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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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Clinching Win over Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil squeak by on the pass/fail portion of his qualifying exam, and now waits with baited breath as his student prepares to enter the “real world” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the playoff clinching win over the Cleveland Browns.steelers, report card, grades, Cleveland Browns, playoff clinching win

Quarterback
While no one can claim that Ben Roethlisberger played poorly vs. the Cleveland Browns, the truth is elements of his performance are downright worrisome. Ben Roethlisberger’s two interceptions were very poorly thrown balls, heads up plays be his receivers prevented at least three more balls from being picked off.

If Ben Roethlisberger gives away interceptions like he did vs. the Browns, the Steelers season will quickly end in Cincinnati. This is a classic “Good but” performance if there ever was one. Grade: B-

Running Backs
The Browns were cued up on stopping DeAngelo Williams, and Williams found it difficult to find running room. He caught two out of two passes thrown to him, but was forced from the game by the beginning of the second half. Fitzgerald Toussaint quadrupled his carry total for the season, and while his 2.0 yards per average isn’t impressive, the determination he showed in playing to the whisle did. Toussaint also caught his first two point conversion pass. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Heath Miller’s stat line reads like this: 3 catches, 18 yards, on 4 targets 1 touchdown and his longest pass was for 11 yards.

  • Fantasy football owners who started Heath Miller probably regret the move.

Mike Tomlin, however, does not. The ball could have been easily intercepted on both Miller’s touchdown and his 11 yard reception, but in both cases Miller outmuscled the defender to the catch. Those are the types of plays simply win games while failing to show up on fantasy football stats. Matt Spaeth and Jesse James both played, but neither had a target. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown showed that he is mortal, barely, but fumbling away the ball. The Browns failed to convert it into points, but that turnover coupled with Roethlisberger’s interceptions gave the Browns the courage they needed to give the Steelers a run for their money. Outside of that, Brown’s game was flawless. The same cannot be said for Martavis Bryant, who was only targeted twice, and saw one of those picked off (not his fault) and the other he dropped. Markus Wheaton had a solid game with a 40 yard catch that helped set up the Steelers second touchdown followed by an excellent touchdown catch. Darrius Heyward-Bey made his return to the passing offense with a bang on a 66 yard reception. However, he did drop two catchable balls, including a touchdown. Brown and Wheaton pull this group’s overall grade up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Whatever is troubling Ben Roethlisberger, lack of pass protection cannot be called an issue, certainly not against the Browns. There were many plays when Ben could have written pages of his diary, the offensive line gave him so much time. And on those occasions, Roethlisberger made Cleveland pay. The Steelers run blocking, however, was not nearly what it needed to be, although DeAngelo Williams injury essentially meant the Steelers weren’t going to run much anyway. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit with a 2 sack day, he also dropped two Browns defenders behind the line of scrimmage and got to Austin Davis two more times. Cameron Heyward had a quiet day with one tackle, but that’s another example of how stats can mislead. Steve McLendon had one tackle, but it was for a loss. Grade: B+

Linebackers
The lack of pressure from the Steelers outside linebackers has been an issue of late, but Arthur Moats sacked Austin Davis once and recovered the fumble that Lawrence Timmons helped cause. James Harrison’s interception was exactly the type of play the Steelers defense needed after Roethlisberger had given them an opening to get back into the game. Harrison also batted away two passes, and he stuffed another runner to prevent a third down conversion. Ryan Shazier split a sack with Timmons. Vince Williams had 3 tackles and Bud Dupree. Grade: B+

Secondary
Let it be said that any of the teams making the NFL playoffs and their will provide the Steelers with a far stiffer test than the Cleveland Browns did, but the Steelers secondary seemed to step it up a bit after having been roasted by Ryan Mallett. Antwon Blake played a complete game, recording a sack and batting balls away while making no egregious tackling errors. Michael Mitchell was his usual self, as was William Gay. One take away and two other splash plays by the Steelers secondary were what was needed, especially on a day when the Steelers offense was turning over the ball. Grade: B+

Special Teams
On the negative side, the Steelers coverage team benefitted from another long return that got nullified by a penalty. And Chris Boswell missed another field goal. Granted, that was a 48 yarder, but the Steelers Super Bowl hopes could rest on Boswell’s ability to make another 48 yarder in another AFC North city just down I-75.

On the positive side, the Anthony Chickillo forced a fumble just after the Steelers offense had made the score 25 to 12 which allowed the Steelers offense to put the game away for good. Grade: B-

Grading the Steelers Coaches
Todd Haley’s game plan was sound, although the Steelers inability to run the ball against a weak Browns run defense is a little puzzling, although not worrisome. More worrisome for Todd Haley has to be Ben Roethlisberger’s suddenly erratic performance.

  • Is Ben Roethlisberger simply trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown or is something else at work?

It says here that “Ben to Brown” is a winning combination, but quarterbacks should never get on one wide receiver. Regardless of its root cause, Todd Haley and Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner must correct this situation immediately.

People can critique the Steelers defensive effort from a number of angles:

  • The Browns won the time of possession battle…
  • Cleveland scored at the tail end of the first half…
  • They opened the 4th quarter by cutting the Steelers lead to 5….

All of these type of stats can be made to hold an ominous tone. But the bottom line is that Keith Butler’s defense kept sacked Austin Davis 7 times, secured 3 turnovers, and kept the Cleveland Browns out of the end zone despite 3 turnovers by the Steelers offense.

  • That’s the type of play that is going to help the Steelers win playoff games.

As noted above, the turnovers by Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown could have been devastating, but fortunately the Steelers defense minimized the impact of the first two turnovers, and neutralized the next. Equally importantly, the Steelers offense had the mental toughness to avoid allowing the turnovers to take on a snowball effect.

It is true that the Steelers hardly dominated the Browns, especially early on. But one week after the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers most disappointing performances, Mike Tomlin had his team in bounce-back form that, while not perfect, won the game. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
Early in the game vs. the Browns there was one player who seemed to take last week’s loss to the Ravens personally, and made it his business to avoid a repeat. This member of the secondary had 7 tackles, 1 pass defensed, one QB hit, another tackle for a loss and a sack and he made his moves early and often, helping set the tone for the game. And for that Will Allen is the wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers playoff clinching win over the Cleveland Browns.

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Steelers Preseason from Hell Ends as Carolina Tops Pittsburgh 23-6

And finally it ended. It had to. But not before the Pittsburgh Steelers could suffer more injuries, several of which appear serious.

https://twitter.com/jledgePFS/status/639622880913960960

Finally, the Steelers preseason from hell ran its course. There was simply no more time left to play so the misery had to stop at some point. “Misery” accurately sums up the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers preseason experience.

  • It didn’t begin that way.

The Steelers preseason from hell began as all preseasons should – with promise. The 2014 Steelers finished with a bang, ok, they got banged by Baltimore in the playoffs, but the team’s 4-0 finish and return to the playoffs were signs of strength.

The Steelers preseason from hell started where 2014 left off. Cam Heyward, who’d emerged as an indisputable leader, got a contract extension. Mike Tomlin got a new deal as did Kevin Colbert, demonstrating Art Rooney II’s endorsement of the Steelers direction, and a total negation of the “Fire Everyone” crowd who wish that Daniel Rooney would act more like Daniel Snyder.

  • But there were warning signs. The Steelers began the season with 5 players on the PUP list.

It’s not unusual for the Steelers to place a couple of guys who are nicked on the PUP list but 5 was a large number and list of names now sounds ominous: Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Shawn Lemon and Senquez Golson. All 5 started training camp on PUP and none of them will make the Steelers opening day roster…

Starting training camp with 5 players on the PUP seems like a luxury considering the carnage suffered by the Steelers once they started playing preseason games from hell.

  • The Hall of Fame Game cost the Steelers Shaun Suisham
  • The Packers game cost the Steelers Pouency and Gradkowski
  • The Bills game cost the Steelers Garrett Hartley
  • The Carolina game saw the Steelers lose three backup offensive lineman, two of whom were lost on the last play

Oh, yeah, and third string quarterback Landry Jones got injured late, late in the Panthers game and had to leave the field. For those of you taking notes at home, the tally is 2 kickers one backup quarterback, a Pro Bowl Center and a host of other players.

At this point, in most blogs are professional sites dedicated to football, this would where the obligatory paragraph begins that decries preseason football, rants against the injuries to stars in “meaningless games” and rages against preseason football charging Major League Prices for Minor League Talent.

  • You won’t find that here. Not quite.

Yours truly has been and remains preseason apologist. Teams need a chance to evaluate young talent under “live fire” conditions and the only way to get that is in preseason football and 2 preseasons games isn’t going to give you that. 5 games, however, is quite excessive.

  • If the toll from the Steelers preseason from hell has been sobering, the injuries are perhaps not the most disturbing trend.

Injuries are part of the game and come with every preseason. But typically preseason injury news is balanced by stories of young players, either touted draft picks or unheralded rookies, making a name for themselves and staking a claim to an NFL roster spot. Steelers Nation has heard plenty about injuries, but heard scant little about young players on the rise.

Writing on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider, veteran Pittsburgh reporter Dale Lolley summed up the Steelers preseason from Hell syndrome like this:

…But the lack of offensive and defensive line depth is perplexing. I realize the starters are set at both positions, but doesn’t anyone want to fight for a roster spot anymore? [Emphasis added]

Following the Buffalo Bills debacle Mike Tomlin lamented the lack of fire in his backup layers, labeling them the walking dead, and wondered allowed why the competition for roster spots wasn’t more intense.

And that is what’s most disturbing about the Steelers 2015 preseason from hell. The Steelers starting offense has looked strong. The Steelers pass rush showed some life, even if Pittsburgh’s pass defense promises to struggle. Those are good things. But think of what didn’t happen:

  • No kick returner not named Antonio Brown emerged
  • Dri Archer failed to establish a role for himself as rusher or receiver
  • Josh Harris had a golden opportunity to establish a roster spot and failed to do so
  • Shamarko Thomas, by all accounts struggled and could sit behind Will Allen
  • Neither Jarvis Jones nor Cortez Allen did anything to show they’d turned a corner

At some point soon, yours truly will publish an article on Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep Steelers site discussing both how and why the NFL needs to drastically reshape the way it market’s preseason football to make it relevant to the modern fan. The article ends by offering the NFL a free tag line to promote the preseason: “Preseason football – Not a Preview, a Proving Ground.”

Steelers Nation certainly hopes the 2015 Steelers preseason from hell isn’t a preview. But unfortunately, once you set the injury issues aside, the biggest story on the Steelers preseason from hell focuses on what they failed to accomplish as opposed to what young hopefuls proved.

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Steelers Starting Defense Should Play Preseason Finale, Tomlin Must Send Message

Mike Tomlin has declared that all established starters will sit Thursday night in the Steelers preseason finale vs. Carolina.

This is standard operating procedure during the Mike Tomlin era and, given season ending injuries the Steelers suffered to Shaun Suisham, Garrett Hartley and Maurkice Pouncey, Tomlin’s policy appears all the more prudent.

  • But Mike Tomlin is making a mistake.

Instead, Mike Tomlin should be sending a message. The Steelers starting defense should play defense vs. Carolina Thursday night. Every healthy established starter should be required to suit up and play this final preseason game. Tomlin’s message to them should be simple:

  • You earn your rest for the final preseason game. Force a punt or secure a turnover, and sit. Let them score and continue to play.

There is precedent for this. In the penultimate game of the 2008 Steelers season, the Steelers traveled to Tennessee and lost badly. The team appeared unfocused. Mike Tomlin defined conventional wisdom and played his starters in the Steelers 2008 season finale vs. Cleveland, claiming he wanted to rid the team of the bad taste of losing before entering the playoffs.

Not that Tomlin’s strategy didn’t carry real risks. In fact, the Steelers came close to paying a very hefty price when Ben Roethlisberger was injured with what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette labeled a spinal concussion. Had the 2015 NFL concussion protocols been in place, Bryon Leftwich might have ended up starting the Steelers playoff game vs. San Diego.

But the Steelers defense was bad vs. the Buffalo Bills. Very bad. While the unit clearly has talent to perform better, the defense is struggling. Worse yet, the performance was lack luster. Tomlin himself described his players as “the walking dead.”

Yes, taken in context, Tomlin’s critique was directed at the younger players supposedly struggling to earn their place in the NFL. Fair enough. But the Steelers first string defense gave up touchdown passes on the opening drives vs. the Packers and the Bills and, quite frankly, both teams made it look easy. This is a cycle which Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler must break.

The 2014 Steelers defense struggled during much of the year as the offense emerged as a dominant unit in the NFL. But during the final four games of 2014, the defense improved and that improvement drove the Steelers 4-0 finish. Mike Tomlin coaxed this improvement out of his defense opening the competition for roster spots and playing time.

  • Tomlin should have applied the same philosophy to the Steelers preseason finale vs Carolina.

The 2015 Steelers defense might already have “established starters” but the number of proven starters on defense is far more finite. They are Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons and William Gay.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Michael Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Cortez Allen, and Stephon Tuitt still have a lot to prove. If these men are healthy, Mike Tomlin should have them suit up and prove they belong.

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Steelers Trade 6th Round Pick for Josh Scobee

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not had much luck with place kickers during this 2015 preseason. First the Steelers lost veteran Shaun Suisham  to a torn ACL in the Hall of Fame Game. That led the team to sign Garrett Hartley, who looked pretty solid, but Hartley ended up injuring himself during the Steelers debacle vs. the Bills.

  • And there’s still 1 more preseason game to go….

That scenario saw the Steelers trade a 6th round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for place kicker Josh Scobee. This is the second trade the Steelers have made this off season, having given up a conditional pick to get Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Schobee has kicked in the NFL since 2004 but a training camp battle with rookie Jason Myers made him expendable. The trade was contingent on the Jacksonville Jaguars picking up part of Josh Schobee’s salary, which they agreed to do.

While not as accurate as Shaun Suisham, Schobee has proven himself to be an accurate kicker during his NFL career, and has a strong leg for kickoffs. What he does lack, however, is a proven ability to play in the elements, which can be a particular test at Heinz Field.

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Is It Too Early To Worry About the 2015 Steelers Defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 43-19 preseason decision to the Buffalo Bills in a game that was every bit as a bad as the score indicates. Starting a quarterback quartet that didn’t feature a player named Marino, Brady, Staubach, or Favre, the Bills completed 90% of their passes. Absent their top running back the Bills averaged 4.5 yards a carry and ripped off runs for 41, 22, and 20 yards.

These Steelers Bills preseason video highlights are not easy on the eyes, Steelers Nation:

Rarely does Mike Tomlin reveal much in post-game press conference because he pleads a need to review the tape. After the Bills blow out, Tomlin shunned his typical reticence:

Some of our young guys who pushed through this game, who are quite frankly fighting for jobs, did not execute without enough detail to be in consideration. And that’s disappointing…. Some of those guys looked like they were just walking dead. [Emphasis added.]

That’s a pretty harsh condemnation from a head coach, particularly for one that will begin making cuts in close to 48 hours. Tomlin’s tone was more than matched on social media.

Steel Curtain Rising was far from above the fray, churning out this Tweet:

  • With that said, it is only appropriate to ask, it too early to worry about the Steelers 2015 defense?

Make no mistake about it, giving up 43 points, getting gouged for double-digit yardage on almost ever drive, and only forcing one punt is unacceptable, even if the Steelers defense was missing Lawrence Timmons, Michael Mitchell, and Stephon Tuitt.

But with those criticisms firmly on the table, let’s take a step back and put the Steelers defensive failure vs. the Bills in context.

2015 Steelers Defense in Preseason

The Steelers began the 2015 off season by dismissing Dick LeBeau and promoting Keith Butler to defensive coordinator.

When LeBeau left Pittsburgh in 1996, both of his successors, Jim Haslett and Tim Lewis were not hired to implement a new system, but rather to administer the one installed by in 1992 by Bill Cowher, Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Marv Lewis. In contrast, under Keith Butler, the Steelers are making a shift towards Cover 2.

  • Let that sink in for a moment.

For the first time in 23 years the Pittsburgh Steelers are adopting a new defensive system. Expecting a seamless transition might be ideal, but is hardly realistic. Fair enough, but giving up 43 points suggests the transition has derailed.

  • The question is, are those 43 points given up to a no-name Bills offense characteristic of the 2015 Steelers defense?

There’s not a lot of data to go on, but prior to Sunday’s defensive debacle in Buffalo, the Steelers defense gave up 14, 23 and 24 points against the Vikings, Jaguars, and Packers. While the upward trend troubles, you can give up 20 points and still win a lot of games in the NFL.

Against the Steelers defense in preseason the Vikings quarterbacks completed 73% of their passes, the Jaguars quarterbacks 67% and the Packers quarterbacks only 59%. This is logical, considering that the sack totals of the Steelers defense jumped from 1, to 2, to 6 in those first 3 preseason contests.

On the ground, prior to the Bills debacle, the Steelers defense had been getting stingier as the preseason progressed, giving up 3 yards per carry vs. the Vikings, 3.1 vs. the Jaguars, and 2.8 vs. the Packers. Again, the trend was headed in the right direction.

  • While those tendencies offer encouraging signs about the Steelers defense, others do not.

The average yards per catch allowed by the Steelers defense is unmistakably headed in the wrong direction, with the Steelers allowing the Vikings 8.5 yards per catch, the Jaguars 10.8 yards per catch and the Packers 12.4 yards per catch. The number jumped again vs. the Bills, who averaged 13.2 yards per catch.

2015 Steelers Defense Warrants Worry But Not Panic. Yet.

Steel Curtain Rising has long argued that while preseason wins and losses mean almost nothing, the performances of individual units or individuals that lead to those results can be revealing.

For example, the preseason-run blocking difficulties of the 1998 Steelers offensive line signaled the struggles to come in the regular season.

  • And so it looks to be the case with the 2015 Steelers pass defense.

While the Steelers 2015 pass defense won’t give up 90% its passes, it does appear that this unit is very vulnerable to the deep ball. Shamarko Thomas and Mike Mitchell haven’t played much together in practice let alone the preseason, and those two men are the Steelers last line of defense against the deep pass.

This isn’t to say that the 2015 Steelers defense can’t improve as the year goes along, but evidence indicates that they’ll struggle before they swim. So no, Steelers Nation, panic is not in order, but its not too early to worry about the 2015 Steelers defense.

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Steelers Bills Preseason Summary: Steelers Secondary Scorched by Bills QB Quartet

Traditionally, the Pittsburgh Steelers next-to last preseason game is their dress rehearsal for the regular season. In recent years, Mike Tomlin has not even dressed let alone played most of his starters for the final preseason game.

  • Steelers Nation had better hope the Steelers preseason effort vs. the Bills was not preview of things to come

The highlights, from a Steelers perspective, were short and sweet. DeAngelo Williams ran strong albeit for all of three carries. Michael Vick looked like he’d ran the Steelers offense for a decade and Martavis Bryant played like a stud instead of a stoner. Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell avoided injury.

Outside of that, the game was a total disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Dean of the Steelers press crops summed it up this way:

That was the first quarter. Unfortunately it got worse for Pittsburgh. The Buffalo Bills played four quarterbacks, and the Pittsburgh Steelers made each of them look like All Pro Candidates combining for 30 of 33 pass attempts. That’s a 90% completion rate. The Steelers defense did not fare any better on the ground, as the Bills racked up 156 yards rushing.

  • Sure, one can fall back on the mantra, “Its only preseason.”

But when all was said and done, the Bills offense scored 6 touchdowns on the Steelers. That is unacceptable, regardless of who is in the game. The Steelers dismissed Dick LeBeau promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator in hopes of halting the slide of the Steelers defense. Unfortunately, the until appears to have regressed.

Archer Absent?

Leading into the Steelers-Bills preseason game, Steel Curtain Rising opined that running back Dri Archer had the most to gain from Martavis Bryant’s suspension. Dri Archer did well enough with the carries and catches that he had, but he only had 3 in total – hard enough to cement a role for himself in the Steelers offense.

Hartley, Dupree Injured

To further complicate matters, the Steelers lost first round draft pick Bud Dupree to a foot injury and, perhaps more ominously, place kicker Garrett Hartley was also injured and will require an MRI…. Australian punter Jordan Berry moonlighted in his stead, and acquitted himself well.

Berry might have also punted himself over fellow Australian Brad Wing for the punting job, by booming off a 75 yard punt and averaging 57 yards per punt.

That’s good news, because the Steelers defense will a punter who can put opposing offenses as far back as possible.

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Martavis Bryant Suspension = Dri Archer’s Opportunity

The Martavis Bryant’s suspension has left the Pittsburgh Steelers reeling. Everyone knows that. Before Martavis Bryant scored his first touchdown vs. the Houston Texans, a 35 yard bomb from Ben Roethlisberger, the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers were 3-3.

  • The Steelers closed out the season 8-2.

OK. There are a lot of players besides Bryant to deserve credit for that. Le’Veon Bell elevated himself to elite back status during that time. Antonio Brown did what he does. The offensive line improved. And so Dick LeBeau coaxed some much needed improvement out of the Steelers defense to close his tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator.

  • But Bryant showed game-changing, big play ability that translated into incredible firepower for the Steelers offense.

That’s gone now, at least for the season’s first four games. Worse yet, Bryant can earn a 10 game suspension with a single piss. That’s quite an accomplishment for a player with 10 NFL games under his belt….

News of Bryant’s suspension shifted attention to who would take his roster spot, with the focus falling on C.J. Goodwin, Shakim Phillips and Tyler Murphy as the Steelers head into their preseason game vs. the Bills. Each of these three roster bubble players have had their moments in preseason and it is all but certain that Martavis Bryant’s suspension opens a roster spot for one of them.

  • But a roster spot does not equal a role in the offense let alone a helmet on game day.

And the one player to stands to gain the most from Bryant’s suspension is all but guaranteed a roster spot and his name is Dri Archer. The Steelers drafted Dri Archer a round before drafting Bryant in the 2014 NFL Draft and the move quite frankly caused a lot of head scratching.

Yes, Dri Archer’s 4.26 time in the 40 made him the fastest man in the 2014 NFL Draft. But he was small. Dri Archer’s 5’8” 173 pounds statue led many to question not only his status as a third round draft pick but also even whether he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers nonetheless had big plans for Archer. They use his speed as a kick returner and planned to unleash his versatility as a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett. By any measure Dri Archer disappointed in 2014. He returned 1 punt for 2 yards and only 9 kicks, with the longest coming in at 23 yards.

As a rusher, Dri Archer only gained 40 yards on 10 carries, and 15 of those came in one long run. Things weren’t much better through the air as Archer’s 10 catch 23 yard resume betrays none of his break away speed.

Fair enough. Rookie seasons are supposed to be tough. A quick look at the Steelers 2014 preseason stat sheet reveals that Dri Archer is the team’s number 2 receiver and number 2 rusher. Sounds impressive, but is it? Not really. 8 carries is hardly something enough to hang your hat on, and 7 catches for 41 yards isn’t much either.

  • But the Steelers need someone else to help stretch the field in Bryant’s absence.

On paper, Dri Archer would seem to be the one player who could do that. Opportunity is knocking at Dri Archer’s door. The question is, how will he respond?

Dri Archer’s opportunity is standing right infront of him. He would do well to begin taking advantage it during the Steelers-Bills preseason contest.

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4 Game Martavis Bryant Suspension Leaves Steelers Reeling

Several outlets are reporting that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant faces a four game suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policies. Bryant, whom the Steelers drafted in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL Draft went from not dressing for the first 8 games of the season to finishing the season with 8 touchdowns.

  • The Steelers had counted on an explosive year of growth from Bryant to had yet more fire power to one of the NFL’s primer offenses.

The Martavis Bryant suspension adds more bad news to a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that was already reeling from a long-term injury to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. As things stand, the Steelers figure to be without Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell and now Bryant for their opener vs. the New England Patriots.

  • The news however as implications that are far more disturbing than simply losing Bryant for a quarter season.

It takes effort for an NFL player to get suspended for substance abuse. As Jim Wexell explained on his Steel City Insider site:

To draw a four-game suspension, a player must have failed three drug tests, which are administered every spring. If a player has failed only twice, and the league has determined the player hasn’t followed league protocol and fulfilled its requirements, a player can be suspended four games.

Translation: This wasn’t Martavis Bryant’s first rodeo. He knew he’d been caught using something illegal, he knew the NFL was monitoring him for continued usage, yet he continued to use.

Foster Confirms NFLPA Will Fight for Braynt

Steelers starting guard Ramon Foster, who is the team’s NFLPA representative, confirmed that NFLPA will fight the Martavis Bryant suspension as Bryant has vowed to appeal. As he does so, he’ll have the full support of the NFLPA. For whatever that’s worth….

What Steelers Roster Bubble Player Benefits from Bryant’s Suspension?

While the Martavis Bryant suspension deals a huge blow to the Steelers, his suspension creates opportunity for someone else down the ladder. Obviously the move does not impact Antonio Brown’s position on the team. Markus Wheaton will undoubtedly continue in his starting role, a job which Bryant was challenge him for. Darrius Heyward-Bey will likely move into the 3rd wide receiver role. The 4th spot could go to Sammie Coates.

Early on in camp C.J. Goodwin has a buzz about him as an official “sleeper” however Mike Tomlin has been signing the prasises of Tyler Murphy recently and Shakim Phillips has also turned heads.

Both Murphy and Philips caught touchdown passes in the Steelers preseason win over the Packers, and assuming the Steelers keep 5 wide receivers on their opening day roster, either one of them has the chance to find himself as the target of a Ben Roethlisberger pass during September.

 

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Defending the Steelers Michael Vick Signing

Who said preseason was boring? Just days ago the story on Steelers quarterbacks centered on Landry Jones’ development and Bruce Gradkowski’s PUP activation. Now Gradkowski is on injured reserve and the Steelers have signed Michael Vick

All one need do is peek at Twitter:

While some tweets such as the above, were humorous, others were not:

https://twitter.com/ToddRoy57/status/636358025872175104

In a word the Steelers Michael Vick signing is controversial. And this is understandable. Michael Vick is a convicted felon and who spent 21 months in federal prison for his role in running a dog fighting ring. There’s no sugar coating what Vick did. He mangled dogs, he drowned them, he electrocuted them.

  • Such crimes are as heinous as they are inhumane.

The Steelers nonetheless have signed Michael Vick and welcomed him into their locker room, sending much of Steelers Nation up in arms. Defending the Steelers Michael Vick signing might not be popular, but the move is consistent with the franchise’s values, it is morally justifiable and finally it makes football sense. Now let’s proceed to these three points in order.

Steelers Michael Vick Signing is Consistent with Franchise Values

Steelers fans and Steelers bloggers, including this site at times, like to wrap a halo around the Steelers and the Rooney’s as the NFL’s good citizens. The fact is that the while the Pittsburgh Steelers generally run one of the cleaner shops in the NFL, they don’t deserve any halos.

Yet even if one accepts that, there are other who charge that the Steelers Michael Vick signing contradicts the values the franchise has long stood for. One such Tweet from Dominic DiTolla illustrates this:

https://twitter.com/DDiTolla_SC_FS/status/636232405054029825

I’ve only interacted with Dominic DiTolla a few times on Twitter, and do not claim to know him well, although I was a fan of his work at the old NicePickCowher site. His overall commentary on Twitter regarding the Vick signing is reasonable and balanced, but yours truly disagrees and argues that there is a “Steelers Way” (albeit one that falls far short of being saintly) and the Vick signing does not contradict that.

  • Wait! How can you say that knowing what Vick did?

Consider this scenario:

A player going through a divorce needs money. Dan Rooney offers to help and asks him to come to Pittsburgh. The player drives from Texas. He arrives in Pittsburgh too late and the Steelers offices are closed. So the player drives west through Ohio….

The player, who has a 9 millimeter and a shot gun with him, feels that trucks are trying to run him off the road and starts shooting at their tires. The police begin a high speed chase. The player drives off the highway, breaks an axel, loses a tire and abandons his car, at which point he fires at a police helicopter and wounds an officer in the leg. The player tries shooting at another officer on foot but his gun jams. He doesn’t stop until police literally put a gun to his head.

  • Such a player would certainly have played his last down for the Pittsburgh Steelers, right?

No, that player was in fact Ernie Holmes. The Steelers learned of the incident, vouched for Holmes, got him released under psychiatric care, and Holmes went on to start in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X alongside Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White as the original Steel Curtain.

The Steelers gave Ernie Holmes a second chance. And while Holmes was always a handful, he never remotely did anything approaching the highway incident in Ohio again. If Holmes deserved a second chance, so does Michael Vick.

But Wait! Holmes Had Psychological Problems, Vick’s was Premeditated Crime

Yes, unlike Vick, Ernie Holmes had diagnosed psychological problems. Vick’s was a cold blooded premeditated crime pure and simple. All true. But Michael Vick has gone to prison for his crimes. He has been punished, he has repented, he has kept a clean record since then, and he has worked to make amends with animal rights groups.

Fans forget, but former Pittsburgh Steelers player and assistant coach Tony Dungy has personally counseled Vick since his release. There are few men in the NFL with more integrity than Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy is Mike Tomlin’s mentor. He knows the Rooneys well. Mike Tomlin mentioned doing due diligence before signing Vick. You can bet that part of that involved a call to Tony Dungy.

  • The Steelers do have a history of getting rid of bad apples (see Bam Morris to name one).

But the Steelers also have a history of giving players second chances. Two of them are named James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger. In short, Michael Vick committed his crime, paid his debt to society, stayed clean and has earned a second chance.

The Steelers Signing Michael Vick is (Plausibly) the Right Football Move

The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will not and should not enter the season considered Super Bowl favorites. But they are Super Bowl contenders. The same thing could be said in 2008. Unfortunately, early in training camp that summer Charlie Batch broke his collar bone.

  • Mike Tomlin wanted a backup quarterback capable of leading the team should Roethlisberger go down.

Within a day Byron Leftwich and Duante Culpepper were in Latrobe, working out for the Steelers. Both former first round draft picks looked strong, but Leftwich was comfortable with his backup role. The Steelers signed Leftwich. Fortunately they didn’t need him much, but when Ben Roethlisberger went down vs. the Redskins in Washington, Leftwich stepped in and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.

  • Anyone argue that the Steelers dominate that second half the way they did if Dennis Dixon were to have played?

Tomlin himself explained the Steelers decision to sign Vick by going back to that summer of 2008. Landry Jones might have improved, but he clearly isn’t ready to play for the Steelers should Roethlisberger go down even for a short stretch.

Is Michael Vick ready? That’s an open question, as Dominic DiTolla’s tweet indicates:

https://twitter.com/DDiTolla_SC_FS/status/636337774199640064

Those numbers are not encouraging in today’s NFL. Divisions within Steelers Nation over Vick’s viability as an NFL quarterback are almost as sharp as they are over the moral issues surrounding his signing.

  • At 35, Vick’s days as an NFL starting quarterback are over. Fortunately the Steelers are not bringing him into start. God willing, they won’t need him.

But the bottom line is that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin both believe in the dying art of staffing your backup quarterback position with an experienced veteran. While stats geeks like Bill Barnwell argue that this is salary cap folly, the success of players like Tommy Maddox, Leftwich and Batch speak vindicate Colbert and Tomlin’s approach.

  • In that light, Vick was the best backup veteran quarterback available.

Perhaps the Steelers could have picked up someone via the wavier wire but that’s involves a big roll of the dice on something that might not happen. Even then, the said newly unemployed veteran would not know the Steelers offense.

Does Michael Vick still have anything left in the tank, even as a backup? If all goes well, Steelers Nation never finds out.

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