Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Straight A’s But Still Imperfect Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher leading a straight A yet imperfect class, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 32 of 46 for 267 two touchdowns plus an interception. These are solid numbers, but the Steelers were below the line a bit on 3rd down conversions, and Ben Roethlisberger’s end zone interception cost the team at least 3 points. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 13 times for 89 yards, ripping off a long run deep in Steelers territory and executing an impressive reverse of field run that could have easily gone for a loss. Benny Snell scored the only rushing touchdown of the day and looked OK in non-garbage time runs. Anthony McFarland was not impressive gaining 3 yards on 3 carries. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was on his own for much of the game, as an injury took Zach Gentry out of the game. Ebron caught 4 of 7 passes thrown his way including the final touchdown. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had another breakout day which at one point saw him hauling in more catches that Jake Luton had made completions. He showed his versitiliy, catching balls at short, medium and long lengths, including an incredible goal line catch. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and an impressive touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 19 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 20 yards and 1 run for 3. James Washington only had one catch, but it converted a third down and set up a touchdown. Grade: A

Diontae Johnson, steelers vs jaguars

Diontae Johnson makes goal line catch. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and was only hit twice. More importantly, the running backs had room to run. No one will confuse Sunday’s performance against the Jaguars with road grading delivered by Steelers offensive lines of yesteryear, but it was and improvement over previous weeks, and enough to make the running game a factor, albeit an erratic one. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line in tackles and while he wasn’t credited for a sack, he clearly pressured the quarterback. Tyson Alualu lone stat is a tipped pass – which helped cause an interception and fuel what was at a minimum a 10 point swing. Henry Mondeaux had one quarterback hit. James Robinson’s rushing average wasn’t bad, but if the Steelers did contain him, and that started with the line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
As usual Vince Williams led the Steelers linebackers in tackles, dishing out punishment as he went along. T.J. Watt went sackless for only the 3rd time in 10 games, but did hit the quarterback 2 times. Robert Spillane had four tackles while Alex Highsmith had 2. The real star of the unit was Bud Dupree who had deflected a pass had one sack and came very close to deflecting another. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Jaguars were 4-13 on third downs. Deep into the 4th quarter Diontae Johnson had more catches than Jake Luton completions. Oh, yeah, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edumnds both had two deflected passes and two interceptions, the first time since 1998 that two safeties have had multiple picks in one game (thanks to Jim Wexell for that stat.) If you’re keeping score, Steven Nelson had an uncredited deflected pass. And if you’re keeping track, Joe Haden had 3 tackles. Grade: A

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Jaguars

Terrell Edmunds nets his 2nd interception in a game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made 2 field goals but missed another, while being perfect on extra points. Jordan Berry had a soild day punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a solid day returning, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Marcus Allen had a heads up play on an on sides kick. Grade: B+

Coaching
While it is true that Jordan Berry did take the field a little too often for comfort, that should not obscure the fact that the Steelers run game was considerably better than it has been for the last several weeks. And if Randy Ficthner’s offense didn’t put together as many long drives as one will like, it did transform 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

  • Keith Butler came into the game with a simple mandate: Dominate a rookie quarterback.

Butler’s boys passed with flying colors, containing James Robinson, creating unmanageable third downs which the rookie was ill-equipped to convert.

Behind it all is Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are riding an unheard of 10-0 record, yet you wouldn’t know that by reading any of his player’s post-game press clippings. This type of “We’re good but we can and will improve attitude” is as healthy as you can get. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at the stat sheet and it says 1 tackle, 1 assist, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 pass defensed and 1 QB hit. Look pretty mundane. But Stephon Tuitt’s play in this game was anything but mundane and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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What Do Steelers Fans Want from Bud Dupree and JuJu? Super Bowls or Draft Picks?

The NFL trade deadline came and went on November 3; the Steelers added more than they subtracted, thanks to acquiring inside linebacker Avery Williamson and a seventh-round pick from the Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2022.

This was seen as a success by many Steelers’ fans and media members who were a bit concerned about the inside linebacker spot after the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Devin Bush against the Browns back in October.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

However, there may have been more than a few fans disappointed by the fact that Pittsburgh failed to part with either outside linebacker Bud Dupree or receive JuJu Smith-Schuster in exchange for some 2021 draft compensation. You see, that’s the new thing now, not only with the fans, but also with the media and, yes, even the teams, themselves.

Both Dupree and Smith-Schuster are in the final year of their rookie deals, and I don’t know how many times I was asked if I thought the Steelers were going to trade the star players before the deadline. In the old days, it was just understood that some players were going to reach the end of their rookie contracts and ultimately depart without anything in return except for maybe a compensatory draft choice.

  • But those days are long gone.
  • Today, everyone thinks they’re owed compensation.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

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

Again, even the fans are preoccupied with worry about a pending free agent. Instead of being excited about what Dupree and/or Smith-Schuster could do for the Steelers here in 2020 and their quest to finally make it back to the top of the NFL mountain, the sentiment among so many folks leading up to the deadline was: “So, they’re supposed to just let them walk without getting anything in return?”

Yes…at least this season. Pittsburgh is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. What would you rather have:

  • A 2021 first-round draft choice for Dupree or a Super Bowl?
  • A second-round pick for Smith-Schuster or a seventh Lombardi?

I realize that outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, the rookie third-round pick out of Charlotte, has shown a great deal of promise this year. I also understand how deep the Steelers’ receiving corps is. But can you imagine Pittsburgh’s defense without Dupree and what he has brought to the outside linebacker position opposite T.J. Watt? Can you picture that receiving corps without Smith-Schuster leading the way both on the field and off?

  • As I alluded to already, this isn’t just driven by fans.

In my opinion, they’re taking their cues from the media and even the teams. How often do you hear media members talk about the possibility of getting compensation for a pending free agent? More now than ever, and that’s because NFL general managers and coaches seem to be interested in doing just that.

But while that might make sense for your downtrodden franchises like the currently winless Jets, it makes very little sense for a team like Pittsburgh. Besides, do you think a team like New York is going to part ways with a premium draft choice in exchange for a rent-a-player? No, that team is going to want to stack draft choices, not part with them. And do you really think the Steelers are going to trade a main cog in their machinery to another contender? No, because that would be quite dumb.

Avery Williamson is a free agent after this season, and he’ll likely leave. But that’s okay because he’s just a rent-a-player for the Steelers, one that the team didn’t develop and one that the fans didn’t become emotionally attached to.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward catches a touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El in Super XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

  • Dupree and Smith-Schuster, but especially, Smith-Schuster, are different.

I get that, but it still doesn’t change much.

Back in the old days of NFL free agency — for someone my age, that would be the 1990s and 2000s–many Steelers players came and went, but not before leaving behind lots of great memories.

Kevin Greene, a veteran free agent pick up in 1993, gave Pittsburgh three great years and helped the franchise reach Super Bowl XXX, their first trip to the big dance in 16 seasons. But he left for the Panthers after that.

Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who also specialized in punt returns and even a little quarterback from 2002-2005, threw the game-sealing touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL. Immediately after becoming a Super Bowl hero, Randle El signed a lucrative second contract with the Washington Football Team.

  • Can you imagine how that 2005 season may have played out if Pittsburgh was more interested in flipping Randle El for a future draft pick?

I don’t know how the Steeler careers of Dupree and Smith-Schuster will end, but if they leave behind some Super Bowl memories, well, that would be much better than some extra draft compensation.

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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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Batted Away! Steelers Defeat Ravens 28-24, as Roethlisberger Rally Fuels Comeback

During the 21st century, Steelers and Ravens have delivered the very best football that the AFC can offer. Proponents of the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning narrative will protest, but they will be wrong.

  • Steelers vs. Ravens is physical, intense and nasty.
  • Their games ultimately gets decided by who hits the hardest.

The Steelers 28-24 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium lived up to the rivalry’s pedigree. The win improved the Steelers standing to 7-0 alone atop the AFC North. But what’s perhaps most encouraging about the win is that in leading the comeback, the Steelers signal caller showed something that we haven’t seen thus far in 2020.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

1st Half: No, A Win over the Ravens Really Couldn’t Come So Easily

The Steelers have already had marquee showdown with an AFC North Rival, the Browns. That game started with a pick six authored by all-world safety Minkah Fitzpatrick 3 plays into Cleveland’s first drive. And so did this one.

This time the hero was unsung inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who took it to the house from 33 yards out with less than a minute elapsed in play.

  • The Steelers pick-six against the Browns signaled a blowout — could history repeat?

Miles Boyken, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Ravens

Miles Boyken smokes Vince Williams for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Alas, it would not, and could not.

The Cleveland Browns, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, are a pretenders because they think they can gain respect by demanding it. The Baltimore Ravens are contenders because they know how to earn respect.

  • And during the next 30 minutes the Baltimore Ravens flourished instead of flinching.

Following the lead of Lamarr Jackson, the Ravens did everything that opponents haven’t been able to do to the Steelers thus far in 2020:

  • They converted third downs
  • They stitched together long drives
  • They compiled over 100 yards rushing in a single half
  • They forced the Steelers to punt three times and recovered a Chase Claypool fumble

Sure, the Ravens had their hiccups in the first half. Bud Dupree stripped the ball from LaMarr Jackson when the Ravens were in the Red Zone, but 5 plays and a mere 18 yards later, Jordan Berry was out punting it away for Pittsburgh.

Justin Tucker split the uprights from 51 yards away as time expired to close the first half.  The Ravens held a 17-7 lead over the Steelers, but Baltimore was in full control of the game, and nobody held any illusions to the contrary.

Big Ben Delivers on What He Does Best

The Baltimore Ravens had rendered Ben Roethlisberger ineffective in the first half. The Steelers had logged just 20 plays and pass interference penalties seemed their offense’s most potent weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster started the Steelers 2nd half off right with a 24 yard catch but, true to form, the Steelers were punting three plays later.

  • One play later rookie Alex Highsmith rebooted the Steelers 2nd half by intercepting Lamarr Jackson.

After a 1 yard James Conner run, Ben Roethlisberger and Eric Ebron hooked up to take advantage of a miscue by former Steeler L.J. Fort for an easy touchdown. Suddenly, the Steelers were only down by 3, contesting control of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished a lot since his return from 2019’s season-ending elbow surgery.

He’s shown he can still throw the ball with the same zip as before. He’s shown he can adjust his game to focus more on shorter-higher percentage passes. He’s shown that he can eliminate, thus far (and for the rest of the season, God willing,) the “one dumb interception a game” that once seemed obligatory. He’s shown that he can still move in the pocket to make things happen. He’s shown he can take instruction on details like footwork from Matt Canada.

  • But going into Baltimore, he still hadn’t shown whether he could still takeover a game.

During the 2nd half against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner decided to give Ben Roethlisberger a chance to do just that. Ben Roethlisberger just didn’t work out of empty sets. HE didn’t simply run the no hurry up offense and call his own plays. He was MAKING his own plays in the huddle at the line of scrimmage.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As he told Chris Admanski of the Tribune-Review, “I know everybody says, I do well in playground, backyard football. Today it was in its truest form.” And today at least, playground Ben meant Big Ben at his best as he connected with:

  • Eric Ebron twice
  • James Conner twice
  • Ray-Ray McCloud once
  • Chase Claypool 3 times
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster 5 times

That’s 13 completed passes with just 3 incompletions, along with two pass interference penalties, as Ben Roethlisberger authored two drives that retook the lead twice, setting up an epic, Steelers-Ravens end of game stand.

Defense Delivers for Steelers

Statistically speaking this wasn’t the best day for Keith Butler’s defense. He saw his unit lose Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward, which can’t have helped as the Ravens ran up over 265 yards on the ground on the legs of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Willie Snead IV added 106 yards and a touchdown through the air in a game that saw the Ravens convert 8 of 15 third downs.

  • And, if this story were being written according to Fantasy Football rules then owners of the Baltimore Ravens would have been happy.

But this tale is being told in Reality Football terms where outcomes are fought out in the trenches instead of spreadsheets. And so it was, with 3:48 left to play the Ravens reached the Steelers Red Zone.

  • On 3rd and 5 Isaiah Buggs stoned LaMarr Jackson who tried to rush it up the middle
  • On 4th and Isaiah Buggs stuffed Jackson again with an assist from Minkah

James Conner and Diontae Johnson did manage to get the Steelers to 3rd and 1, but the Ravens held. Fortunately, Jordan Berry boomed off a 45 yard punt. With no time outs remaining, Lamarr Jackson moved Baltimore 40 yards in 46 seconds, delivering Baltimore to Pittsburgh’s 23.

Here’s what happened next:

Minkah Fitzpatrck and Justin Layne were perfect on the play, as Fitzpatrick pushed the pass from Willie Snead’s hands while Layne drilled him, delivering Pittsburgh’s first 7-0 start since 1978.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Giants: Teacher’s Too Late Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is keenly aware that marrying Monday Night Football with 12 hour workdays doesn’t produce timely blog posts, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Giants.

Bud Dupree, Daniel Jones, Steelers vs giants

Bud Dupree forces Daniel Jones into a Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
In his first game since elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient night throwing 32 times for 21 competitions 229 yards and 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a key first down doing the 2 minute drill. Roethlisberger was rusty at first, but shook it off fast and played a very good game. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner came into this game with something prove, but unfortunately he proved that durability remains an issue. Fortunately for the Steelers, Benny Snell, Jr. answered the call rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell looked good, but fumbled at what could have been a costly moment. With 1 catch and 1 run for 3 yards Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Balls were sparse for the tight ends against the Giants. Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron were both targeted twice with one catch apiece although Ebron’s did convert a third down on a scoring drive. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
After struggling for much of 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong night with 6 catches on 6 targets for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches on 10 targets for 57 yards. And while James Washington only had 2 catches, the sheer determination mustered to reach the end zone set the tone for the rest of the night. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line slipped in 2019 after being one of the NFL’s best, if not the very best, for the last 5 or 6 years. They were a big question mark going into the game. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag for the line. Rushing lanes were spare early in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger had pressure for much of the night, giving up 2 sacks and getting hit 5 times. The unit was good enough against the Giants, but tougher tests will come. Grade: C

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward interception Gaints

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu effectively manned the nose tackle position, leading the team in tackles and dropping runners for losses twice. Stephon Tuitt made his return from injury and recorded a sack. Cam Heyward had one tackle and a pass defense but hit the jackpot with his goal line interception. The unit grounded Saquon Barkley the entire night. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt’s amazing interception set up the Steelers first touchdown and Bud Dupree’s pressure on Daniel Jones ended an 8 minute drive by setting up an interception. Vince Williams had a sack, and Devin Bush led linebackers with 7 tackles. Alex Highsmith rotated in and looked good as did Ola Adeniyi. A strong night for the linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers defensive game plan sold out on stopping Saquon Barkley and the Giants took advantage of that to move a little through the air and they were effective with the short passing game early in the 2nd half. Minkah Fitzpatrick bit on a run fake that exposed Steven Nelson to a 1-1 which he lost badly to Darius Slayton. Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in coverage. This is a concern. On the positive side Mike Hilton was a force with a sack, defensed pass and 5 tackles. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had a solid night punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 33 yard return that could have gone for more had he not tripped. The Steelers were 2-2 on field goals. All positives.

However, Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Giants had a 20 yard punt return. None of these mistakes were fatal, but they could have been far more costly. Grade: C-

Devin Bush, Steelers vs Giants,

No room to run thanks to Devin Bush. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada’s influence on the offense can be seen with increased use of crossing routes and jet screens and Randy Fichtner put together an efficient game plan that moved the chains, spread the ball around and put points on the board.

  • Keith Butler’s defense picked up where it left off in 2020, which is high praise.

When your special teams muff the season’s first punt and give the home team the ball on your own 3 barely 4 minutes into the season, very bad things tend to happen. But Butler’s boys refused to blink and forced a field goal.

It is true that the Giants had more success passing the ball than one would like, but by neutralizing Saquon Barkley the Steelers defense dictated the game to New York’s offense.

All of the COVID-19 induced disruptions to the off season were supposed to benefit a stable team like the Steelers. Mike Tomlin arrived at MetLife Stadium with a team ready, willing and able to execute a straight forward game plan. Special teams snafus drop this grade. Slightly. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were down 3-0 and had already punted twice as the 1st quarter waned. From their own 33 they ran once for a 1 yard run and tossed an incomplete pass. On third and 9 Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the side line and the only rookie on the field for the Steelers offense reached up to grab a pass, taking care to tap his toes to stay in bounds and convert the first down.

It was impressive on its own merits, and it also sustained a drive the ended with the Steelers tying field goal, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 season opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

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How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/1305666999813648384

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers Draft Alex Highsmith in 3rd Round of 2020 NFL Draft. Video Highlights OLB from Charlotte

The Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft, closing out day 2 by using their compensatory selection on the outside linebacker from Charlotte.

IF Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ignored the “advice” offered to them via the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix, when they drafted Chase Claypool, they stuck to it by picking Alex Highsmith with their last premium pick, as outside linebacker was rated as Pittsburgh’s second most urgent area of need.

  • At least it can be made to appear that way on the outside.

In truth, the Steelers (wisely) are probably sticking to their policy of drafting the best player available, as Kevin Colbert has been high on the depth at outside linebacker in the 2020 NFL Draft. And he didn’t hold back in his praise for Alex Highsmith explaining:

He kind of stood out in the East-West practices. A long, fast, athletic guy, he continued to impress us athletically at the Combine. And when you really looked at his history, what he did as a walk-on, that was a special-teams standout as a young player, to end up putting out the stats that he has this season, we don’t think this kid’s anywhere near where he might be somewheres down the road.

The Steelers have had their eye on Highsmith since last fall, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin openly talked about him backing up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, something which High Smith relishes, confessing:

I’m so excited to learn from those guys, two of the best pass-rushers in the league. So I’m just ready to soak up everything like a sponge. I’m just ready to learn so much from them and do whatever I can to help this team get back to another Super Bowl.

Its not every 3rd round compensatory pick that arrives talking about helping his team win a Super Bowl, but the ambition and attitude are welcome.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers 2020 3rd round pick

Alex Highsmith, the Steelers 2020 3rd round pick. Photo Credit: Charlotte 49ers.

Alex Highsmith Video Highlights

Alex Highsmith played for four years at Charlotte, appearing in just under four dozen games. As Kevin Colbert alluded to, the Wilmington, North Carolina native had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, making Charlotte as a walk on.

But each year his production jumped, and he soared as a senior, topping out at 75 tackles and 13 sacks.

Here is a look at his highlight tape:

Highsmith’s time in the 40 was 4.7, or .2 seconds better than Jarvis Jones was (oh, but the track was muddy at Georgia the day they timed him…) and you can see he’s certainly has an explosive burst.

While Watt and Dupree are fixed as starters, Alex Highsmith can and should immediately push Tuzar Skipper and Ola Adeniyi for playing time as “The next man” up at outside linebacker, although the key to getting a helmet on game day will be his ability to perform on special teams.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Alex Highsmith.

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