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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2 Simple Words to Describe Steelers 27-24 Loss to Patriots: This Sucks

Intense. Thrilling. Captivating. Hard fought. Heartbreaking. The NFL’s most anticipated match of the year, the New England Patriots vs the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field lived up to its billing.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots played a titanic match that went down to the wire.

Unfortunately, the Steelers came up on the short end, and they did so at the cost of losing the man who should be the league MVP, possibly for the rest of the season. Two words describe the situation: This Sucks.

Jesse James, Steelers vs Patriots, Jesse James Touchdown Patriots

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

But We Never Expected “The Standard Is the Standard” to Include Brown…

Going into the game, this site noted that although the Steelers locker room has bought into Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard,” there was no denying that injuries played a major role in recent Steelers defeats at the hands of the Patriots. And it was time to flip the script.

There are times when bloggers beg to be wrong, and this is one of them.

Four plays into the 2nd quarter Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown in the end zone.

  • The pass fell away incomplete.
  • Brown didn’t get up after the play.
  • He couldn’t walk off the field under his own power.

This was new territory for the Steelers.

Since the Killer Bees converged in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have had to win without Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, but never have they had to go without Antonio Brown. The Steelers entered the game without Joe Haden and obviously Ryan Shazier, but their offense was (almost) at full strength.

Not anymore. But Steelers Nation knows the drill, “The Standard is the Standard: Injuries will not be an excuse.” The rest of the 47 men on the active game day roster would not need to find something a little extra special if Pittsburgh was to have any hope of winning. And, for the much of the game they did just that.

Steelers Digging Deep and Delivering

Tom Brady knows how to score points. Tom Brady has written a manual on how to score points against the Steelers! And the game started out as so many other recent Steelers vs Patriots contests have started – with New England scoring a touchdown, and making it look easy.

  • Credit Keith Butler’s defense with not caving, not falling into the rut of past failures.

Cam Heyward started off New England’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady. On their next try, New England made it into the Red Zone, but Mike Hilton defended a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone. Sean Davis broke up another one near the goal line intended for Rob Gronkowski (with a lot of help from Stephon Tuitt who was closing in on Brady.)

On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers showed they could slug it out. With Le’Veon Bell’s running, and short passes to Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jesse James, the Steelers burned 8 minutes off the clock which set up this play:

If anyone had any doubt that the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to find a way to give an extra 110%, this play definitively erased that. The question was, would it be enough?

3rd Quarter Stalemate

The Steelers entered the second half with a 7-point cushion, but the Patriots answered with a methodical, 6 minute touchdown drive. They followed by forcing a punt after just five plays.

But the Steelers turned the tables on the next drive, as Javon Hargrave pressured Tom Brady into throwing just a moment too soon, which allowed Vince Williams to intercept the ball, and the Steelers only needed 5 plays to score another touchdown. Now they held a 24-16 lead.

Vince Williams, Vince Williams interception Tom Brady

Vince Williams is 1st Steeler to intercept Tom Brady since 2005. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Steelers forced another punt. Then they opened the 4th quarter with a drive that amazingly burned 7 minutes off the clock yet saw the Steelers do no more than advance 31 yards. A score here would have been a game changer, but at least the Steelers were keeping the ball out of Brady’s hands.

The Patriots got the ball back, and marched all the way down to the Steelers 21-yard line, where Bud Dupree sacked Tom Brady on third down forcing a field goal. The score was now 24-19, if only the Steelers could hold on….

Steelers Commit Cardinal Sin Against Patriots

The lion’s share of the sound and fury generated by this game will revolve around the Steelers final drive. And rightly so. But if you really want to understand where the Steeler lost this game, you need to look at the two drives that preceded this.

The Steelers got the ball back with 3:56 minutes left. New England had all of their time outs left, so at least 2 first downs were in order. There the Steelers committed their cardinal sins.

  • The Steelers played it cautious, running the ball twice and punting after 3.
  • Sean Davis got both hands on Tom Brady’s first pass, but couldn’t hold on. You NEVER give Brady a 2nd chance.
  • Brady then proceeded to connect with Ron Gronkowski on four straight plays, including a TD and 2 point conversion

If you’re going to beat the Patriots, you really have to find a way to stop Tom Brady to Ron Gronkowski. OK, that’s easy to say but hard to do, and the Steelers knew that as the drive began, but they failed.

The Greatest Comeback that Never Was

The Steelers had 52 seconds and 1 time out left to come back to either tie or win. Such last minute heroics have been a staple for the Steelers during 2017, but nothing prepared them for what came next.

JuJu Smith-Schuster took a simple slant route and while looking for the sidelines, broke free through the Patriots secondary for a 69 yard reception. Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James on the next play for an apparent touchdown….

…Except it wasn’t a touchdown.

The replay officials ruled that Jesse James didn’t have complete control of the ball. Was that the correct call? Honestly, it does look like their ruling was within the letter of the law, although enough neutral observers, including Tony Dungy, argue that the reversal is a gross miscarriage of justice.

  • It matters little now.

Ben Roethlisberger hit Darrius Heyward-Bey on his next throw, who failed to get out of bounds. Instead of clocking the ball and giving Chris Boswell a chance to tie the game, Ben Roethlisberger went for all the marbles. Ben tried to thread the ball in triple coverage to Eli Rogers only to have the pass deflected and intercepted by Duron Harmon.

  • Just like that, it was all over for the Steelers.

Since their 2016 Christmas win over the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. They’ve authored any number of 4th quarter comebacks worth of narration by John Facenda. The Patriots game was no different. The Steelers simply came out on the wrong side.

And man, it really sucks.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Pittsburgh’s Upper Classman Carry the Team

Taken from the grade book whose pleased to see his upper classman hit their stride but dismayed by the drop off from his under classman, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Packers.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Jamaal Williams, Steelers vs Packers

Cameron Heyward smothers Jamaal Williams in Steelers 31-28 win over Packers @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Where does Ben Roethlisberger play best? At home under the lights. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s second consecutive Prime Time game at Heinz Field and his second 4 touchdown performance. Roethlisberger’s number would have been even better had he not suffered multiple drops. While he did throw two interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger was on against the Packers. Grade: A-

Running Backs
The Packers run defense didn’t leave a lot of rushing room early on, but Le’Veon Bell was patient, and ended up just below the century mark on the ground. Moreover, Bell seems to be recovering his rappot with Roethlisberger in the short passing game, and that was a true difference maker for the 2nd straight week. Bell did fumble, which brings his grade down. Slightly. Grade: A-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble caught a shovel pass to get the Steelers on the board and convert their first Red Zone opportunity. Jesse James had 3 catches but one notable drop. The blocking from this group was solid, but not spectacular. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there a better wide reciever in football than Antonio Brown? Good luck trying to make that case. Antonio Brown was simply spectacular the entire evening, coming up with the ball whenever the Steelers needed it. Martavis Bryant had a touchdown on a text book fade pattern and made some other drive sustaining catches. But he also had a drop and Eli Rogers had several, although he rebounded with catches later. Justin Hunter had a drop on his only target and one has to wonder if Darrius Heyward-Bey should get the nod instead of him. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Packers sacked Ben Roethlisberger deep in Pittsburgh territory, but the Steelers offense recovered to score a touchdown. Rushing room was sparse at times, but the Steelers offensive line eventually opened holes when they needed to be opened. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line kept the Packers running game more or less in check throughout the night, although Green Bay did get some traction early on and then again in the Red Zone. The defensive line accounted for all three sacks. Stephon Tuitt had a tackle for a loss, as did L.T. Walton who also had a critical sack. A very good night for the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack on the Packer’s final possession which should have been flagged, nonetheless it was a heads up play as Brett Hundley could have done some damage with a scramble. T.J. Watt also defensed a critical pass as did Ryan Shazier who led the Steelers in tackles. Vince Williams and Bud Dupree had 4 tackles with Vince dropping one of his men behind scrimmage. Grade: B

Steelers vs Packers, Vince Williams, Jamaal Williams

Vince Williams after stuffing Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Packers threw touchdown passes for 49, 54 and 55 yards. And while the screen pass wasn’t entirely on the shoulders of the Steelers secondary, they bear responsibility for the break down. Artie Burns bit badly on a double pump, tackled poorly in many cases, and Coty Sensabaugh got burned one of the 50 plus yarders. Stats like third down conversions suddenly become irrelevant when opposing teams can count on covering half the field on any given play. Grade: F

Special Teams
The opened the game with their longest kick return of the season and Jordan Berry’s punts were sufficiently well placed and/or had enough hang time that the Packers declined to return them. Kickoff coverage was solid. Steelers missed on a an extra point, but Chris Boswell came through by kicking a Heinz Field record tying 53 yard field goal as time expired. Can’t ask for (much) more than that. Grade: A-

Coaching
It would be easy to say that the Steelers almost fell into another Tomlin trap game or that Tomlin’s comments about the Patriots and the subsequent closeness of the context indicated a lack of focus on the part of the coaching staff.

  • Both of those assumptions are almost certainly wrong.

While the Steelers offense did suffer from some execution errors, they got production out of their key starters all night, and Todd Haley’s overall game planning was solid, and his unit did score four touchdowns including 3 from inside the Red Zone as well as making a 2 point conversion.

  • The bigger and more concerning issues are on defense.

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

  • Even at 9-2, this type of failure could cost  easily the Steelers the AFC North title, let alone home field advantage.

Whether the root cause of these breakdowns is the cause of scheme, execution, personnel or some combination thereof, the Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin must fix it, quickly.

Count the Steelers win against the Packers as another “closer than expected win.” But the Steelers are nonetheless finding ways to win those. And Mike Tomlin gets credit for that. Grade: C-

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Brett Hundley, Steelers vs Packers

Cam Heyward celebrates with Stephon Tuitt after sacking Brett Hundley in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Unsung Hero Award
In the past we’ve metaphorically referred to him as “One Man Wrecking Crew.” But against the Packers he literally was the only member of his unit to take the field on a number of downs as the Steelers went into a 1-4-6 alignment.

  • And wouldn’t you know, on one of these occasions the player in question came up with a sack on a critical third down.

He also had another sack, and dropped 3 Packers ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, and for that Cam Heyward is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Packers.

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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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