Safety First? The Minkah Fitzpatrick Trade Literally Saved the Steelers Season

On the night of Monday, September 16, right after it was announced that the Steelers had traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I texted this news to my uncle.

He replied, “Haha, he sucks!” When I retorted with how he was the only fan who was reacting that way — the Internet was going crazy about it in the most positive way possible — my uncle texted back, “Ryan Fitzpatrick is washed up.”

  • You see, what I forgot to mention was that I failed to type “Minkah” when texting my uncle about the big news. Therefore, you can certainly understand his confusion.

After all, coming just hours after it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Injured Reserve list and would miss the rest of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that would require surgery, one might assume any major trade Pittsburgh made would involve acquiring a veteran quarterback.

No, maybe not someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but certainly a passer of some pedigree, a player who could possibly step in and salvage a season that had started out 0-2 and, with the loss of the franchise quarterback, seemed destined to go downhill very fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kameron Kelly, Mark Barron, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

But the truth was, despite his lack of experience as a professional, the Steelers were quite confident Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, could step in and lead the offense (whether or not this confidence was justifiable is still up for debate).

What they weren’t confident in, however, was the back-end of their defense, especially after free safety Sean Davis suffered a shoulder injury that, like Ben Roethlisberger, would require a lengthy stay on the IR.

Therefore, when Fitzpatrick, who was selected by the Dolphins with the 11th -overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, voiced his displeasure with Miami’s desire to tank the 2019 season in-order to obtain the highest 2020 draft pick possible and demanded a trade, the Steelers pounced.

That’s right, in an era when doing very un-Steeler-like things has become the new Steeler Way — and just months after trading several draft picks to the Broncos in order to move up to the 10th spot to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft — Pittsburgh offered the Dolphins a deal they simply couldn’t refuse.

It was a risk, and, quite frankly, it didn’t make much sense at the time, not when it appeared the 2019 season was headed for disaster, and it looked like Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would likely be a premium one.

Why go all-in in a season that didn’t figure to finish anywhere near Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, the site of Super Bowl LIV?

  • Because the Steelers saw a golden opportunity to add the final piece to a defense that they had been trying to rebuild for close to a decade.

While the winning didn’t start soon after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, you could definitely see a difference in the defense right away. In-fact, the Steelers recorded five takeaways in a disappointing Week 3 loss to the 49ers –Fitzpatrick’s first game as a member of the Black and Gold.

Speaking of which, after averaging about one takeaway a game before acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense has averaged over three times that many since the trade.

  • The defense has gone from averaging 445 yards given up per game without Fitzpatrick, to averaging roughly 300 given up with him in the lineup.

In seven games with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. If he isn’t yet in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, he likely soon will be.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s quickly becoming one of the most fierce and opportunistic in the NFL. After years of being considered a weakness and a second banana to the high-powered offense, the Steelers defense has now become the strength of the team and has made it a habit of compensating for the weaknesses of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s depleted unit.

What once looked like a helpless and hopeless season at 0-3 and 1-4 has turned into one where the playoffs are again the goal.

  • The Steelers are now 5-4 after having won four-straight games, and they’ve done so on the strength of their defense.

Would the Steelers have even considered trading for Fitzpatrick if not for the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Davis? Furthermore, would the Dolphins have even considered doing business with the Steelers without the very real possibility that Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would be a high one?

  • That’s impossible to say, but the only thing that’s certain is that the deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick saved the Steelers defense.

A trade for a safety saved a team’s season. Hard to believe.

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams – Who Got A’s, Who got D’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch to see half of his class excelling to their potential while worried that the other half keeps losing points due to misspellings and other sloppy mistakes, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Rams at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph passed for a career high 242 yards as he completed 22 of 38 attempts with no interceptions and one touchdown. Hardly numbers to impress a Fantasy Football owner. But what those numbers fail to demonstrate is the poise, control and command that Mason Rudolph displayed on the field. Ultimately, that proved to be a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels got his 2nd consecutive start and was limited to 40 total yards from scrimmage as he was neither a threat to run nor as a pass catcher. Tony Brooks-James got 11 yards on 6 carries. Trey Edmunds got 1 yard on 4 carries, although he did convert a critical 4th down pass. It wasn’t all their fault, but the Steelers needed more from their running backs. They didn’t get it. Grade: D

Tight Ends
The Steelers used a lot of two tight end sets in hopes of helping the offensive line against the Rams stout front seven. The lack of running lanes for the running backs and the punishment Mason Rudolph faced speak for themselves. Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 11 yards. Nick Vannett caught 1 of 1 passes thrown his way. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
James Washington took another stride forward in catching 6 passes for 90 yards, including a touchdown. Yet he coughed up the ball just as he was moving the Steelers into scoring position. Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes for 64 yards while JuJu Smith-Schuster, battling Jaylen Ramsey for most of the day, was limited to 3 catches for 44 yards. The Steelers wide outs must do better. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line had its stiffest test, so stiff that Mike Tomlin reconfigured it by moving Matt Feiler to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor to right tackle. Things didn’t start well as a bad snap spotted the Rams 7 points. Mason Rudolph had good time to throw at times, but he did take more punishment than he has all season. As for the running game? The Rams recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: D-

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

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave led the Steelers defensive line in tackles, including a key strip sack, which although  probably a gift from the officials, turned the game for the Steelers. Cam Heyward registered one helacious sack, another tackle for a loss, 2 passes defensed and 3 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a hand in a tackle behind scrimmage and 4 tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
We could have written this ahead of time:  T.J. Watt led the unit with 2 sacks including a strip sack. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 3 a piece while Mark Barron clocked in the most with 11 and 1 pass defensed. Strong play by the line backers, but cursory viewing replays suggest that the inside linebackers were largely responsible for the gaps that Todd Gurley and Malcom Brown exploited. Grade: B+

Secondary
Is Minkah Fitzpatrick for real? Or is Minkah Magic just a dream? Each week when the Steelers need a big play Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up on cue. The Rams game added to his lore, as his heads up fumble recovery for a touchdown and last minute interceptions were game changers. Mike Hilton played point man in shutting down Cooper Kupp, while Steven Nelson had a key tackle to force a third down with 11:44 left to play. Terrell Edmunds helped bat away a pass in the end zone, although he’s lucky he didn’t get called for pass interference. Grade: A

Steven Nelson, Gerald Everett, Steelers vs Rams

Steven Nelson makes key 3rd down stop on Gerald Everett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Special Teams
As usual the Steelers coverage units gave up a longish punt and kick returns. Ryan Switzer got negative yards on the one punt return he tried to bring back. Diontae Johnson returned 3 punts including one for 14 yards, but he had a fumble.

  • Chris Boswell was 1-1 on his field goal and perfect on PATs.

The key play for Danny Smith’s special teams was Trey Edmunds interception to stop a fake punt attempt, which could have been a game changer. Grade: B

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s taking a lot of heat. Some of it is justified, some not. Fichtner didn’t fumble those three balls nor did he drop those six passes. These types of execution errors are hobbling the offense. He’s also playing with a running game on life support.

However, winning and losing starts at the line of scrimmage, and the put plainly, Pittsburgh is consistently losing that battle when it comes to establishing the run.

  • In the 90’s, when Carnell Lake reported after ending a contract hold out, Dick LeBeau quipped to reporters, “I just became a better coach.”

The addition of players like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, paired with the maturation of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seems to be making Keith Butler much, much a better coach too. Seriously. The Steelers defense is performing at levels not seen since at least 2010 if not 2008 and has scored as many touchdowns as the offense in the last two weeks.

The Steelers started the season at 1-4 and, while injuries contributed to that “September stench,” they’ve remained and issue since then. Today they’re 5-4 and “Playoffs” are a real possibility for Pittsburgh. Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his team focused and finding ways to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two years he’s been the top dog in his unit. Steelers management agrees, so says the contract he signed before the season. Since then his spot in the pecking order has been displaced, but he’s but he’s not been deterred, as his five defensed passes led the team on Sunday, including a final one that set up the game sealing interception, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams.

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Defense Dominates, Steelers Defeat Rams 17-12 as Mason Rudolph Matures, Under the Radar

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams 17-12 at Heinz Field and improved their record to 5-4. While their margin was small, the men in Black and Gold very well may have gained something far bigger with this win.

  • Any NFL game where the winning team fails to break the 20 point mark is by definition a defensive game.

Add an exclamation point to that, when the game includes a safety, safety, two defensive touchdowns, follow by a strip sack and an interception on the final drive.

The Steelers defense was elite against the Rams and their play was certainly worthy of the block letter throwback uniforms they wore. And yet for all of the defensive fireworks, the most important development of the game may be the maturation of Mason Rudolph.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Rams

Stats might not show it, but Mason Rudolph made strides against the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Scary Start Leads to Slugfest in the Trenches

When your center snaps that ball above your quarterback’s head on the third play from scrimmage, its not good. When an untouched defender scoops up the loose ball untouched and basically walk into the end zone, its really bad.

That’s how things started for the Steelers as Maurkice Pouncey hiked the ball over Mason Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler got the Rams up 7-0 with less than 15 seconds elapsed. On the ensuring series, the Steelers offense managed just one yard as Jaylen Samuels ran for 3, Tony Brooks-James got stuffed for -2, and Rudolph failed to connect for with JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • Normally a start like that foreshadows disaster; on this day in Pittsburgh, it simply signaled the Steelers defense to snap in to action.

The defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams brought the NFL’s 10th ranked offense into Heinz Field
They left Pittsburgh as a unit that was outscored by its defense

Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp entered the game as the NFL’s number one receiver on third downs. Keith Butler’s boys focused on shutting him down. Mike Hilton had primary reponsiblity for that, but enjoyed help from Terrell Edmunds and/or dime safety Mark Barron.

  • Cooper Kupp left Heinz Field without a catch.

Mike Tomlin told the FOX commentator team that the Steelers game plan was to “Get to Jared Goff before they can get to Mason Rudolph.” The Steelers game plan worked.

Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave helped end Rams drives with third down sacks. T.J. Watt set up another third and long with a sack, and helped rattle him at the end with a strip sack. Vince Williams, Jordan Dangerfield and Mike Hilton also joined the party by registering quarterback hits and, while they weren’t credited, Bub Dupree and Mark Barron met T.J. Watt at the quarterback at least once.

If ESPN’s stats are to be trusted, when the dust cleared:

  • The vaunted Rams defensive front had sacked Mason Rudolph 3 times and hit him 8 times
  • The Steelers defense sacked Jared Goff 4 times and hit him 8 times

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s game plan worked.

Minkah the Man with Magnetic Hands

Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick earns his own section in this game breakdown. The unorthodox trade that brought Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh was questioned by many, including this writer.

  • Yet, there’s been no doubt that Minkah Fitzpatrick has worked magic with the Steelers defense.

Javon Hargrave’s third down sack of Jared Goff in the first half popped ball loose and it landed just ahead the line of scrimmage. To the naked eye, it looked like an incomplete pass. Yet, the referees sounded no whistle.

Minkah Fitzpatrick scooped up the ball and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown giving the Steelers a 7 point lead with 1:56 left to play in the first half.

When the game was on the line with 30 seconds remaining, Minkah Fitzpatrick worked his magic again, as Joe Haden (who had a pick of his own) deflected a pass with Fitzpatrick intercepted again, sealing the win.

The Maturation of Mason Rudolph

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense earned all of the praise being showered on it following the win over the Rams. But Mason Rudolph’s stand up performance is flying just underneath the radar.

  • Yes, the Steelers offense had to punt 9 times
  • Yes, the Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal after reaching the 7 with 2:49 left to play
  • Yes, the Steelers offense couldn’t kill the game with a first down with 1:25 remaining

And no, Mason Rudolph didn’t make any fantasy owners happy with his 22 of 38 for 242 and one touchdown passing day.

But make no mistake about it, Mason Rudolph made important strides against the Rams. He executed the drive that ended with a 3 yard pass to James Washington to perfection. After giving up his 2nd safety in as many weeks at the hands of the almighty Aaron Donald, he stood clam in the pocket and executed a 4th and 1 conversion by connecting with Trey Edmunds.

  • Those objective achievements are important but perhaps Mason Rudolph’s most important achievements came on the subjective side of the ledger.

Against the Rams, Mason Rudolph embraced his role as leader of the Steelers offense in a way he hadn’t done before. Repeatedly during the game, Rudolph stood at the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense, and unhesitatingly changed protections or audibled to a new play.

The Los Angeles Rams might have gotten to Mason Rudolph just a little less frequently than the Steelers got to Jared Goff. But the Rams never got into Mason Rudolph’s head, and that was the difference in this victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

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

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

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over the Colts – Guessing Right on Multiple Choice Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students realize that guessing the right answers on multiple choice questions will only get them so far, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

James Washington, Steelers vs Colts, Rock Ya-Sin

James Washington makes a critical 4th quarter 40 yard catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph was 26 of 35 for one touchdown and one interception at an economical 192 yards. At times Rudolph was spot on. At times he moved the offense was improve efficiency. Yet the Steelers offense stalled in the 4 of 5 trips to Red Zone. He also coughed up the ball. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Trey Edmunds saw his first action and did reasonably well, although most of his yardage came on one carry. Jaylen Samuels was not effective running the ball, but he did a lot of damage catching passes. His fumble however, proved to be costly. Tony Brooks-James got one yard on his first NFL carry. Roosevelt Nix saw some action blocking. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the offense’s lone touchdown and he caught 5 other passes. Nick Vannett had one target but the ball was not catchable. The run blocking wasn’t there for much of the game, and the tight ends bear some responsibly. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Another VERY quiet day for the wide receivers, who were only targeted on 11 of 31 passes. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches for 16 yards and let a ball bounce off his hands that got intercepted. Diontae Johnson caught one of 3 passes thrown to him, and had 1 run on a reverse for 2 yards. Johnny Holton had one pass thrown his way, which surprise, he didn’t catch. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph only suffered one sack and the ESPN stats indicate he was only hit 3 times, but Rudolph seemed to face more pressure than usual. The offensive line did some nice run blocking during portions of the game, at other times runners were getting hit at or before the line of scrimmage. The offensive line must be more consistent. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with a half sack and 6 tackles and a quarterback hit. Javon Hargrave was right behind with 4 tackles, while Tyson Alualu clocked in at one. The Colts had some success rushing the ball, and while the Steelers got to Colts quarterbacks pressure was inconsistent. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Linebackers
Bud Dupree continues at this wrecking crew pace, with two sacks and yet another strip sack which helped set up a Steelers touchdown. His tackle for a loss was critical. T.J. Watt had a sack and a half, and Mark Barron had a half sack. Devin Bush defended a pass and registered a tackle for a loss while Vince Williams and four tackles one of which was a loss. The linebacking was solid and spectacular at times, but greater consistency was needed. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers secondary has not seen the caliber of play it is now seeing from Minkah Fitzpatrick since Troy Polamlau was in his prime. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick six was a game changer in a minimum four point swing for the Steelers. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles and swatted away the two point conversion. Mike Hilton added a sack and Steven Nelson was second on the team in tackles. Joe Haden only had 3 tackles but his coverage was tight.

But like the rest of the defense, with these highs came the lows of several Colts scoring drives that seemed to come all too easy. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick pick six Colts, Joe Haden, Jack Doyle

Minkah Fitzpatrick nabs a picks six. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via the San Antonio Express

Special Teams
The Steelers continue to give up overly longish kick returns, and on the flip side, Ryan Switzer’s return efforts can be charitably described as “average.” But that can’t take the lust off of what the rest of the special team accomplished:

  • A blocked extra point
  • A forced fumble on a punt return that set up a field goal
  • A negated two point conversion
  • A 51 yard field goal

Oh, and Chris Boswell was 4-4 on his other attempts and perfect on extra points. The Steelers needed their special teams to be special against the Colts. And Danny Smith’s units delivered. Grade: A

Coaching
While there’s no reason for alarm at this point, Keith Butler needs to take a look at the tapes and see if he can diagnose whatever weaknesses the Colts exploited on 3 touchdown drives that looked all too easy.

  • Nonetheless, the defense made plays when it counted.

Randy Fichtner’s issues are a little more serious. The Steelers have been solid in the Red Zone up to this point in the season, but against the Colts they were 1-5 in terms of touchdowns. Reach the end zone on just one more of those and there’s no need to break out the Adam Vinatieri voodoo dolls as time expires.

  • The inability to get the wide receivers involved in the passing game is also worrisome.

Finally, for the second straight week Mike Tomlin remained aggressive at the end of the first half, and again he got points on the board, points that made a real difference when the final gun sounded. Grade: B-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers drafted him instead of picking a player at any number of defensive positions. He dazzled in preseason, only to author a rookie year which was known more for the plays which he didn’t make, rather than the ones he made. He dazzled again in preseason, but has largely been absent during the regular season.

  • Fans have grown frustrated even as beat writers assure us he looks strong in practice.

Against the Colts, he was four for four on targets including a 40 yarder that helped set up the Steelers go ahead score. Certainly this was no “breakout game,” but it was a solid performance when the Steelers needed one and for that James Washington win the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Colts.

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Steelers Defeat Colts 26-24 as Game Comes Down to “Who Makes the Last Mistake”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 as Adam Vinatieri shanked a field goal with 1:13 left to play.

  • The win evened the Steelers record to 4-4 and included several impressive defensive performances as well as a number of gritty offensive plays.

But that doesn’t hide the fact that Pittsburgh made more than its share of mistakes and sloppy plays. In that sense, the Steelers victory over the Colts affirmed the wisdom of the late Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who often reminded listeners, “More games are lost every week in the NFL than are won.”

Adam Vinatieri, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Colts, Adam Vinatieri miss Heinz Field

T.J. Watt signals “No Good” after Adam Adam Vinatieri’s miss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Defense Goes Big Play or Bust in 1st Half

The story on the 2019 Steelers thus far had been this:  After the week 1 debacle against New England, only a handful of plays separated a 3-4 Pittsburgh squad from victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore – 3 of the toughest teams in the league.

While the Ben Roethlisbergerless offense was finding its way, a resilient defense reaffirmed the Steelers relevance. That story while true, came with a big “But,” attached to it:

  •  “Oh, But the Steelers haven’t beaten anyone.”

That was true. Cincinnati and Miami are competing for the 1st pick overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, while the Chargers could contend for top 10 pick. The Colts brought a 5-2 record to Heinz Field were certain to offer a stiffer test. And they delivered on their promise.

Despite losing starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, relief pitcher Brian Hoyer moved the Colts offense with alarming ease during much of the first half, leading Indianapolis to two touchdown drives.

But the Colts defense more than held its own against the Steelers, limiting Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense to two field goal attempts on the Steelers only two trips to the Red Zone.

  • Yet the Colts were making mistakes of their own.

The Colts answered Fitzpatrick’s touchdown with a six play 1:36 minute touchdown drive but one that ended with Cam Heyward blocking the extra point. That left 0:42 seconds in the second half, and Mike Tomlin was determined to be aggressive.

Unlike Miami last week, Frank Reich’s defense only allowed piecemeal yardage, yet on what should have been the last play of the half, Darius Leonard got greedy and hit Vance McDonald late. The extra 15 for a personal foul gave Chris Boswell the yards he needed to attempt a 51 yard field goal which he nailed.

Two miscues by the Colts in the last 42 seconds of the 1st half netted 4 points for Pittsburgh. Four points which would come in handy for the Steelers down the stretch.

Who Makes the Last Mistake?

A few critical plays often define the difference between defeat and victory in the NFL. Sometimes contests are decided by who has the ball last – think the Steelers 2009 win over Green Bay at Heinz Field.

Other times, games come down to who makes an error at a critical juncture – think how the Steelers have sabotaged themselves with poor ball security over the last year.

  • The truth is that the in the Steelers match up against the Colts hinged on who made the last mistake.

Both teams made mistakes aplenty in the second half.

It says here that the Steelers won because they did marginally better at taking advantage of those mistakes, but they still needed the Colts to continue making them. Bud Dupree ended the Colts first procession with a strip sack, and the Steelers converted it into a touchdown thanks to a Mason Rudolph to Vance McDonald touchdown.

Yet on their next possession, the Steelers gave up a safety, only to have Ola Adeniyi, Terrell Edmunds force a fumble which Johnny Holton recovered. But despite getting the ball at their 17, the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

Chester Rogers fumble, Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Colts

Chester Rogers fumbles a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

With James Conner and Benny Snell out injured, the Steelers offense figured to see a lot of Jaylen Samuels. And see him we did. While Trey Edmunds got his first extended NFL action, Jaylen Samuels functioned as the focal point of the Steelers offense for much of the afternoon.

The Steelers gave Jaylen Samuels 21 touches, and while he did well, perhaps the biggest mistake Randy Fichtner made was in relying on him a little too much. Samuels was less effective in the 2nd half, particularly in the Red Zone.

And with the Steelers holding a 23 to 18 lead with just under 12 minutes left to play, he fumbled the ball, a fumble which the Colts only needed 7 plays to transform into a touchdown. But, in keeping with the tenor of the afternoon, Terrell Edmunds batted away the two point conversion, leaving the Colts with a meager 1 point lead.

Twice afterwards the Steelers had the chance to put the Colts away for good, but after a drive that started with an impressive 40 yard catch by James Washington and an opportune pass interference penalty on Diontae Johnson stalled at the 8, Pittsburgh had to settle for another Chris Boswell field goal.

  • The Steelers got the ball back with 3:58 left and conceivably Pittsburgh could have put the game out of reach with one first down.
  • Yet, they failed to get that first down.

The Colts got the ball back, and on the heels of one questionable pass interference call and another less questionable pass interference non-call, Indianapolis got all the way to the Steelers 22. Even after Bud Dupree dumped Marlon Mack for a 3 yard loss, all Adam Vinatieri had to do was knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • And, almost as if on cue, he hooked it wide to the left, and the Colts had lost to the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin explained it perfectly as he closed his press conference, “We’re far from where we want to be. But we’ll take it.”

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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Steelers Reserve Running Back Benny Snell Avoids Marijuana Charges, Fails “Idiot Test.”

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve running back Benny Snell Jr. was in the news this week and largely for the wrong reasons. On Wednesday the Steelers announced that Snell will be out for a few weeks after knee surgery from injuries sustained during the Steelers Monday Night win over the Dolphins.

That came a day after news broke that Harrison County, Ohio prosecutors had declined to charge Benny Snell for marijuana possession. Snell had been stopped for speeding on August 30th when police discovered marijuana in his car, and he admitted to having smoked it about 20 minutes before the stop.

  • So while prosecutors gave a pass on criminal chargers, Benny Snell failed the “Idiot Test” with flying colors.

Now comes the obligatory paragraph where the writer acknowledges that cultural, social and legal norms and mores on marijuana are changing rapidly. Moreover, it is clear that marijuana does offer legitimate medical uses.

Great. Got it. Now let’s also acknowledge:

  • Marijuana remains illegal under federal law
  • Marijuana is also illegal under Ohio law
  • Use of marijuana violates the NFL’s code of conduct
  • Its against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana
  • Marijuana gives off a highly distinct odor
  • Odor or no, police offers are permitted to search anything in plain view during traffic stops

Regardless of your views on marijuana, you knew all of this before you read it. Its likely that anyone from high schoolers or above know it too. Benny Snell Jr. knew all of that too and if he didn’t, he certainly should have.

Yet, he not only chose to drive after smoking marijuana in his car, he drove above the speed limit and while he had a bag of marijuana on the front seat (the bag had a Star Wars logo, we’re told.)

Snell won’t face criminal charges, but now that his offense is in the public eye, he could very well find himself in the NFL’s substance abuse program, which would include regular random drug tests. And for that, he has only himself to blame.

  • For the record I like Benny Snell.

Lack of depth at running back has plagued the latter part of the Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger era. Based on his play against the Chargers, Benny Snell looks like he’s at least capable of being a quality third running back behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels.

But what he did here is really dumb.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

No Charges for Chickillo, Could Still Face League Discipline

Speaking of charges, Steelers reserve linebacker Anthony Chickillo will not face charges stemming from an alleged domestic incident between him and his girlfriend during the Steelers bye week at Nemacolin Woodlands.

  • As a result, Anthony Chickillo has been removed from the NFL’s Commissioner’s list.

The move returns Chickillo to the Steelers roster where he’ll back up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. However, Chickillo isn’t out of the woods yet. Per Kevin Colbert’s statement, the NFL will continue to investigate the issue and he “could still be subject to discipline by the League Office under the Personal Conduct Policy.”

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminds us , Anthony Chickillo could face a six game suspension with as a first time offender, although the league office reserves the right to revise that upwards or downwards.

To make room for Anthony Chickillo on the roster, the Steelers released Jayron Elliott.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Dolphins – How Did Mason Rudolph Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his star student can sustain the mental toughness he used to get through a rather tough exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dolphins.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
Coaches let Mason Rudolph test the waters outside of the kiddie’s pool this week, and for the first 20 minutes or so Mason Rudolph looked like he wasn’t going to keep his head above water. After that, Mason Rudolph led the Steelers to score 27 unanswered points, including two drives that started with him standing in Pittsburgh’s own end zone. While this is impressive, Rudolph’s total body of work still shows he has a long way to go. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ground out 145 yards, ripping off several long runs that sparked the entire offense. Benny Snell had 13 yards on 5 carries, while Trey Edmunds got zero yards on his first carry as a Steeler. Roosevelt Nix was back, and helped pave the way for the Steelers rushing success. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes for 19 yards and Nick Vannett caught 1 pass for 15 yards. The presence of both men, along with Zach Banner who checked in as a third tight end on many plays helped make the run blocking a success. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
While his season thus far is not earning JuJu Smith-Schuster many fans among Fantasy Football owners , anyone who has doubts about status as an elite a wide receiver need look no further than his touchdown catch. JuJu had a monster night going 5 of 103 making critical catch after critical catch. Diontae Johnson’s 12 yard grab on 3rd and 11 got the offense moving, and his pre-halftime touchdown was simply sensational. James Washington caught one of 6 passes thrown his way. Grade: A

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

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

Offensive Line
The Dolphins made little secret of their plan to crowd the offensive line either by putting 8 men in the box or by going all out on the Blitz. In both cases, the Steelers offensive line met the challenge, including a heads up play by David DeCastro to recover a fumble. Grade: A

Defensive Line
In their first game without Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers offensive line smothered the Dolphin’s running attack and Cam Heyward terrorized Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half, sacking him, helping stop a 4th down conversion, while hitting him twice. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt continues at this pace, his name won’t be remembered alongside predecessors like James Harrison, Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter. People will put his name before theirs.

That’s saying a lot, but T.J. Watt continues to decimate opponents, logging two strip sacks against Miami, two tackles for a loss, and hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. Bud Dupree had a sack and an impressive drop deep in the backfield. Overall a strong night for the linebackers, but Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Mark Barron ALL missed tackles on Allen Hurns touchdown. That brings the grade down. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Secondary
Perhaps the only defensive back’s name that you heard against the Dolphins was that of Minkah Fitzpatrick who intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Oh, and Mike Hilton also forced a fumble. The Dolphins deserve credit for getting on the board fast, but the Steelers defense shut them down completely afterwards, and that only happens if Joe Haden, Steve Nelson and Terrell Edmunds are doing their jobs. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed his first kick of the season but nailing a 54 yarder at Heinz Field is a tall order. The Steelers gave up another longish punt return which didn’t impact the game’s result, but the trend is becoming annoying. Ryan Switzer’s returns were average. Grade: B

Coaching
Steelers coaches had been keeping the training wheels on Mason Rudolph thus far this season, and they took them off against the Dolphins. For a quarter and a half, Mason Rudolph looked every bit like the kid who should only ride his bike on the sidewalk. With the training wheels on.

  • But the Steelers coaches kept Rudolph on the street.

Randy Fichtner didn’t attempt to revert to the Wildcat, nor did he try to limit passing to chink and dink check downs. Mason Rudolph proved to be up to the challenge, although at this point his game has far more rough spots than smooth ones.

Outside of the sloppy play on Miami’s second touchdown, finding fault with Keith Butler’s defense would require a considerable amount of effort. OK, the Steelers defense was dominating a Dolphin team that is actively vying for the first pick overall. But you’re supposed to dominate in those circumstances, and dominate they did. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Things looked bleak after Miami put 14 points on the board in less than one quarter. The Steelers responded with a drive that burned off almost half of the time in the 2nd quarter, netting a field goal.

When Miami got the ball with 2:40 remaining, it would have been easy to play with an eye towards simply keeping the Dolphins off of the score board and getting into the locker room. Instead, the Steelers used a time out on defense and secured an interception.

  • Then they aggressively attacked the Dolphins from mid-field and scored a touchdown.

He takes a lot of heat over his clock management, but his aggressiveness sapped the momentum away from Miami and put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for the 2nd half and for that Mike Tomlin wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers MNF win over the Dolphins.

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