Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Screw Seinfeld: When it Comes to Steelers Legends I Cheer Players, Not Clothes

Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that cheering for sports teams was essentially like cheering for laundry.

Seinfeld, a huge baseball fan and a diehard supporter of the New York Mets, was talking about the changing landscape of sports in the 1980s and 1990s due to the realities brought about by free agency. To Seinfeld, it boiled down to “Cheering Clothes.” Don’t remember? Here’s a refresher:

That’s why comedians are comedians, while the rest of us are mere mortals: they have a way of seeing things differently.

  • I can tell you that I’ve become a bit hardened as a sports fan over the years.

I’ve grown a bit jaded. When a player is drafted by the Steelers, for example, I immediately start the clock and begin counting down the time until he becomes a free agent. The closer the Steelers and the player get to that contract year, the more I start to prepare myself for his departure.

A lot of fans have taken a more clinical and almost business-like approach to sports fandom in the free-agent and salary cap era we’ve been living in for decades. “What can they get for him?” is a question only general managers used to ask when discussing players headed into their contract years. If the player was deemed too expensive, past his prime or simply not worth keeping around, a gm may have strongly considered flipping said player for either another player or a draft choice.

  • Now it’s common for most fans to be concerned about such things.
  • They’ve been trained to think that way, to have a more business-like mindset.

Occasionally, however, you’ll see a fan base and city truly embrace a star player and give him nothing but love. There is just something about seeing that player in that uniform and doing the things that make him so great.

Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, AFC Championship

Ben Roethlisberger hugs Troy Polmalu after the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis used to be that for me.

There was just something about watching The Bus score a touchdown; it had more weight to it than when anyone else did it (no pun intended). It gave you that special feeling, like an iconic character from a famous movie franchise. Bettis just had a special way about him, an aura that made you root for him harder than other Steelers’ players. That’s what made Bettis the face of the franchise.

It’s rare to have that feeling, but I got it during the Steelers’ dress rehearsal preseason game while watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger make his preseason debut against the Lions at Heinz Field and subsequently do his thing like only he could. Much like with the running back position after Bettis, it’s going to take me a long time to “trust” another Steelers quarterback once Roethlisberger retires.

I still don’t have the same faith in Minkah Fitzpatrick that I once had in Troy Polamalu at the safety position. True, Fitzpatrick is a free safety, while Polamalu played strong safety.

But you know what I mean. Fitzpatrick is now THAT guy in Pittsburgh’s secondary; he’s the defensive chess piece that Steelers’ coaches use to make life a living heck for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Fitzpatrick is also world-class and a First-Team All-Pro.

I’m glad that Polamalu played his entire career in Pittsburgh. I’m glad that he received such a heartwarming outpouring of love from Steelers fans when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in early August.

It gave me butterflies.

  • Watching Ben Roethlisberger do his thing in his lone preseason action gave me that same warm and fuzzy feeling.

To repeat: there’s just something about certain Steelers players doing their thing on the football field.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s not just about rooting for laundry, even as I approach my 50s. It’s not just about contract stuff, analytics and the salary cap.

  • There’s still room to be a fan of individual players.

They say no player is ever bigger than a team. While that might be true in theory, it’s really not when it comes to certain ones.

  • Some players transcend their teams because of their importance and their aura.

Players like Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are the kinds of Steelers legends who make you root harder for them than others. You want them to succeed because of who and what they are and what they represent.

Laundry isn’t capable of giving you that.

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Haskins Can’t Handle It & 3 Other Thoughts on Steelers Preseason Loss to Panthers

“It was a junior varsity performance,” concluded Mike Tomlin following the Steelers 34-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers which wrapped up Pittsburgh’s 2021 preseason campaign with a 3-1 mark.
Who can argue?

Going into the game Tomlin had several players for whom he “thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skill.”

  • Display those they did not.

Here are four quick takes on this preseason loss.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

1. Haskins Humiliated? Not Quite. Humbled? You Bet

By all accounts, Dwayne Haskins has authored a very strong summer from the moment training camp began in July. Prior to the Panther’s game, he did nothing but impress in preseason. In comparison to Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins showed himself to be the far more dynamic player, and he exhibited more poise and comfort than Rudolph.

  • But of course, that’s that way it was supposed to be.

As a former 15th pick overall, Dwayne Haskins was sort of like the kid who gets held back in kindergarten and then is the best in his class the following year. So Haskins earned the right to start.

  • Haskins squandered it.

No, Haskins didn’t have a full complement of starters. Neither did he get a lot of help from his offensive line and from his running backs. But Haskins looked overwhelmed. Against the Cowboys, Eagles and Lions, the offense directed by Haskins has been a virtual touchdown scoring machine.

  • Against the Panthers the Steelers didn’t convert a 3rd down until late in the 3rd quarter.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to suggest that Haskins performance caused “us to wonder whether it might be more prudent to cut him.”

Frankly, that’s going a bit too far. Haskins did not look good, but the Steelers shouldn’t abandon their reclamation project.

2. Nothing Sexy about Sexton

One of the benefits of the Steelers-Panthers preseason rivalry is that it provides excellent fodder for story lines. Eleven summers ago a small, CFL vet whose speed earned him the name “Joystick” caught the coaches eye’s with a return for a touchdown in preseason. So Mike Tomlin gave him another chance, and he delivered again.

  • Yet he was still on outside looking in going into the preseason finale again.

Stefan Logan got a final chance and he took it to the house, earning himself a roster spot in the process.

  • Matthew Sexton entered the game against the Panthers with a similar opportunity.

But he botched it, badly by muffing two punts. Not even 24 hours have elapsed since the game ended, and Sexton’s butter fingers have earned him a spot on the waiver wire and all but ensure that Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a respectable night receiving, will keep his spot as the Steelers 5th wide out and 1st return man.

3. Can’t Keep Up with the Joneses

Unlike the regular season, during training camp reporters are allow to report on basically everything they see. As camp progresses, you’ll often start hearing a new name mentioned again and again.

  • Jaimr Jones was that player this year.

You started hearing his name in practice. In the Hall of Fame game he had started making noise with a tackle for a loss and a few QB hits. Then he started adding on sacks in preseason games.

He continued the process against the Panthers, leading the team in tackles, getting a sack and logging a few more QB hits for good measure.

That effort has likely earned himself a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

4. Enough to Tell with Snell?

If there was any one player on the roster of figured to benefit for the departure of James Conner and the arrival of Najee Harris, it was Benny Snell. Mike Tomlin likes Benny Snell, and while Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to second guess drafting a running back in the first round, he has shown himself to be at least a competent number 2 rusher.

  • Except Snell has been hurt for most of the summer.

And Kalen Ballage has gotten the carries and as recently as last week it looked like he could be pushing Snell off of the roster. Snell got his first work and while 8 carries for 28 yard is hardly gang busters, he didn’t have the best blocking to work with.

Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to cut him.

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6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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The Steelers Dress Rehearsal Preseason Game Isn’t What It Used to Be…

One of my most distinct Steelers preseason memories took place in the final game of the 1988 exhibition schedule.

The Steelers came from behind and ultimately defeated the Saints in overtime at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that most of the starters–including quarterback Bubby Brister — played the entire game.

Bubby Brister, Pat Swilling, '88 Steelers vs Saints preseason

Pat Swilling rushes Bubby Brister during the ’88 Steelers preseason finale. Photo Credit: Neworleanssaints.com

It wasn’t just Brister however. This was the game where Pat Swilling schooled John Jackson so thoroughly late in the 4th quarter that Chuck Noll had to be convinced not to cut him. While Jackson was a rookie 101th round draft pick, Swilling was 3 year veteran coming off a 10.5 sack season.

  • You want to talk about a dress rehearsal game. You want to talk about ramping up for the start of the regular season.

That’s how one does it in a perfect world. But it was a different world in 1988. Free agency did not exist, neither did the salary cap. Depth was much better because quality backups weren’t moving from one team to another in search of more money and more playing time.

Anyway, that all began to change in the early 1990s with the introduction of, well, free agency and a salary cap. This quickly began to change how most teams conducted their preseasons. The starters began to play less and less, and exhibition games became more a way for rookies and unproven players to showcase their talents than a means for the veterans to shake the rust off and solidify team chemistry.

  • At some point, it became taboo for valued starters to even see the field in the final preseason game.

No, instead, the next-to-last exhibition matchup became known as the all-important “dress rehearsal game.”

Such will be the case on Saturday night when the Steelers take on the Lions at Heinz Field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play, as will many other key players on both sides of the ball.

Just don’t expect those key individuals to play all that much, however. Roethlisberger will likely play a few series. As for the rest of the vital veterans?

  • I’d be a little shocked if any played into the third quarter.

I guess it all depends on who you consider to be a vital veteran. Cam Heyward certainly fits into that category. The same goes for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and even Joe Schobert, the recently acquired veteran inside linebacker.

A lot of people complain about the lack of playing time veterans now receive during the preseason, but I have no problem with it at all. What’s more important: shaking off the rust or remaining healthy for the start of the regular season?

Based on the tone and scope of this article, I think you know my opinion. Is shaking off the rust important? It might be if the dress rehearsal game took place in the final week of the preseason and not the next-to-last week. Face it, once the last preseason game turned into a showcase for finding the final five or six players on a 53-man roster, that made shaking off the rust a futile endeavor, especially when the vast majority of teams begin Week 1 of the regular season over two weeks after Week 3 of the preseason.

This year, the Steelers’ first regular-season game won’t take place until 15 days after their final exhibition game. That means that Roethlisberger, for example, won’t see any live bullets for 22 days.

  • You can probably say the same for most of the important players on Pittsburgh’s roster.

With a schedule so weird, I don’t even see the point of playing any key guys during the 2021 preseason. But if you’re head coach Mike Tomlin, you must walk a fine line. If none of your guys play in the preseason, people will point to that decision as a reason for a slow start. If you play your guys too much and one of them gets hurt, you’ll get criticized for that.

Finally, I’m okay with the preseason being about the young guys and the fringe players who are just looking to hold on. I can endure four somewhat boring preseason games if it helps the Steelers stay healthy for the regular season.

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“Yes, Its ‘Only Preseason'” but Ben Roethlisberger Does Need to Play vs Lions

The Steelers will host the Detroit Lions this Saturday night for their third preseason game. Assuming he follows tradition, Steelers head coach will use this game as his tune up for the regular season. Translation: The Steelers starters will play.

  • Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

    Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

    “Starters” likely includes Ben Roethlisberger.

That’s a smart move by Mike Tomlin, although others disagree. This sentiment is common, but a single quote from Mark Kaboly sums up the mentality. In stating his case that Dwayne Haskins deserves time again opposing 1st string QBs, Kaboly argues:

Why not give him a shot against the Lions? Roethlisberger doesn’t need to play in a preseason game. Give Haskins a full first half against a team that will be playing its second preseason game. [Emphasis added]

It is funny. “Practice makes perfect” is one of the first things you drill into a kid’s head the moment he or she starts training for something, be it a football, some other sport, dancing, karate or learning to play a musical instrument. We tell our kids that because it is true.

But that truth is too often betrayed by the mentality that, once you reach a certain level or age, you no longer need to practice. Really? In a previous life I hosted scores of technology focused webcasts. As the pandemic has shown Zoom, Teams and GoTo Meeting are wonderful tools, but things happen.

And you know what? When “Things happened” during those webcasts the presenters that had practiced still gave good webcasts. The ones that hadn’t? Not so much.

  • But we don’t need to stick to the abstract with the Steelers.

Recent history offers a guide. Rewind to the Steelers 2019 opening day debacle against the Patriots. Writing in Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley offered:

Patriots ball, first drive it’s third-and-10. Brady rears back and fires the ball over the middle, and one-hopped it to Julian Edelman, incomplete. Yes, I’m thinking, Brady had under 25 live snaps or so in preseason games. He’s a little bit off. Brady needs to ramp up to game speed. Little did I realize Brady would need a very short ramp.

Wolf was right. Brady needed little ramp to reach Super Bowl form that night. Roethlisberger was “rusty,” put generously, the entire night. But contrast to Brady, Roethlisberger had only thrown 13 passes in the 2019 preseason. In other words, Ben had ½ the work that Brady did.

  • Anyone think now or think then that Ben was the superior quarterback? Mean either.

“But wait! That’s not a fair comparison because Ben was only a few passes away from needing major elbow surgery!” you protest. Yes. I concede. You’re right.

And that brings me to my next point.

Steelers Need to See What They Have in Big Ben

Mark Kaboly followed his article on the QB competition between Haskins and Mason Rudolph with a feature on the 90 passes Ben Roethlisberger threw in a day of practice. Kaboly’s article is excellent. He delivers readers the type of “Fly on the Wall” view of Steelers practice viewed through the lens of an experienced beat writer.

Kaboly’s article yields 2 clear take aways:

1. Mike Tomlin is clearly trying to preserve wear-and-tear on Ben Roethlisberger
2. Ben Roethlisberger is throwing a lot of interceptions

Kaboly isn’t the only beat writer to share this observation about interceptions. Jim Wexell has mentioned interception several times this summer already and admits he’s “concerned.” Now stir in the fact that the Steelers have a new offensive coordinator, a new running back, and a new offensive line.

Even under normal circumstances, this group needs to maximize time working together in “live fire” conditions. Coaches need to see if this unit can function cohesively as a team.

  • Intra squad scrimmages are nice, but there’s no substitute for the crucible of live competition.

And should that crucible reveal Ben Roethlisberger as the weak links in the chain, then there’s no benefit to waiting until September to find out.

 

 

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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5 Observations from My 1st Preseason Football Game in 2 Decades as Steelers Beat Eagles

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 16 in their 2nd preseason game of the 2021 season. This game also marked my first game of preseason football 20 years after living aboard for that long.

Here are some quick hits from re-encounter with preseason football.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Anthony McFarland scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

1. It is Good to See Preseason Again

Some will blanch at this, but the statement should come as no surprise given this site’s annual admonitions that we should all appreciate preseason.

  • But the blunt truth is that after reading about so-and-so player for months, it is finally good to see them with my own eyes.

The NFL could and should do more to improve the presentation of this part of its “product” but those comments will come in a future column.

2. Soft in the Middle?

The Eagles had a lot of success throwing to the middle of the field. And Jaylen Hurts wasted little time setting the tone by picking on Devin Bush who was on coverage and gave up a long gain on the second play of the game.

  • One pass play panic does not cause, as Yoda would remind us.

Fair enough. And let’s also remember that this was Bush’s first action since tearing his ACL. But Robert Spillane also looked to be on the wrong end of a lot of completions. And the Eagles had some success running up the middle. During the game the news broke that the Steelers were trading for inside linebacker Joe Schobert.

While this news has been confirmed yet, one can see why there’s interest.

3. Harris Living Up to the Hype?

One of the adages behind those “Grumpy Old Man” “Eat Your Peas and Carrots and Enjoy Preseason Football” articles is simple: Preseason might not tell us much about how good (or bad) the Steelers will be, but it often gives an excellent look at individual players.

But early in preseason it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the real deal, just as it had been equally clear a year earlier that Bam Morris wasn’t up to the task of replacing Barry Foster.

Aside from the analytics addicts who’ll tell you never to draft a running back in the first round, all we’ve heard about 2021 first round pick Najee Harris has been positive.

  • And seeing him with my own eyes I concur.

Sure, his numbers of 2 carries for 10 yards are pretty plain, but he also had two other nice runs called back on penalties. Along those lines, backup running back Anthony McFarland looks like he’s vindicating those who said, “The kid won’t do much as a rookie, but watch out after that.”

4. The Battle to be QB Number 2

The battle to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup has been one of the bigger stories of training camp. There’ve been conflicting reports as to whether Dwayne Haskins was gaining on Mason Rudolph or not.

  • Honestly, after watching both men against the Eagles, nothing sticks out.

Yes, this goes against the conventional wisdom that Haskins is gaining

Both men put up good numbers. But neither man was exactly throwing against the ’85 Bears. Of the two, Haskins looked a tad bit more decisive. In contrast, save for his long completion to Diontae Johnson, Mason Rudolph looked like Ben Roethlisberger ’20 edition lite.

  • Nearly all of his passes were quick short high percentage dump offs and check downs.

Haskins wasn’t exactly channeling his inner Dan Fouts, but he was more aggressive, and his mobility was an asset. But then again, he wasn’t facing top-line starters. Neither man was inspiring, but that many not mean much. Mike Vick’s numbers during the 2015 preseason were excellent.

  • When the games counted, it was a different story.

In all fairness to Haskins he has led drives that put 30 points on the boards, as opposed to Rudolph’s 0. But in all fairness to Mason Rudolph, he’s been playing against better competition.

Speaking of doing things when it counts, Joshua Dobbs has to be kicking himself. He started the summer on the outside looking in and his reps will be limited. Which makes his ugly interception all the more unfortunate.

5. Berry, Sammuels and Pierre Stepping It Up

After their Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, Pressley Harvin III was proclaimed as the next “Josh Miller” largely on the strength of his directional punting. Jordan Berry got his shot, and pinned the Eagles into the 20 yard line on his first opportunity.

  • This isn’t to say he’ll win the competition.

As Jim Wexell has reported at Steel City Insider, Berry was cut in favor of Dustin Colquitt last year on orders from way up high. But it does look like competition is bringing out the best in Berry.

  • The same can be said for Jaylen Samuels.

Outside of his wildcat role and spot duty, Jaylen Samuels has been pretty quiet since lighting up the Patriots for over 100 yards at the tail end of the 2018 season.

  • Jaylen Samuels got 10 carries against the Eagles and was targeted once more.

He ran pretty well on those ten carries and turned his one reception into a 17 yard gain. Samuels knows what’s at stake and is playing like it. James Pierre also realizes the opportunity he has in front of him and is stepping it up.

*Now that I remember, I saw a bit of the Steelers-Eagles 2005 preseason game, and also saw about 2 quaters from the Steelers 2019 preseason game against the Titans.

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