Steelers 2018 Roster Balances Super Bowl Hopes with Long-Term Viability

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 roster is nearing completion and the choices Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made balance the teams Super Bowl aspirations with an eye towards sustaining long term success.

  • In case you’ve been under a rock, the Steelers roster cuts included a minor bombshell when the team cut Landry Jones.

The Steelers also cut Nat Berhe, but resigned him after placing Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on injured reserve, which will keep the undrafted free agent rookie out of the lineup for the next two weeks. The Steelers have not made any trades nor have they tried to claim any players on waivers.

That could change as the week evolves but the Steelers 2018 opening day roster is pretty well set.

Antonio Brown, Heinz Field, pregame warm ups

Antonio Brown in pre-game warmups at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Roster

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger
Joshua Dobbs
Mason Rudolph

Cutting Landry Jones was a major surprise, and for the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without a veteran signal caller as their backup quarterback. The Steelers are clearly taking a short-term risk in the name of making a long-term investment.

Running Back

James Conner
Jaylen Samuels
Stevan Ridley
Roosevelt Nix

The elephant in the room’s name is Le’Veon Bell as of Tuesday morning, Bell had not signed his franchise tag nor given any indication as to whether or when he would do so. The Steelers clearly didn’t expect this, as they likely would not have cut Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Bell stay away, the running back by committee crowd will get its wish.

Tight End

Vance McDonald
Jesse James
Xavier Grimble

The biggest news here is the move the Steelers haven’t made yet. Injuries have abounded at tight end, yet the Steelers haven’t made any move to bring in an outside player.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown
JuJu Smith-Schuster
James Washington
Justin Hunter
Ryan Switzer
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Antonio Brown all of preseason, supposedly only as a precaution. The Steelers have high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington while Justin Hunter looked good in preseason. Again. Ryan Switzer is an unknown while Darrius Heyward-Bey is mainly on the roster to play special teams.

Offensive Line

Alejandro Villanueva
Ramon Foster
Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro
Marcus Gilbert
B.J. Finney
Chukwuma Okorafor
Matt Feiler
Zach Banner

Some felt the Steelers would only keep 8 offensive lineman, however Zach Banner made the cut despite joining the team late in the summer. You can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward
L.T. Walton
Javon Hargrave
Dan McCullers
Stephon Tuitt
Tyson Alualu

Cam Heyward is officially a “tackle” and Karl Dunbar has brought Daniel McCullers further along than anyone ever expected.

Outside Linebacker

T.J. Watt
Bud Dupree
Anthony Chickillo

1 year ago the Steelers carried 5 players here. Now they have 3 albeit with one rookie on IR and another on the practice squad.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams
Jon Bostic
L.J. Fort
Tyler Matakevich
Matthew Thomas

The “battle” between Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic never really evolved and Matthew Thomas has insiders privately wondering whether his role can grow as the season evolves. Insight linebacker might not have to be a strength for the Steelers defense in 2018, but it cannot be a liability.

Cornerback

Joe Haden
Artie Burns
Mike Hilton
Cam Sutton
Coty Sensabaugh

In contrast to quarterback, the Steelers opted for experience over youth, in keeping Coty Sensagaugh over Brian Allen, although Brian Allen remains on the practice squad. For once, the Steelers have strong depth on paper.

Safety

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Morgan Burnett
Sean Davis
Terrell Edmunds
Nat Berhe
Jordan Dangerfield

Sean Davis is the only player who returns from 2017 in the entire unit, although Jordan Dangerfield was on IR. The Steelers have invested heavily in this position and for the defense to improve, those investments must deliver.

Specialists

Chris Boswell
Jordan Berry
Kameron Canaday

Jordan Berry did not post pretty preseason numbers, nonetheless, he made the team. Next time you’re in a Steelers bar either A. Ask people “Who is our long snapper” or B. “Who is Kameron Canaday?” No matter which question you ask, here’s 100 Argentine pesos that says 1% of the people you poll have the right answer. Anonymity is a virtue for a long snapper. Let’s hope we don’t hear “Kameron Canaday” until free agency rolls around.

Steelers 2018 Practice Squad

Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker
Brian Allen, Cornerback
Jarvion Franklin, Running Back
Trey Griffey, Wide Receiver
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Lavon Hooks, Defensive End
Farrington Huguenin, Outside Linebacker
Tevin Jones, Wide Receiver
Patrick Morris, Offensive Line
R.J. Prince, Offensive Line
Christian Scotland-Williamson, Tight End

Perhaps conspicuous by his absences was Joshua Fraizer, the Steelers 7th round draft pick. Christian Scotland-Williamson holds a spot thanks to the International Player Pathway. Trey Griffey is of course the son of Ken Griffey Jr. and the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr. Keion Adams and Brian Allen are members of the Steelers 2017 draft class.

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Steelers Trade for Ryan Switzer, Kicker Returner WR Acquired from Raiders for 5th Rounder

The Pittsburgh has a new kick returner, as the Steelers traded for Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders, acquiring the return specialist for a 5th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Steelers also get the Raider’s 6th round pick as part of the deal.

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Mike Tomlin plans to immediately insert Ryan Switzer into the Steelers lineup and hopes to play him in the Steelers preseason finale on Thursday evening against the Carolina Panthers.

Mike Tomlin explained how Ryan Switzer fits in with the Steelers:

We’ll put him in the mix with these guys and hopefully get him ready to go Thursday night and just continue to build our football team in trying to be strong in all areas.

To make room for Switzer, the Steelers waived Justin Thomas, who’d hopped to make the team as a returner or slot receiver.

Ryan Switzer, Steelers trade for Ryan Switzer

New Steelers kick returner Ryan Switzer celebrating touchdown with Cowboys. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via 24/7 Sports

Originally drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 3th Round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Ryan Switzer averaged 25 yards on 24 kickoff returns in 2017. While he didn’t take one to the house, he did have a long return of 61 yards. Switzer also returned 29 punts for an 8.8 yard average and including one 83 yard punt return for a touchdown.

  • The Cowboys seldom threw to Switzer, who caught 6 passes for 41 yards.

During preseason, Switzer caught 1 touchdown for yards and returned 3 punts for -0.5 yards.

Bad News for Quadree Henderson?

Ryan Switzer’s arrival is bad news for any number of hopeful undrafted rookies and 2nd year players hoping to make the team. Pitt standout Quadree Henderson was signed as a rookie free agent with an eye towards using him as a returner, but he has not impressed thus far as a return specialist.

The Steelers have also used cornerback Cam Sutton as a punt returner and last year they used Eli Rogers in that capacity, but Eli Rogers remains on the PUP list and would serve a 1 game suspension for substance abuse anyway.

  • Ryan Switzer can also play as a slot receiver.

That decreases Markus Tucker and Trey Griffey chances of making the final roster, as well as those of Damoun Patterson. Current Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington are locks to make the Steelers roster at wide receiver. Ryan Switzer would figure to be the 4th.

Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey is primarily in the mix, although his value to the team is more on special teams than as a wide out.

Colbert’s Luck with Trades

For a long time, even into the Mike Tomlin era, it was rare for the Steelers to acquire players by trade. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did trade to acquire kick returner Allen Rossum in 2007.

  • But starting in 2013 summer trades became more comment for the Steelers.

The Steelers traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones in 2013, traded for Levi Brown during the regular season, traded for Brandon Boykin in 2015, Justin Gilbert in 2016, and J.J. Wilcox and Vance McDonald in 2017. Of the sextet of players acquired by trade, only Vance McDonald has delivered anything of value on the field, and his 2017 season was limited by injury (and he’s been injured during the entire summer.)

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

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

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

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

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

Damoun Patterson, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers know their away around unknown wide receivers.

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

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

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

Eli Rogers

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

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

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

Eli Rogers Expands Steelers Offensive Options

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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NFL Approves the Jesse James Rule. Now Steelers Nation Needs to Get Over It and Move On

Its official. The NFL has approved the Jesse James Rule, modifying what exactly counts as “a catch” in the pro football. Now receivers no longer must “survive the ground” but merely establish possession, two feet in bounds, and make a football move or an ability to make one (whatever that means.)

  • On other words Jesse James touchdown catch against the New England Patriots would now, in fact be a touchdown catch.

It says here that the NFL made the right decision, however belated it might be. The Jesse James non-catch in the Steelers December loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field represents everything that wrong with the way the NFL is officiating professional football. Take a look for yourself:

Remember, the Steelers were on the ropes. The Patriots had just taken the lead and the Steelers got the ball back with 52 seconds left and one time out. Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for what had to have been the most electrifying 69 yard pass in Pittsburgh Steelers history.

  • Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James to seemingly put the Steelers ahead with 34 seconds remaining.
Jesse James, Steelers vs Patriots, Jesse James Touchdown Patriots, Jesse James Rule

Thanks to the Jesse James rule, this would have been a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Yet, instead of the extra point and furious attempt by the Patriots to rally in less than 30 seconds, football fans were treated to…

…Several minutes of dead air space, while some guy in a suit sat there in New York, reviewing the play frame-by-frame, back and forth, from 15 different angles and ultimately reversedthe call.

  • Instead of most valuable player being someone who did something on the field, NFL officiating czar Alberto Riveron had the most influence on the game’s outcome.

Hat’s off to the NFL Competition Committee and the owners for doing the right thing. Now Steelers Nation must follow suit:

  • Get over the Jesse James Catch/non-catch and move on.

That’s right you heard it. Get over it and move on. Did the Steelers get screwed? Yep, they did, especially when you consider that the NFL secretly modified the rule going into the Super Bowl. Is the play indicative of much of what ails football? Yes, as discussed above.

But you know what? The impact of this call has grown exponentially since that December evening. To listen to some Steelers Nation citizens, it is almost as if the Immaculate Reception had been nullified. It pains me to say this, but Steelers fans whining about the play is almost reaching the level of Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl XL excuse making.

Enough with the “What Could Have Been”

The Steelers loss to the Patriots cost them the first seed in the AFC playoffs, which brought the Jacksonville Jaguars to Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. And we shant say who won that one. But some in Steelers Nation seem to hold Alberto Riveron responsible for that shellacking. He’s not. Let’s look at why.

Go back to the Patriots game itself and review what the Steelers could have done in the 28 seconds after the touchdown reversal.

  • Pittsburgh could have kicked field goal to tie the game. They chose not to.
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey could have dropped the pass to stop the clock. He did not.
  • The Steelers could have clocked the ball and called their final play on their terms. They did not.
  • Ben Roethlisberger could have tried to do something other than force the ball to Eli Rogers in triple coverage. He did not.

OK, the referees could have penalized the Patriots for blatant pass interference on Eli Rogers. They did not.

NFL football teams do not get to choose when they suffer bad calls, only they get to choose on how they react afterwards. Perhaps the ensuing chaos was a straw that broke the camel’s back in Ben Roethlisberger’s fractured relationship with Todd Haley. Maybe the cause lie elsewhere. It matters not. The Steelers weren’t ready.

But let’s imagine that the Steelers had  had scored. Are you so sure that Pittsburgh’s defense would have stopped Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, the same combo at annihilated the Steelers in the 4th quarter? I’m not.

  • But let’s say the Steelers defense holds. Can Steelers Nation jump to the conclusion that today Lombardi Number 7  is getting polished on the South Side?
  • No you cannot.

In a playoff game at Heinz Field, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have a fair shot at beating the New England Patriots. But which outcome are you more certain of? A decisive Steelers win, or a game that goes down to the wire?

My money’s on the game doing down to the wire. Let’s say Pittsburgh beats the Patriots in the playoffs.

  • Would the Steelers have prevailed against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII?

It is possible. But if the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense was powerless to stop Leonard Fournette, is there any reason to think that they stopped LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi? And while we’re at it, let’s remember that this same Philadelphia defense humiliated the the Steelers offense to 3 points the last time the two teams faced.

The Steelers got wronged by the NFL on that fateful December day. But the truth is that the Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion dealt a far graver blow to Steelers 2017 Super Bowl chances the Jesse James non-catch, non-touchdown replay reversal.

Steelers fans need to accept that and move on.

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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers & Eli Rogers Face Interesting Restricted Free Agent Decision

Undrafted rookie free agents are the NFL’s answer to Hollywood Redshirts. They’re brought into fill out training camp rosters with a promise of a chance to prove themselves. Earning a spot on the practice squad represents a major victory.

  • Even the scant few lucky enough to land on the 53 man roster end up playing on rookie minimum contracts and face a faint chance of getting a 2nd NFL contract.

Even though Eli Rogers is another Kevin Colbert undrafted rookie free agent success story, last year he earned 4% of what Antonio Brown cleared. Now that Eli Rogers is a restricted free agent, he gets his first shot at NFL riches, and today we look at whether should or will get them.

Eli Rogers, Ryan Shazier, Todd Haley

Steelers, Eli Rogers face interesting free agency decision. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Rogers’ Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Eli Rogers as part of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. With a depth chart that featured Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of making the team appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire editor Neal Coolong was singing Roger’s praises, and even comparing his preseason performance vs Philadelphia to that of a young Antonio Brown.

Unfortunately, Rogers got injured and spent his rookie season in injured reserve.

A year later, however, Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise and won the Steelers slot receiver job at the opening of the season. By the end of the season, Rogers was the Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had grabbed 48 passes, to put him at third behind Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 Eli Rogers found his role in the offense diminished, but that was more due to the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the return of Martavis Bryant. While Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dropped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

Assuming the Martavis Bryant trade rumors prove to be false, the Steelers top three wide receiver slots appear to be set going into 2018. But the number 4 slot remains wide open.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t a reliable option, and Justin Hunter may look good in practice, but he’s done little on the field.

In two seasons, Eli Rogers has shown himself to be a reasonably reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger at receiver who can provide solid depth. Ensuring that Roger’s returns via with a restricted free agent offer would likely lock down the position for the Steelers, would certainly free them to focus on other needs in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

A restricted free agent tender for Eli Rogers around 1.8 million dollars. That’s a pretty hefty sum for a 4th wide out and about a half million more than Darrius Heyward-Bey made in 2017. There’s also the question of injury.

  • Eli Rogers injured his ACL late in the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

While he could certainly be ready for the season opener, there are no guarantees. There’s also the simple reality because of his injury, another team is unlikely to make a run at Eli Rogers should the Steelers leave him unprotected.

The Steelers salary cap space is meager, and they’re already going to enter the season carrying Ryan Shazier’s $8,718,000 5th year option, which amounts to dead money. The Steelers need to stretch their salary cap dollars, and tendering Eli Rogers might just be pushing things too far.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

In the past, after three years, if the Steelers and even an inkling of future interest in a player they’d offer him a restricted free agent tender. Even Daniel McCullers got one last year. About the only exception was Stevenson Sylvester, who didn’t get a tender, but came back at the veteran minimum.

The X-Factor here is Eli Rogers’ injury, and that could swing the balance against the Steelers offering him a tender, but the smart money says one way or another, Eli Rogers will be a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2018.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Steelers Backups Survive The Browns, 28-24, In Regular Season Finale

The Steelers were missing several key starters on Sunday, as they took on the hapless and winless Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in the 2017 regular season finale.

However, despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and defensive end Cameron Heyward sitting out Sunday’s finale, Pittsburgh prevailed, 28-24, to finish the regular season 13-3, the team’s best record since 2004.

Starting in place of Roethlisberger, fifth-year backup quarterback Landry Jones marched the Steelers offense 72 yards on a scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown run by veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who scampered 29 yards on a reverse to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-0.

While the Browns were forced to punt on their first two possessions, Pittsburgh had its next two series end on an interception by Jabrill Peppers, followed by a stop on fourth and goal, when fullback Roosevelt Nix was stymied at the goal line.

But early in the second quarter, the Steelers went ahead 14-0 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jones to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster

The Browns answered right back, driving 74 yards on five plays and drew within a touchdown, on a two-yard plunge by running back Duke Johnson to make it 14-7. The big play on the drive was a 54-yard pass from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to receiver Josh Gordon down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line.

Pittsburgh answered immediately, driving 75 yards on eight plays and re-taking a two-touchdown lead on reserve running back Stevan Ridley‘s four-yard score to make it 21-7.

It is worth noting that the drive was kept alive after Browns rookie defensive end Miles Garrett was called for roughing the passer on third and three from the nine.

Cleveland answered right back two plays later, exploiting Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of a 56-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to receiver Rashard Higgins to make it 21-14 midway through the second quarter.

The score would remain the same at halftime, but Cleveland tied things up on its first series of the third quarter, making it 21-21, after Kizer found Higgins on a five-yard touchdown pass.

But the Steelers re-claimed the lead, when the rookie sensation Smith-Schuster took the next kickoff 96 yards to make it 28-21.

After a Zane Gonzalez 51-yard field goal drew Cleveland to within 28-24, the Browns had several chances to take the lead.

But Pittsburgh’s defense held firm down the stretch, forcing a fumble and interception on the Browns’ next two possessions.

On Cleveland’s final possession of the game, a fourth down pass intended for Corey Coleman was dropped by the wide-open receiver, deep in Pittsburgh territory, and the Steelers escaped with a 28-24 victory to improve to 13-3 on the season, while the Browns ended 2017 as the first winless team since the 2008 Lions finished 0-16.

For the day, Jones completed 23-27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and Smith-Schuster pulled in nine passes for 143 yards and a score, while also contributing to the victory with the aforementioned 96-yard kickoff return.

Reserve running back Ridley carried 17 times for 80 yards and a score.

As for the Steelers defense, it set a regular season record with 56 sacks, as reserve defensive end Tyson Alualu pitched in with two of the unit’s six on the day.

Photo credit: Pro Football Focus

The Steelers enter the postseason as the AFC’s number two seed and will enjoy their first playoff bye since the 2010/11 season.

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