside linebacker. That opinion will be proven over time, of course, but there’s no doubt Thomas cemented his spot on the final roster. Speaking of UDFAs who cemented a roster spot, Steelers’ fans better learn how to spell Olasunkanmi Adeniyi’s name, because the youngster recorded his third preseason sack.  Grade: A

Secondary
Rookie fifth-round pick, Marcus Allen, got plenty of reps at the safety position, along with plenty of tackles (10 and six solo). Second-year corner Brian Allen likely locked up his place on the roster with nine total tackles. As for Mr. Preseason, safety Jordan Dangerfield, he added five tackles. Will this be enough for the veteran to hold onto his job? Grade: B

Special Teams
The newly-acquired Ryan Switzer returned two kickoffs for 43 yards, while Henderson had 29 yards on his lone attempt. Punter Matt Wile may have ousted veteran Jordan Berry by averaging 50 yards on three punts. As for the coverage units, nothing alarming stood out. Grade: B-

Coaching
Not much you can say about coaching in a game like this. When you have a bunch of down-the-liners going up against a bunch of down-the-liners, you can throw strategy out the window. The only thing you can really grade is whether or not the head coach protected enough key veterans from injury. And with the exception of the gruesome knee injury suffered by Malik Golden (who obviously doesn’t have the cachet to sit out a fourth preseason game), it was a job well-done. Grade: A

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Report Card for Steelers 3rd Preseason Game vs. The Titans

The Steelers took on the Titans at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon in the (say it with me) all-important third preseason. With the exception of a key superstar or two, all of the starters played for Pittsburgh, and the performance and results looked more akin to a Super Bowl contender than they did the previous week in Green Bay.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds Preseason Interception, Vince Williams

Terrell Edmunds returning a preseason interception. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger made his preseason debut and played three series, completing 11 of 18 passes for 114 yards and a 32-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter. He looked a bit rusty, as the many high passes to  Jesse James — including one that left the big tight end with a back contusion–illustrated. All-in-all, it was about what you’ve come to expect this time of year from the 15-year veteran. Landry Jones completed six of his nine pass attempts for 69 yards and an interception that was more on the receiver than on him. Mason Rudolph played the entire second half and completed seven of 11 passes for 65 yards, as he often utilized short, underneath passes to running backs out of the backfield. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner started, and while his rushing performance left a lot to be desired (just 18 yards on 10 carries), he was very Le’Veon Bell-like, as he compiled 52 receiving yards on six catches. Rookie Jaylen Samuels was the workhorse on the day and a mighty fine one that that, tallying 41 rushing yards on 11 carries, along with 36 receiving yards on four catches out of the backfield. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Second-year man JuJu Smith-Schuster led the way with six receptions for 46 yards, but he did have a couple of notable drops. Other than Smith-Schuster and Hunter’s aforementioned 32-yard score, it was a rather quiet day for the receivers.  Rookie James Washington was targeted twice on the day and left with zero catches after suffering an oblique injury. After standing out in the first preseason game, Damoun Patterson’s workload continued to decline, as did, one would think, his chances of making the final 53-man roster. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
It was another day without Vance McDonald and another quiet game for the Steelers tight ends. James left with two receptions for 17 yards after suffering his aforementioned back injury, while no other tight end did anything of significance. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen
With the exception of Ramon Foster, the Steelers star-studded offensive line played as a unit for the first time this preseason, and while the big guys had to shake off some rust, they afforded Roethlisberger with the suburb protection he’s become accustomed to in the latter stages of his career. In-fact. even when super-subs such as Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney were in the game, holes were being opened, and quarterbacks were being protected. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
Perhaps for the first time since suffering a torn biceps in Week 1 of the 2017 season, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man possessed, as he continuously found his way in the Titans’ backfield and came away with one sack and two quarterback hits on the day. Cam Heyward also returned to his 2017 All-Pro form, recording one sack and two tackles for loss. Javon Hargrave looked decent, as did Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton in their usual reserve roles. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to sit out with a hamstring injury, and it was a quiet afternoon for Bud Dupree. However, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi continued to make a strong case to make the final cut, as he recorded yet another sack this preseason. Fellow outside linebacker-hopeful, Farrington Huguenin, was also pretty active and contributed with a sack of his own. As for the inside linebacker spot, Vince Williams celebrated his new contract by tallying three tackles and a sack before exiting for the afternoon. As has become the case in recent seasons, L.J. Fort looked solid when given playing time.

But perhaps the biggest story of this preseason–one that will likely continue to grow if his exceptional play continues–was undrafted free agent, Matthew Thomas, who led all Steelers defenders with nine tackles–including five solo. Grade: A

Secondary
Artie Burns‘ name was hardly mentioned, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback. Rookie first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, created a turnover for the second week in a row, when he intercepted a pass in the first half and then proceeded to turn on the jets as he returned it 30 yards into Tennessee territory. The Titans never made it beyond midfield the entire first half, which means the secondary didn’t allow any big plays. Grade: A-

Special Teams
It was a decent day for veteran punter Jordan Berry, as he averaged 43.5 yards on two punts. But it was an even better day for backup Matt Wile, who averaged 48.7 yards on three boots. As for the kicking situation, Chris Boswell continued his ascension to the top of the NFL at his position, making all three of his field goal attempts–including a 45-yarder.

As for the coverage unit, if he can’t find his way to the top of the inside linebacker depth chart, Tyler Matakevich might one day find himself in Honolulu for his ability to be a special teams demon, as he was the first one downfield to stymie Titan punt returners on more than one occasion. Nat Berhe, who was brought in for that specific purpose, made a play that drew drew a congratulatory helmet slap from head coach Mike Tomlin immediately afterward.

Unfortunately, it continued to be a quiet day for the return game, which likely means the end is near for Pitt’s Quadree Henderson. Grade: B-

Coaching
Coming off an alarming performance against the Packers nine days earlier, the Steelers responded well in all phases of the game. Given that it was the regular season dress-rehearsal, that spoke volumes for the preparation heading into Saturday. Grade: B+

 

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Steelers Report Card From Their 2nd Preseason Game Against The Packers

Things were ugly Thursday night, as the Steelers fell  to the Packers, 51-34, at Lambeau Field in their second game of the 2018 preseason. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect a high GPA.

Quarterbacks

Mason Rudolph made his first start against the Packers and was immediately victimized by a pick-six on his very first pass of the night. Rudolph played the rest of the first half and recovered a bit, completing five of 12 passes for 47 yards and a four-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Joshua Dobbs took over in the second half, and he, too, proceeded to throw a pick-six on his very first pass. Dobbs did fare a bit better, completing 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns to go along with that interception, while also contributing 27 rushing yards. Grade: C

Running Backs

James Conner, he of the leaner and meaner physique, looked impressive in his limited amount of work, carrying five times for 57 yard–including a 26-yard touchdown. Rookie Jaylen Samuels had a nice night, as he posted 38 yards and a score on nine carries, while veteran backup Fitzgerald Toussaint continued to play decent this preseason, tallying 26 yards on seven carries. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

This just in: The Steelers know how  to identify and cultivate receivers. Latest example appears to be second-round pick James Washington, who pulled in five catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Washington showed off one facet of his skill-set by getting deep on a 57-yard pass from Dobbs; and he showed off his ability to make the combat catch on a 19-yard touchdown in-which he was able to out-physical a Green Bay defensive back and come away with the football. It was a quick night for Smith-Schuster, but he continues to be a touchdown-machine, pulling in his lone reception for a four-yard score in the first half. Damoun Patterson continued his impressive preseason, catching three passes for 35 yards–including a 29-yarder. Grade: B+

Tight Ends

It was another uneventful night for the tight ends, although Jesse James did set up a score with a 21-yard catch (his only one of the night). Injuries continue to be a problem for Vance McDonald, as he sat out Thursday’s game with yet another ailment. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen

Rudolph was sacked three times, but that may have been more on him and less on the line, albeit one that was missing some key starters. Missing key starters or not, the Steelers did rush for 157 yards, while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Grade: B-

Defensive Linemen

Javon Hargrave had a decent night, as did big Dan McCullers, as he plays for his football life this summer. However, the defensive line, minus Cam Heyward, didn’t generate all that much pressure on the Packers’ stable of four quarterbacks. And it’s hard to give a great evaluation of any unit that’s part of a defense that allowed 37 points on the night and had trouble getting off the field on third down. Grade: C-

Linebackers

What can you say about the inside linebacker unit? It’s very early, but it doesn’t look like Jon Bostic is going to adequately close the massive hole that was left in the middle by the tragic loss of Ryan Shazier late last season. Tyler Matakevich didn’t do a lot to make one feel better about the unit, either. L.J. Fort did have a fine night, posting five tackles and a sack, and unknown rookie Matthew Thomas also drew some praise. As for the outside linebacker position, Bud Dupree did record a sack, and the Packers were held to 77 yards rushing. Grade: C-

Secondary

The unit was missing Joe Haden, Mike Hilton and Sean Davis, and I don’t know if that had a lot to do with so many missed tackles, bad angles and futile pursuits of Packer ball carriers, but it obviously didn’t help much. The young Terrell Edmunds did continue to play well, even if he was pretty much helpless on a touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers to stud tight end Jimmy Graham. As for the veteran side of things, Morgan Burnett returned to Green Bay to take on his former team and acquitted himself quite well, even recording a sack in the process. But those missed tackles and bad angles…just so many. Grade: D

Special Teams

Edmunds did set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown by forcing and then recovering a fumble on a kickoff. The low-light for Danny Smith’s unit may have been Jordan Berry’s punting, as the veteran continues to draw criticism this summer–including from his head coach in the post-game presser. As for the return game, Quadree Henderson’s main path to a roster spot is that avenue, and again, Thursday night, that avenue was closed. Grade: C-

Coaching

Missing several key starters–including the Killer B’s–it remains to be seen if Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive weaknesses from 2017–red zone efficiency and situational play-calling–have been rectified in 2018. As for the defense, yes, that unit was also missing several key starters. But Mike Tomlin and Keith

Photo credit: Packers Wire USA Today.

Butler appear to have a huge problem on their hands finding some combination of defensive backs and inside linebackers to protect the middle of the field. Thursday night, they seemed light years away from finding a solution. Grade: C-

 

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Who Needs Dez Bryant? Steelers Rookie Damoun Patterson Shows Why Pittsburgh Stands Pat

It seems the Pittsburgh Steelers find new and unknown receivers in camp each and every summer, prompting this writer to ask “Who needs Dez Bryant?

Take two years ago, for example, when Eli Rogers, an undrafted free-agent out of Louisville who spent his entire rookie season of 2015 on Injured Reserve after suffering a foot injury in his very first training camp.

Rogers was one of the young sensations of the Steelers 2016 training camp and was rewarded by making the final 53-man roster. Not only that, but Rogers became the slot receiver and proved to be a dependable option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns.

Eli Rogers saw a decline in production a year ago, and he suffered a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14. After recently being re-signed, he is currently on the team’s PUP list, hoping to get a chance to see if he can still be a part of the Steelers talented receiving corps.

Damoun Patterson, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Damoun Patterson catches a preseason touchdown from Joshua Dobbs. Photo Credit: Bill Streichner, USA Today, via 24/7 Steelers.

  • This summer another UDFA, Damoun Patterson, a youngster who played his college ball at Youngstown State, has thrown his hat into the ring to be 2018’s Eli Rogers.

Damoun Patterson is now a true contender to be a part of the receiving corps after catching six passes for 77 yards and one dazzling touchdown in the Steelers preseason-opening 31-14 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Patterson showed great body control as he spun around to catch a laser-strike from third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs and great balance as he got one foot down in the end zone and then the other.

  • Both Patterson’s body control and balance, were on display as the rookie celebrated his touchdown heroics by doing a back-flip.

With Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and likely Darrius Heyward-Bey all locks to make the squad, the fifth receiver position could be up for grabs.

Obviously, when he’s ready to depart from the PUP list Eli Rogers is a candidate, as is Justin Hunter, the veteran receiver the Steelers signed as a free agent in the 2017 offseason. However, Justin Hunter, despite his obvious physical attributes, has never truly broken out during his time in the NFL.

Another contender for that fifth-receiver spot is former University of Pittsburgh standout, Quadree Henderson. Henderson didn’t do much on Thursday, but he’ll obviously have ample time to impress his coaches between now and the final cut-down date.

But Damoun Patterson, who isn’t even listed on the Steelers official team depth chart (for what that’s worth in the preseason), has certainly done something to at least make his bosses take notice.

  • And this is why all that talk about the still unsigned Dez Bryant possibly coming to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago seemed ridiculous at best.

The Steelers obviously know how to find receivers to round out their depth chart–guys who have actually contributed during crucial moments (Cobi Hamilton caught a touchdown pass in the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots).

This summer, if it isn’t Patterson, Rogers or Henderson who rounds out the receiver depth chart, it will surely be another diamond in the rough we may not even be talking about right now.

The Steelers know their away around unknown wide receivers.

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Steelers Eagles Preseason Report Card

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 preseason campaign against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Here is their Report Card.

Damoun Patterson, Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown, Rasul Douglas, Steelers vs Eagles Preseason

Steelers hopeful Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
As has become the custom the past few summers, 15-year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones got the start, playing three series and completing four of four passes for 83 yards and a 71-yard touchdown strike to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs played the rest of the first half and completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Joshua Dobbs led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Dobbs set up the first scoring drive with an 18-yard run As for the second score, it was a sensational 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Damoun Patterson. Rookie Mason Rudolph took over the reins in the second half and completed seven of 12 passes for 101 yards. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Training camp holdout or not, star running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t going to play, Thursday night. In his place, were a host of running backs, including veteran Stevan Ridley, who led all Steelers backs with 10 carries but for only 14 yards. Fellow veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while second-year man James Conner tallied an impressive 25 yards on just four carries. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The youngster, Damoun Patterson, was the receiving star of the night, as he was targeted 10 times, while pulling down six catches for 77 yards and the touchdown grab that was every bit as sensational as Dobbs’ pass. Smith-Schuster tallied only one catch for the aforementioned 71-yard score, while rookie James Washington grabbed two passes for 44 yards–including an impressive combat catch near the sidelines in the second half. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nothing newsworthy from this group. Veteran Jesse James caught just one pass for two yards. Vance McDonald sat out with an injury, while Xavier Grimble was shutout in the box score. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Line
Missing several key starters–including Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro due to injury prevention and veteran Ramon Foster due to an actual injury, Jones and Company weren’t afforded with the best protection. Sure enough, both Jones and Rudolph were sacked twice each. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward didn’t play at all, Stephon Tuitt played very little, while Javon Hargrave saw the most action out of the starters. The Eagles were held to 106 yards rushing, which is perhaps a testament to the backups and how they’re learning under first-year defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Grade: C

Linebackers
Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the way with four solo tackles, while Jon Bostic collected three. However, neither really distinguished themselves in the battle for the starting job alongside Vince Williams. As for outside linebackers, Anthony Chickillo recorded one sack, while rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi made the defensive play of the night, with a strip-sack early in the third quarter that set up a field goal. Grade: B+

Secondary
Despite missing a good bit of training camp battling injury, Morgan Burnett, the strong safety acquired via free agency in the offseason, looked really good, same for rookie first round pick Terrell Edmunds. Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton each recorded an interception, while Dashaun Phillips provided the low-light for the night when he was burned badly on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Grade: C

Special Teams
Nothing much of note on special teams, as rookie Quadree Henderson only had one chance to return a kickoff, while Justin Thomas totaled just 12 yards on three punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell converted all three of his field goal attempts and both extra points. As for the punters, veteran Jordan Berry averaged 41.7 yards on three punts, while the unknown Matt Wile totaled 96 yards on two punts. Grade: C

Coaches
It was the first preseason game, complete with vanilla game-plans that were executed by a lot of guys who won’t be around in a few weeks. Grade: Incomplete

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Remembering the Steelers 1992 Win over the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium

When people think of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher‘s first season in Pittsburgh–1992–one of the first things that comes to mind is his initial game, a 29-24 come-from-behind victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston.

Yes, it was a great way to kick off a career that would certainly put The Chin in rarefied air is it pertained to Pittsburgh coaching legends–the decision to try a fake punt, down 14-0 early in the game was an indication to the old AFC Central Division that this Steelers team and this Steelers coach were here to win.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

And win the Steelers did in ’92, five of their first seven games, in fact, and were primed for a first place showdown with Houston, a rematch that would take place at Three Rivers Stadium on November 1, 1992.

With the help of an old LA Times post-game article, we know the Oilers jumped out to a 6-0 first half lead thanks to two Al Del Greco field goals–one from 29 yards away and the other from 19 yards out.

Pittsburgh took the lead later in first half on a one-yard run by Barry Foster, a running back who would go on to break the Steelers single-season rushing mark with 1,690 yards and tie an NFL record with 12 100-yard games.

Behind 7-6 early in the third quarter, the Oilers lost their star quarterback and Steelers nemesis, Warren Moon, after Moon was hit on the chin by cornerback Rod Woodson.

Speaking of nemeses, Cody Carlson, the unknown youngster who cost Pittsburgh a division title and playoff spot just two years earlier when he filled in for an injured Moon in the 1990 regular season finale and torched the Steelers defense for 60 minutes, entered the lineup and continued where he left off.

  • Carlson connected with receiver Webster Slaughter for an 11-yard score to make it 13-7.

That was bad enough, but just 1:03 later, Ray Childress scooped up a fumble by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell and raced eight yards for yet another touchdown, stunning the Three Rivers crowd and giving Houston a 13-point advantage.

But the Steelers were no strangers to overcoming such deficits against Houston in ’92: “We were down 20-7, but we’ve been there before,” Cowher would go on to say later.

  • The Steelers were there before, and they were about to do that again.

Early in the fourth quarter, Neil O’Donnell connected with tight end Adrian Cooper on a two-yard touchdown pass to pull Pittsburgh to within 20-14.

Midway through the final period, following a fumble recovery by legendary linebacker Greg Lloyd, the Steelers went ahead, 21-20, on a five-yard touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to the other and more decorated tight end, Eric Green.

It wasn’t over yet. The Oilers had one more chance. Cody Carlson had one more opportunity to stick a dagger in Pittsburgh’s heart–and if not end its season, at least capture sole possession of first place.

As Carlson methodically drove the Oilers’ offense down the turf at Three Rivers Stadium in the final moments, I could sense another heartbreaking loss coming on the horizon. As the seconds ticked off the clock, and Cowher kept the Steelers final timeout in his back pocket, I figured a turnover was all that could save the day.

And when Cody Carlson set up Del Greco at the 22 with seconds left, I kind of resigned myself to second place in the Central.

  • Little did I know that Bill Cowher had been responding to pleas from assistants to use with “Don’t worry, he’s going to miss the field goal.”

Bill Cowher’s instincts were on the mark. The day was actually saved by Del Greco, himself, who hooked the seemingly make-able field goal, giving the Steelers not only sole possession of first place, but an all-important sweep of Houston.

As the fans in attendance went nuts, some of whom were seen dancing and hugging on the top of the dugout, I felt the kind of magic that fans must have experienced two-decades earlier, when the 1972 edition came out of nowhere and captured the hearts of an entire region (for good).

Yes, it felt like the 70’s to a 20-year old who really didn’t know any better. The one thing I knew for sure:

  • The 1992 Steelers had put the rest of the NFL on notice.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Greg Lloyd, who never backed down from a fight and was certainly at the forefront of the team’s resurgence in the 1990’s:

“I’m sure (the Oilers) are going to say ‘What if, what if, what if?’ That’s a tough loss for them, but a great win for us.”

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Do Eric Green’s NFL Stats Suggest an Underachiever or a Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era?

When the Steelers selected Liberty tight end Eric Green with the 21st pick of the 1990 NFL Draft, I was a little underwhelmed, but that was nothing new.

After years of watching Pittsburgh select players like John Rienstra instead Keith Byars (1986) or Aaron Jones instead of anyone else on the planet (1988), I was used to my draft day fantasies being dashed by the Emperor Chuck Noll, a four-time Super Bowl-winning coach who certainly knew a little more about football than I did.

The Steelers did trade four spots down with the Cowboys, who used the 17th pick to select Florida running back Emmitt Smith, a man who would go on to capture the NFL’s all-time rushing record. But being angry over that now would be revisionist history, especially when you consider Pittsburgh used the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft to to select Tim Worley, a running back Chuck Noll said reminded him of former all-time rushing leader Jim Brown.

  • Anyway, as far as 1990 tight end prospects were concerned, Eric Green was believed to be the cream of the crop, so there was that.

On the face of it, the Steelers picking a tight end with their first round draft pick seemed rather odd, given that even the most hardcore Steelers fans old enough to remember the era would be challenged to remember a tight end other than Bennie Cunningham.

OK, Mike Mularkey had come to Pittsburgh via Plan B Free Agency, and had been a key role player in the 1989 Steelers playoff season, but the fact that he only needed 22 catches to be an “impact tight end” should tell you what you need to know about tight ends in the Steeler offenses of the 80’s.

But Chuck Noll had just hired Joe Walton as his new offensive coordinator, and Joe Walton’s offensive philosophy was very tight end-centric.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Therefore, looking at things from a pragmatic standpoint–and not through the eyes of an 18-year old Steelers fan who was looking for that draft day splash–the selection of Eric Green actually made sense.

What didn’t seem to make sense about a player selected in the second half of the first round–and from tiny Liberty University — was his willingness to holdout all of training camp, preseason and Week 1 of the regular season. Chuck Noll went as far as to say that Green would have to be a genius to contribute after missing so much time.

When Eric Green did finally sign, he was of no use through the first month of the season, neither was Joe Walton’s tight end-centric offense, one seemingly a little too complex to grasp for the likes of quarterback Bubby Brister, a player who certainly fit the mold of someone who had charmed cheerleaders into doing his term papers for him while he attended Louisiana Tech.

Under Joe Walton’s complex scheme, the 1990 Steelers infamously didn’t score an offensive touchdown during the first four games (note the Steelers Media Guide consistently gets this wrong) and were only saved from an 0-4 start thanks to a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by D.J. Johnson and a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rod Woodson in a 20-9 Week 2 victory over the Oilers.

The Steelers did finally break through offensively in a 36-14 Week 5 victory over the Chargers, which just so happened to be Eric Green’s coming out party. Against San Diego, Green, who at 6-5 and 280 pounds and blessed with speed and athleticism that defied that kind of size (at least in those days), was a bit of a catalyst, catching three passes for 22 yards and two touchdowns.

After Green’s breakout debut, Noll conceded, “He’s a genius.”

  • But it was the following week, in a 34-17, come-from-behind victory over the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, where Eirc Green really burst onto the scene.
  • Like the week before, Eric Green’s catches and yards were humble (just four for 28), but he caught three touchdowns.

For the season, Eric Green would go on to catch 36 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as a legitimate weapon for a Steelers offense that sorely needed as many as it could find. In 1991, Green continued to establish himself as one of the best young tight ends in the NFL, catching 41 passes for 582 yards and six touchdowns.

1993 would be Green’s best year as a Steeler–and as a pro–as he caught 63 passes for 942 yards and five touchdowns, earning himself his first of two-straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

  • Unfortunately for Eric Green, his 1994 season would be his list in Pittsburgh.

Eric Green’s legacy in Pittsburgh was tainted by a six-game drug suspension in 1992 and yet another hold out prior to the ’94 regular season. After the ’94 season, Eric Green left as a free agent and finished out the remainder of his 10-year NFL career with the Dolphins, Ravens and Jets

For his career, Eric Green caught 362 passes for 4,360 yards and 36 touchdowns–including 217 catches for 2,681 yards and 24 touchdowns as a member of the Steelers.

Eric Green the Right Tight End Trapped in the Wrong Era

The conventional wisdom among Steelers fans is that Eric Green never lived up to his potential.

But Eric Green’s size, speed and overall athleticism defined a player who was clearly ahead of his time. Had he come along maybe 20 years later, there’s no doubt Eric Green would be up there with the likes of Rob Gronkowski as not only one of the best tight ends of his time, but one of the best offensive weapons in the game of football.

At the end of the day, Eric Green will never be known as an all-time Steelers great. But, had he played in another era, he may have been one of the greatest tight ends who ever played in the NFL.

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