Steelers Report Card for Win Over Lions – Triumph of Physicality over Fantasy Mentality

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher whose again late with his gradesheet and hopes that his students can incorporate the lessons they learned in the first semester to the second semester, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Lions in Detroit.

Le'Veon Bell, Ziggy Ansah, Steelers vs Lions, Steelers report card lions

Le’Veon Bell dives forward as Ziggy Ansah makes the tackle. Photo Credit: Krithmon Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Quarterback
After a very strong game against Cincinnati, Ben Roethlisberger took a bit of a step back as evidenced by his over thrown attempt to force the ball to Number 84 that got intercepted. But Roethlisberger didn’t always have a lot of help, as one easy touchdown pass was dropped, as was another overthrown, but still catchable ball later. But Roethlisberger kept the chains moving as the Steelers improved on third down, which was a plus. Grade: B

Running Backs
So Le’Veon Bell doesn’t automatically get 100 yards when he touches the field. One could be forgiven for concluding that after dominant performances in 3 out of the last four games. Bell didn’t quite have the offensive line push that he normally gets, and his fumble resulted in at least a six point swing. James Conner had 1 yard rushing. Still, Bell scored the only touchdown and helped move the chains when it counted. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught two passes, including a 30 plus yarder and could have caught another long one had Roethlisberger’s throw been on target. The Steelers run blocking wasn’t on par with what it has been and the fact that Vance McDonald was out probably has something to do with that. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had 5 catches for 70 yards and while he wasn’t dominant, he did help convert key third downs. Eli Rogers dropped a gimmie in the end zone, and Darrius Heyward-Bey dropped an overthrown ball that still could have been caught. Justin Hunter has yet to do anything to distinguish himself. The real star of the game was JuJu Smith-Schuster. On a night when the Lions seemed intent on shutting down Antonio Brown, JuJu made them pay. That was true before his 97 yard touchdown, and truer after. Nonetheless, he dropped a third down conversion pass after that. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
If ESPN’s statistics are to be trusted, the Lions tackled Le’Veon Bell 5 times below the line of scrimmage. Generally, when you allow an opponent to dictate to you at the line of scrimmage like that, you lose football games. On the positive side, the line kept Ben Roethlisberger clean for much of the night. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
This is why you invest 3 premium picks and a major free agent signing in your defensive line. Both Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward had sacks, but the star of the night was perhaps Javon Hargrave, who completely stoned Dwayne Washington on 3rd and 1 and then shoved the center into Matt Stafford on 4th and goal to set up the final pass defense. Detroit spent much of the night knocking of heaven’s door, and the defensive line made sure they did nothing more than knock. Grade: A+

Linebackers
Ryan Shazier defensed the Lions pass. Had Shazier not looked up before securing the ball, he might still be running. Beyond that, it was a quiet night for the Steelers linebackers as neither Bud Dupree nor T.J. Watt were much of a force in the pass rush in a night when Matthew Stafford had too much time to throw. Grade: B-

Sean Davis, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Lions

Sean Davis takes on Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Kirthmon Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Secondary
Normally a quarterback passing for 420 is a sign of a secondary in disarray. And to be sure, this is not something the Steelers can allow to happen with any frequency. But like the rest of the defense, the Steelers secondary excelled inside the 20, with Joe Haden, Artie Burns and Sean Davis breaking up would-be touchdown passes, while Sean Davis and Mike Hilton came up big at the goal line. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was a perfect 2 for 2 on field goal attempts and hit both of his extra points. Jordan Berry had a 47 yard punting average and placed two with in the 20. The Steelers didn’t return a kick or a punt, while their coverage units two punt returns for 21 yards. Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith must find a way to improve punt coverage. Grade: B-

Artie Burns, Marvin Jones Jr., Steelers vs Lions

Artie Burns breaks up a touchdown pass aimed at Marvin Jones Jr.. Photo Credit: Kirthmon Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Coaching
Some of Todd Haley’s play calling left room for head scratching – will splitting Roosevelt Nix wide keep any opposing defensive coordinators up at night? Yet that was balance by Haley getting creative at the end when one final third down was needed. Likewise, twin drops by wide open receivers in the end zone show that Haley was trying to do the right thing in the Red Zone.

Keith Butler also opened himself to criticism. Matthew Stafford entered the game as one of the most sacked if not the most sacked quarterbacks in the league, yet he probably had more time to throw than any quarterback opposing the Steelers has had all season long.

  • The decision not to use James Harrison in an obvious mismatch with Brian Mihalik also puzzles, although that might not have been Butler’s call.

With all that said, the truth is that Matthew Stafford and his recievers might have made a lot of fantasy owners happy, but telling statistic of this game is that the Lions had 17 shots at a touchdown form inside the Steelers 20 and came up with ZERO touchdowns.

  • I’d gladly yield the Lions another 100 yards of offense to get that type of Red Zone dominance from the Steelers defense.

Mike Tomlin came into the week, having to deal with yet another distraction created by Martavis Bryant, and took his team on the road into a game that they’ve typically struggled with. The Steelers weren’t perfect, but they executed each and every time the game was on the line, and that was the difference in the game.

The stories of the Steelers finding ways to lose games like this are too common, too painful and too recent. In Detroit, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers found a way to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Purists love to argue that football is a game won in the trenches. Often times that true, but in today’s pass-happy, Fantasy/Madden ’18 infused mentality that aspect of the game sometimes gets lost.

  • Yet, physicality was the defining difference for the Steelers against Detroit.

As he has done all year long, Vince Williams helped establish the physical tone for the Steelers defense. His name show up in some of the goal line stops, but Vince Williams was there, making his presence felt and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for win over the Lions.

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Steelers Bears “Blame Ball” Poll

Well, it was another trip to Solider Field for the Steelers, and another loss. The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the Chicago Bears shows that the franchise has struggled in the Windy City, and their 14 visit there was no exception as the Steelers lost 23-17 in overtime.

Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Joe Hayden, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears overtime

Mike Mitchell can’t stop Jordan Howard as he smokes the Steelers in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Alas, after a substandard effort like that in so many different parts of the team, we cannot in good conscious put up a “Game Ball” poll, so instead we’re launching a “Blame Ball” poll:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 09-18-2017 17:55:27
end_date 09-30-2017 23:59:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers most deserve blame for the Bear's loss? (Multiple Votes allowed)

As you can see, only Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell are the only two individuals to share the dishonor of having ballot mentions.

  • However, please do not mistake that for a scapegoat of either man.

That’s because blame can be spread far and wide on this one, as this Bob Pompeani tweet summarized.

The Chicago Bears gave the Atlanta Falcons a run for their money early in the year, so perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a “Trap game.” Still, as the Tribune Review’s Joe Rutter pointed out, the Steelers have struggled mightly on the road in September, and this game proved the rule.

  • Frankly, blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin, although both Todd Haley and Keith Butler‘s units performed piss poorly.

Danny Smith’s special teams, after being heroes in weeks 1 and 2, caused a costly mistake that resulted in a 6 point swing. Vance McDonald made a heads up play, but if Jordan Berry just lands on the ball, its a safety and the Steelers are ahead by one at game’s close.

  • And then there’s Eli Rogers muffed punt that set up Chicago’s first touchdown.

The stat sheet indicates that Ben Roethlisberger had a decent game, but he also had at least 3 passes that could have been picked off, and couldn’t get the ball to his receivers when he needed to, especially on 3rd Downs. Antonio Brown had a solid game, but that cannot be said for the rest of his wide receiving corps.

Martavis Bryant had 8 targets and only 6 catches. To be sure, some of those were not well thrown balls and/or balls that Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was forcing, but he still should have had the first bomb thrown his way, even if it was a little overthrown.

And while Le’Veon Bell didn’t necessarily have a “bad day” he’s still far, far short of the Hall of Fame level performances that characterized his play in almost every single game last year. All of that blame is not due to him, as his offensive line’s run blocking hasn’t been consistent.

  • On defense, it is hard to know where to point the finger, because the Chicago Bears ran all over the Steelers.

Ryan Shazier had a good day stastically, but it seemed like each and every defender failed to bring his man down on first contact. No matter how you slice it, the Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Shazier and Anthony Chickillo utterly failed to stop Chicago’s running game when it counted.

The Bears won despite completing only one pass to wide receivers, so perhaps the Steelers secondary can avoid blame, but we’ll leave that for you the readers to decide.

As always, write in votes are not only allowed, but encouraged. Thanks in advance for taking time out to vote, and please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest loss to the Bears in Chicago.

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Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Cut Losses Quickly: Steelers Cut Justin Gilbert

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in cutting their loses quickly as the Steelers cut cornerback Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 2018 6th round pick to acquire Gilbert’s services from the Cleveland Browns.

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback was the Steelers most urgent area of need, and by all accounts Justin Gilbert was the player Pittsburgh’s brain trust was targeting. But the Cleveland Browns got him first, picking him 7th and making him the first defensive back drafted that year.

Justin Gilbert, Tyreek Hill, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers cut Justin Gilbert

The Steelers Justin Gilbert tries in vain to tackle Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh 247 Sports.

3 months later Justin Gilbert got infamously burned in a couple of Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton hook ups the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, that’s probably the most anyone in Pittsburgh has seen of Justin Gilbert since then.

By Pro Football Reference’s count, Justin Gilbert participated in a just 1.05% of the Steelers defensive snaps this season, suiting up in the secondary during the Steelers regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs and their regular season loss against the New England Patriots. Theoretically, Gilbert should have given the Steelers kick return game some juice, but Gilbert only 3 kicks during the regular season with those attempts coming against the Chiefs and Patriots.

Gilbert did run for long returns of 32 yards in the regular season and 26 yards during the post season, but clearly Steelers Special Teams coach Danny Smith didn’t see enough of a spark to lobby Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert into keeping him on the roster.

Impact of the Steelers Cutting Justin Gilbert

On the face of it, Justin Gilbert’s release is a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Keith Butler’s defense struggled early during the 2016 season, but you can trace the unit’s turn around to increased playing time by Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison. Justin Gilbert remained a spectator through it all. When the Steelers needed to add a 6th defensive back, Robert Golden and/or Jordan Dangerfield got the call as opposed to Gilbert.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to cut Justin Gilbert thins out an already sparse spot on their depth chart.

Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell will return to training camp as their starting cornerbacks, with William Gay penciled in as their slot cornerback. While William Gay had a solid season in 2016, he will be 32 next season and cornerback in the NFL is a young man’s game. Senquez Golson will arrive in Latrobe with a shot at the Steelers slot corner position but, given injury history that 2015’s 2nd round pick has had, it would be a mistake to bank on contributions.

  • The Steelers also have reserve cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz who spent time on both their active rosters and practice squad in 2016.

In a nutshell, cornerback was already a Steelers priority for the 2017 NFL Draft and its priority status just got a bump.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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Le’Veon Bell Leads Steelers Killer Bees in Dolphins Win Game Ball Voting with Silverback in Pursuit

To no one’s great surprise, Le’Veon Bell topped the rest of the Steelers Killer Bees in the game ball voting for the Steelers Wild Card victory over the Dolphins.

Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Steelers killer bees, Steelers vs. Dolphins

The Steelers Killer Bees. Photo credit: Steelers.com

steelers vs. dolphins, steelers dolphins wild card game, steelers dolphins game ballsThat’s the kind of thing that happens when you make your playoff debut by setting Steelers records in one game that neither Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis, nor Willie Parker nor Rocky Bleier could top in their collective 58 playoff games.

James Harrison came in second in the voting earning 29 votes, which also is not surprising given his role in completely neutralizing the Miami Dolphins rushing attack. Next came Antonio Brown, who himself had a record setting day with his two touchdown performance that was good enough to earn him 17 votes.

  • Bud Dupree was the next highest individual vote getter, grabbing 14 votes, or one more than the Steelers offensive line, which was a write in vote.

Ben Roethlisberer was the only other player to reach double digits, reaching 10 votes. Ryan Shazier got close with 9 votes, followed by Lawrence Timmons with 7, and Stephon Tuitt who got 6. Jesse James got 2 votes, as did a write in favoring Danny Smith’s dismissal, followed by 1 vote for Mike Mitchell.

  • The write in success of the Steelers offensive line deserves to be commended.

The synergy between Le’Veon Bell and his offensive line is something truly incredible, and truly special. With that said however, the lukewarm support enjoyed by Stephon Tuitt and Mike Mitchell is perhaps a surprise, but this poll is about what you readers think, not about what yours truly thinks.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who took out time to vote. Now its on to Kansas City!

 

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Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

Better Luck to Randy Bullock: Past Steelers Emergency Kickers have Struggled

News that a Chris Boswell abdomen injury forced the Steelers to sign Randy Bullock sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation just 24 hours before the Steelers critical matchup with the New York Giants at Heinz Field.

  • And so it should, Chris Boswell has proven to be a very accurate kicker and beyond that, a pretty good clutch kicker.
Chris Boswell, Steelers vs. Bengals, steelers emergency kickers, randy bullock,

Chris Boswell kicks a for the Steelers vs. the Bengals in October 2015. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via Yahoo! Sports

But Steeles Nation’s collective trepidation is also felt so deeply because past history of Steelers emergency kickers has been pretty dismal. Or it should say, history of “Steelers emergency kicker” because in the modern era, the Steelers have only had to go to their “Spare Parts” list to sign a kicker once.

Steelers Emergency Kickers of Yesteryear

It happened in mid-November 1998, when a Norm Johnson strained calf muscle forced the Steelers to sign Matt George, and it is not an experience Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Danny Smith or anyone else in Steelers Nation would wish to repeat.

  • There were red flags around this move even before Matt George’s foot touched the pigskin.

The Steelers had brought Matt George to training camp with them that summer, but cut him in late August. In other words, they’d seen enough of him to know that he wasn’t their first choice of a “in case of emergency break glass” kicker.

The Steelers brought Brett Conway to Three Rivers Stadium, gave him a tryout, and negotiated with him for two days, thinking they had a deal in place. Then suddenly, Brett Conway left the building.

Brett Conway left on the advice of his agent, after the Washington Redskins offered him spot on their practice squad, infuriating Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher.

The Steelers signed Matt George, who, after missing several kicks during pre-game warmups, kicked low on a 36 yard field goal kick which the Tennessee Oilers blocked.

The Steelers instead went for it on 4th down, only to have Kordell Stewart stopped. The Titans took the lead on the next drive on an Al Del Greco field goal. In desperation, the Steelers tried to lateral their way to retake the lead with time expiring, but the Oilers ran in a loose ball to score an insurance touchdown.

For the record, the Tennessee Oilers won the game 23 to 10 thereby completing their first (and only, at least as the “Tennessee Oilers”) season sweep of the Steelers. Norm Johnson returned the following week and kicked through the end of the 1999 season. Although Matt George wasn’t the only reason the Steelers lost the game, he never played another down in the NFL.

  • As Bill Cowher candidly confided after the game, “I now realize how important it is to have a kicker.”

It is safe to say that, if he didn’t already know that, Mike Tomlin learned that lesson last season as he stood with an injured Ben Roethlisberger watching Michael Vick and Josh Scobee struggled in the Steelers Heinz Field loss to the Ravens.

Hopefully Randy Bullock’s tenure as Steelers emergency kicker won’t force him to relive those memories.

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Not the Turkey this Thanksgiving: Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has seen his pupils accomplish a lot in a short amount of time, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Thanksgiving Day win over the Colts.

ryan shazier, joe reitz, example of holding in the nfl, steelers vs. Colts, Steelers colts thanksgiving

Joe Reitz is forced to hold Ryan Shazier during the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 14 of 20 for 221 with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The truth is that when Ben Roethlisberger can connect with Antonio Brown, there is little that can stop the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s 6 misses did contain a few ugly passes, which nudges is grade down, if however slightly. Landry Jones threw one incompletion during mop up time. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell and another 100 yard plus game and added 22 more from the air with four catches. The truth is that the way things were going, Bell probably could have rushed for 100 more if it would have been necessary. Fitzgerald Toussaint saw his first action in a while, gaining a respectable 28 yards on 6 carries. Todd Haley also had Roosevelt Nix in there blocking, and he made a difference. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. colts, coaching, special teams, unsung heros, steelers colts thanksgiving

Tight Ends
This is the Ladarius Green that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin thought they were getting when they signed him last march. Ladarius Green still may not have recovered his break away speed, but he did show his ability to stretch the defense, making two “field flipping” plays both of which set up Steelers scores. Jesse James had one pass thrown his way which may or may not have been catchable, but no other tight ends were targeted in the running game, but they did contribute to the blocking. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown scored 3 touchdowns and made it look easy on both. He also helped break up a would-be interception in the end zone, and likely did the same on another play down field that cost him a pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers was quiet for much of the game, but did set up Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown with his 30 yard grab. Cobi Hamilton had 1 catch on 1 target. The Steelers tried to get the ball to Sammie Coates deep 3 times, each time in vain. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Colts not only couldn’t sack Ben Roethlisberger, they only managed to hit him once and the Steelers averaged 5.1 yards per carry rushing on a night where the longest individual run from scrimmage was 16 yards. You can’t ask for much more than that from your offensive line. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely gushes about rookies, but he did so when the Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave. For a while it seemed hard to fathom why, but Javon Hargave took up permanent residency in the Colts backfield, taking down 3 people behind the line of scrimmage and registering a sack. Stephon Tuitt had 3 quarterback hits and Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. The fact is that Steelers totally shut down the Colt’s running game and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons again led the Steelers in tackles, and was generally flying around the field. Ryan Shazier was next for the linebackers, helping Stephon Tuitt drop someone behind the line of scrimmage and getting some pressure on the quarterback. Mike Tomlin rhetorically asked, “What are we saving James for?” Plays like James Harrison’s sack of Scott Tolzien show why he is starting ahead of Jarvis Jones. Bud Dupree saw his first expensive action, and while he lacked any “Splash plays” he looked good. Anthony Chickillo quietly logged 4 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Splash plays from William Gay bookended the evening for the Steelers secondary, as Gay strip sacked Tolzien early in the game, and then intercepted his pass late in the 4th quarter. Gay was good, but he also got beaten on a long play that could have done more damage. Ross Cockrell also got beaten on a deep pattern. The biggest plays came from the safeties. Both Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell stoned Scott Tolzien on separate occasions when he tried to run the ball into the end zone. Mitchell also broke up a would-be touchdown pass, and picked off a pass in the 4th quarter that effectively ended the game. Grade: A-

mike mitchell, T.Y. Hilton, Steelers colts thanksgiving

Mike Mitchell makes a grab for the ball in the Steelers Thanksgiving victory over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Special Teams
Let’s acknowledge that often times assistant coaches get unfairly scapegoated by, well everyone, the fans, the press, head coaches and the front offices when in truth they just don’t have the players to work with. As Dick Hoak famously concluded on the day he retired, “You’re hired to be fired.”

  • Danny Smith has taken a lot of heat from the fans, and it is hard to defend him.

The Colts averaged 35.5 yards on kickoff returns. Those kinds of averages will lose you games against quality offenses. Danny Smith’s special teams also got caught with their pants down on a fake punt. Fake punts are hard to predict precisely because they are so rare. But Smith’s special teams were completely flat-footed after it was clear the play was a fake.

Chris Boswell’s 4 for 4 on PAT’s and Jordan Berry’s solid punting pull the grade for the unit up, but special teams must improve. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley designed a solid game plan that saw the Steelers score 3 touchdowns on their opening 3 possessions. And if the offense did leave some plays on the field in the second half, part of that is probably due to attempts to get Sammie Coates worked back into the offense. Honestly, the Steelers were wise to attempt this with a 21 point lead.

  • Finally, the Steelers offense also converted turnovers into touchdowns.

Feel free to add whatever qualifications regarding the quality of opposition when evaluating Keith Butler’s defense, but Butler’s boys have now turned in two dominating performances in a row.

  • Some of the overall statistics might be inflated, but the Steelers defense defended their goal line twice against an offense committed playing on all four downs.

That’s impressive regardless of the opposition.

Playing well on the road and playing well on Thursdays has been an issue for the Steelers recently, regardless of opposition. None of those troubles were apparent vs. the Colts. The Steelers are playing more focused football, and executing the fundamentals on both offense and defense better, and the score board reflects that and Mike Tomlin deserves credit. Special teams is more worrisome which brings the overall grade down. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
His stat line might only read 5 tackles, but that hardly communicates the value of Sean Davis contributions to the Steelers win. Sean Davis had a hand on the Steelers goal line stops of Frank Gore, and the rookie made a veteran play in correctly reading Scott Tolzien attempt to rush it in at the goal line, and for that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win vs. the Colts.

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Did Pittsburgh Turn 2 Important Corners with the Steelers Thanksgiving Win Over the Colts?

The Pittsburgh Steelers 28-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts not only snapped the franchise’s 66 year-long losing streak on Thanksgiving Day, but the way in which the Steelers beat the Colts offers hope that both the offense and defense have made important strides that, if consolidated, can pay dividends during December football.

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Javon Hargrave stuffs Robert Turbin on Thanksgving as Steelers beat Colts 28-7. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Signs of an Assist for The Steelers Triplets?

Football is the ultimate team game – Even stars depends on their supporting cast for success. The Steelers loss to the Cowboys brought that painful reality clearly into focus.

The Steelers Triplets were again in fine form against the Colts. Le’Veon Bell was rushing downhill and catching the ball with authority. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown teamed for 3 touchdowns with each one looking easier than the last.

But if the Steelers Triplets’ authored “the story” of the Colts victory, members of their supporting casts made small, but potentially significant strides towards building a back story that could provide the foundation for future success.

  • Eli Rogers set up the Steelers first touchdown with a 30-yard reception
  • Ladarius Green set up the Steelers third and fourth touchdowns with 32 and 35 yard “field flipping” receptions
  • The Steelers offensive line opened holes and kept Ben Roethlisberger clean for a second straight week.

It says here that the Steelers still need a legitimate number 2 threat opposite Antonio Brown that Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and/or Darrius Heyward-Bey was supposed to provide. But for the first time in weeks, it looks like the Steelers have made strides towards identifying that person.

Because Compulsive Complainers Gotta Complain…

At the end of the Browns game, Jim Wexell offered the following gem of insight via Twitter:

There is a segment of Steelers Nation that suffers from a compulsion to find something to complain about regardless of the circumstances. A 21 point Steelers win on a short week on the road after playing on the road offers no exception.

The Steelers Thanksgiving victory in Indianapolis certainly came with its share of flaws:

  • Donte Moncrief came dangerously close to catching a field flipping deep ball on the Colt’s 2nd drive
  • William Gay got burned badly by T.Y. Hinton on the next play
  • Ross Cockrell got burned on a long pass that put the Colt’s into the Red Zone
  • The Steelers made a number of drive stalling/extending penalties
  • Big Ben tried and failed to connect with Sammie Coates deep 3 times
  • Danny Smith’s special teams got caught with their pants down on a fake punt

Indeed, going into the fourth quarter, it was easy to look at the scoreboard and say, “If the Colt’s hadn’t missed a field goal and opted to kick at the goal line, it would be a one-score game….” Yes, that is true. But it wasn’t a one-core game and there’s a reason for that….

Butler’s Boys Blossoming into Men….?

Sometimes statistics provide the best way to measure a defense’s performance; other times you measure it best with plays. The Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts falls into the latter category.

Keith Butler set the tone on the first series by blitzing William Gay who hit Scott Tolzien with a strip-sack. On the next series, James Harrison did the honors by dropping Tolzien to set up a third and long which led to Adam Vinatieri’s field goal.

  • After that, Keith Butler’s boys put on a “Bend but don’t break” clinic.

Credit Chuck Pagano for playing to win. Going all in twice at critical junctures like that requires real guts. Two times Pagano tested the Steelers defense, and two times the Steelers defense answered his challenge.

On the first goal line stand, Pagano twice tried to impose his will by forcing Frank Gore up the middle, but Sean Davis and Ricardo Mathews stopped him cold both times. Then Tolzien tried to boot-leg it, but the rookie safety Davis read the play and committed to stopping Tolzien.

  • The rookie safety won the battle of wills with the quarterback, just as he should
  • On 4th down the veteran safety Mike Mitchell followed by knocking away a would-be touchdown pass

Undaunted, Chuck Pagano refused to blink the next time the Colts reached the Red Zone, as his offense converted a 4th and 4 and advanced to Pittsburgh’s six. From there, Pagano followed the same script, attempting to ram the ball down the middle of the Steelers defense, only to have Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt stonewall his rushers.

  • On third down Tolzien again tried to run it in himself, only to be cut off by Mike Mitchell, and his next pass fell incomplete.

Over the course of two possessions, the Indianapolis Colts had controlled the clock for 16 minutes and 19 seconds. During those possessions, the Colts converted four 3rd downs, one 4th down, enjoyed 7 first and 10’s, and amassed 151 yards.

When an offense controls the clock for that long, moves the chains that frequently, and builds those types of yardage totals, they generally break a defense’s will, if not its back.

  • But Keith Butler’s boys refused to bat an eye

And because of that, the Steelers defense authored 8 critical plays at the goal line that defined the entire game and potentially signal one of the season’s corner-turning moments.

Steelers Must Consolidate Progress

The Pittsburgh Steelers have accomplished a lot in a short time. In the space of 5 days they’ve:

  • Snapped a 4 game losing streak,
  • Won back-to-back road games
  • Increased their sack total from 13 to 24
  • Boosted their interception total from 4 to 7
  • Notched victories against teams they were “supposed” to beat, something which Mike Tomlin teams have struggled to do of late

But emergence of potential receiving threats on offense and the development of rookies on defense are the most important achievements during this stretch. The next challenge will be to consolidate this against the New York Giants, who promise to provide Pittsburgh with a stiffer test.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Loss to the Dallas Cowboys

Taken from the gradebook of teacher who wonders just how far his once star student will slip, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Ezekiel Elliot 85 yard touchdown reception Steelers, Mike Mitchell, Steelers 2016 defense implodes

Mike Mitchell is helpless to stop Ezekiel Elliot on his 85 yard touchdown catch as Cowboys beat the Steelers. Photo Credit: Pete Madia, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Substandard quarterback play from Ben Roethlisberger was clearly at issue in 3 of the 4 losses the Steelers had coming into this game. That’s not so this week. Ben Roethlisberger hit 8 receivers, threw 3 touchdown passes and managed a patented 4th quarter comeback. Roethlisberger’s play wasn’t flawless, however, he was 0-4 on two point conversions, and went 0-3 from the 7 to start the third quarter. Pittsburgh needed a flawless performance from Roethlisberger. Instead it got “Very good.” Grade: B

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell got the ball 17 times on the ground, but only managed 54 yards, although he did punch it in in the end zone. While that stat might look like a liability, the truth is on many of those runs Bell transformed an almost certain loss into some positive yardage. He also caught nine passes, including a touchdown. Bell was the only back to get a carry, although David Johnson and Roosevelt Nix did some time at fullback. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. cowboys, coaching, special teams, unsung heros

Tight Ends
Ladarius Green made his long awaited debut and caught 3 passes although his stretch the field speed was nowhere apparent. Xavier Grimble had on catch and another drop. David Johnson had one catch for two yards. Overall, a solid performance by the tight ends. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger had to work at it, but they managed to get the ball to Antonio Brown to the tune of 14 catches for 154 yards. Part of the reason why they were successful is that Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton stepped up, both of whom made big catches, including Rogers with a difficult touchdown catch. No one, however stepped up on the 2 point conversions attempts. In past losses, the lack of a number two WR. That wasn’t the case vs. the Cowboys. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit twice, so it must have been a pretty good day for the Steelers offensive line, right? No, this unit doesn’t get let off the hook so easily. First, the only Dallas sack came on 3rd and 3. A conversion there would have allow the Steelers a chance to establish a rhythm and get back in the tempo of the game.

  • But that was only one play.

The truth is that the run blocking of the offensive line was below the line. On too many occasions, Le’Veon Bell got hit as soon as he touched the ball. In fact, ESPN is crediting the Cowboys with 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Given that, it’s a miracle that Bell managed 3.4 yards a carry. Part of the Steelers game plan was to control the clock, which is hard to do when you running back is getting hit in the backfield. The Steelers need their offensive line to run block and pass block effectively – in the same game. This hasn’t happened in far too long. Grade: F

Defensive Line
On the positive side the Stephon Tuitt got to Dak Prescott in impressive fashion and he also logged a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and, with the two glaring exceptions, the Steelers defensive line did its part to contain Ezekiel Elliot. But any time a running back waltzs into the end zone not once, but twice untouched, the defensive line isn’t doing its job. Much less with the game on the line. Grade: F

Linebackers
Again, Anthony Chickillo started things off with a strip-sack and Ryan Shazier finished them. James Harrison should have been credited with a half sack, and looked good in run support. By all accounts Jarvis Jones whiffed his assignment on the Elliot’s final run. And aside from the two examples above, the Steelers pass rush was sparse. Grade: F

Secondary
Artie Burns continues to look like a rookie, failing to cover Dez Bryant on a critical Dallas touchdown pass. Once again, the secondary more or less watched as Ezekiel Elliot ran through them on his way to the end zone. 3 times. Sean Davis played a strong game overall, but his face mask penalty provided yet another example of the Steelers uncanny ability to self-destruct. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed another 55 yarder. On the positive side, the Steelers saw signs of life from both their punt and kick return teams, as Antonio Brown and Fitzgerald Toussiant had some respectable returns. But on a critical series in the third quarter, after a Steelers drive had been stalled with a sack, Jordan Berry boomed one off, only to have it Lucky Whitehead return the it 39 yards.

  • Within 3 plays Dallas taking the lead.

These types of self destructive sequences are killing the Steelers. Grade: F

Coaching
Again, starting with the positive, Todd Haley came out with a petty strong game plan that the Steeler executed. It wasn’t quite enough to win and one cannot gloss over the fact that Mike Munchack’s offensive line cannot seem to play a complete game – a little road grading along side strong protection of the passer could have gone a long way in this game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense is a disaster.

Sure, the unit can string together a strong series or two, but it can’t be counted on to pressure the passer, and at this point it is failing to execute basic fundamentals, having gotten smoked by a running back who ran untouched for 3 touchdowns.

Clearly, some of the talent assessments that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Butler made going into the season were wrong, but thus far Butler has failed to scheme or game plan enough to compensate for those deficiencies.

  • And then there comes Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin found himself as the favorite whipping boy in Steelers Nation this morning, and not without reason. There are reports that Ben Roethlisberger met with Tomlin and expressed concern about how the team was practicing. Other players have chimed in. Then after the game, Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly insisted the Steelers needed more “Discipline and accountability.”

  • Is this the equivalent of Tom Donahoe saying “The Steelers are better than Cincinnati” and Bill Cowher saying “I can only win with the player they give me?” late in the 1999 season?

Time will tell. But the Steelers are in a slide not seen since the 5 game losing streak of 2009 and there’s no real sign that it will stop. Mike Tomlin needs to find a way to do that, quickly.

Unsung Hero
One of the biggest non-stories this season has been Ladarius Green’s absence. Ladarius Green made his debut on Sunday and looked OK, but he wasn’t the biggest most impactful tight end on the field. Ben Roethlisberger looked Jesse James way 4 times, and each time James came up with the ball, including once on an impressive 24 yard catch on what should have been the game winning drive, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Cowboys.

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Steelers Nation Speaks: The Failed Chris Boswell Rabona On Sides Kick was a Worthy Risk

The beauty of doing polls is that sometimes that results shock you. If you’re reading this, you know very well that the 2016 Steelers loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium ended with failed Chris Boswell’s rabona on sides kick attempt.

  • Steelers Nation understandably erupted in fury after the game on Twitter and other social media.

Calls for Art Rooney II to summarily fire Mike Tomlin and/or Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith were not hard to find. Yet, that seemed to simple and a far too easy scape goat given that Chris Boswell had executed a rabona on-sides kick while at Rice University.

Hence the poll.

When Steel Curtain Rising posted the poll and the accompanying article exploring both sides of the failed Chris Boswell on sides kick The results are surprising, because after all, what good is the internet if you can’t demand your pound of flesh and demand it now. But cooler heads prevailed, at least in this corner of Steelers Nation:

chris boswell on sides kick ravens, chris boswell rabona on sides kick

68% of our voters felt that the decision to have Chris Boswell try a rabona style on sides kick was a worth coaching risk. The other 32% took issue with Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith’s choice. That’s a pretty clear margin of victory.

 

I for one now agree with the poll results. Last Sunday’s loss was hard to swallow, and given that special teams snafus had hurt the Steelers badly (12 men on the field on one play, the blocked punt) that didn’t seem to be the time for Danny Smith to be trying something cute.

But Jim Wexell offered some valuable insight via Twitter:

That changes things considerable. This wasn’t some hair brained, “Hey Chris, you nailed did rabona on-sides kick once in college… think ya can go out there and do it again…?” scheme hatched on the sideline during at TV time out.

The Steelers special teams had practiced the rabona on-sides kick and, while risky, it was a worthy gamble on the part of Mike Tomlin that had it gone a little better, could have resulted in the game ending with Ben Roethlisberger’s getting the ball at midfield with 2-3 chances to hook up with Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or even Le’Veon Bell.

That’s a long shot, but a shot worth taking.

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