7 Confessions of a Steelers Blogger – Welcome to Our “Annual” Goofs Column

Being a Steelers blogger comes with a dose bliss. Steelers fans start blogging not simply because they bleed Black and Gold, but because they have something to say that they feel no one else is saying.

  • And it’s pretty awesome when you beat Ed Bouchette to the punch.

Not that it happens terribly often, but it does happen. But blissfulness  can lead even the most conscientious blogger to take himself (or herself) too seriously.

  • Steel Curtain Rising’s delivers its remedy in our “annual” goofs column.

Annual comes in quotes, because after doing one in 2009 and 2010, time pressures from working two jobs prevented me from writing others. But this year Steel Curtain Rising’s annual goofs column is back with a vengeance. As always, we pay homage and acknowledge the example set by the late, great Washington Post columnist David Broder who wrote an annual goofs column.

jesse james, steelers dropped passes, 2015 Hall of Fame game,

Steelers tight end Jessey James can’t hold on in 2015 preseason. Photo credit: Don Wright, Associated Press, used on the Post-Gazette

1 – Shamarko, Cortez & Jarvis Weren’t Keys to 2015 Defense

A good number of the goofs from the last year relate to the Steelers defense. Such was the case with a poll conducted here, where yours truly non-too subtly suggested that the key to improving the Steelers defense in 2015 lay with the development of Shamarko Thomas, Cortez Allen, and Jarvis Jones.

  • Thankfully, you, my faithful readers knew better.

You voted Ryan Shazier as the player the Steelers most-needed to see development from. And you were right. Keith Butler did lead a turnaround of the Steelers defense in 2015, but Cortez Allen and Sharmko Thomas had nothing to do with it. Jarvis Jones did improve, particularly in run defense, but he still couldn’t keep James Harrison on the bench.

2 – Cop-Out on the Steelers 2015 Defense

This one had the potential to earn Steel Curtain Rising “bragging rights,” but a goof negated that opportunity. Last year just before the season, I argued that the Steelers 2015 defense shouldn’t regress under Keith Butler. The argument flowed like this:

  • The Steelers defense greatly improve during 2014, closing the season out with for extremely strong performances.
  • The Steelers defense was loaded with young draft picks, poised to make the next leap
  • Cover-2 should have been easier for younger players to pick up than Dick LeBeau’s Fire-Zone/Zone-Blitz

Ah, it was all there for the taking, but unfortunately that piece was preceded by a copout. As the Steelers defense played like a sieve during the 2015 preseason, I wondered aloud if it was officially time to “worry” about the Steelers defense under Keith Butler, concluding that outright worry wasn’t warranted, but concern was.

3 – No Antonio Brown Hadn’t Already Peaked

Just before the season, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expanded on Joseph Juan numberfire.com article, which traced wide receivers peak production to their age and number of years of service. Juan’s analysis indicated that most NFL wide receivers peaked at 3 years of service and/or at age 26.

Of course Antonio Brown improved on his 2014 season in 2015, and arguably would have improved even more had he been able to establish a rhythm with Michael Vick. To be fair to myself, the piece didn’t simply parrot back Joseph Juan’s research, but reviewed in in the context of past Steelers wide receivers.

  • The conclusion was that Steelers history suggested that Brown did have a chance to beat the odds.

But the headline “Has Antonio Brown Already Peaked” certainly qualifies as a goof.

4 – Dri Archer Fails to Fill the Void

When news of Martavis Bryant’s (first) suspension for substance abuse broke, focus rapidly shifted to who would pick up the slack. I thought it wise to suggest that one Dri Archer had a golden opportunity.
Of course Archer did have an opportunity.

  • But Dri Archer didn’t even remotely even attempt to capitalize the opportunity in front of him.

And with 20/20 hindsight, there was little indicate that he could or even that he would. So yeah, was it theoreically possible that Dri Archer could have thrived in Bryant’s absence? Yes. Was it at all plausible? Not so much.

5 – Filling the Void Created by Antonio Brown’s Concussion

Thanks to Vontaze Burfict, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to play their 1st Divisional playoff game since 2011 without the services of their 2015 MVP, Antonio Brown. That led to speculation over who would fill the void. While it was obvious that Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton would take on larger roles in the offense, most speculation surrounded the third receiver slot.

And most of that speculation centered on rookie Sammie Coates.

That made sense, because Brown’s injury meant Coates would return to the active list for the first time since early in the season. But this site disputed the suggestion that Coates could contribute arguing:

But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

No, the more logical player to fill the void was Darrius Heyward-Bey. Following the logic that:

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four receivers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

That made sense, but when all was said and done, Darrius Heyward-Bey had 2 catches for 64 yards, and Sammie Coates had 2 grabs for 61 yards and acutally had one more target….

…I guess the reporters who watch practice every day AND get off the record access to coaches knew something when they were writing those stories about Sammie Coates.

6 – Mike Vick’s Role (or lack thereof) in the Playoffs

I’ve never been a Landry Jones basher. In fact, I defended him against those who questioned Landry Jones’ roster spot entering the 2015 regular season. And Jones performed above expectations against the Cardinals and then the Raiders, even if he was less than stealer in action against the Chiefs and Seahawks.

As even Bob Labriola recently suggested, Jones looked like a deer lost in the headlights, and made an interception that, by all rights, should have ended the game. With that in mind, and knowing that Ben Roethlisberger was less than 100%, Steel Curtain Rising issued the following plea on behalf of Mike Vick:

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Mike Tomlin it appears, doesn’t read Steel Curtain Rising, as Mike Vick didn’t even dress for the Steelers game against the Broncos. Tally one more goof.

7 – In Bruce We Trust… Not So Much

The memory of Landry Jones’ playoff performance lingered into the off season (and no, I’m still not part of the “Cut Landry Now” crowd.” But in looking at the Steelers free agents, Steel Curtain Rising made this case:

The case for keeping Bruce Gradkowski comes down to this: 2-3-22-0-0.
That was Gradkowski’s stat line from his only action under center for the Steelers. Yes, that is mundane, but it came in the 4th quarter of a playoff game, and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.
Now take a look at this stat line: 2-5-11-0-1. That’s Landry Jones post-season resume, which came in the 4th quarter of the Steelers win over the Bengals….

…if he’s healthy, the Steelers should consider bringing Gradkowski back.

Unlike with Mike Vick before the playoffs game vs. the Broncos, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert apparently DID get this memo, as the Steelers resigned Bruce Gradkowski. However, Gradkowski entered training camp as the Steelers number 3 quarterback, and while he looked good in limited action in the Steelers preseason loss to the Lions, he also got injured.

It seems like Mike Tomlin is planning on leaving the door open for Bruce Gradkowski to hold a spot on Steelers 2016 roster in some form or fashion, but he’s clearly now their emergency option, and not the next man up.

Looking forward to Making More Goofs in 2016

This of course does not cover all of the goofs I made over the last year or so. Certainly there have been others. And its even more certain that more will follow in the year to come. That’s human nature.

Regardless, a heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has read along over the last 12 months, and rally the last 8 years here at Steel Curtain Rising. Thanks for reading and please continue to come back again.

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The Butler Did It! Keith Butler Deserves Praise for First Season as Defensive Coordinator

When a coach or player performs poorly, fans and the media are often quick to criticize. However, when it’s the other way around, and a coach or player excels, the praise isn’t always so audible–at least for the coach.

  • Coaches are a lot like game-day officials: The only time anyone notices them is when they’re not performing well.

Keith Butler waited a long time to succeed the legendary Dick LeBeau as the Steelers defensive coordinator. In-fact, he was Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach from 2003-2014, which more than spanned the duration of Dick LeBeau’s second stint after leaving Bill Cowher‘s staff following the Steelers 1996 season.

Being on the staff of a defense that finished number one multiple times and coaching Joey Porter, James Farrior, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons — in short some of the best linebackers in the entire league, Keith Butler naturally received feelers  from other teams who were willing to give him a shot at running their defenses.

  • However, Butler stuck it out in the hopes that he would someday take the helm and run the Steelers’ defense.

While Keith Butler was surely paid a prettier penny than most linebacker coaches in-order to stick around, it was still a gamble. What would happen if Dick LeBeau‘s defense started to struggle and his schemes suddenly seemed too predictable?

Beginning in 2011, the cracks in Pittsburgh’s defense began to show, when the unit only recorded 15 takeaways and 35 sacks. The trend of low takeaways and 35 sacks continued over the next few years, as the number one rankings soon faded away, and the Steelers’ defense finished 13th and 18th respectively over the final two seasons of Dick LeBeau’s tenure.

With the trends going the other way, the pass-defense being even worse than the unit as a whole (27th in 2014), and players like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel hanging up their cleats for good, it would have been very easy for head coach Mike Tomlin to go in a totally new direction, with regards to defensive philosophy.

Therefore, for Keith Butler, who will turn 60 in May, to stick around and not consider jump at other coordinator jobs really was quite the risk.

Fortunately for Keith Butler, his loyalty was rewarded, when he was named the defensive coordinator last offseason, following the parting of ways between Dick LeBeau and the Steelers organization.

  • However, what about those huge shoes Butler had to fill?

Sure, Dick LeBeau’s schemes may have seen their better days, but Dick LeBeau was and perhaps will always be the most beloved assistant coach in Steelers history. If the Steelers defense continued to sag in 2015, it would be easy for the fans and the media to quickly turn on the new guy.

Right out of the gate, however, Keith Butler was quick to put his own stamp on the defense, thanks mainly to a more aggressive one-gap style by the defensive linemen, as opposed to the traditional two-gap approach used by LeBeau for so many years.

I would be remiss if I didn’t credit Mike Tomlin for also helping change the defense and implementing a more traditional cover-2 style, but Keith Butler was going to be the one held accountable for the leaks and cracks.

All things considered, Keith Butler deserves much praise for his first season running an NFL defense. It is true that the unit finished 21st overall and a pretty paltry 30th against the pass. However, the name of the game is preventing points, which the defense did fairly well, by only allowing 19.9 per game.

  • And what about the takeaways (30) and the sacks (47) the Steelers defense wracked up? Those are Super Bowl numbers.

Yes, the Steelers defense still needs some refinement–especially the secondary– but it’s hard to argue with the improvements made during Butler’s first season running things.

It’s easy to take the good things for granted, but if 2015 was a disaster, the call for Keith Butler’s head would be very audible.

Therefore, give the new guy some praise; he’s certainly earned it.

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Steelers Antonio Brown Not Forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season has been over for several weeks, and one of the few real bits of news to come out during the 2016 off season is that was Art Rooney II’s confirmation that Antonio Brown has cleared NFL concussion protocols.

In a word, Antonio Brown is not in a forgiving mood. In an interview with KDKA FM Brown pulled no punches regarding his feelings about the hit that cost him a chance to play in the Steelers loss to Denver:

Guys don’t want to stop me anymore. They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me, but we’re not gonna let them. What we are gonna do is win more.

Brown cleared up any confusion over the conflicting reports over whether he had a chance to play. National reporters quickly reported that Brown would miss the game, while Pittsburgh reporters insisted their was a possibility Brown would suit up. As it was, Brown confirmed that he had zero chance of playing.

Brown also confirmed that Adam “Pacman” Jones, who had accused Brown of faking his injury, had apologized to him. Brown did not respond, and questioned why the media gave Adam “Pacman” Jones such a platform.

Cincinnati Bengals the New Jerry Glanville Oilers?

Bad blood in division rivalries is nothing new to the Pittsburgh Steelers in either the AFC North or its processor division, the old AFC Central. In 1976, with Terry Bradshaw already out injured, the Cleveland Browns dumped Mike Kruczek on his head in a late hit and Jack Lambert ran the length of the bench to “Deliver the punishment.” A decade later Chuck Noll would openly call out Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville.

  • Glanville’s Oilers were the bad boys of the AFC Central in the late 1980’s, everyone hated them.

Yours truly can remember one interview where a Bengals player admitted that he almost wished injuries on the Glanville’s players, who was reputed to encourage his men to injury to opposition. Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche once went so far as to call an on-sides kick with the Bengals leading 45-0 in the third quarter. The Bengals recovered, and Wyche went for it on fourth down at mid field.

  • With Vontaze Burfict leading the way, the Cincinnati Bengals of this decade appear to be mimicking their former rivals.

Burfict reportedly celebrated after a tackle he made on Le’Veon Bell that ended his season. Video tape suggests that he attempted to injure Ben Roethlisberger. For those of you keeping score, those are three hits which, deliberately or not, injured the top three Steelers offensive starters.

Kudos to Antonio Brown for not forgiving Vontaze Burfict or Adam “Pacman” Jones. Football is a physical game and a violent game, but playing with the intent to injury should never be part of that game.

And Kudos to Antoion Brown for focusing on what’s most important, revenge through victory on the score board, not through cheap shots.

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Watch Tower: Deconstructing Bill Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 Off Season Analysis

With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season over, Watch Tower focuses its light exclusively on deconstructing Bill Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 off season analysis.

Bill Barnwell’s Grudging Respect for Steelers

In the interests of transparency, this isn’t the first time the Watch Tower has dissected one of Barnwell’s columns. And in fairness to Mr. Barnwell, he was probably more right on the Steelers contracts for Troy Polamlau and Ike Taylor that we cared to admit back then.

  • Barnwell recently focused on the Steelers 2016 season on ESPN in a 2,645 word ambivalent analysis piece.

The feel of Barnwell’s breakdown of the Steelers comes down to two words: Grudging respect, as captured by the second and third sentences of his column:

This isn’t the most successful run of the storied franchise’s history, with the controversial wild-card win over the Bengals serving as their first playoff victory since beating a Mark Sanchez-led Jets team in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. But they’ve consistently been in the swing of things in the AFC.

Barnwell feels compelled to balance his concession to the Steelers constant relevance in the AFC playoff picture by devaluing the validity of the Steelers most recent playoff victories and that sets the tone for his entire analysis. Yes, his task is to provide a sort of “Pro’s and Con’s” piece on Pittsburgh’s future prospects, but he almost reads like he’s channeling his internal Bob Smizik.

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Hopes

Bill Barnwell praises the Steelers for what everyone else is praising them for: Exceeding expectations via more sacks and turnovers on defense and exploding on offense in spite of injuries to Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant.

In doing so he cites any number of advanced saber metrics to document the Steelers offensive performance, and raises and important point – at least statistically – about the difficulty of sustaining the increase in turnovers.

  • There’s really not much to quibble about in Barnwell’s analysis of Steelers potential upside.

One might argue that the Steelers improvement in turnovers is due to something systemic, but Barnwell’s numbers are solid. The only real issue with Barnwell’s assessment of the Steelers upside, as that he seems to forget his own points when he examines the Steelers potential downside….

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Fears

…And you can see that immediately in his first paragraph. Right after praising the young talent the Steelers have surrounded around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Barnwell goes on to make a curious assertion:

The problem is that the Steelers have struggled to surround that young talent with the sort of solid depth that would raise Pittsburgh’s ceiling to that of a perennial Super Bowl contender.

Really? IT would seem that the Steelers depth is what allowed them to weather all of those injuries and put themselves a fumble away – made by a 4th string running back — from playing for the AFC Championship. Barnwell argues that the Steelers salary cap troubles are the main culprit behind their supposed depth issues. This was painfully true in 2013 and perhaps in part of 2014, but his supporting arguments just don’t jive:

This year, with injuries up on the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s inability to plug holes because of cap concerns became a bigger issue. Despite having one of the league’s most injury-prone quarterbacks in Roethlisberger, the Steelers had to save money on backups and paid Bruce Gradkowski and Michael Vick a combined $2.4 million, far less than even the Chase Daniels of the world get by themselves. They lacked badly-needed offensive line depth and were out of luck once Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down with season-ending injuries, leaving Pittsburgh with journeyman Cody Wallace and fascinating project Alejandro Villanueva in key roles for most of the season.

Where to begin….? First, the Steelers policy of keeping three quarterbacks and depending on experienced, veteran backups increasingly goes what most teams in the league do. Second, one of the reasons why the 2015 Steelers were so resilient was preciecely because Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva proved to be such cost-effective backups.

  • Finally, how exactly does Barnwell conclude that Ben Roethlisberger is “one of the league’s most injury-prone quarterbacks?”

Yes, Roethlisberger did have to leave three games with injuries in 2015. But he only missed a handful of snaps in 2014 and did not miss an entire snap in 2013. Ben Roethlisberger has taken much more punishment than most of his peers – and he be one player who “gets old fast” but toughness, not fragility has been Ben’s hallmark.

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Salary Cap

Barnwell devotes the last 1/3 of his critique of the Steelers to salary cap issues. The Watch Tower does not pretend to be a closet capologist, but Steel City Insider’s Ian Whetstone has looked at the Steelers situation and come to different conclusions. But if we accept that Barnwell perhaps has a point about the Steelers and Lawrence Timmon’s contract, he still appears to contradict himself.

Barnwell is highly critical of the Steelers secondary. So is Steelers President Art Rooney II, in so many words, so Barnwell’s critiques are on solid ground. Unlike Rooney, Barnwell names names, as he singles out the Steelers reliance on Antwon Blake and Will Allen. Then a couple of paragraphs down, he makes this assertion:

No fewer than six starters are hitting unrestricted free agency this offseason, and Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose them all. That includes three members of that secondary in Blake, Gay and Will Allen; they aren’t exactly stars by any means, but the only players in line to replace them are Cortez Allen and rookie second-rounder Senquez Golson, who combined to play one game in 2015 thanks to injuries.

Barnwell is right about the Steelers not being able to rely on Golson and Allen, but he undercuts his own consistency by critiquing the Steelers for relying on Blake and Will Allen and then turning around and critiquing them for being in danger of losing them.

His conclusion suffers from the same type of circular logic, as he tries to suggest moves the Steelers might make to free up salary cap space:

They can save $4 million by cutting Heath Miller, $1.8 million by releasing Shaun Suisham and $4.4 million by designating Cortez Allen as a post-June 1 release. That also leaves them without starters at three positions.

OK. First, Heath Miller is not going anywhere, 4 million dollar contract or not, but that misses the point. Shaun Suisham missed the entire 2015 season and Cortez Allen missed all but a handful of plays. Chris Boswell may very well have cost Suisham his roster spot, and Cortez Allen has not been considered a starter since mid 2014.

None of this is to say that Barnwell doesn’t make legitimate points. While the Steelers are no longer in salary cap purgatory, they still have a lot less room to maneuver than many of their competitors. Few people , including Barnwell himself, mentioned it, but few would doubt that keeping Brice McCain would have helped the Steelers secondary.

So it would be incorrect and unfair to write Barnwell off as a “knee-jerk naysayer.” But it also seems like Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 off season analysis suffers from a lack of objectivity on some level.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching Report Card + Special Teams and Unsung Hero Award

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if Mike Tomlin might be entering a new phase of his coaching tenure here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching and Special Teams Report Card.

steelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, coaching, special teams, unsung heros

Grading the Steelers 2015 Special Teams

2015 brought a decidedly mixed bag for the Steelers special teams. On the positive side, Chris Boswell was an unqualified success and in many ways the rookie saved the Steelers season. Antonio Brown showed he could still do damage as a punt returner. Danny Smith’s special teams also created a number of fumbles on kick returns, which is much needed.

  • There’s a flip side to the Steelers 2015 special teams, and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers have no one to return kicks, with Markus Wheaton Jacoby Jones and Dri Archer both proving to be abject failures (at least Wheaton was a failure as a punt returner – he was OK returning kickoffs.) And while the Steelers special teams spared themselves from glaring disasters, a couple of scary returns were brought back on penalties. Likewise, Josh Scoobe was a disaster as a place kicker, and contributed to two of the Steelers losses.

On balance the Steelers special teams were slightly above average in 2015 – given the injuries to the offense, the Steelers needed more from the unit. Grade: C+

Grading the Steelers Coaches for 2015

Any discussion of the Steelers coaches in 2015 must begin with the defense, where Keith Butler embarked on a new era, tasked with succeeding the legacy of Dick LeBeau – no easy feat. Butler proved to be more than up to the task. The Steelers 2015 defense might have given up more yards in 2015 than it did in 2014, but it gave up fewer points, improved in sacks and takeaways – all with only minor adjustments for talent.

  • A closer look is perhaps warranted at the role of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

The Steelers banked heavily on the development of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, and both men were disappointments. The responsibility for this doesn’t of course only lie on Lake’s shoulders, but he is their position coach, and by all accounts, Lake pushed hard for the Steelers to draft Thomas. He’s also spoken glowingly of Antwon Blake, who while he might get scapegoated far too often for the unit’s troubles, clearly was not the secondary’s strong link.

Moving over to offense, it is now clear with 20/20 hindsight that one of Art Rooney II’s best moves was to force Bruce Arians out. Mike Tomlin reacted by bringing in Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has grown and matured as a result of it. Yes, Roethlisberger’s late season “stupid interceptions” are a cause for concern, but that is something that can be corrected.

  • The naysayers might argue, “Ah, but Haley had all the weapons at his disposal.”

Yes, and any coach needs to have good players first – and having them is no guarantee of success. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference in performance between the Steelers 1991 and 1992 offenses. The 1991 was a muddling and bumbling at best under Joe Walton; under Ron Erhardt in 1992 the same talent performed much, much better.

  • Todd Haley started 3 quarterbacks, lost his all pro running back and center, lost wide receivers to injuries and suspensions and still fielded one of the NFL’s most lethal units.

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Art Rooney II showed his faith in Tomlin by extending his contract in training camp. Many in Steelers Nation questioned the move, clinging to the “He’s still only won with Bill Cowher’s players.” Yeah, whatever.

This is Tomlin’s team or Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s team. And Mike Tomlin has done pretty damm good with the group of player’s he’s assembled. It is one thing to mouth the words, “The Standard is the Standard” and/or “Next Man Up.” It is another thing to believe it, and yet another to get your locker room to accept it.

Yes, Mike Tomlin teams might still have legitimate issues with “Trap Games” but he’s proven himself to be an excellent head coach. Tomlin himself will tell you that any season that doesn’t end in a Super Bowl Championship is a failure. Fair enough. But 2015 probably represented his best coaching job. Grade: A

Steelers Unsung Hero of 2015

Everyone knows that Ben Roethlisberger took a lot of punishment during the early part of Mike Tomiln’s tenure as head coach. Debates raged over how much of that was due to “Ben being Ben.” Some of it undoubtedly was. But the Steelers, for whatever reason, employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building, and it showed.

Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, and DeAngelo Williams put together a lot of ESPN highlight material in 2015.

  • But none of their fireworks would have been possible without the quality offensive line play week in and week out.

Mike Munchak lost 40% of his offensive line, yet the unit improved from 2014 to 2015. One can only imagine how much more might have been accomplished had Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum stayed healthy.

As it was, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva acted as a rock of stability for the Steelers offense, and for that the Steelers offensive line wins the Unsung Hero award for the 2015 season.

Part I of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the offense.
Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Defensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher began the year by telling his students that he expected them to outperform the low expectations that others had for them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Defensive Report Card.

steelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, defense, secondary, defensive line, linebackers,

Defensive Line
2015 marked a new era on the Steelers defensive line, as it was the first time since 2000 that a Smith, a Hampton, or Keisel was not a start on the defensive line. 2015 also saw Johnny Mitchell’s long standing practice of rotating defensive lineman taper off. Cameron Heyward stepped forward as a leader of the Steelers defense, and he did it with authority registering 7 sacks and 55 tackles. Stephon Tuitt was not far behind, with six and half sacks. Steve McLendon had a quieter year, but the Steelers improve run defense does not come unless he is playing well.

While the trio of Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon provided Steelers Nation with a lot to like, not much can be said of the men playing behind them. Daniel McCullers played 105 snaps – up from 63 a year ago, but that pales to compared to the 216 snaps that Al Woods logged in 2013. Cam Thomas saw his snap percentage drop from 44.9% to a mere 16.9%, and rookie L.T. Walton only logged 29 snaps.

  • Heyward’s snap count was close to 90% and Tuitt’s was just under 80%.

It’s doubtful that Tomlin, Bulter and Mitchell would have played both men so much had they the luxury of rotating someone else in. Overall, the performance of the Steelers defensive line was very good, but Steelers defense came up flat whenever they couldn’t pressure the passer, and the defensive line must shoulder some of that responsibility. Grade:  B+

Linebackers
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking corps boasted four 1st round draft picks for the first time in franchise and possibly league history. Lawrence Timmons continued to lead this group and arguably had his best seasons since2012. Ryan Shazier came into his own, from his breakout game vs. San Francisco, to his stellar performance late in the season and in the playoffs.

Regarding the Steelers outside linebackers, Bud Dupree showed promise in his first year in the NFL. Three years into his NFL career, Jarvis Jones remains somewhat of a mystery. Coaches are always at great pains to point out how well he’s playing in pass coverage, but he still only added 2 sacks to his career total. By comparison, Arthur Moats managed 4 sacks and was more involved in creating turnovers.

  • James Harrison‘s showed that he certainly had something left in the tank – and then some.

Overall the grade of the Steelers linebackers must reflect the fact that they until was generally good, but not quite consistent tough to be considered as something special.  Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers accidental secondary is one of the most maligned units in franchise history, perhaps since the days of Lupe Sanchez and John Swain. While the Steelers secondary can in no way be considered a team strength, some of that criticism is slightly overboard.

On the positive side, Mike Mitchell had an excellent year, and vindicated the Steelers decision to make him into a priority-free agent signing. William Gay again showed he was probably, dollar-for-dollar, the NFL’s best cornerback. Will Allen also continued to make plays and Robert Golden looked solid in relief.

Antwon Blake has been the target of both fans and media criticism, and his poor tackling technique hurt the team on a number of occasions. In fairness to Blake, he’s probably a number 4 or number 3 corner who shouldn’t be starting. Ross Cockrell was a nice edition to the secondary, and has a nose for the ball. Brandon Boykin did what was asked of him.

When the Steelers front seven got pressure on the quarterback, the Steelers showed they could win with the secondary. Moreover, the secondary showed it could translate pressure upfront into turnovers. But without this support up front, the Steelers secondary was vulnerable.  Grade: C

Part I of our Steelers 2015 Report Card series graded the Steelers offense.
Part III will grade the Steelers 2015 special teams, coaches and name the Unsung Hero.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who thinks his start students learned a valuable lesson in — namely how to win games – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card, which grades the Steelers offense for the the 2015 season.

Quarterbackssteelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, offense, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown, deangelo williams
Everything in 2015 was supposed to hinge on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Yet Ben Roethlisberger had to leave three games due to injury and missed four starts due to injury. The Steelers went 2-2 in those missed starts, and won 2 of 3 closes in Ben’s absence. Michael Vick didn’t have much left in the tank, but he put it all on the field in the 4th quarter vs. San Diego and without that effort, the Steelers miss the playoffs. Landry Jones provides a more interesting study. He showed himself to be a competent backup in the regular season, but struggled in the post season.

Ben Roethlisberger played extremely well in 2015, although his late season penchant for “Stupid interceptions” was worrisome. However, he protected the ball in the playoffs. Taken altogether, the Steelers quarterbacks had a very good 2015. Grade: B+

Running Backs
2015 was supposed to be the year Le’Veon Bell proved that the concept of “franchise running back” was not dead. And had Bell played for more than six games, he might have. However, suspension and injuy ruined his 2015 and the lion’s share of the Steelers rushing effort fell to DeAngelo Williams, who played far better than any 32 year old running back had a right to. Fullback Roosevelt Nix also proved he belonged in the backfield, as did Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Dri Archer was the group’s only disappointment, but that cannot bring this grade down. Grade: A

Tight Ends
There are more than a few whispers with Heath Miller could be a Steelers salary cap casualty. Word is “Heath is slowing a step.” Let’s hope that is idle chatter rather than legitimate leaks coming out of the South Side. The numbers don’t really suggest Heath Miller is slowing a step. His catches are down slightly, but his catches per-target are up. His average yards receiving is down, but that could be due to the presence of other weapons. Matt Spaeth did not figure much into the passing offense, but his blocking helped the running game. Jesse James didn’t play until mid-season, but did what was asked of him, and looks to have a bright future. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
No disrespect to Cam Newton, but Antonio Brown deserved deeper consideration for NFL MVP. Antonio Brown’s performance is approaching that of a “Generational Player” – a special player like Joe Greene or Troy Polamalu who only comes along once a generation.

  • Below Brown, the Steelers situation at wide receiver is a little more muddled.

Martavis Bryant lost 4 games to suspension. He did play well early on, but struggled late in the year, only to bounce back in the playoffs. Markus Wheaton started fairly strong, and then struggled, but also finished the year on a strong note, although he did not step up quite as well in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey played extremely well in Bryant’s absence, and then again in the playoffs in Brown’s absence. Sammie Coates didn’t get much time during the regular season, but played very well in the playoffs. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
What a difference a little bit of depth on offensive line makes? The Steelers lost 40% of their starting offensive line, yet you wouldn’t have known it save for a few games and a few isolated plays. Cody Wallace filled in admirably for Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva played incredibly well at left tackle for a man who was new to the position. David DeCastro continued to emerge as a the road grader the Steelers drafted him to be, while Ramon Foster quietly played well. Marcus Gilbert vindicated the extension the Steelers gave him. Grade: A

Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card series grades the Steelers defense.
Part III grades the Steelers coaches and special teams.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Season Review – Learning to Win by Overcoming Adversity

When future historians pen the definitive history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 2015 will be a turnkey season. But in which direction did the key turn? Right now Steelers Nation can only wait for its answer. But today the 2015 Steelers have given us one undeniable truth:

  • Time and time again, Mike Tomlin and his players have demonstrated the resiliency necessary to overcome adversity.

The Steelers began 2015 with mixed expectations. Pittsburgh had closed 2014 unexpectedly strong by going 4-0 with the defense leading the way. Then 2015 began with a home playoff loss to the division rival Baltimore Ravens. Worse yet, the ease with which the Ravens beat the Steelers seemingly exposed Pittsburgh as a pretender rather than a true contenders:

  • Le’Veon Bell’s absence rendered the Steelers offense rudderless
  • The offensive line failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger
  • Pittsburgh’s pass rush couldn’t pressure the passer
  • Joe Flacco victimized the Steelers secondary

With on these underlying flaws laid bare, most pundits predicted Pittsburgh would take a step back in 2015. And the 2014 Steelers were AFC North Champions a year ago, their 2015 successors had to sneak into the playoffs.

No one can argue with those contrasting facts, but do they prove the pundits right?

2015 Adversity of the “Unknown Unknowns” Smacks the Steelers

All NFL teams plan for “what might go wrong.” Sometimes a team projects and plans accordingly, other times they project but take calculated risks and then there are the “Unknown Unknowns.” What’s an “Unknown, unknown?” in the NFL?

Unexpected adversity smacked the 2015 Steelers in the face early and often. Considered numerically, the numbers are daunting:

  • 46 starter games were lost to injury on offense
  • 6 more offensive starter games were lost to suspensions
  • 1/3 of the Steelers games, including the playoffs, saw a quarterback enter the game because of injury
  • 20 minutes 46 seconds – that’s the total time that Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le’Veon Bell played together
  • 40% of the Steelers starting offensive line finished the season in injured reserve

Those numbers paint a pretty grim picture. Fortunately saber metrics, DOVA numbers and fantasy football stats don’t win football games. Winning comes from somewhere else.

2015 Steelers Learn a Potentially Important Lesson

One of the underlying ironies of the Steelers 2015 season is that while you can quantify the adversity this team weathered, quantifying how the Steelers overcame is near impossible.

Oh yes, numbers abound. Keith Butler’s defense vastly improve Pittsburgh’s takeaway total, and you can even pinpoint no less than 7 times that opponents entered the Red Zone only to have the Steelers take it away.

  • But can you really measure taking the ball away in the Red Zone with a numerical value?

You can talk about how vs. the Chargers, Michael Vick hit a 71 yard touchdown strike to Markus Wheaton, and then followed it with another drive that saw him convert 3 third downs with passes to Darrius Heyward-Bey and Heath Miller while converting another with a 24 yard scramble.

  • But can is act of an aging superstar digging down to find “IT” one last time quantifiable in anyway?

You can discuss how Martavis Bryant took a Landry Jones check down pass simply intended to burn off clock time and transformed it into an 88 yard touchdown win sealing run against the Cardinals, or how Antonio Brown took a similar pass 57 yards in OT vs. Oakland set up the game winning field goal.

  • But do stat lines “88 yards, TD” and “57 yards, TD” really convey the value of these plays?

You can remind someone of how Ryan Shazier sealed victory over the Broncos with an interception or how he stripped the ball away when all looked loss in Cincinnati.

  • But how do you calculate the statistical value of the uncanny ability to force late game turnovers that defines all true great defenders?

While all of these facts and figures should impress, they’re insignificant when measured against the process that each of the represents – learning how to win games.

Make no mistake about it. More is involved in winning football games then throwing more accurately, running a little faster or, Jack Lambert please forgive me, hitting harder than your opponents. Teams learn “how to win” just as they learn “how to lose.”

  • The final minutes of the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals put on a clinic of one team going through the exercise of learning to win while the other demonstrated the opposite lesson.

On paper, by failing to win the AFC North crown, the 2015 Steelers might have taken a step back. But if, IF they can internalize the lessons learned above, any future 2015 Steelers season review will reveal that made immeasurable progress this season.

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Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and 8 More Sign Steelers Futures Contracts

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season ended in Denver on Sunday, and on Monday the team went about beginning its preparations for 2016. 10 players signed Steelers futures contracts (or more precisely “signed futures contracts with the Steelers), with fullback Roosevelt Nix and offensive lineman Chris Hubbard leading the way.

Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert and Steelers running backs coach James Saxon saw him in the offensive backfield. Nix made the transition to fullback during the Steelers 50th training camp at Saint Vincents in Latrobe and confounded critics by earning a sport on the 53 man roster.

  • Carrying two fullbacks at time when many NFL teams don’t even carry one seemed like a luxury.

Nix proved his worth, both on with his play on special teams and his ability to block in the back field for DeAngelo Williams, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger. Roosevelt Nix’s lower salary cap value for 2016 could cost fullback/tight end Will Johnson, who will soon be a free agent, his spot with the Steelers.

Chris Hubbard spent 2013 on the Steelers practice squad and has been on the active roster for 9 games, 8 of which came in 2015. With such little tape Hubbard is an unknown to Steelers fans, but it is hardly a surprise the Steelers have signed him, given that Ramon Foster is about to become a free agent.

In addition to Hubbard and Nix, who held spots on the Steelers 2015 regular season roster, the Steelers signed 8 more to 2016 futures contracts:

Jordan Dangerfield and Ray Vinopal, safeties
Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney, offensive lineman
Isaiah Frey, cornerback
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Caushaud Lyons, defensive end
Rajion Neal and Abou Toure, running backs
Shakim Phillips, wide receiver

Jordan Dangerfield, Matt Feiler and Xavier Grimble spent 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. B.J. Finney also spent training camp and a portion of 2015 on the Steelers practice squad while Caushaud Lyons spent time both on the Steelers active roster and practice squad. Safety Ray Vinopal is a Pitt graduate.

The term Steelers futures contracts might lead to some confusion, but it is merely a designation used for players who are free to sign with any team as soon as their season ends as opposed to players who must wait for the official start of free agency.

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Isaac Redman Deserves Respect from Steelers Nation, Not Ridicule

Who was the last Pittsburgh Steelers running back to rush for 100 yards or more in a playoff game?

The answer must be “Jerome Bettis” or maybe “Willie Parker” or perhaps even “Rashard Mendenhall” right? Wrong.

Redman offered a ray of hope in a very depressing Steelers loss. “Red Zone Redman’s” exploits in preseason during 2009 earned him cult hero status, followed by a roster spot 2010. The 100 yard playoff game seemed confirm Redman’s viability as a backup running back. But injuries led to an down-then up-then down again 2012, and more injuries led to a rough 2013, getting cut and ultimately retirement.

  • In the process, Redman went from being Steelers Nation’s cult hero to whipping boy

When he was an unheralded rookie free agent, Red Zone Redman could do no wrong. But when stumbled, fans turned on him quickly.

Steelers Nation met the Steelers cutting Redman in October 2013 with “Good riddance.” While the Steelers decision to cut someone who’d started just a few weeks before was strange, even season bloggers didn’t bat an eye in private correspondence. Steelers Nation reacted with outright ridicule at Steel Curtain Rising’s April 2014 suggestion, before his injuries became public, that Redman be brought back.

Unfortunately, the fact that Isacc Redman’s career was cut short by a serious spinal injury isn’t enough to absolve him of blame:

isaac redman, fitzgerald toussaint fumble, afc divisional playoffs, steelers, broncos

Isaac Redman deserves respect, not ridicule from Steelers Nation

Isaac Redman responded with pure class:

When people think of great Steelers running backs, names like Bettis, Parker, Franco Harris, John Henry Johnson, Merril Hoge and even Barry Foster come to mind. In his 1 season on the practice squad and three and a third on the Steelers active roster, Isaac Redman didn’t put himself in that category.

  • But before injuries derailed his career, Isaac Redman worked himself into a quality number 2 NFL running back which is respectable for an undrafted rookie free agent.

Isaac Redman deserves respect from Steelers Nation, not the ridicule that blaming him for Fitzgerald Toussaint implies. And this holds true even if that blame is coming from a small, and extremely ignorant, subsection of Steelers Nation.

 

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