Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Inject Youth into “The Over the Hill Gang?”

Tyson Alualu’s change of heart and decision to return to Pittsburgh was a welcome surprise.

  • It also did something that wasn’t quite as welcome.

He raised the average age of Steelers defensive line to 31.3 years. Defensive line is a young man’s game in the NFL, and while hitting the big 3-0 might not be the foreboding milestone it once was, you still don’t want too many people on the wrong side of that number.

The Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on their defensive line since 2016. Youth is clearly needed. Will Pittsburgh get it in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the NFl’s best. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP, Via Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Cart: The Starters

On the eve of the 2020 season the Steelers knew the COVID-19 salary cap crisis was looming. Yet that did not deter Art Rooney II from personally ensuring that Cam Heyward got his contract extended and would remain in Pittsburgh.

Cam Heyward was a workhorse for the Steelers and while his stats might have dipped a bit, he continued to make the kind of plays that don’t show up in Fantasy Football algorithms but that do help teams win games. Opposite Heyward was Stephon Tuitt, who played like a man on fire, logging 11 sacks, batting down 3 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and tackling 10 ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.

  • In the middle of it all was Tyson Alualu.

In his first full season as a Steelers starter, Tylson Alualu’s numbers might not impress. But he clogged up the middle and was crucial in the Steelers ability to stop the run. The chinks in the Steelers defensive armor opened not when Devin Bush went down, but when Tyson Alulau got hurt against Baltimore and then missed the game in Dallas.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Heyward, Tuitt and Alualu, the Steelers have veterans Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis and Henry Mondeaux. Wormely brings the group experience, but did little to distinguish himself in 2020 and one has to wonder if the Steelers would have resigned him had Alualu accepted their initial offer. Buggs, outside of his spectacular stop of Lamarr Jackson struggled. Mondeaux looked respectable, but saw little more than spot duty.

Carlos Davis, whom many see as a future starter at nose tackle, did little as a rookie outside of his sideline scuffle with Buggs.

Rounding out their training camp roster, the Steelers also have Abdullah Anderson, T.J. Carter and Demarcus Christmas.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers have a very strong group of starters on defensive line, but it is an aged group. They also lack a 4th lineman who can rotate in the way Alualu could when Javon Hargrave was here.

But, if their current crop of backups lacks “the wow factor,” to quote Simon Cowell, Buggs, Morndeaux and Davis all offer some legitimate “Upside.” With that said, the Steelers would do well to draft a lineman who can develop into a starter at nose tackle, if for no other reason than Alualu will be 34 on opening day.

Make no mistake about it, by giving into his change of heart Alualu greatly simplified the Steelers situation at defensive line for 2021. But Pittsburgh must also look to the future, and with that in mind, the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Reverse! Tyson Alualu Resigns with Steelers & Sometimes Its Good to Lag Behind the News Cycle

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu has reversed course and resigned with the Steelers for two years. Just 12 days ago, word broke that Tyson Alualu was returning to Jacksonville, the team that had drafted him, on a two year deal.

  • Not only was this a surprise, but it also amounted to majorish blow to the Steelers depth chart.

This was a done deal. The Steelers responded by resigning Chris Wormley to a two year deal, a move they otherwise may not have made. On “Asked and Answered,” Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola rationalized the Wormley resigning and tried to put Alualu’s departure in context.

  • But apparently a failed COVID-19 test and the quarantine that followed forced Alualu to reconsider his decision.

Teammates Cam Heyward and Joe Haden lobbied Alualu to stay and ultimately swayed the nose tackle. Thus the Steelers have their third major surprise of the off season, the first being JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return the second being Steven Nelson’s departure.

The move helps the Steelers, but it also reveals a hidden benefit to lagging a step (or several) behind the 24/7 Steelers News cycle.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

A Day Late, But This Time Not a Dollar Short

The conventional wisdom driving sports-focused sites is to publish “Content” immediately after news breaks. That wisdom isn’t lost on this site and in some form or fashion we try to do that. When possible.

  • But the realities of the digital workplace and the 12 hour plus days that come with it, are not conducive to timely blogging.

Usually this hurts the site. Being late to the punch means not getting on social media when a topic is hot and being absent on Google when search volumes spike. But sometimes there’s an upside. James Harrison’s messy divorce with the Steelers was one of them. This is another.

  • When news broke of Tyson Alualu’s departure, the mental outlines of an article titled “Soft in the Middle” immediately formed.

The argument that the strength of the Steelers defense is measured up the middle, from nose tackle, to inside linebacker, to safety came to fore. Those arguments gelled with memories of Alualu anticipating his first playoff game against the Jaguar.

  • The situation seemed too ironic to be true.

Alualu and the Steelers playoff implosion against the Jaguars came in large part because the middle of their defense was soft. Yet no one could argue that since then Tyson Alualu has strengthened the center of the Steelers defense.

The 2020 season offered no better example. The Steelers defense had started the season rock-solid against the run. It remained stout after losing Devin Bush, but faltered when Alualu went down. The question was going to be, could Alualu’s departure defy conventional wisdom and transform itself into addition by subtraction?

Woulda been an interesting article. Might have generated lots of clicks. Alas, there was no time.

  • But no fuss, no muss. That storyline is now moot.

Alualu is back, and that’s a good thing – if taken in context.

Alaualu’s Return Delivers Depth and Flexibility

In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the Steelers have two spectacular defensive ends. Tyson Alualu showed last year he’s more than capable of manning the middle. With that said, let’s keep in mind that Alualu turns 34 next month.

  • Players can quickly lose a step to Father Time at that age.

The Steelers have high hopes for Carlos Davis. Isaiah Buggs struggled more than he flashed, but he did have his moments. Lamarr Jackson concurs. Henry Mondeaux also showed some moxie in his limited work last season.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The best-case scenario for the Steelers on defensive line would be for Buggs or Davis to step forward and claim the starting nose tackle role. That would allow Alualu to become the 4th defensive lineman, the role he was brought to Pittsburgh to play. Whether that happens or not will be determined on the fields at St. Vincents (hopefully) or during preseason games.

  • Today the idea that defense line could be a position of stability, if not strength in Pittsburgh is plausible.

Two days ago, this was fantasy. The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette opined the Steelers were an injury away from ” a problem” on defensive line. He was right, and the only thing Pittsburgh could have done to change that was invest a premium pick in a nose tackle or defensive end during the 2021 NFL Draft – picks that the Steelers must use on offensive line, running back and/or cornerback.

Now they don’t need to do so. And that’s a good thing.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Will Tyson Alualu Keep Giving Steelers “Bang for their free agency buck?”

My has the importance of the defensive line changed in the National Football League. Two generations ago defensive tackle Joe Greene arrived at St. Vincents and literally began pivoting Pittsburgh towards its championship arc during his very first practice. 

In the 80’s, Chuck Noll thought he could repeat history and “start again on defense” by drafting Gabe Rivera. Sure, passing on Dan Marino was mindbogglingly boneheaded, but even if you set that aside, the mentality of favoring defense over a quarterback doesn’t make sense in 2021. In the dark days of 1998 and 1999, the late season declines of the Steelers defense were just as bad as the offense’s, and Joel Steed’s ailing knees were a big part of those drops.

  • Casey Hampton‘s arrival in 2001 provided the cornerstone of a defense that would win two championships.

Fast forward to 2019: Javon Hargrave, a rookie starter from the Steelers 2016 draft class, shows he’s budding into his prime and the Steelers don’t attempt to make a competitive offer to keep him. They made that move, in part, because they gambled that Tyson Alualu could provide more or less the same bag for far less salary cap buck.

  • The Steelers won that gamble, but now Tyson Alualu is about to become a free agent himself.

The question is, will he return to Pittsburgh?

Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Giants, Daniel Jones

Tyson Alualu is held as he closes in on Daniel Jones. Photo Credit: Frank Franklin II, AP

Capsule Profile of Tyson Alualu’s Career with the Steelers

Tyson Alualu was a first-round pick by the Jaguars (10th, overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft. After spending seven mostly-nondescript seasons in Jacksonville, the California product became a Steeler in 2017 after signing a two-year deal.

Tyson Alualu, who signed another two-year contract prior to the 2019 season, was brought in to provide quality depth along the defensive line, and he spent his first three seasons in Pittsburgh doing just that. However, after Javon Hargrave departed as a free agent last spring, it was as a starting nose tackle in 2020 where Alualu provided the Steelers with perhaps the highest quality play of his entire career. Alualu was so strong against the run in 2020, his absence was clearly noticeable when he missed several games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

The Steelers defensive line, one that was considered a major strength for years, is starting to fray, mainly due to the departure of Hargrave and the lack of proven depth. If Alualu is brought back for 2021, if nothing else, the starters–Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Alualu — should remain an incredible asset for Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyson Alualu in 2021

Alualu will be 34 in May. That’s not much of a concern. What could be a concern is any higher than expected offers he receives as an unrestricted free agent. Alualu’s salary counted $3.6 million against the cap in 2020. Now that he’s a starter, he probably deserves a salary that reflects that. But it has to be within reason for the salary compromised Steelers. If not, the Steelers’ unproven depth along the defensive line may quickly become unproven potential starters.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyson Alualu in 2021

In my opinion, Tyson Alualu was quietly one of the more critical players on the Steelers defense in 2020.

Given that, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin owe it to themselves to work out a reasonable deal and keep Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Ben Roethlisberger “Took One for the Team.” 3 Things Steelers Nation Learned

Ben Roethlisberger took one for the team. Making good on his pledge to do what was necessary for the Steelers to field a competitive team in 2021, the veteran starting Steelers quarterback agreed to a pay cut to the tune of about 5 million dollars and in doing so he is saving Pittsburgh 15 million dollars in salary cap space due to “voidable years.”

  • Ben will be back. The biggest question of the Steelers off season has been settled.

Now, what does it mean and what have we learned? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Big Ben is a Team Player After All

While this wasn’t the “Ben put his money where his mouth is” and take the veteran minimum salary to return scenario outlined here a few weeks ago, but this is nothing to sneeze at.

  • “Oh, but wait, he’s already cashed $253 million checks from Dan and Art Rooney.” Yes he has.

When was the last time you gave up $5 million dollars? Perhaps better yet, when was the last time you went to your boss and said, “You know what? I’ll take 5 thousand dollars less this year so that you can give raises to the rest of the team. ” Yeah, I’ve never done that either. Enough said.

Ben Roethlisberger gave back 5 million dollars, 5 million that almost certainly go to resigning other players in the Steelers locker room. Ben does have his faults, he might not be a perfect team player, but he’s a team player.

2. The Steelers Relationship with Roethlisberger is Changing

One of the more interesting and disturbing narratives circulating around Steelers Nation has been that Ben Roethlisberger is somehow hostile to running the ball and insists on running an offense that sees him throw the ball 50 times a game.

Those criticisms were legitimate and by definition debunk the “Ben is anti-run” argument. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has had a lot of say in how the offense has been run. He’s had a lot of autonomy, perhaps too much autonomy. He forced Todd Haley out and Randy Fichtner was hired in part to keep him happy.

Matt Canada’s promotion to offensive coordinator was a sign that this is likely changing. And the fact that the Steelers made no bones about the fact that Ben Roethlisberger would need to bend to meet their needs says a lot.

What says more is that the contract contains voidable years, which in pure business terms means this is a one year deal.

3. Salary Cap Hell Likely Becomes Salary Cap Purgatory

Between the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward’s restructure and Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, the Steelers now are under the projected salary cap of 280 million dollars.
That’s good, but the team only has 33 players under contract for 2021.

More work, in the form of restructures, or perhaps moves to waive veterans such as Vince Williams, remains to be done. Resigning Bud Dupree likely means that other teams will shy away form his torn ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be back either.

But the specter of the Steelers fielding an opening day roster that features multiple undrafted rookie free agents starting appears to have been averted.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Should Steelers Sign J.J. Watt? No, They Must Address More Pressing Needs

J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the NFL and the best player in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise, was released by the team on Friday per Watt’s request.

If you’re a Steelers fan, that likely means you want Pittsburgh to bring Watt to town so he can be reunited with his younger brothers, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt.

  • Would it make sense for the Steelers to sign Watt? Duh.

He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and while he’s clearly already played his best football, at 31, Watt is the same age as Cam Heyward and appears to have some good years left. But would it work schematically? I don’t know much, but I do know that any defensive coach worth his salt BETTER make Watt fit into his system. Otherwise, he probably shouldn’t be a defensive coach in the NFL.

  • Of course, J.J. Watt would be a great fit for the Steelers defense.

For that matter, the eldest Watt brother would be a great fit for Pittsburgh and would arguably be the biggest sports star in town the moment he arrived.

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

In terms of charisma, T.J., someone who seems to be more James Harrison than he is Joey Porter, pales in comparison to his big brother. No, J.J. would be great for the Steelers and Steeler Nation…in theory.

But there is the matter of finding the creative financing to make such a deal work. As you know, the Steelers find themselves firmly in salary cap hell and are still millions above the projected number for 2021, this despite only having 30-plus players under contract.

Team president Art Rooney II has already stated that the Steelers can’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back for 2021 under his current deal. At first, it appeared that a simple restructuring, something the Steelers’ executives have become experts at, would be the compromise between team and player. Now, it appears that the smart money is on Roethlisberger agreeing to take less money if he wants to come back next year.

If the Steelers figure all that out with their aging franchise quarterback and are able to free up enough cap space to sign J.J. Watt, why not use that money to address more pressing areas of the team?

For example, if the Steelers could get J.J. Watt to sign with them for $10 million a year, couldn’t they convince Tyson Alualu, a pending free agent, to stay in Pittsburgh for much less? The Steelers would still have a more than formidable defensive line and, oh yes, they could perhaps use that extra money to sign slot corner Mike Hilton.

  • What about signing another tight end in free agency following the retirement of Vance McDonald?

Speaking of retirements, long-time center Maurkice Pouncey finally announced his on Friday after 11 mostly glorious years. Pouncey’s departure weakens an offensive line that was already in decline. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use that J.J. Watt money to shore up the center position?

There could be other factors involved, don’t get me wrong. Maybe Pittsburgh feels the need to lure J.J. to town just so it will be easier to lock T.J. into a lock-term deal when the time finally comes.

  • Finally, I hate to call a player of J.J. Watt’s caliber and legacy a luxury signing, but I think his addition to the team would be just that.

The Steelers have more pressing needs than another great defensive lineman. If they’re going to open up a new line of credit in the form of contract restructurings and player releases, perhaps they should use it more responsibly.

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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