Like It or Not: “Benny Snell Football” Was Vital to Steelers Win Over Colts

There was a lot of hype and hope surrounding running back Benny Snell after the Steelers selected him in the fourth round out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Why so much hype for a fourth-round pick? For starters, Snell had a very productive collegiate career, rushing for 3,873 yards in three seasons, while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each one.

  • Also, Snell had a cool personality, a cool nickname — Benny Snell Football — and an infectious smile.

Lastly, Snell was drafted during the height of social media, and the bells and whistles that accompany draft choices on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc. in this day and age make every single one seem like a future Hall of Famer.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

Snell actually did show a lot of promise during his rookie season, rushing for 426 yards on 108 carries while filling in for the oft-injured James Conner.

Snell’s sophomore season got off to an incredible start when he rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries in a Week 1 win over the Giants. Snell came into the game for Conner, who was, you guessed it, injured, and the calls for him to become the Steelers’ new starting running back were quite audible.

Unfortunately for Snell, he never did overtake James Conner as the Steelers’ starting running back and would only carry the football 92 more times for an uninspiring 255 yards over the final 15 games of the 2020 campaign.

James Conner left as a free agent after 2020, and the Steelers decided to make Najee Harris their 2021 first-round pick, as well as their bell-cow running back.

  • Just how much of a bell-cow back was Harris in 2021? Such a bell-cow, that Snell had just 36 carries for 98 yards.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As is usually the case with underperforming mid-level draft picks, the attitude of the fans toward Snell had totally soured by Year 3. Heck, it was going downhill even after 2020, as the faithful began to refer to the former Kentucky workhorse as Benny Snail.

It didn’t matter that Snell had turned himself into a valuable special teams player, the fans simply wanted him gone at the conclusion of the Steelers 2022 training camp.

  • Why did the fans turn on Snell?

He just didn’t live up to the social media hype. Also, that’s mostly how fans are. They’re a lot like college head coaches. They’ll kiss a player’s butt and charm him during the recruiting phase of the relationship, but they have no problem chewing him out and tearing him down the moment he screws up on the football field.

Snell survived the final cut in training camp, but he was dropped to third on the depth chart behind Harris and rookie Jaylen Warren.

  • Snell came into Monday night’s game against the Colts without a single carry in 2022.

Warren missed Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, but the Steelers seemed intent on using Anthony McFarland, a third-year back out of Maryland who was just signed from the practice squad, as the primary backup to Harris.

But then Harris had to leave the Colts game with an abdominal injury, and that forced Snell to be the next man up in the backfield.

Sure, McFarland had a decent night for himself in limited action, tallying 30 yards on five carries, but it was Snell who became the primary back and the workhorse to close out the game. All-in-all, Snell had 12 carries for 62 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

  • Snell looked decisive and strong during most of his 12 carries on Monday night.

What happened? Did he suddenly feel inspired? Did he feel motivated to prove the “haters” wrong?

Or, perhaps, his skills could finally shine thanks to an offensive line that has seemingly figured out a way to open holes in the running game on a consistent basis.

  • It’s critical to remember that Benny Snell came to the Steelers right as the offense was going from a strength to a weakness.
Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

The offense has been in a rebuilding phase since 2019, complete with a total overhaul on the offensive line, as well as everywhere else, including at quarterback and offensive coordinator.

The Steelers offense has been a chaotic and controversial mess during Snell’s entire career in Pittsburgh. It’s hard enough for a first-round pick to thrive in such an environment–just ask Harris–let alone a fourth-rounder.

Does Monday’s performance mean that Snell should get a bigger role in Pittsburgh’s offense? Not necessarily. I believe Warren has what it takes to be an effective backup behind Harris.

  • I am suggesting that perhaps Snell was never as bad as you think.
  • Maybe he was just a victim of circumstance.

Maybe calling him Benny Snail was a bit unfair and uncalled for.

 

 

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Serious This Time? Might Mike Tomlin Actually Give Jaylen Warren More Carries?

What if I told you that a particular Pittsburgh running back rushed for 136 yards on 29 carries (4.68 yards per rush) and added another 40 yards on three receptions in the Steelers’ most recent game?

You’d take it, right? Heck, you might even think this running back deserved low-key consideration for NFL Offensive Player of the Week.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

If you were a Steelers fan, you’d also likely assume that the running back was Najee Harris, a second-year player who couldn’t have been more of a workhorse in 2021 when he accumulated 381 total touches.

You’d be right to assume that, too, considering Najee Harris’s head coach is named Mike Tomlin, a man who’s never met a starting back he had no problem running until his wheels fell off.

Your assumption would be off, however, at least if you made it about Pittsburgh’s 20-10 victory over the Saints at Acrisure Stadium last Sunday.

  • No single Steelers running back accumulated the aforementioned stat line.

Instead, the division of labor was divided up, if you will, with Harris toting the rock 20 times for 99 yards, while rookie Jaylen Warren, a UDFA from Oklahoma State, tallied 37 rushing yards on nine carries and added another 40 receiving yards on three catches.

In the days leading up to the game against New Orleans, there was talk — right from the horse’s mouth, in fact (Tomlin’s) — that Warren could and should get a bigger role in the Steelers’ offense.

  • But that had to be just talk from Tomlin. Right?

It was just a way to motivate his bell cow running back, Najee Harris, who had struggled mightily over the first eight weeks of the 2022 campaign. Tomlin has always seemed allergic to the running-back-by-committee approach. If you don’t believe me, ask LeGarrette Blount. If you don’t want to believe Blount (and I can certainly understand why you’d be afraid to even ask him a question), you can ask DeAngelo Williams, a much better teammate than Blount. Unlike Blount, who was cut shortly after leaving the field before the end of a Monday Night Football game against the Titans back in 2014, Williams was happy with his role as the backup to star running back, Le’Veon Bell.

DeAngelos Williams proved to be valuable in 2015, his first season in Pittsburgh, when he filled in for a suspended Bell to start the year and, again, for an injured Bell over the final two months of the regular season.

Williams was again valuable and extremely productive over the first three games of the 2016 regular season when Bell was suspended a second time for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

  • But in spite of Williams’s success (and pleas from this site), when Bell was in the Steelers’ lineup, the former’s role was drastically reduced.

To reiterate, Mike Tomlin has never evolved beyond his bell cow running back philosophy.

Or maybe he has.

Harris and Warren worked beautifully together. You have to credit Tomlin for allowing it to happen, but you also have to credit offensive coordinator Matt Canada for finding a way to utilize both running backs effectively.

Is this the start of a new philosophy for Tomlin? Is he going to finally ease up on his starting running back?

I suppose we’re about to find out over the next few weeks.

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Steelers Fans Should Embrace What Looks To Be A Rare Bad Season

I feel like a teenager all over again.

Why do I say that? I’ve been reminiscing about the 1980s, back when times seemed simpler and the world was full of possibilities. Maybe it’s because I turned 50 in May. Maybe it’s because I really miss the formative years of my life.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Or maybe it’s because the Steelers are oh-so awful in 2022, complete with a 2-6 record and a place near the bottom of many statistical categories, both offensively and defensively.

That’s right, the offense, one now led by rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, is ranked 28th in total yards. As for the defense, one that was supposed to carry the team in 2022, it’s ranked 29th in total yards allowed. Yes, the unit has been without T.J. Watt since Week 1, but the defense was no bargain a year ago, even with Watt putting together a Defensive Player of the Year season.

The calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s dismissal — calls that were always quite popular even during the good years — have been louder than ever.

Speaking of coaching dismissals, the Steelers have officially reached their bye week, and the only thing the fans are hanging their hats on at the moment is the possible firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Seriously, the fans are wishing for that like some fans wish for a championship.

The tide is low in 2022. In fact, it hasn’t felt this low since the late-1980s when 6-10 and even 5-11 campaigns became commonplace under the Emperor, Chuck Noll.

Yes, times were tough under Bill Cowher in the late-’90s, but this just “feels” different and more like the 1980s struggles when a turnaround wasn’t just a few moves away.

I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to mid-to-late-’80s Steelers nostalgia as of late. Maybe that’s why I watched the NFL Films “highlights” from the 1986 campaign, one that ended with a 6-10 record, the franchise’s then-worst mark since 1969. That feature was narrated by Larry Richert, an unknown at the time but someone who would go on to become a Pittsburgh radio icon, as well as Dan Marino‘s brother-in-law.

  • Oh yeah, Richert is the PA announcer for every Steelers home game at Acrisure Stadium.

I’ve also been watching broadcasts from the Steelers’ 5-11 campaign in 1988, their now worst season since 1969. The Steelers started off even worse in ’88 than they did through seven games of the 2022 campaign–1-6–before stunning a slightly better Broncos team, one that was without the legendary John Elway, 39-21 at old Three Rivers Stadium.

I’ll never forget where I was — at my grandparents’ home in Pittsburgh — when Rodney Carter opened the game by galloping for a 64-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0. The late Sam Nover, a long-time sports broadcaster for WPXI, a local affiliate for NBC, was the play-by-play man that day for the Peacock Network and screamed as if Carter had just scored a touchdown in the AFC title game. Maybe that’s because Nover was quite close to the Steelers in those days and was often the locker room reporter who interviewed the players during The Fifth Quarter postgame show.

  • The Steelers actually jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead and looked about as dominant as they would all season.

Much like today, there was talk of Pittsburgh climbing out of its hole and making it to the postseason, but 2-6 eventually turned into 2-10.

The ’88 season was so forgettable that I was given a free ticket to a game against the Eagles at Three Rivers Stadium. It was my first-ever Steelers game, and I went with my uncle–he’s the same age as me, believe it or not. We were two teenagers who had a great time and were surrounded by many lunatics in the stands who supported both Pennsylvania teams, as well as the right to punch each other in the face.

It was fun, but it wasn’t a victory, as the Steelers fell, 27-26, when a 57-yard field goal attempt by Gary Anderson was blocked at the buzzer.

It wasn’t all bad for the Steelers in ’88. In fact, they pulled things together near the end of the season and finished with three wins in their final four games–including an exciting 37-34 victory over the Houston Oilers at the iconic Astrodome on Sunday Night Football.

I don’t know if this current Steelers team can pull itself out of the mess it’s in and avoid its first losing season since 2003. If Pittsburgh can’t, well, the streak had to come to an end sooner or later, right?

I guess it would be fitting for it to happen in 2022, the first one without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades.

If the Steelers do actually finish with a losing record in 2022, not only will it be the first time in 19 years, but it would only be the fourth such occasion since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1992.

That’s pretty incredible, especially when you consider the fact that Pittsburgh finished with a losing record in four of the final seven seasons of Noll’s career.

  • If you’re a Steelers fan, you should embrace the pain. Experience it.

It’s not often you get to witness something like this around here.

 

 

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Report Card For Steelers 38-3 Loss To The Bills At Highmark Stadium

Quarterback

All things considered, Kenny Pickett looked pretty darn good as he made his first NFL start for the Steelers on Sunday. His stat line read: 34 of 52 passes completed for 327 yards and an interception that was thrown on probably his worst attempt of the day. Pickett showed poise and leadership. He was fiery, like when he got into it with the Bills’ Shaq Lawson late in Sunday’s game thanks to a low and questionable hit by the defender. Unfortunately, Pickett didn’t produce. He could have had more help from his receivers, namely Diontae Johnson, who failed to come up with two catches that may have at least altered the team’s offensive output on the day. Grade: C+

Running Backs

It was another lackluster day for starter Najee Harris, who gained just 20 yards on 11 carries. Harris showed zero explosiveness and didn’t take advantage of the few running lanes that were there against a stout Buffalo defense. Rookie Jaylen Warren looked better, as he rushed for 24 yards on five carries. Unfortunately, most of Warren’s work came in the second half when the Bills’ were up huge and in prevent mode. Grade: D

Tight Ends

It was a relatively quiet day for the tight ends, as Zach Gentry led the way with five receptions for 43 yards, while number one tight end, Pat Freiermuth, tallied just two catches for 12 yards. Grade: D+

Wide Receivers

It was a semi-productive day for the Steelers’ top three wideouts, led by George Pickens, who posted six catches for 83 yards. Johnson nabbed five passes for 60 yards, while Chase Claypool pulled in another five for 50 yards. But as alluded to earlier, Johnson failed to come up with what would have been a highlight reception early in the game that would have set the offense up with a first and goal. Again, would it have been a tough grab for Johnson, who made a one-handed catch near the sideline but failed to drag his right foot in bounds? Yes, but he’s a number-one receiver who signed a contract extension worth $18 million a year. He’s got to come down with some of these tough catches every now and then. Also, it was the fifth-straight game that Pittsburgh’s receivers failed to score a touchdown this season. Grade: D+

Offensive Line

Pickett was sacked three times and didn’t necessarily have all the time in the world when he did try to sit back in the pocket. There were a lot of quick throws to the sidelines to slow down the Bills’ great front seven. Also, the rushing offense was almost non-existent. Grade: D

Defensive Line

Once again, the Steelers defense failed to generate even a sliver of a pass rush and barely inconvenienced Josh Allen as he stood back in the pocket. That starts up front with Cameron Heyward and company. It’s true that Heyward is getting up there and is receiving the brunt of the attention with T.J. Watt absent from the defense, but I think most expected a bit more from the veteran. Rookie DeMarvin Leal did knock down a couple of passes, but that was early in the game before things truly got out of hand. Grade: F

Linebackers

Another uninspired effort by Devin Bush, who may not have even half the playmaking ability the Steelers thought he did when they traded up to select him in the 2019 NFL Draft. Myles Jack did lead the team in tackles with six, but someone had to. Robert Spillane was a non-factor and again struggled to do much in pass coverage. As for the outside linebackers? It was a quiet day for Alex Highsmith, as the front seven failed to record a single hit on Allen all afternoon–the lone quarterback hit was recorded by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Malik Reed continued to be invisible in place of the injured Watt and has yet to even approach the standard head coach Mike Tomlin loves to set for his backups. Grade: F

Secondary

The tone was set for the day when Allen, facing a third and 10 from his own two-yard line, found receiver Gabe Davis for a 98-yard touchdown pass on the game’s third play. Davis badly beat Levi Wallace on the play before shooting past safety Tre Norwood, who was the last line of defense because Fitzpatrick blitzed up the middle. Allen, who passed for 424 yards and four touchdowns, had a field day with the Steelers secondary, as did Buffalo’s receiving corps, led by Davis, who later pulled in a 62-yard touchdown pass over a determined Fitzpatrick, who tried in vain to rip the football from the receiver’s possession. Wallace did intercept an Allen pass in the end zone early in the game, but all that did was temporarily stop the bleeding. Grade: F

Special Teams

It was a mixed bag. The game started off strong for the special teams unit, as Norwood tackled Taiwan Smith, who muffed the opening kickoff, at the two-yard line. But immediately after the Bills scored on a 98-yard touchdown pass, James Pierre, filling in for an injured Steven Simms, fumbled the subsequent kickoff, and the Bills recovered. Buffalo failed to capitalize thanks to Heyward blocking a 49-yard field goal attempt by Tyler Bass.

Chris Boswell had a rare bad day, going one of three on field goal tries in the windy Buffalo conditions–including a miss from 33 yards out late in the first half.

Pressley Harvin III also struggled with the Buffalo wind and, after connecting on a 69-yard punt early in the game, averaged just 31 yards over his next three boots. Grade: D

Coaching

The Steelers were out-hit, out-schemed and out-coached from whistle to whistle. The Bills are clearly in a much higher class than the Steelers, and Tomlin and Co. could do nothing to close the gap. Grade: F

Unsung Hero

It’s hard to pick one of these in a game like this, so let’s just go with Pickens, who appears to be well on his way to becoming the Steelers’ top weapon.

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Report Card For Steelers 24-20 Loss To Jets At Acrisure Stadium

Quarterbacks

Mitchell Trubisky‘s 2022 tenure as the Steelers’ starting quarterback seemed to be a doomed mission the moment Pittsburgh selected Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Trubisky’s less-than-stellar start to his Steelers career further cemented that sentiment. And if those two things weren’t enough, his failure to generate much offense against the Jets in the first half on Sunday seemed to seal his fate. True, Trubisky was the victim of some bad luck, namely when it came to receiver Diontae Johnson, who failed to come up with a slightly tipped pass that was instead intercepted early in the game. Trubisky hit Johnson in the back up the end zone with what appeared to be a touchdown pass later in the first half, only for it to be called incomplete thanks to Johnson’s left toe just barely grazing the out-of-bounds marker in the back of the end zone. After completing seven of 13 passes for 84 yards and an interception, Trubisky was replaced in the second half by Pickett, who seemed to energize both the home crowd and his teammates. Pickett completed 10 of 13 passes for 120 yards, zero passing touchdowns and three interceptions, but he did manage to score two rushing touchdowns and took the Steelers from a 10-6 deficit to a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Again, Pickett made mistakes, but neither of his first two interceptions were glaring rookie gaffes. As for his third pick? It was on a Hail Mary to close out the game. Pickett made two throws–a back-shoulder completion to George Pickens and a strike to Pat Freiermuth in the face of a fierce pass rush–that made you believe he could develop into something special. Grade: C+

Running Backs

Najee Harris appeared to be “this” close to breaking a few long runs. As it stood, however, he gained 74 yards on 18 carries. Not a bad day but certainly not the kind of workhorse afternoon an offensively-challenged team needs from its bell-cow running back. Rookie Jaylen Warren added 18 yards on just three carries. Grade: C

Tight Ends

Freiermuth had one of his finer days as a pro, catching seven passes for 85 yards. He’s looking more and more like a future star at his position and may just need the right quarterback to make this possible. It was a rather quiet day for Zach Gentry, who gained just two yards on a shovel pass. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Pickens finally had his breakout day, catching six passes for 102 yards. Unfortunately, the rest of the receiving corps was invisible. Johnson, who caught just two passes for 11 yards, could have had a much better day had he been able to complete some tougher catches. For example, the interception by Trubisky was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but big-time receivers make big-time catches. Big-time receivers also find a way to drag a toe in bounds to complete touchdown receptions in the back of the end zone. Chase Claypool had zero catches on the day and has been roundly criticized for his part in the deep pass from Pickett that was intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The offensive line continued to get better at blocking for the run on Sunday, but the hogs did a poor job at pass protection in the first half, as Trubisky was sacked three times. There were also some key penalties at critical moments. Grade: C

Defensive Line

It was another quiet day for Cameron Heyward, who continued to be isolated and shut down in T.J. Watt‘s absence. Larry Ogunjobi had a decent day, but he has yet to truly make his presence known. Rookie DeMarvin Leal had a nice outing and continued to show the potential to be a disruptor up front. Grade: C

Linebackers

Malik Reed has been mostly invisible as a pass-rusher filling in for Watt. Reed also failed to diagnose the Philly Special that New York called in the first half and didn’t cover quarterback Zach Wilson, who managed to slip into the end zone untouched for an easy touchdown. Alex Highsmith recorded four tackles and Pittsburgh’s lone sack on the day. As for the inside linebackers, Myles Jack led the Steelers with eight tackles but also bit hard on some influence plays that resulted in huge gains by New York. Devin Bush posted six tackles but again didn’t do much to make a difference for a Steelers defense that is sorely missing playmakers without Watt in the lineup. It was a pretty quiet game for Robert Spillane, who recorded one tackle and struggled in pass coverage. Grade: C-

Secondary

Cornerback Cameron Sutton thwarted a potential scoring drive by intercepting a Wilson pass late in the first half. Meanwhile, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick set up the Steelers’ first touchdown of the day by intercepting a tipped pass in the third quarter and returning it to the New York two-yard line. These plays looked like they would help to decide the game in Pittsburgh’s favor, that is until the secondary melted in the final period and allowed several easy conversions during the Jets’ two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Grade: C-

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell continued to be his awesome self, connecting on two field goals–including a 59-yarder on the final play of the first half, which set a new record for Acrisure Stadium (and tied his own personal record).

It wasn’t a great day for punter Pressley Harvin III, who averaged just 39.5 yards on four punts.

Return man Gunner Olszewski continued to struggle on punt returns and, if not for the herculean effort by James Pierre to retrieve the loose football, would have fumbled another one away in front of the home folks. Grade: C-

Coaching

Other than his decision to put Pickett in at the beginning of the second half, it’s hard to say what head coach Mike Tomlin did right in this game. His players came out uninspired in the first half, and his defense let yet another game slip away in the fourth quarter. Matt Canada’s offense was again ineffective to start the game. As for Teryl Austin? His defense just can’t seem to generate much of a pass rush in Watt’s absence. Grade: D

Unsung Hero

If Pierre doesn’t come up with the Olszewski fumble, Sunday’s game may not even have come down to the final seconds.

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Report Card For Steelers 29-17 Loss To Browns on TNF

Quarterback

Mitchell Trubisky had his best game of the 2022 regular season against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, that might be damning Trubisky with faint praise. Yes, he did look much better in the first half while leading the offense to two scoring drives, including a one-yard run to give Pittsburgh a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter. But the offense was almost non-existent in the second half and was forced to punt on its first three possessions. All-in-all, Trubisky completed 20 of 32 passes for 207 yards and may have had a slightly better night had receiver Diontae Johnson been able to hold onto a pass down the right sideline late in the third quarter with the Browns leading, 16-14. Grade: C

Running Backs

Najee Harris had his best game of the young season, rushing for 56 yards and a five-yard touchdown on 15 carries. Meanwhile, rookie Jaylen Warren had a bit of a breakout game in his own right, rushing for 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately for Warren–and Trubisky and his night–a short pass that resulted in a 35-yard catch and run by Warren early in the third quarter was wiped out by a penalty on right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and killed a promising Steelers drive that may have extended their one-point halftime lead. Grade: C+

Tight Ends

Pat Freiermuth didn’t catch any passes until the final moments when he reeled in two for 41 yards with the Steelers desperately trying to claw their way back from a 23-14 hole. Zach Gentry didn’t receive a single target all night. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

Rookie George Pickens made the catch of the year when, while falling backward, he reached out with his left hand to snag a pass from Trubisky for a 36-yard gain in the first half. Sadly, Pickens would go on to catch just two more passes for two more yards. Johnson had a decent night, catching eight passes for 84 yards. He may have had an even bigger night had he been able to pull in that aforementioned deep ball from Trubisky late in the third period. Yes, he was covered well on the play and would have had to make a one-handed grab, but he’s the big money man of the receiving corps now and could have helped his quarterback out at that point in a close game. Grade: C

Offensive Line

The line played its best game of the 2022 campaign. But even though Trubisky was only sacked once and hit twice, and even though the Steelers rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries for 4.7, the offense was so impotent in the second half that it’s hard to give the unit anything but an average grade. Throw in the critical penalty on Okorafor that wiped on a huge gain, and that hurts the unit’s cause even more. Grade: C

Defensive Line

To say this Steelers’ defense, the highest-paid in the NFL, is simply average without T.J. Watt would be an understatement, and that starts up front with the defensive line. Cameron Heyward has been invisible since Watt’s injury. Has he faced more double teams? Sure, but that should be freeing up other guys to make plays, and they really have not. Larry Ogunjobi did record half a sack, but the Browns also rushed for 171 yards on 38 carries. Grade: C-

Linebackers

Both Myles Jack and Devin Bush had productive nights at inside linebacker, tallying 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. As for the outside linebackers, Alex Highsmith had a really good night, registering eight tackles, two quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. Unfortunately, Highsmith’s counterparts on the other side–including Malik Reed and Jamir Jones–were sort of just there. Grade: B

Secondary

Not a good night for the secondary, as receiver Amari Cooper–seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown–and tight end David Njoku–nine receptions for 89 yards and a score–dominated the entire game. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had the game of his life in Week 1, failed to come close to that kind of performance for the second week in a row–and the Steelers need him to do that on a consistent basis with Watt out of action for some time. Grade: D

Special Teams

Kicker Chris Boswell proved that he wasn’t automatic from inside of 50 yards, by pulling a 49-yard attempt wide right early in the game. True, Boswell was kicking in windy conditions, but a successful try may have changed how the game unfolded down the stretch. Pressley Harvin III, 42.4 yards per punt on five boots, was solid if unspectacular. The return game was just there. Grade: C

Coaching

I hate to use a cliche and say that Mike Tomlin and Co. were outcoached over the final two periods after the Steelers played their best half to start the game, but it sure felt like it, didn’t it? Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is once again the subject of fan wrath thanks to an uninspired second-half showing. As for Teryl Austin, defensive guru Brian Flores and Tomlin, the brain trust of the defense, why haven’t they been able to scheme up any quarterback pressure in Watt’s absence? Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award

Left tackle Dan Moore Jr. held up quite well against Myles Garrett all night.

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Steelers’ Defense Doesn’t Deserve A Pass In The Loss To The Patriots

The Steelers dropped their home opener to the Patriots, 17-14, at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of Steelers.com

It was the kind of game the Steelers have to play these days, thanks to an offense that’s been downright awful for going on two calendar years.

Pittsburgh’s offense was again atrocious on Sunday, tallying just one touchdown to go along with two Chris Boswell field goals.

It was such a shame to see a fine and solid defensive effort go to waste. Yes, sir, even without T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, in the lineup, the Steelers’ defense clearly did enough to win and deserved better from the offense.

Only, the Steelers’ defense didn’t do enough to win. Why do I say that? Because Pittsburgh lost the game. I don’t know what it is about Steelers fans locally, nationally and internationally, but they love to prop up the defense and give it the benefit of the doubt no matter what. When evaluating a defensive performance following a loss, fans almost always take the big picture approach and simply cite the number of points given up, as if there is a magical amount that is always acceptable regardless of what occurred during the game.

The offense gets evaluated with much greater scrutiny, however. The Steelers could score six touchdowns in a game, but if the end result is a loss, fans take a more situational approach and cite situational football, like a particular play call, a turnover and/or red zone efficiency.

Nobody ever talks about a prolific offense being gassed or winded late in the fourth quarter after propping up a porous defense all game long–gaining yards and scoring points must rejuvenate the body.

The bottom line for an offense is this: It must continue to execute and score points until it has enough to secure a win.

Why can’t the same be true for a defense when it comes to things like the number of points it allows or a situational moment in the game where it failed?

If you watched Sunday’s game, you know it came down to a few key moments. Yes, the offense was horrible and did little to win the game, but the defense did little to pressure Mac Jones, sacking him zero times and only hitting him thrice.

To reiterate, Watt was out of action–he suffered a pectoral injury in the Week 1 overtime victory against the Bengals and will miss at least a month after being placed on the Injured Reserve list–but zero sacks? So little pressure?

Watt means so much to the team that his mere absence neutralizes good-to-great players like Alex Highsmith, Larry Ogunjobi, Tyson Alualu and Cameron Heyward?

Even without a pass rush, the Steelers’ defense may have done just enough to win on Sunday if cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon would have won the one-on-one battle against Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor late in the first half that resulted in a great combat catch by the latter and a 44-yard touchdown.

What about the drop of an easy interception by cornerback Cameron Sutton late in the third quarter, with the Steelers trailing, 10-6? Sutton could have given the Steelers prime real estate–at worst–and who knows? Maybe the offense would have come to life and actually taken advantage of the gift.

Instead, return man Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt two plays later; New England recovered and set up shop at the Steelers’ 10 before ultimately capitalizing with a Damien Harris touchdown to make it 17-6.

The Steelers managed to close the gap to 17-14 early in the fourth quarter but could get no closer.

The offense could only muster two three and outs in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots ran out the final 6:33 to secure the win.

While the offense deserves a lot of the blame for failing to do anything in the fourth quarter, the defense deserves an equal share for allowing New England to run out the rest of the clock and not giving the offense one final possession.

Would it have been a futile possession? It’s easy to say, “Yes,” but Pittsburgh’s offense was even more pathetic in Week 1 and did virtually nothing for over 69 minutes of game action.

However, unlike this past Sunday, the defense managed to give the ball back to the offense one final time, and, believe it or not, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Co. made the necessary plays to get in range for Chris Boswell to end things from 53 yards out as time expired in the extra period.

The defense certainly did enough to beat the Bengals. Why do I say that? Because the Steelers won the game.

It’s too bad the defense didn’t do enough to beat the Patriots in Week 2.

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Seen This Movie Before? The 2022 Steelers Looked Too Much Like ’21 Edition in the Opener

The Steelers literally outlasted the Bengals, 23-20, in the 2022 regular-season opener at Paycor Stadium on Sunday in one of the most exciting, dramatic and blunder-filled games in recent history.

The game had everything. It was a defensive slugfest between two AFC North foes–one, the Bengals, the defending AFC champions; the other, the Steelers, the team that once owned Cincinnati, as well as aspirations for AFC and NFL dominance.

The action was so crazy, that it required overtime and every last second of it before a winner was finally declared, thanks to Chris Boswell‘s 53-yard field goal at the gun.

When it comes to defensive efforts by the Steelers, it will be hard to top what the unit did on Sunday. Not a bad debut for Teryl Austin, the team’s new defensive coordinator.

The defense, led by stars Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, kept fighting, hitting, tackling, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, and taking the football away from him despite being on the field for over 43 minutes of game action.

When the defense did wilt, like at the very end of regulation when Burrow connected with receiver Ja’Marr Chase on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left, a defensive star showed up on special teams and saved the day; I’m talking about Fitzpatrick and his blocked extra point that sent the game into overtime. 

Yes, sir, the Steelers’ 2022 start should be a reason to celebrate and get you excited about what lies ahead over the next 16 games.

  • If only Sunday’s Week 1 win didn’t look alarmingly like 2021’s Week 1 win when a putrid offense had to be propped up all game long by the defense.

That’s right, despite a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, a very mobile man who was signed in part because the Steelers wanted someone with great athletic skills to be the field general of Matt Canada’s motion-influenced offense, the play calling during Sunday’s game looked just like what we witnessed in the last days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career when he was extremely immobile and seemingly unwilling to adapt to Canada’s philosophy.

I’m talking about a horrible running game, quick and short passes to the sidelines, an unwillingness to stretch out the passing game even a little bit, and treating the middle of the field like it was radioactive.

It didn’t seem all that surprising or frustrating when the Steelers’ offensive performance played out the exact same way during the upset win in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. After all, it was Canada’s first game as offensive coordinator, and the marriage between his philosophy and that of Roethlisberger’s figured to take some time to gel. Throw in a totally revamped offensive line, and you just knew there would be some growing pains with the offense over the course of the season.

But while the pain persisted all throughout the 2021 regular season, no growing ever took place.

Back to 2022.

I wasn’t expecting the Steelers offense to look like a well-oiled machine in Cincinnati on Sunday. In fact, I expected more growing pains, especially with an offensive line that not only experienced more changes in the offseason but struggled mightily all throughout training camp and the preseason.

  • I did expect to see a different offensive approach, however.

Instead, we watched the Steelers offense, one that Washington’s Chase Young claimed had been exposed as far back as 2020, try the same game plan it had been utilizing since Roethlisberger came back from the elbow injury that kept him out for most of 2019.

I realize that Sunday’s win would have been bittersweet no matter what, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding T.J. Watt and his pectoral injury. But even with a healthy Watt, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers’ defense being as dominant over the course of the regular season as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.

The defense will be great, no doubt, maybe even with Watt on the shelf for an extended period of time, but you’ll never see as dominant of a performance as what you got in Week 1.

And what did it amount to? A game that would have been a loss if not for some luck and blunders by the Bengals.

  • The Steelers’ defense did all that it could do, and it still almost wasn’t enough.
  • Why? Because the offense was as bad as it was all of last season and in much the same way.

While I can’t imagine the Steelers’ defense ever looking as good as it did on Sunday, I can certainly picture the offense continuing to look horrible all throughout the 2022 regular season.

That’s a frightening thing to imagine.

 

 

 

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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

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

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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Could “Patience” Be the Watch Word for the Steelers 2022 Offensive Line?

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: The Steelers’ offensive line stinks.

You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.

Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.

What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.

Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.

In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.

As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.

Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.

  • Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.

Believe it or not.

I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.

The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Last year’s line, from left to right, included Moore, Kevin Dotson, Green, veteran Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor.

Chucks Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only leftover from the mostly aging 2020 crew. As for Dotson? He was a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in 2020 who turned some heads as a spot starter during his rookie season.

What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.

Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.

  • Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.

What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.

At least youth was on its side, though, right?

Not if you were Dotson and Green.

Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.

Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.

In addition to more player personnel changes, Pat Meyer was hired as the team’s new offensive line coach, making him the fourth person to assume that role for the Steelers since 2018.

That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.

As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.

It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.

And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.

Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.

Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.

Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?

Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.

James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.

  • Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.

The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.

Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.

There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.

Hell, maybe even Kendrick Green.

 

 

 

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