NFL Repeals Pass Interference Replay Rule: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Of all the news to come out of the recent virtual NFL owners’ meetings, the least surprising was the use of the replay challenge system for plays involving possible pass interference — or a lack thereof — going away without much of a fight.

Terrell Edmunds,  Tyler Lockett

Terrell Edmunds pass interference call against Tyler Lockett in 2019. Photo Credit: Justin Berl, Getty Images via The Athletic

No fight, really, and isn’t that sort of fitting? Much like March, this rule roared into existence last spring on the heels of a very controversial non-call on a pass-play near the end of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Rams.

Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints, the screwees in the title game, was adamant that something had to be done so as to prevent the screwers, the officials in the NFC title match-up, from ever again so directly determining who could and could not go on to become Super Bowl champions.

Perhaps the NFL acted a bit too hasty–although, it may have been hard to blame league officials for that. After all, the Saints were the second high-profile team in as many seasons to be prevented from possible championship success due to the incompetence of game-day officials in a very high-profile match-up.

Just one year earlier, in the waning moments of a very important game late in the 2017 regular season, Steelers tight end Jesse James was screwed out of a touchdown that likely would have given Pittsburgh a pivotal victory over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Instead, New England won, the Steelers had to settle for the number two seed in the AFC, and they ultimately lost in the divisional round to a Jaguars team that had run all over them at Heinz Field during the regular season.

Why do I say James was screwed out of a touchdown? Because the very thing that prevented him from being awarded one — the convoluted Catch Rule — was augmented the following year to allow the officials to use their best judgment when determining what an actual catch was.

  • To quote a friend of mine: “The mere fact that they changed the rule is all the evidence you need that the officials blew the call.”

So with the controversy surrounding the Catch Rule acting as a backdrop, perhaps the officials thought they had to do something about pass interference.

They did. On paper, it kind of made sense. I’m not going to lie, as a fan, one who witnessed cornerback Joe Haden get a raw deal on two defensive pass interference penalties in a critical 2018 Week 16 loss to the Saints, ironically enough — a game that prevented the Steelers from reaching the postseason — you better believe I wanted a pound of a flesh.

It seemed so simple; all the league did was add pass interference to its existing replay review system: NFL coaches could throw a challenge flag to review a play in-which pass interference was or was not called. And inside of two minutes of the half or game, such plays were subject to automatic reviews.

  • Simple in theory. Not so simple in application.

In fact, after trying to apply this new pass interference challenge rule over the first two or three weeks, league officials seemingly put it on Injured Reserve for the reminder of the season. That’s right, time and time again, NFL coaches would throw challenge flags on plays that had to do with pass interference, and time and time again, those challenges were wasted.

Why? I guess, at the end of the day, it was a little hard to reverse calls involving pass interference than it was to determine what a catch looked like.

The Steelers didn’t get away unscathed, sadly. Midway through the fourth quarter of a Week 2 game vs. the Seahawks at Heinz Field, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll challenged a non-call on safety Terrell Edmunds on a second and 20 play. After further review, it was determined that Edmunds had, indeed, interfered on the play.

  • Pittsburgh, who was trailing by two points at the time, ultimately gave up a touchdown on the drive and went on to lose, 28-26.

In real time, the play didn’t look like much. On review, I guess you could have made a case for interference. But the caveat the NFL initially threw in when creating the rule was that there had to be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn a play involving pass interference.

  • There didn’t seem like there was.

As you know, the Seahawks game was the one in-which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. Despite that, however, Pittsburgh managed to hang in the playoff race until the very end, missing out by a mere game.

Therefore, a rule that may have helped the Steelers make the playoffs had it existed in 2018 helped in preventing them from making the postseason in 2019.

Too bad the new rule was still roaring quite loudly in Week 2. Had it gone sheepishly into the night a bit sooner, Pittsburgh may have made the playoffs in 2019.

  • At least it won’t be around for the 2020 season.

The NFL, its players and its fans are all much better off.

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Why Is There “Click Bait”? Start with a Lack of Respect for Steelers/NFL History

Did I lure you in with my click-bait title?

Sorry about that, but whenever I write articles that have to do with Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene or that time I went to that Steelers game in 1988, you just don’t seem to care all that much.

Dan Rooney Legacy, Super Bowl X, Steelers, Lombardi Trophy, Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Pete Rozelle

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

What does seem to resonate with you? Anything to do with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Colin Kaepernick, Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback situation or anything that’s happened with the Steelers in the past five minutes or so.

And, by the way, writing an article with a headline such as: “Why it Makes Sense for the Steelers to Bring back Antonio Brown” is not click-bait — not if the article actually covers why the author thinks it would make sense for Pittsburgh to re-sign Antonio Brown.

Attention-bait? Anger-bait? Traffic-bait? Perhaps. However, if you want actual click-bait, go click on one of those links at the bottom of most websites that like to draw you in with headlines such as: “She was Enjoying Her Birthday Cake but had No Idea What was Lurking Behind Her.”

What was lurking behind her? You usually never get to find out, thanks to having to click through 28 pages of ad-infested gibberish — that, my friend, is click-bait.

  • As for those reaction-baiting articles about Antonio Brown or the Steelers possibly signing Jameis Winston?

Those are usually money. Why? Because you like, no, love them. Oh, you say you don’t love them. You say you’d rather read about Ramon Foster’s retirement and/or the merits of his possible replacements — Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran free-agent signing, or Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft — but you really don’t.

  • At least not according to the numbers.

You say you don’t want to read yet another article about the controversial Rooney Rule, but traffic for such articles is through the roof. As for the comments sections? They’re fire, my friend.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

You want an article about Shaun Sarrett, who became the Steelers offensive line coach after the legendary Mike Munchak moved on to coach the Broncos’ hogs following the 2018 season? Fine. Crickets.

And that’s why there were 45,000 articles written about James Harrison, last week, and the controversial envelope head coach Mike Tomlin may or may not have given him way back in 2010. James Harrison appeared on a podcast with former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon and was very revealing about countless subjects.

However, the sexiest subject Harrison touched on regarding his time with the Steelers centered around Pittsburgh possibly covering one of the several fines he received a decade earlier, thanks to the NFL’s sudden desire to legislate head shots out of the game.

You want more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational? Read more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational.

Do you know who Don Shula is? He’s the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL. Did you know the guy who coached the Colts in Super Bowl III — the team that lost to Broadway Joe Namath and his guarantee — passed away on May 4 at the age of 90? Did you know that upset victory by the Jets may have been the most significant in the history of the NFL and paved the way for all that came after that? Did you know Shula went on to coach the Dolphins and guided them to the only undefeated season in modern NFL history in 1972?

I, and I assume many others, wrote articles about Shula’s passing. Did you bother to click on any of them? If not, maybe you should have. Maybe you should go watch some YouTube videos of Shula’s years and the impact he had on the NFL. Go learn about Chuck Noll, the Steelers legendary head coach who passed away in 2014 at the age of 82.

If you learn about Noll, and all that he accomplished in his 23 years as the Steelers head coach, maybe you’d agree that it’s ridiculous that so many people have misspelled his name over the years.

Sorry for the rant, but it was necessary, at least in a sense. If you’re on this site and have read this far, you’re probably prioritize substance over style. While some Steelers sites like Steel City Blitz and Steelers Takeaways,  or Twitter feeds like @VintageSteelers and @SteelCityStar do a fantastic job in fostering a great respect and reverence for Steelers history, many do not.

Most can’t afford to.

Maybe they would if readers started showing a little more respect and reverence for Steelers and NFL history.

 

 

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Friday Night Lights Offers Antidote to NFL’s COVID 19 Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Memorial Day’s passing brings us closer to the NFL season’s start. But in this COVID-19 context, there are more questions than there are answers about the coming NFL year. Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL is fortunate in that it has had time to prepare a Coronavirus virus contingency plan.

  • But the NFL still has no answer to question of whether it will field games in front of fans or play in empty stadiums.

The prospect of staging major league games in empty stadiums is eerie. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist John Steigerwald has gone as far as to argue that if fans can’t attend games “…the NFL should forget it. Write off the 2020 season.”

“Big games need big crowds,” Steigerwald insists, hypothetically wondering what it would have been like for Bill Mazeroski to round the bases at Forbes Field with no fans in the stands.

  • Steigerwald has a point. Or does he?

At BTSC, Tony Defeo suggests that if the WWE can host matches without fans, then the NFL can play games in empty stadiums. As Defeo deftly points out, “Unlike Razor Ramon, T.J. Watt doesn’t need to draw the ire of the fans in attendance in order to be the bad guy—he just has to sack the quarterback.”

  • Technically speaking, Defeo is right.

But imagine the Steelers are mounting a comeback in their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens. Would a T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree strip sack of Lamarr Jackson have the same game-changing impact absent the roar of the fans?

Imagine in the same game, James Washington sets up a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster go ahead touchdown pass with a devastating block followed by an end zone Terrible Towel Twirl al la Yancey Thigpen vs. the Browns in the ’94 playoffs would bring Heinz Field to a fever pitch.

  • The same end zone celebration in front of an empty stadium on a cold November evening at 10:30 pm would just seem kinda strange.

Defeo and Steigerwald advance completely opposite arguments, yet both men are on to something. Fortunately there’s a way to reconcile both of their points.

Friday Night Lights Holds Antidote to NFL’s Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Although it was filmed long before the word “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, fictional coach Eric Taylor provided the antidote to playing games in front of empty stadiums during Season 4 of Friday Night Lights.

Late in the season, rich kids from the rival Dillon Panthers use their 4x4s on to destroy the field of the less-well-to-do rival East Dillon Lions just before their season-ending matchup. The Dillon Panthers need this win to reach the playoffs, and their plan is to force the game on to their home truf.

  • But coach Taylor out-foxes the Panthers by staging the game in an empty field in a local park.

If by September it is unsafe to play games in front of full stadiums, the NFL should follow coach Taylor’s example and stage games at local high schools. Seriously.

Bethel Park Stadium, Bethel Park High Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park Stadium

Moving games from pro stadiums to local high school fields would solve a lot of problems. Instead of reinforcing sense of isolation that COVID-19 has wrought, it would bring games back to their roots. If the NFL shifted to smaller venues, the focus would remain on the players and the action itself. Empty seats would fade out of view.

  • For a season at least, football would again become back yard boy’s game, only one played by elite men who are the best at it.

Doing so could also serve to re-connect teams to their communities. General-admission tickets could sell for $25 a head. Local health officials could use the Abbott Labs and/or Bosch machines to test fans before the games, ensuring everyone’s safety. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and other “first responders” could be given free tickets.

  • Assuming enough adequate venues can be found, teams could even rotate home games to different stadiums, further integrating communities.

The Steelers could play one week at Central Catholic, another at Baldwin High, another at Bethel Park, and yet another at Upper St. Clair. I grew up in the DC suburbs rooting against the home team, but to be honest, the idea of the Washington Redskins playing under the lights at Wheaton High School is pretty cool.

  • The chances of this actually happening are pretty slim.

There is simply too much money be lost. Forbes estimates that the Steelers would lose a minimum of $156 million if they have to play in front of an empty Heinz Field. The Dallas Cowboys could lose up to four times that amount. Knowing that, the NFL will do whatever it can to get fans into the stadiums.

But if that proves to be impossible, then Roger Goodell would do well to take a page for Eric Taylor’s book.

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Worried about Ben’s Baby Fat? Don’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s Conditioning Has Always Been Overblown

Of the many reasons people on the national and local level have always had a problem with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, perhaps his fitness regimen (or lack thereof) ranks near the top of the list.

  • Nope, Roethlisberger has never been considered a fitness freak. A great athlete? Heck yeah. A physical specimen? Gosh no.

Maybe the part about not being a physical fitness freak and still having the career that he has is what’s always rankled the feathers of his detractors the most. After all, if a great natural athlete like Roethlisberger would have just committed himself to working out as hard as Tom Brady has throughout his storied career, gosh golly, the Steelers may have won even more Super Bowls than the two they’ve claimed since selecting No. 7 11th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger fat, Ben Roethlisberger out of shape,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in late 2019. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via York Dispatch

Roethlisberger’s dedication to fitness took another hit last week after national sports personality and NFL insider, Jay Glazer took a bit of a shot at him in a recent column published in The Athletic:

First of all, let’s not put the words fitness and Ben Roethlisberger together, they are allergic to each other. There is no fitness in Ben Roethlisberger. His idea of a great offseason workout program is doing one yoga session, playing some golf and drinking some beer.

Glazer later went on Fox Sports Radio with Jason Smith and Mike Harmon and clarified his remarks by saying that, not only was he joking, but that these are things that Roethlisberger has told him in the past in reference to his offseason conditioning program.

I can see Roethlisberger saying such things, “Oh yeah, I just did some yoga and drank some beer–it was an even better offseason workout program than usual.” But do you think Roethlisberger would be genuine when interacting with someone like Glazer, a Fox insider who is extremely tight with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin?

If you’ve been following the career of Roethlisberger as closely as most Steelers fans, you know he has a bit of a rebellious streak. He’s also really passive-aggressive in how he deals with the media. Take a few years ago and his “Maybe I don’t have anymore” comments following a five-interception performance in a 30-9 Week 5 loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field in 2017.

The media took that quote and ran with it. Some –– including Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon, who cited the quote in an article from February in-which he suggested the Steelers should cut ties with their veteran quarterback — still bring it up today. However, I dare you to go back and listen to the soundbite of that quote, which was a response to a reporter’s question about his horrible performance against Jacksonville. Roethlisberger is clearly being defensive and he’s clearly being snarky in his response.

  • He also clearly does not believe what he is saying.

That’s Big Ben.

During his radio appearance, Glazer also stated that Roethlisberger, who is trying to come back from major elbow surgery that caused him to miss all but six quarters of the 2019 season, is rehabbing as hard as ever this offseason. Roethlisberger has also gone on record about his rigorous rehab program in preparation for a bounce-back 2020 campaign.

But do you really think Ben Roethlisberger spends most offseasons drinking beer and golfing? Maybe he enjoys such activities, but if you truly believe he can spend an offseason that way and still play an elite brand of NFL quarterback–especially in his mid-to-late-’30s–I have oceanfront property in Pittsburgh I’d like to sell you.

In fact, you can find recent evidence of Roethlisberger’s dedication. Back during the 2016 offseason, following a 2015 campaign in which he missed several games due to an MCL sprain and foot injury, Roethlisberger participated in a rigorous cardio program and dropped 15 pounds.

  • Do you honestly believe that was the first and last time he ever worked out in the offseason?

The list is extremely short when it comes to those who have played the quarterback position at Roethlisberger’s level throughout NFL history. You don’t last as long as he has, and he don’t accomplish the things he has, unless your dedication goes above and beyond the weekend warriors of the world.

If Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t always highly dedicated to his craft throughout his 17-year NFL career, I doubt he’d still be around at the ripe old age of 38 to have people question his fitness level.

 

 

 

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4 Insights the Steelers 2020 Draft Class Gives Us Now

The 2020 NFL Draft is now history. The Steelers 2020 Draft Class is set and the assessments of Pittsburgh’s most unusual draft class in over a half century are already beginning.

  • Defining “Winners” and “Losers” two days after the draft is as understandable as it is silly.

It is understandable because in every draft a select few teams lay foundations for future championships while the rest undermine their shot at a Super Bowl.

  • The silliness comes in pretending to know which team falls on which side of the fence days after the draft.

Vito Stellino is one of the best NFL journalists there’s ever been, but he famously panned the Steelers 1974 Draft class. As Tony Defeo reminds us, it’s the nature of the beast that so many are already second guessing Steelers 2020 picks of Claypool and Highsmith. But how many of those voices rushed to declare Antonio Brown as a “steal” of the 2010 NFL Draft or call out Kelvin Beachum as 2012 NFL Draft’s true sleeper?

  • You get my point.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Draft Class

Steelers 2020 Draft Class. Image Credit: Steelers Twitter Feed

The Steelers 2020 Draft class is getting a B- in a lot of circles, but those grades are about as accurate as an early April batting average. However, Steelers picks nonetheless tell us something important about how Pittsburgh’s brain trust sees it the team.

Steelers 2020 Draft Class at a Glance

2nd Round – Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver from Notre Dame
3rd Round – Alex Highsmith, Outside Linebacker, Charlotte
4th Round A – Robert McFarland, Jr., Running Back, Maryland
4th Round B – Kevin Dotson, Guard, Louisiana
6th Round – Antoine Brooks, Safety, Maryland
7th Round – Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle, Nebraska

That’s 6 picks, evenly divided between offense and defense with an early emphasis on offensive skill positions. Here are some conclusions that we can make now:

1. The Steelers Remain “All In” on a Roethlisberger Rebound

This has been true since the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade and is nothing new. Everything decision the franchise has made since that loss against Seattle suggests it is banking on a full recovery from Ben Roethlisberger. Taking Chase Claypool with their only pick in the top 100 players in the 2020 NFL Draft confirms the trend.

2. Steelers are Sold on Benny Snell Jr.

Before the draft Mike Tomlin was non-committal about whether the Steelers would draft a running back early. But he did commit running better in 2020 regardless of who the Steelers picked. A lot of folks are up in arms over the Steelers decision to leave J.K. Dobbins on the board in the 2nd round.

  • They may be right.

But the Steelers are giving a huge vote of confidence in Benny Snell’s  ability to carry the load should James Conner succumb to injury (again.)

3. The Steelers are Comfortable with Inside Linebacker Depth

Going into the draft with just six picks forced Pittsburgh to prioritize more than normal. Outside of tight end, every other position area could use a shot in the arm.

Yet, after making their first pick, the Steelers chose to address outside linebacker, running back, offensive line and safety at the expense of inside linebacker.

By implication, that suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with Ulysees Gilbert serving as “The next man up” at his position than they are with Jordan Dangerfield, Ola Adeniyi and/or Tuzar Skipper at theirs.

4. Steelers are Hedging on Dupree and JuJu’s Returns

Let’s look at some objective facts:

  1. The Steelers had no first round pick
  2. They have no obvious starting spots to be won
  3. Pittsburgh’s highest profile free agents for 2021 will be Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster
  4. The Steelers first two picks were at wide receiver and outside linebacker

Coincidence? Perhaps. But during the 1990’s the Steelers would routinely drafted with an eye towards replacing future free agents. (The strategy worked, for a while.) Could they be doing the same thing here?

Time will tell, but judging by how the a lot of different stars are lining up, the Steelers appear to be hedging their bets when it comes to the prospect of keeping JuJu and Bud Pittsburgh beyond 2020.

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Steelers Draft Chase Claypool in 2nd Round of 2020 NFL Draft, Notre Dame Wide Receiver can Sustain Trend

The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool, a wide receiver out of Notre Dame in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin finally got to make Pittsburgh’s first move after 48 players had been taken off of the board.

The Steelers enter the 2020 NFL Draft with limited draft capital thanks to the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Nick Vannett and Chris Wormley, heightening attention over how the Pittsburgh would use its scare resource.

  • The decision to Draft Chase Claypool suggests the Steelers brain trust is leaning towards best available athlete.

Although the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix suggests that running back, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and safety are all areas of greater need, this is a deep draft at wide receiver. Which isn’t to say that the Steelers can’t use more offensive fire power. They can.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

A Look at Chase Claypool

As Jim Wexell pointed out Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger has never been shy about his love for big wide receivers. He lobbied in vain for the Steelers to resign Plaxico Burress and wasted little time hooking up with Martavis Bryant as a rookie.

Chase Claypool fits that bill, standing at 6’4” and arrives in Pittsburgh with a 40 ½ inch vertical. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner described him as an immediate Red Zone threat. As Fitchner went on to explain:

Some of the small things just grow on you as you watch his tape and you watch his play. He’s a dependable ball-security player. A guy who plays without the football. There’s no job too small. He blocks. He gives effort when balls aren’t coming to him in his routes. He volunteers for special teams. This guy’s just a football player, and he’s grown.

Chase Claypool played for four years for the Fighting Irish, seeing his productivity increase each year, peaking at 66 catches for 1037 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.

https://youtu.be/4hiyi4y4r8s?t=9

Randy Fichtner is right. Chase Claypool will make for a tempting Red Zone target.

Chase Claypool’s Chance to Sustain a New Trend

As mentioned above, wide receiver is one of the Steelers least needy positions on offense. However, Chase Claypool can still have an impact in 2020. JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely to see his role as number 1 wide receiver threatened.

However, even before this pick came in, the pecking order between James Washington and Diontae Johnson was not established. Chase Claypool could easily push both men. Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer were already going to arrive at Latrobe as roster bubble babies and both men’s standing with the team just became more tenuous.

  • Chase Claypool will also arrive in Pittsburgh with a chance to sustian a new trend.

In the modern era, the Steelers haven’t had much success at drafting players from Notre Dame. (Remember, Rocky Bleier had been drafted by Bill Austin, not Chuck Noll, and Jerome Bettis arrived via trade.) Yet Stephon Tuitt came to Pittsburgh as 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and immediately made the defensive line better.

So the arrow is pointing up for Fighting Irish joining the Steelers. Welcome to Steelers Nation Chase Claypool.

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Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs: Pittsburgh in an Unusual Position

“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:

  • It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.

During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers pride themselves on building through the draft, but two free agents, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, gave the franchise its best cornerback tandem since Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend lined up in Super Bowl XLIII.

Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:

In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.

  • Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.

The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.

  • Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.

Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

  • With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.

That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.

After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.

That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.

The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs

If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?

That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs: In Search of Depth

Just 3 years ago the rest of the NFL was in envy of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart. They had a future Hall of Famer, a budding rookie 2nd round draft pick, and a physical phenomenon coming off of suspension.

  • Change comes quickly in the NFL.

By the middle of 2019 the Steelers were signing guys off of practice squads and playing them later that week. Injuries played a part in making that happen, but how much of it was tied to talent? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about how important wide receiver will be for the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington celebrate Diontae Johnson’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images via Still Curtain.com

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

“I’m ready” proclaimed JuJu Smith-Schuster shortly after the Steelers sent Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And by all accounts JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to be ready to be a legit number 1 NFL wide receiver.

But how would JuJu Smith-Schuster fair now that NFL defenses didn’t need to build their pass defense around shutting down Antonio Brown. No one knew, and a year later we still don’t know. Ben Roethlisberger’s season lasted 6 quarters, and Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly have enough time to find his rhythm before he got knocked out with a concussion.

  • That brought Devlin Hodges into the game, further limiting the Steelers passing options.

Fortuantely for the Steelers and JuJu, there’s evidence that the other two starting wide outs, James Washington and Diontae Johnson and offer enough splash play potential to take some heat off of Smith-Schuster.

James Washington dazzled during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons and, if reports are correct, his play during practice was just as dazzling. Yet Washington struggled to translate that on to the field during 2018 and the first half of 2019.

  • However, during the 2nd half of 2019, James Washington came up with several big catches.

While he needs to sustain that, the arrow is pointing up on James Washington as it is on Diontae Johnson. Diontae Johnson flashed big play potential early in the 2019 season, with impressive touchdowns against San Francisco and Miami. But consistency was an issue. Still, he improved from a disastrous performance against the Browns at home, for big games on the road against the Cardinals and Jets.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

If the Steelers have, at a minimum, three starter-capable wide receivers, their depth leaves a much to be desired. The next most targeted wide receiver in 2019 was Johnny Holton, followed by Donte Moncrief, then Ryan Switzer and then by Tevin Jones.

  • Ryan Switzer is the only one of the foursome who remains on the roster.

And Ryan Switzer was only targeted once after week 2, and missed the last 7 games of the season. Deon Cain offers legitimate potential and looked good while he was on the field, but his NFL resume consists of 6 targets.

The Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

While JuJu Smith-Schuster clearly is a step down from Antonio Brown as a number 1 wide receiver, the same can be said for 97.5% of other NFL wide outs. James Washington and Diontae Johnson also have a lot to prove, but it says here they will prove it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Moreover, Ryan Switzer, when healthy, is not a bad number 4 wide receiver, particularly if a tight end such as Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron is drawing attention from linebackers and safeties.

The issue for the Steelers at wide receiver is depth. They have next to none. And that means that heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Steelers need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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