Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

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

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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

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

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

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

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

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

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

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

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

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

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

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

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

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

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

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

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

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

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Giants: Teacher’s Too Late Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is keenly aware that marrying Monday Night Football with 12 hour workdays doesn’t produce timely blog posts, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Giants.

Bud Dupree, Daniel Jones, Steelers vs giants

Bud Dupree forces Daniel Jones into a Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
In his first game since elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient night throwing 32 times for 21 competitions 229 yards and 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a key first down doing the 2 minute drill. Roethlisberger was rusty at first, but shook it off fast and played a very good game. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner came into this game with something prove, but unfortunately he proved that durability remains an issue. Fortunately for the Steelers, Benny Snell, Jr. answered the call rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell looked good, but fumbled at what could have been a costly moment. With 1 catch and 1 run for 3 yards Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Balls were sparse for the tight ends against the Giants. Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron were both targeted twice with one catch apiece although Ebron’s did convert a third down on a scoring drive. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
After struggling for much of 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong night with 6 catches on 6 targets for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches on 10 targets for 57 yards. And while James Washington only had 2 catches, the sheer determination mustered to reach the end zone set the tone for the rest of the night. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line slipped in 2019 after being one of the NFL’s best, if not the very best, for the last 5 or 6 years. They were a big question mark going into the game. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag for the line. Rushing lanes were spare early in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger had pressure for much of the night, giving up 2 sacks and getting hit 5 times. The unit was good enough against the Giants, but tougher tests will come. Grade: C

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward interception Gaints

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

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu effectively manned the nose tackle position, leading the team in tackles and dropping runners for losses twice. Stephon Tuitt made his return from injury and recorded a sack. Cam Heyward had one tackle and a pass defense but hit the jackpot with his goal line interception. The unit grounded Saquon Barkley the entire night. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt’s amazing interception set up the Steelers first touchdown and Bud Dupree’s pressure on Daniel Jones ended an 8 minute drive by setting up an interception. Vince Williams had a sack, and Devin Bush led linebackers with 7 tackles. Alex Highsmith rotated in and looked good as did Ola Adeniyi. A strong night for the linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers defensive game plan sold out on stopping Saquon Barkley and the Giants took advantage of that to move a little through the air and they were effective with the short passing game early in the 2nd half. Minkah Fitzpatrick bit on a run fake that exposed Steven Nelson to a 1-1 which he lost badly to Darius Slayton. Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in coverage. This is a concern. On the positive side Mike Hilton was a force with a sack, defensed pass and 5 tackles. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had a solid night punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 33 yard return that could have gone for more had he not tripped. The Steelers were 2-2 on field goals. All positives.

However, Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Giants had a 20 yard punt return. None of these mistakes were fatal, but they could have been far more costly. Grade: C-

Devin Bush, Steelers vs Giants,

No room to run thanks to Devin Bush. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada’s influence on the offense can be seen with increased use of crossing routes and jet screens and Randy Fichtner put together an efficient game plan that moved the chains, spread the ball around and put points on the board.

  • Keith Butler’s defense picked up where it left off in 2020, which is high praise.

When your special teams muff the season’s first punt and give the home team the ball on your own 3 barely 4 minutes into the season, very bad things tend to happen. But Butler’s boys refused to blink and forced a field goal.

It is true that the Giants had more success passing the ball than one would like, but by neutralizing Saquon Barkley the Steelers defense dictated the game to New York’s offense.

All of the COVID-19 induced disruptions to the off season were supposed to benefit a stable team like the Steelers. Mike Tomlin arrived at MetLife Stadium with a team ready, willing and able to execute a straight forward game plan. Special teams snafus drop this grade. Slightly. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were down 3-0 and had already punted twice as the 1st quarter waned. From their own 33 they ran once for a 1 yard run and tossed an incomplete pass. On third and 9 Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the side line and the only rookie on the field for the Steelers offense reached up to grab a pass, taking care to tap his toes to stay in bounds and convert the first down.

It was impressive on its own merits, and it also sustained a drive the ended with the Steelers tying field goal, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 season opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

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

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

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

Stay with me on this and see why.

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

The More Things Change…

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

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

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

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

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

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

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

  • Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet indeed.

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

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

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

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

  • How do we know?

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

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

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

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

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

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

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

  • This is true.

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

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

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

  • This is precisely the point.

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

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

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

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

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

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

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

 

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Glad to be Wrong! Steelers Sign Cam Heyward to 5 Year Extension

Count this as another time when a blogger begs to be wrong, but this time gets his wish.

Less than a week ago yours truly suggested that COVID-19 would test “The Steelers Way” like never before. Namely, the expected 2021 NFL salary cap drop salary cap drop would complicate the Steelers ability to do one of the things they’ve always done best – resign their own players before they reach free agency.

  • The implications for retaining a player like Cam Heyward appeared to be ominous.

I wasn’t alone. Just three days ago Ed Bouchette of The Athletic was beating a similar drum of gloom and doom one the prospects of keeping Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh.

  • How good it is to be wrong!

Steelers.com announced that Cam Heyward had signed a 5 year extension, and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports that the deal is for $75.1 million dollars and includes 65.6 million in new money. The deal will make Heyward the highest paid defensive player over 30.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Although Cameron Heyward will turn 31 this year, he is coming off what was arguably his best season thus far. Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew in 2019, registering 9 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, notching 23 QB hits, defensing 6 passes while making a career record 83 tackles.

Signing Heyward a “Win” But Complicated Challenges Lie Ahead

Signing Cam Heyward represents a major win for the Steelers front office, as it keeps their biggest player off the market long before the bidding will ever start. But Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have difficult personnel choices to make.

Starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler will all reach the end of their rookie deals this year, and veteran Alejandro Villanueva is heading into the final year of his contract. Key reserves such as Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are also heading into their final years.

The Steelers already have 40 players under contract for 2021 costing approximately 197 million dollars, putting them 22 million over the projected 2021 salary cap before factoring in Cam Heyward’s new deal or the 2021 draft class.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, but fortunately Cam Heyward won’t be a cap causality.

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COVID 19 Will Test “Steelers Way,” Art Rooney II Like Never Before

The “Steelers Way” is at once palpable and nebulous. The Pittsburgh Steelers march to their own drummer, how they do it eludes precise definition.

The “Steelers Way” extends far beyond contract negotiation and salary cap management, but COVID-19 will soon test those aspects of the team’s MO like never before.

  • To illustrate how, we’ll revive an anecdote shared here before.

It was the summer of 1993. Free agency had just arrived and was transforming the league. Free agent shopping sprees where the norm in the NFL with that year’s top free agent, Reggie White, being wooed by gifts of city keys and ticker tape parades.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

COVID-19 Will Test Art Rooney II like never before. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

Free agency forced Pittsburgh to say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilkin as well as young upstarts like Jerrol Williams. Tampa Bay almost signed away starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell. And while Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe responded by bringing in players like Kevin Greene and John L. Williams, those signings failed to quiet “the sky is falling” mantra mouthed by fans and the press.

  • The Steelers also made two curious moves.

First they extended Greg Lloyd’s contract, a year before he was set to become free agency. Then they did the same thing same thing for Dermontti Dawson, prompting on one fan to rip Rooney on an AOL message board:

Someone needs to sit Dan Rooney down and EXPLAIN to him that the whole point of free agency is to get better by signing OTHER TEAMS players instead of wasting time signing your OWN PLAYERS.

Had social media existed then, this post would have certainly secured hundreds of Retweets and Facebook likes. Fans in those days weren’t any more shy about castigating Dan Rooney as “cheap” than they are today about criticizing Art Rooney II for being too patient with Mike Tomlin.

Today, resigning your own players before they reach free agency standard NFL practice. The Steelers showed the way, and the rest of the NFL copied. It is easy to see why.

Since that summer, the Steelers have suffered just 3 losing seasons, been to the playoffs 17 times, won 13 AFC Central or AFC North titles, played in 8 conference championships, won 4 AFC Championships and taken Lombardi’s back to Pittsburgh following wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Sure, the Patriots have more hardware, albeit some of it is tainted, and the Cowboys have one more Lombardi, but those are the only two franchises that can remotely touch the Steelers.

  • But the COVID-19 crisis is making it impossible for the Steelers to do one of the things they do best.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was conventional wisdom that starters such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner wouldn’t see contract extensions, in part due to salary cap considerations. When it became clear that COVID-19 wouldn’t “go away” before the NFL season, serious talk of extensions ended for most players, but some in the press still held out hope for a new deal for Cam Heyward.

  • Public comments by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert now even seem to rule that out.

Cam Heyward isn’t the only starter the Steelers would normally be targeting for training camp extension. Bud Dupree’s asking price might be too steep, but starters like Matt Feiler and could be starters such as Zach Banner would be obvious candidates.

And while the smart move for a player like Mike Hilton would be to wait to test the open market, Cam Sutton is exactly the sort of under the radar player the Steelers would typical target for a 2nd contract heading into his fourth year.

But next year the NFL’s salary cap could and likely will drop to $175 million dollars. Per Jim Wexell’s calculations on Steel City Insider, “the Steelers have 40 players signed for 2021 at a cost of $197 million.”

Those types of numbers point to painful cuts and difficult departures as opposed to contract extensions designed to prop Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window open.

The Rooneys have adpated the “Steelers Way” over time. For a long time, Dan Rooney balked at renegotiating contracts. Yet, when he renegotiated Kordell Stewart’s contract in the spring of 1999 he quipped that maybe you to things in 1999 that you didn’t do in 1933.

For a long time, the Steelers resisted the practice restructuring  contracts to free salary cap space. Since Art Rooney II took over the reigns from his father, contract restructures have become a Steelers staple.

COVID-19 figures to give the Art Rooney II’s adaptation skills a far stiffer test.

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Who Cares If Bud Dupree Challenges his Outside Linebacker Status?

I don’t know when everything became a huge deal with fans of the Steelers or any professional football team.

  • Maybe it was the advent of social media.
  • Maybe it was the advent of blogs and comment sections.
  • Maybe it was the advent of the 24/7 news-cycle.

But no matter what you attribute it to, there’s no doubt everything, all the darn time, is a big deal to fans.

The latest thing that has become a big thing to fans–at least Steelers fans–was the announcement on Friday that Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who signed his $15.8 million franchise tag back in the spring, has filed a grievance for the purposes of being re-designated as a defensive end.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Why would Dupree do such a thing? To make an extra $2 million in 2020, that’s why. You see, under the rules of the NFL’s franchise tag, certain positions are considered more valuable than others and worth more under the tag. In relation to outside linebacker, defensive end is certainly that. If Dupree wins his grievance and is designated a defensive end, his 2020 salary will go from $15.828 million to $17.788 million.

It doesn’t seem like a ton of money, but apparently it’s enough to ruffle the feathers of so many Steelers fans who, let’s be honest, never liked Dupree, the Steelers first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, in the first place.

My question–my very rhetorical question–is so what? Why worry about Dupree’s grievance if you’re a Steelers fan? Why get hot and bothered by it? (Speaking of which, our site editor has a very good article expressing his thoughts on the subject.) Why go online and express your desire to see Dupree gone, if not this year, then certainly next, when he will presumably be free to shop his services elsewhere, provided Pittsburgh doesn’t franchise tag him for a second straight spring?

I guess those are a lot of questions, but they all have to do with the same thing: It’s not your money. You’re not the one who is going to have to pay Bud Dupree the extra $2 million, provided he wins his grievance — an unlikely result if I were a betting man.

As a fan, all you should really concern yourself with is whether or not a player has shown up for the regular season. Maybe you need to concern yourself with a player’s availability for OTAs and training camp, because that could directly affect his ability to perform well when the regular season does begin.

As for the money side of things? Dupree isn’t going to hold out in 2020, not after signing the franchise tag. If Dupree took the same route as Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers former All-Pro running back who didn’t sign his franchise tag until the start of the season in 2017 and not at all in 2018, I could see fans being concerned and/or angry.

But it would be the height of foolishness for Dupree to sign his tag and then hold out during training camp and/or the regular season. He’d be subjected to fines and, unless I’m mistaken, the Steelers would retain his rights in 2021.

Bud Dupree, 27, had a career-year in 2019 with 11.5 sacks. He still wants that huge second contract. He still wants to cash in. He’s not going to sacrifice $15.8 million as an outside linebacker just because someone said he didn’t deserve to earn $17.8 million as a defensive end.

  • No, my guess is he’s going to put his head down and try and have the same kind of year in 2020 that he had in 2019.

If Dupree has that kind of season, he’ll probably be free to make as much money–including guaranteed money–as he wants in 2021. With the two sides reportedly far apart on a long-term contract, and with the deadline to reach a multi-year deal set to expire on July 15, it doesn’t look like Dupree will be donning the black and gold next year.

  • But he’ll be around in 2020 to be an integral part of a Steelers’ defense that was one of the most elite in the NFL last year.

That’s really all you should concern yourself with. As for that extra $2 million the Steelers may have to pay Dupree? Let them worry about that.

 

 

 

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Sometimes 15.8 Million Isn’t Enough. Bud Dupree Files Franchise Tag Grievance

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is filing a grievance over the franchise tag, requesting that he be considered a defensive end as opposed to an outside linebacker. As a franchised outside linebacker the only thing standing between Bud Dupree and 15.8 million dollar payday is COVID-19.

  • But apparently, 15.8 million dollars for a year’s work just isn’t enough.

Per Joe Rutter’s reporting at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the 2020 franchise tender for a defensive end is $17.788 million or 1.988 million more.

As Rutter reports, Shaq Barrett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has filed a similar grievance.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Evolution of Edge Rusher in the Age of the Salary Cap

As this column’s snarky headline suggests, this author doesn’t start with great sympathy for Bud Dupree. For the vast majority Terrible Towel twirlers, 1.988 million dollars represents a lifetime of income, and then some. In that light, it is easy to write this off as another example of a greedy, out of touch pro athlete.

  • But would that be fair to Bud Dupree? Perhaps not.

Football players have short careers, and after deducting taxes and agent commissions, the difference between two franchise tags could amount to nearly 1 million dollars more in Dupree’s pocket. If you could give yourself a shot at getting an extra million dollars by filling out paperwork would you do it?

  • Whether Bud Dupree deserves to be considered a defensive end is another question.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

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

Two generations ago, the idea that Jack Ham, Andy Russell or Robin Cole arguing that they play the same position as L.C. Greenwood or Dwight White would be laughable. Neither would anyone confuse the responsibilities of Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter with those of Ray Seals or Aaron Smith in Dick LeBeau’s defenses of the ‘90’s or the ‘00’s.

  • But the game has changed.

Cam Heyward entered the league as a defensive end in the Steelers system. A few seasons ago, his position was changed to that of tackle. The Steelers had Javon Hargrave budding into a very good (if not great) nose tackle and let him go because they only use their “base” defense.

  • Bud Dupree might not start snaps with his hand in the dirt, but his primary responsibility is to rush the passer.

And in 2019 Bud Dupree did that to great effect, registering 11.5 sacks, forcing 4 fumbles and recovering 2. For the first time since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Bud Dupree made difference making plays as an “Edge Rusher.”

  • Its the “Edge Rusher” status which clouds the situation, and that’s where Dupree’s grievance gets a tad bit ironic.

Bud Dupree took a long time to get to this level, and to counter the “Bud the Bust” story line, leaks about Dupree’s pass coverage prowess found their way into the press. This scribe always assumed that they came from Steelers coaches because the leaks sounded awfully similar to the ones that praised Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run.

  • But Bud Dupree’s agent could have also been the source of the leaks.

If it was Dupree’s agent, and this is most certainly an IF, then his agent has made a pretty deft pivot from extolling his client’s ability to cover passes downfield to arguing that he should now be considered a defensive end.

But I guess that’s why Bud pays him the big bucks.

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Friday Night Lights Offers Antidote to NFL’s COVID 19 Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Memorial Day’s passing brings us closer to the NFL season’s start. But in this COVID-19 context, there are more questions than there are answers about the coming NFL year. Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL is fortunate in that it has had time to prepare a Coronavirus virus contingency plan.

  • But the NFL still has no answer to question of whether it will field games in front of fans or play in empty stadiums.

The prospect of staging major league games in empty stadiums is eerie. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist John Steigerwald has gone as far as to argue that if fans can’t attend games “…the NFL should forget it. Write off the 2020 season.”

“Big games need big crowds,” Steigerwald insists, hypothetically wondering what it would have been like for Bill Mazeroski to round the bases at Forbes Field with no fans in the stands.

  • Steigerwald has a point. Or does he?

At BTSC, Tony Defeo suggests that if the WWE can host matches without fans, then the NFL can play games in empty stadiums. As Defeo deftly points out, “Unlike Razor Ramon, T.J. Watt doesn’t need to draw the ire of the fans in attendance in order to be the bad guy—he just has to sack the quarterback.”

  • Technically speaking, Defeo is right.

But imagine the Steelers are mounting a comeback in their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens. Would a T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree strip sack of Lamarr Jackson have the same game-changing impact absent the roar of the fans?

Imagine in the same game, James Washington sets up a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster go ahead touchdown pass with a devastating block followed by an end zone Terrible Towel Twirl al la Yancey Thigpen vs. the Browns in the ’94 playoffs would bring Heinz Field to a fever pitch.

  • The same end zone celebration in front of an empty stadium on a cold November evening at 10:30 pm would just seem kinda strange.

Defeo and Steigerwald advance completely opposite arguments, yet both men are on to something. Fortunately there’s a way to reconcile both of their points.

Friday Night Lights Holds Antidote to NFL’s Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Although it was filmed long before the word “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, fictional coach Eric Taylor provided the antidote to playing games in front of empty stadiums during Season 4 of Friday Night Lights.

Late in the season, rich kids from the rival Dillon Panthers use their 4x4s on to destroy the field of the less-well-to-do rival East Dillon Lions just before their season-ending matchup. The Dillon Panthers need this win to reach the playoffs, and their plan is to force the game on to their home truf.

  • But coach Taylor out-foxes the Panthers by staging the game in an empty field in a local park.

If by September it is unsafe to play games in front of full stadiums, the NFL should follow coach Taylor’s example and stage games at local high schools. Seriously.

Bethel Park Stadium, Bethel Park High Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park Stadium

Moving games from pro stadiums to local high school fields would solve a lot of problems. Instead of reinforcing sense of isolation that COVID-19 has wrought, it would bring games back to their roots. If the NFL shifted to smaller venues, the focus would remain on the players and the action itself. Empty seats would fade out of view.

  • For a season at least, football would again become back yard boy’s game, only one played by elite men who are the best at it.

Doing so could also serve to re-connect teams to their communities. General-admission tickets could sell for $25 a head. Local health officials could use the Abbott Labs and/or Bosch machines to test fans before the games, ensuring everyone’s safety. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and other “first responders” could be given free tickets.

  • Assuming enough adequate venues can be found, teams could even rotate home games to different stadiums, further integrating communities.

The Steelers could play one week at Central Catholic, another at Baldwin High, another at Bethel Park, and yet another at Upper St. Clair. I grew up in the DC suburbs rooting against the home team, but to be honest, the idea of the Washington Redskins playing under the lights at Wheaton High School is pretty cool.

  • The chances of this actually happening are pretty slim.

There is simply too much money be lost. Forbes estimates that the Steelers would lose a minimum of $156 million if they have to play in front of an empty Heinz Field. The Dallas Cowboys could lose up to four times that amount. Knowing that, the NFL will do whatever it can to get fans into the stadiums.

But if that proves to be impossible, then Roger Goodell would do well to take a page for Eric Taylor’s book.

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