Steelers Cut Matt McCrane, Clearing Way for Matthew Wright to Challenge Chris Boswell @ St. Vincents

The Steelers cut Matt McCrane and former AAF defensive back Jack Tocho yesterday to get into compliance with the NFL’s mandated 90 man roster limit. In doing so, they cleared up a minor mystery that came along with the signing of their 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class.

Matt McCrane kicking in Steelers win over Bengals. Photo Credit: Steph Chambers, Post-Gazette

In the blink of an eye, Chris Boswell went from being one of the NFL’s most accurate and dependable clutch kickers to a kicker who struggled to make extra points. Boswell’s botched kick against Oakland cost the Steelers a much needed win and contributed to the loss against Kansas City.

  • Other misses by Boswell either made other contests closer than they needed to be, or complicated comeback efforts.

While both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have expressed their confidence in Chris Boswell, they’ve also made it clear that Chris Boswell will face competition during training camp this summer at St. Vincents. And Mike Tomlin went out of his way to praise Matt McCrane efforts in the win over the Bengals at his post-season press conference.

  • So the working assumption for most of the off season has been that Matt McCrane would compete with Boswell in Latrobe.

However, the Steelers decision to sign place kicker Matthew Wright, kicker out of Central Florida following the 2019 NFL Draft was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. NFL teams routinely bring in extra kickers and punters to training camp, even when there is no real competition, to lessen the load on their starters.

  • But no NFL team is going to bring 3 place kickers to training camp.

And unfortunately, for Matt McCrane, he was the odd man out. That should not be terribly surprising. As noted when the Steelers signed Matt McCrane, his career stats were about what you’d expect of an NFL place kicker who was unemployed in late December.

And as an undrafted rookie free agent, Matthew Wright is going to come cheaper that Matt McCrane. For the record, Matthew Wright made 210 of 213 extra point attempts at Central Florida, but his field goal percentage was only 77.5%, although he did make 85% of his kicks during his senior year.

A 77.5% field goal completion rate sounds rather pedestrian, but Chris Boswell only knocked in 73.9% of his kicks while at Rice.

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Steelers 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Before the the ink of 7th round draft pick Derwin Grey’s draft card had time to dry, the Steelers went right to work in signing their 2019 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

James Harrison, Willie Parker, Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agents

James Harrison & Willie Parker arrived at St. Vincent’s as undrafted rookie free agents. They retired with Super Bowl rings. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Zimbo.com

These are the young men who wait in vain by the phone on draft day, only to get a call when it is all over offering their NFL dream a line line.

Here’s a quick look at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agent class:

Dravon Askew-Henry, Safety, West Virginia
Alexander Myers, Cornerback, Houston
Garrett Brumfield, Guard, LSU
Fred Johnson, Guard, Florida
Travon McMillian, Running Back, Colorado
Jay Hayes, Defensive End, Georgia
Chris Nelson, Defensive Tackle, Texas
Trevor Wood, Tight end/long snapper, Texas A&M
Matthew Wright, Kicker, Central Florida
Ian Berryman, Punter, Western Carolina

As they often do, the Steelers added bodies through the undrafted free agent rookie pool that they were unable to add in the draft. The Steelers did not pick a safety, but added Dravon Askew-Henry. They only added one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman, but added two guards and two defensive lineman undrafted rookie free agents.

  • Interestingly enough, they added Trevor Wood, a tight end with long snapping capabilities.

It is also interesting that they added two specialists, in the form of Ian Berryman, a punter out of Western Carolina, and a place kicker, Matthew Wright.

The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry in free agency, so Berryman could be just an extra leg for training camp, but they could also be bringing Berryman in to provide real competition for Berry. Matthew Wright’s signing is more interesting.

  • The Steelers of course have Chris Boswell under contract for several more years and would take a rather large salary cap hit by cutting him.

But they also have Matthew McCrane under contract to provide training camp competition. It’s been normal for the Steelers to bring two kickers to St. Vincents, but three? Time will tell.

Steelers History of Giving Undrafted Rookie Free Agents a Fair Shot

Undrafted rookie free agents face the longest of odds for realizing their NFL dream. Their the NFL version of Rudy, he of Hollywood fueled Notre Dame folklore glory.

It is a good bet that at least one of the men listed above will not make it to St. Vincents this summer. But Mike Tomlin is fond of saying that when you get to Latrobe, the Steelers stop caring about where you went to school or how you got there, and start focusing on what you do while you’re there.

  • And Mike Tomlin puts his money where his mouth is.

And the Steelers are true to their word. Ramon Foster arrived that way in 2009, and is now on his third (or perhaps 4th) NFL contract. Fellow offensive lineman Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney also arrived as UDFA’s and play pivotal roles on the unit.

And of course there’s Willie Parker and James Harrison, who both arrived in St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and both made dramatic, game changing plays in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The Pittsburgh Steelers promise to give undrafted rookie free agents a fair shot, and they mean it.

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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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¿Por que los Pittsburgh Steelers se quedaron sin los playoffs en 2018? (Parte II)

 

En la entrega anterior estuvimos repasando cómo las entregas de balón afectaron de manera decisiva el resultado final de la temporada 2018.

Ahora es el turno de los errores en la ejecución

Mucho se ha discutido acerca de si los Pittsburgh Steelers es un equipo mal dirigido por el staff encabezado por el Coach Tomlin, o si en cambio, lo que sepultó las aspiraciones de disputar el Super Bowl LIII fue un déficit grave en la ejecución.

Pero ¿cómo evaluar objetivamente la “ejecución”? ¿Qué aspectos del juego, a ambos lados del balón y en los equipos especiales representan objetivamente “la ejecución”?  

Según la Real Academia Española “poner en ejecución significa ejecutar, llevar a la práctica, realizar”. Entonces el paso siguiente es buscar aquellos indicadores que permitan evaluar de manera más objetiva la aptitud del equipo para conseguir el objetivo, que en este caso es ganar el partido. Como ejemplificaba en el artículo anterior, mi idea es realizar una “auditoría” a los números del equipo.

¿Fueron los Steelers el mejor equipo de la liga, como se pregonaba a mediados de año?

Claramente la respuesta es NO. Pero, ¿qué tan lejos se estuvo de eso?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster noto un touchdown en le finale contra los Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

¿Una ofensiva de élite?

Para comenzar analicemos el indicador más duro de ejecución: el resultado.

Todos conocemos de memoria este ítem: 9 – 6 – 1 (otra temporada ganadora para el Coach Tomlin, argumentarán sus defensores. Temporadas ganadoras sin títulos es (en palabras de Carlos Ortega) agua tibia, rugirán sus detractores)

Nueve – 6 -1 parece hablar de un equipo mediocre, y 9 – 6 – 1 sin postemporada, peor aún.

Trataré de hacer que la farragosa sucesión de números que siguen no noquee al lector a la altura del segundo párrafo…

Anailcemos a la ofensiva en su conjunto y por secciones.

  • Como conjunto, se puede decir que fue el 7° mejor equipo en puntos anotados… Muy bien!
  • Dentro de la zona roja anotó TD el 73,5% de las veces. Primero en la Liga: excelente!!
  • Convirtieron el 44,4% de los 3er downs lo que los ubica 8° en este rubro: otra vez, muy bien!

Hasta ahora no parece tan mal, o sí?

En yardas recorridas por drive se ubicaron 6° con poco más de 32 yds por serie. El objetivo del drive es anotar (a veces consumir el reloj, es cierto) asique hay que ver cuantas veces se convirtieron puntos en esos drives (ya hablamos de esto en el capítulo anterior): 37 % de las veces (ranking 18°) Y ¿cuántos puntos se anotaron? ¿predominaron los TD? ¿o los goles de campo? Puntos por drive anotador: 2.23 puntos (como si cada vez que anotaban fueran goles de campo) Pero ojo, sólo 8 equipos convirtieron más puntos por drive anotador!

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner y Myles Garrett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Decíamos que otro objetivo de las series ofensivas, aparte de anotar, claro, es consumir el reloj y controlar el ritmo del partido, manteniendo a la ofensiva rival fuera del campo. Pues aquí no se estuvo tan bien. Pero tampoco tan mal: 2:44 minutos por drive (ranking 14°)

Finalmente se retrocedieron 1.026 yardas por infracciones (este ítem atañe tanto a la ofensiva, la defensiva y equipos especiales) siendo el 3er peor equipo, solo superados por Kansas City y Jacksonville.

Ahora algunos datos por sección ofensiva.

El tándem QB-Receptores.

  • 5008 yds aéreas (2°)
  • Los receptores atraparon el 67% de los envíos (ranking 13°)
  • Intercepciones 17, compartiendo el 6° peor puesto con Cleveland (2,5% el porcentaje de veces que fue interceptado por intento de pese – ranking 20°-)
  • Ben Roethlisberger fue el líder pasador con 5.129 yardas y un QBR de 95,5 (ranking 13°)
  • El rating de QB de Big Ben cuando iba perdiendo fue más alto que el rating general (101.6 cuando iba perdiendo) Si va perdiendo faltando menos de 4 minutos el QBR baja a 80 y sorprendentemente cae a 67 dentro de los 2 minutos finales.

Línea ofensiva:

  • Permitió sólo 24 capturas de QB (ranking 4to mejor) o, visto de otro modo,
  • Permitió capturas el 3,4% de las veces que se intentó pase (2do mejor. Excelente!!!)

Juego terrestre:

La negativa de LeVeon Bell a retornar al equipo tuvo consecuencias innegables, aunque para sorpresa de casi todos James Conner superó largamente las expectativas. Pero alguien, en la dirección ofensiva del equipo, no tenía la misma confianza. No sé si fue MT, Coach Fitchner o el propio Ben el responsable de que durante largos momentos, el juego terrestre se mantuviera fuera y congelado.

  • El resultado? el 2do peor ataque terrestre de la Liga. Sólo 90,3 yds por tierra por juego. Ofensiva desbalanceada y predecible.

Si se analiza el juego terrestre por mitades (quiero decir, discriminado en primera y segunda mitad del partido) el promedio de yardas totales, yardas por acarreo y TD terrestres, veremos que no hay diferencias.

  • James Conner se perdió 3 partidos por lesión y aún así fue el 3er RB en cantidad de TD anotados, ganando así su lugar en el Pro Bowl por primera vez.

Si vemos el desempeño del ataque aéreo también dividido por mitades se puede ver que Big Ben lanzó casi el doble de intercepciones en la primera mitad y ¼ más de TD en ese segmento del juego. En efecto, en lo que respecta a los pases de TD Ben fue más prolífico en el 2do y 3er cuartos.

Hasta aquí las estadísticas de la ofensiva.

De 14 items trascendentes analizados, la ofensiva es top 10 en 7 (de ellos, 3 top 5)

Llegó el turno de auditar a la defensiva y los equipos especiales

¿Fue realmente la defensiva tan mala?

Por este lado las expectativas eran más modestas. Luego de la lesión de Ryan Shazier nada fue lo mismo y esta escuadra se veía herida de muerte durante el resto de la temporada 2017.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts quemo Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

En 2018 se llevaría a cabo la reparación de la unidad con la llegada de los veteranos Jon Bostic y Morgan Burnett y del novato de primera ronda, Terrell Edmunds se intentaría emparchar (aunque sea a medias) la ausencia del Playmaker.

Veamos algunos números:

  • Permitieron 360 puntos (un mediocre 17avo lugar) y en zona roja ocuparon el mismo puesto del ranking, permitiendo 59.2 puntos.

Los números más destacados fueron en (atención que me llevé alguna sorpresa):

  • Tackleo: 107.9 (9°. Desafortunadamente no pude encontrar la estadística de yardas después de la atrapada y después del contacto pero intuyo que se ha mejorado de manera muy significativa)
  • Pases defendidos: 83 (ranking 3° y a pesar de Burns. Primera gran sorpresa!)
  • Defensa contra el pase: 10° (Segunda sorpresa!)
  • Presión sobre el QB rival: 52 sacks (1° puesto en la Liga)
  • Defensa contra el juego terrestre: 10° en Yardas por intento y en yardas por partido
  • Y aquí comienzan los problemas: recuperaciones de balón INT 15 (ranking 29°) y fumbles recuperados 7 (21°)
  • Durante las 2das mitades esta defensiva se vió más vulnerable puesto que triplicaron los TD por tierra permitidos y sólo interceptaron 2 balones contra los 6 en las primeras mitades.
  • Por otra parte mostró poca capacidad de recuperación o de sobreponerse al marcador ya que le anotaron 22 TDs mientras iban abajo en el marcador y sólo 7 mientras iban ganando.

“Illegal block in the back” o El trabajo del Coach Smith

El título se explica por sí solo…. Sigamos adelante.

Los equipos especiales mostraron claroscuros. Hubo bloqueos de patadas cruciales, hubo TD, pero el debe más importante y doloroso fue el bajón de rendimiento de quien, con derecho, de había convertido en la 5ts “B” de los Killer B’s: Chris Boswell.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell en Oakland… Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Pasó de un porcentaje de 92%para goles de campo en 2017 a 65% en 2018, con 9/10 en GC de 40 a 49 yds en 2017 y 5/10 desde la misma distancia en 2018. Inexplicable. Y catastrófico para el equipo.

Veamos algún detalle:

  • En las semanas 1 y 2 tuvo 1 GC en cada partido y los falló (el de Cleveland ganaba el partido)
  • Contra Denver fue 1-2
  • Contra Oakland fue 0-2

De jugador indiscutido (contrato multianual mediante) pasa a pelear por su puesto en el campo de entrenamiento próximo.

Switzer tampoco fue un dechado de talento al devolver patadas. Promedió 8 yds en paradas de despeje (ranking 17°) y 19.3 yds al devolver KO’s (31°)

Una estadística me llamó la atención. Es el punto, promedio, desde donde partía la ofensiva. Ese punto fue la yarda 26. (Ranking de la liga 31°)

Hasta aquí, los números que me parecieron más importantes

Pero entonces, ¿las estadísticas del equipo dan respuesta a nuestra pregunta original, sobre qué fue lo que pasó con este equipo en esta temporada?

La respuesta es, a mi entender, que no. Es más, estas estadísticas parecen describir a otro equipo.

Los números delatan algunas características o comportamientos del equipo que podrían ir en la dirección de dar una respuesta.

Por ejemplo,  el hecho de que Big Ben anote menos TD en la segunda mitad, puede ir en detrimento de la capacidad del equipo para cerrar o dar vuelta un partido.

  • Lanzar más intercepciones al comienzo del encuentro, explica o es reflejo de lo que  todos vimos: se empezaba lento.

Es sabido que las infracciones matan ofensivas o muchas veces exponen con crudeza incapacidades o falencias técnicas individuales o de conjunto. Que se haya perdido semejante número de yardas por infracciones no ha sido gratis. Con el correr de los partidos la cosa fue mejorando.

Pero mi conclusión es que las estadísticas, no explican el resultado de la temporada. El equipo en realidad debe salir con un Aprobado + si uno se fiara de los números.

Mi  impresión es que jugadas puntuales o segmentos determinados en varios de los partidos perdidos y en el empate de la semana 1 con Cleveland, sellaron el destino del equipo. Y en general estos eventos están relacionados con pérdidas de balón.

La diferencia entre ganar y perder estuvo en errores mentales, de concentración. Aún cuando el equipo se mostró más carente de ideas, se mantuvo en condiciones de dar vuelta el resultado o de llevar el partido a tiempo extra. Pero allí ocurría el error mental que sepultaba las aspiraciones.

Se perdió por 5.66 puntos promedio por partido. Pero esta cifra es engañosa, también, hasta cierto punto, porque está llevada hacia arriba por la derrota contra Ravens que fue la diferencia en puntos más abultada (12 puntos) Si se quita este partido la diferencia en puntos en partidos perdidos sería de 4 puntos. Por poco más que un gol de campo…

  • Nunca el equipo fue arrasado en el campo de juego.

En definitiva, la diferencia se puede decir que estuvo en los detalles, en determinados momentos de los partidos, en la falta de esa energía o talento extra que tienen los equipos campeones.

En favor de los detractores de Tomlin, tal vez ese plus le corresponda a la influencia del Head Coach para identificar en el momento adecuado qué es lo que le está faltando al equipo.

  • Ese talento extra nunca llegó. Ni del Head Coach, ni de parte de los jugadores.

Esta no es, ni pretende ser, la visión definitiva. Es, en tal caso, mi interpretación de una temporada que finalizó de manera muy extraña, decepcionante, por los resultados y por los sucesos que se ventilaron luego de la semana 17.

El Dr. de Acero

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Steelers Fire Joey Porter. Mike Tomlin Makes First of Several Anticipated Coaching Changes

In his postmortem press conference Mike Tomlin promised changes and is not waiting long to implement them. The Steelers announced that they will not renew outside linebacker Joey Porter’s  contract, effectively firing him.

  • Joey Porter of course played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006.

In fact, one of Mike Tomlin’s first decision upon becoming head coach was to let Joey Porter go a move, that while controversial at the time, paved the way for James Harrison to join the starting line up.

The Steelers went on to draft Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the 2007 NFL Draft (Lawrence Timmons was initially drafted as an outside linebacker, per the Steelers 2007 Media Guide.)

Joey Porter, steelers fire Joey Porter

Joey Porter during Steelers 2018 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via PennLive.

One of the reasons why Mike Tomlin parted ways with Joey Porter was because of an altercation that he reportedly had with Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers 8-8 Super Bowl hangover induced season following their victory in Super Bowl XL.

However, in February 2014 Mike Tomlin reversed course and brought Joey Porter back to Pittsburgh naming him as a “defensive assistant.” A year later when Mike Tomlim promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, Joey Porter got promoted to outside linebackers coach while Jerry Olsavsky was also promoted to inside linebackers coach.

Jarvis Jones never developed into a player, Bud Dupree has improved since his rookie year, but the consensus is that he still relies more on athleticism than refined skill. T.J. Watt appears to be blossoming into a legitimate Super Star.

  • Joey Porter’s return to the Steelers did not come without controversy.

After the Steelers January 2017 win playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, Porter was caught in a highly public altercation with a South Side bouncer.

A year earlier, Joey Porter presence on the field while doctors were attenting to Antonio Brown helped prompt Adam PAC Man Jones to touch an official, resulting in a 15 yard penalty, that set up Chris Boswell’s game winning field goal (remember those?) in the Steelers playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Bye Bye Boz? Steelers Place Chris Boswell on IR, Sign Matt McCrane

In a stunning development 2 days before their 2018 season finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers placed place kicker Chris Boswell on the injured reserve list and signed Matt McCrane has his replacement.

  • Chris Boswell has had a rough campaign in 2018.

During the Steelers home opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Chris Boswell missed two extra points and a field goal in a game ultimately decided by 5 points. Against the Oakland Raiders, Chris Boswell missed two field goals in a game ultimately decided by six points.

  • Early on the Steelers stuck by Boswell, but after the Oakland loss, Mike Tomlin opted to hold tryouts for replacement kickers.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

The Steelers have put Chris Boswell on IR. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Chris Boswell won the try out, and although he missed a 32 yard field goal in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Mike Tomlin unhesitatingly sent him out to kick a 48 yard insurance field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers win over the Patriots. Against the Saints, Boswell kicked field goals of 49 and 30 yards and made both extra point attempts.

As recently as yesterday, he’d told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler the following:

However, over on 247Sports.com, Jim Wexell is reporting that Chris Boswell entered the game against the Saints with a groin injury. That is certainly possible, but his name has not appeared on the injury report this week or the week before.

The McCrane Record

In the word of Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman: “McCrane has played in four games this season, and his stat line looks like a kicker who would be available in the waning weeks of the regular season.”

4 Games / 5 FG Made / 9 FG Attempts / 8-for-8 in Extra Points

With the way the Steelers luck has run this season, the Cleveland Browns will surprise everyone with a decisive upset win over the Baltimore Ravens, only to have the Steelers Bengals game come down to a last second field goal attempt by McCrane…

Other Steelers Injury Notes

Sean Davis returned to practice for the Steelers reducing the likelihood that Jordan Dangerfield or Morgan Burnett will play in his place. Antonio Brown also missed practice, leaving his status in doubt. If Antonio Brown misses the game James Washington will likely start alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster.

While losing Brown would be a blow, Eli Rogers return and Vance McDonald‘s presence should give Ben Roethlisberger plenty of targets.

Vince Williams also missed practice, and meaning that L.J. Fort will likely start along side Jon Bostic.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Patriots – Just a Blip or Realizing Their Potential Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher wondering whether he’s just seen another momentary upward blip from his star students or a true ascent towards realizing their potential, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New England Patriots.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the Steelers to prevail in a Brady vs Ben duel, one would think that Ben Roethlisberger would need to have one of his best days as a pro. Yet, Fantasy owners who started Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it, as Ben’s overall numbers were pedestrian. The truth is that Ben didn’t have a banner day against the Patriots, but he made the throws the Steelers needed him to make to win. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Running Backs
Stevan Ridley’s revenge ambitions drew attention going into this game and Ridley did an excellent job of getting the Steelers out of danger with his 12 yard run from Pittsburgh’s one. However, the real star of the show was Jaylen Samuels who rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and displayed incredible instincts by staying in bounds late in the game. Roosevelt Nix wasn’t used often, but as usual he was effective. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the Steelers first touchdown and forced his way to extra yards to earn a third down on the Steelers final scoring drive. Jesse James had one catch for 9 yards. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught the Steelers second touchdown, which JuJu Smith-Schuster help set up with two electrifying catches, and Eli Rogers made his presence known with a couple of key 3rd down conversions. But the real star of the show was James Washington who led the Steelers in both catches and yards and for the first time looked like he really belonged. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than has been the norm this season, but the offensive line provided pass protection when it was needed the most, and Alejandro Villanueva’s block on the second touchdown serves as a great example. But the line’s biggest contribution to the win came in the run blocking it provided as it almost seemed to have symbiotic relationship with Jaylen Samuels. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball, but the Steelers also limited them at key moments in the game. Likewise, while the sack numbers weren’t there, the QB pressures were and a good number of those plays were made by the defensive line, as evidenced by Stephon Tuitt’s 2 QB hits. Grade: A-

Linebackers
In statistical terms,it was largely a quiet day for the Steelers linebackers, although Vince Williams and Anthony Chickillo had success in dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Patriot rushers made it to the second level a number of times, but they didn’t get far when they did, and the Steelers linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Secondary
Where to start? Play-by-play stats would appear to indicate that Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett handled the bulk of the duties when it came to shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the number show that the duo delivered. Those same stats also show that Coty Sensabaugh did his part to shut down the Patriots.

Mike Hilton came in second in the team on tackles, behind Joe Haden, who snatched a throw way jump ball from the air to stop the Patriots cold and get the ball back for the Steelers. The unit did give up an easy touchdown, which brings their grade down, albeit slightly. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had one return for 27 yards. Jordan Berry did not have any returnable punts, and the Steelers attempted no returns. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, but unlike last week, he redeemed himself with a 48 yarder – no small feat at Heinz Field. Grade: C

Coaching
Honesty check: If I’d told you one team would have 14 penalties called on it and the other 4, you’d have guessed the Steelers self-destructed with penalties, again. No worries, I’d have said the same. But it was the Patriots who kept scuttling their own drives with penalties.

Unlike one week ago, Randy Fichnter appears to have gone into the game intent on establishing the run, and he deserves credit for designing plays that maximized Jaylen Samuels unique skill set. The Steelers lined up regularly with empty sets, but still ended up with well over 100 yards rushing.

More importantly, when the coaching staff saw that Samuels could move the ball, they gave him more opportunities to do so which was a difference maker in the game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, and for good reason.

    Steelers locker room, Alejandro Villanueva

    Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Thus far the Steelers defense has been chronically incapable of closing games. Yet the Steelers defense not only ensured that the Patriots didn’t on two Steelers turnovers, it also secured one of their own the Red Zone.

The Patriots reached the Red Zone as time was about to expire, but unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense delivered.

  • Finally, there’s the job that Mike Tomlin has done.

While momentum is often oversold in today’s NFL, losing, particularly in December, can have a snowball effect. The Steelers had lost three tough games and things could have easily spun out of control. Yet Tomlin got his team to stay focused on the Patriots, and doubled down on his investment of trust in his players, which in turn fostered trust within the locker room. The results speak for themselves. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Normally a 1 sack performance indicates a putrid pass rush. Yet the Steelers got in Tom Brady’s face early and often, and while they only brought him down once, they flushed him from the pocket numerous times and forced him to rush his throw.

While the entire Steelers defense deserves credit for this achievement, Tom Brady’s to biggest antagonizes were T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and, for that, they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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