Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans – Have the Star Students Finally “Got It?”

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has crossed his fingers, hoping his students have finally “Got it,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Titans.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, Kevin Byard

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Titans safety Kevin Byard in Steelers win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was playing at home for the first time in close to a month, and he’s clearly more comfortable playing at Heinz Field. While Roethlisberger had an uneven first half, he recognized that challenged everyone including himself to step it up, and he was unstoppable in the second half, keeping drives alive, distributing the ball and throwing touchdowns in the Red Zone. For the night, Ben went 30 of 45 for 299 yards no turnovers and 4 touchdowns. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell didn’t have much room to run, and the Steelers didn’t try to force feed him the ball. Bell was a force catching balls through the air, and helped set up manageable 2nd downs. James Conner ran a little before garbage time and didn’t find much room to run either, but looked OK late in the game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Jesse James might never become a true number 1 tight end, but he’s proving to be a reliable target down field. While the tight ends much share some blame for the lack luster run blocking, James delivered as a receiver and added another touchdown catch to his resume. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had endured a couple of weeks where his production dropped and he was elispecd by JuJu Smith-Schuster. While murmurs of “Is 84 losing a step” hadn’t begun (and for good reason), Brown appeared to take it personally. Brown was clearly the Steelers number 1 reciever on the field catching 10 passes for 144 yards, including 3 touchdowns and one which was a work of pure wonder. JuJu Smith-Schuster had some nice catches, including a tough 3rd down conversion in the Red Zone. Martavis Bryant had a quieter night, but made a key third down conversion. He also recovered a fumble. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Titans had more success getting to Ben Roethlisberger than any team thus far this season, but the Steelers line kept him clean in the 2nd half. The line’s run blocking left a little to be desired, but they were going up against a Dick LeBeau defense intent on making Roethlisberger beat them. He did, and the line helped. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
The Titans barely broke 50 yards rushing and averaged 2.5 yards on the ground, and that starts up front as the Steelers defenders dropped at least 10 Titan ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, by ESPN’s count. Cam Heyward is playing at a level of dominance not seen since the days of the Steel Curtain, recording 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 3 QB hits. Stephon Tuitt wasn’t far behind, recording a sack and 2 QB hits. Javon Hargrave had 1 tackle for a loss. L.T. Walton had a sack late in the game. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, DeMarco Murray

Vince Williams, Cam Heyward and others gang tackle DeMarco Muarry in Steelers Thursday Night win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Ryan Shazier led the Steelers in tackles with 10 total, Vince Williams had a sack and T.J. Watt tipped a ball. Bud Dupree had part of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker helped shut down the run and get the defense off the field in the third down. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton had an interception that allowed the Steelers to go up by 3. Coty Sensabaugh had another interception that set up the Steelers second field goal. Robert Golden’s third interception set up the Steelers 3rd touchdown, while Sean Davis intercepted the ball in garbage time. While those are all positives, the Steelers secondary got burnt, badly on another long pass play. That makes 3 in two games, which cannot continue and brings the grade down considerably. Grade: B-

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Titans, Robert Golden, Steelers vs Titans

Mike Hilton returns on of four interceptions on the night during the Steelers Thrusday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
It sure feels better to be the kick blocker rather than the kick blockee. Thanks to T.J. Watt, the Steelers blocked a Titan’s field goal early in the game, which helped ensure the Steelers lead. Antonio Brown returned two punts and averaged 11.6 yards, a refreshing change, and could have taken his last one farther had he not bumped into one of his own players. Chris Boswell was a perfect 4/4 on field goals and extra points. The Titans did have a long kick return and a decent punt return, neither of which had an impact but could have. Grade: A-

Coaching
Score one for Todd Haley. Haley was going up against a coach who knew his tendencies, his personnel and his way of thinking better than any other opposing defensive coordinator he’ll ever face. Yes, the Steelers used more no-huddle than normal, and Ben Roethlisberger’s comments suggest that he was doing more of his own play calling.

  • But Todd Haley correctly assessed that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to rely on the run to win this one, and he designed his game plan accordingly.

Keith Butler’s defense continues to evolve, and save for the first play of the second half, completely shut down the Titans in the last thirty minutes. Butler is blessed by an awesome defensive line, yet he needs to find a way to coax better play out of his secondary, especially if his starting corner and starting free safety are out as long as they’re expected to be out for.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t start the 2017 season firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin appeared to anticipate that, warning people that the team remained a work in progress as opening day arrived. Tomlin knew his team, but more importantly, the Steelers have made slow but steady (if not always linear) improvement as the season has progressed.

While you always want to play your best football all the time, the truth is that finishing strong is more important that starting fast. The Pittsburgh Steelers still must sustain their progress during the season’s last 6 games, but week 10 saw Mike Tomlin getting his players to play their most complete game of the season, which is a very positive sign. Grade: A-

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday Night

Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin confer on the sidelines during the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Unsung Hero Award
Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed him to be the focus of the Steelers offense. And for the better part of the last 12 months, that’s been undeniably true. But going into the game against the Titans, he knew focus was going to be off him, and he didn’t pout, didn’t complain on social media. Instead, he continued to make the bread and butter plays both on the ground and through the air that kept the Steelers offense humming.

He had what looked to be a really tough touchdown taken away on replay, and instead of demanding a second chance, accepted his role as a decoy in one of the best play fakes the Steelers have executed in living memory, paving away for a critical touchdown and for that Le’Veon Bell is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans.

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Steelers 40-17 Thursday Night Thumping of Titans Shows Not All NFL Moments Created Equally

Although it’s now nearly a year-round sport, the NFL regular season only consists of 16 games where each team runs about 130 offensive and defensive plays per game. In this age of fantasy football and meta-statistics, it is temping to assume that an NFL team’s final record boils down to the cumulative result of 2100 individual plays.

  • But the Steelers 40-17 Thursday Night Thumping of the Tennessee Titans shows that sometimes some moments are far more equal than others.

And, the lesson from the Titans game suggests the more equal moments can come in the locker room instead of on the field.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown helmet catch Titans, Steelers vs Titans, Logan Ryan

Antonio Brown does the impossible, again, in Steelers Thrusday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Sporting News

SOS aka Same Old Steelers for One Half

Nine games into the 2017 season the template for the Pittsburgh Steelers was pretty well established. The Steelers offense might have its moments, but overall it would plod along, struggle on third downs, misfire on opportunities down field and settle for Chris Boswell field goals in the Red Zone.

  • In the first half on Thursday Night Against the Titans the Steelers followed that template to a T.

This was particularly dangerous, because as Chris Adamaski of the Tribune-Review pointed out, the Titans actually represented the toughest late season challenge the Steelers have had since 2012. And not only were the Titans division leaders, but they were bringing Dick LeBeau, a man intimately familiar with the Steelers offensive system and personnel.

Sure, the Steelers started with some Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown fireworks, but quickly thereafter muddled into offensive mediocrity.

  • The Steelers went 1-7 on third down conversions in the first half
  • The Titans sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice and harassed him for much of the first half
  • Mike Hilton and Coty Sensabaugh set the Steelers up with interceptions, yetChris Boswell remained Pittsburgh’s weapon of choice in the Red Zone
  • Not surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger was 10 of 22 during the first half

While the Steelers were holding on to a 16 to 7 lead heading into the locker room at half time, they’d given every indication that second half would go down to the wire, like so many other contests this season.

Roethlisberger Speaks Up at Halftime

The press and fans alike enjoy talking about “Halftime adjustments.” Most people imagine NFL locker rooms at halftime filled with Knute Rockne like speeches. Steelers fans, at least those of a certain age, like to imagine most if not all half-time rallies are sparked by tirades like that of Greg Lloyd in 1993 where, in addition to breaking a chair, Lloyd explicitly called out the offense to do its part or get off the field.

  • Yet, by all accounts those fire-and-brimstone halftime sermons tend to be exception and not the rule as NFL locker rooms tend to be pretty mundane places.

And so it was at Heinz Field against the Titans. Ben Roethlisberger spoke up, but as he explained:

I didn’t go to individual guys, but I just felt like I wanted to challenge all of us, and I included myself in that. I felt like the defense did their job and more during the fist half. Obviously (the offense) started fast but fizzled out. I just challenged the guys that someone had to make a play for this team … or else we’re gonna keep relying on our defense. It’s time that we step up and do something, and I love the way they all responded.

The nine-point lead notwithstanding, the Steelers offensive play in the first half was “unacceptable” in the eyes of their veteran signal caller.

  • This is exactly the type of leadership that a team needs from its franchise quarterback.

It would be poetic to write that a new Steelers team took the field and dominated after halftime. Except that didn’t happen. On the very first play in the first half, Marcus Mariota found Rishard Matthews out running Coty Sensabaugh deep down the middle. A missed Robert Golden tackle later and the Titans had just scored a 75 yard touchdown pass.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Titans,

Ben Roethlisberger passing against the Tennessee Titans. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via The Bleacher Report

The Steelers offense took the field, and for the first time in perhaps the entire season, Steelers Nation saw something it hadn’t from its vaunted offense:

  • Ben Roethlsiberger in rhythm with his receivers.

Roethlisberger answered the Titans quick strike by completing 7 of 9 passes, hitting Brown, Jesse James, Le’Veon Bell, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The drive didn’t deliver the Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons type dominance that many expected out of the Steelers 2017 offense. Instead it was a methodical, 5 minute drive that ended with a 5 yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.

  • Now the Steelers have put together isolated drives like this earlier in the season.

But the key word in the sentence above is “isolated.” Ben Roethlisberger and the the Steelers offense maintained that rhythm for the rest of the evening. Establishing that type of rhythm only comes with intense focus. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of purpose,” and “singleness of purpose” translates into superior execution.

Nowhere was that superior execution more evident than in the Red Zone.

  • The singular focus of all 11 players immaculately sold the play fake to Le’Veon Bell that resulted in Jesse James touchdown
  • As for Antonio Brown’s final touchdown?

You can’t find a better example of focus and execution than that.

Steelers Defense Delivers, Albeit with Concerns

While Pittsburgh’s 40 point offensive explosion provides the key takeaway from the Thursday night Titans thumping, the offense didn’t operate in a vacuum.

  • The Steelers defense certainly did its part, although it raised some yellow if not red flags.

Cam Heyward dominated as no Steelers defensive lineman has done since the days of the Steel Curtain. That’s not a statement one makes lightly, but Heyward abused Marcus Mariota all night, sacking him twice and hitting him 3 times when he wasn’t dropping Titan ball carriers in the backfield.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward sacksMarcus Mariota, Steelers vs Titans

Cameron Heyward dominated Marcus Mariota in the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, and even L.T. Walton got into the sack party, making it miserable all around for Mariota. Robert Golden and Sean Davis added two to the Steelers interception total.

Those are all good things, but the Titans did score 17 points the third highest point total of the season. A more alarming statistic that you can attached to the number 3 is the number of long bomb touchdowns the Steelers defense has given up. The Steelers got burned for two against the Colts, and the Titans hit them with another.

With Joe Haden for a while and perhaps Mike Mitchell out for an extended peroid, this is not encouraging.

Steelers Offense Meets Expectations, Yet Far from Fulfilling Potential

It took ten games, but finally, on Thursday night against the Titans, the Steelers offense finally lived up to expectations. The key of course, is to sustain this momentum through the next since games of the season and, God willing, into the playoffs.

  • Time will tell if Mike Tomlin’s team is up to the task.

But when asked if this was a breakout game, Ben Roethlisberger replied, “You can call it a breakout game in terms of points, but I still think that we will look at this and say ‘Man we still left things out.’”

That’s exactly the mindset the Steelers need to take out of this game.

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Vote Game Ball Winners from Steelers Win Over Titans

The men in the Steelers locker room might complain about Thursday Night Football games, but if Pittsburgh is going to play like it did in the 40-17 win over the Tennessee Titans, then perhaps Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II should petition the NFL to play on Thursday night every week.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, LeShaun Sims, Steelers Titans Thursday Night Football

Antonio Brown channels his inner Christopher Reeve as LeShaun Sims is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

As we do after every Steelers victory, we invite you the readers to cast your votes for Steelers game ball winners. Here’s a look at the ballot:

Which Steelers should get game balls for the win over the Titans (multiple votes allowed)

Leading the ballot for the obvious reason is Antonio Brown, who after a few quiet weeks on the road, exploded for 10 catches for 144 yards and more importantly, 3 touchdowns including two in the Red Zone. Behind him is Ben Roethlisberger, who played his best football of the season, throwing for just under 300 yards, tossing 4 touchdown passes and not turning over the ball.

Le’Veon Bell also earns a spot on the ballot. Although Le’Veon didn’t have a lot of success running, he was the team’s number 2 pass catcher and that kept the chains moving. We’re also giving a nod to Jesse James, who caught the Steelers “walk off” touchdown and pulled in 5 passes on the night.

  • Finally, we’re giving a ballot slot to Todd Haley.

While Dick LeBeau might not have the talent at his disposal that he had while he was coaching in the Steel City, the Tennessee defense is pretty good, stout against the run and LeBeau knows the how the Steelers offense works. While the ultimate difference may have been more a question of execution rather than game planning, the scoreboard confirms that Haley got the better of LeBeau.

  • One of Haley’s best moves, however, was to take advantage of what the Steelers defense gave him, which was a lot against the Titans.

Cameron Heyward continued to play as one of the league dominante defensive lineman with two sacks, and 2 and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Stephon Tuitt also had a strong night, and gets a ballot slot thanks to his sack. Mike Hilton had the night’s first interception, which set up a Steelers score.

Next we look to Vince Williams and Sean Davis who had a late sack and late interception, respectively. They’re followed by Ryan Shazier and L.T. Walton, with Shazier leading the Steelers in tackles, and L.T. Walton scoring a late sack.

  • Remember, you’re not limited to the choices on the ballot.

If you want to write in, say T.J. Watt for tipping a pass and blocking a field goal, by all means do so. Perhaps you think that JuJu Smith-Schuster deserves a game ball? Then write his name in. Or better yet, write his name in and leave a comment stating your case as to why you think this player deserves a shout out.

The Steelers win over the Titans ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, and the work day looms. So please check back later for our full analysis of the Steelers Thursday Night Thumping of the Titans.

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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Ryan Shazier’s Interception Against the Colts Came at Critical Moment in Steelers Win Over Indy

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, one of the first things head coach Mike Tomlin said about the young lad out of Ohio State was that he was “splash-play capable” (or whatever “Tomlinism” the coach used at that moment).

Maybe that’s why it was no surprise that Ryan Shazier made splash play after splash play in the very exciting and memorable wild card victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season–including a miraculous forced fumble in the final two minutes, which came just one play after it appeared backup quarterback Landry Jones threw the season away to villain linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Ryan Shazier, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts, Ryan Shazier interception Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception against the Colts was a clutch play that came at a critical moment. Photo Credit: Joseph C. Garza, CNIH Indiana

Which brings us to the 2017 campaign, specifically this past Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, where the Steelers were struggling mightily against a 3-6 Colts squad that came into the day having only beaten one team that had beaten other teams (the Colts other two victories came against the winless Browns and the at-the-time winless 49ers).

  • Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was essentially one Colts score away from dropping yet another road game in-which it was a very heavy favorite.

With the offense struggling once again, the Steelers defense not only needed to shut Jacoby Brissett and the rest of Indianapolis’ offense down, it needed to come up with a huge splash play that put the offense in premium field position.

  • No. 50 did just that.

With the Colts facing a third and eight from their own 13, a quick pass from Brissett bounced off  the hands of tight end Jack Doyle, before Shazier, in a Troy Polamalu-like display of otherworldly hand-and-eye coordination, quickly corralled it before being tackled at the 10.

If you were skeptical that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant et. al. would fail to parlay this gift into a touchdown, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, with the help of Vance McDonald they cashed-in to the tune of the maximum eight points and a tie game, before going on to win, 20-17, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell

Speaking of the legendary Polamalu, after he and the rest of Dick LeBeau‘s defense got old in the early-2010’s, there was a very noticeable lack of splash plays, the kind that could ultimately change the course of a game (how many times had No. 43 done so in his prime)?

It’s hard to win in the NFL without an opportunistic defense, and it’s even harder when you don’t have a player who can often come up with a clutch interception, fumble recovery or just a timely hit that forces one.

  • Ryan Shazier has a knack for doing all three, and he has done all three at crucial moments in recent Steelers history.

After a rather-impressive rebuilding of the defense under new coordinator Keith Butler, the unit is full of young, fast defenders who are capable of making a splash play at any time.

But Ryan Shazier, with his unique blend of speed and explosiveness, is often the one who makes the biggest splashes of them all.

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Steelers Report Card for the Win over the Bengals – A’s for Defensive Excellence

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who has a note from his mother excusing his middle of the week absences from sickness here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt jumps for joy after sacking Andy Dalton as Cam Hewyard looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Quarterback
This was Ben Roethlisberger’s best game of the season thus far, as Roethlisberger led the Steelers to two touchdown drives, managed to work an number of receivers into the passing game and did not turn over the ball. Big Ben’s day could have been even better had two potential touchdown not been dropped. Still, the Steelers struggled on third downs, and Roethlisberger must bear partial responsibility. Grade: B

Running Backs
Is there any doubt that Le’Veon Bell is back into form? Le’Veon Bell attacked the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense head on, and fought his way to 134 yards on 34 carries. He also made noise in the running game with a brilliant stiff arm of Dre Kirkpatrick. James Conner carried 3 times for 19 yards, while Terrell Watson carried once for no gain. Roosevelt Nix paved the way. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald made two catches, including an impressive 28 yard catch. He also dropped a gimmie on the end zone. Overall however, his blocking was a key element to Bell’s success. Xavier Grimble also had one catch for 1 yards and blocked well when McDonald left via injury. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Bengals have had a lot of success in containing Antonio Brown, but Brown did his damage in the first half with 4 catches for 65 yards including a touchdown. Still, the William Jackson put Steelers Nation on notice that AFC North as a corner that can go toe-to-toe with Brown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had two catches for 39 yards including a touchdown. Eli Rogers reminded everyone why he’s still on the roster, while Martavis Bryant got everyone to ask “Just WHAT is he complaining about again?” Finally, Darrius Heyward-Bey caught what might have been the most important catch of the game on a fake field goal. Grade: B

Offensive Line
IF ESPN’s statistics are to be trusted, the Bengals only touched Ben Roethlisberger once. And while the offensive line wasn’t busying keeping Roethlisberger clean it was opening holes for Le’Veon Bell thanks to David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s pulling. This until established control at the line of scrimmage early on and never looked back. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Its some how fitting that Cam Heyward opened the Bengals final series with a sack, as the defensive line dominated the Bengals front seven from Cincinnati’s final possession of the first half onward. In addition to his sack, Heyward had two tackles for losses, and stopped several other Bengals for no gain. Perhaps most satisfying, late in the second quarter Heyward began punctuating his tackles with an extra backwards slam, and it was all down hill for Cincinnati after that.

Take out Joe Mixon’s 25 yard scamper, and the Steelers held the Bengals running backs to 2.8 yards rushing. That all starts up front. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had two tackles. Anthony Chickillo had a key pass defense. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt both had sacks, while Ryan Shazier lead the team in tackles including one for a loss and was last seen chasing Andy Dalton in the backfield as the beleaguered Bengals signal caller opted to simply throw it away on 4th and two. A fine day by the linebackers. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers interception, Joe Haden intercepts Andy Dalton

Joe Haden after intercepting an Andy Dalton pass intended for A.J. Green. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Secondary
Andy Dalton passed for 140 yards and the Bengals only managed 19 yards of total offense in the second half despite playing from behind the entire time. Oh, and Cincinnati finished 3-11 on third down conversions. Oh, and A.J. Green was held to 3 catches for 31 yards or 1 grab less than the Steelers secondary as Joe Haden and William Gay nabbed their first interceptions of the season. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell boots it well against the Bengals, as he knocked in 5 field goals, including one from 41 yards away and another from 49 away. The Bengals did have one long punt return, which is the second week in a row the Steelers have allowed one.

The biggest play of course came on the hands of Robert Golden who connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey for the fake. That was a gutsy and risky call, but the Steelers executed it and it ended the game. Grade: B+

Coaching
Todd Haley did his homework on this one, expertly mixing the pass and the run to get the Steelers on the board early with touchdowns, and then controlling the clock after that – all against the NFL’s number 2 rush defense.

  • Still, the Steelers Red Zone and third down performance need to improve.

Objectivity commands us to remind ourselves and everyone else that the ease with which the Bengals scored their first two touchdowns was al little disquieting. You can be forgiven if you forgot because from the Bengals final drive of the first half onward, the Steelers defense dominated as thoroughly as any unit fielded by Bud Carson, George Perles, Dom Capers or Dick LeBeau ever fielded.

  • Keith Butler’s defense was that good against the Bengals in the games final 32 minutes.

Cincinnati didn’t have a chance, and Andy Dalton’s final throw away on 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter perfectly symbolized the Bengals haplessness.

Mike Tomlin’s teams are sometimes prone to let down, and this was a possibility after a big win over the Kansas City Chiefs coupled with a Bengals team bringing a 2 game winning streak into Heinz Field on the heels of a bye week. But Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. And if his offense needs to improve in situational football and he does need to take care not to overwork his feature back, his Steelers put in a pretty good afternoon against the Bengals. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin during the 2017 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Unsung Hero Award
A year ago after the Steelers loss at Miami commentators trotted out various statistics of the Steelers records with Cam Heyward and without Stephon Tuitt in the lineup together.

  • Now to be fair to the rest of Johnny Mitchell’s pupils, the Steelers defensive line righted that ship after Cam Heyward’s season ending injury.

But for as well as L.T. Walton, Ricardo Mathews and John Maxey might have played in Heyward’s absence, the Steelers brass went out and signed someone who could be a true 3rd defensive end in the rotation, and his name is Tyson Alualu and it was his playmaking as much as anyone else’s that lead to the defensive turn around and for that Tyson Alualu wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bengals.

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Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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ICYMI (I Know I Did) Steelers Sign Daimion Stafford Highlighting Headline Glut

In case you weren’t paying attention (I wasn’t) the Steelers signed Daimion Stafford last week in an effort to bolster their depth at safety behind Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

  • The move highlights two rather obvious trends, the latter of which can still sneak up on you.
Daimion Stafford, Steelers sign Daimion Stafford

Steelers signed free agent safety Daimion Stafford from the Titans, ending the “Shamarko Thomas” era. Photo Credit: Titainsonline.com

First, as has been apparent for quite some time, the move drove the final nail in the coffin of the Shamarko Thomas debacle at safety. The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up on Shamarko in 2015 when the benched him in favor of Will Allen prior to the season opener vs. the Patriots. They next dispelled any remote possibility of second thoughts by playingJordan Dangerfield over Shamarko early in 2016.

  • You knew that, we knew that, but perhaps Shamarko Thomas didn’t quite know that, as he signed with the Jets a day later.

Dare we suggest Shamarko Thomas was holding out hopes that the Steelers would bring him back thanks to his special teams prowess? Maybe he did. The case for bringing back Shamarko Thomas on a veteran minimum contract to play gunner was reasonably strong. But Shamarko Thomas’ free agent profile came with a big “But” which we’ll remind everyone of here:

But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

By the look of things, this is exactly what the Steelers are getting in Daimion Stafford.

Like Shamarko Thomas (and Jarvis Jones), Daimion Stafford arrived in the NFL via the now much-maligned 2013 NFL Draft. Unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford was a 7th round draft pick. And also unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford has actually delivered some value in the secondary.

Per Pro Football Reference’s stats, Daimion Stafford has appared in 62 games as a professional for the Tennessee Titans, and even started in 6 games. That’s six more starts than Shamarko has to his name. He also has 2 interceptions, which is two more than Shamarko Thomas. He also has three sacks and three fumble recoveries.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reports, a source in Nashville characterizes Stafford as:

A decent role player who will help best on special teams. He’s a big hitter but limited in man coverage, better in zone. Not afraid to come up in run support and doesn’t mind being physical.

  • That sounds exactly like the resume of someone who can do what Shamarko did and offer more.

To the extent that a team’s number 5 safety can continue to a Super Bowl, run Daimion Stafford is the perfect kind of player for the Steelers to take a flyer on.

(And onean’t help but wonder who was Wexell’s source, given that Dick LeBeau, Desha Townsend, Lou Spanos, Nick Eason and Keith Willis are defensive coaches for the Titans, with Russ Grimm and Mike Mularkey also the offensive side.)

Steelers Daimion Stafford Signing Highlights Headline Glut

The other interesting thing about the Steelers signing Daimion Stafford is how it highlights the dangers of the headline glut we face in today’s fractured media landscape.

Had the Steelers made this type of move in the late 80’s or early 1990’s, out of town fans would have learned of it through the Steelers Digest or perhaps in the “transactions” section of their local sports page. With the mid-1990’s came the internet, and it’s a fair bet to say that the Tribune Review and/or Pittsburgh Post Gazette would have run a short article on the move. Things would have been much the same during most of the 00’s, except that fans would have had several more outlets to get the news.

  • Now of course the number of sites publishing articles announcing the Steelers signing of Daimion Stafford on the subject has exploded.

That’s important because the Steelers are making many roster moves at this time of the year, although the vast majority of them involved undrafted rookie free agents and other players who’ve been signed to “Futures Contracts.” As a consequence, when I saw the headline “Steelers Sign Stafford” I assumed he was just another one of those.

Instead, he’s a free agent signing, albeit a very low level one, but one that could have an impact in 2017.

And with so much clutter floating around, there, yours truly almost missed it…..

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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