Were Rusty Steelers Struggles Against Browns Due to Preseason Philosophy?

Why were the Pittsburgh Steelers so rusty in their 2017 opening win against the Cleveland Browns

Well, chalk it up to Mke Tomlin’s approach to preseason football this past summer. To cut to the chase, scroll down about. Otherwise enjoy our Uruguayan interlude…

Steelers vs Browns, Le'Veon Bell

The Browns gang tackle Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers 2017 opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Steelerless Sunday and an Uruguayan Interlude….

Watching NFL football on tape delay can be a curious experience. Today, despite on-demand viewing’s dominance , the NFL has defended its Appointment Viewing turf. Football fails to excite when you know the outcome, and its getting really hard avoid spoilers. Unless…

…You live outside the United States, as yours truly has done, well for a long time. So I found myself spending my 12 wedding anniversary in Montevideo, Uruguay which happened to coincide with the Steelers 2017 opener against the Browns.

As the weekend evolved, it became clear that my wife would be tied up at a translation Congress for most of Sunday afternoon….

…Which opened the door to watching the game! (Note to Steelers fans who got or will get married from September to early February – I once tried to combine a wedding anniversary dinner follow by “meeting the guys to catch the end of the game” and, as the old faux SNL commercial goes: Bad Idea.)

But I was free on Sunday afternoon. Alas, Google searches in English and Spanish could not confirm any locale in Montevideo that showed NFL games. El Dr. de Acero gave me his NFL Game Pass login credentials, but they didn’t work. So, spent the chilly, rainy September Sunday in Montevideo unable to watch the Steelers unwilling learn of the result, plowing through Peter Carlin’s biography of Bruce Springsteen.

After all, I’d be able to watch the game, commercial free, in less than 12 hours when I was back home in Buenos Aires…

…Except that my Monday morning boat ride home turned into a Monday evening boat ride home, thanks to storms on the Rio de la Plata (take that Lake Eire! I guess) so as it was, I couldn’t see the Steelers against the Browns until 11:00 pm that night.

Rusty Steelers Struggles Against Browns Due to Preseason Philosophy?

As stated above, NFL football on tape delay can be a curious animal. Thanks to heavy rains in the porteño capital, DirectTV informed me that part of the program I’d taped (the game) hadn’t recorded.

So by the time I got to an image I could see, the game had barely started, the Steelers were ahead 7-0, and Chris Boswell was kicking off to the Browns. Wow! The Koolaid of the return of the Steelers Killer Bees sure does give you a nice sugar high!

While I’d assumed that Juju Smith Schuster had probably returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, surely this was a sign that the offensive juggernaut created by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant was going to treat Steelers Nation to a season opener in Cleveland somewhat akin to 1999’s 43-0 opening day Browns beating.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the best recent Steelers-Browns comparison comes from 2014’s Chuck Noll Day victory. But even that analogy falls short, because that was an afternoon of extremes for Steelers.

  • Against the Browns the Steelers offense simply sputtered, while Pittsburgh’s defense punished itself with penalties.

Chalk most of the Steelers defensive woes to over aggressiveness; while set up the scores that kept the Browns in the game, does anyone here want to gentle the aggressiveness out of T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier or Cam Heyward?

Neither do I.

The offensive side of the ball is much harder to excuse, especially because the Steelers offense looked like a group of guys who hadn’t played together for well, about 232. Which is accurate, because you could probably sum the total time the Steelers starting offense (with James Conner filling in for Le’Veon Bell, of course) played together in preseason an not break single digits.

  • While I’m too young to be a grumpy old man, perhaps there’s cause to call me a curmudgeon and I unapologetically remain a preseason football apologist.

OK, the game has changed. Salary cap realities force coaches to use preseason more strategically. A season ending injury to Terry Bradshaw or Lynn Swann would have been just as devastating to Chuck Noll’s Steelers on the field, but it wouldn’t have amounted to a dead money drag on the team.

And let’s be fair. This isn’t Mike Tomlin’s first rodeo, and all of the Steelers starters on offense, save for Roosevelt Nix, are playing on their second NFL contracts. These guys have experience and don’t need the reps.

But its hard not to notice that the one guy who surprised everyone with his shine was Jesse James, a player to saw extensive action in the exhibition season. On the flip side, Maurkice Pouncey got hit with a couple of holding calls, and Lon Ledyard of Steel City Insider pointedly called out Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro’s play.

  • OK, Antonio Brown didn’t play much in preseason either. Joe Hayden didn’t play at all (for the Steelers at least).

Unfortunately, accurate preseason snap counts aren’t available (yet.) The “Hard Hitting Analysis” thing to do would be to go back, look at preseason summaries, and get a rough idea of who played and how much, but that falls outside of this this is a stream of consciousness type article.

So be it. The workday beckons. The Steelers had their NFL equivalent of a warmup game against Appalachian State and they won it. But it says here that such opening day rustiness could have been avoided with a slightly different approach to preseason football on the part of Mike Tomlin and his staff.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Preview: Its Mike Tomlin’s Team & Ben Roethlisberger’s Time

Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:

  • This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
  • And it is Ben Roethlisberger’s time

Declaring that the Steelers are “Truly Mike Tomlin’s team” might sound a little strange, given that Tomlin already has 10 years and 103 victories under his belt and given that this site has never abided by the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense (let alone the diarrhea mouthing of Colin Cowherd.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Kevin Lorenzi, The Times

But a quick look at the roster reveals that aside from Roethlisberger, James Harrison is the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have played for Bill Cowher. In fact, the Steelers roster has come full circle under Mike Tomlin, with his first ever draft pick Lawrence Timmons having played for 10 years before departing for Miami.

But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.

Ryan Shaizer, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive

Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.

  • Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.

And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.

  • Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.

For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports

During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.

On defense, the Steelers have methodically rebuilt their roster, done some exercises in trial and error (see Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones), made some mistakes (see Cortez Allen or Shamarko Thomas), and has some plain bad luck (see Senquez Golson).

While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.

  • The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers signal caller caused some cardiac arrhythmia last January when he openly mused about retirement. Fans old enough to remember Mark Malone’s 46.4 passer rating as a starter in 1987, fret at the thought of losing a franchise quarterback, but the positive to all of this is that Ben Roethlisberger will likely leave the game and the Steelers on his own terms.

  • You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.

Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?

  • The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Ike Taylor, Demaryius Thomas, Tim Tebow, Steelers vs Broncos

Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”

But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

  • In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.

Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.

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7 Keys to Winning a Seventh Steelers Super Bowl in 2017

The Steelers 2017 season has finally arrived. When the Steelers kickoff their 2017 season opener against the Cleveland Browns, 232 days will have elapsed since their (latest) humiliating AFC Championship defeat at the heads of the New England Patriots.

Added the desire to wash that bad taste out of Steelers Nation’s collective mouth, comes the reality that the Roethlisberger retirement clock “officially” began ticking in the off season.

While the 2017 season might not be a franchise “Now or Never” moment, Ben Roethlisberger’s career is nearing its end. With that in mind, here are 7 Keys to a Seventh Steelers Super Bowl in 2017.

Seventh Steelers Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown & Ben Roethlisberger at Cleveland in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

1. Keep Ben Roethlisberger Healthy

This is a no-brainer. Landry Jones deserves more respect than he gets, but he’s no franchise quarterback. The Steelers have struggled without Big Ben in 2015 and 2016. 2017 will be no different.

Ben Roethlisberger must stay healthy for the Steelers to win Lombardi Number 7 in 2017. Period.

2. Find a Way to Keep from Tolling the Bell Too Much

Le’Veon Bell is easily the best running back in the NFL, and he makes the Steelers offense truly dynamic. If all works out well, if Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant both stay healthy and play to their potential, the Steelers shouldn’t need to lean on Le’Veon the way they did in 2016.

  • The Steelers need a healthy Le’Veon Bell to win a Super Bowl.

There’s a reason Le’Veon Bell’s first playoff apperance led to a Steelers AFC Champion trip.  As previously discussed, limiting Le’Veon Bell’s carry count is simple on paper, but tremendously complex to execute in the heat of a game.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers must find a way to use James Conners and Terrell Watson to spell Le’Veon Bell.

Chuck Noll didn’t need to do it with Franco Harris, he split carries between the halfback and the fullback. The franchise talked about spelling Jerome Bettis during his prime, but really couldn’t make it happen (anyone remember George Jones? No? Point made).

Todd Haley needs to be the offensive coordinator who threads this needle.

3. Get There with Four

Keith Butler’s mantra as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with 4.” “There,” in case you haven’t noticed, is the quarterback.

Keith Butler’s goal is to use no more than four defenders to rush the passer, in an attempt to bolster coverage downfield, and particularly on the short and medium routes that form the soft underbelly of the Steelers Zone Blitz scheme.

  • Thus far, this goal has eluded Butler.

In Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers have 3 down lineman who can pressure the passer. Bud Dupree must continue the growth he flashed in late 2016 while come combination of T.J. Watt, James Harrison and Anthony Chickillo must get the job done on the other side.

T.J. Watt, James Harrison

James Harrison tutors T.J. Watt. Hopefully the rookie learned something. Photo Credit: Pitt247 Sports

4. Man Up in the Secondary

This subtitle is perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration. After the AFC Championship debacle, the arm chair head coaches quickly second guessed Mike Tomlin for not playing more man coverage against the Patriots. Tomlin as much admitted that the Steelers didn’t have the secondary personnel to do so. And let’s remember something important:

  • Playing man against the Patriots worked for about 3 quarters for the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

The problem is you need it to work for more than that. Regardless of whether it’s playing more man coverage when necessary, shifting seamlessly between 3-4 base alignments and nickel alignments that use more of a 4-3 base alignment, the Steelers secondary must improve in 2017.

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier interception

Ryan Shazier intercepts a pass during his rookie preseason. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

That doesn’t mean that the secondary needs to be a shutdown defense like Bill Cowher’s Blitzgurgh defenses of the 1990’s or of the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl Championship run. But there’s no path to Lombardi Number 7 that includes allowing any playoff quarterback to shred their defensive backfield the way Tom Brady did in January.

  • Point 4.b. to this list would be keeping Ryan Shazier healthy.

Ryan Shazier has shown the dynamic playmaking capability that has marked the great Steelers defenders of yesteryear. But he’s also been hurt a lot. Fans who scapegoat him or criticize him for this need to get over themselves.

But a lot of offensive coordinators will sleep very easily at night if the Steelers starting inside linebackers are Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort for an extended period of time.

5. Embrace and Overcome the Unexpected

The Steelers returned to the playoffs in 2014 but without Le’Veon Bell, the man who accounted for 1/3 of their offense. In 2015, they made it to the divisional round without Antonio Brown, without Ben Roethlisberger, and without DeAngelo Williams. If someone had told you a year ago:

“By December, our number 2, 3, and 4 wide receivers will be Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers. Oh, and Cam Heyward will have been lost since midseason. And Bud Dupree will just be working himself back into the line up.”

You’d have likely concluded that Steelers Nation was set, at best, to spend Christmas memorizing NFL playoff tie breakers.

Eli Rogers, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Christmas win Ravens

Eli Rogers races for a first down in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Except that’s not what happened. Yes, the AFC Championship proved to be too big a stage for Rogers, Hamilton and Ayers, and you’d certainly prefer to start Cam Heyward over Ricardo Mathews across from Tom Brady.

  • “The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse.”

Mike Tomlin has preached that since he arrived in Pittsburgh and over the last three seasons the Steelers have internalized his mentality. Injuries will happen in the NFL. It is the nature of the game. 2017 will provide no exceptions to that reality.

To win a Super Bowl, whenever the untimely injury, suspension or other off the field event strikes, whoever the Steelers proverbial “next man up” is must embrace it as an opportunity and his teammates must work to overcome the unexpected.

6. Secure Hope Field Advantage for the Playoffs

Cream rises to the top. The ‘80 Oakland Raiders, the ‘97 Denver Broncos, the ’00 Baltimore Ravens, the ’07 New York Giants and of course the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers entered the playoffs as Wild Card teams and exited as Champions.

  • But there’s no denying that the extra week of rest that a playoff bye brings makes a big difference.

Case in point, the 2010 Steelers were the last team to secure a playoff bye and the last team to make the Super Bowl. So its critical that the Steelers secure first round playoff bye, even if they play in a more difficult division than some of the other AFC contenders.

  • But getting a playoff bye alone isn’t enough.

If the Steelers are to bring home Lombardi Number 7 then in 2017 road to the Super Bowl must once again run through Pittsburgh. There are lots of obvious reasons for this, and one less than obvious reason is that at this stage of his career, Ben Roethlisberger is playing far better at home than on the road.

7. Don’t Get Hung Up on New England

Every self-respecting citizen of Steelers Nation relishes the idea of beating the New England Patriots in the playoffs. That’s fine for the fans, but the Steelers as an organization can’t allow beating New England to become their focus. To understand why, think back to:

  • The 2011 Steelers win over the Patriots, the 1972 Redskins, and the ’11 Debacle in Baltimore.

The Steelers last win over the New England Patriots came in October 2011 at Heinz Field on a glorious Sunday to be a Steelers fan. Unfortunately it also marked the last time the Steelers looked like a Super Bowl contender until 2015. In fact, in the very next week the Steelers choked against the Ravens in a game that cost them the AFC North.

Steelers defeat Patriots 2011, Troy Polamalu, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Troy Polamalu takes down Wes Welker in the Steelers last win over the Patriots in 2011. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via New York Times

That experience brings to mind the 1972 Redskins. Growing up in DC I can remember an NFL Films sketch on the 1972 Redskins that featured a wild post-NFC Championship Redskins locker room celebration that included a veteran form the team explaining that “When we beat Dallas in the NFC Championship when they were World Champs, that was like our Super Bowl….”

Except it wasn’t then, and won’t be in 2017. Fortunately, Mike Tomlin realizes that as evidence to his response to Peter King’s “How are you going to beat the Patriots” question:

I don’t think about that. I just know that it is less about the nameless gray faces that you play, and most of the time your issues and your solutions are in house. We gotta strengthen ourselves for the fight. It’s easy as a cop out for me to identify the outside variables. It’s a much tougher discussion with yourself to really get gritty and look within yourself and look at the things that are important and what you need to get done. It’s not a lack of acknowledgement of the dominance of the Patriots. But it’s really not that important. We better take care of our house. We better till our soil, as they say.

Mike Tomlin has the right mentality here. But, given that the Steelers play the Patriots in December and then, potentially a few weeks later in the playoffs, Tomlin needs to ensure that his team follows his lead.

Going into the 2011 season many in the press felt the Steelers had the Raven’s number. The fact that the Ravens had made so many last minute personnel changes only fueled the feeling. Mike Tomlin didn’t flinch and instead preached of the danger inherent in unfamiliarity.

Many potential paths to Pittsburgh’s 7th Super Bowl Championship include victories over New England, but none of the end there, and everyone in the Steelers organization much remember that.

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Steelers Pull Out Last-second Win in Preseason Finale Against Panthers

Rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs scored on a one-yard touchdown run with two seconds remaining, as the Steelers eked out a 17-14 victory at Carolina in the preseason finale Thursday night.

Second-string quarterback Landry Jones started against the Panthers, playing the first two series and completing four of six passes for 28 yards and an interception before giving way to Dobbs late in the first quarter.

The Panthers jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to a four-yard plunge by running back Fozzy Whittaker and led 7-3 early in the second period, when Dobbs hit Justin Hunter on a 58-yard touchdown run down the right sideline  to give Pittsburgh a 10-7 lead.

The Panthers re-gained the lead late in the first half thanks to a 13-yard touchdown pass from Joe Webb to Damiere Byrd to make it 14-10 as the two teams headed to the locker room.

Early in the second quarter, the Steelers had a royal opportunity to take the lead, thanks to an interception by safety Malik Golden, who returned the pick seven yards to the Panthers 14-yard line. Unfortunately for Golden, he pulled up lame as soon as he came down with the football and, just days before the final cut-down from 90 to 53 players, was forced to miss the rest of the night with a groin injury.

Photo credit: Steelerswire/USAToday

The Steelers failed to capitalize on the takeaway and actually came away with zero points, after running back Terrell Watson gained nine yards on four-straight carries.

Late in the third quarter, backup inside linebacker L.T. Fort recovered a fumble at the Panthers 48-yard line, but, again, the Steelers were unable to come away with points, and the score remained 14-10 heading into the final period.

The final nail in Pittsburgh’s coffin appeared to come at the 1:29 mark of the fourth quarter, after Dobbs hit reserve receiver Cobi Hamilton with a short pass; after Hamilton gained 31 yards down to the 20, he fumbled while being tackled, and the Panthers recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

However, the Steelers used all three of their timeouts while stopping the Panthers on three plays and forced a punt that ultimately set the stage for Dobbs’ heroics at the end.

  • For the night, Dobbs completed 16 of 23 passes for 212 yards and the score to Hunter.

It’s now on to the regular season, as the Steelers travel to Cleveland for a Week 1 battle against the Browns on September 10.

 

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Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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Steelers Start 2017 Preseason on a Positive Note with 20-12 Win over Giants

The Steelers opened their 2017 preseason schedule with a trip to MetLife Stadium Friday night to take on the Giants.

As is usually the case in these initial preseason affairs, mistakes were plentiful, but then so were the positive plays, as Pittsburgh outlasted New York, 20-12, to open with a 1-0 record in exhibition play.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the team’s fourth round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, got the start in-place of backup Landry Jones, who usually takes center stage in these situations, but was sidelined with an oblique injury.

Dobbs certainly looked like a rookie in the first quarter, when he threw two interceptions that led directly to a couple of Giants field goals and a 6-0 deficit.

However, following cornerback Mike Hilton’s recovery of a Donte Deayon muffed punt late in the second quarter, Dobbs connected with receiver Cobi Hamilton on a 28-yard touchdown pass with just seven seconds remaining in the first half to give Pittsburgh a 10-9 lead at the break.

In the second half, following the Giants’ fourth field goal of the game, the Steelers scored 10 unanswered points–including a 15-yard scamper by reserve running back Terrell Watson–to open the preseason with a very satisfying eight-point victory.

That’s the box score; what about some individual efforts?

How about the debut of rookie first round pick T.J. Watt, who recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in the first quarter and also had a quarterback pressure later in the first half?

Then there’s veteran outside linebacker Arthur Moats, who bested the rookie with six tackles, three sacks and an interception early in the second half that led to a Chris Boswell field goal.

As for Dobbs, he completed eight of 15 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a second touchdown to Xavier Grimble called back due to a penalty.

Hamilton also played a pivotal role in the game, catching two passes for 72 yards and touchdown, as he stepped up and threw his hat in the ring for one of the final receiver spots, what with Sammie Coates still nursing an injury and rookie second round pick,

Photo credit: Steelers Wire

JuJu Smith-Schuster, leaving the game early with what appeared to be a concussion.

Next up for the Steelers is a 4 p.m. tilt with the NFC Champion Falcons at Heinz Field on Sunday, August 20.

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Bryant & Coates Beware: Steelers Draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2nd Round of 2017 NFL Draft

Day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round, and Pittsburgh’s pick of the USC wide receiver helps prove that reality does really unfold at its own pace in the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a cornerback (or a safety) and figured to get one after several prime candidates were left on the board following their pick of TJ Watt in the 1st round. However, no less than one dozen defensive backs were taken, or just under half of the 2nd round selections to that point, before the Steelers turn to pick at the 30th slot.

Steelers draft Juju Smith-Schuster 2nd round, Juju Smith-Schuster

Steelers 2nd round draft pick Juju Smith-Schuster in action for USC. Photo Credit: AP, via PennLive.com

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained the Pittsburgh’s pick of Smith-Schuster in the following terms:

He is a good-sized receiver. He was very productive out there at USC. He is a really do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I’d say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them. He’s a really exciting guy and we are excited to get him here to work on.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell detailed, as soon as reporters started asking Todd Haley if the Steelers picking JuJu Smith-Schuster amounted to an insurance policy on Bryant and Coates, Haley refuted the question, and then the Steelers PR team promptly terminated the interview….

Looking at his highlight reel, there’s reason to conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did draft on his own merits:

Highlight reels can be deceiving, but JuJu Smith-Schuster stands at 6-1 1/2, weighs in at 215-pounder and brings the Steelers 4.54 speed after catching 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns last season for the USC Trojans.

Following the pick, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates exchanged pleasantries on Twitter as to whose roster spot the Steelers may have jeopardized by the exchange. Mike Tomlin’s response was clear:

It would seem that Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates were intent on showing the world just why the Steelers felt they needed to draft a wide receiver so high.

On paper at least, the move gives Ben Roethlisberger another tallish target to throw to, and someone who can potentially help take the heat off of Antonio Brown in ways that Eli Rogers or Cobi Hamilton can’t, and that Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn’t proved he do consistently.

Clearly the Steelers can carry Brown, Bryant, Coates, Smith-Schuster or their roster, with room for 1 or 2 more wide outs, but it is also safe to say that every Steelers wide receiver not named “Brown” should be looking over his shoulder.

Competition brings out the best in athletes, so with that we say “Welcome to Steelers Nation” to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Moderate High

My quickly things change. A year ago, even when taking Maratvis Bryant’s latest suspension into account, the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart looked to be flush at wide receiver.

As fate would have it, Ben Roethlisberger spent the majority of the season having his number 5 and number 6 wide receivers playing for his number 2 and number 3 receivers. While the Steelers have made some free agent moves to shore up their wide receiving corps those having done much to impact the priority status of wide receiver in the impending 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2017 draft needs wide receiver, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant high five in 2015. Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP Photo via New Pittsburgh Courier

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

The subheading you see is no misprint, because as it stands the Steelers only have one proven starter at wide receiver and his name is Antonio Brown.

  • Next time someone tries to tell you a six round pick is a wasted pick, remind them of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers of course took Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft and haven’t looked back. Brown was proverbial one of two dogs fighting for the same bone as a rookie, but he came down with the biggest catch in the Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens and again a week later in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

  • Since then Antonio Brown has established himself as nothing less than the best wide receiver in the NFL.

You can look up all sorts of numbers to justify this claim, but Antonio Brown’s game winner against Baltimore on Christmas Day reveals his greatness in ways numbers could never do justice to.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

The problem is that the Steelers entered the 2016 playoffs without a viable number 2 wide receiver alongside Brown. Sammie Coates was supposed to occupy that role and looked he might, but then he got hurt. So did Markus Wheaton, who is now in Chicago. Darrius Heyward-Bey got promoted to starter at midseason, and then he got hurt.

All three men played well at critical stretches during the regular season, and they also had their moments in the post season, but ultimately they weren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the AFC Championship matchup against New England.

  • During the off season the Steelers signed Justin Hunter a journeyman wide receiver who has had a solid career, but has never lived up to his status as a 34 overall pick.

The Steelers also have the lingering question about Martavis Bryant. Bryant has served his suspension and applied for reinstatement, but the NFL has not yet cleared him to play for 2017.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Wide Receiver

If the Steelers knew that Martavis Bryant would be back AND would keep himself clean and if they Steelers were comfortable that Sammie Coates struggles were solely due to injury, then the priority status of wide receiver for 2017 would probably fall into the category of a luxury pick.Steelers 2016 Draft Needs wide receiver

  • But the Steelers can’t be sure of either of those two things.

And while Eli Rogers made impressive strides, he is still considered more of a slot receiver. The Darrius Heyward-Bey career revival story is a heartening one, but he has yet to produce consistently as a first-line wide receiver.

It is true that Steelers wide receivers, outside of Louis Lipps, Santonio Holmes and Troy Edwards, don’t typically produce much as rookies, but the Steelers need to think beyond the short term and therefore the Steelers 2017 draft need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Sign Justin Hunter, Whose Roster Spot is in His Sights?

Pittsburgh’s first successful free agent foray outside the confines of the South Side saw the Steelers sign Justin Hunter, a wide receiver drafted by Mike Munchak with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Justin Hunter played three years for the Tennessee Titans before getting cut at the end of training camp in 2016. From there Hunter spent time with the Miami Dolphins but got cut before the end of September, before landing with the Buffalo Bills.

Justin Hunter, James Harrison, Steelers vs. Titans, Steelers sign Justin Hill

James Harrison looks on as Justin Hunter catches one of 2 pass in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: McPeak, USA Today, via SCI

Finding/establishing a viable number two wide receiver to play alongside Antonio Brown has been a priority for the Steelers during 2017 off season that took on greater urgency after Markusy Wheaton walked.

  • However, even though Justin Hunter was drafted a round and a half ahead of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers clearly don’t see him as a replacement.

For comparison’s sake, despite seeing both his rookie and “senior” seasons marred by injuries, Markus Wheaton left Pittsburgh with 107 catches and 8 touchdowns, whereas Justin Hunter only has 78 grabs, although 12 of those were for touchdowns.

Whose Roster Spots Does Justin Hunter Have in His Sights?

Assuming he gets reinstated by the NFL and assuming he avoids further suspensions, Martavis Bryant looks to compete with Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger’s attention down the field. Eli Rogers impressed during his rookie season and the coaches see him as a natural slot receiver, although Darrius Heyward-Bey has also shown he’s a competent number 3 wide out.

The Steelers had hoped that Sammie Coates would blossom into a viable number 2 wide receiver but Coates arguably dropped more passes than he caught in 2016.

  • Injuries played a factor, but there have also been rumblings about his worth ethic and practice habits.

At the bottom of the roster the Steelers have Cobi Hamilton, who performed extremely well for a training camp injury replacement 6th string wide receiver, and Demarcus Ayers who also delivered when pressed into action late in the season.

On paper, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are the two players that Justin Hunter will likely place his bulls eye on, although neither Darriuss Heyward-Bey nor Sammie Coates should get too comfortable.

With that said, while terms haven’t been released yet, the Justin Hill’s one year contract with the Steelers suggests that this is at or near a veteran minimum signing which, if correct, would not even ensure his roster spot.

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

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Steelers Wise to Let Markus Wheaton Walk in Free Agency. (Yes, You Read that Right)

While the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2017 free agency period by resigning two of their own, David Johnson and Landry Jones, before the sun set on the first day Pittsburgh lost one of their own when wide receiver Markus Wheaton came to terms with the Chicago Bears.

  • It says here the Steelers were wise to let Markus Wheaton walk.

Woah! Wait a minute! Run that by me again….

Yes, you read that correctly. And yes I don’t blame those of you who are sitting there saying “Hypocrite!” or Spanish speakers who’re crying ¡Double discurso!

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton contract, Martavis Bryant

Markus Wheaton’s defection to the Chicago Bears highlights Steelers need for Martavis Bryant. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Just a week or so ago, yours truly did author an article headline “Why the Steelers would be wise to resign Markus Wheaton.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But, if you’ll allow me a little attitude, I was sincere then just as I’m sincere now.

The argument that the Steelers should consider breaking franchise prescient and resign Markus Wheaton to a second contract was predicated on Steelers ability either to come to terms with Wheaton at a very low rate one year “Prove it” contract, or a longer medium tier contract. As free agency approached, rumblings got louder that this wasn’t terribly likely.

Which is fine, because it’s an agent’s job to make both the press and personnel offices think that all 31 teams are absolutely dying to sign their client.

  • Sometimes that interest is real, sometimes it’s nothing more than hot air. This time it was real.

Terms of Markus Wheaton’s deal with the Bears aren’t public yet, but the biggest money typically gets thrown around on day one of free agency. Which is to say that if the Bears were offering enough to get Wheaton, who was also being courted by at least the Eagles, locked down on day one, they well into territory that the Steelers had no desire to enter.

So be it. The Steelers don’t overpay in free agency, and they especially don’t over pay for wide receivers. Hines Ward and Antonio Brown will remain the only two wide outs to get offered second contracts after their rookie deals were complete.

Losing Markus Wheaton Still Impacts Steelers

Losing Markus Wheaton to the Bears does come with its consequences, even if the Steelers made the right move. The absence of someone to take consistent heat off of Antonio Brown hurt the Steelers last season. During much of the Steelers 9 game winning streak the Steelers compensated by force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers have quantity at the number two WR spot – Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton, but Wheaton had shown far more consistency as a number two target for Ben Roethlisberger than any of these men.

Now the Steelers will have to replace that consistency either in house, free agency or in the 2017 NFL Draft.

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

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