Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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All in the Family! Steelers Draft Connor Heyward, Tight End, Michigan State, in 6th Round

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves blood lines. He added T.J. Watt in 2017 and Terrell Edmunds in 2018. By 2020 their brothers Derek Watt and Trey Edmunds were both playing for the Steelers.

Now he has a shot at doing it again, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted Connor Heyward, a tight end out of Michigan State, younger brother of Cam Heyward and son of the late, great University of Pittsburgh star Craig “Iron Head” Heyward.

Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers 6th round pick 2022

Connor Heyward, the Steelers 6th round 2022 draft pick. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When asked if he consulted Cam Heyward as a reference for Conner, Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts replied, with good cheer, “I don’t mess with Cam” multiple times. When asked about the importance of bloodlines, Roberts rebuffed the idea a little, explaining, “Connor holds his own. Getting drafted into the NFL is a big deal.”

Roberts said the Steelers were attracted the Heyward because of his ability to make plays down the field or at the line of scrimmage clarifying that Heyward has “the want to and the savviness to do some other things that are really attractive to us.”

When asked of Heyward’s versatility made him similar to Derek Watt, Roberts agreed that the two player’s skill sets are similar, but cautioned that Watt is more of a “pure fullback” whereas “Connor gives you a different flex and tight end responsibilities.”

Connor Heyward Video Highlights

Here is a sampling of some of the work that Connor Heyward put on tape while with the Spartans

What really comes home with these videos is that Connor Heyward is indeed versatile, able to line up as a tight end, work as a fullback or set up like a true H-Back. As a 6th round pick, Connor Heyward is in no way guaranteed a roster spot.

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry roster spots are set, so assuming both stay healthy, the battle for the 3rd tight end spot will be between Kevin Rader and Heyward.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Connor Heyward.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Time to Find Najee Harris’ Backup

Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”

A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.

But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter

Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.

  • Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.

For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.

Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Najee Harris the Steelers have Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland. Pittsburgh picked Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In that time, Snell has started 5 games and rushed the ball 255 times, scoring 6 touchdown.

His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back

Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

  • So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.

But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.

The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.

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Resist the Restructure: Steelers Should Start Post-Roethlisberger Era with Sound Salary Cap Management

The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.

  • And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.

A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.

  • Things are different this year.

Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

Of course. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.

  • That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?

No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.

Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”

NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.

  • For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.

This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.

The Steelers resigned essential stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. They brought in under the radar free agents like Kevin Greene, Ray Seals and John Williams.

  • But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.
Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.

  • The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.

That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.

  • These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”

But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.

The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.

  • It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.

  • The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?

No one knows.

But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.

 

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Steelers 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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Rally Around Roethlisberger: Steelers Defeat Browns 26-14 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Game @ Heinz Field

Citizens of Steelers Nation: It doesn’t get any better than this. In Ben Roethlisberger’s (likely) last game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh rallied behind their leader as the Steelers defeated the Browns 26-14.

It was an emotional night for Roethlisberger, the City of Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation and the team’s global fan base. In the end it was special, not just because of the win, but because of the way the Steelers secured victory: Hollywood could not have scripted it better.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

Ben Roethlisberger built his career at going against the grain. Quarterbacks are supposed to go down easy. Roethlisberger never relented. Defensive contact with a quarterback is supposed to disrupt his passing. Not Roethlisberger, especially early in his career, when he became more accurate after being touched by a defender.

  • And so it is at the end.

It’s easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that precious few football players get to leave the game on their own terms. Yes, a finite few like Jerome Bettis go out hoisting the Lombardi. Others pick their own time. But of the few that choose when they leave the game, fewer yet choose how they leave the game.

  • As he has throughout his career, Roethlisberger proved he stood apart from most other football players.

Which isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger dominated against the Browns. He did not. Yes, he hit Diontae Johnson with laser like precision to get the Steelers their first, first half touchdown in 4 games. Yes, he helped connected with Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud to convert Ahkello Witherspoon interception into a Chris Boswell field goal late in the first half.

But on this night, Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passes were either off target or his receivers just couldn’t hold on to them (see Chase Claypool – although credit Cleveland’s DBs.)

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

When asked about how his horrendously and historically bad run defense shut down Cleveland’s potent rushing attack, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained, “…we played a lot of people and everybody put their hand in the pile and made the necessary plays.”

The key phrase above is “everyone put their hand in the pile.” Everyone did, but the usual suspects struck first.

Cam Heyward helped end two Browns drives by deflecting passes when the score was 0-0. Later, ended the Brown’s first drive of the second half with a sack.

After the Steelers tried and failed to convert on 4th down, T.J. Watt sacked Baker Mayfield for a 10 yard loss on third down (oh, and Watt deflected a pass on the previous play.) Later, when the Browns were sniffing scoring range at the end of the first half, Watt sacked Mayfield on 3rd and 2.

  • Chris Boswell knocked in field goals of 30, 50 and 48 yards.

All excellent plays made at critical moments from the players you’d expect to make them. But they got plenty of help.

  • Corliss Waitman boomed off punts and staked a claim to pushing Pressley Harvin off the team
  • Alex Highsmith came up with 2 sacks and tackled Nick Chubb for a loss on a critical drive
  • J.C. Hassenauer stepped in at center and the Steelers saw their best line play since October
  • Derek Watt converted a 4th and 1
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk batted down a pass
  • Forgotten players like Ulysees Gilbert III came off the bench to contain Cleveland’s rushing attack
Alex Highsmith, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Alex Highsmith sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The rushing attack? Yes, you might remember that. It once provided the foundation for 5 Steelers Super Bowls and  formed a potent part of the “Killer Bees.” After making guest appearances in fits and starts during October, the Steelers rushing attack has been AWOL since.

Reestablishing the run was one of Art Rooney II’s chief goals this season, and the Steelers have struggled to comply. But even at its bleakest moments, rookie Najee Harris has shown that, behind a competent offensive line, he can be special.

Najee Harris was special against the Browns, turning would-be losses into gains, and ripping off runs of 13, 14, 30 and 10 yards, and he was only getting warmed up – and this was on a night where he rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries.

And Ending to Treasure

When the Steelers went up 19 to 7 with 5:28 left to play in the 4th quarter, the game seemed to be well in hand. When the Steelers hit Baker Mayfield with back-to-back sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, it seemed to be official.

But then the Browns got a pass interference penalty called against Joe Haden. Another one in the Red Zone brought them to the one. The Browns scored, but Minkah Fitzpatrick collected the on-sides kick.

  • The Browns had two time outs, but the Steelers only needed one first down.

Najee Harris ran for 4 yards on 1st and 4 yards on second. Cleveland could not stop the clock and a first down would seal the game for the Steelers. Harris cut to his right, it was clear he would get the two yards. But then he broke out to the second level and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s last play would be a handoff for a touchdown….

…Except it wouldn’t. The Browns got the ball back, only for Baker Mayfield to bounce a pass off of Austin Hooper that Tre Norwood intercepted.

Ten seconds remained on the clock, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to step on to Heinz Field one last time, taking a knee in the Victory Formation.

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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Steelers Report Card for Tie with Lions: Peaking vs “Learning Experience” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who hopes his students can use this as a learning experience but fears they may have just hit their peak, here is the Steelers Report Card for the tie against the Lions.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Steelers vs Lions

Oh, what could have been. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Anyone still wonder why the Steelers opted to bring back a dismissed Ben Roethlisberger? Mason Rudolph did not play poorly, completing 30 out of 50 passes for one interception and another touchdown. But Rudolph also missed on some throws the Steelers needed him to make. Grade: C-

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 105 yards on 26 carries. While 26 carries perhaps a few more than you’d like to see his four yards per carry average indicates that perhaps they should have leaned on him more. If Benny Snell’s lone carry for four yards is any indicate, he could have been used to spell Harris. Derek Watt actually caught a pass for nine yards. Grade: B

Tight End
Mason Rudolph largely avoided the middle of the field, limited the tight ends a bit. Eric Ebron caught 2 passes for 13 yards while Pat Freiermuth caught 5 passes for 31 yards, but he unfortunately fumbled the ball away in overtime. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The Steelers have done well in combat catches this season, but both Diontae Johnson and James Washington lost contested balls. Ray-Ray McCloud showed why Mike Tomlin kept him after his fumble as he pulled in 9 catches. Johnson showed impressive presence of mind getting out of bounds during overtime, but this happened after he fumbled the ball on a field-flipping play. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was neither sacked nor hit during the entire game, per ESPN’s statistics. And, as mentioned, Harris had good room to run. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
For about 20 minutes, the Detroit Lions ran through the Steelers defense like they were indeed live lions charging through lines of Christians in the Coliseum. That is decidedly NOT the fault of the line, but it starts there. Cam Heyward came up with a monster sack at the end of regulation and another one in overtime. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was awfully quiet in this game until sacking Jared Goff for a 6 yard loss – a play on which he got hurt. Alex Highsmith came up big with two big tackles for losses late in the 4th quarter. Still, the Lion ran at will for a time and Devin Bush and Joe Schobert don’t deserve all of the blame for that, they duo is charged with guarding the middle of the defense. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick symbolizes what this game could have been. His nullified interception should have decided overtime, yet his missed tackles helped dig the Steelers into the hole. James Pierre did well in place of Joe Haden. Terrelll Edmunds overtime sack should have turned the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Kalif Raymond 48 yard punt return awakened the Lions and set up their first touchdown, a 28 yard romp that would get Detroit believing they could win the game. That wasn’t a lone play as averaged over 11 yards on his next returns. Steelers kick coverage was shaky too.

Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals including a 51 yarder in the rain, which pulls the grade for Danny Smith’s group up. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the first time this season, Matt Canada’s play calling led to some head scratching. We can accept that the reads on RPOs in the Red Zone were correct based on 5 Detroit defensive lineman on the field.

  • But does that explain throwing the ball 50 times when Najee Harris is running reasonably well?

Was Canada trying to do more through the air because he thought Rudolph was more capable (with fewer receivers BTW?) Did he want to see Rudolph prove himself? Regardless of his motive, his game plan was questionable in theory and failed in practice.

  • Keith Butler must find a way to coax more consistency out of his rushing defense.

The Lions running game was unstoppable for a quarter. Most of this was due to poor tackling, but that is hardly an excuse.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Lions

Najee Harris in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Finally, this column has credited Mike Tomlin when his players refused to “blink” with the game on the line. In overtime his defense did the same in this game. The offense? Not so much. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers lost four starters in this game, including 2 on offensive line. Yet the unit continued chugging along with backups in the game and for that J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg win the Unsung Hero Award for the tie with the Lions.

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“Marginal” Best Describes Steelers MNF Win over Bears. …But Maybe That’s Good

The Steelers 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football conjures many different descriptions.

  • Intense. Last second. Frantic. Heart Rendering. Barn burner. Lucky.

Do you agree with these descriptions? Good. So do I. But there’s another, better word we can use: “Marginal.” Marginal certainly isn’t as colorful. “Marginal” also holds a neutralish if negative connotation. But Bears win on Monday night shows us that the 2021 Steelers might actually be able to use that to their advantage.

T.J. Watt, Justin Fields, Steelers vs Bears, T.J. Watt Fields Pass Block

T.J. Watt blocks Justin Fields’ pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Canada Sets Offense Up for Strong Start

Given this win’s last second nature, it is easy to forget the Steelers left a lot of positive takeaways in this game, especially early on.

  • One of those is that Matt Canada has a sharp offensive mind.

He’s clearly gaining a feel only for his player’s abilities but he’s also adept at applying those strengths to exploit opposing defense’s weaknesses. On their first possession, the Steelers marched down the field, literally just as Canada had scripted it.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Najee Harris scores a first quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Canada’s formation set up Ben Roethlisberger’s 3rd and 7 conversion to Chase Claypool. Later in the Red Zone put Claypool in motion and deployed Derek Watt to block allowing Najee Harris to march into the end zone untouched.

And if the drive following Cam Heyward’s interception wasn’t quite as smooth, it did only take ten plays for Ben Roethlisberger to find Pat Freiermuth in the end zone for another touchdown to start the 2nd quarter.

Sure, the Bears eked out a field goal late in the second quarter, but as the Steelers entered the locker room at half time, one couldn’t help but imagine Mason Rudolph taking the field in the early 4th quarter….

Failure to Control Line of Scrimmage (almost) Dooms Steelers in 2nd Half

…Instead of seeing Mason Rudolph taking snaps, Steelers Nation got to witness Ben Roethlisberger’s 39th 4th quarter comeback and 50th game winning drive.

  • After such a strong start, these heroics shouldn’t have been necessary. Alas, it was for very understandable reasons.

If the first quarter proved that Matt Canada can scheme with the best of them, the next three quarters proved that his offensive line remains a work in progress. The Steelers offensive line lost the battles up front, leaving Najee Harris no where to run.

Credit Canada for innovating and using jet sweeps to gain yards on the ground. James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Claypool carried the ball 6 times and gained 37 yards in the process. While this helped keep the defense honest, the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away because their offensive line was getitng manhandeled.

To recap, with about 7 minutes left to play, T.J. Watt had sacked Justin Fields. Even if the Steelers run 3 plays for zero yards, Pittsburgh probably burns at least 2 and a half minutes off of the clock. A single first down in that situation could seal victory.

Instead, the Steelers let the Bears right back in the game.

And Chicago was only too happy to take them up on their invitation.

Limiting Fields Carried Costs for Defense

Chicago’s comeback did not happen in a vacuum. Justin Fields, after struggling for much of the first half, played lights out late in the game. The Steelers defense struggled to slow the Bears.

When asked why Arthur Maulet was left in single coverage so often with Minkah Fitzpatrick roaming instead of helping with double coverage, Mike Tomlin explained, “Quarterback mobility challenges you from that standpoint. So, yes, there’s not only Arthur, but a lot of people are in single coverage when dealing with quarterback mobility.”

That’s both good and bad for the Steelers.

  • Its good because it suggests that Chicago wasn’t exploiting a systemic weakness
  • Its bad because the Steelers have to play Lamarr Jackson twice more this season.

Its also worrisome because the Steelers gave up the house to draft Devin Bush in part to have a player capable of containing Jackson. Bush, who left the field on third downs, doesn’t appear to be capable of that at this point.

A “Marginal” Victory? Yes. But History is Made in the Margins

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward and Ben Roethlisberger all admitted that, victory notwithstanding, things must improve. And the hard truth is, that if you take a hard dispassionate look at the struggles at the line of scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger’s difficulty throwing down field and the ease at which the defense gave up points late, its difficult to envision this team sustaining a playoff run, much less hosting the Lombardi.

But if that’s true, then think back to some of the outlying plays that the game turned on:

  • Chris Boswell making not one, but two 50 yard field goals, recovering a fumble, yet missing a PAT
  • T.J. Watt batting a way a pass at the line of scrimmage
  • Cairo Santos 65 yard field goal – at Heinz Field no less – banging off the lower upright

Football is a game of inches. That’s another way of saying that victory or defeat often comes down to which team can master the little things, that fall in the margins.

This Pittsburgh Steelers team might be developing a knack for doing just that. Which is good. Because history is made in the margins.

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