Rumors of James Conner’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (by me)

There is a monster, and that monster is me.

I don’t know if I got that Simpsons quote exactly right (that show has been on for a billion years), but I believe it accurately describes me and my perception of Steelers’ running back James Conner following his lackluster performance during a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his latest 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In that game, Conner carried the football just six times for nine yards and wound up exiting with an ankle injury, an occurrence that paved the way for second-year man Benny Snell Jr. to carry the football 19 times for 113 yards.

Coming on the heels of back-to-back-back injury-filled seasons for the fourth-year man out of the University of Pittsburgh, I was pretty much over Conner and his fragility.

  • But maybe I should just get over myself.

Conner followed up his uninspiring 2020 debut with a 100-yard day in a 26-21 win over the Broncos at Heinz Field in Week 2. Two more such performances have followed for Conner since, and he’s clearly the alpha dog in Pittsburgh’s backfield.

James Conner has rushed for 369 yards through the first five games of the 2020 campaign for the undefeated Steelers and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And if you take away Conner’s Week 1 fiasco (and I realize you can’t, but hear me out), he’s averaging 5.2 yards per rush.

Even if you add the statistics of Conner’s first game to his overall tally (and I don’t believe you’re legally allowed to expunge them), he’s still on pace to finish 2020 with 1180 yards, earning him the first 1000-yard season of his career.

That would certainly be a desirable outcome for a Steelers’ team that has always wanted to at least be effective running the football, if not totally balanced on offense.

Unlike previous Steelers editions, they don’t seem to be intent on running Conner until the wheels fall off in 2020. But even though Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. have gotten their work in, they’ve combined for 25 carries and 102 yards since Week 2.

  • The Steelers may be trying more of a running back by committee approach, but it looks like they’ve decided to go with the low-fat version, thus far.

It’s obviously still a really young 2020 regular season, and Conner might make folks like me cynical again with another injury.

But my initial hot take regarding James Conner — head coach Mike Tomlin was playing favorites and Benny Snell Jr. had passed him by on the depth chart — has not aged well.

Maybe Mike Tomlin knows more than me after all.

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns – Who Didn’t Get an A Edition?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see his student diligently working until the bell, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 home win over the Cleveland Browns.

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled a bit early with the RPOs. But once he settled down he played efficient football and continued to take care of the ball completing 14 of 22 for one touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions and no fumbles. Mason Rudolph competed his 1 pass in mop up duty. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner hit the holes hard putting the Browns on notice that this was a going to be a physical game. He finished the day with 101 yards on 20 carries while adding in another catch. Benny Snell only got 17 yards, but he helped close the game. Anthony McFarland had 3 carries and 1 catch. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had quiet day with two catches for 9 yards and Vance McDonald was not targeted. Cleveland’s front seven is a stout group and Ben Roethlisberger was clean and running backs had room to run and the tight ends certainly contributed to that. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool followed up on his breakout game with a 36 yard reception that set up one touchdown and a run that scored another touchdown. The Browns decided they didn’t need to worry about James Washington, and Washington made them pay with 4 catches including a 28 yard touchdown reception. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 2 catches for 6 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
5.1 yards rushing, 4 quarterback hits and 2 sacks – all against one of the NFL’s best front seven groupings and with their best player, David DeCastro, out injured. An excellent day for the Steelers offensive line. Grade: A

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt sack Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
He might not get ink that some of the other players on this unit get, but Stephon Tuitt is quietly piecing together a monster season. Against the Browns he had a half sack, two and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage 2 QB hits and a forced fumble. Cam Heyward led the team in tackles and pushed more than one pile back to deny conversions. Officially Tyson Alualu had one half of tackle behind scrimmage, but the Browns inept rushing numbers tell a different tale. Chris Wormley only had one tackle, but he stuffed his man. Grade: A

Linebackers
Vince Williams was next with 6 and 1 for a loss. Devin Bush only played a half before tearing his ACL, but that was enough for half of a sack, a QB hit and a five tackles. Bud Dupree had two sacks while T.J. Watt clocked in with 1.5 tackles behind scrimmage. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick started the game with a tone setting pick six that the Cleveland offense never really overcame. Terrell Edmunds name wasn’t heard much, which is a good thing, but he did bat away a pass. How good were Joe Haden and Steven Nelson? Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 5 catches for 65 yards. Cam Sutton had an interception. That Browns were 1-12 on third down. Grade: A

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud and one kick return for 28 yards and 3 punt returns that averaged 12 yards. The Browns averaged 3 yards on two punt returns and 20 yards on kick returns, due in no small part to Chris Boswell pinning the Browns inside their own 20. Dustin Colquitt averaged 41. Yards on 5 punts. Grade: A-

Coaching
Throughout his tenure Mike Tomlin has responded to challenges about the lack of balance on his offices by explaining that balance on offense for him is the offense becoming what it needs to be.

  • In the win against the Browns Randy Ficthner’s offense achieved that goal.

The Steelers dominated time of possession, established a rhythm rushing the ball effectively, pivoted away from RPOs that weren’t working, converted turnovers and used deep passing to set up two touchdowns. They also kept their quarterback clean when they were down a lineman.

Joe Haden, Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden bats a pass away from Jarvis Landry. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers defense has been a step behind the offense thus far in 2020, but against the Browns Keith Butler‘s boys virtually eliminated 3rd down conversions correcting a major flaw. The defense must sustain this against stiffer competition, but it stands as clear positive.

The 2020 season is still young and tough tests await them, but the Pittsburgh Steelers played their toughest opponent thus far in the Cleveland Browns and they delivered their best performance. They started out decisively on defense, refused to blink when things didn’t go right on offense and even when they were up by 31 points they play as if the game could still be decided by a field goal – all to Mike Tomlin’s credit.

Unsung Hero Award
“We don’t have backups, just starters in waiting.” There’s another cliché that became true with two minutes left to play in the 2nd half against the Browns when Devin Bush went down. His replacement stepped in and actually led the linebackers in tackles, registering 6, including 1 for a loss. Teams will certainly start targeting him early and often, but he answered the call against Cleveland and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Defeat Browns 38-7, as Pittsburgh Shows Poise while Cleveland Caves

The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 38-7 at Heinz Field to deliver Pittsburgh’s first 5-0 start since 1978. This was the franchises’ biggest regular season clash since the Steelers 27-7 AFC Central clinching win in December 1994. 2020’s edition had all of the makings of a barn burner.

  • Cleveland has an elite rushing offense.
  • Pittsburgh has an elite rushing defense.
  • The Browns seem to score at will on their opening drives.
  • Who remembers the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive?

Instead of a barn burner, the Steelers blew out the Browns for one simple reason: Pittsburgh’s poise was on display throughout the game, Cleveland’s was MIA.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Browns, Minkah pick six

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick six put the Steelers up 10-0 early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Butler Calls It:  Minkah is Just Fine

As if on cue, the Steelers offense marched down the field after a series of strong James Conner runs, reaching the Red Zone only to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Another week, another touchdownless opening drive.

  • One of the whispers heard below the radar during the Steelers 4-0 start has been, “Where’s Minkah?“

Minkah Fitzpatrick was a difference maker for the Steelers a year ago; his big plays easily turned the outcome of 2 or 3 games if not more.

Yet, Minkah had kept a low profile thus far in 2020. While that might not be the liability that some suggest, the fact that Minkah’s name hasn’t been mentioned much and the Steelers 3rd down defense has been atrocious are hard to chalk up to coincidence.

Pressured by reporters about Fitzpatrick during the week, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler retorted, “Minkah will be fine.”

Butler was right. On the Brown’s first third down Minkah played Baker Mayfield like a harp, picked off the ball and ran it into the end zone to put Pittsburgh up 10-0.

No Panic Despite Big Ben’s Slow Start

The stat sheet suggests that Ben Roethlisberger had a stellar game, with a 101 passer rating, a 14 for 22 yard completion rate, one touchdown and no interceptions. Ben Roethlisberger did play a good game, but he did anything but start strong.

Chase Claypool streches for the pylon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

  • The Browns batted away 3 slant attempts to connect with James Washington, making it look easier each time.

The Steelers next two possessions resulted in quick three and outs, including one that saw Ben Roethlisberger give up a 12-yard sack. With the help of a Devin Bush and Stephon Tuitt sack, the Steelers defense kept the Brown’s honest by forcing punts, but consecutive 3 and outs can demoralize an offense – if they let it.

The Steelers offense declined to do that, and after some chink-and-dink action to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron, Ben Roethlisberger lit it up with a 37 yard pass to Mapletron aka Chase Claypool who set up a 1 yard James Conner touchdown.

Once again, poise instead of panic prevailed for Pittsburgh.

Mayfield Blinks, Roethlisberger Delivers

A 17-0 lead after only 20 minutes of play is hardly a death sentence in the NFL, but it does provide an inflection that separates pretenders from contenders. The Browns responded to their 17 point deficit with:

  • Kareem Hunt getting stuffed by Chris Wormley and Vince Williams for no gain.
  • A holding penalty.
  • An ill-advised pass induced by a Stephon Tuitt pressure that forced a Cam Sutton interception

Less than two plays later Ben Roethlisberger found James Washington deep for a 28 yard touchdown hook up.

Second Half – Cleveland Crumbles, Pittsburgh Rumbles

Credit Cleveland for tacking on a touchdown before the half. The Browns got the ball back to start the 2nd half. A long, workman like touchdown drive was all that separated them from making it a 10 point game.

  • Instead, their first drive netted -16 yards thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and a Stephon Tuitt forced fumble

Randy Fichtner’s offense couldn’t do much with its first chance of the half. Cleveland got the ball back, won a replay challenge, and faced a 4th and 1 at their own 29. This time T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward stoned Kareem Hunt for a 1-yard loss.

While they only had 28 yards to go, the Steelers managed to milk 5 minutes off of the clock as they converted their takeover on downs into another touchdown with a 3 yard Chase Claypool run.

Pittsburgh’s Poise Carries Steelers to 5-0

Claypool’s touchdown run put the Steelers up 31 to 7 effectively ending the game as the third quarter drew to a close. But Pittsburgh’s poise, and Cleveland lack of it continued to shine brightly through the 4th quarter action:

  • Two more times the Browns would test Pittsburgh on 4th down…
  • …and two more times the Steelers would win the battle of wills
  • Kevin Stefanski pulled Baker Mayfield, as a matter of prudence rather than panic, but pull him he did

And then there’s this:

Pittsburgh’s poise was present on many other occasions against the Browns. Joe Haden hadn’t had the strongest start to his season, yet he stepped up to make several plays. Benny Snell showed he can be a sure handed closer, in defending late leads.

The day’s most ominous moment came in the late in the first half when Devin Bush left the game with an injury that Mike Tomlin declared as “significant,” which is likely an ACL tear that will end his season. Yet, Pittsburgh maintained its poise as Robert Spillane did an admirable job answering the “Next man up” call.

  • CBS chose the Steelers-Browns game as its marquee matchup of the week.

We understand why. Both teams arrived at Heinz Field with 4 wins. Only one would leave with 5. On his first day in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin postulated that sometimes the biggest test isn’t how you handle failure, but how you handel success.

The 2020 season is still young, but thus far Pittsburgh is passing that test with flying colors. Cleveland? Not so much. And that’s why the Steelers are 5-0.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Eagles – Pulling it Out with All Nighter’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of teacher who worries his defense students are getting too comfortable pulling things out with all nighters, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Eagles.

T.J. Watt, Carson Wentz, Steelers vs Eagles

T.J. Watt sacks Carson Wentz. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went threw 34 passes for 27 completions for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Steelers converted 11 of 15 third downs and Roethlisberger took care of the ball. His audible on 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter with the game in the balance was a veteran move that sealed the win. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Eagles have ones of the strongest front 7s in the league so it figured this would be tough sledding. And it was. None of the Steelers running back’s rushing averages impress. But if you look beyond the numbers and at the tape, you’ll see that James Conner  and Anthony McFarland all had some respectable runs. Benny Snell gained tough yards to kill the clock at the end. Conner also added 3 carries and scored the go ahead touchdown. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was having a nice day for himself with a 5 catches for 43 yards but he coughed up the ball at a critical time. He also failed to pull in a pass that was incorrectly ruled as an interception. Vance McDonald had one catch for 4 yards, but was an asset in the blocking game. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington had pedestrian games with 4 and 3 catches for 28 and 25 yards respectively. Ray-Ray McCloud had 3 catches but did his damage on two “Jet Sweeps” one of which went for 58 yards. But that wasn’t the big story of the day.

After looking solid in the first 3 games Chase Claypool announced his presence to the NFL with a bang with 7 catches for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns in the air plus another touchdown on the ground. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The only team that had sacked the quarterback more than the Steelers coming into this game was the Eagles. Yet Ben Roethlisberger was only dropped once the entire afternoon and he was only hit two more times per ESPN’s statistics. Run blocking could have been a little stronger, but overall it was a good day for the line, especially considering that David DeCastro was lost for most of the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had two sacks, defensed a pass and logged another quarterback hit while Tyson Alualu added another two tackles. Take away Miles Sanders 74 yard run and the Eagles managed 1.33 yard per carry, and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had another “quiet” day with “only” 3 tackles for losses in between a sack early on and a key pressure that helped force an interception. Bud Dupree also came up big with a half sack on the Eagles final drive. Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 2 and 3 tackles apiece. Steelers linebackers made their plays, but also must shoulder the blame for the long run given up along with the Eagles ease with 3rd down conversions. Grade: B

Travis Fulgham, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles

Travis Fulgham used and abused the Steelers all day. Photo Credit: Keil Leggere, PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Secondary
Who is Travis Fulgham? Mike Tomlin claims the fellow Virginian was on his radar but can the same be said for anyone else? Who knows? We do know is that smoked the Steelers for 10 catches and 152 yards and a touchdown. Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton and Joe Haden all had their issues with the kid. Hilton also missed a tackle on Miles’ touchdown run. Minkah Fitzpatrick also missed a tackle because he failed to rap, leading to a 3rd down conversion. The Steelers pass defense did secure two turnovers, but it is allowing just under 13 yards per pass catch – far too much. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud averaged 24 both his punt returns and Diontae Johnson had 6 yards on two punt returns. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was excellent, helping secure excellent field position. Chris Boswell was perfect, while Dustin Colquitt was OK. Overall a good day for special teams. Grade: B+

Coaching

Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles, John Hightowewr

Steven Nelson 2nd interception of the day. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Whether it is because of Matt Canada’s influence or not, Randy Fichtner continues to find ways to innovate, as the Steelers neutralized the Eagle’s stout front seven with bunch formations and Jet Sweeps. The Steelers offense scored 4 touchdowns on its own, converted another turnover into a touchdown, and killed the clock when it had to.

  • If all signs are encouraging on the Steelers offense and special teams, you cannot say the same about the defense.

The Steelers defense doesn’t lack for Splash plays, as their 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 11 quarterback hits and eight tackles for losses testify. But four games into the season opponents are converted third downs with relative ease, the Steelers are regularly giving up long passes and quick touchdown drives have been too common.

Whether that’s because Joe Haden is losing a step, Devin Bush isn’t developing fast enough or opponents are exploiting the Steelers love of the blitz, Keith Butler needs to take a hard look at his pass defense.

With that said, going 4-0 in the NFL is and accomplishment. It doesn’t happen by accident. The Steelers of late have been rusty coming off of their bye week, yet even if this bye came unexpected, no rust was evident, to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The Eagles had scored 15 unanswered points to cut a 17 point deficit to a 2 point deficit and the Steelers had JUST fumbled the ball back to Philadelphia. It was 1st and 10 at the Pittsburgh 44. Carson Wentz had a man open down field but didn’t quite have time to release because he was sacked for a 3 yard loss.

Sure, the Eagles made 8 of those yards back, but the sack meant Jake Elliot had to try a 57 yard field goal instead of a 54 yard one and those three yards might have been the difference. Stephon Tuitt made that sack and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Eagles.

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Steelers Defeat Texans 28-21 as T.J., Derek Prevail over J.J. in “Watt Bowl”

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Houston Texans 28-21 at Heinz Field, as brothers T.J. and Derek triumphed over big brother J.J. in the Watt Bowl.

  • The Watt brothers provided the game with a nice subplot, but the Steelers 3-0 record is even nicer.

But the nicest part about this win lies in the recipe the Steelers mixed during the Watt Bowl to secured victory down the stretch, as we explain below.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. Watt sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Week 3 is a Curious Place in the NFL

Week 3 is a curious place in the NFL. The math makes it simple. On week one, 50% of the teams must win and 50% must lose. Week two typically clarifies little. Everyone is either winless, undefeated or .500. Not much room for anyone to stand out.

Trends start to confirm themselves in week three, as teams find rhythm, establish personality, and the law of averages begins to weed out the “On Any Given Sunday” element from scoreboard results.

The Steelers entered week 3 with a 2-0 record, while the Houston Texans arrived in Pittsburgh at 0-2.

  • Would one team take a big step forward while another one dug itself deeper into a hole?
  • Or would one team stumble backwards while another clawed out a foothold to stake the rest of their season on?

As the first half end, it things could easily go either way.

Steelers First Half Against Texans Resembles First Two Weeks

The first two weeks saw the Steelers both give their fans a lot to like while leaving a lot plays on the field. During the first half against the Texans, they followed the same script in a topsy-turvy 30 minutes that saw:

  • The Steelers reach the Red Zone with a strong opening drive, only to settle for a field goal
  • The Texans respond with a touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger trying and failing to connect deep with receivers leading to 3 and outs
  • Meanwhile the Texans tacked on another touchdown

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans, JuJu walk off touchdown

JuJu Smith-Schuster literally walks to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With 2:38 left in the half, Ben Roethlisberger did one of the things he does best – run an effective two minute drill, mixing and matching James Conner runs, short passes to James Washington and Eric Ebron before hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a walk-off touchdown. The Steelers were up 17-14 at the 1:14 mark.

  • A good place to be going into the locker room at half time, right?

Not quite. It was the Steelers defense’s turn to stumble, as Deshaun Watson surgically ripped the Steelers defense apart, completing passes in coverage against Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick to put the Texans back up 21-17 at the half.

These were exactly the types of slips the Steelers suffered during the first two weeks. And unlike the Giants and Broncos, it did not appear that the Texans would be so forgiving.

Steelers Methodically Impose Their Will in 2nd Half

Pittsburgh’s problem in recent years has been a chronic inablilty to put teams away. Sometimes they’ve gotten away with it (remember those Chris Boswell game winners in 2017?). Other times Pittsburgh has paid the price (see the 2nd half of 2018.) Last week, the Steelers had the Broncos on the ropes, only to let them back in before escaping with a victory.

  • Pittsburgh put away Houston through a steady, methodical process that consumed the entire half.

Things started slowly. The Steelers opened with a scoring drive that included that included flashes from rookie Anthony McFarland Jr.. Still, after spending 5 minutes on the field, the Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans

JuJu Smith-Schuster pulls in the 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But Keith Butler’s boys answered the call responding with:

  • A three-and-out where the Steelers defense smothered David Johnson
  • Another three-and-out that featured a hellacious Stephon Tuitt sack on 3rd down
  • A Mike Hilton interception, down at the Pittsburgh 13

With 13:27 left to play and starting at their own 21, the men in Black and Gold did something that has been the hallmark of championship Steelers football – They Imposed Their Will.

By Mixing runs and short passes and getting key third down conversions from Benny Snell Jr. and Vance McDonald, the Steelers methodically moved down the field, keeping the chains moving and the clock running.

By the time James Conner barreled into the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown run, the Steelers had physically dominated the Texans and burned 7 minutes off of the clock in the process, while JuJu Smith-Schuster added a 2 point conversion to make it 21-28.

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

Living in Our Hopes, Not in Their Fears

There’s something poetic about Houston’s final series in the Watt bowl starting with a 11 yard sack by T.J. Watt; that made it a question of “When” and not “If” the Texans would punt.

  • The Steelers got the ball back and again, They Imposed Their Will.

James Conner started the drive off with a 25 yard run. To Bill O’Brien’s credit, his Texans declined to fold. In response, Mike Tomlin refused to blink.

On 4th and 1 at Houston’s 35 with 3:11 remaining, Mike Tomlin not only went for it, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball to James Washington who converted the down. Three plays later, the Steelers had a 3rd and 9 at their Houston’s 26. The smart money here says pound it up the middle, let Chris Boswell tack on 3 points and let Houston try for two scores in 2 minutes.

  • Again, Tomlin lived in his hopes and not his fears having Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for a 24 yard gain that set up the victory formation.

Putting up ten points in a half hardly qualifies the Steelers as the next incarnation as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But combined that with a 2nd half defensive shut out, turnover free football and 36:51 to 23:09 time of possession advantage, and during the Watt Bowl the Steelers may have mixed a recipe for winning football.

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Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

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Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.

Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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Debate Ended: Steelers Should Start Benny Snell Jr. at Running Back

If you’re a Steelers fan, you have to admire all that running back James Conner has had to overcome to even be in the NFL.

A star running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2015, an injury that actually led to doctors discovering that he had cancer. Conner battled through all of that adversity to not only defeat cancer and the injury but to become a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • James Conner’s story is a great one, truly inspirational, something that should warm the hearts of even the most cynical.

But even such a heartwarming story only has so much traction in the very cynical world of sports, and Conner has said himself that he doesn’t want to be defined by his battle with cancer. He wants to be defined as an NFL running back.

Much like a lot of things about James Conner, I can respect that. But if he is sincere in that sentiment, he must respect the opinions of folks –many of whom are admirers of his — who no longer think he should be the Steelers starting running back.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

That should be Benny Snell Jr., and that should be as soon as this Sunday’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field.

Conner looked timid and unsure of himself in the early moments of Pittsburgh’s 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football. After gaining just nine yards on six carries, Conner was removed from the game and never returned. It was later revealed that he suffered an ankle injury.

In his place, Snell, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.

Back to Conner.

  • When you really get to the heart of James Conner’s professional story, his problems with injuries are at the forefront.

Conner suffered an MCL tear late in his rookie season. OK, fine, Le’Veon Bell was the bell cow running back in those days, and Conner barely saw the field on offense prior to his injury. But in 2018, after the Steelers had grown used to Conner’s tremendous production in the wake of Bell’s season-long contract holdout, the Pro Bowl-bound second-year back missed several games down the stretch due to a concussion and an ankle problem.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

And in 2019, when the Steelers really needed to lean on a workhorse running back following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner once again proved to be unreliable, as he battled a myriad of injuries and missed a total of six games.

  • As per Triblive.com reporter Chris Adamski, Conner has either been injured in or missed 17 of his past 21 games with the Steelers.

If you’re the Steelers, how can you work with that?

Conner did lead the Steelers in rushing yards a year ago with 464. But Snell finished with 424 yards and didn’t start to see an increased workload until late in the season.

Snell built on that late-season momentum by losing 12 pounds this past offseason and looked fast, quick and explosive during most of his 19 carries on Monday night. The sentiment held by many in the local Pittsburgh sports media is that Snell really is the best running back the Steelers currently have, but that Conner will get the starting nod this Sunday, provided he’s healthy.

  • That’s a mistake.

If you’re the head coach, it’s your job to put the best players on the field in-order to give your team the greatest chance to win. I don’t know how Tomlin can possibly say Conner is his best running back at the moment.

It’s so obvious that it’s Snell.

  • Benny Snell Jr. should be the starter this Sunday and for the foreseeable future.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/1305666999813648384

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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