Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Cody Wallace – Does B.J. Finney’s Rise Mean Wallace’s “Life’s Work?” has Arrived?

In the modern, salary-cap era of the NFL, getting a pink slip on cut down day doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Current Steelers Fitzgerald Toussaint, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison have been cut only to see another NFL Day.

  • But when The Turk came knocking down in Tampa in September 2013, Cody Wallace had to fear The End had arrived.

After all, Cody Wallace had bounced around between the 49ers, Lions, Texans, and Jets rosters and practice squads from 2008 to 2011 and landed a spot duty position with Tampa in 2012. When you’re a 28 year old NFL offensive lineman who has been with 5 teams in 5 years and you get cut, “Life’s Work” is usually comes next.

But even then, Cody Wallace appeared to be an insurance pickup. Maurkice Pouncey was continuing the Steelers tradition of stability at center that runs (almost) unbroken from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings. Little did they know, the Steelers would need Wallace’s services and need them soon.

That was four years ago and now the Steelers must decide if free agent Cody Walllace’s services are still worth it.

cody wallace, cody wallace free agent, steelers vs packers, steelers 2017 free agents

Cody Wallace starting at center in the Steelers 2013 game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Capsule Profile of Cody Wallace’s Steelers Career

When Maurkice Pouncey went down on opening day 2013 against the Titans, Cody Wallace was in street clothes. The Steeler signed Fernando Velasco who started the next 11 games until he too got injured in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to the Ravens.

It was Cody Wallace’s turn to be the next man up, and Wallace finished that game and started the final four games of the Steelers 2013 season. In 2014 Cody Wallace appeared in 15 games and gave two solid performances starting at guard.

When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the count in 2015, Cody Wallace started all 16 of the Steelers regular season games and both playoff games at center. Going into 2015 the Steelers had a pretty good record when Cody Wallace started, and during 2015 Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed solid protection the entire time, and Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams had solid run blocking.

Cody Wallace only appeared in one game during 2016 and was put on injured reserve just before the Steelers game road game against the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cody Wallace

Cody Wallace gives the Steelers veteran depth at the offensive line and the ability to step in and start at not one but two positions. While the NFL injury gods haven’t tortured the Steelers in recent years the as badly as they did at the beginning of the decade, the Steelers have learned the lesson that you can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Cody Wallace knows Mike Munchak’s system. He’s a quality player who has shown the ability to deliver when called upon time and time again.

The Cast Against the Steelers Signing Cody Wallace

B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard. Both are younger lineman benefited from Wallace’s injury and absence in 2016. While both players offer the rare combination of experience and youth. They’re known commodities.

  • In contrast, Cody Wallace will turn 33 this year and he’s coming off of an injury.

The Steelers also have 2016’s 3rd round pick Jerald Hawkins coming back in 2017. While Hawkins plays tackle he’s another younger lineman that the Steelers will need reserve a roster spot for. Given that, Cody Wallace isn’t worth even a minimal signing bonus. The Steelers can get the same depth with younger, cheaper players.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cody Wallace

If this were simply and X’s and O’s decision, and if my medical staff assured me Cody Wallace’s injury wasn’t long-term, then this arm-chair general manager would bring him back. It is true that B.J. Finney did an exceptional job as a guard.

On the Steelers first several 3rd downs ended in sacks as, the Browns ran right at Landry Jones and on came Jordan Berry. That was fine for a meaningless game against the Browns, but if you’re Mike Tomlin, do you really want to roll the dice with letting that happen to Ben Roethlisberger?

But of course personnel decisions in today’s NFL don’t simply come down to the X’s and O’s, they’re just as much about the bang for your salary cap dollar.

  • And in that analysis, the argument for letting Cody Wallace walk gets a lot stronger.

And at the end of the day, the Steelers will almost certainly hold off on making any sort of an offer to Cody Wallace, see who they can pick up in the 2017 NFL Draft, and only then seriously consider bringing him back.

In all likelihood, while the door isn’t completely closed, the Steelers look set to move on from Cody Wallace.
Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency?

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents Validate Mike Tomlin’s “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

The Steelers 2017 off season is already off to a little bit of a different start. Free agency remains a way away, yet there’s been a steady stream of news out of the South Side regarding Steelers free agent signings.

Instead, Kevin Colbert has been busy resigning the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agent class. What’s that? The term “Exclusive rights free agent” isn’t one you hear a lot either inside or outside of Pittsburgh. The first time I remember seeing it, in fact, was when the Steelers resigned Willie Parker after the 2005 season.

  • An NFL Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player with less than two years of accrued seniority who doesn’t have a contract.

You could look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and call them, “The fringe roster players who fueled the 9 game winning streak.” Take a little longer group, and you’ll see that the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agency is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s “No loose stone unturned philosophy” of personnel acquisition.

Here is a look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free agent class, how they got to Pittsburgh, and what they’ve contributed.

Anthony Chickillo, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo strip sack dak prescott, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, steelers vs cowboys

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Fitzgerald Toussaint
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked Fitzgerald Toussaint up as a practice squad addition after the Ravens cut him before opening day. There he stayed until late in the season when the Steelers activated him. At the time it appeared they were protecting him from practice squad poaching.
What he’s contributed: In just six week, Fitzgerald Toussaint went from practice squader to being the Steelers starting running back for their 2015 playoff win over the Bengals.

When it comes to backing up Le’Veon Bell, no one will confuse Fitzgerald Toussaint with being in DeAngelo Williams’ category, but he’s proven to be a reliable number 3 back.

Roosevelt Nix
How he got to Pittsburgh: Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and James Saxon saw something they liked, took a flyer on him a fullback and he made the 53 roster.
What he’s contributed: In 2015 Roosevelt Nix distinguished himself on special teams while working capably as a fullback. In 2016, Roosevelt Nix showed himself to be an accomplished run blocking fullback.

In less than a year, Roosevelt Nix went from being a guy the Steelers Nation’s Twitter General Manager griped about being a “wasted roster spot” to someone they questioned coaches for not playing more.

Chris Boswell
How he came to Pittsburgh: Every General Manager has a list of emergency players on it should injuries strike. But the Steelers went through not one, but two kickers when Shaun Suisham went down, making Chris Boswell their third choice.
What he’s contributed: Do we really need to ask this? Chris Boswell kicked the Steelers into the playoffs with his six kicks and shoe string tackle against the Bengals, and did it again in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chris Boswell has shown himself to be a reliable kicker who can make long kicks in the wind, in the rain and with playoff games on the line. Can’t ask for more than that.

Alejandro Villanueva
How he came to Pittsburgh: This site already recounted the Steelers decision to pick up Alejandro Villanueva from the Eagles in 2014 as one of the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 season.
What he’s contributed: It is harder to measure offensive lineman’s contributions, but going into 2016 the Steelers hedged their bets on Villanueva with Ryan Harris.

By the end of the season Alejandro Villanueva had erased all of those doubts.

Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Dee Ford, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Alejandro Villanueva in his first start as Roosevelt Nix behind him. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers, via Pittsburgh Magazine

Xavier Grimble
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Xavier Grimble in September 15 after the 49ers cut him and added him to the practice squad where he stayed until making the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was big on Xavier Grimble going into 2016, labeling him the Steelers X-Factor after Heath Miller retired he did so long before we know Matt Spaeth would get cut or Ladarius Green would have health issues.

Xavier Grimble might not have lived up to the hype in 2016, but he did come down with critical touchdowns against Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Anthony Chickillo
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because he was cut and resigned to a shorter contract, he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
What he’s contributed: Anthony Chickillo split time as a starter with Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering. During that time he had 2.5 sacks.

This might be a pipe dream, but if the Steelers haven’t explored moving Anthony Chickillo to right outside linebacker under the tutelage of James Harrison, they should.

Cobi Hamilton, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Steelers vs browns, Cobi Hamilton overtime touchdown Browns, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Cobi Hamilton ends the Steelers 2016 regular season with an overtime touchdown catch. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Cobi Hamilton
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Hamilton in early August in what looked to be little more than move to fill out the training camp roster.
What he’s contributed: The AFC Championship loss might have reveled Cobi Hamilton as not quite ready for prime time, at least in the post season context, but Hamilton made 17 catches during the year, and he showed a penchant for coming down with the ball when the Steelers needed him to.

B.J. Finney
How he got to Pittsburgh: B.J. Finney was part of the Steelers 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. He didn’t make the final roster, but did hold down a practice squad spot for the entire year.
What he’s contributed: B.J. Finney started 3 games for the Steelers this year, including two starts in place of Ramon Foster. He also started the season finale in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

This is probably just idle internet chatter, but there’s talk that the Steelers might (or “should”) consider saving on the salary cap by letting Ramon Foster go an starting B.J. Finney. Not likely to happen, but the fact that it’s a rumor should tell you something.

Jordan Dangerfield
How he got to Pittsburgh: After he failed to catch on as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Bills in 2013, the Steelers signed Jordan Dangerfield to a “Futures Contract” in January 2014. He made the practice squad in 2014 and 2015 and broke the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Jordan Dangerfield’s stat sheet might not impress, but he did make two starts in 2016 and was the “Next man up” in the secondary ahead of Robert Golden and the 2013 Draft classes signature wash out, Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers remaining Exclusive Rights Free agents are guard Cole Manhart, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and linebacker Kevin Anderson all of whom finished the year on injured reserve.

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

It might not be accurate to label an NFL Exclusive Rights Free agent as “a player no one else wanted” but they are certainly players that someone else overlooked. When the Steelers 2007 season ended, Mike Tomlin promised to leave “No loose stone unturned” in his quest to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.

If you look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, some players made larger contributions than other, but it clear that without their collective efforts, the 2016 Steelers never would have knocked on the door to Super Bowl LI.

That’s a testament to Kevin Colbert’s commitment to seeking quality talent from where ever may find it and to Mike Tomlin and his staff’s commitment to give every player a fair shot regardless of what his pedigree is.

All NFL General Managers and Head Coaches certainly pay lip service to this ideal, but the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class proves they mean it in Pittsburgh.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Overtime Win over the Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see average, everyday students rise to the occasion with the star pupils out, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Cleveland.

DeAngelo Williams, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns, Marcus Gilbert, Jesse James

DeAngelo Williams celebrates his touchdown against the Browns with Jesse James and Marcus Gilbert. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Quarterback
The game’s very first series made it clear that Landry Jones wasn’t going to get the same protection that Ben Roethlisberger got, and Landry Jones struggled for much of the first half. And Landry Jones’ interception at the end of the 3rd quarter was as ugly as it gets. But Jones pushed on, and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and another in overtime. Jones also deserves credit for his heads up play in recovering a fumble in the end zone. And Jones did all of this with the Steelers top weapons on offense sitting on the bench. If we apply the same standard we applied last week to Ben Roethlisberger, there’s only 1 grade for Landry. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Browns

Running Backs
One of the big questions heading into the game was how well DeAngelo Williams would respond after 9 games on ice. Fantasy Football owners who started Williams are probably suffering from buyer’s remorse. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, however, are not. On the surface, Williams 1 yard rushing in the first half and his overall 67 yards on 22 carries remain unimpressive. But Williams ripped off runs of 12, 10 and 8 in the second half, scored the Steelers first two touchdowns. He also did an incredible job in avoiding safety when the Steelers were backed into their own end zone.

Fitzgerald Toussaint had 3 carries for 14 yards including a 12 yarder, and Roosevelt Nix had 2 catches for five yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Jesse James had two catches for 16 yards on 3 targets. Neither Xavier Grimble nor David Johnson had a carry. The Steelers tight ends had a solid, if not spectacular performance against the Browns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the team with 6 catches for 61 yards taking another important developmental step forward. As did, Cobi Hamilton who caught the game winner as well as a critical completion during the 3rd quarter. Demarcus Ayers looked good in his second NFL game, finding his way to the end zone for a go ahead score in the 4th quarter. Darrius Heyward-Bey saw his first action in 9 weeks, and came away with on reception for 46 yards. Overall a very good day for the Steelers wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
B.J. Finney made several starts at right guard for Ramon Foster this season and played well enough that some bloggers suggested his comparative salary cap value might make Foster expendable during the 2017 off season.

  • No one is going to say that about his performance in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

It is probably unfair to scapegoat Finney, but the truth is that the Browns got pressure on Landry Jones on several third downs, and each time it looked like they came right up the middle. Indeed, the line struggled to protect their quarterback for the first time in recent memory, and the rushing lanes weren’t quite as solid. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Injuries left the Pittsburgh Steelers playing their 3rd string defensive line for most of the day. The truth is that the Browns ran the ball a little too easily. OK, a big part of this has to do with James Harrison being out (who essentially plays a defensive end in the Steelers nickel alignment), but if the Standard is the Standard, then the Steelers defensive line fell a little short, although Daniel McCullers did get a sack on Robert Griffin III. Grade: C-

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, George Atkinson

Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree sandwich George Atkinson in the Steelers overtime win vs. the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
Does anyone still debate why the Steelers rushed to pick Ryan Shazier instead of a defensive back in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Ryan Shazier led the Steelers linebackers securing an interception at the 5 yard line, and helping ensure that the Browns would lose 14 yards when on 3rd and Goal at the Steelers 2 in overtime. Jarvis Jones had his best game as a Pittsburgh Steelers, sacking RGIII once, forcing another fumble as the Browns threatened to score, and batting away a pass in overtime. Bud Dupree had another sack, and another tackle for the loss. Lawrence Timmons had 6 tackles.

While the Steelers linebackers had a strong day, they too bear some of the responsibility for the breakdowns in the run defense so their grade must reflect that. Grade: B+

Secondary
Sean Davis led the unit and the Steelers defense overall with 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Mind you, the man is playing safety. Artie Burns had 8 tackles, and batted away a pass that he almost intercepted. Ross Cockrell’s name wasn’t heard much, and that’s good for a cornerback. William Gay had a key pass defense, while Mike Mitchell had 8 tackles and a fumble recovery. A solid day for the Steelers secondary, particularly in the Red Zone. Grade: B+

Ross Cockrell, Seth Delvalve touchdown steelers, steelers vs. browns overtime

Seth Delvalve scores for the Browns as Ross Cockrell attempts to stop him. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his extra points and Jordan Berry had an excellent day punting on an afternoon where the Steelers found themselves backed up in their own end zone too often.

Eli Rogers returned 3 punts for a total of 15 yards with a long return of 10 yards. While that’s nice, he did bobble one return – which cannot happen during the playoffs. Cobi Hamilton returned 3 kick offs for 44 yards which is as unimpressive as it looks.

  • The real concern here is the Steelers kick coverage.

The Browns averaged 30 yards on their kickoff returns, or five more than they’d get in touchbacks, and Mario Alford returned 3 punts for 26 yards including one return of 17 yards. Those are the types of return yardage numbers that can tip a close playoff game in the wrong direction…. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s Christmas present to Todd Haley was to ask him to devise a winning game plan after taking away his top 4 offensive players. The truth is that Haley’s offense sputtered for much of the day, but once they got in a groove, they scored 21 points in less than two quarters.

  • Keith Butler didn’t have the same “excuse” as only James Harrison was held out of the game.

That alone made it clear just how much James Harrison means to the Steelers running game. Had the stakes in the game been higher, Butler likely would have played the Steelers nickel less. While the Steelers defense likely made some Fantasy Football owners happy, the fact is that they secured two Red Zone turnovers in addition to stuffing a 3rd down attempt for a 14 yard loss defending their own two.

  • I’ll take that.

Finally, Mike Tomlin sent an important signal when he benched the Steelers top players. But he also insisted it would be “Business as normal” for everyone who did suit up. Tomlin lived true to his word. It would have been easy for Tomlin to either intentionally coach towards a tie or to make other decisions that would have left Cleveland with a win, particularly in overtime.

Instead, Mike Tomlin played to win, and his players responded by delivering a win. This is exactly what the mentality and level of execution Pittsburgh needs heading into the playoffs. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
When Landry Jones threw his interception at the end of the 3rd quarter and Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked to the end zone for an apparent pick-six that looked to doom the Steelers for the afternoon. But one player continued to hustle, never gave up, and ended up catching Boddy-Calhoun and knocking out the ball before he scored a touchdown.

  • The play saved a touchdown, and sparked the Steelers rally.

This is exactly the type of hustle at all times mentality a team needs in the playoffs, and for that Darrius Heyward-Bey wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers overtime win over the Browns.

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Rushing with Flying Colors – Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Bills

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his freshman and sophomore setup up, even if his star senior struggled, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Buffalo Bills.

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Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor in the 4th quarter of the Steelers 27-20 win. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
After playing one solid and another spectacular game away from Heinz Field, road rust hit Ben Roethlisberger, and hit him bad. Against the Bills, Ben Roethlisberger went 17 of 31 for 220 yards and 3 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in the Red Zone, which is particularly troubling. Ben Roethlisberger was efficient at other times, but his mistakes in the Red Zone made this game far closer than it needed to be. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. giants, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers bills

Running Back
236 yards on the ground. 62 yards through the air. 3 touchdowns, no fumbles and a 6.2 yards per carry average on a day when his longest run was 33 yards. Le’Veon Bell set the Steelers single game rushing record, came just a hair below breaking 300 yards from scrimmage and threatened that record as well. Le’Veon Bell took over the game vs. the Bills in a way that only a true great back can. Fitzgerald Toussaint had one carry for 6 yards. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Ladarius Green 2 passes for 25 yards including an 18 yarder which helped set up Bell’s first touchdown. Green was targeted 6 times, although given Ben Roethlisberger’s erratic passing, those four non-catches might not have been his fault. David Johnson got open and caught a 15 yard pass on 4th and one and provided excellent blocking for Le’Veon Bell on a number of occasions. Jesse James caught one pass on 3 targets for 5 yards. This game was won in the trenches, and the tight ends did their part. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet day, all things considered, for Antonio Brown. Brown caught 5 passes for 78 yards and no touchdowns, although long receptions of 9, 29 and 40 yards setup to scores. Cobi Hamilton had a 15 yard catch that helped set up another Le’Veon Bell touchdown, and Eli Rogers 3 catches for 20 yards. It is clear that this point that the Steelers really need someone to complement Antonio Brown, and while Rogers and Hamilton have been serviceable, they haven’t stepped up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had in mind when they authored contract extensions of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro. B.J. Finney again played in relief of Ramon Foster, and clearly the offensive line didn’t miss a beat. Chris Hubbard also saw extensive time as a third tight end. A running back doesn’t average 6.2 yards without good blocking. What’s more, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked and was only hit once. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
No Cameron Heyward, no Javon Hargrave? No problem. The Steelers defensive line played in what was clearly its best game of the season. Stephon Tuitt had a half sack, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and one and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And that probably wasn’t his best play, which came when he chased down Shady McCoy 30 yards down the field while the Steelers held a lead. L.T. Walton saw his first significant action and registered a tackle for a loss. Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. Daniel McCullers name didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he hadn’t been doing his job. LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have been doing his Walter Abercrombie imitation so well. Grade: A

Linebackers
Welcome Back Bud Dupree. The Steelers sophomore linebacker had two sacks, but his best play came when Tyrod Taylor evaded him, broke a few other tackles, only to have Bud Dupree come from across the field and stop him for a one yard game.

  • It should tell you something that Bud Dupree wasn’t the best linebacker on the field.

Ryan Shazier earned that honor, who led the team in tackles, sacked the quarterback once, defensed a pass on third down, and had a tackle for a loss. Whenever McCoy or Taylor threatened to run, Shazier was there. Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison had quiet days, although Harrison’s efforts in sealing the edge on the run game should not be overlooked. Grade: A

Secondary
With each game Sean Davis continues to improve. You know a safety is doing his job well when in on two tackles in the backfield. Davis also had a sack and a half. And it was Davis play in coverage that helped set up Artie Burns interception, which prevented Ben’s costly pick from morphing into a momentum changer. Ross Cockrell also had a solid day, as did William Gay who saw a pick six get called back on a penalty. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in three field goals and three extra points – all on a cold, snowy windy afternoon alongside Lake Eire, all after coming off an injury. Fitzgerald Toussanit had two respectable kick returns, and Antonio Brown made noise as a punt returner. The Bills got nothing in their kicking game. It was a strong game for the special teams, although penalties drop their grade a bit. Grade: B

Coaching
Was Todd Haley hearing echoes of the Dolphins game on Sunday afternoon? Mike Tomlin wouldn’t tell, but the fact is that unlike his trip to Miami, Haley realized he had a back looking to take over the game while his franchise quarterback struggled, and he put the game in the hands of the best player on the field.

  • Both Haley and Mike Munchak must earn credit for the outstanding performance of the offensive line which dominated all afternoon long.

The Steelers defense perhaps gave up a little more than you’d like to see in the 4th quarter, but Keith Butler’s crew negated two of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3 turnovers. More importantly, they directly attacked the Buffalo Bills strength, succeeded in neutralizing their running game.

Mike Tomlin would unquestionably be the first person to insist that he has accomplished nothing yet here in 2016, and far be it for Steel Curtain Rising to take issue with him. But the fact is, with 2 games of December football in the bank, the Steelers are positioning themselves to participate in January football. That’s not something that seemed likely just four weeks ago. Credit Tomlin for that. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Next summer the Steelers Media Guide will read, “Most Rushing Yards, Game” 1. Le’Veon Bell, 236 (12/11/2016 vs. Buffalo). Willie Parker and John Fuqua’s names will follow.

  • But there’s another name that should be mentioned there, but won’t. So we’ll mention it here.

No running back dominates like Le’Veon Bell did without quality blocking. Bell got that from his offensive line and the tight ends. But he also had a herald in the form of Roosevelt Nix, who cleared the way for Bell time and time again. Nix also had a specular special teams tackle that prevented a return, and for those contributions Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bills.

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Baltimore Beats Pittsburgh 21-14, Ravens Have Now Won 4 Straight vs Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to M&T Bank Stadium coming off their bye week with relatively strong health against a Baltimore Ravens team that had lost four straight. At the end of the day, none of those off the field aesthetics mattered at all, as the headline Baltimore beats Pittsburgh 21-14 communicates a basic reality.

  • The Baltimore Ravens improved their winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers for one simple reason:

Across the board, the Ravens beat the Steelers by because they had better execution of fundamentals that define winning football. That’s the stark truth of the matter.

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Ben Roethlisberger remains winless in Baltimore following the 2016 Steelers 21-14 loss. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Ravens Dominate the Line of Scrimmage

Todd Haley’s game plan became crystal clear very early on in the game: Use Le’Veon Bell to dictate the pace of the game. Given how effective Le’Veon Bell has been with the ball in his hands this fall, few should fault the logic behind Haley’s thinking, even if Baltimore did enter the game with the NFL’s number 3 rush defense.

  • But if you’re going to run the ball effectively, you must dominate at the line of scrimmage.

And the Steelers offensive line got dominated by the Raven’s front seven. The Pittsburgh’s offensive lineman may have provided decent pass protection, but they chronically failed to open lanes for Le’Veon Bell. On paper the Steelers offense is designed to take advantage of those situations.

  • If it were all just a simple fantasy football exercise, frustration upfront should give Ben Roethlisberger time to do damage downfield.

Except real football doesn’t mimic a fantasy game, and Ben Roethlisberger looked very rusty and consistently misfired in trying to hit receivers downfield. That stat sheet shows that Ben Roethlisberger only threw one interception, but the fact is he threw two or 3 passes that could easily been interceptions.

In this case the numbers don’t lie, and the picture they paint isn’t pretty for Pittsburgh:

What’s more, failed exchanges between B.J. Finney and Roethlisberger came together to make up a comedy of errors. And that’s without even considering the special teams….

Butler’s Adjustments to Steelers Defense Effective, but Insufficient

Before turning to the special teams, a review of the performance of the Steelers defense vs. the Ravens is in order, because of the context it provides.

Fans can be forgiven if they abandonded all hope when the saw Terrance West open the game with runs of 8, 6, and 5 yards. He also tacked on another 9 yard effort and then opened the second half with runs of 8 and 5 yards.

  • Yet, when it was all over, West walked away with a total of 21 rushing yards.

Kenneth Dixon didn’t do much better. Credit Keith Butler for making the in-game adjustment to effectively shut off the Raven’s rushing attack. Likewise, credit Butler’s crew for forcing the Ravens to punt as many times as the Steelers did.

  • The 2016 Steelers have forged identity of a team that struggles on the road.

During the Steelers road losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins, Keith Butler’s defense was a glaring liability on so many fronts. The same cannot be said of the Steelers loss to the Ravens (or to the Patriots for that matter.) Yes, the defense did give up a 95 yard touchdown pass which isn’t forgivable.

  • But Keith Butler’s defense went into Baltimore, and held the Raven’s defense to 13 points at home.

While no one will confuse the 2016 Ravens with the 1989 49ers, the 1993 Cowboys or the greatest show on turf, if you go into an opposing stadium and hold their offense to 13 points, you’re generally playing winning defense….

Steelers Special Teams Disaster in Baltimore

…Unless you have a total collapse elsewhere, as the Steelers did on Special teams. Since Danny Smith arrived in Pittsburgh the Steelers special teams haven’t been very special, but they’ve avoided being a liability.

  • The Steelers special teams were a liability against the Ravens.

A roughing the kicker penalty gave the Ravens a second lease on life, although the Steelers defense did damage control. The coverage units might not have given up a big run, in a game of field position every yard counts.

But Chris Moore came in untouched to block Jordan Berry’s punt, and his recovery effectively ended the game for the Steelers. That’s simply inexcusable.

It says here that the Steelers late 4th quarter surge was little more than garbage time glory against a Raven’s team with plenty of its own internal demons. Nonetheless, if you take it strictly by the numbers, without that blocked punt the Steelers score enough to win the game. The Steelers special teams broke down at a critical time in the game.

John Harbaugh has Mike Tomlin, Steelers Number

When the Baltimore Ravens beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in November 2011 to complete John Harbuagh’s first season-sweep of the Steelers, Dejan Kovacevic suggested the victory might have represented a changing of the guard in the AFC North.

  • At the time critics balked.

However, it is now November 2016. Ben Roethlisberger STILL has not won a game in Baltimore since 2010 and the Baltimore Ravens now own four game winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals might take exception to any “changing of the guard to Baltimore storyline” but the bottom line is that right now John Harbaugh has the number of Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

And until Mike Tomlin’s team changes that reality on the field, the Steelers will continue to be AFC also-rans. Today’s latest loss underlines just how far Mike Tomlin and the Steelers still have to travel.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Bye Week Review – Does 4-3 = Glass Half Full or Empty?

The 2016 Steelers bye week finds Pittsburgh exactly where they were at week 7 a year ago 4-3 with Le’Veon Bell having missed beginning of the season and Landry Jones having already made an unexpected start.

Yet, in 2015 the Steelers 4-3 record seemed to create a more positive vibe in Steelers Nation; a year later the feeling isn’t quite so rosey because the 2016 Steelers fallen short of expectations. To understand why, the Steelers 2016 bye week review focuses on the milestones Pittsburgh needed to pass to realize their Super Bowl aspirations.

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No matter how you measure it, Le’Veon Bell is a bright spot in the Steelers 2016 bye week assessment. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham

Prior to the 2016 season, Steel Curtain Rising made a number of assumptions and outlined a number of areas where the team needed to improve to transform the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes into reality.

  • First, the Steelers depth would need to suffice to overcome injuries
  • Second, the Steelers defense had to consolidate and build upon their 2015 improvement
  • Third, the Steelers secondary gamble had to pay off
  • Fourth, Mike Tomlin couldn’t continue to get tripped by by trap games

Viewed from that vantage point, the Steelers 2016 bye week record of 4-3 looks legitimately disappointing. Our Steelers 2016 bye week review acknowledges that, but there’s also good reason for Steelers Nation to live in its hopes and not its fears during the remaining 9 games.

Steelers 2016 Depth Offers a Mixed Bag

One of the assumptions this site made on the eve of the 2016 season was that this Steelers team was deeper than its recent predecessors and that it had the depth to compensate for injuries.

  • In some cases, the Steelers have proven this assumption, in others – not so much.

Depth at tight end, and to a lesser extent, wide receiver and offensive line have proven to be the positives. When the Steeles signed Ladarius Green for big money after Heath Miller retired, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly didn’t envision a tight end by committee system that Pittsburgh has been forced to use thus far this season.

  • Nonetheless, the trio of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson has gotten the job done.

No this group clearly hasn’t replaced Heath Miller’s legendary reliability, nor has it offered the dynamic spread-the-field spark that Ladarius Green promised to, and blocking has been an issue at times. But no one can charge that tight end has been a liability for the Steelers thus far, and Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones have found ways to work all three into the passing game which has helped compensate for injuries elsewhere.

  • On the offensive line, losing Ryan Harris was a blow, but B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard have performed better than expected, Hubbard’s struggles in Miami not withstanding.

At wide receiver, Steelers coaches hoped and expected Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates to be the proverbial two dogs struggling over the bone that is the number 2 receiver slot opposite Antonio Brown. Instead, both men have been limited with injuries. Yet Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton have all stepped up and contributed.

Landry Jones will never nature into a franchise quarterback, but as a backup he’s earned the respect of Steelers Nation, even if portions of it will refuse to grant it.

Steelers 2016 Defense Has Struggled – Thus Far

If the Steelers offense has at least held its own thus far in 2016, the same is decidedly not true about Pittsburgh’s 2016 defense. Not only has Keith Butler failed to build on the improvement his unit displayed last season, it appears to have regressed.

  • The Steelers have 3 interceptions and just 8 sacks 7 games into the season.

These numbers are terrible, prompting one Mexican blogger to compare it to the 1988 Steelers defense.

Perhaps the comparison to Tony Dungy’s disasterous 1988 defense is a little exaggerated, but there is nothing to gloss over or sugar coat when it comes to the Steelers 2016 defense. 7 games into 2016, the Steelers are failing to pressure the passer, failing to secure turnovers and giving up yards in gobs against the run.

Losing Bud Dupree to injured reserve has hurt the pass rush, and clearly Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison are not picking up the slack. Indeed, Cameron Heyward has more sacks than all of the Steelers outside linebackers combined – and Cam Heyward has missed 2 games.

If Vince Williams can help make up for the loss of Ryan Shazier, the same cannot be said of Ricardo Mathews. The Miami Dolphins ran his way early and often, and kept the Steelers off balance for the entire afternoon because of it.

  • Too little attention has been paid to the center of the Steelers defensive line.

While Javon Hargrave and Daniel McCullers do not deserved to serve as scapegoats, one has to wonder if the Steelers wouldn’t like to reexamine the cost-benefit analysis that led them to allow Steve McLendon to depart.

Perhaps the biggest area of concern is the Steelers secondary.

Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble Slow to Show Returns

As has been discussed on this site before, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Carnell Lake made the collective decision to destroy their cornerback depth chart from 2015 and start anew.

  • Clearly, no one is calling for the return of Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake.

Nor should they. But if that trio (or quartet, if you add in Will Allen at safety) lacked talent, it didn’t lack for experience. At this point Antwan Blake had at least logged a pick six and Will Allen an interception – we’re still waiting to see the first interception from the Steelers 2016 secondary.

For what it is worth, the Steelers pass defense has “improved” from 30th against the pass in total yards to 27th. Does that offer hope that Sean Davis and Artie Burns can deliver more during the second half of the season? When late November and early December rolled around, Bill Cowher was famous for saying that at that point, rookies weren’t rookies anymore.

One has to hope that Artie Burns and Sean Davis soon reach the point where they outgrow their rookie growing pains as it would greatly improve the Steelers Super Bowl chances.

Tripping Up Tomlin with Trap Games – Or Not

While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains an unabashed supporter of Mike Tomlin, this site has not hesitated to criticize his teams from playing down to the competition. And if Tomlin does deserve much of the heat that he gets for the Steelers falling into tramp games, perhaps the situation is not as dire as it seems.

Over on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo has offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin. We won’t steal Defeo’s thunder but strongly encourage you to click here to read his article (seriously folks, do it, we’ll wait.) Taking a more cerebral approach over on Steel City Blitz, Ben Anderson has contrasted Mike Tomlin’s record against sub .500 teams on the road (and at home) with that of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. As Anderson argues, numbers don’t line: Mike Tomlin’s performance in this respect is in line with his predecessors.

  • Fair enough.

And let’s acknowledge that the Philadelphia Eagles are probably a pretty good football team and that the Miami Dolphins perhaps might not be as bad they seemed early in the season.

But if that is true, then it is also true that the Steelers came out flatfooted vs. the Eagles, and appeared to fall right into the Dolphins game plan. And there’s another element that comes into play which is Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road. Steel Curtain Rising will take a closer look at that this week.

One thing is clear, however. Mike Tomlin must alter his approach when it comes to preparation for games against “weaker” opponents.

Steelers 2016 Bye Week Review = Glass Half Full, Half Empty

In seven games thus far, the Steelers have looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders in victories against the Redskins, Chiefs and Jets. They’ve also found a way long a divisional win against the Bengals. They struggled in two old fashioned spankings on the road at the hands of the Dolphins and Eagles. And they had a non-moral moral victory against the Patriots.

  • And they’ve done it short-handed since the beginning of the season.

Any Steelers 2016 bye week review is going to paint the classic “Glass Half Full vs. Glass Half Empty” scenario, as the Steelers have both struggled and dominated without showing much in between.  At the end of the day, the key for the Steelers during the bye week is to get healthy.

The Standard Might be the Standard, but the Steelers defense is not the same without Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier, getting those two men back full time, and keeping them on the field will do wonders for the defense.  Bud Dupree, should he return, won’t be a savior, but the Steelers pass rush can hardly get worse.

On offense the Steelers need to keep Ben Roethlisberger in one piece, and need a return to health by both Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and they need Ladarius Green to show he can contribute.

  • But as Mike Tomlin would insist, injuries are a reality that every NFL team must overcome.

The truth is, even if the Steelers take a healthy 53 man roster down to Baltimore, Pittsburgh won’t play the rest of its 2016 schedule with a perfect bill of health.

But if they can check enough boxes in the health column the Steelers 2016 bye week review concludes that these Steelers can play with anyone.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Chiefs

Quarterback

Coming off two less than stellar performances (to say the least in the case of the Eagles game), Ben Roethlisberger was simply magnificent, Sunday night. Not to act too over-the-top and hyperbolic in my praise, but if any quarterback has a more impeccable game this season than the 21 of 27 for 300 yards and five touchdowns performance Roethlisberger put on the Chiefs at Heinz Field, I’ll be surprised. For  whatever reason, Kansas City elected to play man-to-man coverage against the Steelers receivers, which played right into Roethlisberger’s hands. Needless to say, if the majority of defenses play that coverage the rest of the season, No. 7 will be a legit MVP candidate. Grade: A+

Running Backs

Many wondered how head coach Mike Tomlin would use Le’Veon Bell in his first game back after serving a three-week suspension. The answer: almost exclusively. Bell carried 18 times for 144 yards, while adding another 34 yards on five receptions. He showed the world why he is considered maybe the best running back in the entire league. Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Cris Collinsworth said it best when speaking of second-year receiver Sammie Coates: “He’s becoming a bit of a star for the Steelers.” On his very first pass of the evening, Roethlisberger connected with Coates for 48 yards (the youngster’s fifth reception of at least 40 yards so far this season). After that, Coates caught just another five passes for 31 yards, but it was clear that he’s becoming more comfortable working with his quarterback and learning how to adjust and ad-lib with one of the best improv passers in the business. As for Antonio Brown, he was Antonio Brown. I’m sure he probably wanted more production than the four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns, but considering five of Roethlisberger’s 21 completions went for scores, there simply was no need for more production. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton only caught one pass each, but sticking with the theme of Roethlisberger’s crazy efficiency, they went for scores of 31 and 30 yards, respectively. Grade: A

Tight Ends 

Much like the Bengals match-up in Week 2, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble didn’t have many opportunities in the passing game, but they sure made the most of the ones they had. Grimble caught one pass, but it went for 19 yards, while one of James two receptions was an eight-yard touchdown late in the first half. Even David Johnson got in on the act, catching one pass for 26 yards. Throw in their contributions in the blocking department (Pittsburgh rushed for 149 yards), and it was a respectable night for the tight ends not named Ladarius Green. Grade: B

Offensive Line

Roethlisberger was taken to the turf twice, but considering B.J. Finney was filling in at left guard for the veteran Ramon Foster, and that Marcus Gilbert suffered an ankle injury and was replaced by Ryan Harris, the hogs up front had a truly exceptional night. Roethlisberger mostly had a clean pocket and, again, the running game was supreme. And to see Maurkice Pouncey leading Bell all the way down the field on that 44 -yard run late in the game was to see a true superstar center in action. Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Steelers came into Week 4 with just one sack, but they left with five, thanks mostly to defensive end Cameron Heyward, who had three in one of the best performances of his career. In addition to his three sacks, Heyward also tipped a pass from Alex Smith that was intercepted by Jarvis Jones and set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown. Speaking of forcing turnovers, Stephon Tuitt may have only recorded one tackle on the night, but it came against Chiefs running back Spencer Ware and also forced a fumble. Along with making Smith’s life miserable most of the night, the Steelers defensive line did a great job in stuffing the run, as Kansas City finished with just 87 yards on 18 carries. Grade: A

Linebackers 

The Steelers were without their most dynamic defensive player, in one Ryan Shazier, who missed Sunday night’s game with a knee injury. Reserve Vince Williams filled in at inside linebacker and, well, was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic defensive player. Williams recorded 16 tackles (14 solo), two tackles for loss and one sack. As for fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, he played his best game of the young season, totaling eight tackles–including one tackle for loss. Outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats were very active on the night, even if they didn’t get to Smith. And what can you say about the 38-year old James Harrison? He didn’t get a sack, but it was not for lack of effort. Grade: A

Secondary 

Missing starting strong safety Robert Golden and slot corner Sean Davis, Sunday night could have been a disaster for a Steelers defense that started the game ranked 31st against the pass. However, thanks in-part to a more aggressive and effective pass-rush, the defensive backs collectively enjoyed perhaps their finest 60 minutes of the season, thus far. Smith passed for 287 yards and two touchdowns, but a great deal of his “damage” came late in the game, when the outcome was long-since decided. Fact is, the biggest passing play allowed on the night was a 20-yarder to Jeremy Maclin, and the tackling on all fronts–especially the defensive backs–was superb. Furthermore, while he certainly has room to grow, first round pick Artie Burns continued to show flashes of why Pittsburgh drafted him so high, when he broke up a deep pass late in the game that looked like it was destined for a big gain. Grade: A

Special Teams

Following Pittsburgh’s first two touchdowns, the Chiefs’ Knile Davis attempted to return the ensuing kickoffs, only to be stopped at the 12 and four-yard line, respectively. In a driving rain, things could have gotten ugly trying to contain extraordinarily fast punt-returner Tyreek Hill. And while he did return one for a score, it was brought back by a penalty. Officially, Hill only totaled 20 yards on two returns.

As for Steelers punter Jordan Berry, it wasn’t his best of nights, as he averaged 42.4 yards per boot. But, again, he did have to work in a pretty steady rainstorm, and maybe a pre-ordained avoidance of Hill had something to do with his low average.

Kicker Chris Boswell didn’t attempt a field goal on the night, but he did make five extra points; considering that they’re 33-yards now and, again, the rain, that was pretty impressive. Grade: B+

Coaching

According to the NBC announcers, Mike Tomlin challenged his team after its abysmal performance against the Eagles a week earlier, and his team met that challenge and then some. To say his players were prepared to play would be an understatement.

The Chiefs defense was said to have a secondary ripe for exploitation, and Todd Haley sure did devise a game plan to take advantage of it. When your quarterback averages 11.1 yards per pass attempt, and when five of his 21 completions go for scores, that’s the epitome of a perfect game plan.

Kudos to defensive coordinator Keith Butler for deciding to be more aggressive in the face of a weakened secondary. Also, credit to him for taking advantage of a Chiefs offensive line that wasn’t nearly as talented as the previous three his charges faced.

They say coaches get all the blame after a loss and none of the credit after a win, well, here’s some major credit for the entire coaching staff. Grade: A+

Unsung Hero 

Starting in place of Ramon Foster at left guard, B.J. Finney performed so well, he was pointed out by NBC’s Cris Collinsworth numerous times.

 

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