Steelers Eagles Preseason Report Card

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 preseason campaign against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Here is their Report Card.

Damoun Patterson, Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown, Rasul Douglas, Steelers vs Eagles Preseason

Steelers hopeful Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
As has become the custom the past few summers, 15-year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones got the start, playing three series and completing four of four passes for 83 yards and a 71-yard touchdown strike to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs played the rest of the first half and completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Joshua Dobbs led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Dobbs set up the first scoring drive with an 18-yard run As for the second score, it was a sensational 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Damoun Patterson. Rookie Mason Rudolph took over the reins in the second half and completed seven of 12 passes for 101 yards. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Training camp holdout or not, star running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t going to play, Thursday night. In his place, were a host of running backs, including veteran Stevan Ridley, who led all Steelers backs with 10 carries but for only 14 yards. Fellow veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while second-year man James Conner tallied an impressive 25 yards on just four carries. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The youngster, Damoun Patterson, was the receiving star of the night, as he was targeted 10 times, while pulling down six catches for 77 yards and the touchdown grab that was every bit as sensational as Dobbs’ pass. Smith-Schuster tallied only one catch for the aforementioned 71-yard score, while rookie James Washington grabbed two passes for 44 yards–including an impressive combat catch near the sidelines in the second half. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nothing newsworthy from this group. Veteran Jesse James caught just one pass for two yards. Vance McDonald sat out with an injury, while Xavier Grimble was shutout in the box score. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Line
Missing several key starters–including Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro due to injury prevention and veteran Ramon Foster due to an actual injury, Jones and Company weren’t afforded with the best protection. Sure enough, both Jones and Rudolph were sacked twice each. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward didn’t play at all, Stephon Tuitt played very little, while Javon Hargrave saw the most action out of the starters. The Eagles were held to 106 yards rushing, which is perhaps a testament to the backups and how they’re learning under first-year defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Grade: C

Linebackers
Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the way with four solo tackles, while Jon Bostic collected three. However, neither really distinguished themselves in the battle for the starting job alongside Vince Williams. As for outside linebackers, Anthony Chickillo recorded one sack, while rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi made the defensive play of the night, with a strip-sack early in the third quarter that set up a field goal. Grade: B+

Secondary
Despite missing a good bit of training camp battling injury, Morgan Burnett, the strong safety acquired via free agency in the offseason, looked really good, same for rookie first round pick Terrell Edmunds. Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton each recorded an interception, while Dashaun Phillips provided the low-light for the night when he was burned badly on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Grade: C

Special Teams
Nothing much of note on special teams, as rookie Quadree Henderson only had one chance to return a kickoff, while Justin Thomas totaled just 12 yards on three punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell converted all three of his field goal attempts and both extra points. As for the punters, veteran Jordan Berry averaged 41.7 yards on three punts, while the unknown Matt Wile totaled 96 yards on two punts. Grade: C

Coaches
It was the first preseason game, complete with vanilla game-plans that were executed by a lot of guys who won’t be around in a few weeks. Grade: Incomplete

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Steelers Pick Offensive Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor In 3rd Round of 2018 NFL Draft

The overhaul of the Steelers once maligned offensive line might seem like it took place just yesterday, what with the unit currently regarded as one of the best in the NFL, complete with three Pro Bowlers in 2017.

But, believe it or not, the drafting of right guard David DeCastro in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft–the third of four first or second round picks spent on offensive linemen between 2010-2012–was over a half-decade ago.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers 2018 3rd round pick

Steelers 2018 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle from Western Michigan. Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

Therefore, it made perfect sense that finding quality depth along the offensive line, a player who could perhaps be groomed to assume a starter’s role in the not so distant future, was high on the Steelers draft wish list heading into the third round, Friday night.

  • Sure enough, with their second of two third round picks (92nd, overall), the Steelers selected offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan.
  • At 6-6 and 320 pounds, Chukwuma Okorafor certainly has  the size NFL teams want in their offensive tackles.

As for his resume, according to his NFL.com draft profile, Okorafor’s family immigrated to the United States from Botswana in 2010. What that means is football was a totally foreign sport to the youngster.

But apparently Okorafor was a quick-study from the start, as he was a highly sought-after high school recruit who ultimately signed with Western Michigan.

  • Okorafor was a starting right tackle in his sophomore year of 2015 before making the switch to left tackle in his junior season.

Despite his late introduction to American football, Chukwuma Okorafor comes to the NFL as a highly-decorated college player, earning First Team All-Mac honors in both his junior and senior seasons.

  • Rated as a top-5 to 10 prospect by most publications, Okorafor obviously is a decent value pick late in the third round.

His highlight clip would seem to support that notion.

While the Steelers may have drafted Chukwuma Okorafor with an eye towards the future, as alluded to earlier, they are certainly in need of some immediate quality depth after the departure of super-utility lineman Chris Hubbard, who started 10 games in-place of injured/suspended right tackle Marcus Gilbert a year ago, and performed so well, he earned a lucrative free agent deal with the Browns.

Under the tutelage of highly-acclaimed offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Okorafor will have the best in the business teaching him the finer points of his position.

The average age of the Steelers highly-accomplished offensive line will be just under 30 years by the start of the 2018 campaign, and in the world of professional football, it doesn’t take long for a unit to go from a strength to a weakness, with age being one of the biggest culprits.

Therefore, the selection of Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 NFLDraft could prove to be very timely in the long run.

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Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

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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Why One Big Summer ’17 Steelers Move Fuels Free Agency Excitement in the Spring of 2018

Steelers fans have been groomed to expect the least when it comes to the team’s activity (or lack thereof) in the NFL’s annual free agency frenzy that begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

But you know what? Something the Steelers did at the end of last summer has me more excited about the start of free agency than usual. Why’s that? To find out read on young Padawan, but first let’s acknowledge why the start of free agency has generally been a ho-hum affair in Steelers Nation.

  • To say Pittsburgh rarely makes a splash in free agency is an understatement.
  • To say the Steelers don’t wind up on many “winners” lists following the initial stages of the free agent period is a given.

Indeed, you could even argue that when the Steelers have tried to make splash free agency signings, its backfired on them!

And why shouldn’t they? Number one, it’s generally not the “Steelers Way.” In other words, Pittsburgh’s always been an organization that’s keen on improving itself with college prospects seeking to make it at the professional level (in other words, the draft), and not free agents seeking to cash in on that all-important second contract.

Number two, they generally don’t have much room under the cap, that is, unless they “kick the can down the street” as they say and restructure contracts, a practice that, sooner or later, catches up to everyone.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden intercepts an Andy Dalton pass. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

I don’t mind the Steelers doing their business this way. After all, the reason they’re often up against it in terms of cap space is because of all the success they’ve enjoyed over the years with improving the team with drafted players.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all examples of former draft picks who have elevated themselves to the top ranks of their respective positions. And with that comes huge pay raises and second and third contracts. (If the organization can reach an agreement with Bell on a lengthy and lucrative deal, he’ll be the latest homegrown talent to challenge the remarkable talents of executive Omar Khan, whose reputation for massaging the team’s salary cap is quite legendary.)

Besides, as I’ve said many times, when it comes to NFL free agency, it is far from “free,” meaning the cream of the crop very rarely reaches the open market, what with the ironic franchise tag preventing this from happening. So, you’re ultimately left with a pool of players who weren’t even deemed worthy enough to have their free agency restricted by their former teams.

And this circles everything back to this Wednesday, and the start of the 2018 NFL free agency period.

Again, Steeler fans have grown accustomed to not expecting much.

  • However, based on last offseason’s activities, I’m a little more excited about things this year.

I’m not talking about Pittsburgh’s acquisitions last spring that were obviously moves of depth, such as the signing of journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and veteran defensive end Tyson Alualu.

I’m talking about the Steelers acquisition last summer, when they quickly scooped up veteran cornerback Joe Haden, mere hours after he was released by the Browns.

That’s not chump change.

Sure, it was a perfect storm that brought Joe Haden to the Steelers, as he wasn’t your typical free agent that had the entire month of March to shop his services and decide on the best offer.

But what the Joe Haden deal represented to me was that the Steelers were serious about contending in 2017.

  • They had one gaping hole to fill–the cornerback spot–and they filled it with a high-priced player.
  • Does this necessarily mean the Steelers will be aggressive during the true free agency period  this spring?

That’s hard to say, until it happens.

But as if this writing, I’m feeling pretty confident that if the Steelers feel there is an inside linebacker or a safety who can help them win now, they will do everything they can to bring him into the fold for the 2018 season.

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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Neither Steelers, Nor Le’Veon Bell Wanted Second Franchise Tag. But Perhaps Its What Both Need

It is official. For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have franchised Le’Veon Bell. Unable to shop his services, Le’Veon Bell now must sign the Steelers $14.5 million dollar franchse tender or sit the season out.

  • The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, Bell says he wants to retire in Pittsburgh too.

So neither Bell nor the Steelers wanted a second franchise tag. But as The Rolling Stones reminded us long ago, “You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Why Franchising Bell Isn’t What Either Side Wants

Last year the Steelers were flush with salary cap space. They could apply the franchise tag to Le’Veon Bell, while signing Antonio Brown, Stephon Tuitt, Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Haden and trade for Vance McDonald.

Of course, thanks in part those hefty checks cut to Antonio Brown, , Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and Vance McDonald, plus contracts inked long-ago by Ben Roethlisberger,  David DeCastro and Cam Heyward, salary cap space remains sparse for the 2018 Steelers.

  • They’ve already re-structured David DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt’s contracts just to prepare for tagging Bell.

So to make simple moves like tendering restricted free agent offers to Chris Boswell and Anthony Chickillo, signing their 2018 Draft class or picking up a low-end free agent or two, they’ll need to restructure more contracts and release veterans.

  • A long term deal for Le’Veon Bell would both keep him a Steeler, while providing Pittsburgh with immediate cap relief.

For the average fan, it’s a hard see why Le’Veon finds the franchise tag so distasteful. Last year he cashed a check for 12.12 million dollars. This year, he’ll cash another check for 14.5 million dollars.

  • That’s 26.62 million dollars over two years, far more money than anyone reading this will ever see (unless Stanley Druckenmiller is reading this, and if you are, please RT.)

But this is still less than Bell wants and less than the deal that Bell rejected last season, an offer that would have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, and then some. But Bell wants more.

Bell wants to be paid what he’s worth to the team. What does that mean?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

Well Le’Veon Bell’s accounted for 29% of the Steelers offense since he arrived. With the NFL salary cap at 177.2 million, Bell would half of 29% would be 25.694. Bell isn’t asking for that. But as Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, Bell wants a contract with an annual floor of 14.5 million.

  • The next highest paid running back, Devonta Freeman, averages $8,250,000.

So in other words, Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid 75% more than the next highest paid running back. That’s asking a lot….

Why a Second Franchise Tag for is Perhaps Best for Bell & Steelers

No one wants a second franchise tag, but maybe its what both sides need.

For Bell, the benefits of cashing a 14.5 million dollar check are self-evident. The money is fully guaranteed the moment he puts pen to paper. A second tag will give him a chance to put his money where his mouth has been. Bell balked at signing the Steelers deal because he thought he could get more.

  • Given the limited durability of NFL running backs today, that’s a bold proposition.

A second franchise tag virtually guarantees there will be no tag in 2019 and leaves Bell holding all of the cards. If he doesn’t like the Steelers offer, he gets a chance to have someone like Cleveland, who’ll have gobs of salary cap space, offers on the open market.

  • For the Steelers the franchise tag does cause a lot of short-term heartache, as detailed above.
  • But this could be the case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

The offer the Steelers made to Le’Veon Bell a year ago was more than fair, and by Bell’s own account, they’ve improved upon it. The Steelers love for Le’Veon is understandable, after all in breaking the franchise Regular season and playoff single game rushing records just over a year ago Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis ever accomplished.

But if there’s any difference between Art Rooney II and the late Dan Rooney, it’s that Art Rooney seems to be a little more willing to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the salary cap.

  • A second franchise tag provides the Steelers with a safety valve against making an unsustainable long-term commitment.

As this site has observed numerous times, since the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in 2013, Bell has teased that he has the type of talent to revive the concept of the “Franchise Running back.” Bell clearly wants to be paid as a franchise running back. But the dip in Bell’s rushing average in 2017 undercuts Bell’s argument.

  • It says here that Le’Veon Bell brings a lot to the field that you can’t replace by plugging in players via some Moneyball methodology.

But it also says here that the law of averages and the weight of statistical evidence on the shelf-life of an NFL running back remains pretty convincing, and Bell has yet to show he can buck the trend.

The Pittsburgh Steelers chances of winning Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 improve tremendously by keeping Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant on the field together.

  • A second franchise tag gives the Steelers a “no strings attached” means of accomplishing that, while also giving Bell a 14.5 million dollar check to cash.

That’s not exactly what either side wants, but it perhaps is exactly what each side needs.

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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Mike Tomlin Leads AFC to 24-23 Pro Bowl Win over NFC, Raises Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record to 8-1

Mike Tomlin once assured reporters, “As long as they keep score, I’m trying to win.” The Pro Bowl may have “evolved” to a point where it is only a step more intense than contact flag football, but Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff can sleep soundly at night knowing they led the AFC to a 24-23 victory over NFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

And there were plenty of Black and Gold helmets in the huddle at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell represented the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • If, Roethlisberger to Brown in Pittsburgh proved to be one of the league’s most potent combinations, that magic didn’t translate to Orlando.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl 2018

Ben Roethlisberger @ 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: Yahoo.com.ca

Ben Roethlisberger went 7 of 13 for 50 yards and one pick, while Antonio Brown had one catch for 3 yards. Le’Veon Bell only had two carries, or the same as Roosevelt Nix, and together the two men gained 7 yards. That’s not much of a surprise, given that contact with a defender more or less equates to forward progress dulling the impact of a running game.

  • That’s a far cry from the 1995 Pro Bowl were, under Bill Cowher’s direction, Marshall Faulk ran for 180 yards with Chris Warren adding 127.

So be it. This was the first time Steelers Nation got to see a Randy Fichtner coordinated offense in action. And in  the eyes of NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman things did not go well:

It was especially sad to watch Randy Fichtner ring in his first game as Steelers offensive coordinator in the Pro Bowl, calling double reverses for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and simple routes for Ben Roethlisberger to underthrow.
It’s fair to wonder how much will change next season in the Steel City. Will Bell leave in free agency? Will Roethlisberger hint at retirement again? Will Fichtner force Big Ben to run a sneak? On Sunday, we got an answer to at least one of these quandaries. On third-and-1 from the NFC 39 with Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner called … a dive to Roosevelt Nix. Some things don’t change.

Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come or whether Fichtner was just having fun.

While Cam Heyward was the lone Steelers defender on the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad (Ryan Shazier was voted in, but obviously could not play) he did come up with a big play:

With the 24 to 23 victory in hand, Mike Tomlin improves the overall record of Steelers coaches in the Pro Bowl to 8-1 and his “undefeated in the Pro Bowl streak” elevates him alongside Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll who were also undefeated in the Pro Bowl.

And by beating Sean Payton, the Steelers head coaches in the Pro Bowl now have another win over Super Bowl winning opponents, with Chuck Noll defeating Tom Landry and Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher defeating Barry Switzer.

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Why Todd Haley Had to Go from a Non-Haley Hater

Today Mike Tomlin and his staff will direct the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad and, for the first time since 2012, someone other than Todd Haley will serve as offensive coordinator.

  • For many if not most of Steeler Nation this moment couldn’t come soon enough.

This site’s readers know that Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a Haley Haters Haven and, moreover, has often defended the Steelers now former offensive coordinator, and this article neither offers retractions nor mea culpas.

But this is also one non-Haley hater who thinks that the Steelers braintrust were right to “go in another direction.” Let’s look at why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger confers with Mike Tomlin & Todd Haley. Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images, via SI.com

Why Stick Up for a Shmuck Like Todd Haley in the First Place?

By all accounts, Todd Haley is abrasive. His flair ups with stars like Kurt Warner are on record. Some sort of off the field distraction seems to follow Haley wherever he goes. The pelvis fracturing incident over the holidays was the latest of many.

  • So why stick up for a guy who brings it on himself?

Because the title “offensive coordinator” is one of the most difficult in the NFL. Arguably, it’s harder to coach defense, but casual fans have a lot more transparency into offensive coaching.

  • Therefore, everyone thinks they can do better than their team’s offensive coordinator.

While this isn’t new, social media combined with advent of Madden and fantasy football allows every fan to become a Twitter offensive coordinator. So at some level, this site’s sympathy for Todd Haley has been rooted in the understanding that offensive coordinator have it tough, and that all but a sliver of fans who think they could do better, can’t.

  • Which isn’t to say that fan criticism of offensive coordinators is always wrong.

Take the dark days of Ray Sherman and ’98 Steelers. On third and long, in a corner of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, we’d cry “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee!” And sure enough, Kordell Stewart would lean left, flip the ball to McAfee who’d get clobbered just shy of the first down.

  • If a few 20 something Iron City swigging Steelers Nation expats in Maryland knew what Ray Sherman was going to call, then the opposing team did too.

Joe Walton’s reign as Steelers offensive coordinator was worse. Despite having Merrill Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster and Louis Lipps at his disposal, Walton built finesse offense around his tight ends (OK, he did have Eric Green.)

  • This finesse offense so enraged Joe Greene that he publicly complained about the impact of Walton’s system on the team’s identity.

Did Todd Haley’s deficiencies ever sink to such lows? No, they did not.

What Haley Did Right — Keeping Roethlisberger Upright

During Bruce Arians’ final 3 seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, defenders sacked Ben Roethlisberger 122 times, a period which includes his 2010 four game suspension.

  • For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger been sacked 58 timess in the last three seasons.

Certainly, poor offensive lines offensive lines played their role. (Although if Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell is right, Arians opposed beefing up the line.) But Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding on to the ball too long was a bigger factor, and Arians refused to do anything about it.

  • Todd Haley’s first task was to deploy a system that let Ben be Ben without getting himself killed.

On this count, numbers don’t lie:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats, Ben Roethlisberger passing stats by offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt

Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats, by coordinator

Interestingly enough, these stats they’re almost identical to the numbers run in the spring of 2016, so the trend has confirmed itself. Granted, having blue chip skill players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, supported by the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant has helped.

But, like him or not, Ben Roethlisberger has played his best football under Todd Haley, and he’s taken a lot less punishment in the process.

It Comes Down to Roethlisberger and Results

So Todd Haley wasn’t the disaster at offensive coordinator that many fans portray him as. Nonetheless, there are 2 reasons that explain why the Steelers rightly let him go.

  • First, football is a results driven business.

Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette is largely right when he argues that good play calls are calls that work, bad play calls are ones that don’t. Imagine if David DeCastro had delivered a devastating block that sprung Le’Veon Bell loose on a 50 yard romp on the infamous 4th and 1 pitch, would you have complained about the call?

  • The 2 calls 4th down calls the ended as Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes were far risker than the pitch, yet no one, save for El Dr. de Acero Gustavo Vallegos, complained about them.

Scoring 42 points in a playoff game is nice, but they weren’t what the Steelers needed. Pittsburgh needed to answer the Jaguar’s opening touchdown with a long drive of their own, instead of a 3 and out. Ditto the series following the blocked punt.

  • If EVER there was a situation where a big special teams play should have fueled a turn around, it was this series.
  • Instead, the Steelers suffered another 3 and out.
Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Haley & Roethlisberger rarely saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

Take note, one series involved the dreaded empty sets, the other attempted pure smash mouth football. Neither worked. Nor were these isolated incidents. Haley was brilliant at times as Steelers offensive coordinator. Yet at other times, it was almost impossible to escape the feeling that Haley was mailing it in – the 2014 loss to Tampa Bay is a good example.

  • The second reason revolves around Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has been dissected since the day Haley arrived. And while both men have tried to keep everything private, stories of tension between the two never stopped.

For as well as Ben Roethlisberger played under Todd Haley, the two appeared to struggle to stay on the same page. And player and coaches staying on the same page is often what distinguishes success from failure in fire-drill type situations like the end of the Patriots game.

Finally there’s the issue keeping Ben happy. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least someone on the South Side feels that friction between Roethlisberger and Haley drove Ben to muse about retirement last year. That was then, this is now.

Steelers fans might want to accept it, but the Steelers Super Bowl window might already be shut thanks to Ryan Shazier’s injury. A Le’Veon Bell free agent departure would  tip the scales. Time will tell.

But had Ben Roethlisberger opted to start his “Life’s Work” after the Jacksonville loss, he would have slammed the Steelers Super Bowl window shut in a single swoop. And if sending Todd Haley packing for Cleveland was necessary to keep Ben Roethlisberger playing, then the move was a non-brainer.

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Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record (Because You Just HAD to Know….)

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will soon coach his first Pro Bowl and little does he know (or care) he’s got a tradition to up hold. While the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their Super Bowls, having won 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches, Steelers coaches have also led the AFC Pro Bowl squads to six wins.

  • Wow, you didn’t know that, did you?

No, you probably didn’t. Ah, but story gets better yet as the plot thickens. Pittsburgh Steelers coaches have won more Pro Bowls than Super Bowls and boast a 7-1 record in the Pro Bowl for a .875 winning percentage, or 10 points better than Steelers cumulative .750 Super Bowl winning percentage.

  • Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher coached 3 Pro Bowls a piece, and the AFC never suffered a loss under their guidance.

The lone Pro Bowl coaching black sheep for the Steelers is Buddy Parker, who coached the NFL Eastern division to a 26-7 loss in 1957 (actually, the 1957 Pro Bowl was played on January 12, 1958 in the Los Angeles Coliseum – keep that in mind if you ever reach Final Jeopardy and the category is “Pro Bowls” but by all means remember to phrase your response in the form of a question!)

"Mike

All of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Pro Bowl appearances came by virtue of their AFC title losses, because for much of the game’s history, the coaching staff of the losing team in the conference championship went to Hawaii.

  • Now of course the honor falls to the losing coaching staff from the divisional round that has the highest regular season record.

There’s not a whole lot to discuss in terms of past Pro Bowls, because, well no one really cares about them when they’re being played, much less after their over. I mean, Pro Football Reference lists the games results, the Pro Bowl Rosters, but doesn’t keep a record of the Box Scores. Wikipedia does have a page on each Pro Bowl game with a few notes, but again no box scores.

  • That puts the triviality of the Pro Bowl in perspective. You can find Louis Lipps passing stats on Pro Football Reference, but you can see how many Pro Bowl passes he caught.

So while we know O.J. Simpson was the MVP of the 1972 Pro Bowl, we have no (easy) way of knowing whether Chuck Noll favored Simpson over Franco Harris in terms of workload, or whether The Juice simply out performed Harris. Mel Blount however, won the 1976 Pro Bowl MVP award, for those taking notes.

  • However, we do know that Chuck Noll out witted Tom Landry, Chuck Knox and Mike Ditka in his 3 Pro Bowl appearances.
  • For his part, Bill Cowher vanquished Barry Switzer, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Jim L. Mora in his Pro Bowl coaching appearances.

So, it looks Mike Tomlin arrives at his Pro Bowl coaching gig with a standard to uphold. At least he has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and Cam Heyward to help him….

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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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