One Positive for Steelers 2018 Training Camp Thus Far? A Short PUP List

Steelers 2018 training camp only two days old, but already there’s a piece of positive news: Pittsburgh’s PUP list is short. That’s something that is easy to take for granted and injuries can alter an entire team’s fortune in a blink of an eye. But for now it is a good thing.

  • The only player who begins training camp on the PUP list is Eli Rogers.
Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers of course signed Eli Rogers Wednesday and will keep him on the PUP list until he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars. But other than that, there’s no injury of note.

Too often in recent past, training camp has arrived with surprise injury announcements.

In 2008, Casey Hampton began on the PUP list, although that was more tied to conditioning issues than injury. Back in 2015 the Steelers started training camp with 5 players on the PUP listMaurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, Bruce Gradkowski, Shawn Lemon and Senquez Golson.

  • To fans at least, each of these announcements was a surprise, and all of them turned out to be ominous.

Maurkice Pouncey’s stint on the PUP list was short, but he fell injured in the Steelers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Mike Adams injury hadn’t been known, and he stayed on the PUP list all season and never returned to Pittsburgh.

Bruce Gradkowski’s injury came as a total surprise, as he’d last been seen playing very well in brief relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens. Like Pouncey, Gradkowski earned his PUP activation, only to injure himself in preseason leading to Mike Vick’s signing. Shawn Lemon was of course the CFL pass rusher the Steelers signed earlier. He made it of PUP only to get cut.

  • And then of course there’s Senquez Golson, whom the coaching staff had known was nursing an injured shoulder.

Senquez Golson went on IR, then got injured in both 2016 and 2017 training camp, and the second round pick has never spent a day on an active NFL roster.

  • In 2016 the Steelers PUP list was short, but made up for “quality” for what it lacked in quantity.

Ladarius Green headlined the list, as he was both nursing an ankle injury and still fighting lingering effects of a concussion from the previous season. People will forget, but Ladarius Green actually did prove to be a fairly effective weapon in his limited action, but he suffered concussion against in December, and has never played since.

As noted at the outset, a short PUP offers no guarantee. Last year the Steelers began training camp with a relative clean bill of health, but ended up seeing Joe Haden, Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier suffer injuries at the worst possible moment.

But I’ll take the Steelers starting the summer at St. Vincents at close to full health any time I can!

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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Speculation Ends: Landry Jones 2 Year Contract Settles Steelers Backup Quarterback Question

The Pittsburgh Steelers capped off the first day of the 2017 NFL Free Agency signing period by ending speculation about their backup quarterback position by signing Landry Jones to a 2 year contract. So there you have it, for the next two years, Landry Jones will serve as the proverbial “next man up” behind Ben Roethlisberger until 2018’s conclusion.

  • While the move doesn’t come as much of a surprise, some had interpreted Art Rooney II’s words as an indication that the Steelers were ready to move on.

Instead, the Steelers have doubled down on the investment they made into developing Landry Jones after drafting him in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Behind Jones the Steelers also have Zach Mettenberger, whom they picked up off of waivers after Bruce Gradkowski went on injured reserve.

Landry Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones contract, Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones, Martavis Bryant, Steelers 2017 free agents

Landry Jones’ 2 year contract ensures he’ll be backing up Ben Roethlisberger through 2018. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive

Speaking with Teresa Varley of Steelers.com, Landry Jones explained his decision to stay in Pittsburgh this way:

It was really just wanting to be back here. It wasn’t a tough decision. This place is familiar to me and I am thankful I have an opportunity again to have a job and have a spot to come back to.
It was the best decision for me and (my wife) Whitney and our family. If all things were equal, I wasn’t going to go anywhere. That was where my mindset was.
I think it is the way people treat you around here. It is a business, but at the same time the Rooneys treat you great, all of our coaches treat you great. It’s just a great place to be.

Doubtlessly the move is being panned by a large swath of Steelers Nation who watched Landry Jones struggle during his first two preseason outings and have seen the hit or miss nature of regular season performances.

And if it is true that he doesn’t offer the ex-starter pedigree that his predecessors Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich brought to the huddle, Landry Jones has developed into a competent, confident backup quarterback.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent Landry Jones Should Be Back in Pittsburgh as Backup Quarterback

Who was the most popular player in Pittsburgh from 1984 to 2003? The answer is simple, “the backup quarterback.”

OK, that’s not quite true, but it is no secret that fans often showed a lot more love for the understudies of Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart than they did for those starting quarterbacks.

The same could not be said during Terry Bradshaw’s (latter) days as a starter, nor for Ben Roethlisberger. Such was the cross that Landry Jones inherited when the Steelers took Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft, a cross which he continues to carry into free agency.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Cardinals, Landry Jones free agent, Markus Wheaton

Landry Jones celebrates during his first NFL game against the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Pittsburghblitz.com

Capsule Profile of Landry Jones Steelers Career

As regular readers of this site know, living down in Buenos Aires deprives me of the ability to watch preseason football. Which is a shame because preseason gives fans their one and only shot at getting an unfiltered look at rookies and backup players.

  • But friends of mine assured me during the 2013 preseason that the Steelers should consider bringing Charlie Batch back.

And these were not reactionary, “Fire everyone” types. Their estimation of Landry Jones didn’t change after the 2014 season, and a quick look at the stats confirmed that Landry Jones had under performed Brian St. Pierre in his first two preseason outings.

The Steelers took note and moved to challenge Jones during the 2015 preseason, bringing in Tajh Boyd, Devin Gardner, and Tyler Murphy but Jones held off those challenges. And even though the Steelers signed in Mike Vick when Bruce Gradkowski went down, Jones looked like he belonged, much to the consternation of fans who felt Landry Jones represented a wasted roster spot.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Browns, Landry Jones Free Agent

Landry Jones in the Steelers 2017 finale against the Cleveland Browns. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Jones got his first action in 2015, coming off the bench to lead victories against the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders while struggling in his first start against the Chiefs. Jones also looked lost in relief of Roethlisberger in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

In 2016 Landry Jones looked solid, although far from spectacular in a loss against the Patriots, while looking sharp in leading the Steelers backups to a New Year’s Day overtime comeback against the Browns.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

Ever since the Steelers traded for Todd Blackledge in 1988, the franchise’s policy, with a few exceptions, has been to staff a veteran backup quarterback. But injuries to Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich in limited play caused the Steelers to reevaluate that philosophy, leading them to draft Landry Jones, who made a commitment to developing him Jones as a backup.

The Steelers invested a lot of time and effort Landry Jones’ development, while hedging their bets. In 2016 Landry Jones showed that he’s matured into a competent, confident NFL backup quarterback. He knows Todd Haley’s offense, and looks comfortable in the huddle leading superstars like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

Landry Jones is a legitimate NFL backup quarterback and, assuming his salary demands are reasonable, there’s every reason why the Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

After Charlie Batch got hurt in 2008 early in preseason, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper on the field in Western Pennsylvania trying out within a day. When he explained his decision, Mike Tomlin insisted that the Steelers were a Super Bowl team and that both players had been franchise quarterbacks. Should something happen to Ben Roethlisberger, he wanted a quarterback capable of taking the Steelers all the way.

  • Can anyone suggest that Landry Jones is that caliber of a quarterback and keep a straight face?

The reality is that after taking every snap in 2013 and nearly every snap in 2014, Ben Roethlisberger has had to miss or leave games due to injuries on 5 separate occasions in 2015 and 2016. Landry Jones might be a game manager, but it is all but impossible to see him leading the Steelers on a Jeff Hostetlerque run through the playoffs (Google 1990 New York Giants if you’re unfamiliar and/or read our obituary of former Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.)

Given that reality, the Steelers shouldn’t invest a valuable roster spot and valuable salary cap dollars in Landry Jones, and should instead look to the 2017 NFL Draft and/or Zach Mettenberger as their “Next Man Up” for the next time Ben Roethlisberger gets injured.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Landry Jones

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert made no bones about the fact that the Steelers would love to have Landry Jones back. This will not sit well with a large segment of Steelers Nation nor with a good chunk of writers who cover the team.

  • So be it. Although it is painful for a Steelers site to quote Buddy Ryan, but if you think like the fans, you’ll be one.

Might Landry Jones find a team that wants to pay him several million dollars above what he can get in Pittsburgh to wear the backup quarterback cap? Perhaps. If he does then more power to him. But Landry Jones is a viable number 2 quarterback that the Steelers have invested a lot in, and the Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh.
Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency?

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6 Take Aways for the Playoffs from Steelers Comeback Win Over the Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Cleveland Browns for yet another regular season finale at Heinz Field in a game that had zero impact on the Black and Gold’s post-season fortunes. With Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey out and James Harrison not playing, this figured to be an exam of sorts for the Steelers backups.

  • The Cleveland Browns, not having won a game in Pittsburgh since 2003, showed themselves as willing examiners.

The Steelers prevailed in a teeter-totter style game and, while the 7th straight win only adds window dressing to the 2016 regular season record, the comeback win over the Browns does reveal 6 key take aways that tell us something important about these Steelers as we head to the playoffs.

Cobi Hamilton, steelers vs. browns, steelers 2016 regular season finale browns

Cobi Hamilton catches the game winning pass in overtime as the Steelers comeback to beat the Browns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

1. Landry Jones Has Grown into a Legit Backup

Going into this game, the pundits who weren’t labeling this “Landry Jones’ last game with the Steelers” instead suggested Mike Tomlin start Zach Mettenberger.

  • Landry Jones showed them how foolish they were.
  • Let’s be clear: If Ben Roethlisberger goes down, he takes the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl hopes with him.

If all goes well, the last image we have of Landry Jones during the 2016 season (other than him holding a clipboard) will be of him hitting Cobi Hamilton from 26 yards out in overtime to give the Steelers the win. Contrast that with his deer-in-the-headlight performance in the Steelers playoff win a year ago vs. the Bengals.

Landry Jones, Jesse James, Steelers vs. Browns

Landry Jones throws a pass as Jesse James blocks during Steelers 2016 season finale win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted Landry Jones to grow into a competent NFL backup quarterback. The only thing that his 2013 and 2014 preseason performances inspired was job security for Bruce Gradkowski. Landry Jones made strides in closing out wins vs. the Raiders and Cardinals in 2015, and looked respectable in the Steelers loss to the Patriots.

  • Against the Browns, Jones showed he could overcome a costly interception, rally his team in the 4th quarter, and lead it to victory in overtime.

That marks and important step for the signal caller. Granted, Landry Jones wasn’t playing against the 85 Bears defense, but Steelers best offensive lineman and skill players were in street clothes. Salary cap math might prevent the Steelers from bringing Jones back in 2017, but he’s proven he’s a capable backup.

2. Darrius Heyward-Bey Is Back

It is no secret that Antonio Brown had to scratch and claw for his catches as the season wore on. And while Eli Rogers has stepped up his play late in the season, as had Hamilton, the Steelers still haven’t had a reliable deep threat to take heat off of Brown. Darrius Heyward-Bey may have only had one catch, but he brought it down for 46 yards.

If this is any indication of what he is capable of, the Steelers offense can be lethal in the playoffs.

3. Steelers Can’t Survive without Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers lost Stephon Tuitt in the first series against the Bengals, things did not look good. Cincinnati ran the ball well against the Steelers in the first half, punctuated by Jeremy Hill’s powering his way into the end zone in the second quarter. Yet the Steelers run defense clapped down, and held Hill to negative yards in the second half.

  • Against the Ravens, the Steelers performance against the run was mixed.

The Steelers run defense held its own in the first half, but it struggled to stop the run at times during the second half. To be blunt about it, Isaiah Crowell looked like the Jim Brown running against the Steelers defense.

L.T. Walton has played well, as has Ricardo Mathews when healthy. Johnny Maxey has looked good as for a practice squader. But the Browns game clarified a that healthy Stephon Tuitt is essential to a successful Steelers Super Bowl run.

4. Sean Davis is Simply a Stud

When was the last time a rookie Steelers defender excelled to the level that Sean Davis has reached?

Sean Davis, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs. Browns, Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III, Sean Davis RGIII

Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III in Steelers 2016 win over Browns at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Like Sean Davis, Troy Polamalu and Bud Dupree both won Joe Greene Great Performance awards, but neither of them made the type of impact plays that Sean Davis is making. You’d arguably have to go back to Kendrell Bell to find a rookie Steelers defender who made the type of impact that Sean Davis made.

  • Did someone tell Sean Davis the Browns game was supposed to be “meaningless?”

Apparently not. Davis dominated leading the team in tackles, sacking the quarterback, and recovering a bad snap to set up the Steelers first touchdown. It is usually a sign of desperation for a team to go into training camp counting on draftees to make a difference.

However, as Pittsburgh pivots to the playoffs, the Steelers can be confident that their 2016 draft class can contribute to a Super Bowl run with Sean Davis leading the way.

5.  DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Showing Any Rust

The Steelers haven’t seen much of DeAngelo Williams since his injury against Miami. Indeed, journalist David Todd went so far as to suggest that he might have made his last carry for the Steelers. On the surface, Williams numbers of 67 for 23 do not look good.

  • Numbers do not lie, but often times they fail to tell the full story and such was the case of DeAngelo Williams.
DeAngelo Williams, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Browns, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns

David DeCastro leads DeAngelo Williams into the end zone as Steelers comeback against Browns.

Williams, like the rest of the Steelers offense started sluggishly, but he picked up steam as the game wore on. And it was DeAngelo Williams who got the Steelers on board to close the second half and who tied the game in the 4th quarter. Moreover, DeAngelo Williams used every ounce of his skill as a runner to save the Steelers from taking a safety on several occasions.

Injuries have forced the Steelers to start their 4th and 5th string running backs in their last two post season appearances. Pittsburgh’s offensive backfield will look a little bit different on this playoff trip.

6. These Pittsburgh Steelers WANT It

How many opportunities did this Steelers team have to mail it in against the Browns? Make no mistake about it, football is a brutal sport, and if your heart is not in it, that will show pretty quickly? How many times have we seen the Browns fold against the Steelers in a season ender after Pittsburgh puts up a two score lead?

  • The Browns went up by two touchdowns, but the Steelers fought back
  • Late in the 4th, Cleveland tied the game,and threatened to score at the Steelers 5, but the Jarvis Jones forced a fumble
  • The Browns won the toss in OT and marched to the Steelers two, but Ryan Shazier helped force a 14 yard loss

When the Steelers finally got the ball they came up to a 4th and 2 at their own 32-yard line. It would have been so easy for Mike Tomlin to send in Chris Boswell for a 49-yard field goal attempt, figuring Cleveland could not score in 3 minutes.

Instead, he went for it and Demarcus Ayers converted the third down. One play later, Cobi Hamilton was sealing the Steelers win in OT.
As Mike Tomlin said, fight won’t bring home a seventh Lombardi trophy, and some of the sloppiness the Steelers displayed vs. the Browns will doom them. But overall, the Steelers win over the Browns offers a lot of promise as Pittsburgh head to the playoffs.

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Landry Jones Haters Need to Chill – It’s Time for some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Steelers loss to the Patriots, frustrating and disappointing as it was, highlighted something that’s been building for a while: Landry Jones critics need to chill. Cue Aretha Franklin because it’s time to give the beleaguered Steelers backup quarterback some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs. Patriots, Landry Jones critics

Landry Jones proved something important against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

What’s this? Didn’t the Patriots loss precisely highlight, as Steeler Addicts suggests, Landry Jone’s deficiencies as a backup?

  • No it doesn’t and these numbers illustrate the point: 14, 3, 21, 24, 7 and 13.

Since entering the league in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has faced off against Tom Brady 8 times, including the playoffs. The Steelers record in those contests is 2-6. The numbers you see above represent the margin of the Steelers loss in each of those games. Mathematically, they work out to an average of 13 points per game.

  • For those of you taking notes at home, the last week the Steelers lost 27-16 or by 11 points.

So measured purely by point total, the Steelers lose less badly to the Patriots with Landry Jones under center than Ben Roethlisberger. Ah, but the Steelers 16 points was the lowest point total of all the Steelers losses to Tom Brady’s Patriots, save for the ’07 infamous “Anthony Smith Game.” True, but the Steelers offensive output vs. the Patriots in 2010, 2013 and 2015 benefited from some garbage time glory.

  • None of this remotely suggests that the Steelers are better off against the Patriots with Landry Jones than with Ben Roethlisberger.

Trying to argue that would be like trying to say that Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart was a better quarterback than Terry Bradshaw based on passer rating. But if Steelers low point total with Landry Jones under center vs. the Patriots shows us some of his limitations, the fact that the Steelers stayed in the game as long as they did reveals some of his strengths.

What Landry Jones Did Well Against the Patriots

The first thing responsibility of any backup quarterback is to not lose the game for his team. Fans who can remember Kent Graham immediately throwing a pick-six upon entering the 2000 matchup vs. Raiders remember what I’m talking about. Yes, Landry Jones interception in the end zone cost the Steelers, but it was hardly a game-ender.

Landry did a lot of things right against the Patriots including:

  • Protecting the ball – other than the interception, Jones didn’t try to force it
  • Getting rid of the ball – OK, Jones enjoyed EXCELLENT pass protection, but he shares credit for zero sacks
  • Finding receivers – Coverage was tight, but Jones avoided leaning on Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, hitting
  • Running the two minute drill – Jones played competent, confident football during the final drive of the ½ half

Aside from early interception one very legitimate critique of Landry Jones’ performance vs. the Patriots is on his play at the end of the game, particularly on the Steelers second to last drive when a quick score could have gotten them back into the game. Unquestionably, Jones wasn’t playing with same level of comfort that he’d had at the end of the first half and it showed.

But when you’re playing the New England Patriots, you generally don’t expect to win when you ask your backup quarterback to win the game for you.

Welcome to the New NFL Order of Backup Quarterbacks

While the criticism of Landry Jones late play against the Patriots is legitimate, it also highlights the fact that Landry Jones is a different breed of backup quarterback than has been seen in Pittsburgh for close to two generations.

Bruce Gradkowski had 20 games of starting experience before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2013 and his experience is likely why the Steelers brought him back this summer.

Would the Steelers have been better suited by a ‘94’s Tomzack, ‘08’s Lefwich, ‘10’s Batch or even ‘14’s Gradkowski than Landry Jones late in the Patriots game? Of course they would have, but for whatever reason, ex-starting quarterbacks don’t see second acts as backups in the NFL as much as they used to. The trend began in the early in the 00’s and seems to have picked up steam.

  • What you see is what you get with Landry Jones.

And in real action, when the games count, Landry Jones has shown he can play fairly well as he did vs. the Cardinals and Raiders last year, he’s also capable of looking clueless as he did vs. the Bengals in the playoffs, or he can play as a workman like game manager as he did vs. the Patriots.

And that’s fine. The Steelers didn’t draft Landry Jones to become a franchise quarterback. They drafted Landry Jones to develop into backup quarterback, and Landry Jones has proven he’s capable of fulfilling that role.

So Landry Jones critics should chill, and give him the respect he’s earned.

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Steelers Claim Zach Mettenberger Off Waivers, Put Bruce Gradkowski on Injured Reserve

The Pittsburgh Steelers clarified their quarterback depth chart today by making two moves. The first move saw the Steelers claim Zach Mettenberger off of waivers, less than a day after the San Diego Chargers parted ways with the quarterback. The Steelers also placed Bruce Gradkowski on injured reserve, ending his season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh.

steelers vs. titans, zach mettenberger, zach mettenberger steelers, james harrison, vince williams, zach mettenberger vs. Steelers, november 2014

James Harrison and Vince Williams close on in Zach Mettenberger in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

Landry Jones will back up Roethlisberger as his number two, much to the chagrin of much of Steelers Nation. The third slot would appear to be headed to Zach Mettenberger, although the Steelers have previously said they plan to start 4th string quarterback Bryn Renner against Carolina in their 2016 preseason finale.

For most of the preseason, Dustin Vaughan worked as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback, but he broke his thumb in the preseason loss to the Eagles and the Steelers have since placed Vaughan on the injured/waived list.

A Closer Look at Zach Mettenberger

Ken Whisenhunt of Tennessee Titans originally draft Aach Mettenberger by the in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, taking him with the 178th overall pick. In 2014 Mettenberger started weeks 8 through 16.

That span included the Steelers week 10 victory at Tennessee, where Mettenberger went 14 of 25 for 2 touchdowns and one interception. While William Gay did transform one Mettenberger pass into a pick six, Mettenberger also burned the Steelers on an 80 yard touchdown to Nate Washington, and left the Chargers with a 24 to 13 lead in entering the fourth quarter.

In 2015, Mettenberger started weeks 7 and 6 as well as week’s 15 and 16.

  • Overall Mettenberger has logged 10 starts and played 14 games played in his career.

Zach Mettenberger has never won a game as a starter, and he has completed 208 passes for 2,347 yards and 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Following 2015, Mettenberger followed Ken Whisenhunt to San Diego, but could not secure a spot on the Charger’s depth chart behind Philip Rivers.

It is unclear whether the Steelers plan to give Zach Mettenberger a chance to play vs. the Carolina Panthers Thursday night.

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7 Confessions of a Steelers Blogger – Welcome to Our “Annual” Goofs Column

Being a Steelers blogger comes with a dose bliss. Steelers fans start blogging not simply because they bleed Black and Gold, but because they have something to say that they feel no one else is saying.

  • And it’s pretty awesome when you beat Ed Bouchette to the punch.

Not that it happens terribly often, but it does happen. But blissfulness  can lead even the most conscientious blogger to take himself (or herself) too seriously.

  • Steel Curtain Rising’s delivers its remedy in our “annual” goofs column.

Annual comes in quotes, because after doing one in 2009 and 2010, time pressures from working two jobs prevented me from writing others. But this year Steel Curtain Rising’s annual goofs column is back with a vengeance. As always, we pay homage and acknowledge the example set by the late, great Washington Post columnist David Broder who wrote an annual goofs column.

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Steelers tight end Jessey James can’t hold on in 2015 preseason. Photo credit: Don Wright, Associated Press, used on the Post-Gazette

1 – Shamarko, Cortez & Jarvis Weren’t Keys to 2015 Defense

A good number of the goofs from the last year relate to the Steelers defense. Such was the case with a poll conducted here, where yours truly non-too subtly suggested that the key to improving the Steelers defense in 2015 lay with the development of Shamarko Thomas, Cortez Allen, and Jarvis Jones.

  • Thankfully, you, my faithful readers knew better.

You voted Ryan Shazier as the player the Steelers most-needed to see development from. And you were right. Keith Butler did lead a turnaround of the Steelers defense in 2015, but Cortez Allen and Sharmko Thomas had nothing to do with it. Jarvis Jones did improve, particularly in run defense, but he still couldn’t keep James Harrison on the bench.

2 – Cop-Out on the Steelers 2015 Defense

This one had the potential to earn Steel Curtain Rising “bragging rights,” but a goof negated that opportunity. Last year just before the season, I argued that the Steelers 2015 defense shouldn’t regress under Keith Butler. The argument flowed like this:

  • The Steelers defense greatly improve during 2014, closing the season out with for extremely strong performances.
  • The Steelers defense was loaded with young draft picks, poised to make the next leap
  • Cover-2 should have been easier for younger players to pick up than Dick LeBeau’s Fire-Zone/Zone-Blitz

Ah, it was all there for the taking, but unfortunately that piece was preceded by a copout. As the Steelers defense played like a sieve during the 2015 preseason, I wondered aloud if it was officially time to “worry” about the Steelers defense under Keith Butler, concluding that outright worry wasn’t warranted, but concern was.

3 – No Antonio Brown Hadn’t Already Peaked

Just before the season, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expanded on Joseph Juan numberfire.com article, which traced wide receivers peak production to their age and number of years of service. Juan’s analysis indicated that most NFL wide receivers peaked at 3 years of service and/or at age 26.

Of course Antonio Brown improved on his 2014 season in 2015, and arguably would have improved even more had he been able to establish a rhythm with Michael Vick. To be fair to myself, the piece didn’t simply parrot back Joseph Juan’s research, but reviewed in in the context of past Steelers wide receivers.

  • The conclusion was that Steelers history suggested that Brown did have a chance to beat the odds.

But the headline “Has Antonio Brown Already Peaked” certainly qualifies as a goof.

4 – Dri Archer Fails to Fill the Void

When news of Martavis Bryant’s (first) suspension for substance abuse broke, focus rapidly shifted to who would pick up the slack. I thought it wise to suggest that one Dri Archer had a golden opportunity.
Of course Archer did have an opportunity.

  • But Dri Archer didn’t even remotely even attempt to capitalize the opportunity in front of him.

And with 20/20 hindsight, there was little indicate that he could or even that he would. So yeah, was it theoreically possible that Dri Archer could have thrived in Bryant’s absence? Yes. Was it at all plausible? Not so much.

5 – Filling the Void Created by Antonio Brown’s Concussion

Thanks to Vontaze Burfict, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to play their 1st Divisional playoff game since 2011 without the services of their 2015 MVP, Antonio Brown. That led to speculation over who would fill the void. While it was obvious that Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton would take on larger roles in the offense, most speculation surrounded the third receiver slot.

And most of that speculation centered on rookie Sammie Coates.

That made sense, because Brown’s injury meant Coates would return to the active list for the first time since early in the season. But this site disputed the suggestion that Coates could contribute arguing:

But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

No, the more logical player to fill the void was Darrius Heyward-Bey. Following the logic that:

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four receivers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

That made sense, but when all was said and done, Darrius Heyward-Bey had 2 catches for 64 yards, and Sammie Coates had 2 grabs for 61 yards and acutally had one more target….

…I guess the reporters who watch practice every day AND get off the record access to coaches knew something when they were writing those stories about Sammie Coates.

6 – Mike Vick’s Role (or lack thereof) in the Playoffs

I’ve never been a Landry Jones basher. In fact, I defended him against those who questioned Landry Jones’ roster spot entering the 2015 regular season. And Jones performed above expectations against the Cardinals and then the Raiders, even if he was less than stealer in action against the Chiefs and Seahawks.

As even Bob Labriola recently suggested, Jones looked like a deer lost in the headlights, and made an interception that, by all rights, should have ended the game. With that in mind, and knowing that Ben Roethlisberger was less than 100%, Steel Curtain Rising issued the following plea on behalf of Mike Vick:

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Mike Tomlin it appears, doesn’t read Steel Curtain Rising, as Mike Vick didn’t even dress for the Steelers game against the Broncos. Tally one more goof.

7 – In Bruce We Trust… Not So Much

The memory of Landry Jones’ playoff performance lingered into the off season (and no, I’m still not part of the “Cut Landry Now” crowd.” But in looking at the Steelers free agents, Steel Curtain Rising made this case:

The case for keeping Bruce Gradkowski comes down to this: 2-3-22-0-0.
That was Gradkowski’s stat line from his only action under center for the Steelers. Yes, that is mundane, but it came in the 4th quarter of a playoff game, and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.
Now take a look at this stat line: 2-5-11-0-1. That’s Landry Jones post-season resume, which came in the 4th quarter of the Steelers win over the Bengals….

…if he’s healthy, the Steelers should consider bringing Gradkowski back.

Unlike with Mike Vick before the playoffs game vs. the Broncos, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert apparently DID get this memo, as the Steelers resigned Bruce Gradkowski. However, Gradkowski entered training camp as the Steelers number 3 quarterback, and while he looked good in limited action in the Steelers preseason loss to the Lions, he also got injured.

It seems like Mike Tomlin is planning on leaving the door open for Bruce Gradkowski to hold a spot on Steelers 2016 roster in some form or fashion, but he’s clearly now their emergency option, and not the next man up.

Looking forward to Making More Goofs in 2016

This of course does not cover all of the goofs I made over the last year or so. Certainly there have been others. And its even more certain that more will follow in the year to come. That’s human nature.

Regardless, a heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has read along over the last 12 months, and rally the last 8 years here at Steel Curtain Rising. Thanks for reading and please continue to come back again.

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Steelers Designate Ladarius Green PUP, Cut Jacob Hagen, Devaunte Sigler and Kevin White

Pittsburgh made its final four roster moves to meet the NFL mandated limit of 75, and the biggest move saw the Steelers place Ladarius Green on the PUP list. Heath Miller’s retirement began the Steelers 2016 off season, and the Steelers responded to Heath Miller’s retirement by signing tight end Ladarius Green from the San Diego Chargers.

  • By moving so swiftly, the Steelers freed themselves to address their secondary during the 2016 NFL Draft.
steelers, steelers tight end, ladarius green, ladarius green pup

Ladarius Green’s PUP designation will keep him out until at least week 6. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Thus far the Steelers strategy has failed to bear fruit, as Matt Spaeth failed his physical and retired, and Ladarius Green has sat out all of OTA’s. While a slow recovery from an ankle issue landed Green on the PUP list during training camp, he is also suffering from headaches and is reported to be in the NFL’s concussion protocols.

  • Ladarius Green’s PUP designation means that he cannot practice or play for the Steelers during the first six weeks of the season.

After six weeks on the PUP, the Steelers can bring Green back and allow him to practice, then they have 2 weeks to either activate him, or place him on injured reserve. All told, Ladarius Green’s PUP designation will keep him out of action for at least eight weeks.

Steelers Cut Defenders Hagen, Sigler and White

In addition to making Ladarius Green’s PUP status official, the Steelers also cut safety Jacob Hagen, defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler and cornerback Kevin White. Even the most die-hard Steelers fan would struggle to recognize these names, so perhaps the most suprising thing is that the Steelers waited to announce them today, as opposed to doing it on Sunday when they cut Jordan Zumwalt and several others.

Still Hope for Gradkowski, Washington?

The more interesting thing about the cuts the Steelers announced relates to the names not announced. First, the Steelers have made no move with Bruce Gradkowski, who injured a hamstring in the Steelers preseason loss to the Lions. Word was that Gradkowski would be out 4 to 5 weeks. The fact that the Steelers have done nothing with him suggest they see him returning in 2016, in one form or another.

  • Another player who can hold on to his NFL dream for another 48 hours is Donald Washington.

The Steelers plucked Donald Washington out of oblivion, signing the former Kansas City Chiefs safety to play cornerback after Washington had been of the NFL since 2011, and even washed out of the CFL.

Little has been heard about Washington during training camp in preseason, but if the Steelers have kept him around this long, it’s because they’re ready to give him every last chance to show he belongs.

Even with the Steelers depth issues in the defensive backfield, Donald Washington is a long shot to make the team. But Steelers Nation does love good underdog story, and Washington clearly qualifies.

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Pittsburgh QB’s Catching Too Many Breaks: Dustin Vaughan Breaks Thumb, Steelers Sign Bryn Renner

Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterbacks are catching too many breaks. Steelers 4th string quarterback Dustin Vaughan broke his thumb in the Steelers preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, prompting Pittsburgh to sign Bryn Renner.

Dustin Vaughan, Pittsburgh Steelers, steelers eagles preseason,

Dustin Vaughan broke his thumb in Steelers preseason loss to Eagles. Photo Credit: Don Wright, Associated Press; used on The Morning Call

Dustin Vaughan breaking his thumb comes on the heels of backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski suffering a hamstring tear in the Steelers preseason loss to the Detroit Lions. Landry Jones, who thus far has handled the bulk of the Steelers preseason work this summer is still standing as is Ben Roethlisberger.

Mike Tomlin is expected to play Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 3rd preseason contest vs. the New Orleans Saints, although the case for sitting Ben Roethlisberger for the duration of preseason is persuasive.

Who is Steelers Quarterback Bryn Renner?

Bryn Renner is a native of Springfield, Virginia who played his college ball as North Carolina Tar Heel, where he appeared in 28 games, throwing 1005 passes and completing 668 of those for 64 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Going into his senior year he was touted as a possible 1st round draft pick, but an injury ended his senior season at 7 games, as Renner went undrafted.

The Denver Broncos brought Renner to training camp, but he failed ot make the final cut and spent time with the Arizona Rattlers, of the Arena Football League. From there he spent the 2015 off season and preseason as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, hanging on their practice squad for 10 days in September only to return in in December, where he earned a promotion to the active roster for a week’s time, until the Ravens signed Ryan Mallett.

From there the Tennessee Titans added Renner to their practice squad but declined to sign him to a futures contract. The San Diego Chargers signed Renner in March of 2016, but cut him during spring workouts in May of 2016.

  • So there you have it.

While there’s legitimate debate around Landry Jones evolution as a quarterback, his four interception performance vs. Philadelphia renewed pleas of many fans for the Steelers to give up on Landry Jones and “sign someone else.” (Never mind that Landry Jones has played without the benefit of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Markus Wheaton.)

Well, Dustin Vaughan breaking his thumb has prompted the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to do just that. His name is Bryn Renner, and his resume is about what you’d expect of an unemployed NFL quarterback in mid-August.

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