6 Quick Takeaways from the Steelers 19-9 Preseason Win over the Lions

The Steelers 2022 preseason finale win over the Detroit Lions may not have had the intensity of an ole style Chuck Noll preseason finale dress rehearsal, but it certainly brought a lot more to the table than the 4th preseason wrap up games against the Carolina Panthers.

And that revealed both good and bad for the Steelers now that the games that count are about to start.

With that in mind, here are 6 not-so-random thoughts on the game.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers Lions 2022 Preseason

Pat Freiermuth’s 32 yard catch sets up a score. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

1. The Offensive Line Has Potential to be Truly Offensive

The big ugly spot coming out of the preseason win over the Jaguars was the offensive line, which had been horrendous in that preseason game. Could the unit improve week-on-week?

Not really. Mitch Trubisky was sacked twice and had to get out of trouble many more times. And while he did have time to throw on a couple of his longer passes, we also saw plenty of the “chink-and-dink that plagued the Steelers offense during Ben Roethlisberger’s final two seasons.

The run blocking wasn’t much better, with the Steelers averaging 2.9 yards on the ground. Najee Harris saw his first action, and did a decent job of making something out of nothing on more than one occasion.

After the game Mike Tomlin did concede that the line had improved a little, it did, but those improvements were offset by penalties. The Steelers offensive line has a long way to go before it is no longer a liability.

2. This Defense Has “It”

3 sacks, 1 interception, 12 passes defensed and 2 4th down conversions stopped. Yes, as Mike Tomlin cautioned, it is only preseason. And yes, the defense did allow longer runs of 27, 10, and 11 yards.

But it is hard to avoid watching and coming away with the feeling that this defense is headed in the right direction.

3. Freiermuth is for Real

Pat Freiermuth not only lead the team in touchdowns, he came up with a key 32 catch that set up Steven Sims touchdown catch as time was expiring at the end of the first half. Based on what we saw from Freiermuth last season this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But it always takes two years to really measure a player’s mettle, so its nice to see Freiermuth deliver.

4. Pickett Looks Good, But Mortal

After coming in and playing exceptionally well during his first two preseason outings, Kenny Pickett still looked good but played like a mere mortal. He did make one long critical completion with a perfectly placed ball to Myles Boykin. And 3 plays later he hit Olszewski with a catchable ball in the end zone.

5. Snell Sells It

Benny Snell has had some injury issues this summer while Jaylen Warren has earned a lot of positive press. Snell’s stat line is a modest 17 yards, but he did post the highest total of the group and earned the best rushing average of behind a bad line.

More importantly, his hustle was apparent.

Snell was playing as if his job depended on it – it very well may – and that’s what you want to see in a situation like this. More importantly, he made something out of nothing on a couple of carries – a skill that’s going to be critical behind this line.

6. Trade Mason? Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?

The Steelers decision to cut 7th round pick quarterback Chris Oladokun set off a social media firestorm the likes of which have not been seen since the team cut 4th round pick Doran Grant prior to the 2014 opening day.

Was it because, like Devlin Hodges, Chris Oladokun had been the summer superstar at St. Vincents and the standout during preseason games? No. He never saw the field in preseason and, by one count, completed just over 46% of his passes in practice.

  • The real reason of course is that that cutting Chris Oladokun means the Steelers will be keeping Mason Rudolph.

As they should. Mason Rudolph has quietly authored the most consistent performance of any Pittsburgh quarterback this summer, although he’s not had much time with the first team. And for fans that don’t want to hear that, take this from the Lions. Midway through the 2nd half, the broadcasters flashed a “Battle of the Backups” graphic, showing that Tim Boyle had completed 5 of 15 passes for 64 yards and one interception vs. 4 of 10 for 50 yards for David Blough.

Blough of course got more garbage time yards, but that stat alone shows that the Steelers are very lucky to have a quarterback of Mason Rudolph’s caliber as their 3rd string.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Don’t Force Trying to Find a Franchise QB

Quarterback is football’s critical position. This has been true since the modern game abandoned the Single Wing and has only become “more” true in the 21st century.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been blessed by both excellence and stability at the quarterback position for almost two decades.

But while the 2022 off season is still young, the Steelers have been jolted twice with reminders of how fleeting stability at quarterback can be. First, they lost Ben Roethlisberger to retirement. This they expected. Then, tragedy struck, and they lost Dwayne Haskins, to an untimely, horrific death.

Matt Corral, Mike Tomlin, 2022 NFL Draft

Mike Tomlin sizes up Matt Corrall. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Potential Starters

For the first time since the year summer of 2000, the Steelers will host their first quarterback competition at St. Vincents. Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, the two contestants are veteran Mason Rudolph and free agent Mitchell Turbisky.

In Mason Rudolph the Steelers have a veteran quarterback whom they graded as a first rounder and picked in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. In those four years, Mason Rudolph has appeared in 17 games, started 10 of those, and amassed a 5-4-1 record.

  • He’s completed 61.5% of his passes, and thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Mason Rudolph was thrown to the dogs in 2019 when an elbow injury ended Ben Roethlisberger’s season after just 6 quarters.

While he won 5 of his 8 starts, he suffered a concussion, and was the victim of an assault by Myles Garrett on the road  in the infamous “Body Bag Game” against Cleveland. The truth is that Mason looked shaky and tentative – as in Kordell Stewart al la 1999 – after both of those incidents. That led to his benching in favor of Devlin Hodges.

Hodges himself got benched against the New York Jets, and Mason Rudolph looked strong in relief, only to get injured again. He played fairly well in his only start against the Browns at the end of the 2020 season but was only “OK” in the tie against Detroit.

Four years after drafting him, the Steelers still aren’t sold on Mason Rudolph, explaining their decision to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year, prove it deal. The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • The conventional wisdom on Trubisky is that he’s a bust.

After four years as a starter, including two playoff seasons, no one wanted to give him a second contract, let alone a shot at a starting job (contrast that with the Sam Darnold trade.) Has Trubsiky been that bad? Here are some interesting numbers:

Mitch Trubisky, Ben Roethlisberger,

 

That’s an interesting if not surprising comparison. Ultimately this is a glass-half vs. glass full comparison. Either Trubisky is only a step down from Roethlisberger, or the gulf between a franchise QB and a good QB is truly defined by the margins.

The terms and length of Trubisky’s deal (1 years for about 7 million per year, plus incentives) signal that the Steelers are giving him a chance to prove he’s an NFL starter and nothing else.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers are new territory here. This is a franchise that not only believes in investing in the backup quarterback position, but also in the third string quarterback slot. As we’ve mused before, in many was the Mike Tomlin era has also been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks, with third stringers like Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones and Devlin Hodges getting starts.

Joshua Dobbs signed with the Cleveland Browns the day before Dwyane Haskins died, leaving the depth chart behind the two potential starters bare.

The Steelers 2022 Quarterback Draft Needs

Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Desmond Ridder are just a handful of the potential first round picks at quarterback that the Steelers have shown interest in. And for good reason. Both Rudoph and Trubisky have something to prove, and they have no one behind him should both falter.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

  • Should the Steelers target a quarterback in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft?

Who knows? Seriously, I’m wise enough not to know that I don’t know enough to evaluate college players coming out for the NFL draft. I do know that the conventional wisdom of the “draftnics” is that this a weak quarterback class.

And the backflips that teams are doing to secure and/or keep established starting quarterbacks show that the majority of NFL personnel managers agree.

If one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board when the Steelers are on the clock, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to remember point 3 of the 4 Point Road Map to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl:

But with that said, the focus of this series isn’t on how the Steelers can add, but what their areas of need are. And the Steelers draft needs at quarterback heading into the 2022 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You? Steelers Sign Levi Wallace to 2 Year Contract

How’s the saying go? Don’t slap the hand that feeds you? Well, maybe in Pittsburgh they’ll have to start saying, “Feed the hand that slaps you.” The Steelers have reportedly come to terms with Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, who is expected to sign a 2 year 8 million dollar contract on Wednesday.

Levi Wallace entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama, who made the Bills 2018 practice squad only to be activated and start the last 7 games of the season. He started all 16 games of the 2019 season, followed by 12 starts in 2020 and 17 starts in 2021.

That has given Mike Tomlin an excellent chance to see Levi Wallace up close, perhaps a little too close, as Wallace made interceptions in his first two outings against his future employer.

Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bill, James Washington

Bills Levi Wallace picks off Ben Roethlisberger to seal a win. Photo Credit: Democrat and Chronicle

The first time came as Devlin Hodges tried to connect with James Washington deep late in the game, as Wallace’s pick sealed victory. A year later, Levi Wallace struck again late in the 4th quarter, picking off Ben Roethlisberger as he again tried to connect with Washington.

  • In 52 NFL starts, Levi Wallace has 6 interceptions, 30 passes defensed and 7 tackles for a loss.

At 4 million dollars a year the Steelers are getting Wallace at an extremely good contract.

Be that as it may, the fact that the Steelers are targeting cornerback as a priority signing also likely spells the end of Ahkello Witherspoon’s and/or Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have Cameron Sutton, James Pierre and Justin Layne under contract at cornerback.

Steelers Get 4th Round Compensatory Selection

The Steelers were also informed by the NFL that they would be getting a 4th round compensatory selection. Last spring the hope was that given the loss of Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, the Steelers might get either a third round selection or perhaps multiple selections.

  • However, injuries to Bud Dupree and the need to play Joe Haeg altered that calculation.

The Steelers have the first 4th round compensatory pick, and now have a pick in each round, save for the 5th round.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a Twitter fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Class Balances Offensive Yang Against Defensive Yin

Grades for the Steelers 2021 Draft Class will have wait a few years. But there’s already one word that can describe this group of 9 players chosen by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin: Balanced.

  • The Steelers 2021 Draft class is a group where the defensive yin balances out its defensive yang.
  • The addition of a special teams player at the tail end wraps a bouquet around the balance concept.

Whether they strengthened themselves enough at offensive or boosted their defensive depth sufficently remains to be seen. But the Steelers went all in on their plan. So lets take a glance at exactly who falls on the side of yin and how falls on the side of yang.

Steelers Yin an Yang

Image credit: Sybildeckerdf via Pin Interest

Steelers 2021 Draft Class at a Glance

1st Round: Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
2nd Round: Pat Freiermuth, tight end, Penn State
3rd Round: Kendrick Green, center, Illinois
4th Round A: Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle, Texas A&M
4th Round B: Buddy Johnson, inside linebacker, Texas A&M
5th Round: Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end, Wisconsin
6th Round: Quincy Roche, outside linebacker, Miami
7th Round A: Tre Norwood, cornerback/safety/Swiss Army Knife, Oklahoma
7th Round B: Pressley Harvin, punter, Georgia Tech

Has there ever been a draft when the Steelers have gone down their needs and ticked them off in almost clockwork like fashion? I don’t know, but if there is the Steelers 2021 Draft class will provide immediate competition.

  • For two years, decline has diseased the Steelers offense.

Black and Gold Yin and YangSure, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the need to alternative between Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019 exacerbated that condition. But the unit lost its way. The Steelers offense’s MO shifted from sacrificing itself by feeding the ball too much to its feature back, to throwing 50 times per game.

  • Attempts to convert 4th and inches became utter embarrassments.

In Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green the Steelers have three players who could and should start on opening day. If you believe offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, Dan Moore could also be in the mix to start.

After focusing exclusively on their offensive yang, Pittsburgh pivoted to fulfilling their need for defensive yin in the middle of round 4. There they went and addressed four straight defensive positions.

  • Perhaps they didn’t quite come in the ideal order, but each pick addressed a clear area of need.

And unlike the offense, even if these defensive players exceed all expectations, it is very hard to see any of them earning a starting spot or pushing for non-spot duty playing time. An injury or two could change things in a hurry. Think back to the 2013 opening day. But on paper, the defensive players were picked to provide depth and play roles on special teams.

2021 Draft’s Immediate Impact

Going into the 2008 season, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded readers that improvement would have to come from within, that it would be a mistake to count on the Steelers 2008 Draft class to deliver the difference.

  • Labriola was right. The 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, and the rookie class contributed nothing.

With that in mind, should we interpret the fact that the Steelers drafted 3 potential starters as an ominous sign? Hard to say. Other than Jack Lambert, other Hall of Famers the Steelers drafted in their legendary 1974 Draft class, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, were role players on the team that won Super Bowl IX.

On the flip side, the 2016 Steelers got immediate contributions from the top three members of their 2016 Draft class, and that season ended with them knocking on heaven’s door in the AFC Championship.

Suffice to say, the Steelers need 2021’s draft class to be more like 2016 than 2008.

 

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Just How Big of a Need is Center for the Steelers in the 2021 NFL Draft?

It was once explained to me that the quarterback is football’s most important position because the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every play. No real argument there, other than the fact that the statement not actually true.

  • The center also touches the ball on each play.

While that reality doesn’t make center football’s 2nd most important position, in football, it does highlight the critical role it plays in the offense. With that in mind, just how big of a need is center for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Steelers Depth Cart at Center: The Starter

When it comes to the Steelers needs at Center in the 2021 NFL Draft the fact that Pittsburgh has no starting center tells us a lot.

While no one dispute the fact that Pouncey was the latest in a legacy of great Steelers centers, starting with Ray Mansfield, and continuing through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings, the truth is that his play slipped.

High snaps bedeviled Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph at throughout 2019 and of course the first snap of the 2021 post season sailed high above Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and the Steelers never recovered.

But there’s mistaking the fact that the Steelers will miss Pouncey’s leadership in the locker room.

Steelers Center Depth Chart: The Backups

Current the Steelers have two backup centers, J.C. Hassenauer an unrestricted rookie free agent from the 2021 squad, and B.J. Finney who joined the Steelers via the practice squad in 2015, work himself into a regular roster spot in 2016 and started 13 games over the next four season.

B.J. Finney departed in free agency in 2020, but was ultimately traded by Seattle to Cincinnati, who cut him earlier this year.

  • The Steelers wasted little time in bringing B.J. Finney back to Pittsburgh.

At this point, both J.C. Hassnuer and B.J. Finney project more like the next Sean Mahan or the next Justin Hartwig as opposed to the next Dermontti Mansfield, the next Mike Hartings or the next Maurkice Webster. But the Steelers did win a Super Bowl with Justin Hartwig and he was seen as a strong enough player to warrant a 2nd, 4 year contract prior to the 2009 season.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Center

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftBy bringing back B.J. Finney Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin brought themselves the luxury of not having to reach for a center early in the draft. This is critical.

The Steelers have too many needs in at too many other spots on the depth chart to tie their hands at center. And besides, when Colbert and Tomlin reach, Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns happen.

  • But make no mistake about it, center is one of Pittsburgh’s top needs.

The Steelers don’t need to draft a center who can come in and start right away the way Pouncey did after arriving via the number 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but they do need someone who at least projects as a full-time starter from 2022 onwards.

Therefore, the Steelers need at center entering the 2021 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate-High.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2021: Robert Spillane – He’ll Be Back. Count On It.

Serious fans have always known their team’s rosters inside an out. This has always been true, but its truer in the digital age. Still, there are names that appear on a roster that prompt a “WHO?” from even the most fanatical followers.

  • Steelers fans with long memories will recall running back Rodney Carter.

Rodney Carter exploded out of nowhere to spark the 1988 Steelers upset win over the Denver Broncos with a 100 yard, 2 touchdown game. He even completed a pass. When asked about Carter’s surprise role in the game, Chuck Noll joked that the idea came via a letter from a fan. Carter went on to be an unsung hero of the 1989 Steelers. Bob Labriola once described him in the Steelers Digest as the player who “made a career of ‘Going out and getting open.’”

Two years ago Devlin Hodges fit that bill, and this season that honor feel to Robert Spillane who is now and Exclusive Rights Free Agent. Today we look at his chances of staying in Pittsburgh.

Robert Spillane, Austin Hooper, Steelers vs Browns

Robert Spillane after tackling Austin Hooper. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com via the Bradford Era

Capsule Profile of Robert Spillane’s Steelers Career

After making the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted rookie free agent, Robert Spalaine joined the Steelers in February of 2019. He got a visit from The Turk on cutdown day but returned to the practice squad a day later. The Steelers cut him in late September, but brought him back in early October and was promoted to the active roster in November, seeing action in 8 games on special teams.

  • Going into 2020, inside linebacker was seen as the one position the Steelers could ill afford and injury at.

In the Steelers win over the Tennessee Titans, seeming disaster struck as Devin Bush tore his ACL. Spillane  stepped up, delivering a devastating goal line tackle recording 5 on the day.

The following week, Spillane opened the road game against the Ravens with a 33 yard pick six of Lamar Jackson, a pivotal play in a game that went down to the wire.

Spillane registered sacks in the Steelers wins over Cincinnati and in their loss to Washington, before getting injured for the rest of the regular season. He returned for the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff disaster against the Browns.

The Case for Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

Robert Spillane is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, meaning he’s not going anywhere unless the Steelers decide otherwise. That also means he’s cheap, incredibly cheap and the Steelers need every penny of salary cap space they can scrounge.

Robert Spillane might not quite have proven himself as “Starter Capable” but if he hasn’t, he’s certainly close. Clearly, he’s a competent backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

The aim of this section is to lay out the strongest possible case against bringing a player back. When it comes to Robert Spillane that simply is not possible.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane in 2021

This is a no brainer. Not only will the Steelers bring back Robert Spillane, he played well enough that he could Vince Williams a salary cap casualty. Should Williams stay, Spillane would provide depth at a critical position for the Steelers.

One way or another Robert Spillane will be wearing Black and Gold for the Steelers in 2021.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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