Watt a Minute! Steelers Sign Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s Brother

Mike Tomlin may or may not be a fan of Game of Thrones, but he does certainly seem to believe in bloodlines. The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with free agent fullback Derek Watt, brother of starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

  • While Derek Watt cannot officially sign his deal until Wednesday afternoon, the two sides have agreed to terms.
Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Derek Watt signed a contract worth 9.75 million dollars that runs for three years. While few expected the Steelers to use their precious salary cap space to sign a fullback, Derek Watt also was a special teams stand out for the Chargers and could fill the void left by the mildly surprising departure of Tyler Matakevich who will bolt to the Buffalo Bills once the free agent signing period officially begins.

  • Derek Watt’s position flexibility extends beyond special teams.

As Roy Countryman from Steel City Insider Points out, the Chargers under utilized Derrick Watt’s pass catching abilities and suggests he could do double duty at tight end.

Another player who might be be looking over his shoulder is Roosevelt Nix. Nix is a fullback and was captain of the Steelers special teams last year, and is due to count 1.8 million against the salary cap this year.

All in the Family

Derek Watt’s arrival in Pittsburgh gives the Steelers their second set of brothers, as Terrell Edmunds and Trey Edmunds are also on the current roster – at the moment. Trey Edmunds is officially a fullback so his roster spot is threatened by Derek Watt.

In addition, Mike Tomlin hasn’t been shy about how Devin Bush’s family lineage attracted him to the linebacker. Likewise, Benny Snell also has an uncle with NFL experience.

Steelers Free Agency Comings and Goings

As expected, the Steelers applied the franchise tag to Bud Dupree, and to make room for Dupree they waived Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo and Johnny Holton, while resigning long snapper Kameron Canaday to a two year contract.

  • However, as is also expected, Javon Hargrave will sign with the New York Jets today.
  • Likewise, B.J. Finney will sign with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon too.

To clear up salary cap space, the Steelers have reportedly restructured the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.

The McDonald restructure is the most interesting, as it signals he will return to the team, something which had been in doubt. That move in turn makes it more likely that Nick Vannett will be allowed to depart as a free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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NFLPA Approves CBA, Simplifying Free Agency for Steelers in 2020

A majority of the National Football League’s Player’s Association have voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Owners. The new CBA runs through 2031 ensuring another decade of NFL labor peace.

The deal also paves the way for an expanded regular season and playoffs, gives the players a slightly larger chunk of the NFL’s revenue pie, loosens marijuana testing requirements and penalties and curtails some of Roger Goodell’s discipline power.

  • In the short term, it also simplifies the Steelers 2020 salary cap situation.

Prior to ratification of the CBA, the Pittsburgh Steelers were approximately 2 million dollars over the projected 2020 salary cap. The new CBA is expected to bump that up by about 6 million. That extra six million gives the Steelers a little breathing room, but still will not save them from having to make moves to operate.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Before the CBA was ratified, conventional wisdom held that the Steelers would probably need to cut 4 or 5 veterans to keep Bud Dupree, retain a few other free agents, sign their draft class and have some in-season breathing space.

It is likely that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will still make a few “We’ve decided to go in a different direction calls” over the next few days.

  • But they’ll probably be able to make fewer calls because the new CBA will allow the Steelers greater flexibility to renegotiate contracts.

Renegotiating contracts to gain short-term salary cap space is a tactic which the Steelers once scorned, but has been a staple of Steelers policy for the last decade and represents one of the biggest differences between Art Rooney II’s leadership and that of his father Dan Rooney.

Who Is on the Chopping Block?

The players the Steelers are most likely to release remain (or perhaps traded) are still Ramon Foster, Anthony Chickillo and Mark Barron. However, the new CBA may make it easier for the Steelers to keep Vance McDonald.

One beneficiary could likely be Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as the new CBA simplifies any potential contract extension.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Mike Hilton: Hold Him While You Can

In 2015, the Steelers went to Ole Miss in search of a 5’9″ defensive back who they thought could be a plug-in slot corner at the professional level.

His name was Senquez Golson, a player they selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Only problem, Golson never saw any live action for the Steelers, as injuries derailed his career quite literally before it even began. Thankfully, another 5’9″ defensive back from Ole Miss came on the scene two years later and became that all-important slot corner the Steelers had been searching for for years. His name was Mike Hilton. Since 2017, he’s been one of the most effective at his position in the NFL. But now that he enters 2020 as a restricted free agent, can Pittsburgh afford to keep him?

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent in 2016, Hilton was signed by the Jaguars but didn’t make the final cut out of training camp and was released. The Patriots quickly signed Hilton to their practice squad but just as quickly–one week later–released him. Hilton was team-less for most of 2016 before landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad in December of that year.

Hilton became a training camp sensation in 2017 and remained the talk of Latrobe all the way up until the end, when he not only made the Steelers final 53-man roster, he was named the starting slot corner (or nickelback) to begin the year. And oh what a rookie year it was for Hilton, as he recorded two interceptions, six passes defensed and four, that’s right, four quarterback sacks–including a whopping three in a Week 16 blow-out victory on Christmas Day in Houston.

The sack rate hasn’t been the same over the last two seasons, but Hilton’s consistent and impressive play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. Hilton was an exclusive rights free agent prior to the 2019 season, meaning he had zero leverage to negotiate a new deal. Unlike previous exclusive rights free agents, such as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers and Hilton weren’t able to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Therefore, Hilton signed his tender which paid him $645,000 a season ago.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

After years of searching for the right parts to make the secondary work, the Steelers appear to have finally found the correct formula. Let’s face it, in the modern world of professional football, where passing is king, a slot corner is basically a starter, which may explain why Hilton was on the field for 62 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019. Like with other restricted free agents, the Steelers have options with Hilton.

They can sign him to a low tender of about $2 million. Or if they’re really interested in retaining him, they can place a second-round tender on Hilton, which will cost about $3 million in 2020. That’s a huge hike in pay, sure, but at 25 years old, Hilton is young and his prime years are likely still ahead of him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

Obviously, Hilton isn’t the biggest Steelers defender who is on the verge of free agency. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave have garnered most of the headlines in that regard, and if one or both stick around, it’s going to be quite expensive. Unlike exclusive rights free agents, restricted free agents have the opportunity to go out and negotiate a deal with another team, a deal Pittsburgh would have the option of matching.

But, again, slot corners are essentially starters, and the good ones make good money. With little room under the salary cap, and with Cam Sutton about to enter his fourth year as a versatile member of the secondary, it might behoove the Steelers to allow Hilton to explore other options. If another team bites, maybe they can get a second-round pick for their efforts.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton

This is a tough call. If NFL players vote to accept the proposed new CBA, that changes everything as far as free agency goes. Not only would the salary cap increase, teams would then able to do such things as restructure current contracts so as to create even more space under the cap. Under that scenario, I say you do what you can to lock Hilton up to a long-term deal.

Unfortunately, that scenario hasn’t presented itself just yet. Having said that, however, I believe the Steelers need to find a way to create $3 million under the cap to keep Hilton around for one more year, and they should place a second-round tender on him prior to free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Bud Dupree Free Agent Profile – Should the Steelers Keep Him in Pittsburgh?

First Round Draft Picks generate attention. Their success or failure is pronounced the moment their names are announced.

  • People form opinions on First Round Draft Picks fast.

Shades of grey rarely nuance these opinions. Such is the nature of the beast. Then there is Bud Dupree, whose journey as a First Round Pick might sit in a class all of its own as his arrival at free agency shows….

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

It was May 1st, the 2015 NFL Draft was in full swing and for the second time in 4 years a “Top Ten Talent” was falling towards Pittsburgh. In 2012 David DeCastro fell. In 2015, it was Bud Dupree.

  • The Steelers snatched both players immediately.
  • Everyone cheered their pick of DeCastro yet picking Bud Dupree drew a mixed response.

No one questioned Bud Dupree’s athletic talent, but everyone agreed he was “project” who needed to develop. Bud Dupree won the starting job, and when he notched 3 sacks in his first 5 games it looked like the rookie was going to prove a lot of people wrong.

  • But then Bud Dupree hit the proverbial “rookie wall” followed by a 2016 season that began with Dupree on injured reserve.

The Steelers activated him in week 10 and within a few games he was exploding for 2.5 sacks against the Bills and followed by consecutive sacks in the Steelers final two wins of 2016.

  • Bud Dupree seemed primed for big things.

Unfortunately, Dupree disappointed during his next two seasons. Sack production remained static and flipping him with T.J. Watt helped T.J. Watt, but did nothing for Dupree. Coaches leaked that Dupree was doing well in pass coverage. That might have been true, but these were also the same coaches that assured us, off the record, that Jarvis Jones’ was providing robust run support support…..

The Steelers nonetheless picked up his 5th year option, with Kevin Colbert proclaiming that Dupree was only “scratching the surface” of his talents.

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

In 2019, Bud Dupree exploded justifying the faith the Steelers had entrusted in him. Bud Dupree registered 11.5 quarterback sacks. Perhaps more importantly, he also forced 4 fumbles, helping change the course of several games. While some 2nd generation stats suggest that Bud Dupree’s wasn’t as dominating as his 2019 sack total suggests, he did give the Steelers their first double-digit outside linebacker sack duo for the first time since the days of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree

For the first time since 2010, the Steelers fielded a championship caliber defense. While Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson certainly contributed to that, the constant stream of splash plays delivered by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were equally important.

Over the last decade the Steelers have invested 3 first round picks, on 2nd round pick, and called Jamese Harrison out of retirement all in an effort to field a dominating duo of outside linebackers.

The Steelers have invested in Dupree’s development, and he delivered in his first year under the direct tutelage of Keith Butler. Is now the time to roll the dice by starting either Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi or Tupac Skipper starting in his place?

Whether it is by a long-term deal or the franchise tag, the Steelers have options to keep Bud Dupree in Pittsburgh in 2020. They must make sure that happens.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2020

1 out of 5 is not bad right? Bud Dupree flopped in his first four years in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers gave him a fifth year because they had no other choice. And they hedged by resigning Anthony Chickillo to a larger than expected contract.

  • Given all of the playmakers he Steelers field on defense, could Bud Dupree do anything but excel?

Let another team overpay Bud Dupree, just as teams routinely overpaid Steelers free agents in the 1990’s. Moreover, to resign Bud Dupree the Steelers would need to part ways with veterans such as Vance McDonald, Mark Barron, Ramon Foster and/or Anthony Chickillo, depleting depth across their roster.

Would you bet your starting tight end, several other key players and $16 million that Bud Dupree can deliver a repeat performance of 2019?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

There are a lot of opinions out there as to what the Steeler should do about Bud Dupree. But there is a lot more harder, objective evidence pointing to what Pittsburgh will do.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all gone on record listing keeping Bud Dupree as a priority for Pittsburgh this off season.

  • The only real question is which veteran players get cut to make salary cap room for Bud Dupree.

Expect Bud Dupree to be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Free Agency Tracker

It is that time of year again. The NFL’s “League” Year is about to start, which will brings free agency and a flurry of activity as players jump from team to team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be no exception. While the Steelers have been more active in free agency in recent seasons of late, their salary cap situation heading into 2020 would seem to preclude that. That doesn’t mean the news will be slow.

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

Quite to the contrary. If the Steelers simply wish to sign their draft class, tender a few restricted free agents, and give themselves enough room to sign emergency players during the 2020 season, they’ll need to clear salary cap space. A that means saying goodbye to veterans. And then of course there’s the impending big decision on Bud Dupree.

  • With that we kick off our annual Steelers free agency tracker.

As free agency evolves, we’ll update departures and signings here. We’ll also be including free agent focus profiles on each of the Steelers free agents.

Steelers 2020 Unrestricted Free Agents

Bud Dupree
Javon Hargrave
B.J. Finney
Artie Burns
Sean Davis
Nick Vannett
Kameron Canaday
Tyler Matakevich
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agents

Matt Feiler
Mike Hilton
Jordan Dangerfield
Zach Banner

Steelers 2020 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Marcus Allen
Lavon Hooks

Check back for regular updates.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

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

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

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

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

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

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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1 Quick Post-Season Lesson for Steelers Fans? Defense Ain’t As Sexy As We Thought

Maybe you’re one of those Steelers/football fans that likes to say things like, “I’d much rather watch a low-scoring defensive-battle than a shootout.”

First of all, no you wouldn’t. And, second, even if you think you would, I encourage you to go back and watch some old NFL games from the early-’70s, back when bump-and-run coverage was still a thing. And I’m not talking about old highlights provided by NFL Films, complete with the iconic music as a backdrop and John Facenda’s heavenly voice doing the narration. Go back and watch some old network broadcasts on NBC, CBS or ABC–they’re usually readily available on YouTube.

  • I guarantee you, you won’t make it through one of those 13-10 snooze-fests before, well, dosing off.

Speaking of 13-10 snooze-fests, maybe that will be the title of the Steelers NFL Films-produced highlight show that’s released to the public each and every summer. It would be fitting, since most of Pittsburgh’s games ended with scores in the teens–and they were just so hard to get through.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see the resurgence of the Steelers defense. It was encouraging to watch the unit carry the team for most of the year, following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a lot of fun watching T.J. Watt wreak havoc on quarterbacks week after week, to the tune of 14.5 sacks. How about his bookend at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who had a career year with 11.5?

  • As a unit, Pittsburgh’s defense once again eclipsed the 50-sack mark, posting a suffocating total of 54.

How about all of those takeaways? What suddenly brought those on?

  • How did they go from a paltry 15 a year earlier, to a whopping 38 this past season?

And perhaps the most important new element to the Steelers defense in 2019: an ability to close out a game while holding a slim lead, something the unit did multiple times–including in one-score wins over the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals, games where the opposing offenses had the football late in the fourth quarter and a chance to either win or tie.

Yes, the return to defensive dominance really was a lot of fun and helped make fans believe the impossible could happen:

  • Pittsburgh could make the playoffs with an offense that was a founding member of the “One Touchdown a Game” club.

But hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see now that people were just getting swept up in the fun times the defense was providing. Because “lousy” may be too kind when describing the Steelers offensive struggles in 2019.

It was painful to see. Even at their best, it was hard to watch quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges perform without cringing just a little. And at their worst? Let’s just say it’s a good thing those little “bricks” they sell down at the Strip District are made of foam and not the stuff they use for the ones that build houses.

  • The Steelers offense finished near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistic–including total yards and points per game.

But what could you do? Even before Roethlisberger’s injury, the other two “Killer BeesAntonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell had departed. And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner looked more than capable of filling the voids created at both the receiver and running back position, they were either too injured or too compromised due to quarterback play to really be of much help last year.

But if we’re being honest, while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are fine players, the odds of them ever reaching the levels of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were fairly long to begin with, Big Ben or no Big Ben.

It’s quite popular in this day and age of social media for fans to demand their favorite teams clean house and get rid of the divas and the troublemakers. Such was the case in recent years when it came to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and even Ben due to his advancing age.

  • But be careful what you wish for.

I went to a Penguins game recently and, in addition to the absence of center Sidney Crosby (long-term injury) and winger Phil Kessel (traded this past offseason), the team was missing center Evgeni Malkin due to an illness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the game went into overtime tied at zero. The Penguins won, but it was quite obvious that they were a different team while missing so much fire power on offense.

Maybe the Penguins are a bad example, considering they’ve managed to remain in playoff contention despite the loss of so much offense. But I wonder what their 2019/2020 campaign would look right now if Malkin were out with some sort of long-term ailment. Instead, he’s carried the team on his back and is playing some of the best hockey of his life. It helps that he’s one of the best hockey players in the entire world.

Imagine if, along with Kessel, Malkin was traded away–something many fans have called for in recent years?

  • It’s easy to talk about getting rid of a bunch of players. It’s quite another to replace them.

Not only did the Steelers offense lose All Pros, they spent a good bit of 2019 dealing with the absences of the Pro Bowlers who were entrusted with replacing those All Pros.

Obviously, the best teams don’t just dominate on one side of the ball, they find success through balance. But if I had my choice, I think I’d much rather have a potent offense and a struggling defense than the other way around.

  • You can always out-score your opponents, but it’s just so hard to totally shut them down.

That’s what Pittsburgh’s defense was tasked with in 2019, and while it held up better than most units would have, it couldn’t perform miracles.

Finally, the Steelers may have helped you fall in-love with defense again in 2019. But I hope they also forced you to appreciate the importance of a really good offense.

 

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

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

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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