Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jaguars: No Mood for Excuses Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher in no mood to make excuses, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest home loss to the Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kenny Pickett after being injured. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Yahoo Sports.

Quarterbacks
To paraphrase the old Red Dog beer commercial (yeah, I just dated myself), “Don’t let the smooth stats fool you.” Kenny Pickett’s 10 of 16 for 73 with zero picks and no TD’s looks OK. But he was 2 of 6 on third downs and one of those completions went for negative yards. Another incompletion came when Diontae Johnson was open in the end zone. Mitch Trubisky’s 15 of 27 for 1 TD and 1 pick look respectable too. But he was not. When he wasn’t throwing into triple coverage he was gaining garbage time glory. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren had runs for 8 and 7 yards, but outside of that it was pure “Sludge Ball” for him and Najee Harris. The duo also caught 9 passes between the two of them during garbage time. The running backs didn’t get much help from their line, but the Steelers needed more. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Connor Heyward caught 5 passes on 6 targets but really didn’t make himself a factor in the passing game. Darnell Washington has been quiet in two starts. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
If Diontae Johnson catches that first pass, which was high but catchable, perhaps the dynamic of this game is dramatically different. But Diontae didn’t catch it. He caught several more really doing a remarkable job of getting open. George Pickens had a touchdown, but had he hurried to the line of scrimmage rather than strutting the Steelers could have had a long gain. Instead the Steelers had to punt. Calvin Austin had 2 catches in garbage time. He got stopped cold on one reverse and helped set up a field goal with a ten yard run on his other one. The receivers made a some plays, but they had chances to make a few more and the didn’t. And that cost the team. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Steelers running backs carried the ball 12 times. Sure there’s a bit of a chicken egg element to that statement. But “Sludge Ball” on first and second down leads to long third downs. And let’s remember that Kenny Pickett was sacked on the second play from scrimmage and ultimately knocked from the game. The Jaguars had 3 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers did a respectable job of containing Travis Etienne on the ground as Montravius Adams quietly starts to build a name for himself at nose tackle. Grade: C

Linebackers
The Steelers inside linebacking corps helped contain the Jaguars running game as Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander all authored some nice plays. Alex Highsmith had a half sack as did T.J. Watt who also got a hand on a pass. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers already started the game with a thin secondary and it got thinner fast as Minkah Fitzpatrick went down with a hamstring injury early in the game. In his absence, there was good and bad. The Steelers didn’t give up a 100 yard receiver for only the second time this year, and actually reduced their yards allowed per pass. Damontae Kazee took seven points off the board for Jacksonville and started a drive that ended in a field goal. Nonetheless, the miscommunication that led to Travis Etienne’s 56 yard pass put Pittsburgh in a deep hole that it never dug out from. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but missing a 61 yarder in the rain at Acrisure Stadium after you’ve just made 56 yarder is understandable. Pressley Harvin had a mixed bag on punting. The Steelers gave up a little more return yardage than you’d like to see, but that was hardly the difference in the game. Grade: C

Coaching
Danny Smith’s special teams were “Above the line.” Teryl Austin’s defense forced 3 turnovers, 2 of which came when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone wrecked several other drives with sacks in critical situations.

  • Yet it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

Apparently the Steelers defense and special teams need to play pristine games and see their opponents miss kicks or otherwise leave points on the board to be competitive, because scoring more than one offensive touchdown is too much to ask.

  • 5 of the the Steelers first seven possessions ended in a three and out.
  • Their penultimate drive before scorning their weekly touchdown went for 5 yards
  • When the Steelers scored, the defense forced a punt only for the offense to turn the ball over 2 plays later

Yes, it is true. Matt Canada didn’t drop a deep bomb to open the game or miss an open wideout in the end zone. Neither did he throw the ball multiple times into triple coverage. But clearly Canada can’t get it done.

Nick Herbig, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Jaguars

Nick Herbig and T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin’s hands maybe be tied as the Steelers are a franchise which doesn’t believe in interims coaches (see Mike Nixon’s tenure), his job is to coax what he can out of Canada offense while he’s here. And right now, he’s getting next to nothing. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award

When a team caps a bad first half by failing to score immedatly before half time, the best way to start driving the nail into its coffin is to score on the opening drive of the second half. The Jaguars were doing just that, taking their opening kick off to Pittsburgh’s 35. Yet that drive stopped there, thanks to Nick Herbig’s playing through to the wistle as he forced Tank Bigsby’s fumble and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the (latest) loss to the Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium.

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Suffocated by “Sludge Ball,” Steelers Fall to Jaguars 20-10 at Acrisure

The Jacksonville Jaguars came to Acrisure Stadium and, as they did on their last 2 trips to Pittsburgh, they beat the Steelers, this time to the tune of 20-10. As former division rivals, the Steelers and Jaguars have a rich history. The signature games in their series always reveal something important about the Steelers.

This week’s lesson is more mundane but equally important: For the 2023 Steelers “Sludge Ball” simply won’t cut it.

Jaylen Warren, Foyesade Oluokun, Steelers vs Jaguars

Foyesade Oluokun stops Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Attrition Takes Its Toll

The 2023 Steelers way of winning games has been simple, ugly and taxing to the heart. Notice, the use of “way of winning games” as opposed to “formula,” because surely this is not how Mike Tomlin, Matt Canada and Teryl Austin have planned things. But the Steelers four wins have common elements:

  • Take advantage of opponents’ errors
  • Compensate for giving up big gains with splash plays on defense
  • Make a big play or two on offense early in the game
  • Come on strong in the 4th quarter on both sides of the ball
  • Above all, avoid catastrophic mistakes

This isn’t sustainable. One reason why its not sustainable is that you get into trouble when you star players get hurt. Early in the week Jim Wexell mused to Jeremy Hertz that Minkah Fitzpatrick was due to make a game changing play.

  • Fitzpatrick left in the 1st quarter with a hamstring injury.

This further depleted a secondary that saw Darius Rush and Luqman Barcoo get first team reps on Friday ahead of the game. Losing Fizpatrick was big, but losing Kenny Pickett before the half was bigger, as the 4th quarter would make painfully clear.

No, Don’t Blame the Officials

Following the game, daggers were drawn in Steelers Nation and pointed at the officials. Alan Saunders of SteelersNow perhaps said it best:

The non-call in Pickett’s injury was all the more galling considering that Keanu Neal has been penalized for a far more benign hit on Trevor Lawrence. And the penalty that negated a Chris Boswell field goal, was in Mike Tomlin’s words, the first of its kind that he’s seen in 17 years.

  • But you know what?

None of that mattered. The Steelers still had chances to win the game. They simply squandered them.

Big Plays Can’t Overcome “Sludge Ball”

The Jacksonville Jaguars offense put up some nice statistics against the Steelers defense. But, as it has throughout the season, the Steelers defense struck back with big plays:

  • The Steelers forced the Jaguars to settle for field goals with key 3rd down stops on their 1st two possessions.
  • The first time Jacksonville reached the Red Zone Kwon Alexander stripped the ball and Cole Holcomb recovered it
  • The next time it was Damontae Kazee’s turn, as he intercepted a pass in the end zone.
  • Nick Herbig ended the Jags’ first drive of the second half with a strip of Tank Bigsby
  • Elandon Roberts wrecked their next drive with a sack on first down
  • T.J. Watt and Armon Watts led a “gang sack” on third down to force another punt
Elandon Roberts, Alex Highsmith, Trevor Lawrence, Steelers vs Jaguars

Elandon Roberts and Alex Highsmith Sack Trevor Lawrence. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

That’s three turnovers for the Steelers and two sacks to scuttle drives. How many points did the Steelers score off of those “Splash” plays? Three.

Two weeks ago on his podcast, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell called out the Steelers offense for sticking to “sludge ball.” Wexell defines “Sludge ball” as insisting on handing the ball to Najee Harris on first and second down, setting up 3rd and 7 or 3rd and 8. Steelers then fail to convert those third downs, forcing punts.

  • Against the Rams last week, the Steelers inched away from “Sludge Ball.”

But sludge ball was back with a vengeance against the Jaguars. The Steelers first four drives amounted to 12 plays and 4 punts. Perhaps the team was working its way out of it before Pickett got hurt because they did score on their fifth possession and had another score taken away by penalty on their 6th.

But the offense under Mitch Trubisky opened the 2nd half with 8 plays and 2 punts. (I guess we can count that as improvement, right? NOT!) Diontae Johnson, Geroge Pickens and you could argue Connor Heyward and Jaylen Warren made some nice plays.

But the Steelers can’t expect to win many games when punter Pressley Harvin is a candidate for offensive MVP.

Mitch Lacks the Clutch Gene

Alas, Pressley Harvin was a candidate for offensive MVP, yet the Steelers still had a chance to win. But expecting Mitch Tribuisky to do what Kenny Pickett has done late in games simply isn’t realistic. Tribusky lacks the “clutch” gene.

  • Yes, Tribuskiy looked smart in leading the lone touchdown drive.

But he threw a horrible interception that basically sealed the game for Jacksonville, and he forced two more passes in to triple coverage that should have been picked off. Even after his interception, the Steelers had a shot at winning, on paper at least.

But Tribuskiy stuck with safe, 6 or 7 yard check down passes. One of the times he got away from that, he threw one of his “Should have been interceptions.”

  • IT was almost as if, even with the game lost, Tribusky was playing not to lose.

Given the circumstances, it was almost another form of “Sludge Ball.” And ironically, that was fitting.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Beat Ravens 17-10 as 4th Quarter Fireworks in All 3 Phases Fuel Comeback

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 at Acrisure Stadium to enter the 2023 bye week with the lead in the AFC North.

The 17-10 score suggests that this was yet another, hard-fought defensive battle in the iconic series between these two rivals.

  • Yet there was nothing simple in how the Steelers scored their 17 points.

And that’s fitting. There’s something about this young Steelers season that escapes the numbers. The Steelers have struggled for much of this year just as they struggled against the Ravens. Yet the takeaways from this latest rebound win against the Ravens suggests that maybe those struggles might be bearing fruit.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens after scoring a touchdown vs the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Half = More of the Same from the Steelers Offense

As an organization the Steelers seem to have an uncanny ability to tune out the noise from the peanut gallery. And that’s good because during the first half Matt Canada’s offense gave this critics plenty to crow about. While the Ravens were busy putting 10 points on the board, Brad Wing was busy staking his claim to NFL comeback player of the year by punting the ball away for Pittsburgh.

Canada’s offense only suffered one three and out and even put together one 10 play drive before sending Wing out. So theoretically, there was progress.  The Ravens might have only scored 10 points, but Baltimore receivers had dropped 2 passes in the end zone. A more lopsided result only seemed to be a question of “When” and not “IF.”

  • But like any good drama, this game’s first chapters foreshadowed things to come.

If the Steelers defense hadn’t been giving up points, it was keeping fantasy owners happy by giving up yards. Yet late in the third quarter Lamar Jackson hit Justice Hill for a 10 yard gain, he seemed to be destined for more only to have Larry Ogunjobi come up from behind an knock the ball loose.

Damontae Kazee picked it up and 7 plays later, Chris Boswell was getting the Steelers on the board. That did little to satisfy booing fans. But the attentive eye noticed that Kenny Pickett to George Pickens had accounted for 25 of the 26 yards the Steelers offense earned. Could this be the start of a trend….?

There wasn’t much time for back patting in Pittsburgh, because the Ravens marched down the field with authority. They reached the Steelers’ 23, until John Harbaugh overplayed his hand, going for it on 4th and 2 passing up an automatic field goal.

Alas, Lamar Jackson misfired in the end zone 2, burning Baltimore’s a chance to put points on the board. Could another trend be forming….? That’s why we play second halves.

3rd Quarter Uneventful – And that was Half Good

Peyton Manning recently tried to dispel the notion of “half time adjustments” and “Half time momentum.” The effort of the Steelers offense in the third quarter would seem to support that.

  • Brad Wing punted another three times.

The Steelers offense started with a three and out. Then they managed 8 plays for 27 yards on their next possession. And on their final possession of the third quarter they managed another 8 plays for 43 yards, including two more Pickett to Pickens hookups.

That did little to quite the “Fire Canada” chants, but punting aside, Kenny Pickett’s passing seemed to get more precise as the quarter progressed, didn’t it?

On defense the Steelers defense forced the Ravens to put twice. But perhaps more importantly, they were starting to get to Lamar Jackson. That was only the beginning.

Fourth Quarter Fireworks — for Everyone

Has there ever been a more exciting fourth quarter in Steelers history? Perhaps. But this one literally had fireworks on every side of the ball.

The staff at Acrisure Stadium got the 4th quarter started in style with Renegade. The Ravens tried to respond, but with Kwon Alexander stuffing Justice Hill for a losses, the Steelers secondary locking down Baltimore receivers, and Cole Holcomb to cutting off a Lamar Jackson run, forcing a punt.

  • Special teams coach Danny Smith decided to get aggressive.

Special teams captain Miles Killebrew soared through the wedge blocking Jordan Stout’s punt, with Rodney Williams barely missing a touchdown. So the Steelers had to settle for a safety.

The Steelers failed to take the lead, but Jaylen Warren almost single-handedly moved them 49 yards, setting up another field goal. Could the Steelers really turn this around?

The Steelers defense followed with another shut down led by Elandon Roberts making spectacular plays first in pass coverage, then in stuffing Justice Hill. The Ravens punted, but return man Gunner Olszewski, as he is wont to do, fumbled with only Rodney Williams’ tackle saving a touchdown.

  • Perched on the Steelers seven yard line, the Ravens were ready pounce and to put Pittsburgh away.

But Kwon Alexander tackled Mark Andrews for a loss, bringing up 3rd down on the Steelers five. Lamar Jackson fired for Odell Beckham Jr., but Joey Porter Jr. had other ideas, intercepting the ball in the end zone.

  • Kenny Pickett took over at the 20, a Steelers quarterback in command of his offense.

He wasn’t perfect, misfiring on his first two passes. But that didn’t phase him. On his next two he found Allen Robison and George Pickett to convert third downs moved to midfield. The Steelers only needed a field goal to win, but Pickett saw the Ravens line up in zero coverage, crowding the middle of the field. He called an audible went for all the marbles, launching at George Pickens for a 41 yard bomb and a touchdown.

  • Yet that was not the end.

A minute 17 is a lot of time to give Lamar Jackson. And Jackson hit Zack Flowers for 19 yards on his first try. On his next try Alex Highsmigh hit the ball out of Jackson’s arm and T.J. Watt scooped it up, returning it to the 18, seemingly sealing the win for the Steelers,

  • Yet that was still not the end.

A penalty prevented the Steelers from running out the clock, giving the Ravens the ball back with a chance to tie with 49 seconds.

Jackson made four drop backs. He hit Mark Andrews on one of them, but T.J. Watt hit him on his last.

Four Takeaways to Put the Steelers Rebound vs Ravens into Perspective

What to make of all of this? Suffice to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken one of the strangest routes to 3-2 and a hold on the division lead in franchise history. The drama underlying this comeback win shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Steelers cannot allow their punter to audition for the offensive MVP award week in and week out.

And the Ravens dropped 2 touchdowns in the end zone and another in the open field that likely would have resulted in another touchdown. That won’t happen again.

But even taking that into account, there are 4 takeaways from this win:

  • Rookies, such as Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr. are finding their NFL footing
  • The re-made inside linebacking crops is starting to gell
  • Kenny Pickett finally seems to have recovered the poise he showed late last season
  • And Pickett seems to be developing a rapport with Pickens

If Mike Tomlin can find away to sustain these trends coming out of the bye week, the next 12 weeks could get interesting.

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Wheeling and Dealing Not Done? Steelers Release Initial 2023 Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced their initial 53-man roster today as Omar Khan continued to wheel and deal.

Over the weekend Khan dealt Kevin Dotson to the Los Angeles Rams, getting a fourth round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, swapping 5th round picks and sending a 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft to LA. But Kahn has already traded back into the 6th round when he dealt Kendrick Green to the Houston Texans for their 6th round pick in 2025.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

The Steelers cuts included some surprises. Veterans Zach Gentry and Tre Norwood got visits from The Turk, as did free agent signees Breiden Fehoko and Nick Kwiatkoski who played nose tackle an inside linebacker respectively. Quincy Roche’s second go around with the Steelers will also come to an end.

Here’s a look at who made the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 initial roster. There is at least one more move to come as you’ll see at the bottom.

Quarterbacks – 3
Kenny Pickett
Mitchell Trubisky
Mason Rudolph
– No surprises here. Pittsburgh has perhaps the deepest quarterback room in the NFL

Running Backs – 3
Najee Harris
Jaylen Warren
Anthony McFarland
– Common Sense Attack: A running back depth chart that’s three backs deep for the 2nd straight year.

Wide Receivers – 6
Diontae Johnson
George Pickens
Allen Robinson
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
– Gunner Olszewksi showed a lot of heart in preseason. The coaches took notice.

Tight Ends – 3
Pat Freiermuth
Darnell Washington
Connor Heyward
– The deepest Steelers tight end room since 1991?

Offensive Line – 9
Dan Moore
Isaac Seumalo
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chuks Okorafor
Broderick Jones
Nate Herbig
Spencer Anderson
Dylan Cook
– Almost a complete rebuild since 2021.

Defensive Line – 7
Cam Heyward
Keeanu Benton
Larry Ogunjobi
DeMarvin Leal
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
Armon Watts
– A solid mix of veterans and youth.

Inside Linebackers – 4
Cole Holcomb
Elandon Roberts
Kwon Alexander
Mark Robinson
– Dare we hope this unit is finally finding post-Ryan Shazier stability?

Outside Linebacker – 4
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Markus Golden
Nick Herbig
– Steelers have good depth at this critical position. Knock on wood, they won’t need it.

Cornerback – 6
Patrick Peterson
Levi Wallace
Joey Porter Jr.
Chandon Sullivan
James Pierre
– Have the Steelers achieved the right balance between youth, speed and experience?

Safety – 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Damontae Kazee
Keanu Neal
Miles Killebrew
Elijah Riley
– Will health hold out?

Specialists – 4
Chris Boswell, kicker
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper
Pressley Harvin, Punter
Braden Mann, Punter

Two punters? Not for long.

One way or another Omar Khan isn’t finished with his wheeling and dealing.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Safety – Pittsburgh Has Luxury of Being Strategic

Safety has been one of the most intriguing areas on the depth chart during this off season. The Steelers said goodbye to a former first round draft pick in the form of Terrell Edmunds, resigned an older veteran, brought in one free agent and made a trade that could someday impact the position.

So how does all of this impact their approach to the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have a safety who is already adding to the legacy left by the likes of Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

By any measure, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a play maker. In just four years he has 17 interceptions, including three pick sixes. And as true playmakers do, he makes them at timely moments in games. Just ask Joe Burrow who threw right to Fitzpatrick on the second play of the 2022 season.

Fitzpatrick is far more than a ball hawk. He comes away with deflections with the game is on the line, manages to make tackles in bounds when the clock is running, and is on the field wherever the action is.

Starting opposite Fitzpatrick is Damontae Kazee. Kazee is new to Pittsburgh but he had 2 interceptions in 9 games for the Steelers last year, and he made those at critical moments of the game. Kazee’s durability is an issue, however.

Steelers  Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The Steelers have also signed Keanu Neal. Like Kazee, Neal has durability issues, but he also brings 80 games and 61 starts of experience to the Steelers. With his resume, Neal could conceivably push Kazee for the starting job, but his contract suggests the Steelers are not projecting him as a starter.

The Steelers also have Tre Norwood the proverbial “Swiss Army” knife. Norwood arrived in Pittsburgh as a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and appeared in 17 games as a rookie. While his snap count dropped from 33% of defensive snaps to 26%, he’s still an asset.

The Steelers also have Miles Killebrew who mainly plays special teams, but did has played 50 defensive snaps over the last two seasons.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Finally, the Steelers have Patrick Peterson. Peterson arrived in Pittsburgh as a cornerback, but its been suggested and perhaps even implied by Mike Tomlin that he could play safety.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Safety

The Steelers have positioned themselves well at safety. While neither Kazee nor Neal project as long term starters at the strong safety position, both are viable options for Pittsburgh in 2023.

So the Steelers could strength the position in the draft, should do so if they get the opportunity, but do not need to reach to fill a need.

In other words, they have the luxury of being strategic.

When all is said and done, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Strengthen the Center: Steelers Sign Keanu Neal, Breiden Fehoko, Sustain Omar Khan’s Free Agency Trend

Strengthen the center.

That’s been Omar Kahn’s singular focus in free agency. It was evident in the Steelers signings of Inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and resigning of Damontae Kazee. On the offensive side of the ball the Steelers signed guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Khan doubled down on the third week of free agency by signing safety Keanu Neal and nose tackle Breiden Fehoko.

Keanu Neal, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Keanu Neal celebrates after making a play against his new team. Photo Credit: Buccaneers.com

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting, David Cantner the agent for both players, has tweeted that Neal’s contract is for 2 years. Cantner did not tweet a length for Fehoko, which Rutter indicates that this likely means it is a one year deal.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal with the 17th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal played in Atlanta for five seasons. He was their starting free safety for two straight seasons before injuries ruined both his third and 4th seasons.

Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 opener and then his Achilles in 2019. The Falcons extended him a 5 year option but let him walk to the Dallas Cowboys in 2021where Neal played middle linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Neal in 2022, where appeared in all 17 games, but was limited to 8 starts due to a hip injury.

With Terrell Edmunds gone to Philadelphia and his background as a middle linebacker, Keanu Neal will likely split time with Damontae Kazze at strong safety and function as the “dime linebacker” in the Steelers three safety set.

Jim Wexell has suggested and Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Patrick Peterson could also see sometime at safety, suggesting that Minkah Fitzpatrick could work a little at strong safety.

  • Nose tackle Breiden Fehoko fills an obvious need for the Steelers for depth at defensive line.

Fehoko got his start in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the San Die… er um, the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s made his bones in the NFL as a backup, appearing in just 19 games over three years with 4 starts.

Although four of those starts came in 2022, the Chargers did not offer him a restricted free agent offer. Breiden Fehoko will likely work in behind Montravius Adams and compete with Isaiahh Loudermilk for playing time, if not a helmet on game days.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette retweeted this shot of Fehoko from late last season:

If this is an indication of the level he’s playing at, Karl Dunbar will find a way to get him on the field.

Draft Impact of Neal and Fehoko

While these moves address needs and add depth, they’re impact on the Steelers draft plans is likely minimal. Keanu Neal’s addition makes it less likely that the Steelers will draft a safety on day one or day two of the draft. But his injury history, along with Kazee’s injury history and his age suggest that neither is likely seen as a long-term answer.

So a safety in round 3 or 4 wouldn’t be out of the question.

Breiden Fehoko could be an interesting under the radar pickup for the Steelers. But at this point has to be seen as Tyson Alualu’s replacement. And even if he does turn out to be a free agent steal, that doesn’t change the fact that Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger.

Defensive line remains a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2023 draft.

“Que Pasa con Gentry?”

Last weekend news broke that the Steelers had resigned Zach Gentry. All of the major outlets went with it. However, the Steelers have yet to announce that they’ve come to terms with their erstwhile number 2 tight end.

The signing could still happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a NFL Network reporter broke the news of a deal, only for that deal to never appear.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost free agent Terrell Edmunds to the Eagles, as their 2018 first round draft pick signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.

Given that the Steelers and Andy Weidl have signed Guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark away from the Eagles and as well as Nate Herbig, who is also a former Eagle, the tempting headline might be, “Eagles claw back, sign Terrell Edmunds from the Steelers.”

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

While that might be accurate and attention catching, the real story here behind Terrell Edmunds departure is that the Steelers shuffle at strong safety continues. Sure, the Steelers resigned Damontae Kazee. But Kazee’s 2-year, team-friendly deal shows that neither Omar Khan nor Mike Tomlin think he’s the long term answer at strong safety.

No one has been for the last ten years when the Steelers quest to fill this critical position began.

  • In 2013 the Steelers traded up for Shamarko Thomas, hopping he was Troy Poamalu’s successor – Thomas started 2 games
  • Will Allen served as the stopgap safety in 2015, following Polamlau’s retirement
  • In 2016 the Steelers drafted Sean Davis, who started for two years
  • In 2018 the Steelers signed Morgan Burnett and drafted Terrell Edmunds. Burnett was one and done.

The short hand version of this story would read, “The Steelers had suffered a succession of busts at strong safety since Troy Polamalu retired.” That’s the superficial conclusion, the quick conclusion but also the wrong one.

Yes, Shamarko Thomas was a bust. The Steelers smashed franchise precedent in trading up to get him, and he was a disaster.* Will Allen was probably one of the unsung free agent signings of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and played pretty well for a 33 year old safety in 2015.

Sean Davis had a spectacular rookie year, and he really played well during the first half of his second year. Of course the second half was a different story, but whose play didn’t decline after the injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier?

Morgan Burnett, like the rest of the 2018 Steelers defense started to come on at the end of the year – it was Burnett who batted away Tom Brady’s final pass in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. But Burnett couldn’t beat out the rookie first round pick Edmunds, and wanted out of Pittsburgh so Mike Tomlin let him go.

  • And of course, many fans will always consider Terrell Edmunds “A bust.”

That’s simply wrong. Terrell Edmunds started 75 of the 79 games he appeared in. And if he was never a superstar in a defense that was on the rebound, he was always a force for stability. Yet in those five seasons, only picked off 5 passes, sacked the quarterback 5 times, recovered 1 fumble but never forced one. That’s 11 “Splash plays” out of 4,897 snaps on defense.

So his “Splash Play Percentage” was a mere 0.22%.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

As Jim Wexell, (who compiled those numbers above – although the “Splash Play Percentage” is my own creation) observed, “He’s the strong safety. Should we review the playmaking numbers of the strong safeties who’ve played in Super Bowls for the Steelers? … you can look up the numbers for Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu.”

Well, I have.

  • Mike Wagner had 36 interceptions and 4 sacks in 116 starts for the Steelers
  • Donnie Shell had 51 interceptions and 9.5 sacks in 162 starts for the Steelers
  • Carnell Lake had 16 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in 154 sacks for the Steelers
  • Troy Polamalu had 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles in 142 starts for the Steelers

In that light, Terrell Edmunds’ stats look similar to those of Lee Flowers, who had 4 interceptions in 75 starts with the Steelers. But even Lee Flowers, who didn’t have Edmunds’ athletic ability, had 12 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. in 75 starts with the Steelers had 4 interceptions and 12 sacks.

In 2022 as well as in 2023 I wrote free agent profiles on Terrell Edmunds arguing that while, he wasn’t a superstar, he was “good enough” to deserve a second contract.

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

After comparing Edmunds’ stats to his predecessors, I don’t know that I can disagree with them.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

*Here’s morsel for Steelers trivia buffs: After the Steelers drafted him, Carnell Lake commented that had Thomas been 2 inches taller, he might have been a first rounder. When Lake said the same thing 2 years later after they drafted Senquez Golson, I almost wonder if he was dooming the kid. Maybe he did….

 

 

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Time to Learn to Spell Their Names: Steelers Resign Larry Ogunjobi and Damontae Kazee

The Pittsburgh Steelers reinforced their defense by “promoting from within” so to speak on the second day of free agency when they resigned defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi and safety Damontae Kazee.

Both were excellent football moves, but there’s a real downside for bloggers.

Both men arrived as potential short timers. It was an open question whether they would remain in Pittsburgh. So it made little sense to try to learn to spell their names. Now we don’t have a choice.

T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi. Combine to make a critical stop. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Larry Ogunjobi, by far the one with the most difficult name to spell, signed a three-year contract totaling $28.75 million. Information on how much is guaranteed hasn’t been released, but just over 21 million coming in the first two years of the deal.  Ogunjobi’s injury history explains the lack of detail about guaranteed money and his contract’s structure.

  • Damontae Kazee signed a 2 year contact but terms of the deal have not been released.

That latter factoid could spell hope for Terrell Edmunds. The conventional wisdom heading into free agency was that the Kazee/Edmunds decision was an “either/or” proposition for the Steelers. One would sign and the other they would let walk.

That still may happen, but the fact that the details of Damontae Kazee’s contract haven’t surfaced more than 24 hours after news of his signing broke suggests that it is for a modest sum – otherwise his agent would have made sure reporters knew how much he just made his client.

Spillane to Las Vegas

One player who won’t be back is inside linebacker Robert Spillane. Spillane is a Steelers success story. He went from starting 2020 as the one player the Steelers couldn’t afford to end up playing, to they guy who kept Devin Bush to the bench by the end of 2022.

He’s someone you’d want to keep in Pittsburgh. But the Raiders signed him to a 2 year deal worth 9 million dollars with 4 million dollars in guarantees – that’s a lot of money to pay someone who generally leaves the field on passing downs.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Why Steelers Free Agent Damontae Kazee Reminds Me of Dave Moquin, My Old Wrestling Coach

When I think of Damontae Kazee reaching free agency, I can’t help but remember my old wrestling coach the late Dave Moquin.

Moquin is an amateur wrestling Hall of Famer who coached for 42 years at Wheaton High School in Maryland. To understand why Kazee’s rendezvous with free agency reminds me of Moquin, let’s jump right into his time with the Steelers are the case for keeping him in Pittsburgh.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Capsule Profile of Damontae Kazee’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Damontae Kazee last spring shortly after the 2022 NFL Draft. Injuries limited him to 9 games with the Steelers.

It is safe to say that no player with such a thin Steelers resume has reached free agency and generated the type of attention that Kazee has. And that’s where Mr. Moquin comes in.

One of the things that made Moquin a Hall of Famer is that he was open to letting anyone come out for the team. Whether you were a senior who’d never wrestled, a late season transfer, a kid coming off the ineligible list, or just curious, Moquin would give you a shot at any point in the season. We’ll explain how this ties to Kazee in a moment.

Dave Moquin, David Moquin, Dave Moquin wrestling Hall of fame, Dave Moquin coach Wheaton High School

Dave Moquin getting inducted into the Wheaton High Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: The Patch

Steelers coaches took a liking to Kazee during training camp, and devised a 3 safety scheme that featured Kazee, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds on the field at the same time.

  • Unfortunately, a late summer injury cost him the first 8 games of the season.

Analysis of the Steelers 2022 season generally breaks down along the “Before the Bye and After the Bye” storylines and then builds the narrative around T.J. Watt’s return to the lineup and Kenny Pickett’s improvement. And those storylines are by and large correct.

  • But they overlook Damontae Kazee’s contributions.

In Kazee’s first game, he played 100% of the snaps against the New Orleans Saints and intercepted Andy Dalton in the 4th quarter, setting up an insurance touchdown drive. In the third quarter of the season finale against the Browns, Kazee intercepted Deshaun Watson with the Steelers holding a 13-3, setting up Najee Harris’ touchdown.

During the last nine games of 2022, Kazee defensed two passes, and made 20 tackles while playing 54% of the defensive snaps.

The Dave Moquin Case for the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

The problem with Dave Moquin and the short-timers on the Wheaton wrestling team was that liked to tell fish stories about them. No, he LOVED to tell fish stories about them. Take “CJ” as an example.

CJ was a junior who’d joined the team in the 2nd week of January. He’d transferred from Oxen Hill where he’d wrestled, but had little experience. He wrestled about 8 JV matches for Wheaton in dual meets, winning a couple of those and won a match or two in the JV tournament. His senior year he was ineligible until February. He won one JV match, lost one on varsity, and then lost cleanly in the County tournament to the kid who went on to be a Regional champion.

But this is how Moquin told it:

CJ came two us in the last 2 weeks of the season his junior year. He’d never wrestled before but won both of the match we put him in . Then almost placed in the JV tournament. The next year he couldn’t wrestle until February, but he won both of his matches and almost upset the kid who went on to become the Regional Champion.

So if Moquin were to make the case for the Steelers resigning Damontae Kazee it would go like this:

We signed Kazee after the draft. Thanks to injuries he barely practiced in training camp. But stepped in for Minkah against the Saints and we didn’t miss a beat. He made a crucial, momentum shifting interception in that game, another in the season finale and played a critical role in subbing for Fitzpatrick again in the Christmas Eve win over the Raiders.

Or something like that.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

It would be a mistake to minimize Kazee’s contributions to the Steelers turnaround in the 2nd half of the season. But it would also be wrong to over-emphasize them.

Kazee’s ball-hawking ability is welcome and stands in stark contrast Terrell Edmunds’ lack of “Splash Plays” But Edmunds has been stabilizing influence on the defense. Edmunds is also only 27 whereas Kazee has just turned the big 3-0.

Kazee is a “nice to have” befitting from and off season of salary cap surplus. Like 2022’s salary cap surplus, the Steelers are in a different place in 2023.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Damontae Kazee

The Steelers situation with Damontae Kazee is similar to Benny Snell’s (see Snell’s free agent profile if you’re scratching your head.)

  • Whereas Snell provides depth, Kazee delivers a lot more.

Whether it’s been cycling in “the big safety,” linebacker Terence Garvin in on third downs back in ‘13, drafting Ryan Shazier in ‘14, signing Morgan Burnett in ’18 or trying to convert Marcus Allen from a safety to an inside linebacker, Mike Tomlin has coveted a player who can play the middle like a linebacker while covering deep like a defensive back.

  • Together Fitzpatrick, Edmunds and Kazee give Mike Tomin that versatility.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would resign both Damontae Kazee and Terrell Edmunds. But unless one of them accepts a very generous home team discount, salary cap realities mean that won’t happening.

Dave Moquin, Dave Moquin National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Dave Moquin

  • So which safety to sign?

Well Moquin was also a football coach, and I’d love to pick his brain on this one. Alas, he’s no longer around.

So I’ll just go with my gut and say the Steelers should stick with Edmunds and let Kazee walk – even as I smile to myself thinking that if Mr. Moquin were telling the story, Kazee would have earned a spot in the Steelers Hall of Honor after just nine games.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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