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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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 Report Card for MNF Win Over Dolphins – How Did Mason Rudolph Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his star student can sustain the mental toughness he used to get through a rather tough exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dolphins.

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

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

Quarterback
Coaches let Mason Rudolph test the waters outside of the kiddie’s pool this week, and for the first 20 minutes or so Mason Rudolph looked like he wasn’t going to keep his head above water. After that, Mason Rudolph led the Steelers to score 27 unanswered points, including two drives that started with him standing in Pittsburgh’s own end zone. While this is impressive, Rudolph’s total body of work still shows he has a long way to go. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ground out 145 yards, ripping off several long runs that sparked the entire offense. Benny Snell had 13 yards on 5 carries, while Trey Edmunds got zero yards on his first carry as a Steeler. Roosevelt Nix was back, and helped pave the way for the Steelers rushing success. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes for 19 yards and Nick Vannett caught 1 pass for 15 yards. The presence of both men, along with Zach Banner who checked in as a third tight end on many plays helped make the run blocking a success. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
While his season thus far is not earning JuJu Smith-Schuster many fans among Fantasy Football owners , anyone who has doubts about status as an elite a wide receiver need look no further than his touchdown catch. JuJu had a monster night going 5 of 103 making critical catch after critical catch. Diontae Johnson’s 12 yard grab on 3rd and 11 got the offense moving, and his pre-halftime touchdown was simply sensational. James Washington caught one of 6 passes thrown his way. Grade: A

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

Offensive Line
The Dolphins made little secret of their plan to crowd the offensive line either by putting 8 men in the box or by going all out on the Blitz. In both cases, the Steelers offensive line met the challenge, including a heads up play by David DeCastro to recover a fumble. Grade: A

Defensive Line
In their first game without Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers offensive line smothered the Dolphin’s running attack and Cam Heyward terrorized Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half, sacking him, helping stop a 4th down conversion, while hitting him twice. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt continues at this pace, his name won’t be remembered alongside predecessors like James Harrison, Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter. People will put his name before theirs.

That’s saying a lot, but T.J. Watt continues to decimate opponents, logging two strip sacks against Miami, two tackles for a loss, and hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. Bud Dupree had a sack and an impressive drop deep in the backfield. Overall a strong night for the linebackers, but Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Mark Barron ALL missed tackles on Allen Hurns touchdown. That brings the grade down. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Secondary
Perhaps the only defensive back’s name that you heard against the Dolphins was that of Minkah Fitzpatrick who intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Oh, and Mike Hilton also forced a fumble. The Dolphins deserve credit for getting on the board fast, but the Steelers defense shut them down completely afterwards, and that only happens if Joe Haden, Steve Nelson and Terrell Edmunds are doing their jobs. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed his first kick of the season but nailing a 54 yarder at Heinz Field is a tall order. The Steelers gave up another longish punt return which didn’t impact the game’s result, but the trend is becoming annoying. Ryan Switzer’s returns were average. Grade: B

Coaching
Steelers coaches had been keeping the training wheels on Mason Rudolph thus far this season, and they took them off against the Dolphins. For a quarter and a half, Mason Rudolph looked every bit like the kid who should only ride his bike on the sidewalk. With the training wheels on.

  • But the Steelers coaches kept Rudolph on the street.

Randy Fichtner didn’t attempt to revert to the Wildcat, nor did he try to limit passing to chink and dink check downs. Mason Rudolph proved to be up to the challenge, although at this point his game has far more rough spots than smooth ones.

Outside of the sloppy play on Miami’s second touchdown, finding fault with Keith Butler’s defense would require a considerable amount of effort. OK, the Steelers defense was dominating a Dolphin team that is actively vying for the first pick overall. But you’re supposed to dominate in those circumstances, and dominate they did. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Things looked bleak after Miami put 14 points on the board in less than one quarter. The Steelers responded with a drive that burned off almost half of the time in the 2nd quarter, netting a field goal.

When Miami got the ball with 2:40 remaining, it would have been easy to play with an eye towards simply keeping the Dolphins off of the score board and getting into the locker room. Instead, the Steelers used a time out on defense and secured an interception.

  • Then they aggressively attacked the Dolphins from mid-field and scored a touchdown.

He takes a lot of heat over his clock management, but his aggressiveness sapped the momentum away from Miami and put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for the 2nd half and for that Mike Tomlin wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers MNF win over the Dolphins.

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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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NFL Places Anthony Chickillo on Commissioners List. Steelers Resign Jayrone Elliott

Anthony Chickillo is already feeling some of the consequences resulting from his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend last weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. As seems to becoming standard operating procedure in the NFL, Roger Goodell has placed Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner’s exempt list.

While on this list, Anthony Chickillo will continue to receive his salary, but can neither play nor attend games, although he can be at team headquarters for injury therapy or non-football related activities.

Ola Adeniyi is also an available backup behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Interestingly enough, the New York Giants waived Steelers preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper. Tuzar Skipper had made the Steelers final 53 man roster, but the Steelers waived him prior to the loss to the Patriots to make room for Johnny Holton.

Pittsburgh had hoped to bring him back on to the practice squad, but the Giants claimed him off of waivers. Clearly the Steelers see something more in Elliot, but they could still add Skipper to the practice squad.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo in happier times, who found himself on the NFL’s Commissioner’s list. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Exit Bye Week, Return to Health

Mason Rudolph has cleared the concussion protocol and will start for the Steelers this Monday against Miami. Steven Nelson, Roosevelt Nix, Vance McDonald and James Washington have returned to practice and are expected to play.

While the Steelers offense could certainly use a shot in the arm from Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. acquitted himself well in relief of James Conner in the win at Los Angeles. If Joe Haden cannot start, Artie Burns could get the nod to start his second straight game in over a year, although Cam Sutton would be a candidate as well based on his performance against the Chargers.

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With Stephon Tuitt on IR, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

The Steelers took a lot of positives and one glaring negative away from their victory over the Chargers. On the positive side:

  • Devin Bush showed that he’s the real deal
  • The offensive line did some serious road grading
  • Benny Snell’s first extensive action made him look like a viable 3rd running back
  • And the defense went toe-to-toe with a Hall of Fame quarterback after weathering multiple injuries

About those injuries. The Steelers suffered several, but losing for the season Stephon Tuitt to a torn pectoral muscle is devastating.

  • You can’t sugar coat this. Stephon Tuitt was budding into his prime, and the injury has stopped him cold.

Stephon Tuitt was in route to an All Pro Season, with 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hits and 6 tackles for losses. That’s an impressive six game stretch. In all of 2018, Tuitt had 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for losses. But numbers as they often do, fail to capture the full picture. As “jujumojo” on Steel City Insider’s message board observed:

I honestly don’t think I have watched an individual Steeler defensive player dominate to the degree Tuitt has so far this season since probably James Harrison in his 2008-10 prime. Tuitt had simply been manhandling NFL linemen week in, week out.

Losing Stephon Tuitt represents a huge blow to the Steelers defense. But does it doom them for the rest of 2019?

With Tuitt Out, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

Reading the head line, “Steelers put Stephon Tuitt on IR, Resign L.T. Walton to take his roster spot” inspires little confidence. Had the Bengals not claimed Fred Johnson off of waivers, one wonders if the Steeler would have even called Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

But, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost a dominating defensive lineman to a pectoral injury in mid-season. And it happened 3 years ago, and the outlook was bleaker then.

The Dallas Cowboys had just come to Pittsburgh and beaten the Steelers as Ezekiel Elliott scored not one, but two touchdowns in the space of about 1:20. Days later news broke that Cam Heyward was out for the year with a torn peck.

Cam Heyward was defense’s undisputed best player (Ryan Shazier was only just beginning to shed the “bust” label that a minority, as ignorant as it was vocal, of fans had been pinning on him.)

  • All hope seemed lost.

This site titled its article “As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!” complete with video of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over! Game Over” clip from Aliens.

Yet, the exact opposite happened. Despite losing its best player, the Steelers defense not only halted their decline, it improved, tremendously. It says here that main factors fueling the turn around were:

But L.T. Walton also helped make that happen. During that final seven game stretch, L.T. Walton played in just under half of the defensive snaps.

The notion of “Stephon Tuitt injured, L.T. Walton to the rescue!” is plain silly. Tyson Alualu is the next man up. Javon Hargrave will undoubtedly see more time. Rookie Isaiah Buggs could conceivably get a helmet over L.T. Walton.

  • After all the Steelers opted not to resign Walton, who was on the Bills’ roster for a bit this summer, but was out of football.

But if L.T. Walton’s return can’t be counted on as a strength, he certainly wasn’t a liability, at least at defensive end (nose tackle is a different story, see the playoff loss to the Jaguars) when he was pressed into action in 2016 and again in 2017.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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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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Dice Roll: Steelers Cut Fred Johnson, Jayrone Elliott, Activate Trey Edmunds, Paxton Lynch

With Mason Rudolph and Jaylen Samuels ruled out for Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup against the Chargers, the Steelers cut Fred Johnson and Jayrone Elliott and activated Trey Edmunds and Paxton Lynch.

While there was some hope that he could play, as of this writing Mason Rudolph remains in the NFL concussion protocol. Rudolph could still be cleared, but the Steelers will start Devlin Hodges with Paxton Lynch backing him up.

Trey Edmunds,

Trey Edmunds in the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

This amounts to a minor bit of irony, as Paxton Lynch was the Denver Broncos first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Devlin Hodges spent opening day browsing the want ads after spending the summer on the Steelers training camp roster.

Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, has been with the Steelers since early 2018, after joining the practice squad when Le’Veon Bell began his hold out. The Steelers activated Trey Edmunds last season when James Conner got hurt. Edmunds appeared in 4 games on special teams but did not get a carry.

Trey Edmunds will backup James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., but could see action in the offense. Edmunds is a fullback by trade, and Roosevelt Nix has been declared out of the game.

Steelers Hope to Bring Back Johnson and Elliott But….

According to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers plan to bring back both Jayrone Elliot and Fred Johnson. That could very well happen, but the Steelers have had a bit of bad luck with cutting and resigning roster bubble players this season.

Before opening day the cut preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper, when they activated Johnny Holton, only to lose him on waivers to the New York Giants. They also planned to bring back wide receiver/kick returner Diontae Spencer to the practice squad, but he got claimed by the Denver Broncos.

  • Of the two, resigning Fred Johnson appears the higher priority.

Fred Johnson’s play in preseason was strong enough that some in the organization see him as a potential future starter. Given the aging Steelers offensive line and the dearth of draft picks to replace them, the Steelers need to stockpile potential where they can.

Finally, Steelers free agent corner Steven Nelson will not play, leading Artie Burns to see his first extended action since the beginning of the 2018 season.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – A Classroom Turned Upside Down

From the grade book of a teacher who left for a 10 day professional conference only to return to find his classroom completely turned upside down, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the 49ers.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quarterback
Those who’ve suggested rushing the Roethlisberger era to an end to begin rebuilding sooner rather later experienced reality therapy yesterday. To be clear, Mason Rudolph does not deserve to be a scapegoat. But even if his passing number were on par with Ben Roethlisberger and Neil O’Donnell’s debuts, Rudolph looked like a 3rd rounder making his first start rather than that of a franchise quarterback. Mason Rudolph did some nice things, made some ugly mistakes but ultimately couldn’t spark the team to a win. Grade: C

Running Backs
James Conner ran for 43 yards on 13 carries and looked OK as a rusher at times. He didn’t have a lot of help from the offensive line. Worse yet, he had yet another fumble in a critical moment, which is at least the third time that has happened in less than 16 full starts. Benny Snell had 6 yards on 3 carries and Jaylen Samuels ran some pass routes but didn’t see a ball thrown his way. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had one catch on 2 carries and then left the game injured. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards in his place, and his presence in the blocking game was about as pronounced as his role in the passing game. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster took one to the house showing the he does indeed retain his big play capability. But he was largely a non-factor outside of that play. Diontae Johnson looked good in his first start, but dropped at least one pass he should have caught. James Washington had two catches for 14 yards and is looking like a preseason-practice hero who doesn’t deliver on game day. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph only got sacked twice, but had to scramble 4 times and at other times had to throw it away. The 49ers also recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Championship caliber offensive line play can elevate average running and passing games. But the Steelers aren’t getting anywhere near championship caliber play from their offensive line. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line harassed Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers almost ran at will, particularly when they needed to. That’s not 100% their responsibility, but the line is where stout run defense starts. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had an interception, fumble recovery, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. Nice to see a premium pick delivering. Devin Bush had two fumble recoveries and led the team in tackles, but his inexperience continues to show. Bud Dupree got good pressure and helped force an interception. Mark Barron has yet to justify the free agency dollars the Steelers invested in him. The 49ers moved the ball in the 2nd half when they needed to, and the Steelers linebackers could not come up with a play to stop them. Grade: C

Secondary
Whether the Steelers decision to mortgage their future by trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick is unknown here today. But one thing is clear, he is easily the most dynamic member of the secondary. His interception off of a Joe Haden deflection was exactly the type of playmaking the Steelers secondary has been starved of for a long time. Terrell Edmunds was second in tackles, but has yet to make a splash play. Steven Nelson’s name hasn’t been heard much. The Steelers needed another play from the secondary in the 2nd half. They didn’t get it. Grade: C

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made both of his field goals and both extra points. Jordan Berry averaged 52.3 yards punting. All good. However, the kick return team allowed 25 yards per return, and the punt return team allowed 10 yards per return. Given the Steelers limitations on offense, this team cannot afford to sacrifice this type of field position. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers coaches tried to establish the run to give Mason Rudolph a break. It didn’t work. The Steelers offensive line is doing a passable job in protecting the quarterback, but its run blocking leaves a lot to be desired.

Randy Fitchner made changes to the Steelers wide receiving corps, and there was some marginal improvement, but the wide outs are struggling to create separation. Why was Jaylen Samuels not used in the running game?

On defense the Steelers got opportunistic, which not something that can be said of recent Steelers defenses. However, the offense could not take advantage of those turnovers. Neither could the defense step up and make a stop when the team needed it.

  • Which is becoming a recurring theme.

Mike Tomlin, Randy Fitchner and Keith Butler have some work to do. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
If there is any unequivocal bright spot in this dismal Steelers 2019 season it is this man. Against the 49ers he added another sack, made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and harassed the passer all day, and for that Stephon Tuitt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the 49ers.

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