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

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

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

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

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

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

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

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

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

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

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

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

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

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

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

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

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

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

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

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

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

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

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

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Talent Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Different dynamics drive the Antonio Brown situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

James Saxon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joey Porter, steelers fire Joey Porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal when Your Star Pupil is Disruptive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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Steelers Browns Rivalry Comes Full Circle in Final Week of 2018

Sunday January 30th 2018 closes the 2018 NFL regular season and it also brings the Pittsburgh Steelers Cleveland Browns rivalry full circle.

Few contemporary Steelers fans probably even think of the Cleveland Browns as “rivals” to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s because in many ways the rivalry has been on hold for 23 years. But there was a time when things were different. Oh yes, once things were very, very different.

We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s flash back to night it all changed.

Steelers Browns Rivalry

A Steelers fan and Browns fan in Cleveland, January 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Fansided

The Night Three Rivers Stadium Went Orange

Dateline: Monday, November 13th 1995, on I-95 heading north from the DC suburbs towards Baltimore, en route to watch Monday Night Football at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon, then the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore.

  • Yet, this is no ordinary Monday night football game.

A clip on Baltimore’s WIYY aka “98 Rock” illustrates why. “Back goes  Eric Zeier to pass. Andre Rison is open in the end zone. He throws, Rison catches it. Touchdown, Baltimore Browns!”

Less than a week before the unthinkable and once impossible had occurred. After building facilities for the Cavaliers and Indians, the city of Cleveland had shifted focus to building one for the Browns.

Yet, during the summer, Browns owner Art Modell cut off negotiations in the name of focusing on winning a Super Bowl. Little did we know, Modell had secretly begun negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move his team to Baltimore. Municipal officials in Cleveland plowed ahead without Modell, and announced a November 7th ballot referendum to fund a new stadium for the Browns.

  • On Monday, November 7th, Art Modell dropped a bomb: He was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The move sent shock waves through the NFL.

Usually when a team relocates, its because they lack local support. No one could say that the Cleveland failed to support the Browns. Every game was sold out, and television ratings were among the highest in the league.

As Dan Rooney told the AP’s Alan Robinson:

I’m sick about (the move). This is the best rivalry in sports. To go up there to play in Cleveland on that grass field on a gray day – I don’t want to get dramatic, but it really is something. It’s the essence of football.

As fate would have it, the Browns first game after the move came against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Steelers fans of that generation were genetically hardwired to hate the Cleveland Browns and their fans.Steelers Browns 1995 Three Rivers Stadium

But as a show of solidarity, Steelers fans wore orange arm bands that night. (Terry Bradshaw even wore one while interviewing Paul Tagliabue about the move.)

  • To understand just how deep of a gesture Steelers Nation made, one must understand just how bitter the Steelers-Browns rivalry flowed.

Just two years earlier, Jerry Olsavsky had blown out all four ligaments in one of his knees Cleveland Municipal Stadium, yet fans at the Dawg Pound threw beer bottles at him as he was being taken away from the field on stretcher. As Tim Gleason recounts in From Black to Gold, cars with Pennsylvania license plates would get their tires slashed if they were parked near Cleveland Stadium during a game.

An old friend of my from college named “Mike” told me of how his father had to protect him from a drunk who tried to attack him at a game in Cleveland in the early 80’s because he was wearing a Steelers shirt – Mike was 6 years old at the time.

  • Yet, on that night, Steelers fans stood in solidarity with Browns fans.

New Chapter for Steelers-Browns Rivalry?

The Steelers-Browns rivalry has never been the same since. And now, 23 years later, the Steelers fans need something from the Browns. Today at Heinz Field, the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conners, Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden to take care of business against the Bengals.

But the Steelers also need the Browns defense to stop Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield to make his magic work for one more week.

  • If the Steelers beat the Bengals and the Browns upset the Ravens, Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs.

But a Browns win at Baltimore would also signify that the franchise is poised to return to contender status next season, transforming games against the Browns into competitive affairs. If that happens, then the Steelers-Browns rivalry will indeed have come full circle.

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Iron Sharpening Iron? JuJu Smith-Schuster Named Steelers MVP, Terrell Edmunds Rookie of the Year

Sometimes Iron does sharpen Iron. This summer, as the photo below details, Mike Tomlin had JuJu Smith-Schuster face off against Terrell Edmunds at St. Vincents in Latrobe and it appears to have been for the benefit of both men.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Terrell Edmunds

JuJu Smith-Schuster works against Terrell Edmunds at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their year end awards this week as the players honored wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as the team MVP, while the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers association named Terrell Edmunds as the rookie of year aka the “Joe Greene Great Performance Award.”

  • The Pro Football Writers Association also named Joe Haden as the winner of “The Chief Award” which recognizes the player who was most helpful to the media covering the team.

Last year JuJu Smith-Schuster won rookie of the year honors as he took the Steelers wide receiving crops by strom, quickly becoming a fan favorite in the process. JuJu Smith-Schuster followed up that effort in 2019 with a performance that has seen him break the 100 yard catch and 1000 yards receiving and includes yet another 97 yard touchdown reception.

In a year when Antonio Brown started slowly with rookie James Washington struggling to get his footing in the NFL JuJu Smith-Schuster showed himself to be a player who was able to step up and pick up the slack, earning Ben Roethlisberger’s trust as a true Go-To target.

Terrell Edmunds did not have the sensational rookie year that JuJu Smith Schuster did in 2018, but move in and start at safety, and helped improve an area which had been a position of weakness in 2017.

While Terrell Edmunds only had one interception and one sack, his play improve during the course of the year to the point where he was able to shadow the New England Patriots Ron Gronkowski during the Steelers victory over the Patriots.

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