Grading the Steelers 2014 Draft Class: Overall Grade B+

The picks are in. Coaches have held their press conferences. New players have done their photo ops. The latest installment of the NFL draft is history. Now it is time to grade the Steelers draft class.

  • The Steelers 2014 Draft Class that is.

Instant draft grades are as understandable as they are ridiculous. The NFL Draft IS the day when teams alternatively forge Super Bowl rosters or cement status as pretenders instead of contenders. The desire to evaluate such a momentous in real time is logical.

  • But it can’t be done. Like wine, NFL draft classes need time to mature or sour.

Just how long is a matter of opinion. Certainly you can start drawing a lot of meaningful conclusions after 4 or even 3 years. But Chuck Noll always used to say it took five years, and if that was good enough for the Emperor, who am I to argue? With that, we gladly grade the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

Ryan Shazier, Tyson Alualu, Matthew Stafford, Alualu Stafford Sack, Steelers vs Lions

Ryan Shazier gloats over Matthew Stafford after Tyson Alualu’s 4th down sack. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers 2014 1st Round Pick – Ryan Shazier

If ever you sought an argument against drafting for need, look no further than Ryan Shazier. By the time the 2014 NFL Draft rolled around, the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker wasn’t exactly strong, but it was solid. Certainly, the Steelers had more glaring needs (like cornerback.)

And they were right. Ryan Shazier’s overall career statistics (7 sacks, 7 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles) might look pedestrian, but what those numbers don’t show is the timeliness with which Shazier made those plays.

Whether it was forcing a fumble in the playoffs against the Bengals, grabbing an interception against the Colts or making another play at the right time, Ryan Shazier was broaching Troy Polamaluesque lay making ability before suffering the spinal contusion that has most likely ended his career. Grade: Grand Slam

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2014 2nd Round Pick – Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers picked Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round fate appeared to have stacked the deck against the rookie. The Steelers had a long history of drafting defensive lineman in the 2nd round that blossomed into busts, and they hadn’t had much luck of late in drafting players from Notre Dame.

  • But Stephon Tuitt proved that past performance doesn’t dictate future results.

Tuitt broke into the starting lineup as a rookie because of Brett Keisel’s injury and began making an immediate impact. He built on that in his “sophomore” year, was limited a bit in his next two years by injury, yet had his best year yet in 2018. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Pick – Dri Archer

What a double whammy. This is one that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomiln wanted back two times over. In the 2013 NFL Draft the Steelers traded away their 2014 3rd round pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas, in part because they expected to get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2014.

  • They got that pick and promptly used it to draft Dri Archer, the fastest man in the NFL 2014 Draft.

The Steelers thought to use Dri Archer as a utility back while working him in as a wide receiver. They also wanted him to return kicks. It quickly became clear he could do none of the above. Dri Archer was so bad that when Le’Veon Bell suffered an injury before the playoffs, the Steelers had to go out and sign Ben Tate off of the couch. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 4th Round Pick – Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is an interesting pick to grade. Clearly he is one player who never lived up to his potential, yet as a 4th round pick, with all of his issues, Martavis Bryant delivered decent value.

  • As both a rookie and in his second year, Martavis Bryant made some game-breaking plays.

After coming back from his suspension, Martavis Bryant didn’t make many game breaking plays but started making critical 3rd down catches late in the season. And, while this shouldn’t impact a draft grade, strictly speaking, the Steelers actually got a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant, and one that they used to draft Mason Rudolph, a potential starter.

Not bad value for a 4th rounder that you essentially took a flyer on. Grade: Quality Value Pick.

Steelers 2014 5th Round Pick – Wesley Johnson

The Steelers drafted Wesley Johnson in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the young man made the roster, which was no small accomplishment for an offensive line which was already becoming deep. Unfortunately, injuries force the Steelers to cut Johnson with an eye towards putting him on the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas and claimed him off of waivers.

Since then, Wesley Johnson has appeared in 53 NFL games and started 24. Not bad for a 5th rounder. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Jordan Zumwalt

Sometimes injuries end NFL careers before they get started. Such is the case with Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers put him in injured reserve during preseason of his rookie year. They designated him injured/waived in 2015, but took him back when no one else claimed him. They gave him another shot in 2016, but ended up cutting him.

It is hardly fair to label someone like that a Bust, but the Steelers didn’t get any value out of this pick. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Daniel McCullers

At first glance, a guy as big as Daniel McCullers shouldn’t be able to fail on the football field. Yet Daniel McCullers saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, and then saw his snap count dwindle year after year.

The Steelers surprised by resigning Daniel McCullers in 2018, and then again in 2019. Still, it is hard to label Daniel McCullers NFL career as anything other than what it has been. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2014 7th Round Pick — Rob Blanchflower

Labeling a 7th round draft picks as a “bust” is a bit harsh. Yet the career paths of Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum serve as a reminder 7th round picks can become good players. Rob Blanchflower earned a spot on the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and got invited back to camp in 2015 but got cut at the end of summer. Grade: Bust

Overall Grade for the Steelers 2014 Draft

In 2014 the Steelers had the 15th draft position, tying 2007 for the best draft positioning Pittsburgh has had since 2004, when they picked Ben Roethlisberger. Just like 2007, the Steelers made excellent picks in the first two rounds, and made a solid pick in the 5th round, albeit one that other teams are benefiting.

Their 4th round pick had issues, but delivered value. And their 6th round pick is still in the league. Overall Grade: B+

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Steelers Draft Isaiah Buggs, defensive tackle Alabama, setting up Crimson Tide Reunion in Pittsburgh

The Steelers stuck with defense with their 2nd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft as they took Isaiah Buggs a defensive tackle out of Alabama. The Steelers decision to draft Isaiah Buggs reunites him with defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who had coached at Alabama prior to replacing John Mitchell in Pittsburgh.

  • The situation at Steelers defensive line presents plenty of opportunities for Isaiah Buggs to show he belongs.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave remain entrenched as the starters. Tyson Alualu’s status as the “next man up” likewise remains intact. But the Steelers have very little depth behind those four. Currently the only veteran under contract is Daniel McCullers, a man who can best be described as a roster bubble player.

Isaiah Buggs, Steelers draft Isaiah Buggs

Auburn Tigers running back Kam Martin carries the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs. Photo Credit: John David Mercer, USA Today

During 2018 the Steelers also carried L.T. Walton on their roster, but thus far Pittsburgh has not opted to resign their backup defensive tackle, and the decision to draft Isaiah Buggs would seem to eliminate that possible.

Over the last two seasons Isaiah Buggs has appeared in 18 games for Alabama, amassing over 100 total tackles, 17.5 of which went for losses. He’s also shown an ability to rush the passer, having made 11 sacks during his time at Alabama, with 9.5 of those coming in 2018. He also recovered 1 fumble and deflected 3 passes.

Here is a look at Isaiah Buggs highlight reel:

Agents of course cherry pick their client’s video to compile these highlight reels, but even keeping that in mind it is a bit surprising that Isaiah Buggs last until the 6th round, although the minior injury he suffered in the Iron Bowl, could be one possible explanation.

Regardless, this young player would appear to have an excellent shot at making the Steelers 53 man roster, based on simple depth chart math.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Isaiah Buggs.

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Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Time Double Down at a Position of Strength?

During the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuild deserve some well earned criticism for misfiring when drafting at linebacker and in the secondary. Artie Burns, Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Bud Dupree all provide prime examples.

  • However, the same cannot be said for their use of premium picks on the defensive line.

So heading into the 2019 NFL Draft the question is whether Pittsburgh’s dynamic draft duo should do what they’ve done best on the defensive side: Look to the defensive lineman. Let’s take a look.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers loss to 2018 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

When the Steelers began their post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding effort, the lead off with a home run when they drafted Cam Hewyard in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert labeled the move as a “historic day for the franchise.”

  • Historic indeed.

In the years since, Cam Heyward has not only developed into one of the league’s best defensive lineman and someone who is leader on the field and off the field. Although statistics fail to capture much of what Cam Heyward does on the field, one number stands out: 45.

  • That’s 45 sacks Cam Heyward has amassed all before hitting age 30.

To put that in perspective, Greg Lloyd had “only” registered 43 sacks before turning 30.

Playing opposite Cam Heyward is Stephon Tuitt, who the Steelers drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Stephon Tuitt is a player in the mold of Cam Heyward, who has gotten better each year and currently has 20 sacks to his name and he hasn’t even turn 26.

  • Rounding out the Steelers starters at defensive line is Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Hargrave immediately became something of a unicore in John Mitchell’s system: He cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Due to the Steelers de-empahsis on of their “base” 3-4 defense, Hargrave’s opportunities declined a bit in the 2nd half of 2017.

However, a strong performance against the Jaguars led Steelers coaches to look to work Javon Hargrave into their starting line up.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Behind their starting front 3 the Steelers have Tyson Alualu who brings the team a versatile presence that can be counted on to step up either position along the defensive line. Although he saw reduced playing time in 2018 thanks to the health of the starters, Tyson Alualu recorded 4 sacks in 2018.

Beyond Alualu, the Steelers also have Daniel McCullers, whom they drafted in 2014 in the 6th round whose presence at this point is a surprise to many. New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar took McCullers on as some sort of a project in 2018 and the Shady Tree showed enough to earn a 3rd contract from the Steelers.

The Steelers also have defensive lineman Winston Craig, Conor Sheehy, Lavon Hooks and Casey Sayles under contract.

The Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs

At first blush investing anything more than a 6th round pick in a defensive lineman might seem like a luxury the Steelers cannot afford in the 2019 NFL Draft.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

  • But appearances can be deceiving.

Let’s start with the Steelers defensive line itself. Officially the Steelers are still a 3-4 team, but they play in their base defense so infrequently that Cameron Heyward is now listed as a defensive tackle instead of as a defensive end.

While the Steelers pure need for a defensive lineman might be low, a legit “edge rusher” to work opposite T.J. Watt could give Pittsburgh’s defense a real shot in the arm. Now such an “edge rusher” has traditionally been an outside linebacker, but given the way positions are evolving in the NFL, that could also be someone considered as a defensive lineman.

  • Beyond that, the Steelers only have 4 quality defensive lineman on the roster as it stands today.

If Daniel McCullers shows himself to be “serviceable” in 2019 then that will be an achievement. But it is not something the Steelers can count on. L.T. Walton did everything the Steelers had asked of him from the time the Steelers drafted him until 2017. He looked to be developing into a quality 5th defensive lineman.

However, under Karl Dunbar he fell behind Daniel McCullers on the depth chart and remains unsigned. Therefore the Steelers defensive line draft needs in 2019 should be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Daniel McCullers to 2 Year Contract. Why?

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Daniel McCullers to a two year contract. While the move does not come at a complete surprise, it is still a fair to ask “Why?”

Last year when doing our free agent focus profile on Daniel McCullers, the only case for resigning McCullers that could have been made was a theoretical one. Namely, that new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had seen something on film that motivated him to convince Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert to give McCullers “One more chance.”

So Daniel McCullers was back in the Black and Gold on a veteran minimum salary. That move looked to be a mistake as McCullers was completely blown off the line of scrimmage on Kareem Hunt’s 9 yard run on the Chief’s final drive in their week 2 win over the Steelers.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

However, McCuller’s snap count remained fairly consistent through the rest of the year, topping out at 18 snaps in the Steelers win over the Jaguars. And it should be noted that the Steelers shut down the Jaguar’s rushing attack in the 2nd half, which was a key to their comeback win.

  • Now that contract details are clear, the Steelers decision to resign Daniel McCullers are perhaps a little easier to understand.

It is a two year, 2.75 million dollar deal, but Daniel McCuller’s signing bonus is only $250,000.

While that gives Daniel McCullers a bit of a raise, he still will have to win a job in training camp. The Steelers are set with Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt as their starters with Tyson Alualu severing ably as “The next man up.”

And given that the Steelers are in their base defense less and less frequently, the value that Daniel McCullers brings from his spot on the bottom of the depth chart is proportionally less than a defensive back in a similar position.

As staff writer Tony Defeo concluded in this year’s free agent focus profile of the Shady Tree, “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.”

Once again the Defeo man is right. But if the Steelers get the chance to pick a defensive lineman with more “upside” in the 2019 NFL Draft let’s hope they take it.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

 

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Steelers 2019 Free Agency Tracker – Change Sweeping Through Pittsburgh

The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.

  • The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Signings

3/13/2019 – Steelers sign Steven Nelson, Cornerback from Kansas City to 3 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Anthony Chickillo to 2 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Jordan Berry to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers resign Eli Rogers to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Donte Moncrief to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Daniel McCullers to 2 year contract
3/19/2019 – Steelers sign Mark Barron to 2 year contract

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Losses

3/13/2019 – Jesse James signs with Detroit Lions
3/13/2019 – Le’Veon Bell signs with New York Jets (for less money than the Steelers offered. Just say’n)
3/13/2019 – Steelers trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for a $3 Starbucks card and 5 box tops (er, um a 3rd and 5th round pick
3/14/2019 – L.J. Fort signs 3 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers 2019 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a feature length free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
Ramon Foster
Steelers resigned Ramon Foster to 2 year contract 3/8/2019
Tyson Alualu
Steelers resigned Tyson Alualu to 2 year contract 2/22/19
Jordan Berry
Ryan Shazier
Anthony Chickillo
Coty Sensabaugh
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Daniel McCullers
Justin Hunter
Nat Berhe
Stevan Ridley
L.J. Fort
Eli Rogers
Jesse James
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2019 Restricted Free Agents

Xavier Grimble
Steelers offered original round tender to Xavier Grimble, 3/8/2019
B.J. Finney
Steelers offered 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney 3/8/2019

Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Mike Hilton
Steelers offer ERFA tender to Mike Hilton, 3/8/2019
Matt Feiler
– Steelers offer ERFA tender to Matt Feiler, 3/8/2019
Jake McGee
Keith Kelsey
Malik Golden
Keion Adams

The Steelers have already been busy in free agency, signing Tyson Alualu to a 2 year contract extension and informing Le’Veon Bell that they will not place the transition tag on him.

  • In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.

We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.

You’ll be able to access all Steelers 2019 Free Agent profiles by clicking on our Steelers 2019 free agent focus category tag.

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Good News (and Some Bad): Steelers Resign Tyson Alualu to 2 Year Contract

NFL free agency may still be almost 3 weeks away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have already made two moves, two very different moves involving Le’Veon Bell and Tyson Alualu. A day after Kevin Colbert announced that the Steelers would not be tagging Le’Veon Bell, the franchise announced that it has signed backup defensive lineman Tyson Alualu to a two year contract.

Terms of the contact have not yet been announced, but the deal that Tyson Alualu signed with the Steelers in 2017 paid him roughly 3 million per year, so one can figure Tyson Alualu’s new contract pays him at a commiserate level.

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

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

Vital, Valuable Backup on Defensive Line

While the Steelers employee their “base” 3-4 defense less and less frequently, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and yes, Dick LeBeau, have struggled to staff adequate depth behind their starting front three. Al Woods was blossoming into a viable number 4 lineman in 2012, but the Steelers were unable to retain him, and shuttled through Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews over the next two years.

  • Tyson Alualu promised to change that he he’s delivered on that promise since arriving in Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Jaguars made Tyson Alualu the No. 10 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, which saw him go three spots behind Joe Haden and eight ahead of Maurkice Pouncey, but Alualu never lived up to his draft status.

In In 31 games for the Steelers, including 7 starts, Tyson Alualu had registered four sacks and made 61 tackles. To the naked eye, his production may have slipped bit in 2018, but that’s because his snap count declined from 44% in to 29% in 2018.

That drop in Tyson Alualu’s snap count was driven mainly by the relative state of health that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt enjoyed last season, and the coaches decision to get Javon Hargrave on the field more.

  • The Steelers have made the right move in resigning Tyson Alualu.

But this bit of “good news” must be balanced by a bit of less positive news. During the Mike Tomlin era (and arguably the trend extends back to Bill Cowher’s days as head coach), the Steelers have struggled to develop defensive line depth in house.

The fact that the Steelers have moved first to resign Tyson Alualu over extend deal to Daniel McCullers or L.T. Walton shows that Pittsburgh is still struggling in that area. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Steelers have secured a critical defensive backup before free agency has even begun.

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

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

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

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Steelers Activate Eli Rogers, Place Marcus Gilbert on IR, Possibly Ending his Time in Pittsburgh

His “Questionable” listing aside, don’t expect the Steelers to have James Conner suit up against the Patriots, but Pittsburgh’s offense will welcome back a familiar face after a long absence. In a move that had been anticipated, the Steelers activated Eli Rogers.

The Steelers had until the middle of this coming week to activate Rogers or end his season by putting him on IR. With Ryan Switzer nursing an ailing ankle and James Washington still trying to build a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, activating Eli Rogers makes sense.

While it is unknown what his role will be, Eli Rogers could provide a good number 3 target to help take heat off of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Steelers activate Eli Rogers ahead of Patriots game. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Gilbert Goes on IR, Ending his Season, Possible Career with Steelers

Of course, to activate Eli Rogers meant the Steelers had to let someone go. The obvious candidate would be Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds brother who was recently added from the practice squad. But with James Conner, Edmunds will serve as the emergency back behind Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels.

There are not too many “expendables” on the defensive side of the ball either, with Daniel McCullers or perhaps L.T. Walton being the only candidates.

  • As it turns out the elephant was sitting in the room.

The Steelers opted to put right tackle Marcus Gilbert on season-ending injured reserve to make way for Eli Rogers. Marcus Gilbert opened the season as the Steelers starter at right tackle, missed the Steelers week 3 win over Tampa Bay, returned for weeks 4, 5 and 6 but has been out since then.

Given that Marcus Gilbert also missed 7 games in 2017, and given that Gilbert is set to make close to 5 million dollars in the final year of his contract, one would have to think that the Steelers would consider moving on.

If that do, that will be a real shame, as Marcus Gilbert played a major role in the transformation of the Steelers offensive line from a unit cobbled together with a Plug and Patch approach, to one of the NFL’s best.

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One Lesson From Jaguars Game? Steelers Need to Play Javon Hargrave More

We have some lessons to learn.”
Mike Tomlin following the Steelers come from behind win over the Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s right. And here’s one lesson the Steelers should learn form the Jacksonville game: Javon Hargrave needs to play more.

To say the least, Over the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. Dramatic in the form of Ben Roethlisberger 4th quarter, or perhaps more accurately, two minute warning comebacks.

It took the Steelers 4 attempts from the two yard line to score the go ahead touchdown in a game that Pittsburgh never led until the final five seconds of the game arrived.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The truth is that the inability of Ben Roethlisberger to get in sync with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald and the inability of the offensive line to get rushing lanes open for James Conner is the biggest reason why such late heroics were again needed.

  • It happens. The Jaguars have a good defense.

But, and few could have imagined saying this in September, the Steelers have a good defense too, and one that could be better by finding a way to give more playing time to Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers of course drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the third defensive pick after taking Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Hargrave quickly assumed Steve McLendon’s starting role and his play in the 2nd half of 2016 was a big reason for the team’s turn around.

  • But Javon Hargrave plays nose tackle, and the Steelers play their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

So be it. In many ways sub packages define Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense and far be it for me to criticize them.

But regardless of which subpackage they deploy, the Steelers coaches need to find a way to get Javon Hargrave on the field more. During the first half it looked like Leonard Fournette was going to lead the Jaguars on steamroll the Steelers defense similar to what they had done in the playoffs.

But Javon Hargrave arguably began the defensive rally by sacking Blake Bortles on third down to force a field goal when the Jaguars were in the Red Zone. He followed it up with another sack on the next series helped get the ball back (although the Steelers would turn it over quickly.)

While snap counts by quarter are not available, it seemed like early in the game there was a lot of Daniel McCullers Number 93 on the field and a lot less of Javon Hargrave. However, in the second half Hargrave 79 was on the field a plenty, which is when the Steelers defense went into shut down mode.

  • On the day, Hargrave tackled two Jaguar ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, got two more licks in on Blake Bortles and helped force a 3 and out by deflecting a Bortles pass on third down.

Cam Heyward leads all Steelers defensive lineman having been on the field for 78% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He’s followed by Stephon Tuitt who clocks in at 68%. Javon Hargrave is next, at 38%, meaning his snap count is only 7% higher than Tyson Alualu.

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh and speculation still abounded that he might shift the Steelers to a 3-4 defense, Mike Tomlin explained that a players like Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton were going to be good whether they played in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.

Tomlin’s logic was sound, even if it trying to apply to every good player would be an oversimplification (see the Steelers moving “bust” 1st rounder James Farrior from the outside to inside linebacker.)

Well, Javon Hargrave might officially carry the title of nose tackle, but he’s shown he can be an impact player, and it would wise for Karl Dunbar, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to figure out how to get him on the field more frequently.

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