Steelers Nation Rooting Guide for “Championship Sunday” 2020: Remember the Titans

Championship Sunday is here, and once again the Steelers are at home, watching from the couch. So what is a good citizen of Steelers Nation to do? Who should the Black and Gold faithful root for (or against?)

Truthfully, this year is tougher than it has been.

  • For the balance of the last decade the answer was easy:  Anyone who can beat New England.

But the Patriots are eliminated. So are the Ravens, taking another obvious and easy choice out of contention. So let’s look at the final four contenders.

Steelers Nation, Steelers Bars DC

Pour House, a now defunct DC Area Steelers Bar. Photo Credit: SteelersBars.com

First contender that jumps out at you is Tennessee Titans. They’re coached by former Pittsburgh Steeler defensive lineman and linebacker Mike Vrabel. They’re underdogs, and they win with the old fashioned Steelers formula of stout defense and a ball control running game.

Steelers Nation really doesn’t have much to hold against Kansas City, and heck, my old grad school roommate was a Chiefs fan. And Kansas City is where Bill Cowher matured into an NFL caliber coordinator.

  • So a Steelers fan can root for the Chiefs in good conscious, but here the Titans get the nod.

Over in the NFC you have the San Francisco 49ers and the Packers. This one is easier. The 49ers with their legacy of the finesse “West Coast Offense” are in many ways the antithesis of Steelers football. More objectively, if the 49ers win and reach the Super Bowl, they’ll have a chance to with their sixth, making Pittsburgh’s distinction a little less distinct.

  • Clearly, Steelers Nation cannot condone that happening.

And the Packers, while not the Steelers, represent the NFL’s little guy, are community owned, and well, have a hallowed history. So root for the Cheeseheads Steelers Nation.

As far as a potential Super Bowl matchup is concerned, the faithful citizen of Steelers Nation needs to root for whichever AFC team makes it. Let’s face it, fealty to the AFC doesn’t and shouldn’t run deep in the blood lines of Steelers Nation. But it counts for something, doesn’t it?

  • But the real issue at stake in the Super Bowl is defending the franchise’s legacy.

As noted above, a win by the 49ers gives them six Super Bowls. A win by the Packers would give them five, which puts them in striking distance of Pittsburgh. That’s an outcome to avoid as well.

  • So there you have it  Steelers fans.

Root for the Titans to triumph over the Chiefs. Root for the Packers to upend the 49ers, and root for the AFC in the Super Bowl.

But as you’re doing that, let’s also say a little prayer asking for a full recovery of Ben Roethlisberger and return to championship form so that this time next year, there’s no ambiguity over who to root for.

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Justice Done! Former Steeler Donnie Shell Elected to Hall of Fame Centennial Class

After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.

Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:

  • In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”

This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year

But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”

Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.

Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.

The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.

  • The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.

Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

  • Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.

By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.

Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.

Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton

Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.

  • Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.

Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.
Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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Steelers Name T.J. Watt MVP for 2019, Highlighting Balance of Power Shift from Offense to Defense

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the year by voting T.J. Watt as the MVP for the 2019 season, a move that was widely expected and an honor that is richly deserved.

Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider writer Matt C. Steel described T.J. Watt as a “unicorn” in terms of his ability to be the type of outside linebacker who could both pressure the passer and work in coverage.

At the time, the Steelers were coming off of the 2016 season, which had been saved, in part by Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison in his place.

James Harrison made an immediate impact in terms of pressuring the passer and setting the edge, but his limited ability to cover receivers down the field became brutally apparent in the Steelers loss to the Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game. (To be fair, James Harrison was far from the only player who had his limitations exposed that day.)

OK, to be objective a look at the 29 players taken ahead of T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft does reveal some players who were picked ahead of him, but it is also safe to say the number of General Managers who’d like that draft pick is probably measured in the 20’s.

T.J. Watt made an immediate impact as a rookie, logging 7 sacks and making 1 interception. In his second season he exploded for 13 sacks and added 6 forced fumbles. With one game to play in the 2019 season, T.J. Watt already has 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 34 hits to the quarterback.

Those statistics are excellent, but they fail to capture the true value that T.J. Watt brings to the Steelers defense.

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets, T.J. Watt 2019 Steelers MVP, Steelers 2019 MVP

Plays like this strip-sack of Sam Daronold are why T.J. Watt is the Steelers 2019 MVP. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great defensive players don’t simply make great plays. They change games by making them at critical moments. Think:

T.J. Watt has delivered this level of playmaking to the Steelers throughout 2019. To see a recent example, look no further back than last week against the Jets. Mason Rudolph had just come off the bench for Devlin Hodges and gotten the Steelers on the board near with 1:22 left to play.

The Jets remained aggressive, and got to midfield with 0:36 when T.J. Watt hit Sam Daronold with one of his patented strip-sacks. 5 plays later and Mason Rudolph was hooking up with Diontae Johnson to tie the game.

There’s no better example of T.J. Watt’s timely playmaking, a tendency which was on display throughout the season.

T.J. Watt MVP Selection Highlights Shift in Balance of Power of Steelers Roster

T.J. Watt’s selection as Steelers MVP should surprise no one. While the Steelers don’t reveal the vote tally, it is likely that Watt’s closest competition was Minkah Fitzpatrick.

And assuming that’s the case, this highlights a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the Steelers roster. The Steelers are an organization that prides themselves on defense, but T.J. Watt’s 2019 MVP selection marks the first time a defensive player has earned those honors since Troy Polamlau won it in 2010.

The winners through the rest of the decade alternated between Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with Heath Miller winning in 2012 and JuJu Smith-Schuster winning last year. While Cam Heyward would have been a worthy winner in 2017, the Steelers MVP choices accurately reflect a decade dominated by offense and book-ended by stout defense.

Congratulations to T.J. Watt for being the Steelers 2019 MVP.

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No Red Nosed Playoff Runs for Pittsburgh: Steelers Place Mason Rudolph on Injured Reserve

Alas, 2019 will not end with Mason Rudolph leading the Steelers to a miracle finish this Christmas. The Steelers placed Mason Rudolph on injured reserve following the loss to the Jets, making him ineligible to play in the season finale against the Ravens or any playoff games should Pittsburgh qualify.

  • That is an unfortunate end the season for both the Steelers and Rudolph, but it certainly fits in character with everything else that has transpired during 2019.

Mason Rudolph was thrust into the lineup unexpectedly at half time of the Steelers loss to the Seahawks when Ben Roethlisberger began complaining about elbow pain. Within a day, Roethlisberger was ruled out for the rest of 2019 and Mason Rudolph’s tenure as starter began.

A week later, Rudolph won his first start against the Bengals on a steady diet of Jaylen Samuels under center Wildcat, Jet screens and sub-5 yard dump offs. But it worked. Rudolph was playing well against the Ravens, when Earl Thomas knocked him out with an illegal hit.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Devlin Hodges won the next week against the San Diego er um LA Chargers and Steelers Nation reveretd to his form from interregnum between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger when the back up quarterback became the most popular player on the team.

Mason Rudolph returned for the Steelers against Miami and looked tentative and timid at the end of the game. But after burning Miami with a touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson (with the help of a helacious block form James Washington), Mason Rudolph seemed to find his sea legs.

  • Rudolph took steps forward in the victories against the Colts and Rams, but then played poorly against the Browns.

He also suffered a criminal assault at the end of the game, and reverted to the form he showed in the first quarter against Miami against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin inserted Devlin Hodges just after half time, Hodges closed that game at Cincinnati with a win, and won his next two starts.

But after throwing six straight interceptions against the Bills and Jets, Mike Tomlin went back to Rudolph, who tied the game by leading the Steelers to 10 points in just over two minutes (with some help from T.J. Watt.)

  • Alas, Rudolph got hurt early in the 2nd half of the game against the Jets.

Rudolph remained in the game for awhile, but ultimately had to come up. His injury is to his left shoulder which is not his throwing arm, but it must be fairly serious if the Steelers are ending his season now.

With Rudolph our, former first round pick Paxton Lynch ascends to the starting role, while the Steelers have also signed former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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