Safety First? The Minkah Fitzpatrick Trade Literally Saved the Steelers Season

On the night of Monday, September 16, right after it was announced that the Steelers had traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I texted this news to my uncle.

He replied, “Haha, he sucks!” When I retorted with how he was the only fan who was reacting that way — the Internet was going crazy about it in the most positive way possible — my uncle texted back, “Ryan Fitzpatrick is washed up.”

  • You see, what I forgot to mention was that I failed to type “Minkah” when texting my uncle about the big news. Therefore, you can certainly understand his confusion.

After all, coming just hours after it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Injured Reserve list and would miss the rest of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that would require surgery, one might assume any major trade Pittsburgh made would involve acquiring a veteran quarterback.

No, maybe not someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but certainly a passer of some pedigree, a player who could possibly step in and salvage a season that had started out 0-2 and, with the loss of the franchise quarterback, seemed destined to go downhill very fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kameron Kelly, Mark Barron, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

But the truth was, despite his lack of experience as a professional, the Steelers were quite confident Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, could step in and lead the offense (whether or not this confidence was justifiable is still up for debate).

What they weren’t confident in, however, was the back-end of their defense, especially after free safety Sean Davis suffered a shoulder injury that, like Ben Roethlisberger, would require a lengthy stay on the IR.

Therefore, when Fitzpatrick, who was selected by the Dolphins with the 11th -overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, voiced his displeasure with Miami’s desire to tank the 2019 season in-order to obtain the highest 2020 draft pick possible and demanded a trade, the Steelers pounced.

That’s right, in an era when doing very un-Steeler-like things has become the new Steeler Way — and just months after trading several draft picks to the Broncos in order to move up to the 10th spot to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft — Pittsburgh offered the Dolphins a deal they simply couldn’t refuse.

It was a risk, and, quite frankly, it didn’t make much sense at the time, not when it appeared the 2019 season was headed for disaster, and it looked like Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would likely be a premium one.

Why go all-in in a season that didn’t figure to finish anywhere near Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, the site of Super Bowl LIV?

  • Because the Steelers saw a golden opportunity to add the final piece to a defense that they had been trying to rebuild for close to a decade.

While the winning didn’t start soon after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, you could definitely see a difference in the defense right away. In-fact, the Steelers recorded five takeaways in a disappointing Week 3 loss to the 49ers –Fitzpatrick’s first game as a member of the Black and Gold.

Speaking of which, after averaging about one takeaway a game before acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense has averaged over three times that many since the trade.

  • The defense has gone from averaging 445 yards given up per game without Fitzpatrick, to averaging roughly 300 given up with him in the lineup.

In seven games with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. If he isn’t yet in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, he likely soon will be.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s quickly becoming one of the most fierce and opportunistic in the NFL. After years of being considered a weakness and a second banana to the high-powered offense, the Steelers defense has now become the strength of the team and has made it a habit of compensating for the weaknesses of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s depleted unit.

What once looked like a helpless and hopeless season at 0-3 and 1-4 has turned into one where the playoffs are again the goal.

  • The Steelers are now 5-4 after having won four-straight games, and they’ve done so on the strength of their defense.

Would the Steelers have even considered trading for Fitzpatrick if not for the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Davis? Furthermore, would the Dolphins have even considered doing business with the Steelers without the very real possibility that Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would be a high one?

  • That’s impossible to say, but the only thing that’s certain is that the deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick saved the Steelers defense.

A trade for a safety saved a team’s season. Hard to believe.

 

 

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“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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Steelers Reserve Running Back Benny Snell Avoids Marijuana Charges, Fails “Idiot Test.”

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve running back Benny Snell Jr. was in the news this week and largely for the wrong reasons. On Wednesday the Steelers announced that Snell will be out for a few weeks after knee surgery from injuries sustained during the Steelers Monday Night win over the Dolphins.

That came a day after news broke that Harrison County, Ohio prosecutors had declined to charge Benny Snell for marijuana possession. Snell had been stopped for speeding on August 30th when police discovered marijuana in his car, and he admitted to having smoked it about 20 minutes before the stop.

  • So while prosecutors gave a pass on criminal chargers, Benny Snell failed the “Idiot Test” with flying colors.

Now comes the obligatory paragraph where the writer acknowledges that cultural, social and legal norms and mores on marijuana are changing rapidly. Moreover, it is clear that marijuana does offer legitimate medical uses.

Great. Got it. Now let’s also acknowledge:

  • Marijuana remains illegal under federal law
  • Marijuana is also illegal under Ohio law
  • Use of marijuana violates the NFL’s code of conduct
  • Its against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana
  • Marijuana gives off a highly distinct odor
  • Odor or no, police offers are permitted to search anything in plain view during traffic stops

Regardless of your views on marijuana, you knew all of this before you read it. Its likely that anyone from high schoolers or above know it too. Benny Snell Jr. knew all of that too and if he didn’t, he certainly should have.

Yet, he not only chose to drive after smoking marijuana in his car, he drove above the speed limit and while he had a bag of marijuana on the front seat (the bag had a Star Wars logo, we’re told.)

Snell won’t face criminal charges, but now that his offense is in the public eye, he could very well find himself in the NFL’s substance abuse program, which would include regular random drug tests. And for that, he has only himself to blame.

  • For the record I like Benny Snell.

Lack of depth at running back has plagued the latter part of the Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger era. Based on his play against the Chargers, Benny Snell looks like he’s at least capable of being a quality third running back behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels.

But what he did here is really dumb.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

No Charges for Chickillo, Could Still Face League Discipline

Speaking of charges, Steelers reserve linebacker Anthony Chickillo will not face charges stemming from an alleged domestic incident between him and his girlfriend during the Steelers bye week at Nemacolin Woodlands.

  • As a result, Anthony Chickillo has been removed from the NFL’s Commissioner’s list.

The move returns Chickillo to the Steelers roster where he’ll back up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. However, Chickillo isn’t out of the woods yet. Per Kevin Colbert’s statement, the NFL will continue to investigate the issue and he “could still be subject to discipline by the League Office under the Personal Conduct Policy.”

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminds us , Anthony Chickillo could face a six game suspension with as a first time offender, although the league office reserves the right to revise that upwards or downwards.

To make room for Anthony Chickillo on the roster, the Steelers released Jayron Elliott.

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Steelers Defeat Dolphins 27-14 on MNF, Mason Rudolph Affirms Mental Toughness

After the Steelers 27-14 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, Art Rooney II might do well to petition Roger Goodell to allow him to tuck the football safely away where the sun doesn’t shine.

  • Or, better yet, perhaps the operative phrase would be “When” the Sun doesn’t shine as the Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-4 with their 3 wins coming at night.

And in each win the team has accomplished something. Against the Bengals Pittsburgh recovered its poise. In beating the Chargers, the Steelers defense dug deep and rediscovered its will to dominate.

And in the win over the Dolphins, one player displayed a fundamental quality that he will need to succeed in the NFL:  Toughness.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Mason Rudolph’s Mental Toughness on Display vs Dolphins

Football players must be tough. That includes quarterbacks. That might seem like an odd observation, but remember that Jack Lambert once remarked “Quarterbacks should wear dresses.”

Big Ben took so much punishment that night that Al Michaels suggested that he, and not Robert Downy Jr., should star in Iron Man II.

  • But this isn’t the type of toughness that quarterbacks really need.

Quarterbacks bust be mentally tough. It’s an element that will never show alongside a player’s measurables. Yet it is the characteristic that separates quality quarterbacks from average ones.

A quality quarterback has to be tough enough to shuck off a couple of costly interceptions and turn around to throw touchdown passes.

  • For the first quarter and a half of action against Miami, Mason Rudolph was lost.
  • His mechanics were poor. His velocity was slow. He was tentative. Rudolph was inaccurate.

Before two minutes had passed in the 2nd quarter, Mason Rudolph had thrown an interception that Miami converted into a touchdown. Had another interception mercifully negated by the grace of toe that barely tapped the sideline, and fumbled a ball which David DeCastro recovered.

Mason Rudolph, Charles Harris, Steelers vs Dolphins

Charles Harris pressures Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

By that point in the game, James Conner and Benny Snell had ripped off a few impressive runs. But with Mason Rudolph unable to mount any sort of downfield threat, the Dolphins were up 14-0 and looked every bit like a mediocre team en route to a major upset.

Mason Rudolph responded, and his response resonated with the rest of the Steelers roster.

Fitzpatrick Vindicates Steelers Unorthodox Move

Mason Rudolph’s recovery began when he connected with Dionate Johnson for 12 yard while standing in his own end zone on 3rd and 11. He didn’t lead the team to a touchdown, but by the time Chris Boswell lined up for a 45 yard field goal, the Steelers had burned 7 minutes off of the clock.

Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at the Miami 29 yard line with 2:40 left to play in the first half – just enough time for a journeyman quarterback to move his team into scoring position.

While Mason Rudolph’s shaky play had been what had worried everyone prior to the previous drive, Pittsburgh’s defense had been equally putrid, particularly after putting on a “missed tackle clinic” that led to the Dolphins 2nd touchdown.

  • Ryan Fitzpatrick moved the Dolphins to their own 40 after a handful of plays, when Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off a deflected pass and returned it to the 50.

If anyone was wondering why the Steelers would break with more than 50 years of franchise tradition and trade their 2020 first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, his pre-half interception explains a lot.

Mike Tomlin Doubles Downs on Mason Rudolph

At that point the Steelers had 1:13 remaining in the half, two time outs left, a rookie quarterback who’d suffered a shaky start and the knowledge that they’d start the 2nd half with the ball. In other words, Mike Tomlin had every excuse he needed to feed the ball to James Conner and call it a half.

  • Instead, Tomlin chose to put foot on the gas.
  • Dolphins coach Brian Flores did the same and threw the house at Rudolph

Mason Rudolph made him pay with a 45 yard strike to Diontae Johnson that included a Hines Ward-like block from James Washington that paved his way into the end zone. That was a strong finish to the first half, but the Steelers were still behind 14 to 10.

Defensive Deluge Dooms Dolphins in 2nd Half

During the first 27 minutes of the Dolphins game, the Steelers defense had displayed little, if any of the dominance they’d been flashing since the 2nd week of the season. They must have been saving it for the 2nd half.

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick. Again.
  • T.J. Watt logged two strip sacks of Fitzpatrick
  • Cam Heyward and Joe Haden stymied a Fitzpatrick scramble on 4th and 1.
  • Bud Dupree also sacked Fitzpatrick for good measure

In the game’s first 14 minutes Miami scored 14 points. The Dolphins next nine possessions ended: Punt, Interception, End of Half, Interception, turn over on downs, Fumble, Fumble, turn over on downs, End of Game.

Mason Rudolph Makes First Step, Must Grow More

Mason Rudolph ran Steelers Nation through the spectrum of emotions Monday Night and the praise heading his way is well earned.

  • But Mason Rudolph remains a work in progress.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reports, Mason Rudolph not only began to throw with more authority, he took command of the huddle, reprimanding Vance McDonald after one play, and even took issue with coaches for not calling plays fast enough.

All positive steps. But Mason Rudolph still has much to accomplish. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s heroics on the go-ahead touchdown were necessary because the ball was under thrown. With just over 8 minutes left, the Steelers took two deep shots down the field, attempting to lay the knockout punch.

  • Mason Rudolph overthrew his target on both attempts.

The young 3rd round quarterback from Oklahoma State still has a long way to go. But his in-game transformation against the Dolphins suggests he has the mental toughness necessary to make the journey.

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

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

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

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

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

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

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

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

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NFL Concussion Protocol be Dammed Steelers Should Sit Mason Rudolph vs Chargers

Twitter can be addictive. Which is why I don’t neither stay logged into it on my desktop nor my mobile devices. But yesterday afternoon a retweet caught me by surprise.

mason rudolph, mason rudolph nlf concussion protocol

Mason Rudolph practices while in Step 4 of NFL Concussion Protocol. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette via Twitter

The original tweet was from Matt Freed, a photograph from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It does of course show Mason Rudolph throwing the football at the Steelers practice facility on the South Side.

The fact that Mason Rudolph is able to go out and throw a football a few days after suffering a hit that knocked him unconscious is a welcome sign. The sight of Mason Rudolph laying there motionless as JuJu Smith-Schuster signaled frantically for the medical staff to take the field was harrowing.

  • Early word was that Mason was doing well, but was not talking to the press as he was in the NFL’s Concussion protocol.

Can players practice while in the NFL’s Concussion Protocol? Well, according to the NFL’s 5 step guidelines, they can. After a player has rested and proceeded through the light exercise phases of the protocol, he entered Step Four: Step Four: Football Specific Activities.

Per Joe Ruttner’s reporting in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Mason Rudolph not only threw, but was running reps with the scount team, which would put him in Step Five of the NFL’s Concussion Protocol which Step Five: Full Football Activity/Clearance.

In pure football terms this means that if Mason Rudolph can make it through a week’s practice without showing signs of a concussion, he and not Devlin Hodges could actually start for the Steelers on Sunday Night against the LA Chargers.

Given that the Steelers will take the field without Jaylen Samuels and James Washington and with other key starters such as Vance McDonald and James Conner already having missed portions of games with injuries, this is a welcome sign in pure football terms.

  • But football is not the only concern here.

Mason Rudolph’s long-term health is. I do not pretend to be an expert on concussions, but everything we know indicates that if a player has suffered one concussion they’re more susceptible to other concussions and this is at its highest immediately after a concussion has been suffered.

  • NFL Concussion Protocol be dammed, the Steelers should sit Mason Rudolph for the Chargers game no matter what.

Sit him out for a week. Give him the bye week off, and give him 3 full weeks before he’s exposed to the risk of another concussion. Mike Tomlin has always deferred to his medical staff when it comes to clearing an injured player to return. That is as it should be.

But concussions are different. Isaac Redman once admitted he lied while in the concussion protocol to return to play. Hines Ward once lashed out at Ben Roethlisberger for NOT lying about having headaches so that he’d be able to play. After retiring, Troy Polamalu admitted to having suffered far more concussions than had ever been publicly diagnosed.

One would hope that Mason Rudolph would be smart enough NOT to do that, but one never knows, which is exactly why the decision should be taken out of his hands.

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Mason Rudolph’s Competition Isn’t Ben Roethlisberger Its Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield

The 2019 regular season is four weeks old, and the Steelers are 1-3 and without their best player, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for the remainder of the year.

  • In Roethlisberger’s place is second-year man Mason Rudolph, and while he’s looked pretty decent so far, it’s obvious the shoes he’s trying to fill are enormous.

And that’s why, regardless of the hope one may have that the Steelers can actually recover from this shaky start and compete for the AFC North crown, how legit can they really be without their best and most important player?

Fair point. The position of quarterback is essential to success in the NFL. And when a quarterback’s status and level of play is truly at the franchise level, how he goes is how his team goes, and if he goes down….look out below!

Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2019 season

Mason Rudolph’s competition isn’t Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA Today, via BTSC

However, you might also say that, when discussing the position of quarterback, it’s all relative. What I mean by that is, where do the other franchise quarterbacks reside in the AFC in 2019?

Obviously, the great Tom Brady lives in the weak AFC East. The heir apparent to Brady’s throne as the most dominant quarterback in all the land, Patrick Mahomes, is wreaking havoc out in the AFC West. Philip Rivers, a veteran whose abilities and individual achievements have rivaled Roethlisberger’s since the two first came into the league in 2004, also calls the AFC West home.

Andrew Luck used to get top billing in the AFC South, but now he resides at home. Deshaun Watson has displayed franchise quarterback tendencies, so you might say it’s his turn to claim the top bunk in that division, but that division isn’t the AFC North.

  • And that’s the point of this piece.

If the Steelers were in any other division in the AFC, I wouldn’t like their odds at all of competing for anything but a decent draft pick in 2020 (which would actually be in the second round, since they just traded their first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick).

Obviously, Dalton, despite a decent enough career that may have been better had he not been with the Bengals, has long since proven he’s no franchise quarterback.

As for the youngsters in the division? While the hype surrounding both Lamarr Jackson and Baker Mayfield has been at a franchise level, their play has yet to reach those heights….at least on a consistent enough basis.

With 1,110 passing yards, 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions, and legs that should be weaponized and have already carried him to 238 yards and another score, Jackson, a decorated college quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, appears to be on his way to the franchise level in only his second season.

As for Mayfield, who was the first overall pick by the Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft, he also appears to be well on his way to the elite level. Through 17 starts, he’s already passed for 4,872 yards, 31 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

It’s those 20 interceptions that may give one pause, however. Also, Mayfield and the Browns have gotten off to a slower start than anticipated in 2019, despite the Super Bowl hype that surrounded them in the offseason.

As for Jackson and the Ravens, who both looked unstoppable over the first two weeks playing against lesser competition, they’ve fallen back down to Earth these last two games and, like Cleveland, are 2-2.

Both Mayfield and Jackson have the draft pedigree (Jackson was also a first-round pick in the 2018 draft) and raw talent to make it as top level quarterbacks in the NFL.

But they’re not there yet. And while they both certainly have the edge in experience over Mason Rudolph, who will be making just his third-career start on Sunday afternoon, when the Steelers take on Lamarr Jackson and the Ravens in a very important Week 5 match-up at Heinz Field, the gap isn’t that great.

While a player like Tom Brady, with his experience and accomplishes, might seem light years ahead of Mason Rudolph, when it comes to Mayfield and Jackson and their time in the NFL, it’s like night and later that night.

While Mason Rudolph wasn’t one of the stars of the 2018 draft class of quarterbacks, he was occasionally in the discussion when talking about the ones who could actually become something at the pro level.

The jury is still out on Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick, but as the Steelers try to recover from their rocky start to the season and actually gain equal footing with the likes of Baltimore and Cleveland, it’s important to remember that the same can be said for both Jackson and Mayfield.

Mason Rudolph doesn’t have to match the play of a future Hall of Fame quarterback in 2019. He just has to run the same race as a couple of fellow 2018 draft picks.

 

 

 

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Did Pittsburgh Find its Poise in the Steelers 27-3 MNF Win over the Bengals?

The Steelers 27-3 win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football delivered Pittsburgh a much needed win. But days later debate continues over just what the win actually means.

  • Has a defense loaded with premium draft and free agent capital finally found itself?
  • Will the Wildcat, which worked so well against the Bengals, fly against varsity NFL completion?
  • Must Steelers Nation temper reactions with, “Its only Cincinnati?”

The answers to the questions are, Maybe, No, and Yes.

But none of those answers provide the key take away from the Steelers first win of the 2019 season. The key take away is that Pittsburgh, perhaps, has found its poise.

Javon Hargrave, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Javon Hargrave sacks Andy Dalton

Javon Hargrave sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Barron Helps Right and Unsteady Steelers Start

The Steelers season opening loss against the New England Patriots was disturbing on so many levels. The most disturbing facet of the loss wasn’t captured on the stat sheet. Pittsburgh’s latest loss in New England was so unsettling because the Steelers didn’t look like they belonged on the same field as the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Pittsburgh’s performance picked up in losses to Seattle and San Francisco, but the offense remained out of synch and the defense surrendered 2nd half leads twice.

  • Things started off similarly against Cincinnati.

After the Steelers defense forced a punt, Diontae Johnson fumbled the ball away at the 15 yard line two plays into the first drive of the night.

  • The Bengals had the ball at the Red Zone and were poised to strike.

The Steelers defense refused to flinch. Andy Dalton threw two incomplete passes while Mark Barron batted away the third. Mark Barron had been a disappointment thus far. He stepped up. He was the first of many to do so.

Steelers Step Up

Although it forced Cincinnati to settle for three points, the game didn’t turn on Mark Barron’s third down play. It did however, set the tone for the night.

While the Steelers didn’t pull away until the 2nd half, it was clear even in the 1th quarter that players were stepping up. Both Cam Heyward and James Conner went to the sideline with injuries. Both came back to make big plays.

  • James Conner scored the Steelers first touchdown on an impressive 21 yard catch
  • Cam Heyward killed Cincinnati’s final 1st half drive with an 8 yard sack.

Those ladies and gentleman are examples of leading with your actions. Many others followed suit.

  • Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, and Joe Haden all batted away passes at critical junctures
  • Bud Dupree ended another Cincinnati Red Zone possession with his strip sack as T.J. Watt recovered
  • Devin Bush recorded his first sack and dropped 3 Cincinnati runners for losses
  • Jaylen Samuels stepped into a modern day “Slash” role throwing, running and receiving
  • Mason Rudolph, on a tight leash for most of the night, flashed some play making improve ability
  • Nick Vannett, who wasn’t even a Steeler six days earlier, stepped up several times

The players were not the only ones to step up. Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for the Steelers game plan against San Francisco. Many suggested his play calling failed to account for the fact that his signal caller was Mason Rudolph and not Ben Roethlisberger.

Those critiques may be fair or they be unfair, but the fact remains that the Steelers defense secured multiple turnovers which the offense failed capitalize on.

The Steelers offense was far more prolific against the Bengals, but Tuesday morning Fichtner still found himself facing criticisms that the Wildcat and Jet screens represented “play ground football” that could never be sustained.

That is probably true. Don’t expect Baltimore to be caught flat footed by such gimmicks.Indeed, Mike Tomlin has as much conceded that the steady diet of the Wildcat won’t be sustainable for the Steelers. But that is not important.

What is important is that the Steelers offense needed a spark, and Randy Fichtner found a way to provide one.

The Road from Here Starts with Ravens

2019 is hardly the first September the Steelers have suffered through. On a number of previous occasions, the Steelers have taken advantage of early matchups against the Bengals to break out of September slumps.
IF memory serves, after one such win, the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik once observed that if the Bengals didn’t exist, the Steelers would have to invent them.

Sometimes, as in ’93 and ’02, those early season wins over the Bengals helped spark bigger things for the Steelers. At other times, such as 2003, those sparks faded into oblivion as the calendar turned to October.

  • The Steelers entered the game against Cincinnati as a team that still looked unsure of itself. They ended as a team playing with poise and confidence.

Confidence can be contagious. Can the Steelers sustain it? The Baltimore Ravens will be the first to test their resolve.

 

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