Steelers Sign Mark Barron, Possibly Signaling Jon Bostic and/or Morgan Burnett’s Exits

“Be aggressive!” Appears to be the mantra free agency mantra of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 as they continued to bolster their defense by signing former Los Angeles Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron.

If initial reports are correct, Mark Barron’s contract with the Steelers is for two years and 12 million dollars with a $5.75 million signing bonus.

While “Mark Barron” is far from a household name he does have some history with the Steelers, as he was responsible for hit that injured Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2015 win over the then St. Louis Rams. Although Barron’s hit was clearly against NFL rules, he was neither flagged nor fined for the transgression.

Mark Barron, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger

New Steelers free agent Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger in 2015. Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, via TimesWVA.com

As a result of the play, Mike Vick was forced to start 3 games in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, with Landry Jones relieving Vick and rallying the team to a comeback win over Arizona.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Mark Barron entered the NFL as a safety, until they traded him to the Rams in mid-2014, who moved him to inside linebacker. Like some other recent free agent signings from past off seasons, Mark Barron comes to Pittsburgh with some injury history, having missed the first four games of 2018, before starting the final 12 including the Rams 3 playoff games.

This could spell bad news for Jon Bostic, who figured to be the incumbent starter following L.J. Fort’s free agent defection to the Philadelphia Eagles. The move could also signal a coming release of Morgan Burnett, whom the Steelers signed as a safety last season.

The Steelers plan was to start Morgan Burnett at safety, but injuries led to Terrell Edmunds getting the start, and Edmunds played well enough to keep the strong safety spot for the balance of the season. Morgan Burnett did work his way into the lineup, but as a dime linebacker, a move which prompted Burnett publicly request his release.

Although the Steelers have now made high-profile free agent signings at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, Pittsburgh is expected to target all three positions in the 2019 NFL Draft.  The moves however, frees Pittsburgh from the need to reach to fill any of the areas on their depth chart.

  • A generation ago the saying went, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.”

Today you could say, “When you draft for need, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.”

Word to the Wise: Official Word on Barron Signing Pending

A quick word to the wise:  News of the Steelers signing Mark Barron broke on Twitter on Sunday the 17th. By Monday the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review were running the story, seemingly having confirmed Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN.

  • However, as of Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30 am Eastern the Steelers had still not officially announced the signing.

While the delay is likely due to logistical issues, it is possible that the deal hit a snag. Back in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Steelers had signed Bud McFarland. That deal never materialized. However, in that case the Tribune Review had clearly and consistently reported that no deal had been reached with Bud McFarland.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Steve Nelson to 3 Year Contract. First Big Free Agent Move @ Corner in 20 Years

Could a cycle be forming? In Pittsburgh’s 2019 home opening loss, the Kansas City Chiefs used and abused the Steelers secondary revealing it as a major weakness that needed to be corrected. To be sure, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds stepped up their play from that awful day to begin making improvements during the season.

  • And now, as a first off season step towards shoring up that secondary the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed cornerback Steve Nelson from the Chiefs.

If reports are correct, Steve Nelson’s contract is for 3 years and $25.5 million, although there is no information on guarantees and signing bonuses at this point. Nelson cannot “officially” sign with Steelers at until 4:00 pm today.

Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson Steelers, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Steve Nelson attempts to tackle Antonio Brown in the Steelers 2016 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Twitter

Given the money the Steelers are paying him, Steve Nelson will undoubtedly be slotted as the starter opposite Joe Haden. The move also ensures that the Steelers will not pick up the 5th year option on Artie Burns, although exercising that option would have been insane under any circumstances given Artie Burns track record.

Coty Sensabaugh, the incumbent starter, is a free agent who will not get a ton of money thrown at him, but is also not the type of player you can bring back at the veteran minimum. That in turn could be good news for Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Mike Hilton looks set to arrive at St. Vincents as the Steelers starting slot corner, but Burns, Sutton or Allen could conceivably mount a challenge.

Steelers First Big Free Agent Move at Cornerback in 20 Years

Cornerback has been a sore spot for the Steelers defense since at least Super Bowl XLV if not before. Despite that, the Steelers Steve Nelson signing is the first time the franchise has made a big-name free agent signing at cornerback since bringing Dwayne Washington to Pittsburgh in 1998.

By any measure, Steve Nelson is a counts as a major free agent signing by the Steelers. In 2018, he totaled 68 tackles, defensed 15 passes and made four interceptions. That 4 interception total tops the season high-total for any Steelers player since Troy Polamalu recorded 7 interceptions in 2010.

  • However, those were the first interceptions of Steve Nelson’s career.

That shouldn’t be necessarily be considered as an ominous sign – as Nelson had 16 passed defensed in 2016 and many scouts will tell you the passes defensed is a better performance metric for judging defensive backs.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Steve Nelson.

Steelers Free Agent News Coming Fast and Furious

While players cannot officially sign until 4:00 pm, a lot has already happened. Jesse James is headed to Detroit and Le’Veon Bell is flying off to the New York Jets. However, Anthony Chickillo will be returning to Pittsburgh.

Stay tuned. Steel Curtain Rising will have more in depth commentary on the moves above.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Coty Sensabaugh Has Quietly Brought Competence to Steelers Secondary. He Should Stay in Pittsburgh

Cornerback is one of the most demanding, thankless positions in football. The NFL with its fantasy football fueled love affair with inflating passing stats, makes it harder and harder for cornerbacks to their job.

Finding quality cornerbacks is tough for every NFL team, and a challenge has bedeviled Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers since Super Bowl XLV.

Could the Steelers find part of their answer at cornerback by looking in house? As Coty Sensabaugh reaches free agency that question means much more to him than anyone else on the South Side.

Coty Sensabaugh, Michael Crabetree, Steelers vs Ravens

Coty Sensabaugh breaks up a pass intended for Michael Crabtree. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Coty Sensabaugh Steelers Career

My what a difference a year makes.

On the eve of Coty Sensabaugh’s first start for the Steelers against the Tennessee Titans in 2017, staff writer Tony Defeo penned a feature extoling Coty Sensabaugh as potentially the latest Kevin Colbert bargain basement steal.

It was a great story line, except for the fact that with Joe Haden out of the line up, the Steelers started giving up a 57 yard pass ever half. And while all of this certainly wasn’t on Coty Sensabaugh, a big part of it was so much that Steelers coaches basically activated Cam Sutton off of the PAP list and started rotating him with Sensabaugh.

Fast forward to 2018. All summer we hear how working day-to-day with Antonio Brown has finally readied Artie Burns. Cam Sutton and Brian Allen are coming along. Many thought that Coty Sensabaugh would be the odd man out.

Yet Artie Burns struggled mightily, causing coaches to rotate Coty Sensabaugh with Burns, and then ultimately bench Burns in favor of Sensabaugh. After that, you didn’t hear much about Coty Sensabaugh, and often times that’s the highest complement you can pay a cornerback.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

Which player had the 2nd most defensive snaps for the Steelers in 2018? You guessed it, Coty Sensabaugh.

Coty Sensabaugh isn’t “The Answer” for the Pittsburgh Steelers at cornerback. In 2017 one would have been hard-pressed to argue that Coty Sensabaugh anything but a liability for a Steelers defense in free fall.

  • While the Steelers defense still has long way to go, the unit did improve in 2018.

And Coty Sensabaugh was a part of that improvement. Yes, the Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, but they also need competence. Neither Artie Burns, Cam Sutton or Brian Allen has proven they can provide that. Coty Sensabaugh has.

The Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

While the Steelers are very far from salary cap hell, they don’t have a lot of space to spare on mid-level talent. And the Steelers track record at drafting cornerbacks is abysmal.

If the Steelers are going to look to fill a need at cornerback via free agency, then doesn’t it make sense to do it on a someone who has legit playmaking ability, rather than someone who is “serviceable?”

The Steelers could do worse at corner than Coty Sensabaugh, but they need to invest their free agent dollars in players than make them better instead of just being “not worse.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Coty Sensabaugh

This is a hard call to make. Outside of the signing of Tyson Alualu it has been all quiet on the South Side front in terms of contract extensions. That might not mean anything, as recent history has shown the Steelers to be as likely to resign their own players after free agency begins as they are before.

  • Coty Sensabaugh offers the perfect example of why you can never let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

Or the serviceable. The Pittsburgh Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, far beyond what Coty Sensabaugh can give them on his best day. But Coty Sensabaugh gives them competence at a position where it is sorely needed, and the Steelers would be wise to sign him to a modest 2 year deal.

Will they do that? In 10 days or so we’ll know.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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The Steelers Took a Step Back in 2018. Can They Take One Forward in 2019?

As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:

  • Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
  • How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
  • Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
  • Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship

Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.

We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Rejuvenated Running Game?

Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.

  • Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.

Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.

We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.

  • Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.

Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.

Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)

Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
  • The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
  • Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.

Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.

  • Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
  • Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
  • T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
  • Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
  • Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential

Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.

Emerging Weapons on Offense

The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.

The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.

Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.

Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019

The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.

And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio  Brown.

As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?

  • The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.

Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?

That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.

  • Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?

If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.

 

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Mike Tomlin’s Mistake? Trusting His Defense Too Much

Trust forms the lifeblood of human relationships. Without trust, society, let alone football teams would function. Yet if trust is essential to a football team’s success, trust, as Mike Tomlin is finding out, can get you into trouble.

  • The phrase “trust can get you into trouble” conjures images of lies, deceit and betrayal.

Anyone of those can scuttle the fortunes of a football team. But there are other ways that trust can fail. Think of the parent who instills sound study habits in their children, proctors nightly homework sessions, tutors intensively before tests only to see their child try their damndest yet fall flat on their faces when exam time arrives.

And therein lies Mike Tomlin’s biggest mistake from last Sunday – he placed too much trust in his defense.

Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin talks with Cam Heyward in Steelers loss to Radiers. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Let’s be clear: This site harshly criticized Mike Tomlin after the loss to the Raiders. I stand by those criticisms. By Tomlin’s own admission, medically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger could have entered the game one series earlier than he did.

When Ben did enter the game, he moved the offense at will, opening with a completion to Antonio Brown, then he hit Jaylen Samuels before connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster on four straight passes.

There’s no reason to think that things would have been any different if Ben would have replaced Joshua Dobbs one series sooner. And holding Ben out was game changing, and perhaps season ruining decision.

But part of the reason why Mike Tomlin held Ben out is also similar to the reason why he saved his time outs:

  • He was trusting his defense to make a play.

It is easy to scoff at such a notion given the way the Steelers defense has given up easy touchdown drives all season long, and particularly at the end of halves.

But remember that the Steelers defense is fielding 4 first round picks, 2 second round picks, 1 third round pick, and two major free agent signings. And that doesn’t count Cam Sutton and Artie Burns who weren’t playing.

  • Invest that type of NFL personnel capital in your defense and you should expect them to deliver.

And if “Heinzsight’s” film reviews over on Steelers 247 are to be trusted (and they should) then it is pretty clear that the Steelers defenders have been in the correct coverages and executing those coverages fairly well, but have been failing to make plays.

Consider the catch that Seth Roberts made in between Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

Slam both of them for failing to make a play, but the men were where they needed to be.

Throughout his career, when the game is on the line, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly put its outcome in the hands of his players. Think of handing off to Le’Veon Bell with no time left against San Diego in 2015, or having Ben Roethlisberger throw to Antonio Brown on Christmas in 2016.

Against the Raiders, Mike Tomlin placed a similar trust in his defense, but unfortunately the Steelers defense failed to deliver.

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Are 2018 Steelers Regressing to the Mean or is Pittsburgh Primed for a Breakout?

Sometimes a week can feel like a lifetime in the NFL. Seven days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play at home, in Prime Time, against another AFC heavyweight and with a viable shot at an AFC bye. Today, things are very different:

  • The Steelers are clinging to a ½ game lead in the AFC North
  • They’re heading to a venue that has tortured Pittsburgh in the past.
  • They also have games against New England and New Orleans awaiting them.

Oh, and on top of that, James Conner is out, threatening to push an offense that was already a little pass-happy, into one that is plainly one-dimensional. This type of ebb and flow is normal in the NFL, where a single game carries the impact of 10 baseball games or 5 NBA or NHL games.

By this point in 1974, Joe Gilliam, Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw had all taken turns as “the starter” while Joe Greene had come very close to walking out on the team. Yet, that season ended with Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Lombardi Trophy.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Which doesn’t predict that the 2018 season will end with Roger Goodell handing Art Rooney II a piece of hardware, but rather reminds us that reality unfolds at its own pace in the NFL. Which begs the question:

  • Are the 2018 Steelers regressing to the mean or is Pittsburgh primed for a breakout?

That might seem like an odd question coming from a writer who concluded that the loss to the Chargers made the Steelers look more like pretenders than contenders. Accordingly, we’ll look at the case for regressing to the mean first.

Case for Regressing to the Mean

The Steelers stunk in September. They finished 1-2-1. Their tie against Cleveland came by virtue of T.J. Watt’s blocked field goal and their lone win against Tampa Bay felt more like an escape than a victory. The Steelers looked like a team worthy of contending for a top ten-draft pick in losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The September Steelers defense looked just as lost as it had without Ryan Shazier during the balance of 2017. Their offense was playing with no confidence, and the WiFi between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown was on the fritz.

  • Then came October, and where the Steelers authored a 6 game winning streak.

Sure, several last second comebacks were needed, but with each passing week, the Steelers improved.

On defense, Jon Bostic, while no Ryan Shaizer, proved himself to be a competent replacement. Terrell Edmunds began showing some playing ability, and the shift of Sean Davis to free safety was paying dividends. Bud Dupree was making waves.

On offense, Antonio Brown’s production might have been “down” outside of scoring touchdowns, but JuJu Smith-Schuster proved that he can burn defenses just as badly. Vance McDonald, while not quite rising to the level of being Pittsburgh’s Gronk, showed he could be a weapon. With each passing week James Conners was making fans ask, “Le’Veon Who?” Behind it all, was the Steelers offensive line who was playing at an elite level.

However, the second half of November brought several yellow flags:

  • The Steelers run defense started giving up yards in double-digit chunks on a regular basis
  • By plan or happenstance, the Steelers offense leaned heavily towards the pass increasing turnovers
  • The Steelers defense consistently failed respond by securing turnovers of their own
  • Chris Boswell began missing kicks again

Combined those tendencies above with the critical plays that the Steelers failed to make against the Chargers and you get a portrait of a 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers team that is settling in at room temperature after starting cold and then getting red hot for a spell.

The Case for the Steelers Breaking Out

Commentators who know their X’s and O’s far better than I do have interpreted the outcome of the Chargers game in just the opposite way.

Penalties should have negated the Chargers 1st and 3rd touchdowns. The off sides penalties on Joe Haden and Artie Burns that led to three field goal attempts are hard, if not impossible to find on film.

  • Sure, the Steelers gave up a 16 point lead, but piss poor officiating essentially spotted the Chargers 16 points.

You can expect most mediocre NFL teams to win when you spot them 16 points. Spot a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback 16 points and it’s almost metaphysically impossible to beat them. In that light, the fact that the Steelers took the game to the wire is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

The Danger of Over Interpreting “Almost Wins”

There’s a compelling case to be made that Pittsburgh remains primed for a breakout during the rest of December.

But almost one year ago there were those who were suggesting the same thing after the Steelers loss to the Patriots: Even without Antonio Brown, the only thing separating the Steelers from victory was a botched call on a Jesse James TD.

  • It seemed like the Steelers proved they could play with anyone, but that illusion got smashed with the simple roar of a Jaguar.

These types of paradoxes are what make December football so much fun: The odds appear to be stacked against them, yet the Steelers hold their destiny in their own hands.

So perhaps it is fitting that they travel to Oakland today to take on the Raiders. The Raiders might only be a 2-10 team, but the Steelers have suffered some of the worst losses of the Roethlisberger era in Oakland’s Black Hole.

If you think that signals some sort of doom take heart: The last time the Steelers won in Oakland was in 1995 in a season that ended in Super Bowl XXX.

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6 Myths Debunked During the Steelers 6 Game Winning Streak

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

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

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

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

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nothing could have been further from the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth #6: Mike Tomlin Still Struggles with Clock Management

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

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

Neither should you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Bengals – Legacy Defining Anyone?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if he really has seen a “legacy”defining performance from his pupils, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Quarterback
It is true that Ben Roethlisberger was only “OK” in the first half. He also threw a few balls that he was lucky not to have intercepted. But that matters for little, because Ben Roethlisberger the one minute drive to perfection, it did it with the clam, poise and, most importantly, the confidence needed to deliver. Grade: A-

Running Backs
James Conner’s 111 yards rushing and 18 yards receiving might have been lower than last week’s, but by Jim Wexell’s reporting, Conner’s bruising style knocked two Bengals players out of the game. Stevan Ridley continues to get a handful of carries for nominal gain. Roosevelt Nix helped open holes for Conners. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James kept the Steelers offense moving and helped establish the physical tone while the wide receivers were getting in gear. Xavier Grimble had two catches, including a 22 yarder on third and 19. Vance McDonald looked poised to score but fumbled instead, his second in 4 games. Grade: A-

Wide Receivers
It took a while for the Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WiFi connection to reach full speed, but when they did, the duo inflicted their damage on the Bengals defense. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 7 yards, while James Washington and Justin Hunter both had targets but no catches, although Hunter’s block was critical on the winning TD. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the second straight week, Ben Roethlisberger did not give up a sack and indeed, the Bengals only touched him once! Add that to road grading done for James Conner and you have excellence in its purest form. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave both had sacks. Cam Heyward didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he’s not doing his job, the other two can’t do theirs. The Bengals did have some success in running the ball, and pass pressure could have been more consistent throughout the game, but it was a good day for the line. Grade: B

Linebackers
You think seeing L.J. Fort light up the Atlanta Falcons maybe didn’t inspire Vince Williams just a big? Williams led the team in tackles, shadowed Joe Mixon in the passing game, and even covered down field. T.J. Watt defensed a pass and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had solid if splash playless games. The linebackers had a good day, but room for improvement remains. Grade: B-

Secondary
Joe Haden had two defensed passes and contained A.J. Green. Both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton had defensed passes, although Sutton had his hiccups. Artie Burns committed a costly pass interference penalty that helped keep a drive alive. The secondary played well, but Cincinnati closed both halves with touchdown drives. That  is not a trend which can continue. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell quietly made all of his kicks which was a welcome change especially in the confines of an opposing stadium during the rain. Jordan Berry boomed off two long punts and landed 3 inside the 2. Ryan Switzer had a long punt return of 15 yards and some decent kickoff returns.

However, Alex Erickson had kickoff returns of 47 and 51 yards, the former of which gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 44 with a minute left. This is the kind of special teams play that can lose a game. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense appears to be finding its rhythm. When the passing game isn’t quite working, the running game is able to pick up the slack. Such balance is necessary for sustainable success in the NFL.

  • Keith Butler’s defense continues to improve.

That improvement must continue as evidenced by two two touchdowns the Bengals scored at the tail end of each half. However, two weeks ago the Steelers defense was a lost cause. Today it looks like a unit that does some things well, while offering legitimate “upside.”

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

After a big win last week and going into a big game against the Bengals with Ryan Shazier’s recovery as a backstory, it would have been easy for the Steelers to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster.

  • Instead, they did just the opposite.

The Bengals 51 yard 2nd half kickoff return could have easily spelled doom. Yet the Steelers defense went out and forced a punt despite giving up a penalty that gave Cincinnati a 3rd an 1.

  • At the end of the game the Pittsburgh’s poise was present for all to see.

There was no panic in the Steelers huddle or on the sidelines as the Bengals went up by one with just over a minute to play. Nor was there any sense of desperation evident when the Steelers found themselves in 2 third down situation on that final drive.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown waited for their moment, and then drove a stake through the Bengals secondary.

That type of calm under pressure requires character. It also requires competent coaching that allows that type of locker room culture to flourish. Mike Tomlin has worked to establish that and the fruits of his labor were evident in the game’s final minute. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Everyone will long remember Antonio Brown’s last minute touchdown, as well they should. Meanwhile JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the afternoon making critical, if less highlight-worthy catches. But he is in this space for two heads up plays.

  • The first came when he out fought a defensive back for a catch at the goal line, and the second came when he recovered Vance McDonald’s fumble.

A turnover in either occasion would have lost the game for the Steelers, but neither were and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2018 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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