Who Needs Dez Bryant? Steelers Rookie Damoun Patterson Shows Why Pittsburgh Stands Pat

It seems the Pittsburgh Steelers find new and unknown receivers in camp each and every summer, prompting this writer to ask “Who needs Dez Bryant?

Take two years ago, for example, when Eli Rogers, an undrafted free-agent out of Louisville who spent his entire rookie season of 2015 on Injured Reserve after suffering a foot injury in his very first training camp.

Rogers was one of the young sensations of the Steelers 2016 training camp and was rewarded by making the final 53-man roster. Not only that, but Rogers became the slot receiver and proved to be a dependable option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns.

Eli Rogers saw a decline in production a year ago, and he suffered a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14. After recently being re-signed, he is currently on the team’s PUP list, hoping to get a chance to see if he can still be a part of the Steelers talented receiving corps.

Damoun Patterson, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Damoun Patterson catches a preseason touchdown from Joshua Dobbs. Photo Credit: Bill Streichner, USA Today, via 24/7 Steelers.

  • This summer another UDFA, Damoun Patterson, a youngster who played his college ball at Youngstown State, has thrown his hat into the ring to be 2018’s Eli Rogers.

Damoun Patterson is now a true contender to be a part of the receiving corps after catching six passes for 77 yards and one dazzling touchdown in the Steelers preseason-opening 31-14 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Patterson showed great body control as he spun around to catch a laser-strike from third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs and great balance as he got one foot down in the end zone and then the other.

  • Both Patterson’s body control and balance, were on display as the rookie celebrated his touchdown heroics by doing a back-flip.

With Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and likely Darrius Heyward-Bey all locks to make the squad, the fifth receiver position could be up for grabs.

Obviously, when he’s ready to depart from the PUP list Eli Rogers is a candidate, as is Justin Hunter, the veteran receiver the Steelers signed as a free agent in the 2017 offseason. However, Justin Hunter, despite his obvious physical attributes, has never truly broken out during his time in the NFL.

Another contender for that fifth-receiver spot is former University of Pittsburgh standout, Quadree Henderson. Henderson didn’t do much on Thursday, but he’ll obviously have ample time to impress his coaches between now and the final cut-down date.

But Damoun Patterson, who isn’t even listed on the Steelers official team depth chart (for what that’s worth in the preseason), has certainly done something to at least make his bosses take notice.

  • And this is why all that talk about the still unsigned Dez Bryant possibly coming to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago seemed ridiculous at best.

The Steelers obviously know how to find receivers to round out their depth chart–guys who have actually contributed during crucial moments (Cobi Hamilton caught a touchdown pass in the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots).

This summer, if it isn’t Patterson, Rogers or Henderson who rounds out the receiver depth chart, it will surely be another diamond in the rough we may not even be talking about right now.

The Steelers know their away around unknown wide receivers.

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Eli Rogers Signs 1 Year Contract with Steelers, Shoring Up Wide Receiver Depth at Training Camp

The first day of Steelers 2018 training camp came with some good news, as wide receiver Eli Rogers signed a 1 year contract with the Steelers, putting to rest any doubts over whether or where the free agent would play in 2018.

Eli Rogers did enough to impress coaches during his rookie training camp in 2015 for the Steelers to keep him on injured reserve. In 2016 he seemingly came out of nowhere to claim the starting slot wide receiver role. In 2017, Eli Rogers’ playing time took a hit thanks to the return of Martavis Bryant and the arrival of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers signs 1 year contract with Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

At times during 2017, Rogers struggled to recapture his rookie year consistency, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Eli Rogers caught all five passes that Ben Roethlisberger threw his way, and could have been considered as one of the game’s unsung heros.

That left Eli Rogers free to sign with any team. Per press reports, Rogers had workouts with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Whether Rogers was simply doing his due diligence or whether this was a move by his agent to spur the Steelers to sign him, having him back in Pittsburgh is a positive.

Eli Rogers Expands Steelers Offensive Options

The Steelers resigning of Eli Rogers might appear to be little more than a “Nice to have,” type of action for Randy Fichtner and the offensive staff. After all, Eli Rogers only had 18 catches last year, or 30 less than his rookie year, scored no touchdowns, and only caught 50% of the balls thrown his way.

  • But Eli Rogers provides invaluable depth at wide receiver for the Steelers.

Two summers ago, even when accounting for Martavis Bryant’s suspension, the Steelers wide receiver depth chart appeared to be flush.

Yet Marcus Wheaton got injured in preseason, Sammie Coates development sputtered, Darrius Heyward-Bey tantalized was named starter then got hurt. That left Eli Rogers, starting opposite Antonio Brown, while Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers were functionally the number 3 and 4 wide outs.

This year 2nd round pick James Washington is expected compete for the number 3 wide out role, but even if he earns that job, the Steelers have no proven depth behind him, save for Rogers.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

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Mike Tomlin Benches Martavis Bryant – It Says Here Tomlin Made Right Move

As you undoubtedly know by now, Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant for the Steelers upcoming road game against the Detroit Lions. The move came two weeks after someone tied to Bryant leaked that he’d made a request to be traded, and after a social media outbust where Bryant had seemingly contradicted his claim of happiness in Pittsburgh while taking a shot at rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Mike Tomlin, Martavis Bryant, Mike Tomlin benches Martavis Bryant

Mike Tomlin benched Martavis Bryant following his latest social media outburst. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

When asked whether Martavis Bryant’s latest tantrum would alter the Steelers stance toward trading him, Mike Tomlin minced few words:

I have no desire to sit up here with a catcher’s mitt and field questions about Martavis and his social-media habits, to be quite honest with you. We invested a lot in Martavis since we drafted him. He is not available via trade. We have invested a lot. We have covered a lot of ground. It’s obvious that we still have more ground to cover with him because we are having a conversation about him that’s not football-related. He’s done a lot in the period of time that he’s been here in terms of improving, not only as a player but a man. We still have a ways to go. He was out of bounds with some of his actions in terms of what he said on social media. It will be dealt with appropriately so…
…I’ll visit with him at some point. When I do, I’ll rain down my judgment and we’ll move forward.

Mike Tomlin’s judgment contains no grey area – Martavis Bryant got demoted to the scout team in favor of Justin Hunter and will not dress for the Lions game.

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move.

Martavis Bryant Must Grow Up

Martavis Bryant’s struggles and apparent success with substance abuse are well known. It’s been commonly observed that “Martavis Bryant has both said and done all the right things” since his return. Hardened Steelers beat reporters have opined that they’ve sensed a sincerity in Bryant this time around that they didn’t sense in 2015.

  • Here’s to hoping that Bryant has definitively mastered the proverbial monkey on his back for good.

But doesn’t mean that Martavis Bryant doesn’t have more growing up to do. During his suspension Bryant tussled occasionally on social media. Then came his exchange during the 2017 NFL Draft when he jibed Sammie Coates that the Steelers had drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster to replace Coates and not Bryant.

  • Those incidents didn’t and shouldn’t have caused panic.

But they did indicate that Martavis Bryant was prone to social media tantrums, and that’s a tendency that can get you into trouble here in 2017.

Having an agent leak that a play has wants a trade while the player publically proclaims his happiness is nothing new in the NFL, let alone in Pittsburgh. A week ago Bryant seemed to be following just that script.

  • But going off on a teammate, and a rookie no less, who is arguably out performing you is something else.

After a rocky start, the Steelers are standing at 5-2 with a chance to make it 6-2 going into the bye. Most importantly, they’re tied for 1st in the AFC. That should be the story of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers going into week 8, not Martavis Bryant.

Martavis Bryant Must Shut Up and Put Up

The mind boggling element to the on-going Martavis Bryant saga is that Martavis Bryant is his own worst enemy on and off the field. Ron Cook has observed that there are two Martavis Bryants, on one the South Side and one away from the South Side.

  • Remember folks that Heinz Field is situation on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

A year ago, after doing and admirable job in the regular season, the AFC Championship made it painfully obvious that, both individually and collectively Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers, weren’t Super Bowl caliber number 2 wide receivers alongside Antonio Brown.

Ben Roethlisberger has had a chance to throw to Bryant seven games into 2017 and, outside of the win over the Vikings, Bryant’s most notable plays have been the one’s he’s failed to make. Against Chicago he slowed down on a route but still got his hands on what likely would have been a touchdown. Against the Bengals he lost the ball and missed what would have been another touchdown.

  • The Steelers have tried hitting Bryant on short routes, but he hasn’t come close to breaking one.

At this point the Steelers offense best offensive play call remains a hand off to Le’Veon Bell. Martavis Bryant might not be happy with his role in the Steelers offense, but he has no one to blame for himself for it.

Does Bryant think that, based on his play, any NFL General Manager is going to offer the Steelers anything other than a conditional 7th round 2021 compensatory pick in exchange for Bryant’s services?

The Steelers knew of Martavis Bryant’s substance abuse issues, but gave him a chance anyway. They’ve stood by him not once, but twice after failed drug tests, because they saw and still believe in his potential.

  • Martavis Bryant’s antics suggest that he doesn’t quite appreciate what that means.

Mike Tomlin benching Martavis Bryant for a game will give him a chance to give it the consideration it deserves. Hopefully when he returns Martavis Bryant let his play between the lines on Sundays do the talking for him.

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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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