Steelers Turnover Drought Has Plagued Pittsburgh’s Defense for Years

It’s amazing how everyone can suddenly create a narrative and act like it’s brand-new.

As it pertains to the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers defense and its 12 takeaways through 11 games, why are you surprised?

  • If you’ve been paying attention at all since the start of the 2011 season, you shouldn’t be.

That season, the Steelers, a team that somehow managed to win 12 games, limped into the playoffs with just 15 takeaways. Is it any wonder they limped home after an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the wild-card round?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception, Damion Ratley

Joe Haden intercepts Baker Mayfield in a rare Steelers turnover. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Between 2011-2017, the Steelers averaged 21.5 takeaways a season, a number far-below what a team needs from its defense if it wants to reach the Super Bowl.

  • Historically, the average number of takeaways for Super Bowl champions is just under 37.

Sure, that number may have decreased in recent years, what with spread offenses and rules to help offenses becoming more and more prevalent. But the fact remains you must have an opportunistic defense in-order to go far in the NFL.

So why haven’t the Steelers been able to develop an opportunistic defense, even after transitioning away from Dick LeBeau’s “Old, Slow and it’s over”  veteran defense from the post-Super Bowl days, to Keith Butler‘s current unit that’s younger, faster and much more adept at getting after quarterbacks and sacking them to the turf?

  • And that may be the most confounding development of all.

Back in the latter days of Dick LeBeau’s reign as defensive coordinator, one could legitimately make a case for his unit being past its prime. Why? In addition to failing to take the football away, it could no longer get after the passer. Between 2011-2014, the Steelers averaged around 35 sacks a season, which seemed to go hand-in-hand with the 19 takeaways they averaged.

Historically, a defense that gets after the passer is one that can also take the football away. While it didn’t get discussed much, James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco right before Troy Polamalu made his game-changing interception in the 2008 AFC Championship game.

  • So it was reasonable to assume that once “Blitzburgh” made its return, so would the takeaways.

Unfortunately, despite leading the NFL in sacks a year ago with 56, the Steelers defense only recorded 22 takeaways. The Jaguars, meanwhile, recorded 33 takeaways to go along with their second-best 55 sacks.

So, what was the difference? The difference may lie in a Jacksonville defense that had more splash-play-capable players who were adapt at strip-sacking and ball-hawking.

  • And I truly believe those kinds of abilities are natural and can’t be taught.

All this week, Steelers’ players and coaches have talked about the need to take the football away at a greater rate. Oh yeah? How are they going to do that? A coach may be able to preach stripping the football away from a ball-carrier, but it may require an innate ability to scoop the fumble up before anyone on the opposing team finds it.

A coach can preach ball awareness, but only the truly great defensive backs have the ability and the instinct to make a play on a pass and act like they have just as much of a right to it as the receiver they’re covering.

The Steelers defense should be applauded for the strides it has made this season–it’s giving up an average of just under 23 points a game (really good in today’s NFL) and is

again on pace for 56 sacks. But no matter how much  the coaches may preach it, and no matter how much the players may start to focus on it, it appears Pittsburgh’s defense still lacks–even after all these years–the talent to make it opportunistic.

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Eli Rogers Practices. Should Justin Hunter or James Washington Look Over Their Shoulders?

The Eli Rogers returns to practice this week for the Steelers, which gives Pittsburgh 21 days to either activate him or put him on season ending IR. As it currently stands, if the Steelers do activate Eli Rogers that will mean that someone’s roster spot is in jeopardy. Which begs the question:

Currently the Steelers have wide receivers Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter on their roster. That gives them 6 wide outs which about brings them to their ceiling.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers returns to practice with the Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Obviously, barring an injury in the next 21 says Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer are staying put. Darrius Heyward-Bey only has one target this year, but because of his role on special teams his job is likely safe too.

  • But Justin Hunter and James Washington are no so lucky.

Although he was a four year veteran when the Steelers signed Justin Hunter as a free agent in the spring of 2017, Pittsburgh liked him then more for his potential rather than past performance. And two years later potential remains Justin Hunter’s calling card in the Steelers offense. Hunter only has 7 catches on 20 targets.

The Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, a move which drew immediate comparisons to JuJu Smith-Schuster, their 2nd round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Washington was close to a non-stop highlight reel in the 2018 preseason, despite Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger’s attempts to quell expectations. 11 games into the season, it is easy to understand why they were so quick to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. James Washington has 8 catches on 25 targets.

Steelers 2018 Offense Needs a Legit 3rd Wide Receiver

To revert to Tomlin speak the 2018 Steelers are still “writing their story.” But with 11 chapters on paper, Randy Fichtner’s offense is proving to be an upgrade from Todd Haley’s. Red Zone performance is up and at 45.71% third down conversions are higher than they ever were during the Todd Haley era.

Look across the depth chart, and its hard to find any one area that’s under performing or has a glaring deficiency. (Well, OK, a James Conner injury will change that in a hurry.)

  • But 11 games into 2018, the Steelers offense still doesn’t have a legit 3rd wide receiver.

Ryan Switzer has done everything this offense has asked of him and last week the kid certainly proved he can take a hit, but being a legit 4th wide receiver isn’t the same as being a third wide out.

  • He may not be the weapon that Antwaan Randle El, was, but Eli Rogers has already proven he’s a legitimate 3rd wide receiver in the Steelers offense.

Rogers of course injured his ACL in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars and his knee must be tested. However, if Eli Rogers is healthy and ready to go, he’d provide an immediate upgrade from either James Washington or Justin Hunter.

  • In such a situation look for Justin Hunter to get a visit from the The Turk.

The Steelers aren’t going to cut James Washington, and putting him on injured reserve would end his season, whereas no team is going to be in a rush to ink Justin Hunter to a new deal should Pittsburgh cut him loose.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Broncos – Failing Because You Forget to Write Your Name Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is frustrated at watching his students flunk assignments because they’re forgetting to do things like put their names on their papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2018 loss to Denver at Mile High Stadium.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Lindsay, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs. Broncos

Terrell Edmunds tackles Philip Lindsay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had his moments, including and impressive streak of consecutive pass completions , and hitting long touchdown pass from his own end zone. He also executed a game plan that forced him to be disciplined in getting the ball out quickly. But Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. The first came got the Broncos back into the game on a drive when a touchdown very well may have sealed the outcome. The second came when the Steelers needed to score. Grade: D

Running Back
James Conner didn’t get a lot of opportunities to run the ball, but behind Roosevelt Nix’s blocking Conner looked like he might be able to put the game on ice had to coaches chosen to go that route. He also caught 4 passes on 4 targets. Nonetheless, James Conners fumbled at a critical moment which set up Denver’s go ahead touchdown. Ball security is becoming an issue for James Conners. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Jesse James had his number called 4 times and each time he delivered. Vance McDonald also had 3 catches on a day when a short passing game reigned supreme. Xavier Grimble had what should have been an excellent 23 yard run turn into a turnover instead of a touchdown in large part because he didn’t secure the ball properly. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
There was good and bad here. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97 yard touchdown should have been a game breaker. However, JuJu missed an earlier deep pass. Antonio Brown made one excellent toe-tapping catch only to miss another one which was more necessary. Ryan Switzer proved himself to be a valuable underneath target and showed he can take a hit. With Eli Rogers beginning to practice, James Washington needs prove he deserves a roster spot. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Denver has a fierce pass rush, yet Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and neither were game-changing plays. The Steelers run blocking looked to be good enough, but honestly establishing the running game was never an priority of the coaching staff. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward’s sack of Case Keenum could have been a game turning play, and the duo’s numbers in terms of tackles for losses and QB hits show that they were aggressive. Still, the Steelers defensive line misses Stephon Tuitt, and if Phillip Lindsay 7.9 rushing average isn’t on the defensive line, it starts with them. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had a sack but it was L.J. Fort who actually tied Jon Bostic for the lead in tackles, but a blown Bostic coverage allowed Denver to make their first advanced into the Red Zone. T.J. Watt had one tackle. The stat sheet shows that Philip Lindsay had a lot of 2 yard runs. He also had two 8 yard runs, a 9, a 12, a 14, an 18 and a 32 yard run. A lot of that’s on the linebackers. Grade: D

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds showed off his athleticism by running down Philip Lindsay on a couple of long runs, which is good but in at least one of those cases Edmunds was compensating for a bad angle on the part of Sean Davis. Joe Haden had one of his most difficult days as a Steeler, giving up a long pass to Matt LaCosse and getting burned by Emmanuel Sanders. Mike Hilton’s trade mark has been timing blitzes perfectly, but he got flagged for a neutral zone infraction. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers fake field goal

Chris Boswell prepares to throw it to Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
The return games were non-elements for both teams. Jordan Berry had a sound day kicking and Chis Boswell made all of his kicks – save for the one that got blocked, which is inexcusiable given Denver’s tape on that front.

On the flip side, the Chris Boswell to Alejandro Villanueva field goal was the first successful fake field goal in memory for the Steelers and the Steelers special teams effectively added made up for their earlier error. Grade: C

Coaching
Not that he, or more importantly Art Rooney II pay much attention, but Steelers coaches haven’t felt much social media heat during their five game winning streak. That ended with the loss to the Broncos.

  • As if Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner are somehow responsible for turnovers.

On offense it is easy to second guess Randy Fichtner’s short-passing game plan, but the truth is that he kept Ben Roethlisberger clean, the Steelers moved the chains and led in time of possession. None of that mattered much thanks to two end zone turnovers.

  • While the turnovers were the key to the game, they do obscure an afternoon that was rougher for Keith Butler’s defense than most commentators are acknowledging.

While the defense didn’t revert to its September form, it gave up several long plays and struggled against the run. Moreover, as Mike Tomlin indicated in his press conference, the Steelers defense could have altered the dynamic with a turnover, but none was forth coming.

Individual turnovers are never a coach’s fault, ball security is becoming an issue with a few of the offense’s key players and Mike Tomlin needs to see if this can be addressed systemically. This loss is hardly devastating, but Mike Tomlin must ensure that a snowball effect does not ensue. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Von Miller is easily the NFL’s most dynamic defensive player today. He’s got a Troy Polamaluesqe ability to make game-changing plays at critical moments. Being asked to start your first game against him cannot be easily. But that’s what the Steelers asked Chukwuma Okorafor to do, Okorafor delivered and for that he win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers latest loss to the Broncos at Mile High.

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More Mile High Misery: 3 Turnovers Fuel Broncos 24-17 Win Over Steelers

Denver’s Mile High Stadium is the site of landmark Steelers victories such as the 1984 playoff upset of the Orange Crush and the 2005 AFC Championship win that paved the way for Super Bowl XL. But it is also the same venue where Steelers have suffered several agonizing defeats:

With that backdrop, Mike Tomlin’s 2018 Steelers traveled to Mile High Stadium and lost a hard fought game to the Denver Broncos to the tune of 24 to 17. And, like so many defeats before, what stings the worst about this loss is its self-inflicted nature.

 

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Steelers Sketch Game Narrative by Leaving 10 Points on the Board

Every football game tells its own story. In some games, the protagonists spontaneously interact against each other on the field leaving the outcome in doubt until the final bell. Last week’s win over the Jaguars offers a perfect example of that type of game.

  • The story of other games is formulaic, evolving like a plotted novel whose finale is predictable from the first page onward.

Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver was an example of that second type of game. The Steelers established the narrative in the contest’s first 16 minutes, and they kept going back to its familiar refrain until the bitter end.

  • On their very first possession, the Steelers marched down the field to the Broncos 30 where Justin Simmons blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.

The Broncos have been blocking kicks all season, and Justin Simmons has already blocked a field goal. Danny Smith knew this, but it still happened. Only 9:36 had elapsed in the game, and Steelers special team’s failures had already taken 3 points off the board.

The Broncos didn’t respond with anything spectacular, save for transforming a blown Jon Bostic coverage into a 29 yard gain, but they managed to kick a field goal without anyone from Pittsburgh touching it.

Ben Roethlisberger, mindful of the to need stay out of Von Miller’s sights, nickeled and dimed his way down the field with short passes to Jesse James and Ryan Switzer, until reaching Denver’s 27 where he hit Xaiver Grimble in the middle.

With most of the Broncos defense concentrated on the strong side of the Steelers offense, Grimble had a straight shot to the end zone. However, Will Parks arrived in time to hit him at the goal line and knocked the ball lose where it rolled out of bounds in the end zone. So it was touchback Denver instead of touchdown Pittsburgh.

The game was only 16 minutes old and the Steelers had left 10 points off the board.

Plot Twist: Fake Field Goal and Quick Strike TD Keep People in Their Seats

Even the most serialized Hollywood sitcom manages to provide enough plot twists to keep the audience in their seats, and so it was with the Steelers at Mile High. At the end of the first half the Steelers authored the first of two plot twisting teasers that they executed well enough to convince everyone that this was a game that might go off script.

  • After getting on the board with a field goal of their own, the Steelers then gave up an all-too easy 75 yard touchdown drive, putting themselves behind 0-3.

But, with just over 3 minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back, and proceeded to hit Vance McDonald and Ryan Switzer to bring the Steelers down to Denver’s 2 where the drive stalled. With little time remaining, Mike Tomlin opted to take the safe route and kick a short field goal going into the half.

  • Except the ball went directly to Chris Boswell who tossed a 2 yard strike to Alejandro Villanueva tying the score at 10.

The Steelers fireworks continued in the second half. After Denver pinned the Steelers deep into their own territory, Randy Fichtner opted to risk a pass from his own end zone, where Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster with a 97 yard touchdown pass, putting the Steelers up 17 to 10.

The Steelers defense limited Denver to just two yards on the next drive as Pittsburgh gave every appearance of a superior team that was faithfully playing its role by taking control of the game….

Steelers Stick to Self-Destructive Storyline Set in First Half

…Except that the Steelers of course weren’t the superior team on this afternoon as they quickly reverted to the storyline they’d set for themselves early in the game.

On the Steelers next possession, Ben Roethlisberger targeted but badly missed Antonio Brown. Chris Harris Jr. intercepted, and it only took the Denver Broncos two plays to get Emmanuel Sanders into the end zone for the tying score.

As the third quarter ended, the Steelers again moved into scoring position as James Conner reached the Denver 21 yard line, only to fumble the ball away to the Broncos. Denver fed the ball to Phillip Lindsay who the Steelers were powerless to stop, and the Broncos scored the go ahead touchdown to begin the 4th quarter.

  • Every good story has a convincing climax, and the Steelers latest moment of Mile High Misery is no exception.

Javon Hargrave got the end game sequence started with a sack of Case Keenum that forced a punt. Ben Roethlisberger got the ball with 4:26 left to go, and he moved the offense down the field in workman like fashion. The Steelers reached to the Broncos 3 just inside the 2 minute warning.

After an unsuccessful pass and a 1 yard run, on third and goal from the two, almost as if on cue, Ben Roethlisberger tried to force the ball to Antonio Brown and Shelby Harris ended the game with an interception.

The Steelers Mile High Misery is of Their Own Making

Of course a football game isn’t a novel or a TV show. Outcomes are never pre-ordained. Whenever pushed during the season to “speak in broad strokes” about some sort of tendency, Mike Tomlin will respond by insisting that “We are still writing our own story.”

  • And so it is, as it has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mile High Stadium.

While the Denver Broncos offense certainly revealed and then exploited a number of weaknesses within the Steelers defense, Pittsburgh’s offense was responsible for the defining plays in this contest.

  • And, as it does at Mile High, the Steelers offense provided the game’s defining moments by turning the ball over at critical moments.

This latest loss brings Pittsburgh record at Denver to 5-13. And like so many times before, the Steelers Mile High Misery is of their own making.

 

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Watch Tower Special Edition: Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap Transform Conflict into Charity

The “Watch Tower’s” lights have been out for a while as material has abounded but time has been in short supply. However a recent player-pundit spat prompts us this special edition.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Ryan Switzer in the Steelers win over Tampa Bay

The Inherent Tension Between Journalists and Athletes

An inherent tension defies the relationship between sports journalists and the athletes they cover. Journalists, unlike us bloggers, job depends on getting athletes to talk to them. But by the same token, a journalist’s credibility with his or her readers depends on them writing objectively about those athletes.

  • And by definition, it is inevitable that at some point are going to rub the men in the locker room the wrong way.

Usually these tensions remain below the surface, although writers like Jim Wexell frequently share insights into how easy or difficult it is to talk various players. Sometimes the public gets wind of these tensions.

Greg Lloyd stopped talking with much of the local media in the mid-1990’s, and John Stiegerwald even described how Greg Lloyd once physically shoved him out of the way while he was trying to interview another player. If memory serves, Rod Woodson barred reports from the Tribune-Review from a press conference when he announced he was leaving Pittsburgh.

More recently Ben Roethlisberger blew off an interview with reporters who overheard him explain “I ain’t gonna win no Rooney award anyway.” (The post-Midgeville Roethlisberger did in fact win The Chief Award a year later.) And just last summer Antonio Brown blasted Ed Bouchette over an injury report.

But if tension is natural, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be resolved, as Ryan Switzer and 93.7 The Fan’s Colin Dunlap demonstrate.

Switzer – Dunlap Turn Twitter Spat into Charity Fundraising Challenge

If you’re reading this you know that the Steelers 20-16 win over the Jaguars came down to a hectic and heroic goal line situation set up a James Conner drop and by several Ben Roethlisberger JuJu Smith-Schuster hookups.

The target of Ben Roethlisberger’s penultimate pass was Ryan Switzer, prompting Colin Dunlap to make this observation:

Ryan Switzer responded:

However, rather than given into the corrosive nature of bad blood, Colin Dunlap and Ryan Switzer decided to do something constructive:

In response, Ryan Switzer pledged to donate $40-per-catch to UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department for the rest of the season.

  • And the duo didn’t stop there.

The two opened their challenge to the public and are inviting everyone to join in which they can do via the Pittsburgh Children’s hospital page. Their orginal goal was to raise $5000 dollars, but as of 4:00 pm Eastern on Saturday November 24th it appears they’ve raised over $10,000 already, with team mate T.J. Watt donating $1000 dollars.

While this won’t be the last time a journalist butt’s heads with one of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in this time of tension and violence both Ryan Switzer and Colin Dunlap win Watch Tower Kudos for finding a way to transform conflict into an opportunity to raise money for UPMC Children’s Hematology/Oncology Department.

Click here to donate to the The Ryan Switzer Reception Challenge.

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Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey – Despite “Losing” Brown Showed Why Still NFL’s Best

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown had five receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers dramatic come-from-behind 20-16 win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday.

Just another ordinary day for a living legend of a pass-catcher who is considered by many to be the very best in the NFL at his position. In-fact, if we’re being honest, few were even that impressed with No. 84’s day, as he was deemed the “loser” in the one-on-one battle against Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey–a man who is also considered to be the very best in the league at his position.

Jalen Ramsey certainly frustrated the perennial First-Team All-Pro receiver for most of  the day, limiting him to three receptions on eight targets in-which the two were going head-to-head.

Antonio Brown, Jalen Ramsey, Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars, Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey

Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“Losing” seems like such a poor choice of words for a battle in-which Antonio Brown totally schooled Jalen Ramsey at least a few times–including on a double-move early in the game, a play that would have surely gone for a score had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not been having an almost comically incompetent first half against the Jaguars’ stout pass defense.

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions on the day, including two to Ramsey on plays in-which he was covering Brown.

However, better throws  would have likely led to touchdowns on both occasions–and this was especially the case on another play in the first half when Antonio Brown was running free down the seam. Yes, it was a great display of instinct and athleticism when Jalen Ramsey undercut the route and intercepted Roethlisberger’s throw before it could reach Brown. But, the fact of the matter is, a more accurate pass would have led to an easy touchdown for No. 84.

  • Individual battles, aside, Antonio Brown did make two key plays that helped bring the Steelers all the way back.

The first came at the end of the third quarter, two plays after the Jaguars scored a touchdown to take a seemingly insurmountable 16-0 lead.

Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on second down, and his first option appeared to be tight end Vance McDonald, who ran a quick route over the middle. But Vance McDonald was covered, and Ben Roethlisberger decided to hold onto the football, after a quick little pump in his tight end’s direction. As soon as Ben Roethlisberger pumped, a Jaguars safety rushed towards Antonio Brown, who also ran a short route.

But the split-second that the safety jumped up to cover Brown, Antonio Brown instinctively ran by him, down the middle of the field and had nothing but yards and yards of grass surrounding him. Roethlisberger unleashed a bomb that Brown pulled in and took the distance for a 78-yard touchdown that gave Pittsburgh its first points of the day.

  • And with less than a minute remaining and the Steelers trailing, 16-13, Antonio Brown came through yet again.

Facing a third and 10 from the Jacksonville 27, following a drop by running back James Conner that would likely have given the Steelers the game-winning touchdown, the offense needed to come up with something big, or else have to settle for a long field goal attempt from kicker Chris Boswell, who hasn’t been having one of his better seasons.

Fear-not, because despite being covered by Jalen Ramsey, Antonio Brown pulled in a critical pass from Roethlisberger, and not only secured a first down, picked up 25 yards down to the Jaguars’ two-yard line, setting up No. 7’s one-yard dive into the end zone with five second remaining in the game.

  • With 62 receptions for 807 through 10 weeks, Brown is on pace to have one of the least productive years of his career–or so it would seem.

In his first season with Randy Fichtner as his offensive coordinator, Anotnio Brown has 11 touchdowns–including at least one in his past eight games–and is well on his way to smashing his career high of 13. Furthermore, Antoino Brown has continued to have the clutch gene, as Sunday’s heroics, along with his game-winning score against the Bengals, have clearly illustrated.

Let’s face it, teams aren’t going to allow Antonio Brown to dominate statistically this season like he has so many times in the past. And when all is said and done, he might not be anywhere near the league leaders in receptions or yards.

But while Antonio Brown’s statistics have slipped a bit in 2018, his status as the very best wide receiver in the NFL has not.

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Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving Honors: JuJu Smith-Schuster

Thanksgiving 2018 has arrived, that that means it is time to dish out our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition Steel Curtain Rising started in 2009. At the time the Steelers were in the middle what would become a 5 game losing streak, and I thought it appropriate of single out an up and comer who was providing Steelers Nation with a reason to give thanks (that year it was Rashard Mendenhall.)

  • The tradition has continued each year since then.

In general, younger players who were just starting to make their impact felt have gotten this award, but in 2010 special teams coach Al Everest, Emmanuel Sanders and Maurkice Pouncey split the award, got it, the Steelers backups got it in 2015 and in 2017 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors were bestowed upon Ben Roethlisberger.

  • This year, we’re sticking with tradition and recognizing and up and comer and our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Before fully turning out attention to JuJu, let’s acknowledge that this year the decision was difficult. Fellow up and comers, T.J. Watt or Mike Hilton’s names could have easily headlined this article. So could Joe Haden. Several other candidates quickly come to mind.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But this year our JuJu Smith-Schuster wins Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving honors because we are truly seeing a dynamic player come of age right before our eyes.

This hardly comes as a surprise. Just as Joe Greene’s first day of training camp prompted a couple of veterans to speed up plans to being their “Life’s Work,” as soon as the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates got into a spat on Twitter. Neither player remains in Pittsburgh.

As a rookie, JuJu Smith-Schuster authored several head-turning plays

This year JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t yet matched that level of drama, although his opening touchdown against Carolina was dramatic, but what’s most impressive JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2018 campaign is his dependability.

But it takes two to tango and every team needs more than one quality wide receiver. The Steelers have struggled to find someone work in tandem with Antonio Brown. But JuJu Smith-Schuster is ending that struggle as we speak because JuJu Smith-Schuster is proving he can be the type of receiver that you can depend on to come up with a catch when you need it the most.

One the first drive, Ben Roethlisberger went to him 3 straight times, and each time JuJu Smith-Schuster delivered. On the second drive, with one, incredibly difficult catch, he put the Steelers into scoring position again.

The Steelers 2018 offense might not have Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons-like quality that the four Killer Bees were supposed to bring to 2017 Steelers offense. But the Steelers 2018 offense is proving itself to be a unit that can make the plays that are necessary for a win, and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s development is a big part of that.

And that gives Steelers Nation something to be Thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Today makes the 17 consecutive Thanksgiving that I have “celebrated” in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday, because it is not commercialized (black Friday deals be damned) and is universally celebrated with the simple gesture of giving thanks.

Hopefully you’ll be celebrating this Thanksgiving with friends and family whether you’re staying close to your house, visiting someone in another state or traveling back “home.”

  • And it is our sincere hope all of you can be thankful for many other more important things than football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

Click here to read past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors articles.

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6 Myths Debunked During the Steelers 6 Game Winning Streak

The Steelers comeback win over the Jaguars improved Pittsburgh’s record to 7-2-1 which far better than anyone had the right to expect at the end of September.

  • Nonetheless, playoff berths, division titles and, dare we dream for a Bigger Prize, remain a long way away.

At this point a winning record, however likely, is not even a mathematical certainty. As Mike Tomlin might say, it is too early to paint the Steelers 2018 season with “broad strokes.”

But during this six game winning streak, the Steelers have debunked six myths that have been circulating about them since the playoffs ended so abruptly last January. Let’s take a look at them, one by one.

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Myth #1: The Steelers Defense Fell off a Cliff the Day Dick LeBeau Left

Let’s agree that the Steelers defense was lost for most of September. They couldn’t cover, couldn’t stop teams on third down and couldn’t stop the big play.

  • Calls for summary firing of Keith Butler were common place.

Fans debated over whether Butler or Tomlin deserved the largest share of the blame. But perhaps most annoyingly of all, people went on as if the Steelers defense had gotten progressively worse with each day that had passed since Dick LeBeau‘s departure.

  • Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Steelers defense, by various measures improved in 2015 and again in 2016. And the 2017 Steelers defense flashed shut down potential in wins over Kansas City, Cincinnati and Detroit.

Yes, Detroit, give me that Red Zone/Goal Line defense every week, and I’ll keep fantasy owners happy and spot them an extra 100 passing yards.

Then Joe Haden got hurt, and the Steelers started getting torched for long pass plays. Then Ryan Shazier went down, and well, the Steelers defense did fall off of a cliff.

Myth #2: The Steelers did Nothing to replace Ryan Shazier

This one was just as popular with the press as it was with the fans. And, as the Steelers insisted on listing Tyler Matakevich as the starter going into preseason, the argument was understandable, to a point.

Jon Bostic certainly wasn’t a sexy, day one splash free agency signing the way Mike Mitchell or Ladarius Green was (and how did those work out?) No, the Jon Bostic pickup was more reminiscent of the decision to sign Ryan Clark in 2006 who was intended to serve as a bridge between Chris Hope and Anthony Smith.

Jon Bostic certainly isn’t a dynamic player like Ryan Shazier was, and he may never develop into a pillar on defense the way Ryan Clark did, he is proving to be an asset to the defense.

Myth #3: There Is No Life for the Offense After Le’Veon Bell

Time for a mini-mea culpa. Le’Veon Bell played a huge role in the Steelers offense accounting for nearly 1/3 of its production during his non-injury years, and folks like yours truly never tired of reminding everyone whenever the “Running back by committee” cry got raised.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

For however big a role that Le’Veon Bell played in the Steelers offense and numbers don’t lie it was big, 10 games into 2018 and it is clear that he isn’t irreplaceable.

There are no shortage of fans who churn out stats to show the Steelers offense is more efficient with James Conner than with Le’Veon Bell. Those comparisons make for great social media posts, but they’re a bit overstated because James Conner still has to prove he sustain his early success.

But even if that is true, James Conner has shown he is a formidable weapon in this offense. (Again, clutch your rosary beads that he stays healthy.)

Myth #4: The Steelers have a Deficiency for Evaluating Defensive Talent

This is another one that was popular when the embers of the Jaguars playoff debacle still burned brightly.

  • And Artie Burns sitting on the bench complicates the counter argument tremendously.

But look at the Steelers defense over the past six games, and you’ll see major contributions coming in from not only stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but also the likes of Sean Davis, T.J. Watt, Javon Hargrave, Bud Dupree and Terrell Edmunds – in other words players taken when the Steelers defensive rebuild began in earnest.

Myth #5: Big Ben Doesn’t Need Preseason or Training Camp

While his early season struggles of 2018 did not compare to those of 2017, Ben Roethlisberger was off during September, and out of sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • It says here that Mike Tomlin is far wiser than I when it comes to knowing how rest players to keep them fresh for the long haul.

But I’m enough of a curmudgeon that I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, if he only would have practiced more…” back in September.

Myth #6: Mike Tomlin Still Struggles with Clock Management

This site has taken aim at this myth before and gone as far as to praise times when Mike Tomlin has displayed excellent clock management skills. Jim Wexell took up the cause on Twitter:

Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin took heat during his weekly press conference over his clock management at the end of the Jaguars game (#ICYMI the Steelers won.) Tomlin gave a long explanation and acknowledged that critics will criticize and then concluded with “I don’t care.”

Neither should you.

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One Lesson From Jaguars Game? Steelers Need to Play Javon Hargrave More

We have some lessons to learn.”
Mike Tomlin following the Steelers come from behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s right. And here’s one lesson the Steelers should learn form the Jacksonville game: Javon Hargrave needs to play more.

To say the least, Over the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. Dramatic in the form of Ben Roethlisberger 4th quarter, or perhaps more accurately, two minute warning comebacks.

It took the Steelers 4 attempts from the two yard line to score the go ahead touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh never led until the final five seconds of the game arrived.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The truth is that the inability of Ben Roethlisberger to get in sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and the inability of the offensive line to get rushing lanes open for James Conner is the biggest reason why such late heroics were again needed.

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

But, and few could have imagined saying this in September, the Steelers have a good defense too, and one that could be better by finding a way to give more playing time to Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers of course drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the third defensive pick after taking Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Hargrave quickly assumed Steve McLendon’s starting role and his play in the 2nd half of 2016 was a big reason for the team’s turn around.

  • But Javon Hargrave plays nose tackle, and the Steelers play their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

So be it. In many ways sub packages define Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense and far be it for me to criticize them.

But regardless of which subpackage they deploy, the Steelers coaches need to find a way to get Javon Hargrave on the field more. During the first half it looked like Leonard Fournette was going to lead the Jaguars on steamroll the Steelers defense similar to what they had done in the playoffs.

But Javon Hargrave arguably began the defensive rally by sacking Blake Bortles on third down to force a field goal when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone. He followed it up with another sack on the next series helped get the ball back (although the Steelers would turn it over quickly.)

While snap counts by quarter are not available, it seemed like early in the game there was a lot of Daniel McCullers Number 93 on the field and a lot less of Javon Hargrave. However, in the second half Hargrave 79 was on the field a plenty, which is when the Steelers defense went into shut down mode.

  • On the day, Hargrave tackled two Jaguar ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, got two more licks in on Blake Bortles and helped force a 3 and out by deflecting a Bortles pass on third down.

Cam Heyward leads all Steelers defensive lineman having been on the field for 78% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He’s followed by Stephon Tuitt who clocks in at 68%. Javon Hargrave is next, at 38%, meaning his snap count is only 7% higher than Tyson Alualu.

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh and speculation still abounded that he might shift the Steelers to a 3-4 defense, Mike Tomlin explained that a players like Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton were going to be good whether they played in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.

Tomlin’s logic was sound, even if it trying to apply to every good player would be an oversimplification (see the Steelers moving “bust” 1st rounder James Farrior from the outside to inside linebacker.)

Well, Javon Hargrave might officially carry the title of nose tackle, but he’s shown he can be an impact player, and it would wise for Karl Dunbar, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to figure out how to get him on the field more frequently.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Rewarding Those Who Work to the Bell Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud of his pupils for working every last second until the bell rings, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
By his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger had a horrible game. Indeed, Ben Roethlisberger played terrible football until there was 5:06 left in the 4th quarter, then Big Ben began to click. At that point Roethlisberger could do no wrong, and led the Steelers to two touchdown drives. Ben Roethlisberger’s overall performance had its weaknesses, but the results compensated. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner found it to be rough sledding in a week when he officially inherited the Steelers starting running back role from Le’Veon Bell. James Conners only managed 25 yards on 9 carries, and while he did make 6 catches, he dropped a clear game winner late in the game. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was clearly out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger early in the game, however for the 2nd week in a row, McDonald found away to come down with another tough touchdown catch. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown’s target’s to catch ratio this week won’t help his Pro Football Focus raiting, but many of those passes were badly overthrown. As it was Antonio Brown’s touchdown, and his 25 yard reception that got the Steelers to the 2 were game changers. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catches had equal, if not greater impact. On both touchdown drives JuJu Smith-Schuster made tough catches that put the Steelers into scoring position. James Washington had one catch, but Ryan Switzer seems to have a bigger role in this offense at this point. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the better defenses in the league and are led by a group of solid pass rushers. The Steelers offensive line in many respects struggled against the Jaguars, as they failed to open holes for James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger faced much more pressure than normal. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu actually led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cam Heyward had the look of a one-man wrecking crew in the second half, blowing up the line for 2 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and a sack. The Steelers defense shut down the Jaguars offense in the last 20 minutes of the game, and its started up front. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Blake Bortles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Cam Heyward sacks Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, had a tackle for a loss, a QB hit and registered a sack, playing like a one-man wrecking crew. T.J. Watt was close behind him, notching two sacks, dropping a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and hitting Blake Bortles twice. Jon Bostic had another solid game, as did Bud Dupree while L.J. Fort delivered in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis continues to keep the lid of opposing offenses and limited a Leonard Fournette to simply reaching the second level as opposed to exploiting it. Coty Sensabaugh had another strong game with 7 tackles. Terrell Edmunds also quietly had a good day as did Joe Haden. Blake Bortles was 10 of 18 for 104 yards and Jacksonville lost -3 yards on its last 5 possessions, when all it needed was a first down. Grade: A.

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 3-3 on extra points, while Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts on a day when the Steelers needed to pin the Jaguars deep. Ryan Switzer looked solid as a return man, although the Jaguars did have some reasonable success returning punts. Grade: B-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner went up against one of the NFL’s best defenses, and while the Jaguars clearly tested the Steelers, Fichtner’s offense came up with 3 touchdowns in 16 minutes. Beyond that, the early struggles appeared to be more tied to issues of execution rather than game planning.

  • Keith Butler‘s defense deserves any and all accolades that come its way following this game.

Yes, it is true that the Jaguars appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on the Steelers defense in the first half. But instead of demoralizing the Steelers defense, it energized them, and the Steelers defense went into complete shutdown mode for the game’s final 20 minutes.

To be sure, the Steelers weren’t shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf or the Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys of  ‘90’s, or the New Orleans Saints of 2018, but limiting any offense in this day and age to negative yards for a quarter and a half when the only thing the offense needs for victory is a handful of third downs is impressive.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

  • Mike Tomlin refused to “Live in his fears.”

Early in the 2nd half, instead of declining a penalty that would have brought up 4th 1, Tomlin accepted it and his defense responded with a strip sack that forced the Jaguars to punt from their end zone. Later, Mike Tomlin managed his timeouts so that his offense had one to for the final drive.

And when the Steelers got into scoring range, Mike Tomlin didn’t hesitate in going for the win instead of the tie. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
After the game Mike Tomlin swore that the Steelers hadn’t made any adjustments.

Yet the educated eye could see that the Steelers had made one key change. Daniel McCullers’ Number 93 was not often seen in the second half. Instead, it was replaced by Javon Hargrave’s number 79, who in addition to helping completely shutdown the run, also managed two sacks, two more quarterback hits and defensed a pass and for that Javon Hargrave wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Jaguars.

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