Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Few and Far Between: Steelers Starting Spots Up for Grab as Training Camp Starts

The Steelers are set to report to training camp this week.

It will be a training camp like no other. That’s right, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NFL players will have a ramp-up period to get acclimated to this new reality. This ramp-up period will include testing and weight and cardio conditioning.

Steelers St. Vincents, Steelers training camp, Steelers Latrobe

For the 1st time in 54 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not hold training camp at St. Vincents, in Latrobe. Photo Credit: WPXI

After that, it’s actual padded practices starting around mid-August or so. Oh, and did I mention training camp will be conducted at Heinz Field instead of St. Vincents this year? Also, there will be no preseason games. That’s right, due to the players’ concerns over traveling and putting themselves at risk, the NFLPA and NFL owners agreed to do away with exhibition football as a means to avoid unnecessary exposure and travel.

  • One last thing, teams will begin camp with 80 players instead of the standard 90.

That’s a lot to digest. That’s a lot to take in during this “new normal” that will include a regular season with few or zero fans in attendance at stadiums all across the NFL.

  • What’s a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for two-straight years to do?

Actually, the Steelers are a bit of an anomaly. Even though they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2017 season, they enter 2020 with few starting jobs up for grabs.

Actually, other than the battle between Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor for the vacant starting right tackle spot, I can’t think of any other starting jobs that are truly up for grabs. And when it comes to that vacant right tackle spot, it’s kind of manufactured. In other words, head coach Mike Tomlin announced weeks ago that the team would begin training camp with Matt Feiler, the starting right tackle the past two seasons, as the starter at left guard in place of the recently-retired Ramon Foster.

That was a slightly surprising revelation by Tomlin, especially considering the free agent acquisition of Stefen Wisniewski, a 10-year veteran who could easily slide into the left guard spot for at least the 2020 season. Meanwhile, rookie Kevin Dotson, who Pittsburgh selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, could hone his craft and prepare for life as the starting left guard hopefully by 2021.

But even if things don’t work out, and neither Banner or Okorafor jump up to seize the opportunity at right tackle, Feiler could easily move back to that spot, while Wisniewski assumes the role as starting left guard.

Again, other than the questions along the offensive line, what other starting jobs are open? I suppose the Steelers have to find their next starting nose tackle following the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave.

But do they really? After all, it’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s defense spends very little time in its 3-4 base formation–like 33 percent. Is finding a new starter really all that critical? Veteran Tyson Alualu seems poised to absorb the starter snaps at nose tackle, anyway, so that might be your answer.

What else is there? We know JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to be the number one receiver. After him, James Washington and Diontae Johnson appear to be interchangeable. True, based on his rookie performance, Johnson probably has the inside track on the number two receiver position, but with the Steelers employing so many three and four-receiver sets, does it really matter who your number two receiver is?

  • What else is there? We know James Conner is going to be the starting running back just as long as he stays healthy.

We also know the defense, one of the more elite units in the NFL, has no question marks at the top of the depth chart other than at nose tackle, which, again, doesn’t seem that critical of an issue.

So there you go. The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are about to embark on the most unusual training camp in the history of the NFL, followed by a regular season that figures to be quite surreal.

They’re coming off back-to-back playoff-less seasons, and, rather surprisingly, they don’t have many questions at the top of the depth chart.

Not a bad place to be in this new and surreal NFL reality.

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Matt Feiler Moving to Left Guard for the Steelers? Surprising? Perhaps, but it Makes Sense

While on a virtual conference call with the media on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Matt Feiler, who started 26 games at right tackle over the previous two seasons — including all 16 regular season games in 2019 — will open up training camp next month taking snaps at left guard.

  • When I first heard the news, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit shocked.

After all, I’m a practical and pragmatic guy–two words I’d also use to describe Tomlin–so when Ramon Foster retired after 11 years of very consistent left guard play, it just made sense to me to plug Stefen Wisniewski, a long-time veteran Pittsburgh signed as a free agent in the spring, into that spot for at least the start of the 2020 campaign.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

With so many people high on Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, perhaps he could assume the starting role at left guard sooner rather than later.

  • Why disrupt two positions along the offensive line, when you only have to find a replacement for one?

However, after hearing Mike Tomlin’s explanation, it now makes sense to me on more than one level.

“We don’t have time to mess around in this environment,” said Tomlin in a quote courtesy of Steel City Insider. “We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to people that have been here at least as a basis to begin, and that’s the way we’re going to begin the training camp process, knowing that the process is going to be an abbreviated one.”

  • Matt Feiler is a versatile lineman, one who is capable of playing both guard and tackle.

Therefore, if you have to move someone to another position, why not the guy who knows the system even better than the older veteran you just signed?

Also, as Tomlin explained during his talk with the media, moving Feiler to guard opens things up for a competition at the right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Zach Banner, a fourth-round pick by the Colts in 2017 who came to Pittsburgh in 2018 after spending some time with the Browns.

Both players are at the points of their careers where the Steelers need to find out if they have what it takes to be starters. In fact, if neither shows that potential during training camp, it may be time to wonder if either ever will.

  • Okorafor has some experience as a starter, while Banner spent most of 2019 reporting as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages.

If one or both step up in 2020, that could bode well for the Steelers’ future at both tackle spots. Let’s face it, as much as Steelers fans love him, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva isn’t getting any younger. While he’s fairly young in a professional football sense, he’ll be 32 in September, an age that’s never young in a professional athlete sense.

Besides, Alejandro Villanueva signed a four-year, $24 million contract in 2017, a deal that’s set to expire after the 2020 season. With the Steelers facing so many tough financial decisions regarding their superstar players over the next few seasons, it may not be the worst thing in the world for both Okorafor and Banner to step up and show they can be reliable starting tackles in the NFL.

At the very least, if one of those youngsters claims the starting right tackle spot at training camp, that frees up Wisniewski, like the recently-departed B.J. Finney, someone capable of playing both guard and center, to be the versatile veteran backup interior lineman who can step in and start in a pinch.

So to sum it up, thanks to Matt Feiler’s position flexibility and ability to play both guard and tackle at a high level, the Steelers are really only disrupting one position along the offensive line, even while creating a situation for two new starters.

Now it’s up to Chuks Okorafor and/or Zach Banner to jump up and seize the opportunity.

 

 

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Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Mulling Steelers Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler’s Future in Pittsburgh

The Steelers have made it a habit in recent years of taking undrafted free agent offensive linemen and molding them into starting-caliber players. Matt Feiler is perhaps the most recent example. However, is he worth bringing back as a restricted free agent? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, Feiler initially signed with the Texans, where he spent that season on their practice squad after being cut near the end of training camp. After failing to make Houston’s roster out of camp the following year, Feiler was then signed to the Steelers practice squad at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.

With the exception of a brief cup of coffee on the active roster, the practice squad is where Feiler remained through the end of the 2016 season. Feiler finally made the Steelers 53-man roster in 2017, appearing in five games and starting the regular season-finale at guard. In 2018, Feiler started 11 games at right tackle for the injured Marcus Gilbert. After Gilbert was traded to the Cardinals last offseason, Feiler won the starting right tackle job in training camp and started all 16 games in 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

Feiler will turn 28 right before the start of the 2020 training camp, which means he’s coming into the prime of his career. Also, as a restricted free agent, the Steelers have the option of placing a second-round tender on him. Last offseason, the Steelers did the same to reserve guard/center B.J. Finney to the tune of $3.095 million.

Even if a second-round tender is a bit more expensive this season, that still wouldn’t be a bad price to pay for a lineman that has started 26 games over the past two years. Furthermore, Feiler has experience at guard, which gives him that all-important position flexibility.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

As always, the Steelers are currently up against the salary cap. Chukwuma Okorafor, who is entering his third season after the Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, theoretically should be ready to jump into a starting role in 2020. Also, the arrow appears to be pointing up for Zach Banner, a USC product who saw increased playing-time last year as a tackle-eligible receiver in many short-yardage packages. If the Steelers are confident that one or both youngsters are ready to start at right tackle next season, money might talk, and Feiler may have to walk.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

With veteran guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty, and with Finney about to become an unrestricted free agent, Feiler’s versatility may prove to be an asset to the Steelers in 2020 and beyond. A season ago, in a game against the Rams at Heinz Field, head coach Mike Tomlin started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster, while Okorafor started at right tackle. Why that lineup, instead of inserting the reliable Finney in at left guard?

As Tomlin said after the game, he wanted bigger bodies up front in order to deal with the Rams’ impressive front seven, one that included Aaron Donald. Maybe Tomlin was giving us a glimpse into the Steelers’ future along the offensive line. Whether that was the case or not, I believe it would be in the Steelers’ best interests to bring back Matt Feiler in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Time to Say Goodbye? Steelers B.J. Finney Reaches Unrestricted Free Agency

An undrafted free agent out of Kansas State in 2015, B.J. Finney has appeared to be destined for a starting role in the middle of the Steelers offensive line for years. Will he finally get his chance in 2020? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

 

Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers

After spending his rookie season on the Steelers practice squad, Finney made the final 53-man roster in 2016 and even started three games at both center and left guard. Finney has started a total of 13 games at center and both guard positions during his four years in Pittsburgh–including four at center a year ago–and the line hasn’t missed a beat. Finney was a restricted free agent a season ago, and the Steelers thought enough of him to place a second-round tender on him to the tune of $3.095 million.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

With veteran left guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty and Pittsburgh continuing to find financial freedom lacking, Finney would seem like the perfect fit to transition into a starting role in 2020. With Foster, 34, due to make over $5 million next season, the Steelers could net a savings of roughly $1.5 million if they can ink Finney, 28, to a deal that averages close to the $3 million he made in 2019 on his tender.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

Matt Feiler is a restricted free agent, one that would likely command a tender that’s equal to or greater than the one Finney signed last year. Feiler, who started all 16 games at right tackle last year, can also play guard. Also, Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, both offensive tackles, earn far less than what Finney is projected to make next season.

Plus, one or both might be ready to start at right tackle in 2020. If that is the case, the Steelers, who started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster in a game against the Rams last year (and not Finney), might feel that they can transition Feiler to left guard permanently.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

I think Finney has what it takes to be a starting guard or center in the NFL for the next five years. In a perfect world, he would just slide into the starting left guard position for the Steelers and there would be no drop off from Foster’s play. But this isn’t a perfect world.

This is a world where the Steelers must make some tough decisions, based mostly on finances. With so much money already tied up in the offensive line, they probably can’t retain both Finney and Feiler. At the moment, they have more control over Feiler than Finney. And that’s why I think they may have no choice but to let B.J. Finney walk as an unrestricted free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams – Who Got A’s, Who got D’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch to see half of his class excelling to their potential while worried that the other half keeps losing points due to misspellings and other sloppy mistakes, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Rams at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph passed for a career high 242 yards as he completed 22 of 38 attempts with no interceptions and one touchdown. Hardly numbers to impress a Fantasy Football owner. But what those numbers fail to demonstrate is the poise, control and command that Mason Rudolph displayed on the field. Ultimately, that proved to be a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels got his 2nd consecutive start and was limited to 40 total yards from scrimmage as he was neither a threat to run nor as a pass catcher. Tony Brooks-James got 11 yards on 6 carries. Trey Edmunds got 1 yard on 4 carries, although he did convert a critical 4th down pass. It wasn’t all their fault, but the Steelers needed more from their running backs. They didn’t get it. Grade: D

Tight Ends
The Steelers used a lot of two tight end sets in hopes of helping the offensive line against the Rams stout front seven. The lack of running lanes for the running backs and the punishment Mason Rudolph faced speak for themselves. Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 11 yards. Nick Vannett caught 1 of 1 passes thrown his way. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
James Washington took another stride forward in catching 6 passes for 90 yards, including a touchdown. Yet he coughed up the ball just as he was moving the Steelers into scoring position. Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes for 64 yards while JuJu Smith-Schuster, battling Jaylen Ramsey for most of the day, was limited to 3 catches for 44 yards. The Steelers wide outs must do better. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line had its stiffest test, so stiff that Mike Tomlin reconfigured it by moving Matt Feiler to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor to right tackle. Things didn’t start well as a bad snap spotted the Rams 7 points. Mason Rudolph had good time to throw at times, but he did take more punishment than he has all season. As for the running game? The Rams recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: D-

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave led the Steelers defensive line in tackles, including a key strip sack, which although  probably a gift from the officials, turned the game for the Steelers. Cam Heyward registered one helacious sack, another tackle for a loss, 2 passes defensed and 3 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a hand in a tackle behind scrimmage and 4 tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
We could have written this ahead of time:  T.J. Watt led the unit with 2 sacks including a strip sack. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 3 a piece while Mark Barron clocked in the most with 11 and 1 pass defensed. Strong play by the line backers, but cursory viewing replays suggest that the inside linebackers were largely responsible for the gaps that Todd Gurley and Malcom Brown exploited. Grade: B+

Secondary
Is Minkah Fitzpatrick for real? Or is Minkah Magic just a dream? Each week when the Steelers need a big play Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up on cue. The Rams game added to his lore, as his heads up fumble recovery for a touchdown and last minute interceptions were game changers. Mike Hilton played point man in shutting down Cooper Kupp, while Steven Nelson had a key tackle to force a third down with 11:44 left to play. Terrell Edmunds helped bat away a pass in the end zone, although he’s lucky he didn’t get called for pass interference. Grade: A

Steven Nelson, Gerald Everett, Steelers vs Rams

Steven Nelson makes key 3rd down stop on Gerald Everett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Special Teams
As usual the Steelers coverage units gave up a longish punt and kick returns. Ryan Switzer got negative yards on the one punt return he tried to bring back. Diontae Johnson returned 3 punts including one for 14 yards, but he had a fumble.

  • Chris Boswell was 1-1 on his field goal and perfect on PATs.

The key play for Danny Smith’s special teams was Trey Edmunds interception to stop a fake punt attempt, which could have been a game changer. Grade: B

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s taking a lot of heat. Some of it is justified, some not. Fichtner didn’t fumble those three balls nor did he drop those six passes. These types of execution errors are hobbling the offense. He’s also playing with a running game on life support.

However, winning and losing starts at the line of scrimmage, and the put plainly, Pittsburgh is consistently losing that battle when it comes to establishing the run.

  • In the 90’s, when Carnell Lake reported after ending a contract hold out, Dick LeBeau quipped to reporters, “I just became a better coach.”

The addition of players like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, paired with the maturation of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seems to be making Keith Butler much, much a better coach too. Seriously. The Steelers defense is performing at levels not seen since at least 2010 if not 2008 and has scored as many touchdowns as the offense in the last two weeks.

The Steelers started the season at 1-4 and, while injuries contributed to that “September stench,” they’ve remained and issue since then. Today they’re 5-4 and “Playoffs” are a real possibility for Pittsburgh. Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his team focused and finding ways to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two years he’s been the top dog in his unit. Steelers management agrees, so says the contract he signed before the season. Since then his spot in the pecking order has been displaced, but he’s but he’s not been deterred, as his five defensed passes led the team on Sunday, including a final one that set up the game sealing interception, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams.

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