Why Steelers Should Resign James Harrison for the 2017 Season

Sports commentator throw around the word “Legend” a lot, perhaps too much sometimes. But how do you really define a sports legend?

Webster’s defines “Legend” this way: “A story coming down from the past; especially : one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.” That’s OK, but I like my 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Marylyn Lev definition: A story based on some historical facts that grows through the years due to exaggeration.

  • If Mrs. Lev’s definition is better it remains insufficient when it comes to describing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

James Harrison is most certainly a Pittsburgh Steelers Legend, in the truest and purest sense of the word, yet James Harrison’s story neither contains nor requires exaggeration.

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James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the 2010 AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Reuters, via Wall Street Journal

Capsule Profile of James Harrison’s Steelers Career

You’ve heard the story enough times that you can recite it in your sleep. This site has rewritten and rewritten the story enough times that we won’t do so again here out of fear of provoking a dreaded “duplicate content” penalty from Google.

But here is James Harrison’s short-hand history:

The Steelers signed James Harrison as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2002. Bill Cowher had to be convinced to keep him around. The Steelers cut James Harrison four times and the Baltimore Ravens cut him once. Joey Porter’s ejection got James Harrison his first start, where he body slammed a drunk Cleveland Browns fan.

Although James Harrison had 4 sacks in four starts by the end of 2005, Bill Cowher kept him on the bench behind Clark Haggans until he stepped down.

As he was reviewing the Steelers roster heading into the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote (3 times in one article) James Harrison needs to play more. Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau listened, as James Harrison almost single handedly defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game.

James Harrison followed up that act by winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008, and authoring perhaps the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII.

Since that time James Harrison has done nothing of note except overcome numerous injuries, shift the course of dozens of games by making splash plays at opportune times, retire and then come back only to lead the Steelers in sacks, and of course break the Steelers sack record.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Harrison

On November 13th, after the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside of the 2 minute warning this site declared that the Cowboys loss proved that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good. And that pronouncement came before knowing that Cam Heyward was lost for the season.

  • The Steelers of course went on a 9 game winning streak that ended in the AFC Championship game.

If you’re looking to define 1 decision that defined the Steelers 2016 turn around it was Mike Tomlin’s promotion of James Harrison to full time starter. Yes, the championship-caliber play by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell was necessary. As were Chris Boswell’s field goals, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier’s splash plays, Bud Dupree’s emergence and Sean Davis’ development.

  • But in less than half a season of starting, James Harrison led the Steelers in sacks and turned around a leaky run defense.

James Harrison also added two and a half sacks in the playoffs, including a strip sack that essentially ended any threat of a Dolphins comeback in the playoffs. Beyond those objective accomplishments, James Harrison is a leader both on and off the field, as evidence by his showing up in the locker room to lift weights the morning after the Steelers playoff win over Kansas City.

James Harrison is the type of player that the Steelers need if they’re to bring up Lombardi Number Seven in 2017.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Harrison

As the headline suggests, the case for the Steeler resigning James Harrison isn’t as cut and dried as the numbers might suggest. And you can find the reason in the rhetorical question Mike Tomlin posed when he promoted James Harrison back to the starting lineup: “What are we saving him for?”

  • There’s a double edged implication to Tomlin’s self-inquiry.

On the on-hand, he clearly (and rightly) made the determination that the Jarvis Jones experiment had failed and that Harrison gave the Steelers their best chance to win. But the other side of that question correctly implies that Harrison needed to be “saved.”

Indeed, various injuries limited James Harrison’s effectiveness during portions of the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons. He also injured a shoulder during the playoffs and perhaps that limited his effectiveness vs. the Patriots.

  • At age 39, James Harrison clearly has a lot left in the tank, but is that enough to carry him through a full season of starting?

Even if it is, there’s another question Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter must answer? Can James Harrison still do everything the Steelers defense needs him to do? Clearly, James Harrison remains a fearsome pass rusher, and he’s still one of the stoutest run defenders in the league.

But the AFC Championship game proved Harrison can’t be counted on to cover running backs, tight ends and receivers, even in short yardage situations. Those two limitations add up to very big “IF’s” when it comes to James Harrison’s future with the Steelers, and “IF’s” will not bring the Steelers another Lombardi in 2017.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Harrison

Moments after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots James Harrison declared he wasn’t done, and Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have all said they’re open to James Harrison returning for another year.

  • That’s the right attitude for all parties involved.

James Harrison embodies the concept of Legend. Even in the world of sports, Father Time manages to reduce legends to mere mortals, but every indication we have seen is that he still hasn’t worked his black magic on James Harrison yet.

James Harrison wants to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, and the Steelers want him back. Fortunately James Harrison’s 10th contract with the Steelers has ensured that this will happen.

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

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

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Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents Validate Mike Tomlin’s “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

The Steelers 2017 off season is already off to a little bit of a different start. Free agency remains a way away, yet there’s been a steady stream of news out of the South Side regarding Steelers free agent signings.

Instead, Kevin Colbert has been busy resigning the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agent class. What’s that? The term “Exclusive rights free agent” isn’t one you hear a lot either inside or outside of Pittsburgh. The first time I remember seeing it, in fact, was when the Steelers resigned Willie Parker after the 2005 season.

  • An NFL Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player with less than two years of accrued seniority who doesn’t have a contract.

You could look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and call them, “The fringe roster players who fueled the 9 game winning streak.” Take a little longer group, and you’ll see that the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agency is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s “No loose stone unturned philosophy” of personnel acquisition.

Here is a look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free agent class, how they got to Pittsburgh, and what they’ve contributed.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Fitzgerald Toussaint
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked Fitzgerald Toussaint up as a practice squad addition after the Ravens cut him before opening day. There he stayed until late in the season when the Steelers activated him. At the time it appeared they were protecting him from practice squad poaching.
What he’s contributed: In just six week, Fitzgerald Toussaint went from practice squader to being the Steelers starting running back for their 2015 playoff win over the Bengals.

When it comes to backing up Le’Veon Bell, no one will confuse Fitzgerald Toussaint with being in DeAngelo Williams’ category, but he’s proven to be a reliable number 3 back.

Roosevelt Nix
How he got to Pittsburgh: Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and James Saxon saw something they liked, took a flyer on him a fullback and he made the 53 roster.
What he’s contributed: In 2015 Roosevelt Nix distinguished himself on special teams while working capably as a fullback. In 2016, Roosevelt Nix showed himself to be an accomplished run blocking fullback.

In less than a year, Roosevelt Nix went from being a guy the Steelers Nation’s Twitter General Manager griped about being a “wasted roster spot” to someone they questioned coaches for not playing more.

Chris Boswell
How he came to Pittsburgh: Every General Manager has a list of emergency players on it should injuries strike. But the Steelers went through not one, but two kickers when Shaun Suisham went down, making Chris Boswell their third choice.
What he’s contributed: Do we really need to ask this? Chris Boswell kicked the Steelers into the playoffs with his six kicks and shoe string tackle against the Bengals, and did it again in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chris Boswell has shown himself to be a reliable kicker who can make long kicks in the wind, in the rain and with playoff games on the line. Can’t ask for more than that.

Alejandro Villanueva
How he came to Pittsburgh: This site already recounted the Steelers decision to pick up Alejandro Villanueva from the Eagles in 2014 as one of the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 season.
What he’s contributed: It is harder to measure offensive lineman’s contributions, but going into 2016 the Steelers hedged their bets on Villanueva with Ryan Harris.

By the end of the season Alejandro Villanueva had erased all of those doubts.

Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Dee Ford, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Alejandro Villanueva in his first start as Roosevelt Nix behind him. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers, via Pittsburgh Magazine

Xavier Grimble
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Xavier Grimble in September 15 after the 49ers cut him and added him to the practice squad where he stayed until making the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was big on Xavier Grimble going into 2016, labeling him the Steelers X-Factor after Heath Miller retired he did so long before we know Matt Spaeth would get cut or Ladarius Green would have health issues.

Xavier Grimble might not have lived up to the hype in 2016, but he did come down with critical touchdowns against Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Anthony Chickillo
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because he was cut and resigned to a shorter contract, he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
What he’s contributed: Anthony Chickillo split time as a starter with Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering. During that time he had 2.5 sacks.

This might be a pipe dream, but if the Steelers haven’t explored moving Anthony Chickillo to right outside linebacker under the tutelage of James Harrison, they should.

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Cobi Hamilton ends the Steelers 2016 regular season with an overtime touchdown catch. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Cobi Hamilton
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Hamilton in early August in what looked to be little more than move to fill out the training camp roster.
What he’s contributed: The AFC Championship loss might have reveled Cobi Hamilton as not quite ready for prime time, at least in the post season context, but Hamilton made 17 catches during the year, and he showed a penchant for coming down with the ball when the Steelers needed him to.

B.J. Finney
How he got to Pittsburgh: B.J. Finney was part of the Steelers 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. He didn’t make the final roster, but did hold down a practice squad spot for the entire year.
What he’s contributed: B.J. Finney started 3 games for the Steelers this year, including two starts in place of Ramon Foster. He also started the season finale in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

This is probably just idle internet chatter, but there’s talk that the Steelers might (or “should”) consider saving on the salary cap by letting Ramon Foster go an starting B.J. Finney. Not likely to happen, but the fact that it’s a rumor should tell you something.

Jordan Dangerfield
How he got to Pittsburgh: After he failed to catch on as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Bills in 2013, the Steelers signed Jordan Dangerfield to a “Futures Contract” in January 2014. He made the practice squad in 2014 and 2015 and broke the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Jordan Dangerfield’s stat sheet might not impress, but he did make two starts in 2016 and was the “Next man up” in the secondary ahead of Robert Golden and the 2013 Draft classes signature wash out, Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers remaining Exclusive Rights Free agents are guard Cole Manhart, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and linebacker Kevin Anderson all of whom finished the year on injured reserve.

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

It might not be accurate to label an NFL Exclusive Rights Free agent as “a player no one else wanted” but they are certainly players that someone else overlooked. When the Steelers 2007 season ended, Mike Tomlin promised to leave “No loose stone unturned” in his quest to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.

If you look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, some players made larger contributions than other, but it clear that without their collective efforts, the 2016 Steelers never would have knocked on the door to Super Bowl LI.

That’s a testament to Kevin Colbert’s commitment to seeking quality talent from where ever may find it and to Mike Tomlin and his staff’s commitment to give every player a fair shot regardless of what his pedigree is.

All NFL General Managers and Head Coaches certainly pay lip service to this ideal, but the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class proves they mean it in Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2016 highlights, DeAngelo Williams

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

2016 Steelers Forge Moving Train Identify Early

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • And so went the entire season.

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

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

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

  • Contrast that with the AFC Championship game.
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Steelers 2016 season highlights: Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking season stopped short in New England. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Art Rooney II,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Steelers Must Take from 2016 to 2017

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

1. Expect the unexpected

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

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

2. Toll the Bell, Just not Too Much

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

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

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

3. Killer Bees + 1 = Steelers Success

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

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

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Struggling for Answers: Steelers Report Card for (latest) AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who watched his students soar through the second semester and on through the first 2 preliminary exams only to come crashing down to earth during the 3rd prequalification exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Rogers, Steelers report card patriots AFC Championship, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

The Steelers simply lacked answer in their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
For the record, Ben Roethlisberger threw 47 times and connected on 31 of them, for one touchdown and one interception. Given the injury to Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to take a lot on to his shoulders, and the force of his leadership was clearly evident on the field. Likewise, at one point Roethlisberger 13 consecutive passes.

  • Yet there were two other plays early in the game where the wide receiver was forced to play defensive back.

It is true that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get much help from his receivers as he had at least two drops in the end zone. There were other catchable balls that receivers failed to land. While that’s not his fault, the game called for Ben Roethlisberger go the extra mile, and deliver passes that made his wide outs look better than they were. Ben didn’t quite reach that level, and it was what would have been required of Roethlisberger for a win. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs patriots,

Running Backs
Injuries limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 carries meaning he never got a chance to get revving. The Steelers plan had been to ride Bell as far as he would take them, and that wasn’t very far in the playoffs. DeAngelo Williams stepped in and ripped off some impressive runs early, but was ineffective after that, although he didn’t have help from the line in the Red Zone. DeAngelo Williams did score the team’s first touchdown and he caught all 7 passes thrown his way, which raises his mark. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
David Johnson had 1 catch for one yard, while Jesse James had another strong playoff performance bring in 5 passes for 48 yards and almost scoring a touchdown. He also did well in the blocking game. While there’s not much to fault the Steelers tight ends, the group also didn’t do anything to stand out when the outcome remained in doubt. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Patriots did their best to bottle up Antonio Brown and kept him under 100 yards. Still, Brown caught 7 of 9 balls thrown his way, and showed off some excellent cornerbacks on one of the incomplitions that came his way. Moreover, Brown played with the passion and demeanor of a champion.

  • Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his counterparts.

Sammie Coates had a horrible game, dropping the first pass the Steelers threw in a play that could have set the tone for the entire game. Coates also dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Eli Rogers caught 7 of 9 passes, but his fumble essentially put the game out of reach for the Steelers. Inexcusable in a playoff game. Cobi Hamilton too had a case of the butter fingers, and negated his own touchdown pass by stepping out of bounds. A rookie mistake, and a costly one. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
On the positive side, the Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger spotless for almost the entire game. However, the offensive line’s run blocking, especially at the goal line at the end of the first half, left a lot to be desired. The Steelers could have sent a resounding message by punching it in before the second half, instead the offense traveled backwards.

Victory in this game would have meant the line giving a little something extra. Something the line didn’t have. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave dropped Tom Brady on New England’s second 3rd down in what could have been a tone setter, but that was the high water mark of the defensive line’s achievement. The Steelers did contain LeGarrette Blount, but the Patriots overpowered them on Blount’s rugby-like 18 yard maul. The Steelers didn’t blitz much, which left it to the line to get pressure Stephon Tuitt hit Brady once, but that was it. L.T. Walton and Hargrave all had tackles for losses, but the line ultimately didn’t deliver. Grade: C-

Linebackers
For the record, Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 14 and dropped two people behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was next with 7, followed by Bud Dupree with 5, James Harrison with 4 and Jarvis Jones with 3.

  • None of those numbers mask the fact that this was a rough day for the Steelers linebackers.

The unit didn’t pressure Brady and couldn’t defend his short passes. The Steelers needed more from what is the strongest unit of their depth chart and didn’t get it. Grade: F

Robert Golden, Chis Hogan 1st touchdown Steelers AFC Championship, Chris Hogan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Chris Hogan scores a touchdown as Robert Golden, well, watches. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Secondary
Sean Davis had a garbage time sack and a hit on Tom Brady. Artie Burns had 6 tackles including a very physical one which sent his man back several yards. But the real number for the Steelers secondary in this game is zero. As in zero passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles. The simple fact is that Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers pass defense, and he made it look easy.

Some of that is just Brady being good, but at other times this unit seemed to go out of its way to help him. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed an extra point, and while that didn’t have any impact on the game’s outcome, it confirmed that this was not an evening where the Steelers would get any breaks. On the positive side, Antonio Brown had one punt return for 1 yards. Sammie Coates also looked competent as a kick returner, although Justin Gilbert did not. The Patriots only returned one kick for 18 yards. Jordan Berry’s punting average of 38 yards looks OK, but is 10 yards below his counter parts. Special teams wasn’t a liability for the Steelers in this loss, but it didn’t provide anything extra. Grade: C

Coaching
If the Steelers first series of the game offers any indication, Todd Haley’s base game plan was to alternate between feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell on and trying to make the Patriots pay for focusing on stopping him by throwing downfield.

  • That type of strategy only works if Bell doesn’t get hurt and receivers don’t drop passes that they should catch.

The Steelers of course couldn’t overcome Bell’s loss, but those lie in errors of execution as opposed to being rudderless without Bell.

On defense, Keith Butler had the unenviable task of breaking some horrendous defensive history against Tom Brady on the second biggest stage that the NFL has to offer. Ever since the game ended there’s been a firestorm over why Butler and Mike Tomlin didn’t shift to the man-coverage approach that worked during the 2011 upset of the Patriots.

  • You’ll find no such second guessing here.
Mike Tomlin, James Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC championship game

Mike Tomlin and James Harrison leave the field after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The Steelers had the NFL’s most experienced defense in 2011. In 2016 they had one of the younger NFL defenses. Trying to learn a new scheme in the heat of the playoffs simple wouldn’t have worked. If Tomlin’s post game comments are any guide, he and his staff considered and ruled out the option. A wise move even in 20/20 hindsight.

  • Which doesn’t let the Steelers coaches off the hook.

Mike Tomlin is right that the gravest errors were execution errors – it is hard to imagine that whatever play was called on Chris Hogan’s first touchdown play envisioned EVERY Steelers push rusher getting COMPLETELY blocked AND allowing Hogan to have HALF of the end zone to himself.

But regardless whether its execution, game planning or preparation, Mike Tomlin and his staff are now 1-6 against Tom Brady with no sign that they’ve got any viable answer to offer against the NFL’s best quarterback. Until Mike Tomlin finds those answers, the Pittsburgh Steelers will remain also rans. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Determining the Unsung Hero for this game is hard, because so few Steelers did anything to stand out. We’ll give our nod to Antonio Brown. While mistakes and struggles defined the night for Steelers other Steelers receivers, Antonio Brown like Ben Roethlisberger gave it his all, with tough catches, impressive runs after the catch and excellent improvisational defensive back skills on one bad pass. For that Antonio Brown is the Steelers Unsung Hero for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

 

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Report card for Steelers divisional round victory over Chiefs

Quarterback 

Sunday night wasn’t one of the greatest performances for Ben Roethlisberger (he completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards, no touchdowns and one interception). However, he could have had a better fate, had Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers been able to hold on to touchdown passes. Of course, things could have been better for Roethlisberger, had he not checked out of a running play down at the goal line and had his subsequent pass deflected in the air and intercepted by Eric Berry in the second quarter. It wasn’t a suburb performance for No. 7, but he did find a way to make a spectacular play on the third and three pass to Brown late in the game that sealed the deal. Grade: C

Running Backs 

What more can be said about Le’Veon Bell? After breaking the franchise single-game postseason rushing mark a week earlier against the Dolphins in the wild card game, Bell broke his own record against the Chiefs, by rushing for 170 yards on 30 carries. If he isn’t the most explosive and dangerous offensive weapon in football right now, I don’t know who is. Grade: A+

Wide Receivers 

Aside from Brown’s 108 yards on six catches, there wasn’t much in the way of contributions from the wide-outs on Sunday. While Rogers netted 27 yards on five catches, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers combined for 10 yards on two catches. Still, though, it’s hard to expect much from secondary receivers with little pedigree and even less experience. Grade: B-

Tight Ends 

The Steelers may not have had the still recovering from a concussion Ladarius Green, but Jesse James sure did provide some big catches and yards. All-told, he had five catches for 83 yards–including one for 26. Grade: B

Offensive Line

When your star running back rushes for 170 yards, and your franchise quarterback only gets sacks one time in 31 pass-attempts, it’s hard to criticize the offensive line. I won’t criticize the line, but a suburb performance by the unit could have been even better, had the offense been able to trade a couple of field goals for touchdowns. Grade: A

Defensive Line 

It was mostly a stellar performance for the defense, including just 61 yards against the run. It wasn’t a stand-out night for anyone on the line, but it was workman-like. Grade: B

Linebackers

James Harrison led the team in tackles with six and also notched the only sack of Alex Smith on the night. Harrison also came through by getting himself held by Eric Fisher during the two-point conversion try that could have tied the game late in the game. Ryan Shazier had five sacks and an interception, while Bud Dupree had four and caused the interception by Shazier, but pressuring Smith and hitting him just as he threw the pass. Grade B+

Secondary 

The Chiefs had just 172 passing yards on the night. Not much more can be said about that. Grade: A

Special teams 

The Steelers limited dangerous return man Tyreek Hill to 72 yards on four kickoffs. Also, Chris Boswell netted all the points for the  team by kicking a postseason record six field goals. Grade: A

Coaching

The Steelers were the better team in all three phases of the game, out-gaining the Chiefs 389 yards to 22y and stifling Kansas City’s return game. Again, a few touchdowns would have been perfection, but when you come out of Kansas City’s Arrowhead with a playoff win, that’s saying a lot. Grade: B+

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Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Win over the Dolphins – Acing the Essay, Coasting on Multiple Choice

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher who watched his star students ace the essay portion of the test only to coast a little too much on the multiple choice section, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Win over the Dolphins.

Antonio Brown, Steelers Report card wild card win dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Antonio Brown waltzes into the end zone to put the Steelers ahead 7-0 in the Wild Card win over the Dolphins. Photo credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started the game in playoff form, completing his first 11 passes including two long touchdown strikes. Those numbers are excellent, but by Ben Roethlisberger’s own admission he took his eye off the ball. The Steelers fourth drive should have put the nail in Miami’s coffin, instead Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception which opened the door to Miami making a real game of it. Standards are higher here in the playoffs, hence the “Good, but…” grade for Ben. Grade: B-

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell finally got to start a playoff game and when he did he broke Franco Harris’ single game yardage record. Bell ran for 167 yards. Take out Bell’s longest run, and his average is still above 5 yards. Wha’ts more impressive, the Dolphins knew the runs were coming, and Bell STILL earned his yeards. DeAngelo Williams got two carries in mop up time, and Roosevelt Nix saw time at fullback. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. dolphins, wild card

Tight Ends
This is another clear case of how statistics don’t accurately measure a player’s performance. Jesse James has one catch for 6 yards. Ho hum, right? Wrong. Jesse James saved an interception by snatching it away from a defender. Jesse James also made a critical block the permitted the first touchdown. David Johnson and Xavier Grimble also saw time. Their names don’t show up in the stat sheet, but you can see the product of their work in Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Believe it or not, Antonio Brown had never caught a touchdown pass prior to the Dolphins game. Brown rectified that scoring two, and doing so in dramatic fashion to give the Steelers a 14 point lead. After that, the Steelers went into a run on first, run on second and run on third type offense, limiting the opportunities for the rest of the receiving corps. Eli Rogers, however did make a nice 19 yard catch, and Demarcus Ayers had two nice short catches. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton each had 1 catch for 10 yards.

While the play of the wide recievers overall was strong, Brown had a couple of drops. These didn’t impact the game, but Kansas City will not be as forgiving and the group’s grade reflects that. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
While its wrong to say that an NFL running back is only as good as the line in front of him, the truth is that no running back can truly excel without a quality line blocking for him. The Steelers offensive line delivered so well for Le’Veon Bell that their third touchdown drive consisted only of runs. While the line’s overall play was extremely strong, Ben Roethlisberger did face a little more pressure than he has of late, and this is not a tendency that can be allowed to build momentum as the post season progresses. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Just 3 months ago the Miami Dolphins humiliated the Steelers defensive line, and the unit took it personally. The Steelers defensive line responded with a monster game. Stephon Tuitt might only have four tackles and no splash plays, but he was all over the field, always running to the ball. Javon Hargrave only had 1 tackle, but if he’s not playing well Jay Ajayi is. He didn’t. Grade: A

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons had a monster game leading the team with 14 tackles including 2 for losses, 2 sacks and registered 2 more QB hits. And he was probably not the best linebacker on the field. That distinction belongs to James Harrison, who set the edge and completely shut down Miami’s running game on the weakside. Harrison also had one of his strip sacks, which prevented Miami from getting on the board before the half. Bud Dupree had a strong game, with a hellicious hit on Matt Moore, and shared a sack with Harrison. Ryan Shazier had an interception which essentially ended any threat of a Dolphins comeback, and played extremely well against the run. An outstanding day for the linebackers. Grade: A

William Gay, Lawrence Timmion, Leonte Carroo, Steelers Wild Card win Dolphins

Wlliam Gay and Lawrence Timmons send Leonte Carroo reeling in Steelers Wild Card win over the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger PennLive

Secondary
Mike Mitchell was all over the field all day, and his strip sack of Matt Moore set the tone for the defense in the second half. Ross Cockrell led the defensive backs in tackles, and helped negate a Dolphins 2 point conversion. Artie Burns had 4 tackles while William Gay had a pass defensed that he could have intercepted. Sean Davis stepped up with a tackle for a loss before getting injured. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers special teams were showing some disturbing tendencies as the season drew to a close, and those have continued here in the post season.

  • Fitzgerald Toussaint continues to struggle as a kick returner.
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, and several of his early kick offs were short.

Worse yet, the Dolphins averaged close to 30 yards on kick returns including a long one of 58 yards. The Dolphins also had a 9 yard punt return.

The Steelers return team continued to commit needless penalties, and again failed to stop a fake punt attempt. At the end of the day, these mistakes did not prove to be costly for the Steelers, but if they continue it is only a question of when and not if it will cost the Steelers a playoff game. Grade: D

Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith, Joey Porter, Steelers wild card win dolphins

Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith and Joey Porter look on during Steelers Wild Card win over the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
You don’t get many do overs in the NFL, but both Todd Haley and Keith Butler learned from their mistakes in the first outing vs. Miami.

The Steelers began with a balanced attack and quickly put up 14 points, and then essentially turned the game over to the offensive line and Le’Veon Bell. That plan worked, and would have worked better with just a little better execution from Ben Roethlisberger, which isn’t Todd Haley’s fault.

On defense, Keith Butler’s unit completely smothered the Dolphins running game, forcing them to try to beat the Steelers through the air. As has been said many times in this space, Fantasy Football owners who started Matt Moore and Jarvis Landry probably came away happy, at least based on yardage totals. But, Keith Bulter’s boys forced the Dolphins to settle for 3 early in the game, and later the defense came up with turnovers on 3 occasions to snuff out any Dolphin comeback attempts.

  • Colin Cowherd might find the Steelers performance lackluster, but the scoreboard proves him wrong.

Two years ago when the Steelers lost to the Ravens at Heinz Field in the playoffs, several position groups appeared to be out of their depth. Perhaps that was to be expected, although not excused, given the long layoff and turnover since the Tewbowing at Denver.

  • The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers displayed no playoff jitters against the Dolphins.

This was a team that came out with a specific plan on both sides of the ball and fearlessly executed it. Focus perhaps could have been a little better after the lead was established, but the fact that the Steelers were aware of that speaks to their coaching.

Mike Tomlin’s staff had a solid game plan and his players executed. The only real critique probably lies in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger was in the game so late into the 4th quarter. And that drops the coaching grade. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
When the Dolphins run roughshod over the Steelers in October, any number of commentators pointed to opposing teams tremendous success in running the ball against the Steelers defense when either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup.

  • Came Heyward missed both Dolphins game due to injuries.
  • Yet in their second outing they Dolphins struggled to rush where they’d soared before.

What changed? Well, certainly the improvement is the result of a team effort. But one player who has stepped up and quietly but steadily made plays each week is L.T. Walton, who played extremely well against the Dolphins, making tackles behind the line of scrimmage, recovering a fumble, and plugging gaps to allow the linebackers to make plays, and for that L.T. Walton wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers Wild Card win over the Dolphins.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Overtime Win over the Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see average, everyday students rise to the occasion with the star pupils out, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Cleveland.

DeAngelo Williams, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns, Marcus Gilbert, Jesse James

DeAngelo Williams celebrates his touchdown against the Browns with Jesse James and Marcus Gilbert. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Quarterback
The game’s very first series made it clear that Landry Jones wasn’t going to get the same protection that Ben Roethlisberger got, and Landry Jones struggled for much of the first half. And Landry Jones’ interception at the end of the 3rd quarter was as ugly as it gets. But Jones pushed on, and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and another in overtime. Jones also deserves credit for his heads up play in recovering a fumble in the end zone. And Jones did all of this with the Steelers top weapons on offense sitting on the bench. If we apply the same standard we applied last week to Ben Roethlisberger, there’s only 1 grade for Landry. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Browns

Running Backs
One of the big questions heading into the game was how well DeAngelo Williams would respond after 9 games on ice. Fantasy Football owners who started Williams are probably suffering from buyer’s remorse. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, however, are not. On the surface, Williams 1 yard rushing in the first half and his overall 67 yards on 22 carries remain unimpressive. But Williams ripped off runs of 12, 10 and 8 in the second half, scored the Steelers first two touchdowns. He also did an incredible job in avoiding safety when the Steelers were backed into their own end zone.

Fitzgerald Toussaint had 3 carries for 14 yards including a 12 yarder, and Roosevelt Nix had 2 catches for five yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Jesse James had two catches for 16 yards on 3 targets. Neither Xavier Grimble nor David Johnson had a carry. The Steelers tight ends had a solid, if not spectacular performance against the Browns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the team with 6 catches for 61 yards taking another important developmental step forward. As did, Cobi Hamilton who caught the game winner as well as a critical completion during the 3rd quarter. Demarcus Ayers looked good in his second NFL game, finding his way to the end zone for a go ahead score in the 4th quarter. Darrius Heyward-Bey saw his first action in 9 weeks, and came away with on reception for 46 yards. Overall a very good day for the Steelers wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
B.J. Finney made several starts at right guard for Ramon Foster this season and played well enough that some bloggers suggested his comparative salary cap value might make Foster expendable during the 2017 off season.

  • No one is going to say that about his performance in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

It is probably unfair to scapegoat Finney, but the truth is that the Browns got pressure on Landry Jones on several third downs, and each time it looked like they came right up the middle. Indeed, the line struggled to protect their quarterback for the first time in recent memory, and the rushing lanes weren’t quite as solid. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Injuries left the Pittsburgh Steelers playing their 3rd string defensive line for most of the day. The truth is that the Browns ran the ball a little too easily. OK, a big part of this has to do with James Harrison being out (who essentially plays a defensive end in the Steelers nickel alignment), but if the Standard is the Standard, then the Steelers defensive line fell a little short, although Daniel McCullers did get a sack on Robert Griffin III. Grade: C-

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, George Atkinson

Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree sandwich George Atkinson in the Steelers overtime win vs. the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
Does anyone still debate why the Steelers rushed to pick Ryan Shazier instead of a defensive back in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Ryan Shazier led the Steelers linebackers securing an interception at the 5 yard line, and helping ensure that the Browns would lose 14 yards when on 3rd and Goal at the Steelers 2 in overtime. Jarvis Jones had his best game as a Pittsburgh Steelers, sacking RGIII once, forcing another fumble as the Browns threatened to score, and batting away a pass in overtime. Bud Dupree had another sack, and another tackle for the loss. Lawrence Timmons had 6 tackles.

While the Steelers linebackers had a strong day, they too bear some of the responsibility for the breakdowns in the run defense so their grade must reflect that. Grade: B+

Secondary
Sean Davis led the unit and the Steelers defense overall with 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Mind you, the man is playing safety. Artie Burns had 8 tackles, and batted away a pass that he almost intercepted. Ross Cockrell’s name wasn’t heard much, and that’s good for a cornerback. William Gay had a key pass defense, while Mike Mitchell had 8 tackles and a fumble recovery. A solid day for the Steelers secondary, particularly in the Red Zone. Grade: B+

Ross Cockrell, Seth Delvalve touchdown steelers, steelers vs. browns overtime

Seth Delvalve scores for the Browns as Ross Cockrell attempts to stop him. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his extra points and Jordan Berry had an excellent day punting on an afternoon where the Steelers found themselves backed up in their own end zone too often.

Eli Rogers returned 3 punts for a total of 15 yards with a long return of 10 yards. While that’s nice, he did bobble one return – which cannot happen during the playoffs. Cobi Hamilton returned 3 kick offs for 44 yards which is as unimpressive as it looks.

  • The real concern here is the Steelers kick coverage.

The Browns averaged 30 yards on their kickoff returns, or five more than they’d get in touchbacks, and Mario Alford returned 3 punts for 26 yards including one return of 17 yards. Those are the types of return yardage numbers that can tip a close playoff game in the wrong direction…. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s Christmas present to Todd Haley was to ask him to devise a winning game plan after taking away his top 4 offensive players. The truth is that Haley’s offense sputtered for much of the day, but once they got in a groove, they scored 21 points in less than two quarters.

  • Keith Butler didn’t have the same “excuse” as only James Harrison was held out of the game.

That alone made it clear just how much James Harrison means to the Steelers running game. Had the stakes in the game been higher, Butler likely would have played the Steelers nickel less. While the Steelers defense likely made some Fantasy Football owners happy, the fact is that they secured two Red Zone turnovers in addition to stuffing a 3rd down attempt for a 14 yard loss defending their own two.

  • I’ll take that.

Finally, Mike Tomlin sent an important signal when he benched the Steelers top players. But he also insisted it would be “Business as normal” for everyone who did suit up. Tomlin lived true to his word. It would have been easy for Tomlin to either intentionally coach towards a tie or to make other decisions that would have left Cleveland with a win, particularly in overtime.

Instead, Mike Tomlin played to win, and his players responded by delivering a win. This is exactly what the mentality and level of execution Pittsburgh needs heading into the playoffs. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
When Landry Jones threw his interception at the end of the 3rd quarter and Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked to the end zone for an apparent pick-six that looked to doom the Steelers for the afternoon. But one player continued to hustle, never gave up, and ended up catching Boddy-Calhoun and knocking out the ball before he scored a touchdown.

  • The play saved a touchdown, and sparked the Steelers rally.

This is exactly the type of hustle at all times mentality a team needs in the playoffs, and for that Darrius Heyward-Bey wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers overtime win over the Browns.

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A’s for Excellence, Not Effort: Steelers Report Card for Christmas Comeback vs. Ravens

Taken from the grade book who has seen his failing student earn straight A’s since getting a failing mid-term progress report, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Christmas comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Bud Dupree, Joe Flacco, Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco, Steelers Christmas comeback over Ravens

Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Quarterback
How do you grade this one? Ben Roethlisberger got off to a strong start, then sputtered a little in the first half, only to throw two Kordell Stewartesque interceptions in the third. That would normally be enough to earn the signal caller an “F.” Then came the 4th quarter, where Ben Roethlisberger completed 14-of-17 passes for 164 yards for two touchdowns while hitting 6 different receivers. Players grades come as a product of performance and results. Do the results of Ben’s 4th quarter play outweigh earlier performances? Yes they do. Grade: A

steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. RavensRunning Backs
Coming into the game the Baltimore Ravens had the NFL’s second best rushing defense that only allowed 3.5 yards per carry. Moreover, this is a rush defense that smothered Le’Veon Bell just two months before.

  • But in the Steelers Christmas comeback against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell reminded everyone that ball players and not bean counters determine the outcome of games.

Le’Veon Bell rushed for 122 yards on just 20 carries (that’s an average of 6.1 yards per carry), scored 1 touchdown on the ground and another through the air, where he made 3 catches for 15 yards. Roosevelt Nix only appeared in 19% of the snaps, which is perhaps a surprise, but he blocked well when he was in the game. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
The big question going into the game was how much Ladarius Green’s absence would impact the passing game. The answer was that the men below him on the depth chart stepped up. Xavier Grimble caught the game’s first touchdown pass holding on to the ball when he knew he would get drilled. Jesse James came up big late in the game, catching 3 of his four passes in the 4th quarter. David Johnson didn’t have a target, but was a force in as a blocker, as were the other two Steelers tight ends. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown was quiet for much of the first three quarters, but exploded in the 4th quarter, catching 6 passes for 73 yards in the final 15 minutes.

  • However, if Brown’s only catch had been his last one, the touchdown catch, he’d have had a great game.

Eli Rogers put on another strong performance, catching a couple of field-stretching that set up scores, including a 20 yarder that put the Steelers in the Red Zone. Cobi Hamilton only had on catch, but it came on the game’s final drive.

You wouldn’t think that Antonio Brown, plus a 7th round pick playing his first game and two undrafted rookie free agents would be the recipe for success in a playoff-defining game but was it ever. Grade: A

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers Ravens Christmas

Steelers offensive line opens holes for Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Offensive Line
If you really want to see how much the Steelers have grown since their last loss to the Ravens, then offensive line provides the perfect gauge. Sure, the offensive line kept an injured Ben Roethlisberger clean down at M&T Stadium, but the Steelers rushing offense went nowhere, on a day when Pittsburgh needed it to.

  • The Steelers came out of the gate intending to run the ball, and dared the Baltimore Ravens to stop them.

Back-to-back Le’Veon Bell runs for 23 and 13 yards to start the 4th quarter for the Steelers show just how badly Baltimore failed. Ramon Foster also deserves extra credit for making sure Bell got into the end zone on the penultimate touchdown. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
This game looked to be a tough one for the Steelers defensive line, with Stephon Tuitt out and Ricardo Mathews nursing an injury. Suffice to say, no one envisioned the Steelers starting L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Mathews on Christmas with the playoffs on the line.

  • The Steelers defensive line did encourter some rough sledding against the Ravens.

While the Steelers bottled up Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon and Kyle Juszczyk ran with authority, often times not going down on either the first or second contact. Still, while the Ravens did establish the run, their running backs never came close to taking over the game. Grade: C

Linebackers
James Harrison led the Steelers with 11 tackles. For all of the ink that Harrison generates as a pass rusher, he is perhaps even stronger against the run. Lawrence Timmons had 10 tackles, and a key sack of Flacco that put the Ravens out of field goal range. Ryan Shazier was next, with 10 tackles and a pass defense. Bud Dupree had another drive ending sack of Joe Flacco and got a hand on a pass on third down.

A little more consistent pressure on Flacco would have been nice, and perhaps a little better performance in the against the run. Nonetheless, it was a good night for the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A-

Secondary
Sean Davis made what was perhaps the most underrated play of the game when the Ravens had the ball on third down at the Steelers four, by knocking a way a touchdown and forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal, keeping the Steelers within 10 as the 4th quarter began. William Gay led the Steelers defensive backs with 7 tackles, while Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell had 7 a piece, followed by Mike Mitchell who had 5 tackles and a pass defensed. Overall the Steelers pass defense was good against the Ravens, but Joe Flacco did complete 7 of 10 passes on the Ravens go-ahead touchdown drive. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect making his only field goal attempt and hitting on 4 extra points. However, he did get flagged twice for knocking kickoffs out of bounds, something which cannot continue.

The Steelers got little out of their return game, but their coverage units didn’t allow the Ravens much either. The same cannot be said for the Steelers punt coverage units, which allowed an average of 12.5 yards per return. That was hardly lethal, but with the top gunner Shamarko Thomas out for the year, the someone will have to step up.

The Steelers field goal until also reached on a botched snap. Those types of things usually hurt the kicking team, but if the defense isn’t on its toes, the opposing team’s kicking unit an turn a disaster into a big play. Danny Smith’s unit made sure that didn’t happen. Grade: B

Coaching
Amazingly enough, the Steelers coaching staff entered this game under attack. But the coaches answered the call.

Keith Butler was essentially forced to go into the biggest game of the season playing his 2nd string defensive line. That fact does show up on the stat sheet, but isn’t evident in the final score.

The bottom line is that Butler found a way to make it work. The Ravens did put up 27 points, but the telling statistic there is that the Ravens went 2 for 5 in the Red Zone, including one Red Zone possession that came as gift wrapped by Ben Roethlisberger.

Todd Haley also had his work cut out for them, given how well the Ravens defense has played the Steelers. The credit for the Steelers success rushing the ball lies with Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line, but Todd Haley and Mike Munchack were smart enough and confident enough to trust in those two units.

The Steelers offense put on a championship caliber performance in the 4th quarter. Again, the men who authored those plays on the field deserve credit, but they only excel in those situations on Sunday if they’ve been well-coached during the rest of the week.

  • Finally, we come to Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers entered this game fighting a lot of history and knowing that none of their previous 5 wins would mean anything if they’d lost. The Steelers came out and played focused football, daring and succeeding in attacking the strength of the Ravens, their rush defense.

  • But that wasn’t the whole story of course.

The Steelers offense sputtered for much of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and easily could have folded or devolved into finger pointing when they began the 4th quarter down by 10. The same could have happened when they were down by 3 with 1:25 to play.

But the Steelers refused to blink and that reflects on their coach. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There are so many candidates worthy of this honor in the Christmas win over the Ravens. All the well-placed praise lavished on the game stars, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown, doesn’t change the fact that their heroics are only possible if their supporting cast does their job.

  • Jesse James and/or the entire Steelers tight ends receiving corps earned strong consideration.

But here we’re going to follow Mike Tomlin’s lead and give recognition to the young 7th round draft pick, how drew a 35 yard pass interference play and then blocked for Le’Veon Bell one touchdown drive. He then made 9 yard catch AND got out of bounds as the clock was ticking down towards zero.

  • All of this came in his very first NFL game, during the 4th quarter with the playoffs on the line.

This young player answered the challenge, and for that Demarcus Ayers wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Christmas Day win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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