Maurkice Pouncey’s Suspension Cut to 2 Games. Steelers Defend Mason Rudolph

It has been over a week since the now infamous Steelers-Browns Body Bag Game yet the contest’s final 8 seconds continues to dominate the news.

Steelers fans got a bit of good news when the NFL’s appeals committee reduced center Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension from 3 games, and unprecedented total for participating in an on-the-field fight, to 2 games. Larry Ogunjobi’s 1 game suspension was upheld and as was Myles Garrett’s indefinite suspension.

Maurkice Pouncey, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns Thursday Night

Maurkice Pouncey slugs Myles Garrett as David DeCastro holds him down. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via the L.A. Times

  • However, the story did not die there. In fact it grew new legs.

During his appeal, Myles Garrett accused Mason Rudolph of provoking him by uttering a racial epitaph. This information was leaked to ESPN reporters Adam Schefter and Josina Anderson. Shortly after the incident Josina Anderson tweeted that a racial slur uttered by Mason Rudolph started the incident. She quickly deleted the tweets and retracted her claim.

In a written statement, Myles Garrett confirmed the leak:

I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension. This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed. I know what I heard….

Gotta love the “This was not meant for public dissemination….” Really? This is from Myles Garrett, the man who everyone extoled for his poetry writing and plans to become a paleontologist expects us to believe this?

If this “…was not meant for public dissemination” then why did he have he or his agent leak the news? (Does anyone really think that Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the men who upheld the suspension leaked the news?)

Speaking both through his agent and through Steelers spokesman Burt Laurten, Mason Rudolph vehemently denied the charges.

  • The NFL also says that they investigated and found no evidence of the charges.

On the latter point, Steelers fans should trust and hope that the NFL did in fact do a real investigation, and that no audio evidence surfaces later. Not Roger Goodell has track record for fishy investigations or anything like that.

However, Steelers who were on the field at the time continue to defend Mason Rudolph. Matt Feiler who was a few feet away during the whole incident told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He didn’t say anything.”

Mason Rudolph did not address reporters, but Cam Heyward described him as “Distraught” by the accusations. Heyward went on to assert, “The kid made a bad mistake, but he never crossed the line when you’re talking about racial slurs.”

Alejandro Villanuava also defended Mason Rudolph, asking “Why wasn’t it said earlier?”

Steelers Injury Update Ahead of Bengals Game

While news that Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension has been reduced was certainly welcome, he will not be available for the game against the Bengals. Nor will other victims from last Thursday’s “Body Bag Game.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and is nursing knee and foot injuries. James Conner has not practiced and is extremely unlikely to play. Artie Burns, another injured player from last week’s game, was a limited participant.

All news was not a bad, however. Diontae Johnson was a full participant in practice, and Benny Snell has practice all week and will likely be available to back up Jaylen Samuels.

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Steelers Browns “Body Bag Game” Ends as Myles Garrett Tries to Maim Mason Rudolph

We can be forgiven if we’ve forgotten, but there was actually a football game in Cleveland Thursday night that saw the Browns defeat the Steelers 21-7. Had the game ended at the 59:52 mark, Thursday night’s contest already was one of the ugliest football games on record.

  • Just how ugly was the game?

To put it into perspective, even before the WWE style shoot weapons match that marred the final 8 seconds, you could already call it the Steelers “Body Bag Game.” Here we’ll focus first on the X’s and O’s before taking a look at the infamous final 8 seconds.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph helmet

Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph with his helmet. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Slate.com

Slow Start by Steelers Defense

Its no secret that the Steelers defense had led the way, and then some, during the four game winning streak that Pittsburgh took into Cleveland. Yet the Cleveland Browns scored on their first drive almost effortlessly.

Keith Butler’s defense forced a few punts, but on the Brown’s first possession of the 2nd quarter, Cleveland scored again. When asked where the breakdown had occurred, Mike Tomlin was succinct:

  • “Baker out of the pocket.”

That’s accurate, but only to a point. The Steelers pass rush indeed pressured Baker Mayfield, only for Baker to elude the rush time and time again, and early in the game Baker made the Steelers pay. Something was clearly off with the Steelers defense early in the game.

Two plays before the Browns first touchdown, the Steelers barely got their 11th man over the line of scrimmage before the snap to avoid an off sides penalty. Joe Haden appeared to come out of the game, then went back in and when Mayfield connected with Jarvis Landry in the end zone there wasn’t a Steeler in sight.

  • But what’s largely forgotten is that the Steelers defense settled down and played qualify football after that.

No, there were no Minkah Fitzpatrick fireworks, and while T.J. Watt did get a sack, unlike previous weeks, it wasn’t a game changer. But after their second score, the Browns went 10 straight possessions without another score.

And while Baker Mayfield would continue to slip past would-be Steelers sackers, as the night wore on the Steelers secondary’s coverage was tight enough they forced Baker to throw the ball away on his extended roll outs.

Giving up 14 points in a game’s first 20 minutes is never something to applaud, but the Steelers defense’s performance wasn’t simply “Above the line” after that point, they kept Pittsburgh in the game.

Steelers Offense, Rudolph, Sputter Out of the Gate, Never Recover

While he’s only started seven games, one thing about Mason Rudolph stands in stark contrast to Ben Roethlisberger: Mason Rudolph doesn’t excel at the school yard style football that typified Roethlisberger early in his career.

Instead, Mason Rudolph is a student of the game. He’s got a voracious appetite for film study, and if anything he is perhaps too patient in working through his reads.

  • But with each week, Mason Rudolph has been making progress.

With each game, he’s taking steps forward, and has made strides towards taking command of the Steelers offense. The question going into the Cleveland game, was could Mason Rudolph continue that progress on a short week?

  • Alas, the answer against Cleveland was a resounding “No.”

Mason Rudolph did do some nice things. He’s beginning to transfer the college rapport he had with James Washington to the NFL. He did a masterful job on the Steelers lone touchdown drive, and showed some quick decision making on his touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels.

It would be easy to look at how the game evolved and chalk up Mason Rudolph’s struggles to having to throw to Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton as his number 2 and number 3 wide outs. It would also be easy to point a finger at the Steelers offensive line, which failed to protect him.

  • But as it so often is, the easy answers are the wrong answers.

The fact is that Mason Rudolph played poorly vs. the Cleveland Browns. He threw four interceptions, interceptions which got uglier as the night progressed. A lot of Steelers fans are ready to write of Mason Rudolph’s future based on that one night (never mind he’s looked far better his 1st 7 starts than Terry Bradshaw looked in his.)

The key takeaway from the Browns game as far as Mason Rudolph is concerned can’t be found by looking back, but rather by looking forward. It all depends on how Mason Rudolph reacts, and whether he can rebound.

Body Bags Mount for Pittsburgh

This was a particularly brutal trip to Cleveland for the Steelers. During the course of the game, the Steelers:

All of this occurred before the now infamous final 8 seconds of the game. The status of the players above remains unknown although one would have to expect that all 3 offensive players named above will not be playing next week in Cincinnati against the Bengals.

Unfortunately, if Mason Rudolph is to rebound from his worst game as a pro, he’ll likely need to do it on his own.

8 Seconds that Will Live in Infamy

It all could have been so simple. Mason Rudolph had just completed an 11 yard pass to Trey Edmunds with 14 second remaining. The Steelers could have run their final play, and then headed to the locker room to tend to their wounded.

He could have let up after Mason Rudolph released his pass. After making impact, he could have let it stand there. He could have been content with a late hit, but instead forced Mason Rudolph to the ground.

  • The two men scuffled. David DeCastro tried to break things up.

Myles Garrett could have ignored Rudolph, but instead tore his helmet off and swung it viciously at his head. Mason Rudolph could have been seriously injured, or worse. Had this happened on the street, Myles Garrett could have, would have and should have faced criminal charges.

The NFL has suspended Myles Garrett indefinitely, as well as Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Ogunjobi

Regardless of what happens moving forward, this incident and how they respond to it will define the 2019 season for both teams.

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NFL Places Anthony Chickillo on Commissioners List. Steelers Resign Jayrone Elliott

Anthony Chickillo is already feeling some of the consequences resulting from his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend last weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. As seems to becoming standard operating procedure in the NFL, Roger Goodell has placed Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner’s exempt list.

While on this list, Anthony Chickillo will continue to receive his salary, but can neither play nor attend games, although he can be at team headquarters for injury therapy or non-football related activities.

Ola Adeniyi is also an available backup behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Interestingly enough, the New York Giants waived Steelers preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper. Tuzar Skipper had made the Steelers final 53 man roster, but the Steelers waived him prior to the loss to the Patriots to make room for Johnny Holton.

Pittsburgh had hoped to bring him back on to the practice squad, but the Giants claimed him off of waivers. Clearly the Steelers see something more in Elliot, but they could still add Skipper to the practice squad.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo in happier times, who found himself on the NFL’s Commissioner’s list. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Exit Bye Week, Return to Health

Mason Rudolph has cleared the concussion protocol and will start for the Steelers this Monday against Miami. Steven Nelson, Roosevelt Nix, Vance McDonald and James Washington have returned to practice and are expected to play.

While the Steelers offense could certainly use a shot in the arm from Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. acquitted himself well in relief of James Conner in the win at Los Angeles. If Joe Haden cannot start, Artie Burns could get the nod to start his second straight game in over a year, although Cam Sutton would be a candidate as well based on his performance against the Chargers.

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With Stephon Tuitt on IR, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

The Steelers took a lot of positives and one glaring negative away from their victory over the Chargers. On the positive side:

  • Devin Bush showed that he’s the real deal
  • The offensive line did some serious road grading
  • Benny Snell’s first extensive action made him look like a viable 3rd running back
  • And the defense went toe-to-toe with a Hall of Fame quarterback after weathering multiple injuries

About those injuries. The Steelers suffered several, but losing for the season Stephon Tuitt to a torn pectoral muscle is devastating.

  • You can’t sugar coat this. Stephon Tuitt was budding into his prime, and the injury has stopped him cold.

Stephon Tuitt was in route to an All Pro Season, with 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hits and 6 tackles for losses. That’s an impressive six game stretch. In all of 2018, Tuitt had 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for losses. But numbers as they often do, fail to capture the full picture. As “jujumojo” on Steel City Insider’s message board observed:

I honestly don’t think I have watched an individual Steeler defensive player dominate to the degree Tuitt has so far this season since probably James Harrison in his 2008-10 prime. Tuitt had simply been manhandling NFL linemen week in, week out.

Losing Stephon Tuitt represents a huge blow to the Steelers defense. But does it doom them for the rest of 2019?

With Tuitt Out, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

Reading the head line, “Steelers put Stephon Tuitt on IR, Resign L.T. Walton to take his roster spot” inspires little confidence. Had the Bengals not claimed Fred Johnson off of waivers, one wonders if the Steeler would have even called Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

But, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost a dominating defensive lineman to a pectoral injury in mid-season. And it happened 3 years ago, and the outlook was bleaker then.

The Dallas Cowboys had just come to Pittsburgh and beaten the Steelers as Ezekiel Elliott scored not one, but two touchdowns in the space of about 1:20. Days later news broke that Cam Heyward was out for the year with a torn peck.

Cam Heyward was defense’s undisputed best player (Ryan Shazier was only just beginning to shed the “bust” label that a minority, as ignorant as it was vocal, of fans had been pinning on him.)

  • All hope seemed lost.

This site titled its article “As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!” complete with video of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over! Game Over” clip from Aliens.

Yet, the exact opposite happened. Despite losing its best player, the Steelers defense not only halted their decline, it improved, tremendously. It says here that main factors fueling the turn around were:

But L.T. Walton also helped make that happen. During that final seven game stretch, L.T. Walton played in just under half of the defensive snaps.

The notion of “Stephon Tuitt injured, L.T. Walton to the rescue!” is plain silly. Tyson Alualu is the next man up. Javon Hargrave will undoubtedly see more time. Rookie Isaiah Buggs could conceivably get a helmet over L.T. Walton.

  • After all the Steelers opted not to resign Walton, who was on the Bills’ roster for a bit this summer, but was out of football.

But if L.T. Walton’s return can’t be counted on as a strength, he certainly wasn’t a liability, at least at defensive end (nose tackle is a different story, see the playoff loss to the Jaguars) when he was pressed into action in 2016 and again in 2017.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Dice Roll: Steelers Cut Fred Johnson, Jayrone Elliott, Activate Trey Edmunds, Paxton Lynch

With Mason Rudolph and Jaylen Samuels ruled out for Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup against the Chargers, the Steelers cut Fred Johnson and Jayrone Elliott and activated Trey Edmunds and Paxton Lynch.

While there was some hope that he could play, as of this writing Mason Rudolph remains in the NFL concussion protocol. Rudolph could still be cleared, but the Steelers will start Devlin Hodges with Paxton Lynch backing him up.

Trey Edmunds,

Trey Edmunds in the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

This amounts to a minor bit of irony, as Paxton Lynch was the Denver Broncos first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Devlin Hodges spent opening day browsing the want ads after spending the summer on the Steelers training camp roster.

Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, has been with the Steelers since early 2018, after joining the practice squad when Le’Veon Bell began his hold out. The Steelers activated Trey Edmunds last season when James Conner got hurt. Edmunds appeared in 4 games on special teams but did not get a carry.

Trey Edmunds will backup James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., but could see action in the offense. Edmunds is a fullback by trade, and Roosevelt Nix has been declared out of the game.

Steelers Hope to Bring Back Johnson and Elliott But….

According to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers plan to bring back both Jayrone Elliot and Fred Johnson. That could very well happen, but the Steelers have had a bit of bad luck with cutting and resigning roster bubble players this season.

Before opening day the cut preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper, when they activated Johnny Holton, only to lose him on waivers to the New York Giants. They also planned to bring back wide receiver/kick returner Diontae Spencer to the practice squad, but he got claimed by the Denver Broncos.

  • Of the two, resigning Fred Johnson appears the higher priority.

Fred Johnson’s play in preseason was strong enough that some in the organization see him as a potential future starter. Given the aging Steelers offensive line and the dearth of draft picks to replace them, the Steelers need to stockpile potential where they can.

Finally, Steelers free agent corner Steven Nelson will not play, leading Artie Burns to see his first extended action since the beginning of the 2018 season.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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Is Mike Hilton’s Slot-Corner Role Up For Grabs @ St. Vincents?

When comparing Steelers third-year slot-corner Mike Hiltons stats from 2017 with those from 2018, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference.

In 2017, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2016, had 54 tackles, four sacks, six passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble while appearing in 16 games and starting four.

In 2018, Mike Hilton had 57 tackles, one sack, eight passes defensed, one interception and two fumble recoveries while appearing in 15 games and starting two.

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

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

Other than the number of sacks, which are a bit misleading considering he had three in one game in a Week 16 blowout victory over the Texans in 2017, again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a discernible difference in play and performance over Hilton’s first two seasons in the league.

Yet, after entering his second Steelers training camp as a youngster who appeared to have a bright future in the defense, Mike Hilton enters his third Steelers training camp looking like a player who is in for a fight for his starting role in the secondary.

Yes, the slot corner position is very much considered a starting role in the modern era of football; and after some unsuccessful attempts to fill this now very important role–including with Hilton’s old college teammate, 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson–the Steelers seemed to find their man two years ago.

What changed? It’s not rumor or speculation, either. The sudden drop of Mike Hilton’s stock from one season to the next — specifically, the tail-end of last season, when other corners were now battling him for playing time.

To further reinforce this apparent lack of confidence in Mike Hilton’s abilities, the Steelers barely even made an attempt to negotiate with him on a multi-year contract this past offseason, and he ultimately signed his $645,000 tender as an exclusive rights free agent. as you probably know, an exclusive rights free agent is someone who has no power or leverage to negotiate a deal. It’s a take it or leave it situation.

  • For whatever reason, the Steelers made it pretty clear to Mike Hilton that he had no leverage.

In other words, they opted not to treat him like James Harrison, Willie Parker and/or Alejandro Villanueava who got second contracts as Exclusive Rights Free Agents. 

To his credit, Mike Hilton participated in all offseason workouts, even before signing his tender. Now, he’s at Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa. trying to prove to his bosses that 2017 was no fluke. Again, though, what happened in 2018 that made Mike Hilton’s rookie season seem so fluky?

  • I’m obviously no expert, so maybe there was a drop off in Mike Hilton’s play that only those who get paid to evaluate could have detected.

Nobody on Pittsburgh’s current roster appears to be nipping at Hilton’s heels, not 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, not 2017 fifth-round pick, Brian Allen and certainly not 2016 first-round pick, Artie Burns, who is fighting just to stay on the roster.

Maybe it really is just speculation, this apparent falling out of favor by Mike Hilton with the Steelers. After all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him on any list ranking the NFL’s top nickle corners. Furthermore, Mike Hilton is a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning the Steelers essentially control his rights for another offseason. Therefore, why bother with a multi-year contract at this point?

Maybe the Steelers feel that there is much room for improvement at slot corner, and while Hilton is a nice player, perhaps they’re looking for a little more out of the position.

By all outward appearances, Mike Hilton has been put on notice by the Steelers, and the battle for the slot-corner position is one worth watching this summer.

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Can the Steelers Salvage Something from Artie Burns? Perhaps There’s Hope in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers and Artie Burns were an actual romantic couple, one might say the two sides have moved on — if not physically, certainly mentally and emotionally.

  • Or, perhaps more accurately, the Steelers have moved on.

After making Artie Burns a bit of a controversial first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (25th, overall), the rookie cornerback worked his way into the line-up in the second half of the season, starting nine games and intercepting three passes.

Artie Burns started all 16 games in 2017, and even though he often showed lapses in performance — including an inability to play zone coverage on a consistent basis — Burns still seemed to have legitimate “upside.”

That was especially the case during the 2018 training camp, when the third-year man out of Miami reportedly more than held his own against the legendary Antonio Brown.

Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

But Artie Burns’ inconsistency in 2017 mushroomed into downright consistent poor play at the start of the regular season. After starting six games, Burns was eventually replaced in the lineup by veteran journeyman Coty Sensabaugh.

  • Artie Burns was a non-factor down the stretch and contributed nothing in the secondary for a team that missed the playoffs by a mere half of a game.

At a time when Artie Burns should have been coming into his own as an NFL cornerback — there were some who said he had the potential to be the best cornerback from the 2016  NFL Draft — Burns was justifiably labeled a bust by many at season’s end.

The Steelers certainly acted like the label was apt, as their first big free agent move was to ink veteran cornerback Steven Nelson to a fairly lucrative three-year contract.

Fast-forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Steelers doubled-down on the cornerback position by picking Michigan State’s Justin Layne in the third round. Perhaps the final nail for Artie Burns came shortly after that when Pittsburgh announced that it would not be picking up Burns’ fifth-year option, meaning 2019 will be his final one before he hits free agency.

Is Artie Burns a Lost Cause?

Truth be told, while nothing the Steelers have done at the cornerback position should give Artie Burns confidence that they have, well, confidence in him, this doesn’t mean he can’t win back their trust by reviving a career that has already had a few shovels of dirt thrown on it.

William Gay, a 2007 fifth-round pick out of Louisville, once struggled so much at the cornerback position, it didn’t seem like his career would last much beyond the 2010 season.

But in 2011, William Gay suddenly “got it,” and was so effective, he parlayed his uptick in performance into a decent free agent contract with the Cardinals in 2012. William Gay returned to the Steelers one year later, following his release from Arizona, and soon became Pittsburgh’s number one corner, starting a combined 40 games between 2013-2015.

Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick out of Oregan State in the 2009 NFL Draft, did next to nothing during his first three seasons, before suddenly putting it all together in 2012. In fact, Keenan Lewis was arguably Pittsburgh’s best cornerback that year, and the timing couldn’t have been better for him, as he was a much-sought after free agent who signed a huge deal with the Saints.

Point is, the Steelers could have very easily parted ways with both William Gay and Keenan Lewis during the lowest points of their respective careers, yet they were each allowed one more chance to prove their worth–and they were successful in doing so.

Artie Burns may not know who he will be playing for in 2020 (or even 2019, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be Pittsburgh. Joe Haden is scheduled to hit free agency next spring, and I’m sure the Steelers wouldn’t mind finding a younger replacement who is just as effective.

Notice how I didn’t throw “cheaper” into the mix, and that’s because Artie Burns can still pull a William Gay or Keenan Lewis and suddenly “get it” just in time to cash in. And if he doesn’t do that in Pittsburgh, well, there will be plenty of teams looking to throw money at the cornerback position next spring.

Artie Burns may have been left for dead by many — including his employers–but that doesn’t mean he’s buried…not yet.

 

 

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Steelers Draft Justin Layne, Cornerback Michigan State with 2nd Third Round Pick in 2019 NFL Draft

Kevin Colbert swears that he never, ever drafts for need. “Ni en pedo” is what he would swear where he an Argentine porteño.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest 2019 draft needs were Inside Linebacker, Cornerback and Wide Receiver. Could it just be a coincidence that the Steelers first picks in the draft went Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver and Cornerback?

  • Yeah, tell me you believe it is a coincidence and I’ll get you a REALLY good price on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Using their own 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to Justin Layne, cornerback from Michigan State. Justin Layne grew up in Cleveland as the son of a devoted Browns fan, but as Jim Wexell reports, he has already clarified that “Man, my dad threw away all his Browns stuff.”

Justin Layne, Steelers draft Justin Layne, Ron'Quavion Tarver

Steelers drafted Justin Layne in 3rd round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland, MLive.com

Justin Lanye’s past family ties with the Brown can and should be forgiven. After all Chuck Noll was a former Cleveland Brown player and Justin Layne is a graduate of Benedictine High in Cleveland as was Chuck Noll.

  • Like his colleague Brian Allen, Layne arrives in the NFL new to the cornerback position.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminds us, Brian Layne actually began his career for the Michigan State Spartans playing wide receiver, not switching until midway through the 2016 season when he took an interception 43 yards for a touchdown in his first game as corner.

  • How does that cliché go, if defensive backs had hands, they’d be wide receivers?

Perhaps with experience on the other side, Justin Layne can break the mold, as he make 3 more interceptions and broke up 24 passes (while interceptions are coveted, passes defensed is often viewed as the better key performance indicator by secondary coaches.)

Justin Layne’s Highlight Tape

If some were quick to say that the Steeler reached for their first 3rd round pick, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, people just as quickly asked why someone of Justin Layne’s pedigree was still on the board so late in the third round.

Justin Layne’s measurable are solid. He stands just under 6’2” ran 4.5 in the 40, has a 37.5 vertical jump and has strong agility times running a 4.09 shuttle and a 6.9 3-cone. He also has 33 inch arms. New Steelers defensive assistant Teryl Austin was asked of Layne had a flaw in his game and retorted, “I’m not sure what the flaw is.”

Here’s a look at Layne’s tape:

His ball skills are evident and Justin Layne appears to be a solid tackler. The question of how and where Justin Layne will fit into the Steelers secondary will be an interesting one. When asked if he would play in the slot, which would make him an immediate threat to Mike Hilton, Teryl Austin countered by saying he saw Layne as more of an outside corner.

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson‘s status as the Steelers starting cornerbacks would not appear to be disrupted by Justin Layne’s arrival in Pittsburgh. However, it likely decreases any chance that the Steelers resign 2018’s starter Coty Sensabaugh.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Justin Layne.

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