Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Steelers Draft TJ Watt in 1st Round of 2017 NFL Draft. Is He “Unicorn” 3-4 OLB Pittsburgh Seeks?

While it took an inordinate amount of time, especially for those of us who live 1 hour ahead of Eastern time, but Pittsburgh got its man in the 2017 NFL Draft as the 30th pick saw the Steelers draft T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker out of Wisconsin.

T.J. Watt is of course the younger brother of the Houston Texan’s JJ Watt.

Steelers draft TJ Watt, Mike Tomlin, TJ Watt, Art Rooney II, Steelers 2017 1st Round Draft

Mike Tomlin, with T.J. Watt and Art Rooney II

When asked about coming to Pittsburgh Watt offered this:

The Steelers are a hardworking organization that does it the right way. They have a great bond within the locker room and with the coaches as well. I am really looking forward to it. It’s a great fit for me. It will be a great transition coming from Wisconsin to here and that is why I am so excited.

Based on TJ Watt’s highlights from his junior year at Wisconsin, the Steelers are excited too.

You can be forgiven if you conclude that T.J. Watt brings an extensive resume to Pittsburgh. He doesn’t. After sitting out his Red Shirt Freshman year at tight end, he moved to defense, and then had difficulty making the transition to defense, only playing 8 games as a sophomore.

  • However, his junior year was impressive, as he recorded 11 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and made 63 tackles with one interception.

However, that experience didn’t deter the Steelers as Mike Tomlin explained:

T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He’s just a quality guy and a quality pick for us.

Although several names mocked to the Steelers were gone by the time they picked 30th, In picking Watt, the Steelers passed on an number of cornerbacks who will probably no longer be there late in the second round.

Is T.J. Watt the “Unicorn” OLB the Steelers have Been Seeking?

While outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” was seen as a major Steelers need heading into the draft, a strong sentiment existed that favored the Steelers drafting secondary first (pun intended), given edge rushers are not as effective against quick release quarterbacks.

This is nothing new.

Prior to the Steelers picking Cameron Heyward with their first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Tim Gleason, aka “Mary Rose” from Behind the Steel Curtain lobbied for the Steelers to take a cornerback, arguing that “Tom Brady will get rid of the ball before Cameron Heyward can even touch him.”

  • What has changed, however, is that the Steelers play in their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

That has led some writers, such as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, to suggest that the Steelers abandon their search for a quality 3-4 linebacker, who can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, AND drop into coverage and focus on getting a player who more closely matches a 4-3 defensive end.

However, a few days before the draft, Wexell’s colleague at Steel City Insider, Matt C. Steel rated T.J. Watt as 3rd best overall fit for the Steelers in the draft explaining:

This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.

T.J. Watt himself seems to be aware that he’s being brought in Pittsburgh to play just that role, as he told Jim Wexell:

That’s something I’ve been doing at Wisconin [sic] these past two years and I think that’s why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense. I’ve shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that’s ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what’s going to make us a great team.

And so it is. Four years ago the Steelers went down this route in their first attempt to replace James Harrison when they drafted Jarvisy Jones with the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. As we know, the Jarvis Jones experiment failed miserably.

  • Jarvis Jones had a great college track record, but poor mesaurables.

In contrast, T.J. Watt seems has measurables but not a lot of college production. So the Steelers are taking the opposite tact in trying to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Let’s hope they have better luck.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, T.J. Watt.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Why Steelers Should Let Free Agent Ricardo Mathews Walk & Seek Depth in 2017 Draft

Defensive end Ricardo Mathews was the quintessential journeyman free-agent when the Steelers signed him to a one-year veteran minimum contract for $760,000 last March.

One year later, it appears as nothing’s changed. Just days away from free-agency, Mathews will soon be free to shop his services to other teams. Will he do so, or will he set up some roots in Pittsburgh, provided Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell want him back….?

Ricardo Mathews, Ricardo Mathews free agent

Ricardo Mathews lines up in the 2016 Steelers road win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

Mathews was a seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft; after making the team out of training camp, he initially set up roots in Indianapolis, where he remained for four years. Mathews started six games as a member of the Colts, recording five sacks and 67 tackles.

In 2014, Mathews elected to sign with the Texans as a free-agent, but was waived and never appeared in any regular season games for Houston. However, Mathews found a home with the Chargers that same year and remained in San Diego through the 2015 season, before signing that aforementioned one-year deal with the Steelers.

The Steelers brought Ricardo Mathews to Pittsburgh to replace/upgrade the position previously held by Cam Thomas, who’d also come from the San Diego Chargers.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

Teams covet depth for a reason, and when star defensive end Cameron Heyward played in only seven games in 2016 due to multiple injuries, you saw why depth is so important.

In Ricardo Mathews, 29, the Steelers had a veteran player who started seven games for the Chargers the year before; they were forced to lean on that experience, as he started five games a year ago. While he only recorded eight tackles and one sack during the season, Mathews appeared in all 16 games in 2016 and played a bigger role than anyone could have anticipated.

During the Steelers embarrassing October loss against the Miami Dolphins where, Jay Ajayi ran like Walter Peyton in his prime, it appeared that the Dolphins had been targeting Ricardo Mathews.

Yet, the Steelers run defense improved during the final nine games of 2016 and that only happens if Ricardo Mathews is pulling his weight.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

While Ricardo Mathews did play a fairly big role in 2016, he obviously didn’t make the splash plays that fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, rookie Javon Hargrave and Came Heyward are capable of. That was to be expected, of course. After all, if a journeyman defensive lineman was capable of making the same types of splash plays as superstars and promising rookies, he wouldn’t be a journeyman defensive lineman.

I believe Rotoworld summed up Mathews’ pedigree quite nicely, even before his arrival in Pittsburgh:

“A career reserve, Mathews played 525 ineffective snaps for the Chargers last season. He’s just a body for the Steelers, one who faces an uphill climb to crack the 53-man roster.”

A year later, can anyone suggest that Ricardo Mathews is anything more? Sure, he was an upgrade over Cam Thomas but so what? Keith Willis or Kevin Henry could probably come out of retirement and offer an improvement over Cam Thomas.

  • OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but its probably not to suggest that a health Brett Keisel could pull himself up off the couch to contribute more than Cam Thomas did.

L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey showed they can play giving the Steelers cheaper and younger alternatives to Ricardo Mathews.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

While Mathews did crack the 53-man roster a year ago and proved to be more than just a body for the Steelers, fact is, he’ll be 30 by the start of training camp. And in-addition to fighting the likes of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for playing time, youngsters Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey are also in the mix.

While it would be nice to have a player with Ricardo Mathews’ experience on the roster in-case of injury, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers have now gained enough experience that they should be ready to step in and provide reasonable depth at a moment’s notice.

The Steelers would be wise to let Ricardo Mathews explore the free agent market, while looking to add defensive line depth through the draft.

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

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Steelers 2016 Season Highlights Living Example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” Metaphor

Crafting a compelling, yet honest, Steelers 2016 annual review presents a challenge, but Steelers President Art Rooney II is on the right track. While Rooney’s take aways from 2016 are by and large positive, he underscored the need for more “consistency” several times.

  • Head coach Mike Tomlin offers an even better metaphor for summing up the Steelers 2016 season – the moving train.

The “Moving train” metaphor is a Tomlinism that popped into the Steelers Nation’s vernacular in 2014 when Tomlin used it to explain Shamarko Thomas and Lance Moore’s inability to get back into the lineup after an injury. This year he applied it to Ladarius Green.

The truth is that Steelers 2016 season highlights Mike Tomlin’s “Moving train” metaphor perfectly – When the Steelers were on it, they got where they wanted to go; When the Steelers failed to get on it, they stranded themselves.

Steelers 2016 highlights, DeAngelo Williams

Steelers 2016 season highlights: DeAngelo Williams dives forward at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers Forge Moving Train Identify Early

Like his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has oft asserted that an NFL team finds its identity in the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season and that was certainly true of the Steelers in 2016.

The Steelers entered the 2016 off season as Super Bowl contenders, and despite some radical personnel disruptions on offense, the Steelers 38-16 opening a day win over the Washington Redskins confirmed their status as potential champions.

Steelers 2016 highlights, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Redskins, Antonio Brown Redskins touchdown

Steelers 2016 Season Highlight: Antonio Brown scores a touchdown on opening night against Redskins. Photo Credit: Washington Post

History will forget that the Redskins actually forced a turnover to start the game and then quickly leapt to a 6-0 lead before the 2nd quarter began because the Steelers, like a moving train, never appeared to lose control. The story was the same a week later in Cincinnati. The Steelers didn’t dominate their rivals, but also never trailed during a 24-16 win.

  • In Philadelphia, the Steelers found the nasty flipside to the identity they were forging.

The Steelers opened by advancing to the Eagle’s 18 in a drive that consumed 6 minutes of clock, only to have Markus Wheaton drop a touchdown pass and Chris Boswell miss a field goal. And in the blink of an eye, the Steelers were off the train as they never contested the Eagles dominance after that point.

  • And so went the entire season.

At Miami, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury knocked the Steelers off the moving train and struggled to get back on the locomotive for the next 3 weeks. The only exception to the “moving train” metaphor came in the loss to Cowboys. Yes, the loss was dramatic, and potentially devastating precisely because the Steelers contested that game until the bitter end.

  • Undaunted by such drama, Mike Tomlin pulled the Steelers back on to the moving train for Steelers for 9 straight wins.

While the Steelers certainly didn’t dominate in each of those contests, Pittsburgh never let any of those games get out of control. Even in the come from behind win over the Bengals, and even on Christmas, when the Ravens re-took the lead with 1:18 remaining, the Steelers on the field demeanor never suggested that they couldn’t regain control.

  • Contrast that with the AFC Championship game.
Steelers 2016 season highlights, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking season stopped short in New England. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

The Patriots easily advanced to Pittsburgh’s 18 on their first drive, but the Steelers defense forced a in the Red Zone. However the Steelers offense answered with two strong runs by Le’Veon Bell followed Sammie Coates dropping well-placed bomb on third down. Javon Hargrave ended the Patriot’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady on 3rd down, but the Steelers offense responded with a 3 and out, the Steelers effectively out of the game at that point.

As a consequence, the 2016 Steelers were forced to watch the moving train continue to Super Bowl LI.

Why Did Mike Tomlin’s Moving Train Suddenly Stop and Start?

If Mike Tomlin’s moving train metaphor explains how the Steelers 2016 season unfolded, it does little to explain why things worked out that way. But objectively speaking, there’s no mysterious X-Factor behind Pittsburgh’s hot and cold performances of the 2016 season.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Art Rooney II talks consistency. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head in asserting that the Steelers need to be more consistent in establish a pass rush, covering in the secondary and scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone.

  • A football genius shouldn’t need to tell you if you can’t execute in these three areas, you won’t win much.

The good news is the Steelers pass rush and pass coverage improved during the latter half of the season. The Steelers Red Zone efficiency continued to be an issue, as evidenced by twin Chris Boswell 6 field goal games in December and January.

Although it may not feel that way now that New England has unequivocally asserted its dominance as the AFC’s alpha male, the Steelers did end 2016 with the arrow pointed up, and can potentially take some lessons from that experience into 2017.

A Year Later, Steelers Still Mastering Art of Learning How to Win…

The original theme for this article was to be “Struggling to Grow, Learning to Win.” It’s catchy, there’s a lot of truth to support such a sexy narrative. Unfortunately, the title of this site’s Steelers 2015 season review was “Learning to win by Overcoming Adversity.” Beyond being repetitive, it also invites the question “When are the Steelers going to stop ‘Learning to win’ and actually go about winning a Super Bowl?”

That’s a fair point, but the art of learning how to win and/or unlearning how to lose is very real process that champions must master. There’s no better example of two teams heading in different directions along this continuum than the Steelers and Bengals during the 2015 Wild Card game.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Lawrence Timmons, Philip Dorsett, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Lawrence Timmons slams Colts Phillip Dorsett in Steelers goaline stand. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers goal line stands against the Colts and the Giants, Eli Roger’s and Ladarius Green’s key catches against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier’s and Lawrence Timmons fill in the blanks splash plays, Bud Dupree’s sacks vs. the Bill and all of the plays that culminated in Antonio Brown’s Christmas Day stretch count as part of the process of learning to win.

Lessons Steelers Must Take from 2016 to 2017

But those aren’t the lessons the Steelers need to take with them into 2017, instead here are 3 quick hits on what those lessons should be:

1. Expect the unexpected

To Mike Tomlin’s credit, he started preaching this the morning after Super Bowl XLIII and has reminded the team of this since. But contrast the names on the stat sheet from last year’s loss to Denver against those from the Patriots game or track the changes in the Steelers depth chart from the beginning of training camp to December 1st, and you see what Tomlin is talking about.

Sure, having Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton or Cameron Heyward would have helped the Steelers against the Patriots, but had they been available, its just as likely that someone else would have been out.

2. Toll the Bell, Just not Too Much

No one can accuse Todd Haley of being too pass happy during the second half of the season. 3 record breaking performances by Le’Veon Bell say that the Steelers executing the strategy that gave them the best chance to win.

  • But without Bell the Steelers were rudderless against the Patriots.

And, while more needs to be seen, it also seems like an over-reliance on Bell may be adding some rustiness to Roethlisberger’s game. Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame caliber talent, but the Steelers would be wise to remember that they had to do more than feed the ball to Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis to win their first 5 Super Bowls (well, OK, perhaps that’s not the case with Super Bowl X.)

3. Killer Bees + 1 = Steelers Success

Assuming that the Steelers can keep the trio together without busting their salary cap, and assuming that the sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown doesn’t turn toxic, the Killer Bees give the Steelers a Super Bowl caliber trio along the lines of Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt.

steelers 2016 season highlights, steelers killer bees, le'veon bell, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Killer Bees led to a lot of Steelers success. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But just as those Dallas teams also needed their Alvin Harpers, Jay Novacks, Charles Haleys and Thomas Everetts (yeah, that hurt), the Steelers Killer Bees can’t do it on their own. The loss to Dallas brought that to light and, quite frankly, even had Bell not gotten hurt, the Patriots probably would have provided Pittsburgh with another reminder.

  • While the Steelers would do wise to keep Ben, Brown and Bell together as long as they can, they also must be mindful the the 3 of them can’t do it alone.

The Steelers 2016 season is now history. The 2017 off season will bring new challenges and new faces while some familiar names will depart for greener pastures or otherwise begin their Life’s Work. If the Steelers 2016 season highlights a living example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” then the reality is that train could deliver Pittsburgh’s return to the Super Bowl, but it did move them a step closer.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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3 Factors that Fueled Steelers 3rd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

The Steelers 9-game winning streak skidded to a thundering halt at Gillette Stadium with Pittsburgh’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. The AFC Championship loss to the Patriots of course ends the 2016 Steelers season, their Super Bowl hopes and perhaps the last best hope of keeping Bill Belichick from breaking Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record.

  • Steelers Nation is not a pleasant place after a thorough clock cleaning at the hands of their conference rivals.

Ironically enough, 3 root causes fueled the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots: A failure to get pressure on Tom Brady, a lack of a playoff-caliber number 2 wide receiver, and a failure to control the line of scrimmage when it counted.

Cobi Hamilton, Logan Ryan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship,steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Logan Ryan breaks up a pass for Cobi Hamilton in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Champonship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Tom Brady Dictates Tempo, as Patriots Dance Around Steelers

At 39, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in the NFL, a status he seized 15 years ago in part by leading the AFC Championship upset against the Steelers at Heinz Field (with all due respect to Drew Bledsoe’s excellent relief efforts.)

  • But if Tom Brady is the greatest of this era, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time, he remains vulnerable.

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but if you succeed in getting pressure on him, you can make him look human. New York Giants did it in two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos did it last year in the AFC Championship. Houston even managed to hang with Brady for a few quarters by following the same formula. In the leadup to the game, the Steelers talked the talk of doing the same.

How well did the Steelers walk the walk?

  • Javon Hargrave forced a 3 and out by sacking Brady with the Patriots holding an 3-0 lead early in the 1st quarter.
  • Sean Davis sacked Brady late in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots held a 33-9 lead

In between, you’d be hard pressed to find a Steeler who breathed on Brady, much less touched him. (For the record, Stephon Tuitt is listed as getting a “QB hit.) It doesn’t take a football genius to predict the results.

Javon Hargrave, Tom Brady, Javon Hargrave sacks Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Sacks were spare in the Steelers latest AFC loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The New England Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, Tom Brady threw for almost 400 yards, and Chris Hogan – a former lacrosse player – caught 9 passes for 180 yards. In his post-game video commentary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette remarked that Bill Belichick observed that the Steelers chose to only 3 rush three defenders most of the night.

If video tape analysis confirms that, then Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler should be questioned as to why they didn’t try to send James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons after Brady more often. When you lose as badly as the Steeler lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, coaches open themselves to such “What iffing.”

  • But even when the Steelers went after Brady, things fell apart.

On Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, the Steelers sent the house. Yet, the Patriots’ line completely picked Pittsburgh’s blitz so perfectly, that even at age 58, Mark Malone could have left the broadcast booth and made that throw. (And yes, it helped that there wasn’t a Steeler within 10 yards of Hogan.)

And that was the story of the night. The Steelers couldn’t and wouldn’t get pressure on Brady. Instead Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler trusted their young secondary to make plays in coverage, and Tom Brady scorched the Steelers secondary.

  • Pittsburgh started off the 2016 season on pace to break the 1988 Steelers defense’s record for ineptitude in pressuring the passer.

They revved up their sack production well enough to earn themselves a spot in the AFC Championship, but unfortunately on the biggest day of the season, the Steelers defense reverted to its early season form.

Wanted: A Playoff Caliber Number 2 Wide Out in Pittsburgh

A little over a year ago, as the Steelers headed to Denver for the divisional playoff game, word was that Sammie Coates was the player to watch in the quest to compensate for Antonio Brown’s absence. Coates played well enough that day, that many coaches had him penciled in as Martavis Bryant’s replacement as soon as news of Byrant’s suspension broke.

  • Who was the target of Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass a bomb down the sidelines on 3rd and 1 the Steelers first series?

Sammie Coates of course.

IF Coates catches that ball, then he puts the Patriots on notice that the Steelers now have a multidimensional, vertical passing game, and he forces them to respect it. Instead, Coates dropped the ball and the Steelers punted.

Coates’ drop isn’t much of a surprise for those following his multiple broken fingers story and/or his latent loss of Ben Roethlisberger’s confidence which writers like Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell have alluded to. It’s telling, however, that the Steelers passing game focused so much on Coates, whom the Steelers targeted 5 times.

  • The Steelers knew they needed someone to stretch the field and divert attention from Antonio Brown.
Eli Rogers, Kyle Van Noy, Eli Rogers fumble AFC Championship game, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Eli Rogers fumbles late in the 3rd quarter in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

During the Steelers 9-game winning streak, Todd Haley has relied on reserve receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to take heat off of Antonio Brown. And the development of both of those men played a pivotal role in the Steelers late season rally.

  • But ultimately, neither man is ready to be a number 2 wide receiver on a Super Bowl team.

Cobi Hamilton had a number of drops and negated his own touchdown by stepping out of bounds. Eli Rogers made some nice catches, but fumbled the ball away deep in Pittsburgh territory, when New England held a 27 to 9 lead late in the third quarter.

Jesse James played a strong game at tight end, his failure to get into the end zone notwithstanding. He might not be a true number 1 NFL tight end, but he was not a liability on the field. The same could not be said for other Steelers pass catchers not named Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams.

On a night when Le’Veon Bell was lost early the Steelers were going to need their passing game to pick up the slack. They weren’t up to the task.

Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage When It Counted

On the face of it, the Steelers offensive did a stealer job against the Patriots, while the Steelers defensive line did its part against the running game. The Patriots failed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, and only hit him once per ESPN’s statistics. Fair enough. The Steelers line protected its quarterback.

But did anyone else notice the Patriots ability to completely collapse the Steelers offensive line in the Red Zone before the first half ended? DeAngelo Williams lost yards on two consecutive carries. It’s one thing try to ram it in and fail; it is quite another to get smothered in the process.

Jamesy Harrison, LeGarrette Blount, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Jamesy Harrison tackles LeGarrette Blount in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Officially speaking the Steelers run defense “shut LeGarrett Blount down” by holding him to below 50 total yards and keeping his average below 3.

  • But Blount literally needed only 1 carry to break the back of the Steelers defense.

On 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19, LeGarrett Blount ran 18 yards rugby-maul style to the Pittsburgh’s 1 with seemingly the entire Steelers defense hanging on. One play later, and Blount was in the end zone, and the Steelers were staring down an 18-point deficit.

James Harrison argued that the Patriots didn’t dominate the Steelers physically; for the most part that’s true. But these two series provide poignant examples of how the Patriots made critical plays when it counted.

Conclusion? These Steelers Simply Aren’t Ready

Is this a harsh assessment of the Steelers performance? You bet it is. The New England Patriots were yet again superior to the Pittsburgh Steelers in another AFC Championship game. That’s a bitter pill to swallow after 9 straight wins.

  • But even a brutal loss such as this one shouldn’t overshadow the gains the Steelers have made.

All hope looked to be lost when the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside the 2-minute warning to give the Steelers their 4th straight loss. Cameron Heyward going on IR prompted this site to declare an Aliens style “Game over!” yet the defense improved during the latter half of the season. And the Steelers spent large portions of the season playing two men who, a year ago would have been charitably projected as their 5th and 6th string wide receivers.

  • At the end of the day, it was good enough to get the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but not through the AFC Championship.

In a city that measures success in Lombardis, the 2016 Steelers weren’t quite ready for a Super Bowl run. Mike Tomlin is wise to remind everyone that the Steelers will arrive at Latrobe next summer starting from zero, just like everyone else in the NFL.

Yes, they will again indeed start at zero next July. But if the Steelers internalize the lessons they learned this season, they will give themselves and excellent chance of not only returning but also winning the AFC Championship and the game that comes after it….

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