Safety First? The Minkah Fitzpatrick Trade Literally Saved the Steelers Season

On the night of Monday, September 16, right after it was announced that the Steelers had traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I texted this news to my uncle.

He replied, “Haha, he sucks!” When I retorted with how he was the only fan who was reacting that way — the Internet was going crazy about it in the most positive way possible — my uncle texted back, “Ryan Fitzpatrick is washed up.”

  • You see, what I forgot to mention was that I failed to type “Minkah” when texting my uncle about the big news. Therefore, you can certainly understand his confusion.

After all, coming just hours after it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Injured Reserve list and would miss the rest of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that would require surgery, one might assume any major trade Pittsburgh made would involve acquiring a veteran quarterback.

No, maybe not someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but certainly a passer of some pedigree, a player who could possibly step in and salvage a season that had started out 0-2 and, with the loss of the franchise quarterback, seemed destined to go downhill very fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kameron Kelly, Mark Barron, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

But the truth was, despite his lack of experience as a professional, the Steelers were quite confident Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, could step in and lead the offense (whether or not this confidence was justifiable is still up for debate).

What they weren’t confident in, however, was the back-end of their defense, especially after free safety Sean Davis suffered a shoulder injury that, like Ben Roethlisberger, would require a lengthy stay on the IR.

Therefore, when Fitzpatrick, who was selected by the Dolphins with the 11th -overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, voiced his displeasure with Miami’s desire to tank the 2019 season in-order to obtain the highest 2020 draft pick possible and demanded a trade, the Steelers pounced.

That’s right, in an era when doing very un-Steeler-like things has become the new Steeler Way — and just months after trading several draft picks to the Broncos in order to move up to the 10th spot to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft — Pittsburgh offered the Dolphins a deal they simply couldn’t refuse.

It was a risk, and, quite frankly, it didn’t make much sense at the time, not when it appeared the 2019 season was headed for disaster, and it looked like Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would likely be a premium one.

Why go all-in in a season that didn’t figure to finish anywhere near Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, the site of Super Bowl LIV?

  • Because the Steelers saw a golden opportunity to add the final piece to a defense that they had been trying to rebuild for close to a decade.

While the winning didn’t start soon after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, you could definitely see a difference in the defense right away. In-fact, the Steelers recorded five takeaways in a disappointing Week 3 loss to the 49ers –Fitzpatrick’s first game as a member of the Black and Gold.

Speaking of which, after averaging about one takeaway a game before acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense has averaged over three times that many since the trade.

  • The defense has gone from averaging 445 yards given up per game without Fitzpatrick, to averaging roughly 300 given up with him in the lineup.

In seven games with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. If he isn’t yet in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, he likely soon will be.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s quickly becoming one of the most fierce and opportunistic in the NFL. After years of being considered a weakness and a second banana to the high-powered offense, the Steelers defense has now become the strength of the team and has made it a habit of compensating for the weaknesses of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s depleted unit.

What once looked like a helpless and hopeless season at 0-3 and 1-4 has turned into one where the playoffs are again the goal.

  • The Steelers are now 5-4 after having won four-straight games, and they’ve done so on the strength of their defense.

Would the Steelers have even considered trading for Fitzpatrick if not for the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Davis? Furthermore, would the Dolphins have even considered doing business with the Steelers without the very real possibility that Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would be a high one?

  • That’s impossible to say, but the only thing that’s certain is that the deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick saved the Steelers defense.

A trade for a safety saved a team’s season. Hard to believe.

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams – Who Got A’s, Who got D’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch to see half of his class excelling to their potential while worried that the other half keeps losing points due to misspellings and other sloppy mistakes, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Rams at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph passed for a career high 242 yards as he completed 22 of 38 attempts with no interceptions and one touchdown. Hardly numbers to impress a Fantasy Football owner. But what those numbers fail to demonstrate is the poise, control and command that Mason Rudolph displayed on the field. Ultimately, that proved to be a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels got his 2nd consecutive start and was limited to 40 total yards from scrimmage as he was neither a threat to run nor as a pass catcher. Tony Brooks-James got 11 yards on 6 carries. Trey Edmunds got 1 yard on 4 carries, although he did convert a critical 4th down pass. It wasn’t all their fault, but the Steelers needed more from their running backs. They didn’t get it. Grade: D

Tight Ends
The Steelers used a lot of two tight end sets in hopes of helping the offensive line against the Rams stout front seven. The lack of running lanes for the running backs and the punishment Mason Rudolph faced speak for themselves. Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 11 yards. Nick Vannett caught 1 of 1 passes thrown his way. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
James Washington took another stride forward in catching 6 passes for 90 yards, including a touchdown. Yet he coughed up the ball just as he was moving the Steelers into scoring position. Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes for 64 yards while JuJu Smith-Schuster, battling Jaylen Ramsey for most of the day, was limited to 3 catches for 44 yards. The Steelers wide outs must do better. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line had its stiffest test, so stiff that Mike Tomlin reconfigured it by moving Matt Feiler to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor to right tackle. Things didn’t start well as a bad snap spotted the Rams 7 points. Mason Rudolph had good time to throw at times, but he did take more punishment than he has all season. As for the running game? The Rams recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: D-

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave led the Steelers defensive line in tackles, including a key strip sack, which although  probably a gift from the officials, turned the game for the Steelers. Cam Heyward registered one helacious sack, another tackle for a loss, 2 passes defensed and 3 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a hand in a tackle behind scrimmage and 4 tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
We could have written this ahead of time:  T.J. Watt led the unit with 2 sacks including a strip sack. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 3 a piece while Mark Barron clocked in the most with 11 and 1 pass defensed. Strong play by the line backers, but cursory viewing replays suggest that the inside linebackers were largely responsible for the gaps that Todd Gurley and Malcom Brown exploited. Grade: B+

Secondary
Is Minkah Fitzpatrick for real? Or is Minkah Magic just a dream? Each week when the Steelers need a big play Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up on cue. The Rams game added to his lore, as his heads up fumble recovery for a touchdown and last minute interceptions were game changers. Mike Hilton played point man in shutting down Cooper Kupp, while Steven Nelson had a key tackle to force a third down with 11:44 left to play. Terrell Edmunds helped bat away a pass in the end zone, although he’s lucky he didn’t get called for pass interference. Grade: A

Steven Nelson, Gerald Everett, Steelers vs Rams

Steven Nelson makes key 3rd down stop on Gerald Everett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Special Teams
As usual the Steelers coverage units gave up a longish punt and kick returns. Ryan Switzer got negative yards on the one punt return he tried to bring back. Diontae Johnson returned 3 punts including one for 14 yards, but he had a fumble.

  • Chris Boswell was 1-1 on his field goal and perfect on PATs.

The key play for Danny Smith’s special teams was Trey Edmunds interception to stop a fake punt attempt, which could have been a game changer. Grade: B

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s taking a lot of heat. Some of it is justified, some not. Fichtner didn’t fumble those three balls nor did he drop those six passes. These types of execution errors are hobbling the offense. He’s also playing with a running game on life support.

However, winning and losing starts at the line of scrimmage, and the put plainly, Pittsburgh is consistently losing that battle when it comes to establishing the run.

  • In the 90’s, when Carnell Lake reported after ending a contract hold out, Dick LeBeau quipped to reporters, “I just became a better coach.”

The addition of players like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, paired with the maturation of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seems to be making Keith Butler much, much a better coach too. Seriously. The Steelers defense is performing at levels not seen since at least 2010 if not 2008 and has scored as many touchdowns as the offense in the last two weeks.

The Steelers started the season at 1-4 and, while injuries contributed to that “September stench,” they’ve remained and issue since then. Today they’re 5-4 and “Playoffs” are a real possibility for Pittsburgh. Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his team focused and finding ways to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two years he’s been the top dog in his unit. Steelers management agrees, so says the contract he signed before the season. Since then his spot in the pecking order has been displaced, but he’s but he’s not been deterred, as his five defensed passes led the team on Sunday, including a final one that set up the game sealing interception, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams.

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“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Dolphins – How Did Mason Rudolph Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his star student can sustain the mental toughness he used to get through a rather tough exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dolphins.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
Coaches let Mason Rudolph test the waters outside of the kiddie’s pool this week, and for the first 20 minutes or so Mason Rudolph looked like he wasn’t going to keep his head above water. After that, Mason Rudolph led the Steelers to score 27 unanswered points, including two drives that started with him standing in Pittsburgh’s own end zone. While this is impressive, Rudolph’s total body of work still shows he has a long way to go. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ground out 145 yards, ripping off several long runs that sparked the entire offense. Benny Snell had 13 yards on 5 carries, while Trey Edmunds got zero yards on his first carry as a Steeler. Roosevelt Nix was back, and helped pave the way for the Steelers rushing success. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes for 19 yards and Nick Vannett caught 1 pass for 15 yards. The presence of both men, along with Zach Banner who checked in as a third tight end on many plays helped make the run blocking a success. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
While his season thus far is not earning JuJu Smith-Schuster many fans among Fantasy Football owners , anyone who has doubts about status as an elite a wide receiver need look no further than his touchdown catch. JuJu had a monster night going 5 of 103 making critical catch after critical catch. Diontae Johnson’s 12 yard grab on 3rd and 11 got the offense moving, and his pre-halftime touchdown was simply sensational. James Washington caught one of 6 passes thrown his way. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
The Dolphins made little secret of their plan to crowd the offensive line either by putting 8 men in the box or by going all out on the Blitz. In both cases, the Steelers offensive line met the challenge, including a heads up play by David DeCastro to recover a fumble. Grade: A

Defensive Line
In their first game without Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers offensive line smothered the Dolphin’s running attack and Cam Heyward terrorized Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half, sacking him, helping stop a 4th down conversion, while hitting him twice. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt continues at this pace, his name won’t be remembered alongside predecessors like James Harrison, Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter. People will put his name before theirs.

That’s saying a lot, but T.J. Watt continues to decimate opponents, logging two strip sacks against Miami, two tackles for a loss, and hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. Bud Dupree had a sack and an impressive drop deep in the backfield. Overall a strong night for the linebackers, but Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Mark Barron ALL missed tackles on Allen Hurns touchdown. That brings the grade down. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Secondary
Perhaps the only defensive back’s name that you heard against the Dolphins was that of Minkah Fitzpatrick who intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Oh, and Mike Hilton also forced a fumble. The Dolphins deserve credit for getting on the board fast, but the Steelers defense shut them down completely afterwards, and that only happens if Joe Haden, Steve Nelson and Terrell Edmunds are doing their jobs. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed his first kick of the season but nailing a 54 yarder at Heinz Field is a tall order. The Steelers gave up another longish punt return which didn’t impact the game’s result, but the trend is becoming annoying. Ryan Switzer’s returns were average. Grade: B

Coaching
Steelers coaches had been keeping the training wheels on Mason Rudolph thus far this season, and they took them off against the Dolphins. For a quarter and a half, Mason Rudolph looked every bit like the kid who should only ride his bike on the sidewalk. With the training wheels on.

  • But the Steelers coaches kept Rudolph on the street.

Randy Fichtner didn’t attempt to revert to the Wildcat, nor did he try to limit passing to chink and dink check downs. Mason Rudolph proved to be up to the challenge, although at this point his game has far more rough spots than smooth ones.

Outside of the sloppy play on Miami’s second touchdown, finding fault with Keith Butler’s defense would require a considerable amount of effort. OK, the Steelers defense was dominating a Dolphin team that is actively vying for the first pick overall. But you’re supposed to dominate in those circumstances, and dominate they did. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Things looked bleak after Miami put 14 points on the board in less than one quarter. The Steelers responded with a drive that burned off almost half of the time in the 2nd quarter, netting a field goal.

When Miami got the ball with 2:40 remaining, it would have been easy to play with an eye towards simply keeping the Dolphins off of the score board and getting into the locker room. Instead, the Steelers used a time out on defense and secured an interception.

  • Then they aggressively attacked the Dolphins from mid-field and scored a touchdown.

He takes a lot of heat over his clock management, but his aggressiveness sapped the momentum away from Miami and put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for the 2nd half and for that Mike Tomlin wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers MNF win over the Dolphins.

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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With Stephon Tuitt on IR, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

The Steelers took a lot of positives and one glaring negative away from their victory over the Chargers. On the positive side:

  • Devin Bush showed that he’s the real deal
  • The offensive line did some serious road grading
  • Benny Snell’s first extensive action made him look like a viable 3rd running back
  • And the defense went toe-to-toe with a Hall of Fame quarterback after weathering multiple injuries

About those injuries. The Steelers suffered several, but losing for the season Stephon Tuitt to a torn pectoral muscle is devastating.

  • You can’t sugar coat this. Stephon Tuitt was budding into his prime, and the injury has stopped him cold.

Stephon Tuitt was in route to an All Pro Season, with 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hits and 6 tackles for losses. That’s an impressive six game stretch. In all of 2018, Tuitt had 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for losses. But numbers as they often do, fail to capture the full picture. As “jujumojo” on Steel City Insider’s message board observed:

I honestly don’t think I have watched an individual Steeler defensive player dominate to the degree Tuitt has so far this season since probably James Harrison in his 2008-10 prime. Tuitt had simply been manhandling NFL linemen week in, week out.

Losing Stephon Tuitt represents a huge blow to the Steelers defense. But does it doom them for the rest of 2019?

With Tuitt Out, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

Reading the head line, “Steelers put Stephon Tuitt on IR, Resign L.T. Walton to take his roster spot” inspires little confidence. Had the Bengals not claimed Fred Johnson off of waivers, one wonders if the Steeler would have even called Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

But, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost a dominating defensive lineman to a pectoral injury in mid-season. And it happened 3 years ago, and the outlook was bleaker then.

The Dallas Cowboys had just come to Pittsburgh and beaten the Steelers as Ezekiel Elliott scored not one, but two touchdowns in the space of about 1:20. Days later news broke that Cam Heyward was out for the year with a torn peck.

Cam Heyward was defense’s undisputed best player (Ryan Shazier was only just beginning to shed the “bust” label that a minority, as ignorant as it was vocal, of fans had been pinning on him.)

  • All hope seemed lost.

This site titled its article “As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!” complete with video of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over! Game Over” clip from Aliens.

Yet, the exact opposite happened. Despite losing its best player, the Steelers defense not only halted their decline, it improved, tremendously. It says here that main factors fueling the turn around were:

But L.T. Walton also helped make that happen. During that final seven game stretch, L.T. Walton played in just under half of the defensive snaps.

The notion of “Stephon Tuitt injured, L.T. Walton to the rescue!” is plain silly. Tyson Alualu is the next man up. Javon Hargrave will undoubtedly see more time. Rookie Isaiah Buggs could conceivably get a helmet over L.T. Walton.

  • After all the Steelers opted not to resign Walton, who was on the Bills’ roster for a bit this summer, but was out of football.

But if L.T. Walton’s return can’t be counted on as a strength, he certainly wasn’t a liability, at least at defensive end (nose tackle is a different story, see the playoff loss to the Jaguars) when he was pressed into action in 2016 and again in 2017.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens – F’s for Two Key Groups

Taken from the grade book of a furious teacher who watched in dismay as his students did well enough on the test to pass only to fail because THEY FORGOT TO PUT THEIR NAME ON THEIR papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mark Andrews hurdles Minkah Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph was 13 of 20 for one TD and no interceptions. The coaches took the training wheels off a bit, and Rudolph did OK, but his downfield accuracy left a lot to be desired. He made a phenomenal play just as he got KOed. Devlin Hodges entered the game and played far better than anyone had the right to expect him to. Grade: B

Running Backs
James Conner ran well, but his carries were limited. Jaylen Samuels didn’t run as well, and his interception while running the Wildcat was disastrous. Sure, he didn’t call the play that never should have been called, but he did throw the pass, and it went right to the Ravens. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 3 catches on 3 targets including one that set up James Conner’s touchdown. Nick Vannett had one pass thrown his way. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster again showed that he is a legitimate big play wide receiver catching all 7 passes thrown his way. James Washington reappeared, making 3 catches including two of great consequence. Diontae Johnson caught 5 passes but he fumbled the ball, which mercifully went out of bounds. While it’s not fair to scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster, there’s no sugar coating the fact that his fumble was fatal. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once and had good time to throw. The run blocking looked to be a little better, but it is hard to be sure because the Steelers really didn’t try to establish the run. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit in tackles, Cam Heyward had a sack, a tackle for a loss, and two more QB hits. Javon Hargrave had a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Baltimore ran the ball well coming into Pittsburgh. The defensive line slowed them down. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Devin Bush was second in the unit in tackles, and caught his first interception, even if it should have been overturned on replay it was a heads up play by the rookie. T.J. Watt added another sack and dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Bud Dupree had a sack in overtime. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton had a stand out game with an interception prior to the 2 minute warning. He also batted another pass away and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Kameron Kelly had an interception, and you didn’t hear the names of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds much. And that’s good. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers special teams gave up another long run, which didn’t result in points but it does highlight their weakness. Worse yet was the Steelers kick return team who averaged 15 yards per return. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return for 13 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect and Jordan Berry pinned the Ravens inside the 20 twice.

When your coach defers on the toss in overtime because he’s worried about how bad his return team is, things are bad. Grade: D

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
So, the Steelers go into a show down with a division rival, starting their backup quarterback who gets hurt three plays into the second half. Their 4th string quarterback comes on, leads a comeback, forces overtime, only for the Steelers to lose because of a fumble in OT.

  • So that’s a phenomenal reflection on the coaches. Right?

Well, yes it is, but it is also much more complicated. Mike Tomlin claims that the Steelers weren’t planning on deploying a gimmicky offense going into the game. Fine. Let’s take him at his word.

But the Steelers started the first two series using those gimmicks, and the Wildcat pass was a disaster which set up an easy 7 points for the Ravens.

  • Sure, the Steelers offense put up enough points to win given the circumstances.
  • Sure, the Steelers defense kept the team ahead in take aways and put in a strong effort.
  • Sure, the game turned on a fumble in overtime, which is decidedly NOT the coaches’ fault.

But Jaylen Samuels never should have been passing from the Steelers 12 yard line. Never. This is a case where one bad call is indeed a difference maker in a game. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He’s one of the few on that side of the ball with no premium draft or free agent pedigree. Fans and Twitter general managers regularly scheme to find ways to take him out of the lineup. But while he might not have the freakish athletic talent of some of his peers, he’s a hard hitter and he gives it all on every play.

Against the Ravens this player returned to the lineup with a vengeance, leading the team in tackles and notching a stat in just about every category save for an interception and, for that reason, Vince Williams is wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Ravens.

 

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