Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

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

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs: In Search of Depth

Just 3 years ago the rest of the NFL was in envy of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart. They had a future Hall of Famer, a budding rookie 2nd round draft pick, and a physical phenomenon coming off of suspension.

  • Change comes quickly in the NFL.

By the middle of 2019 the Steelers were signing guys off of practice squads and playing them later that week. Injuries played a part in making that happen, but how much of it was tied to talent? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about how important wide receiver will be for the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington celebrate Diontae Johnson’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images via Still Curtain.com

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

“I’m ready” proclaimed JuJu Smith-Schuster shortly after the Steelers sent Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And by all accounts JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to be ready to be a legit number 1 NFL wide receiver.

But how would JuJu Smith-Schuster fair now that NFL defenses didn’t need to build their pass defense around shutting down Antonio Brown. No one knew, and a year later we still don’t know. Ben Roethlisberger’s season lasted 6 quarters, and Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly have enough time to find his rhythm before he got knocked out with a concussion.

  • That brought Devlin Hodges into the game, further limiting the Steelers passing options.

Fortuantely for the Steelers and JuJu, there’s evidence that the other two starting wide outs, James Washington and Diontae Johnson and offer enough splash play potential to take some heat off of Smith-Schuster.

James Washington dazzled during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons and, if reports are correct, his play during practice was just as dazzling. Yet Washington struggled to translate that on to the field during 2018 and the first half of 2019.

  • However, during the 2nd half of 2019, James Washington came up with several big catches.

While he needs to sustain that, the arrow is pointing up on James Washington as it is on Diontae Johnson. Diontae Johnson flashed big play potential early in the 2019 season, with impressive touchdowns against San Francisco and Miami. But consistency was an issue. Still, he improved from a disastrous performance against the Browns at home, for big games on the road against the Cardinals and Jets.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

If the Steelers have, at a minimum, three starter-capable wide receivers, their depth leaves a much to be desired. The next most targeted wide receiver in 2019 was Johnny Holton, followed by Donte Moncrief, then Ryan Switzer and then by Tevin Jones.

  • Ryan Switzer is the only one of the foursome who remains on the roster.

And Ryan Switzer was only targeted once after week 2, and missed the last 7 games of the season. Deon Cain offers legitimate potential and looked good while he was on the field, but his NFL resume consists of 6 targets.

The Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

While JuJu Smith-Schuster clearly is a step down from Antonio Brown as a number 1 wide receiver, the same can be said for 97.5% of other NFL wide outs. James Washington and Diontae Johnson also have a lot to prove, but it says here they will prove it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Moreover, Ryan Switzer, when healthy, is not a bad number 4 wide receiver, particularly if a tight end such as Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron is drawing attention from linebackers and safeties.

The issue for the Steelers at wide receiver is depth. They have next to none. And that means that heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Steelers need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

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

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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Steelers 2020 Quarterback Draft Needs: Once Again, Pittsburgh To Stand Pat

Quarterback is every NFL team’s most important position. This has always been true, but it is more true today than it was even just two decades ago.

  • For most of those two decades Steelers Nation has been blessed to have a franchise quarterback calling its signals.

That changed 6 quarters into the 2019 season. Suddenly, Steelers fans who were 30 something or below got a taste of what it was like when the likes of Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone and David Woodley stood under center.

But does that mean that the Steelers will or should look to quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger has been the Steelers franchise quarterback since 2004. In that time he’s led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and an appearance in Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers haven’t suffered a losing season since calling Ben Roethlisberger’s name in the 2004 NFL Draft and have only entered the season’s final week without the possibility of making the playoffs once in that time.

  • Ben Roethlisberger did not play well during the 6 quarters of football that comprised his 2019 season.

Was that his injured elbow? Was Roethlisberger rusty from lack of activity during the preseason? We don’t know and will never know. We do know that he is 38 and coming off of elbow surgery, and that his rehab is a bit ahead of schedule. We also know that he enter training camp and the season as the Steelers starting quarterback.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

Mason Rudolph stepped in when Roethlisberger injured his elbow against the Seahawks. How well Mason Rudolph played is open to debate.

  • Clearly, he lacks the instinctive, school yard instincts that make Ben Roethlisberger so special.

Mason Rudolph’s progress was marked in fits and starts. He seemed to be finding his footing when a concussion against Baltimore sidelined him. Rudolph was shaky on his return but found his self-confidence midway through the win over the Miami Dolphins. From there he seemed to make slow but steady progress until a disastrous outing against the Browns.

What they forget was how poorly he’d played up until that point. Perhaps that was a product of limited preparation on a short week. Regardless, he was tentative and timid the next week against the Bengals, leading to Devlin Hodges promotion to the starting role.

Devlin Hodges and Duckmania enjoyed quite a ride, engineering a comeback against the Bengals, followed by wins against the Browns and Cardinals. Steelers coaches took the training wheels off a bit against the Bills in the following week, and Devlin Hodges feel off the bike.

A week later a poor performance against the Jets led to Rudolph’s return, only to see Mason Rudolph injured. The Steelers also have former first round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster plus J.T. Barrett.

The Steelers 2020 Quarterback Draft Needs

The moment the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick the organization went “All In” on Roethlisberger’s recovery. The move cost them their first round pick. And it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Minkah Fitzpatrick’s presence bumped Pittsburgh’s win total by two or perhaps three games. Moreover, the Steelers restructures of Ben Roethlisberger basically tie the two together for two more years.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Could Mason Rudolph be Ben Roethlisberger’s long-term successor?

It is certainly possible, but his play in 2019 created as many questions as it answered. Delvin Hodges earned folk-hero status and did some nice things, but he has a weak arm and has only shown an ability to execute a very limited play selection.

  • Paxton Lynch and plus J.T. Barrett remain unknown quantities.

Lynch clearly has some talent and didn’t get much of a chance in Denver, but banking on his long-term future is foolish. Put that altogether, and in the abstract the Steelers 2020 draft need at quarterback really should be considered as High-Moderate.

But let’s repeat it, again: The Steelers are all in on Roethlisberger’s recovery. And there’s probably a better chance of finding coronavirus vaccine before the Steelers make their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft than there is of a legitimate franchise quarterback actually falling to pick 49.

The Steelers will not and should not draft a quarterback in 2020.

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A Sight for Sore Eyes: Ben Roethlisberger Throwing a Football Again!

Steelers Nation has experienced a lot of highs and lows in the last 161 days, but Saturday February 22nd brought the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful a true sight for sore eyes: Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football again.

Steelers fans have been waiting to see that since the 2nd half of Sunday September 15th of the Steelers home opener loss to the Seattle Seahawks. My, what a long strange trip its been. Mason Rudolph stepped in and looked strong in relief, but was shaky enough in his first start against the 49ers that Randy Fichtner had to resort to the Wildcat to jump start the offense against the Bengals.

Just when Rudolph seemed to be hitting his stride, he got knocked out against the Ravens with a concussion. Delvin Hodges came in and almost led the Steelers to an upset. Duck Mania was born!

Rudolph returned two weeks later, looked shaky against Miami, hit Diontae Johnson for a big touchdown (with the help of a helicious block by James Washington) and got stronger week-by-week until struggling might in The Body Bag game against Cleveland, as the Brown knocked JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Conner out of the game.

The event shook Rudolph, who was very tentative against the Bengals, leading to Hodges insertion, who in turn led the Steelers to 3 straight wins. Visions of a 1989 Steelers like improbable playoff run danced through the heads of Steelers Nation.

A week later against the Jets, it was Hodges who got the hook, as Mason Rudolph got the Steelers back in the game, only to injure his collarbone.

Through it all, Ben Roethlisberger remained on the sideline, acting as an assistant coach, as his beard and his gut raced to see who could grow faster. The Steelers and Roethlisberger have remained mum on the nature of Roethlisberger’s injury, only revealing that he had surgery in September.

Yet, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all unhesitatingly assured that they expect a full recovery from Roethlisberger. Today we can all see for themselves why they’ve been so confident.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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Chiefs Win in Super Bowl LIV = Goodbye to Another Steelers, NFL Season

With the Chiefs 31-20 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night in Miami, Florida, yet another football season has come to a close.

If you’re a Steelers fan, (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog, you most likely are) you might have declared the 2019 season over the second they were eliminated from the playoffs following a Week 17 loss to the Ravens on December 29.

I can’t say that I blame you for that. After all, when you’re a fan of a particular team, it’s that team that you want to see do well. It’s that team that you dream about hoisting the Lombardi and hosting the parade.

Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Super Bowl LIV

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes after Super Bowl LIV. Photo Credit: Mark Terrill, AP via Inquirer.com

Unfortunately, the moment quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, even dreaming of such glorious championship scenarios seemed kind of silly.

But the Steelers hung in there, and like the great and proud organization that they are, they stayed in that championship chase — albeit with spit, wire and a couple of totally inexperienced quarterbacks in Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges — much longer than anyone thought they would.

They made us believe in and love defense again. They gave us a glimpse into what the future could be with T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush leading the way.

However, that talk is talk for another time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I waited for the 2019 Steelers season to start the moment Super Bowl LIII was over last February.

I talked about free-agency, the draft, OTAs and mini-camp. And when training camp finally arrived at the end of July, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew it was just a matter of time before the Steelers were kicking off against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football.

Again, the 2019 season wasn’t one that you or I or any other Steelers fan would have considered ideal–far from it. But it was a season, and aren’t those always great?

Isn’t it fun to have something to look forward to? Isn’t it awesome that we can derive so much pleasure from a sport and a team that we’re not directly involved with?

  • I love the Steelers, but I also love and respect the NFL. I defend it when others try to tear it down for unnecessary reasons.

I also soak up every last ounce of the playoffs, even when the Steelers aren’t in them. I want to witness the drama and the excitement. I want to feel the good emotions as well as the bad ones that other teams and their fans experience in January and February.

  • I believe that helps me appreciate just how hard it is for teams to achieve Super Bowl success.

The Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. Think about that for one second. That’s a long time to go in-between Lombardi trophies. The 49ers won their fifth title back in 1994, and they’re still one shy of number six, which has been the standard for excellence since the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII 11 years ago.

The Patriots, who are deciding on whether or not they want to bring back 43-year old quarterback Tom Brady next season, might be stuck on six Super Bowl titles for the next 11, 25 or, heck, even 50 years.

  • There are no guarantees in the National Football League.

Many great men have played and coached in the NFL, and most of them will probably tell you just how hard it is to reach the Promised Land. To do it once is difficult enough. To sustain that kind of success over a period of years and sometimes even decades? That’s a whole different level.

This is why I own books about the Super Bowl. This is why I have old VHS tapes of NFL Films Super Bowl highlight shows. This is why I now often go to YouTube (I’ve graduated to streaming television) and watch whatever archived football material I can find.

A Football Life, ever see that show? And not just the ones that highlight former Steelers coaches and players. Check out the one about Bill Walsh, the late, great head coach of the 49ers, a man that in many ways was the godfather of the modern passing game. Find the one on Terrell Davis, the former Broncos running back who had his career cut short due to injury.

  • Watch America’s Game, like A Football Life, it’s an NFL Films produced show that chronicles each Super Bowl champion, starting with the 1966 Packers.

Go on Youtube and search for Missing Rings, a bit of a spin-off of the America’s Game series that chronicles some of those really great teams that could never truly get over the hump.

  • The Steelers are a fantastic team, but they’re also a part of a fantastic league.

Oh well, Super Bowl LIV is in the books. I guess the countdown to September and the 2020 season is on.

The NFL offseason is a long one, but only because the NFL regular season is worth waiting for.

 

 

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

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

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

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

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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