Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans: Passing by Guessing Right Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who understands all too well that his students passed by guessing right on a multiple choice test, here is the Steelers Report card for the win over the Titans.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Titans, Joe Haden

Minkah Fitzpatrick recovers a fumble in the 2nd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 16 for 25 for an economical 148 yards and no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for one touchdown. Roethlisberger faced a lot of pressure and the running game was AOWL. The Steelers transformed 4 turnovers into 12 points. If this was Ben’s penultimate game at Heinz Field, he didn’t go out with a bang. Grade: C+

Running Backs
There have been days when Najee Harris hasn’t had good rushing numbers but got good grades nonetheless. The Titans game is not one of those. Harris had no room to run, what else is new, but made bad decisions and lacked the flash that he’s shown thus far this season. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches but as usual made each of them count until leaving with a concussion. Zach Gentry had a 17 yard catch on the Steelers touchdown drive, Pittsburgh’s 2nd longest pass of the game. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 catches for… 38 yards. No, that’s no misprint. James Washington had 3 catches for 36 yards although his 19 yard grab came in garbage time. Chase Claypool had one rush for 12 yards that was credited as a reception even if he’s listed as having zero receptions. Yep, it was that kind of game folks. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The Steelers feature back averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit another three times. The Steelers offensive line is what it is, and “is” is terrible. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Whew. The Titans “only” ran for just over 200 yards and “only” averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Chris Wormley did have a sack on the Titans opening possession and Cam Heyward’s half sack did force a field goal and take 4 points off the board. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and a half and both were impact plays. Devin Bush had a deflected pass which he could have and should have intercepted. He continued to be blocked in run coverage. Joe Schobert intercepted a pass deflected by Taco Charlton. Grade: C

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered a fumble caused by Arthur Maulet that set up the first score. Joe Haden was the game’s MVP recovering a fumble caused by Cam Sutton and icing the game with a textbook tackle on 4th down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job returning punts and his kick returns were OK. Punt return coverage was awful, at one point giving up a 55 yard return. That 55 yard return came after Pressley Harvin III’s 51 yarder which was an outlier as Harvin “booted” punts of 27 and 32 yards (his other punts were either OK or well-placed.) More consistency is needed.

Chris Boswell remained “Mr. Consistency” Knocking in field goals of 36, 28, 46 and 48 yards. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Titans have a talented defense, no doubt and the Steelers offense has its liabilities. Still, Matt Canada’s offense accomplished nothing, outside of a lone touchdown drive. No sticking with the rush until Harris ground out yards, no Jet Motions, no no-huddle. Given four turnovers and quality field position, the Steelers offense should have come away with more than 12 points.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Titans

Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers Titans game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It is true that the Steelers effort on defense had more to do with stars like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden making or taking advantage of big opportunities than scheme or out executing your opponents. But it is also true that before the turnover carnival began, the Steelers were only down 10 points.

  • That’s not bad given how poorly the offense and special teams played.

Overall, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is one that features a number of All Pro caliber men playing along side either green rookies or retreads that are, at best, roster-bubble babies on any other NFL team.

The fact that playoffs remain a possibility this late in December is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s maligned by both fans and the professional press alike and has been since the day he was drafted. And if he hasn’t lived up to his draft position he’s been consistent since arriving in Pittsburgh and he’s also been delivering steady play under the radar. Against the Titans he made a couple of critical plays behind the line of scrimmage and for that Terrell Edmunds is the Unsung Hero of the week.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Rebound with Force Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher unabashedly proud of his student ability forcefully rebound, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Heinz Field win over the Ravens.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
The “Bench Ben” calls look silly now, don’t they? Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his finest game of the season, going 21-31-1-0 for 236 yards and he had a perfectly thrown touchdown ball dropped. You don’t lead 51 comeback wins by accident, and you don’t earn your 51st against the AFC’s leading team if you’re washed up. Grade: A

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his best night on the ground in weeks gaining 71 yards on 21 carries and he banged out his best ones with the game on the line. He also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Benny Snell came in late and while he only had two carries for 13 yards, he ran strong and sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and 3 catches for 26 yards including two that set up the Steelers first score. And he came through with a very difficult 2 point conversion catch. Zach Gentry had 2 catches on the final Steelers scoring drive, one that converted a 3rd down and another than brought them to the 2. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of 11 passes thrown his way for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He is developing into something special. Chase Claypool was having a relatively quiet night, until he opened the 4th quarter by flipping the field, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud had one catch for 7 yards and was robbed of a 32 yarder. James Washington had one pass thrown his way. Diontae Johnson’s dropped TD lowers the group grade. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit 3 other times which might be some sort of record low for the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The biggest difference however was the run blocking. When John Leglue entered the game following B.J. Finney’s injury, he became the 5th player to man the left guard position for the Steelers. Instead of contributing to the downward spiral of the line, he delivered improvements to the run blocking and that, quite frankly, was the difference in this game. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual disruptive self, dropping players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Lamar Jackson and sacking him to help set up the Steelers first score. Montravius Adams walked in off the street and batted down a pass on his eight play as a Steeler. The Ravens came in to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number one rushing attack and barely cracked 100 yards. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt was this good after having COVID how explosive would he have been at full health? Watt’s 3.5 sacks and forced fumble get the attention, but ability to set the edge in the running game and stay disciplined in pursuit of Jackson were equally important. Watt’s first pressure of Jackson forced an interception. His last force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion. Alex Highsmith had struggled against the run but made two tackles for losses. Joe Schobert had a pass defensed. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s end zone interception set the tone not only took 7 points off the board for the Ravens, but it set the tone for the evening. Ahkello Witherspoon got his first start and deflected a 3rd down pass that set up the Steelers final scoring drive. The Ravens converted several third and longs, but the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 19 points. Grade: B+

Special Teams
It was an on and off night for the Steelers special teams. They gave up a long kick return that set up the Ravens 3rd quarter score. Chris Boswell’s mortar kick was well-placed but rolled out of bounds giving the Ravens 15 free yards and untold seconds on the clock. That may not have been his “fault” but the missed extra point was. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK on punt returns but added nothing on as a kick returner. Tre Norwood was perfect on the on-sides kick recovery. Grade: C

Coaching
Matt Canada dialed back some of the bells and whistles of his offense, but remained committed to the run. The Steelers rushing totals weren’t impressive, but it opened up the passing game.

  • Keith Butler had his work cut out for him on defense.

The Steelers defense had gone from suffering quarterly lapses in the running game, to something far more systemic. And they had the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback to defense. Yet Butler managed to find the perfect mix of pressure, containment and coverage.

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But neither Canada’s nor Butler’s schemes wouldn’t have mattered an iota had the Steelers been pushed around at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers instead won those battles after several weeks of losing them. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for snapping that trend and keeping his players positive and focused. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Jersey numbers mean a lot to Steelers fans. Sometimes new players live up to the pedigree. Most often they do not. Since Greg Lloyd retired 22 years ago, 9 different players have worn Number 95. All were either forgettable or disappointing. But against the Ravens number 95 exploded for 2.5 sacks, 3 more QB hits and several stops for no gain, and for that Chris Wormley wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Redemption! Steelers Beat Ravens 20-19 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads 51st Comeback

Players coming off the COVID list at the 11th hour. Guys signing off of other team’s practice squads and suiting up. Injury forcing a 4th string guard into action. 26 fourth quarter points. Two 2-point conversion attempts within a span of 92 seconds.

  • Yes, it was the Steelers vs. the Ravens at their best.

The Steelers came out ahead by a nose, winning 20-19. The victory improved the Steelers record to 6-5-1 and kept their playoff hopes alive. But the victory also delivered something more.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Ravens

Diontae Johnson scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Down, But Not Like This Before?

The Mike Tomlin era has seen the Steelers suffer their share of down swings. While some of those might have been mathematically worse, think the 5 game skid in 2009, this one felt different.

After clawing their way back from a 1-3 record, the Steelers won 4 games in a row, working themselves into the thick of the AFC North race. But those wins were all barn burners, each seemingly closer than the one before.

Then came the comedy of errors that led to the tie against the winless Detroit Lions. Then came the dramatic comeback against the Chargers that fell short due to a total offensive line collapse. But with the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like the other shoe had dropped.

The Steelers didn’t just lose 41-10 in a game that was over at half time, they were manhandled on both sides of scrimmage. Veterans from both Steelers Super Bowl eras, Rocky Bleier and Ryan Clark, piled on.

Bleier charged that the Steelers lacked “pride and self-esteem.” Clark condemned the Steelers defense for “not being able to stop a nosebleed” and four days later called for Ben Roethlisberger to be benched.

  • The worse part about it?

Even the most naïve homer would have had a difficult time telling either man that he was wrong.

Treading Water Instead of Suffocating

Stats have always formed part of NFL’s narrative, but with a rise of analytics this tendency has gone on steroids. Today we can’t watch a game without seeing AWS-sponsored graphics telling us what plays the coaches should call next.

  • And the half time stats painted a pretty grim picture for Pittsburgh.

The Ravens had 13 first downs to the Steelers 4. Not surprisingly, Baltimore had gone 4 for 8 on 3rd down conversions while the Steelers were 0 for 4. Worse yet, the Ravens held a 23:30 to 6:30 advantage in time of possession.

  • Those types of numbers typically indicate one thing: One offense is suffocating the other.

The fact that the Ravens bridged the first and 2nd quarters with a 16 play, 99 yard drive that lasted 10:27 and culminated with a touchdown would seem to confirm this.

But there was something a typical afoot. Thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Ravens had come up with nothing after burning off nearly ½ of the first quarter on an 11 play 65 yard drive.

There’s no question that the Ravens offense held the upper hand, but even if the Steelers defense failed to get off the field on 3rd down, Baltimore wasn’t running at will on Pittsburgh as other teams had.

  • Fantasy football owners started players from the Steelers this week doubtlessly felt bummed beyond belief.

But the key stat from the first half was this: Despite dominating in every category possible, the Baltimore Ravens held a meager 7-3 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Instead of being suffocated, the Steelers were treading water.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Dig Deep as Roethlisberger Leads 51st Comeback

When story tellers chronicle games like this they’re wont to fall back on phrases like, (feel free to imagine John Facenda’s voice), “Times like these force players to dig deep, finding something a little extra that they didn’t know they had.”

This is certainly true. The “usual suspects” authored plenty of big plays to either keep the Steelers in the game or push them ahead:

  • Cam Heyward sacked Jackson, ending a drive and allowing the Steelers to score
  • Najee Harris ripping off a pair of 8 yard runs and a 13er on the Steelers touchdown drives
  • Diontae Johnson came up big, with 2 touchdown catches
  • Pat Freiermuth made a difficult 2 point conversion catch look easy
  • T.J. Watt sacked Lamarr Jackson three and a half times

While those players and perhaps some of those plays will live on forever via NFL Films, Mike Tomlin got critical contributions from unknown and/or forgotten players from deep within his roster.

  • Montravius Adams a practice squad poachee played nearly ½ the snaps, improving the defensive line
  • Steelers practice squader and 4th string guard  John Leglue stepped in making  an immediate impact
    Chris Wormley had a had in 3 sacks, two of which shut down drives
  • Ahkello Witherspoon battled away a pass on 3rd and 15, setting up the Steelers final scoring drive
  • Benny Snell ripped off 5 and 8 yard runs on the final touchdown drive

Beyond these splash plays, on both sides of the ball the Steelers played physical football with discipline. They stopped runners at the line of scrimmage, pressured Lamarr Jackson without allowing him to run wild, and gave up only 5 penalties to the Ravens 10.

But if forced to name a single hero, you’d have to name Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers defense managed just 3 points during the first 45 minutes. Ben Roethlisberger remained cool throughout, and then led an offensive explosion for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a 2-point conversion.

The effort marked Ben Roethlisberger’s 51st comeback win. If the Steelers could hold…

Too Much Time? And Perhaps Too Much Time to Think

When Ben Roethlisberger hit Pat Freiermuth with 1:48 left to play, the response of my friend and rabid Ravens fan Bill W. after the Steelers-Ravens 2016 Christmas classic came to mind, “We left too much time on the clock.”

  • Indeed, the Ravens had gone ahead with 1:18 left to play, and Ben Roethlisberger made them pay.

Could Lamarr Jackson return the favor? Well, when Chris Boswell’s well placed mortar kick rolled out of bounds, it seemed like that might happen. When Jackson moved down the field with clock-work precision (minus the strip sack that went out of bounds) “might happen” became “was happening.”

  • When Jackson connected with Sammy Watkins with 16 seconds left, the worst had come true.

Surely, Justin Tucker, the best place kicker there is, was or will ever be, would send it to over time. But John Harbaugh chose the cerebral approach and went with what his analytics told him: He went for the 2-point conversion.

Harbaugh got the look he wanted. Mark Andrews was open in the flat. A walk off 2 pointer was there for the taking…. And yet, T.J. Watt charged in, forcing the throw a millisecond too soon. It hit Andrews’ finger tips, and then bounced to the Heinz Field turf.

  • The Steelers recovered the on-sides kick and then took a knee.

With the victory, the Steelers earned a new lease on their playoff life.

But they also earned something more important: After a week where fans, pundits and even franchise legends gave up on them, the Steelers steeled their faith in themselves and they prevailed. That earned them far greater than a single win, it earned them Redemption.

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Devoured! Bengals Shame Steelers 41-10, Signal Changing of AFC North Guard

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paul Brown Stadium hoping to keep themselves in the thick of the AFC North division title race. Instead, they found themselves devoured 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Don’t be fooled:  This contest wasn’t even as “close” as the score suggests.

While the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati while playing at Paul Brown Stadium, this wasn’t their first loss. But there was something different about this one, different because it signaled something deeper.

B.J. Hill, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

B.J. Hill sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Bengals.com

Yes, This Game Was Competitive. For a While

The Cincinnati Bengals are a better football team than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, looking beyond the frame of this game or this season, the Bengals are a team on the rise. The Steelers are not.

But this is the NFL. If Washington can beat the Patriots, the Jets can beat the Bengals, and the Dolphins can beat the Ravens then the Steelers could have beaten the Bengals.

  • And there were times in the first half when this seemed like it might be possible.

The Bengals scored on their first possession and made it look easy, with Joe Mixon accounting for 54 yards on that first drive and Joe Burrow running in untouched for a touchdown. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger would throw inside while Chase Claypool broke outside and Eli Apple snapped Big Ben’s interceptionless streak – and returned it 50 yards to the Steelers 5 for good measure.

Oddly enough, the next sequence proves that the Steelers, with a few plays could have made something of this game.

  • The Steelers stuffed Mixon on 2nd and 3rd and then Chris Wormley dropped Burrow on 3rd down.

Defenses that respond to a dramatic turnover by forcing an offense to settle for 3 typically find ways to win football games. The offense took note, as Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Chase Claypool; this time the sophomore from Notre Dame flipped the field.

  • The Steelers converted another third down, but alas had to settle for a field goal.

The Bengals scored on their next two possessions, which each touchdown coming easier than the first. Things were beginning to look bleak before the half, when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow with just under a minute left to go and returned it 19 yards.

  • Yes, a little bit of Minkah had given the Steelers a lease on life.

37 seconds isn’t a lot of time, but Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have proven field flipping ability. And once you get in the Red Zone, Pat Freiermuth isn’t quite “money” but he’s getting there. So if the Steelers could get a touchdown, get the ball back at the half and find the end zone again, the 2nd half could be quite interesting….

…Instead Ben Roethlisberger threw to James Washington but couldn’t step into his throw and former Steeler Mike Hilton was only to happy to make him pay, returning a pick six 24 yards and improving the score to 31-3.

And that ladies and gentleman, was the game.

Joe Mixon, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Mixon scores a 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Little Analysis Necessary

When it was all over, the Steelers lost the game 41-10. Really, a second half comeback wasn’t feasible. (No, Alex Highsmith’s could have been pick six wouldn’t have moved the needle).

This Steelers squad simply isn’t talented enough or healthy enough. While James Pierre has looked sharp at times this year, he’s got a long way to go to show he’s the next Joe Haden. T.J. Watt was in uniform, but his best play was his post interception scuffle with Joe Burrow. Either Devin Bush‘s heart or his ACL recovery is lagging or perhaps a little of both, but he’s not getting the job done.

  • The Steelers tried moving Cam Heyward to nose tackle, but that proved to be a mistake.

On the offensive, Najee Harris showed he was capable of being truly a special back, but he hath no line to block for him. Fourth string guard B.J. Finney helped remind everyone why the Steelers let him go in free agency, two teams parted with him during 2020 and the Steelers waited until November to dress him.

  • This is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that can’t run and can’t stop the run.

Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t carry this team on his back in 2021 and yesterday proved that. Claypool, Johnson and Freiermuth made some nice plays, but Ben clearly failed to make some throw’s he’d have made as recently as 2018.

Tomlin Promises Changes, but Some Changes Are Beyond His Control

Since he arrived in the NFL during the Steelers 2004 season, commentators have seldom tired of reminding us of how well Ben Roethlisberger has played in his native Ohio. He did it again this fall in Cleveland, but this streak skidded out Sunday in Cincinnati.

That’s an interesting factoid, but the story of this game goes beyond Ben losing what is likely his last game in Ohio. When asked change was coming after the game, Mike Tomlin admitted  “You know, we’re open to doing whatever is required to change what’s trending.”

While there are some changes Tomlin can make, perhaps even ones that will bear fruit next week against Baltimore, the Steelers loss at Paul Brown Stadium signals that the guard has changed in the AFC North.

And there’s no decision Mike Tomlin can make this season to alter that reality.

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Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

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

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Cart: The Starters

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

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

  • In the middle of it all was Tyson Alualu.

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

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

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

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

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

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day Late, But This Time Not a Dollar Short

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

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

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

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

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

  • The situation seemed too ironic to be true.

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

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

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

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

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

Alaualu’s Return Delivers Depth and Flexibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

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

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

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

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

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

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

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

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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