The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.
To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Some Surprising Cuts
To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.
Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.
Offensive Line Kendrick Green Kevin Dotson Mason Cole James Daniels Chukwuma Okorafor Jesse Davis J.C. Hassenauer – Will “New” = “Improved”?
Defensive Line Cam Heyward Tyson Alualu Larry Ogunjobi Chris Wormley Isaiahh Loudermilk Montravius Adams DeMarvin Leal – Hopefully Alualu’s health holds
Outside Linebacker T.J. Watt Alex Highsmith Derrek Tuszka Malik Reed – Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health
Inside Linebacker Devin Bush Myles Jack Robert Spillane Mark Robinson Marcus Allen – Make or break year for Devin Bush
Cam Sutton Ahkello Witherspoon Levi Wallace James Pierre Arthur Maulet – Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick Terrell Edmunds Tre Norwood Miles Killebrew – Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.
Specialists Chris Boswell (K) Pressley Harvin (P) Christian Kuntz (LS) – You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.
Steelers 2022 Practice Squad
Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle Cody White, Wide Receiver Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker William Dunkle, Offensive line Ryan McCollum, Offensive line Elijah Riley, Safety
During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.
Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”
A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.
But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?
Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come
Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter
Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.
Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.
For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.
Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.
His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.
The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back
Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.
So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.
But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.
In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.
The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.
Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F
Running Backs Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C
Tight Ends Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: C
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F
Linebackers Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F
Secondary James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.
Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.
The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.
On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.
Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)
It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F
Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.
T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+
Running Backs Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B
Offensive Line Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A
Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.
To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.
Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”
Against the Browns it was not.
1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com
knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.
As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-
Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.
In case you missed it, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn’t interested in the LSU head coaching job. Or the USC one, for that matter either.
Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette
The dynamics of how this “story” evolved to dominate the internet for the span of a few hours on Tuesday afternoon are best left to the Watch Tower, but for now here are two quick take aways:
First, in contrast to his predecessor, Mike Tomlin delivered a clinic on denying a rumor
Second, as point number one suggests, the hypothetical isn’t all that unusual.
As we all know, former Steeler and Bills front office executive Doug Whaley went on Pittsburgh radio and suggested that Mike Tomlin might be a candidate for the vacancies at LSU and USC, suggesting that either school might outbid Art Rooney II.
Both Ryan Clark and Carlston Palmer took that rumor and ran with it.
The storm of tweets, blog posts and Facebook likes followed. Hey, this was the bye week after all, so why not focus on something juicy instead of doing real reporting.
At his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin answered a score or so questions about the Steelers injury situation, usage of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Anthony McFarland all in the context the Steelers upcoming game against the Browns.
Which is refreshing. Just before Christmas during the dark days of the Steelers 1999 season, Bill Cowher was asked about returning to North Carolina to coach college ball. Unlike the Whaley generated story, this one didn’t come out of thin air. Bill Cowher had been dogged by rumors since the end of the Steelers 1997 season that he wanted out.
The question had arisen earlier that year with multiple national stories.
Yet, when given a chance to refute the rumors, Bill Cowher, fumbled the opportunity so badly at his weekly press conference that, at the urging of his late wife Kay Cowher, called a second press conference were he delivered an unequivocal denial.
(Where was social media when you needed it? Today Cowher could have gotten it done in a Tweet.)
But if Tomlin’s denial was clear cut, his umbrage at the question itself is on shaker ground. Several commentators have taken his cause, namely ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith:
.@stephenasmith strongly rebukes the Mike Tomlin college coaching speculation, saying Tomlin has every right to feel disrespected by USC question.
"The second they get a chance to diminish what you've accomplished, what your cachet is, they're going to take advantage of it." pic.twitter.com/CwU2u8CV4R
But let’s everyone should be clear: The prospect of an NFL head coach leaving the pros to go to the NCAA isn’t that far-fetched. After the Patriots fired Pete Carroll following the 1999 season, he went to coach at – you guessed it – USC.
Ah, but Carroll had tried and failed twice as an NFL coach (not that he had much of a chance with Leon Hess owned Jets) you object? OK.
To that I say, Jim Harbaugh. After the 2014 season, two years removed from a NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance, “Capitan Comeback” left the NFL behind to coach for Michigan.
Smith is right. Mike Tomlin does get a unfair criticism heaped at him from all sorts of directions and for many different reasons. Some of those critics have nefarious motives. But we can likely chalk up fact that he was questioned about a rumor linking him to a college job to nothing other than the shoddy state of sports journalism here in 2021.
The Watch Tower will shine its lights on that angle of the story very soon. Stay tuned.
The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.
Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.
Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?
All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.
So how did he do?
Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.
Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.
He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.
However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.
2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?
The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.
3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth
Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:
This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.
Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.
No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.
4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot
Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.
(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)
Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.
And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.
5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite
Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 16 in their 2nd preseason game of the 2021 season. This game also marked my first game of preseason football 20 years after living aboard for that long.
Here are some quick hits from re-encounter with preseason football.
Anthony McFarland scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review
1. It is Good to See Preseason Again
Some will blanch at this, but the statement should come as no surprise given this site’s annual admonitions that we should all appreciate preseason.
But the blunt truth is that after reading about so-and-so player for months, it is finally good to see them with my own eyes.
The NFL could and should do more to improve the presentation of this part of its “product” but those comments will come in a future column.
2. Soft in the Middle?
The Eagles had a lot of success throwing to the middle of the field. And Jaylen Hurts wasted little time setting the tone by picking on Devin Bush who was on coverage and gave up a long gain on the second play of the game.
One pass play panic does not cause, as Yoda would remind us.
Fair enough. And let’s also remember that this was Bush’s first action since tearing his ACL. But Robert Spillane also looked to be on the wrong end of a lot of completions. And the Eagles had some success running up the middle. During the game the news broke that the Steelers were trading for inside linebacker Joe Schobert.
While this news has been confirmed yet, one can see why there’s interest.
3. Harris Living Up to the Hype?
One of the adages behind those “Grumpy Old Man” “Eat Your Peas and Carrots and Enjoy Preseason Football” articles is simple: Preseason might not tell us much about how good (or bad) the Steelers will be, but it often gives an excellent look at individual players.
But early in preseason it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the real deal, just as it had been equally clear a year earlier that Bam Morris wasn’t up to the task of replacing Barry Foster.
Aside from the analytics addicts who’ll tell you never to draft a running back in the first round, all we’ve heard about 2021 first round pick Najee Harris has been positive.
And seeing him with my own eyes I concur.
Sure, his numbers of 2 carries for 10 yards are pretty plain, but he also had two other nice runs called back on penalties. Along those lines, backup running back Anthony McFarland looks like he’s vindicating those who said, “The kid won’t do much as a rookie, but watch out after that.”
Honestly, after watching both men against the Eagles, nothing sticks out.
Yes, this goes against the conventional wisdom that Haskins is gaining
Both men put up good numbers. But neither man was exactly throwing against the ’85 Bears. Of the two, Haskins looked a tad bit more decisive. In contrast, save for his long completion to Diontae Johnson, Mason Rudolph looked like Ben Roethlisberger ’20 edition lite.
Nearly all of his passes were quick short high percentage dump offs and check downs.
Haskins wasn’t exactly channeling his inner Dan Fouts, but he was more aggressive, and his mobility was an asset. But then again, he wasn’t facing top-line starters. Neither man was inspiring, but that many not mean much. Mike Vick’s numbers during the 2015 preseason were excellent.
When the games counted, it was a different story.
In all fairness to Haskins he has led drives that put 30 points on the boards, as opposed to Rudolph’s 0. But in all fairness to Mason Rudolph, he’s been playing against better competition.
Speaking of doing things when it counts, Joshua Dobbs has to be kicking himself. He started the summer on the outside looking in and his reps will be limited. Which makes his ugly interception all the more unfortunate.
5. Berry, Sammuels and Pierre Stepping It Up
After their Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, Pressley Harvin III was proclaimed as the next “Josh Miller” largely on the strength of his directional punting. Jordan Berry got his shot, and pinned the Eagles into the 20 yard line on his first opportunity.
This isn’t to say he’ll win the competition.
As Jim Wexell has reported at Steel City Insider, Berry was cut in favor of Dustin Colquitt last year on orders from way up high. But it does look like competition is bringing out the best in Berry.
The same can be said for Jaylen Samuels.
Outside of his wildcat role and spot duty, Jaylen Samuels has been pretty quiet since lighting up the Patriots for over 100 yards at the tail end of the 2018 season.
Jaylen Samuels got 10 carries against the Eagles and was targeted once more.
He ran pretty well on those ten carries and turned his one reception into a 17 yard gain. Samuels knows what’s at stake and is playing like it. James Pierre also realizes the opportunity he has in front of him and is stepping it up.
*Now that I remember, I saw a bit of the Steelers-Eagles 2005 preseason game, and also saw about 2 quaters from the Steelers 2019 preseason game against the Titans.
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:
Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.
Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:
His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.
Prior to the draft, on Steel City InsiderMatt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”
Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.
On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”
For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.
While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.
So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:
Clearly, there’s a lot to like.
How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme
The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.
And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.
And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.
Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.
But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.
The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.
Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal
When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.
When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen
The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:
When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.
Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.
Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.
Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.
Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnsonor Jerome Bettiswho’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold ofMerril Hoge.
The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.
The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back
Should we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harriswas a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhalldidn’t have the passion to match his talent.
Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.
Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:
We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.
Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.
See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbsin the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswellhaving to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.
For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.
If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.
Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.
Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.
Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-
Tight Ends Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-
Wide Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+
James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F
Defensive Line Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B
Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com
Secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-
Special Teams Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.
Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.
Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B
Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.
However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.
Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.
Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.
Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.
Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B
Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.
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