A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.
Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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Maurkice Pouncey Retires Signaling the Beginning of the End of an Era for Steelers Offensive Line

Pittsburgh Steelers center and perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, marking the official beginning of the end of an era in Steelers offensive line history.

Fans can be forgiven their frustration over the last two seasons as the Steelers offensive line has slipped for one simple reason:

  • For almost half a decade, it was almost a given the Steelers had the best offensive line in NFL.

The Tomlin era certainly didn’t start that way. Mike Tomlin inherited a strong, albeit aging offensive line that promptly fell apart in after the 2007 season and then had to be rebuilt during the 2008 season. What followed was a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building that saw the Steelers sign an entire starting offensive line to 2nd contracts only to cut all of them before they completed their deals.

Indeed, Pouncey arrived at St. Vincents, in Latrobe, with Super Bowl veteran Justin Hartwig as the incumbent and forced him off the team less than a year after he’d signed a 4 year contract with the Steelers. From there Pouncey was a fixture at center, continuing the legacy of excellence at the position that began with Ray Mansfield, continued through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

But it was anything but easy.

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Overcoming Injury a Constant for Pouncey

During the 2010 AFC Championship win over the New York Jets Maurkice Pouncey suffered a dreaded “high ankle” sprain. The team “kept the light on for him” but he was unable to play in what would be his only Super Bowl.

  • This was the first of many times injuries would challenge Pouency.

A high ankle sprain would hobble him again against the Browns in 2011 keeping him from the 2011 playoff loss to the Tim Tebow Broncos. In 2013 David DeCastro would fall on Maurkice Pouncey’s leg, breaking it and finishing his season after just 8 snaps. In 2015, Pouncey season end after an injury suffered against the Packers in the preseason.

  • Behind these injuries were numerous surgeries, and numerous complications.

But Maurkice Pouncey never let it slow him down on the field, and he always remained a presence in the locker room.

Best Offensive Line in Football

Building a dominant offensive line takes time. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Steelers a piece. Ramon Foster, a product of “Plug and Patch” proved himself worthy of being another. In 2011 the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert, who remained a force until injuries derailed his career. In 2012, David DeCastro arrived, as did Kelvin Beachum. In 2014, the Steelers took a flyer on Alejandro Villanueva, and by the end of 2015 he was a starter.

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

Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Whether they were protecting Ben Roethlisberger or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner, from 2014 to 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the most, if not the most dominate offensive line in the NFL.

  • At the center of it, literally and figuratively, was Maurkice Pouncey.

Maurkice Pouncey led the line with his superior play. When discipline needed to be enforce, such as when Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph with a deadly weapon, it was Maurkice Pouncey who retaliated.

That example stands out, but there were numerous smaller ones which either escaped the camera and/or memory. But those plays cemented Pouncey’s role as locker room leader.

  • When Pouncey spoke, people listened.

When Le’Veon Bell held out in 2018 and Pouncey ripped him, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell warned the wayward rusher, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

Life’s Work Looms

Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger declared prior to the playoff loss to the Jaguars that would not retire, Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that he too would return. This was the first indication that Pouency was considering starting his “Life’s Work.”

Indeed, as they sat together following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns, Roethlisberger apologized to Pouncey, “I’m sorry brother, you’re the only reason I wanted to do this.”

Shortly thereafter, word leaked that Pouency was considering retirement. On Friday February 12th, he made it official. By retiring, Maurkice Pouency simplified the Steelers salary cap situation by giving them back over 8 million dollars.

But make no mistake about it, those 8 million dollars will never replace the leadership and character that Maurkice Pouency contributed to the Steelers Way.

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Browns Beat Steelers 24-22, but Pittsburgh Still Takes Positives into Playoff Rematch

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed their 2020 season with a last-minute 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The loss left the Steelers regular season record at 12-4 and sent the Browns to the playoffs.

  • As a franchise, the Steelers subscribe to the philosophy that nothing good comes from losing.

Throughout his tenure, Mike Tomlin has refused to claim “moral victories” even if they may have been justified. Nonetheless, there are some definite positives Pittsburgh can pull out of this loss heading into the playoffs.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Browns

Chase Claypool scores a 4th quarter touchdown on fourth down. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

First 45 Minutes Evolve as Expected

The storylines were set heading into this game. For the Steelers very little was at stake. Cleveland, in contrast was playing for all of the marbles, as a win meant the playoffs, but a loss would keep them out. Knowing that, Mike Tomlin opted to “Air Mail” his players to playoffs, keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey, Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell out.

Oliver Veron, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns

Oliver Veron sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Playing against a team fighting for its post-season life, the game evolved pretty much as you’d expect it to for the first 45 minutes.

  • Nick Chubb gouged the Steelers for a 47–yard touchdown run
  • The Steelers offense was limited to 3 Matthew Wright field goals
  • Mason Rudolph threw and ugly interception that the Browns quickly converted into a touchdown

The Cleveland Browns touchdown came on the first play of the 4th quarter, which gave them a 26 to 9 lead. At that point, with 15 minutes separating the Steelers from a playoff rematch, the smart money says pull the remaining starters and hope to avoid injury.

But Mike Tomlin chose to live in his hopes and not his fears.

Steelers Play to Win

Mike Tomlin once declared, “As long as we’re keeping score, I play to win.” It’s one thing for a coach to state such a credo; it is an entirely different thing for players to meet the challenge. The scoreboard says the Steelers didn’t meet the challenge, but they certainly didn’t flinch.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner rushes for tough yards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the ensuring drive:

Next the defense got into the act. One of the keys to the Browns’ second half success was Baker Mayfield’s scrambling. But on 3rd and 3, Stephon Tuitt stepped up and sacked Mayfield, setting up a 4th and 7. The Browns went for it, but came up short.

On the next drive Mason Rudolph did it again, lighting up the Browns with a 47 yard completion to Diontae Johnson. A six yard run by Anthony McFarland and a 2 yard shovel pass from Joshua Dobbs to Vance McDonald set up Mason Rudolph’s 2 yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster, narrowing the score to 24-22.

The Steelers failed on the two point conversion. Just as their on sides kick failed. Just as the Steelers defense failed to keep the Browns from running out the clock.

Positive Take Aways from Pittsburgh

As Mike Tomlin declared following the game, the Steelers simply “didn’t make enough plays” to win. However, there were any number of positives that Pittsburgh can pick out of this game:

  • Alex Highsmith had another strong game, including a sack that scuttled Cleveland’s two minute drill
  • The Steelers contained Cleveland’s rushing attack
  • Pittsburgh’s rushing attack showed signs of life
  • Vance McDonald affirmed he can be a threat in the passing game
  • The Steelers played with intensity

Some of the take aways above might raise an eyebrow at first glance. Even if you take away 47 yard run, he still had a 4.7 yard average. While that’s not an average the Steelers can allow in the playoffs, his remaining 61 yards and Kareem Hunt’s 3.7 suggest that the Steelers can contain Cleveland’s running game.

Pittsburgh’s own running game hardly authored anything to write home about, but each of the running backs showed they can make plays when holes are there.

And what’s most encouraging about this game is that the Steelers played with an intensity that suggested that they were fighting for a playoff spot — which is exactly attitude this team needs.

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The Steelers Will Win the AFC North in 2020. That’s A Great Accomplishment

The Pittsburgh Steelers may already be AFC North Champions, by the time you sit down to read this article. That depends on what the Browns do on Sunday against those hapless Giants, of course.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

Even if they aren’t after Sunday’s action, chances are, the Steelers will clinch the title once they likely have their way with the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football. If that doesn’t happen, and Pittsburgh loses its third-straight game to fall to 11-3, well, it’s going to happen eventually, right? I mean, it better.

The only way the Steelers can’t win the division is by losing out and Cleveland winning out. Losing out for Pittsburgh would mean a five-game slide heading into the playoffs. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like the Steelers’ chances of doing anything at that point.

  • No, the Steelers will win the North for the first time since 2017, and for this truly great franchise, it will be its 24th divisional crown since 1972.

Winning the division has become so commonplace for the Steelers and their fans, it’s barely even acknowledged anymore when it does happen. Nobody notices when the players and coaches wear their post-clinching division title memorabilia that usually consists of t-shirts and baseball caps. Speaking of which, do you still buy that stuff as a fan? Do you go to your local outlet malls and snatch up all the division championship shirts, hats and banners you can get your hands on, or do you at least do so online?

I’m not telling anyone how to spend their money, but you should. OK, the economy is bad, right now, and I can certainly understand if you don’t want to splurge on that AFC North gear. Fine, but you should still appreciate it. You should cherish it.

  • After all, there are teams out there who haven’t won a divisional title in decades.

The Detroit Lions, for example, haven’t been the kings of their own jungle since way back in 1993, when it was called the NFC Central Division. The New York Jets have only won two AFC East titles since the AFL/NFL merger way back in 1970, with their last one coming in 2002. The Miami Dolphins have only won the AFC East twice since Dan Marino retired in 1999. The Arizona Cardinals have only won their division five times since the merger–and three since moving from St. Louis in 1988.

  • Heck, the Cleveland Browns haven’t won a title since they came back into the league as an expansion franchise way back in 1999.

It’s really amazing when you examine the histories of a lot of franchises and discover just how rare divisional titles are. There are thousands of fans out there who would give anything to be able to buy some division champions memorabilia.

You should, too. For one thing, it really is an accomplishment. Think about it. As a team prepares for its upcoming season, the first thing it wants to do is be better than its divisional opponents. Doing so means your program is better than your closest rivals. The first step for every organization each year is to capture its division. The Steelers are on the verge of doing that.

Also, it’s just really cool to watch a team win something, anything.

And if that’s not a good enough reason, celebrating a Steelers’ AFC North title shows that you’re not taking things for granted. It’s true that the standard is and will always be a Super Bowl. However, you never know when that won’t be the standard any longer. You never know when a true fall from grace will hit any franchise.

  • Enjoy it while you can, because you just never know.

The Steelers will once again run the AFC North. Time to celebrate.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Bills: 2 F’s on a Friday Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is forced to give out 2 “Fs” to formerly star pupils, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bills in Buffalo.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Bills drop Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was hard on himself after the game. As he should be. To be clear, Roethlisberger remains the offense’s best player by far. But, as was wont to do earlier in his career, Ben sometimes tries to do too much by forcing things. Such was the case both interceptions against the Bills, which shifted momentum to Buffalo and killed any comeback chances. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t break the 50 yard mark – together. Yet each had some respectable runs and Samuels had 3 catches. Frankly, the backs showed they can run when they get room. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron promptly dropped his first pass, a throw that would have converted a third down. He was 50/50 on his other throws and was impressive in hauling in the two point conversion. Vance McDonald had 2 passes thrown his way but did not have a catch. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 balls thrown his way and again proved he is the units most reliable receiver. Diontae Johnson dropped two balls and got benched, but came back to make plays in the 2nd half. James Washington only caught two passes but one was for a touchdown and he was open on the 2nd interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches on 6 yards. Grade C-

Offensive Line
To be fair, the Steelers lost not one, but two starters during this night and suffered another injury that pressed Jerald Hawkins into action leaving the team with only 5 health lineman at one point. Its tempting to factor this into group’s grade. Tempting, but wrong. The Steelers run game and line did show a little spunk when Kevin Dotson was in, but other than that the group got manhandled. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, but that came on the first third down of the 2nd half.

Long a team strength, against the Bills this group stood out a glaring weakness. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu saved the Steelers sack streak becoming the only player to log a sack. Cam Heyward played as a one-man wrecking crew for the first half but got double teamed effectively in the second. Stephon Tuitt could have picked up the slack, but he did not. Grade: B-

Cam Heyward, Ike Boettger, vs Bills

Cam Heyward rushes Ike Boettger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Once a strength of the defense, T.J. Watt was the only starter from opening day and Watt had an off night although he did defect a pass and hit the QB twice. Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen led the team in tackles. Alex Highsmith had a tackle for a loss and a QB hit but has yet to make good on the flashed he showed before becoming a starter. Ulysees Gilbert III saw his first real defensive action. Given the deck dealt to them, the linebackers turned in an above the line performance. Grade: C

Secondary
Steven Nelson was on fire during the 2nd half as he defected 3 passes. Mike Hilton made a interception and helped force a fumble that Cam Sutton recovered. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary with 8 tackles while Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a key tackle of Stefon Diggs. The secondary did an excellent job of containing Diggs and Allen in the 1st half. The 2nd half was a different story, but overall their play was above the line. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumble seems to have spooked him as his decision to return the first kick was a mistake. His second return was solid. The Bills kick and punt returning were hardly a difference maker in the game, but they enjoyed more success than you’d like to see. Chris Boswell made his lone extra point attempt and Jordan Berry’s punting was above the line. Grade: C

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills

Levi Wallace intercepts Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Playing 3 NFL games in 12 days is taxing and will challenge the management skills of even the best NFL staff. While its popular to take aim at Mike Tomlin (Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega titled a Spanish-language post “Do your F___ing Job) and his coordinators, this site won’t join that frenzy, at least not fully.

Keith Butler had to take the field on the road against one of the hottest QB-WR duos without four of his starters and 1 primary backup. The Steelers did an excellent job of containing them for one half. Certainly, that changed in the 2nd half, but by holding them to 20 non-turnover assisted points, Butler’s boys gave the Steelers a chance to win.

  • The case on offense is less clear.

Clearly the unit remains below the line, across the board. But how much of this is Randy Fichtner’s fault? The Steelers offensive line is a liability plain and simple, and that ripples through every other position. It’s comforting to think that Russ Grimm and/or Mike Munchak could come back and coach up and forge the current front five into a formidable unit, but such fancies are fantasy. This is an aging and injured unit.

  • Still, earlier in the season the Steelers used sweeps and Jet motion effectively.

Save for a handful of plays, that was missing Sunday night. While it Fichtner would be foolish to try to re-invent the wheel he could be more creative.

  • Overall, the analysis here is that Mike Tomlin brought his team to Buffalo ready to play.

During the 29 minutes the Steelers were in control of the game. The pick six changed the tone and tempo of the game, and the 2nd interception killed comeback chances, but responsibility for those errors does not rest with the coaches. Grade: C

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Steelers Place Vince Williams On COVID List For 2nd Time

Looks like the inside linebacker position will be even thinner for the Steelers as they take on the Bills on Sunday Night Football.

Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Just weeks after coming off the COVID list due to being considered a close contact of tight end Vance McDonald, Vince Williams is back on it again and will miss the game in Buffalo.

The Steelers have seemingly been one of the more responsible teams when it comes to following NFL COVID protocols amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t prevented them from repeatedly being affected by this issue.

Among those who have either tested positive for the virus or have been deemed a high-risk close contact include running back James Conner, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, running back Jaylen Samuels, center Maurkice Pouncey, special teams coach Danny Smith, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Williams and McDonald.

As it pertains to the Steelers’ current situation at inside linebacker, Williams’ latest inclusion COVID list seems them paper-thin at the position. The Steelers lost Devin Bush for the year with a torn ACL back in October and will likely be without his replacement, Robert Spillane, who left Monday’s loss to the Washington Football Team with a knee ailment.

The Steelers traded for the services of veteran Avery Williamson shortly after Bush’s injury, and he appears to be the only able-bodied inside linebacker available for Sunday night. Second-year man Ulysses Gilbert III has yet to be activated from the short-term IR due to an injury he’s been dealing with for a while.

The Steelers have some options at inside linebacker, however, including safeties Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr.

At any rate, the Steelers defense, one that is arguably the best in the NFL, has simply been ravaged by the loss of key personnel in recent weeks. Joining Bush on the season-ending IR list is outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who also suffered a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s 19-14 victory over the Ravens on December 2.

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Steelers Report Card For 23-17 Loss To The Washington Football Team

Quarterback

In a continuation of a recent theme for the veteran quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 53 passes. Sure, he completed 33 of them for 305 yards and two touchdowns, but his 5.8 yards per attempt were rather pedestrian, and the passing game as a whole seemed very lethargic–speaking of recent themes. Still, Roethlisberger may have enjoyed a better fate if not for seven more drops by his receivers. There was also the matter of more tipped passes–including the one that was intercepted by former Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic that snuffed out Pittsburgh’s last realistic chance for victory. Grade: C+

Running Backs

If James Conner was worried about being replaced during his absence due to testing positive for COVID-19, he need not worry after Monday’s dreadful performance by his replacements. Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels rushed for a combined 21 yards. McFarland had a chance to be a bit of a hero when he was the target of Roethlisberger’s pass on fourth and one late in the game. Unfortunately for the rookie, the pass was a bit off and he was a bit lacking in his response to helping his quarterback out. Grade: D-

Tight Ends

Eric Ebron did have seven catches for 68 yards, but there were more notable drops as he appears to be in his own head regarding that annoying flaw. As for Vance McDonald, he wasn’t targeted once. It’s too bad I can’t give these guys brownie points for blocking in the running game. Speaking of which, Ebron gets one demerit for his pathetic excuse for a block on Snell’s failed attempt to score from the one on fourth and goal. Grade: D-

Wide Receivers

James Washington had a great effort on a 50-yard touchdown catch-and-run, which is the only thing keeping me from giving this unit an F. Again, seven more drops, including a few from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson. Rookie Chase Claypool saw a drop in playing time and didn’t really contribute a whole lot except for drawing another pass interference penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line

The offensive line again kept Roethlisberger clean for a fifth-straight game, but was that based on ability and talent or the fact that No. 7 now likes to get rid of the football quicker than any passer in the league? If you cite the lack of a running game along with the unit’s 2008-like habit of not being able to get any push on short-yardage plays as evidence, I’d say it was the latter. However, considering center Maurkice Pouncey was out for a second-straight game due to COVID restrictions, I will give the hogs the benefit of the doubt–at least a small one. Grade: C-

Defensive Line

The trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu had a bit of a quiet night, but Tuitt did record one of the defense’s three sacks. Also, the Washington Football Team was limited to just 45 yards on the ground–including 23 on 14 carries for running back Peyton Barber–and that starts up front. Grade: B-

Linebackers

T.J. Watt was his usual disruptive self, tallying one sack and four hits on quarterback Alex Smith. As for rookie Alex Highsmith, filling in for the injured Bud Dupree, he had a decent enough showing for his first-career start. But he’s no Bud as a pass-rusher (at least not yet), and it showed. Robert Spillane had another decent night from the inside linebacker spot and recorded one sack, three tackles and three passes defended before exiting with a knee injury. Avery Williamson took his place and had a rather active night in his own right. Normally, I would say it was a decent evening for both the inside and outside linebackers–and it was–but Watt made two critical errors in the game. The first came when he was called for holding on a fourth and goal play early in the second half that kept a Washington drive alive and led to a touchdown. His second error occurred in the fourth quarter when he had a chance to fall on a fumble that he forced but seemed too intent on scooping and scoring, allowing Washington to recover. Grade: C+

Secondary

The unit came into the night missing cornerback Steven Nelson, who missed the game with a knee injury and ended the night without cornerback Joe Haden, who left in the second half with a concussion. There was no doubt these injuries were a factor, as Washington tallied 296 passing yards and the unit struggled to cover tight end Logan Thomas. Mike Hilton did have an exceptional night and probably would have been the player of the game had the team won. Grade: C-

Special Teams

Marcus Allen was called for roughing the punter early in the game, a penalty that kept an early Washington drive alive. As for return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud, he wasn’t his usual dynamic self. Punter Jordan Berry averaged 44.3 yards on six kicks and downed two inside the 20. Matthew Wright, filling in for an injured Chris Boswell, connected on two extra points and a 37-yard field goal. Unfortunately for the youngster, head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t have enough confidence in him to allow him to attempt a go-ahead 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Grade: C+

Coaching

Tomlin isn’t shy about absorbing the lion’s share of the blame when his team doesn’t perform well. His players jumped out to a 14-0 lead and seemed to act as if the game was in the bag after that. Then, there were the mental errors and physical errors. Plenty of blame for the head coach to absorb.

As for the offense, I’ve always been a defender of much-maligned coordinator Randy Fichtner, but his unit failed to pick up a single yard after facing a first and goal from the one. Also, there was the matter of Washington’s defenders bragging that they figured the Steelers’ offensive tendencies out.

I hate to harp on Keith Butler‘s defense too much, considering the injuries just keep piling up on that side of the ball. But I think the turning point in the game came on Washington’s first drive of the second half. Washington was backed up and faced a third and very long. Washington converted and eventually marched down the field to score a touchdown. That’s how 4-7 teams get back into games and start to believe. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero

Mike Hilton recorded six tackles, including two for a loss. One of those TFL’s occurred in the first quarter when he snuffed out a Washington running play on fourth and one.

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Steelers Undefeated Streak Ends with 23-17 Loss to Washington

The Steelers built a 14-0 first-half lead but ultimately dropped their first game of the season, 23-17, to the Washington Football Team at Heinz Field on Monday night.

Both offenses struggled to move the football early on, but Pittsburgh mounted a 14-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Diontae Johnson to make it 7-0 with 10:33 left in the second quarter.

The offense got the football back in premium field position moments later after Washington went for it on fourth and one from its own 34 and cornerback Mike Hilton stopped running back J.D. McKissic for a three-yard loss.

The Steelers quickly took advantage and ultimately had a first and goal from the one thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The offense was stymied on three-straight tries and decided to go for it on fourth and one. Unfortunately, second-year running back Benny Snell Jr. was stuffed while trying to dive over the top.

The Steelers defense forced a quick three and out, and on the very first play of Pittsburgh’s next offensive possession, Roethlisberger found receiver James Washington for a 50-yard touchdown catch and run to make it 14-0.

The Steelers continued to dominate the rest of the second quarter, but the Washington Football Team found some life on the last play of the first half on a controversial 49-yard field goal by kicker Dustin Hopkins. Just prior to the play, Washington quarterback Alex smith was sacked by Stephon Tuitt. Smith took the football with him as he headed for the sideline, making it a scramble for his team to get the designated kicking football onto the field. With Washington out of time outs and the seconds running off the clock, the officials stopped play to allow Washington time to get things in order.

Washington built on that momentum by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 82 yards on a 14-play drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown plunge by running back Peyton Barber to pull the visitors to within four points.

The Steelers extended their lead to 17-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter when Matthew Wright, filling in for an injured Chris Boswell, connected on a 37-yard field goal.

After the two teams exchanged punts, the Washington Football Team tied the score at 17 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Smith to tight end Logan Thomas with 9:09 remaining in the game.

The Steelers offense, a unit that had struggled for most of the game, mounted what looked to be a decisive scoring drive, but after things stalled at the Washington 28, Pittsburgh faced a fourth and one with 4:53 remaining. However, rather than trot Wright out to attempt a 45-yard field goal, head coach Mike Tomlin elected to go for it; it was to no avail, as Roethlisberger’s pass down the sideline intended for rookie running back Anthony McFarland fell incomplete.

Washington mounted a decisive drive of its own and took its first lead of the game when Hopkins connected from 45 yards out with 2:04 remaining.

Did the Steelers offense, one that had helped to carry the team to an 11-0 start, have anything left for a comeback? The answer was a quick no; Roethlisberger’s very first pass was tipped and intercepted by former Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic.

Washington added one more field goal to pad its lead and send the Steelers home losers for the first time in 2020.

Roethlisberger completed 33 of 53 passes for 305 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on the day, while the running game was again non-existent, tallying just 21 yards on 14 carries.

On the injury front, both inside linebacker Robert Spillane (knee) and cornerback Joe Haden (concussion) left the game with injuries in the second half and did not return.

Next up for the Steelers, they travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills on Sunday Night Football.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Steelers Cut Dustin Colquitt. Jordan Berry’s Return Probable. Tomlin’s Patience Punters Remains Thin

The Steelers cut punter Dustin Colquitt today after just 5 games, with Mike Tomlin admitting that “Our punting is not up to snuff and that we have to get better in that area and we are willing to do whatever is required in an effort to do so.”

  • Dustin Colquitt is of course the son of Craig Colquitt who punted for the Super Steelers in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

However, Colquitt’s punting average of 43.1 ranks 29th in the league and is two yards below Jordan Berry’s average of 45.5 average during 2019. While nothing is confirmed, the Steelers are expected to r resign Jordan Berry prior to their game against the Tennessee Titans.

The Steelers made a additional roster moves, putting Devin Bush on injured reserve. They replaced him with Henry Mondeaux who served on their practice squad in 2020 and 2019 after playing his college ball at University of Oregon, spent training camp in 2018 with the New Orleans Saints and was on their practice squad for the final game of the 2018 season.

Taking Henry Mondeaux’s place on the practice squad is Ray Wilbon, a rookie linebacker out of Ball state who was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Atlanta Falcons following the 2020 NFL Draft.

Jordan Berry, Steelers Jordan Berry

Jordan Berry punting during the 2015 preseason. Photo Credit: John Heller, Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin Has Little Patience with Punters

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is patient with players at some positions but punter is not one of them. In the middle of the 2008 season, Mike Tomlin cut Mitch Berger after Berger knocked off punts 27, 32 and 35 yards during the Steelers Monday Night win over Washington.

  • At the time, Tomlin’s criticism of Berger was particularly harsh, especially given that Berger was nursing not one but two strained hamstrings.

However, when Paul Ernster turned out to be an even worse punter, the Steelers resigned Mitch Berger after a few games, and Berger continued to punt for the Steelers all the way through to Super Bowl XLIII.

In 2013 the Steelers brought Zoltan Mesko to Pittsburgh during a waiver wire shopping spree, but Mesko only lasted 7 games posting a 42.5 yard average and suffering a blocked punt. Mat McBriar unfortunately offered little in the way of an upgrade, and he too suffered a blocked punt and posted a 41.5 yard average.

McBriar did complete a 30 yard pass to David Paulson on a successful fake punt that set up a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown in the Steelers December 2013 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Nonetheless, McBriar was gone after the season.

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