Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

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

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Patriots Punk Out Steelers 33-3 in 2019 Season Opener @ Gillette

So much for the Steelers catching the Patriots at just the right time, huh?

Tom Brady completed 24 of 36 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns, as the Steelers opened up their 2019 regular season with a 33-3 blow-out loss at Gillette Stadium.

The Steelers defense started the game by forcing a New England punt; after that, it was all offense all the time for the Patriots, as they scored on seven of their next eight possessions.

  • The first came via a 20-yard touchdown catch and run by Josh Gordon to make it 7-0.

Like they normally do, the Patriots methodically built a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Needing to establish momentum, Pittsburgh’s offense faced two key short-yardage situations.

Philip Dorsett III, Kameron Kelly, steelers vs patriots

Philip Dorsett III scores as Kameron Kelly, watches. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

The first came with 7:46 left in the second quarter. Facing a third and one from their own 44, the Steelers tried a pitch out to running back James Conner, who subsequently lost four yards, forcing a punt.

Not surprisingly, the Patriots marched 80 yards on eight plays and took a 17-0 lead with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Phillip Dorsett III.

The Steelers were faced with another short-yardage situation on their following drive–this time a fourth and one from the New England 47. Unfortunately, Donte Moncrief couldn’t hold on to a catchable pass, and the Patriots closed out the quarter with a Stephen Gostkowski 41-yard field goal to make it 20-0 at the half.

The Steelers had their best drive to open the second half, with the key play coming on a 45-yard pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver James Washington that set the offense up at the New England 18. One play later, Moncrief dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Five plays later, the Steelers faced a third and goal from the one, but a fade pass from Roethlisberger to Moncrief fell harmlessly incomplete. Instead of going for it, however, the Steelers settled for a Chris Boswell 19-yard field goal to make it 20-3.

  • Four plays later, it was over, as Brady found Dorsett for a second touchdown–this time from 58 yards out–to make it 27-3.

For the night, Roethlisberger completed 27 of 47 passes for 276 yards and one interception. Juju Smith-Schuster, in his first game as the team’s number one passing target, had six catches for 78 yards, while Washington caught two for 51 yards. As for Moncrief, he did manage to catch three passes, but for just seven yards.

  • The Patriots defense shut down Pittsburgh’s ground game, as Conner managed just 21 yards on 10 carries.

As for the Steelers defense, it looked as helpless as ever against Brady and Co., as it allowed 465 total yards. The Patriots were seven of 14 on third downs, and Brady was only sacked one time.

Next up for the Steelers is the home-opener at Heinz Field, as the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh for a 1 p.m. kickoff next Sunday afternoon.

 

 

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Saying Goodbye: Steelers Cut Eli Rogers, Trade Jerald Hawkins to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their roster cut downs yesterday and while Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not unload any major surprises on the fan base, the team did part way with two veterans.

  • The biggest and perhaps most difficult move was the decision to cut veteran wide receiver Eli Rogers.

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, spent the year on injured reserve, and emerged as their starting slot receiver by the end of training camp in 2016. By season’s end, Eli Rogers was their defacto number 2 wide out.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That role was probably a step too big for Rogers, but no one can deny that Rogers 48 catches and 3 touchdowns equaled phenomenal production for a player that few fans had even heard of going into August. In 2017 Eli Roger’s production dipped, thanks largely to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant‘s presence, but Eli Rogers played extremely well in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on all five attempts.

However, Eli Rogers did well grabbing 12 of 14 balls thrown his way during the season’s final 3 weeks, as Rogers gave the Steelers a legitimate 3rd wide receiver. Going into training camp, Eli Rogers was seen as competing with Ryan Switzer for a roster spot. While this writer asserts that Eli Rogers is a better wide out than Switzer, Switzer is a better return man, and with James Washington and Donte Moncrief that’s a trade off the Steelers can afford to make.

Steelers Trade Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay

The Steelers also traded Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay, exchanging a 7th round pick and Hawkins for Tampa Bay’s 6th round pick. The Steelers of course drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hawkins had a strong training camp, only to get injured in the Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints.

Hawkins would be back in 2017, only to get injured in spring practices in 2018. Word was he was not fully recovered going into 2019 and effectively found himself behind undrafted rookie free agents.

Credit Kevin Colbert for getting a 6th round pick for a player that the Steelers were going to cut anyway.

Other Steelers Who Got a Visit from “The Turk”

The Steelers cut a host of other players to reach the roster limit. Those cuts included:

Quarterback:
Devlin Hodges

Running Backs:
Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian and Malik Williams,

Wide Receivers:
Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, Eli Rogers and Diontae Spencer

Tight Ends:
Micky Crum, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Trevor Wood

Offensive Line:
Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassanauer, Patrick Morris and Damian Prince

Defensive Backs:
Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jhvonte Dean, P.J. Locke and Trevon Mathis

Linebackers:
Jayrone Elliott, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Sutton Smith and Robert Spillane

Defensive Linemen:
Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles and Conor Sheehy

Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry held off their respective  challenges from Matthew Wright and Ian Berryman.

Marcus Allen, Derwin Gray, Trey Edmunds, Patrick Morris, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Robert Spillane have already returned to the Steelers practice squad. One spot remains open, and Jim Wexell points out, it could be filled by either Sutton Smith or Johnny Holton.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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Steelers Report Card Following Pittsburgh’s 17-7 Preseason Win vs. Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their 2019 preseason winning streak to 2-0 with a 17-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Staff writer Tony Defeo delivers his Report Card where he pulls no punches as he “calls it as he sees it.”

mason rudolph, steelers vs chiefs preseason, Darron Lee

Mason Rudolph evades Darron Lee. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, AP, PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the second-straight game, Ben Roethlisberger did not dress. Mason Rudolphstarted and played the majority of the first half. Like a week earlier, Rudolph looked much more confident and comfortable in Randy Fichtner’s offense. On the night, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards. His night could have been even better, had he not been victimized by some drops and fumbles.

Joshua Dobbs entered the game late in the second quarter and, much like last week, he found James Washington downfield on a 43-yard pass. Late in the first half, just one play after hitting Eli Rogers on a pretty 25-yard pass, Dobbs was intercepted in the end zone on a high throw that was intended for rookie Diontae Johnson. As for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford entered the game early in the fourth quarter and completed just two of four passes. However, one of those passes was a pretty 24-yard touchdown to the rookie Johnson. Grade: B+

Running BacksSteelers, Report Card, grades,
James Conner got the start, and put in a workman like performance, with six carries for 28 yards. Second-year man Jaylen Samuels looked really good, as he tallied four carries for 26 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. As for Benny Snell Jr., the rookie from Kentucky carried seven times for 16 yards. But even though it was another quiet night, he did look decent on blitz pick ups. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started the game but didn’t have any receptions. As for Washington, the second-year man continued to shine, tallying four receptions for 78 yards. Donte Moncrief, the veteran free agent pick-up fumbled the only pass that he caught on the night.

After missing the Buccaneers game with an injury, the rookie Dionte Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Johnson would have had another score, but it was called back on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers kept his hat in the ring in the competition for the slot receiver role, with two catches for 31 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Veteran Vance McDonald started and had just five yards on one reception that he fumbled out of bounds. Xavier Grimble didn’t do much to inspire hope that he can be the number two tight end, catching one pass for 13 yards and showing the old alligator arms while dropping another. Rookie Kevin Rader had two receptions for 20 yards, but he also committed a holding penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Most of the starters played and put in a good night’s work. As for the work put in at right tackle by Chukwuma Okorafor, the second-year man from Western Michigan continued to struggle in his bid to win the swing-tackle job, and he was beaten badly on the Chiefs’ lone sack on the night. Grade: B

Defensive Line
There were no standout performers on the defensive line, but Stephon Tuitt started his first game of the preseason, while Javon Hargrave started his second. Rookie Isaiah Buggs recorded two tackles, while Daniel McCullers, the veteran whose job he could possibly take, did nothing noteworthy. Grade: C

Linebackers
Rookie sensation Devin Bush was held out of the Chiefs’ game for unspecified reasons, but the linebackers continued to shine, especially the outside linebackers. Starting his first game of the preseason, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his career–preseason or otherwise–as he recorded three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was a handful all night, as was T.J. Watt, who seemed to be in the backfield often and recorded two quarterback hits. As for Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie continued to push for a spot on the roster by posting a sack and recovering a fumble. Mark Barron started again at inside linebacker and looked decent in pass coverage. Tyler Matakevich also started and led the defense in tackles with seven. He didn’t look so hot in pass coverage, as he had a hard time keeping up with Chiefs tight end Deon Yelder on a 25-yard catch and run. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III had another active night, posting four tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden did not start. Veteran free-agent pick-up Steven Nelson did and looked decent in coverage. Surprisingly, so did fourth-year man Artie Burns, who started at corner, opposite Nelson. Burns had one pass defensed and forced a fumble while making a tackle in run support. Mike Hilton didn’t dazzle in pass coverage, but he was his usual disruptive self while blitzing. Cam Sutton recorded two tackles–including one for loss–but was victimized in coverage on Kansas City’s lone touchdown. As for the safeties, Sean Davis got his first start of the preseason, posting two tackles and recovering a fumble. Jordan Dangerfield posted two tackles, while Kam Kelly had one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell didn’t have any field goal attempts on the night, but he did convert on both of his extra point tries. Matthew Wright connected on his lone field goal try from 46 yards away.

Jordan Berry averaged 45.7 yards on three punts, while Ian Berryman averaged 36 on two, downing one inside the 20.

It was a quiet night for kick-returner Johnny Holton, who averaged 36 yards on two returns. The rookie Johnson nearly fumbled while fielding his first punt and only tallied 11 yards on three returns. As for Diontae Spencer, he again looked like a real find, returning two for 49 yards–including one for 38. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
It’s hard not to go with Artie Burns for the night he turned in.

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4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

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

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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James Washington’s Weight Loss Shows He’s Committed to Improving

If you’re anything like me, you probably never looked at James Washington at any point during his rookie season and said, “That guy really needs to lose some weight.”

It’s rare to think that about any wide receiver, let alone one who came into the league as a second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State with a reputation of being an accomplished deep threat. Yet, the Steelers apparently thought so, as they reportedly wanted him to be at 210 pounds by the start of the 2019 regular season.

Why would Pittsburgh want an already lean looking rookie to lose even more weight? Who knows, but it’s likely not an indictment of the youngster, considering the team has asked that of a lot of its newcomers in recent years–Le’Veon Bell, Bud Dupree and even veteran running back DeAngelo Williams were just a few players who were challenged to slim down shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals 2018 Heinz Field,

James Washington vs the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tribune Review.

The good news is, James Washington came to the NFL with a reputation for having an incredible work-ethic, one that was developed while working on his father’s farm growing up. And that’s why, according to Washington, per an article published on Steelers.com, he managed to drop 15 pounds and get down to his team mandated weight this spring.

“I went home for the first two weeks, was putting in some hard work with my dad on the farm,” said Washington, courtesy of Steelers.com. “I was trying to cut down on weight. Eat less. I went to Miami and worked in the sun. Worked on strength, strong hands, all the things receivers work on.”

When you read that paragraph, it makes you realize just how hard the second-year receiver worked this spring, and how well-rounded his commitment was to honing his craft (if you simply believed what some reporters were saying on Twitter last week, you would have assumed Washington told them he lost the 15 pounds on Daddy’s Texas farm).

At any rate, if there’s ever a second-year receiver who has nowhere to go but up, it’s James Washington. Coming off a 2018 campaign in-which he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one lone touchdown, James Washington certainly has a ton to prove in his sophomore season.

Will he? That’s impossible to know right now. But he certainly seems willing to give it his best shot possible. And with the current look of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, he has a great opportunity to establish himself–and do so rather quickly.

Yeah, sure, the Steelers signed veteran Donte Moncrief to a multi-year deal, and they drafted Diontae Johnson in the third round, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have high hopes for a man they recently invested a second-round draft choice in.

During the now infamous edition to his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan that followed a fairly ridiculous and laughable loss to the Broncos on November 25, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out two of his receivers. One of those receivers was obviously Antonio Brown, who reacted to his quarterback’s criticisms in the worst possible way, as he burned every visible bridge (and maybe even his legacy as the greatest receiver in team history) on his way to Oakland.

  • The other receiver was James Washington, who dove to catch a pass during the game that, had he simply stayed on his feet and caught it in stride, would have gone for a touchdown.

Who do you think would have handled the criticism of his quarterback better, a veteran who was in the midst of the greatest six-year run for any receiver in NFL history; or a rookie that had accomplished nothing up to that point in his career?

Obviously, the betting money would be on the veteran. But as I already alluded to, the veteran is now wearing the silver and black as a member of the Raiders. As for the rookie, he took the constructive criticism as just that, and he’s now using it to try and make himself a better football player.

It remains to be seen if James Washington will make that all-important first to second year leap in 2019. But if his commitment to getting better is any indication, he’s certainly willing to do whatever it takes to find out.

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Steelers Draft Diontae Johnson, Who’ll Be Seen, Fairly or Unfairly, as Antonio Brown’s Replacement

The Steelers opened night two of the 2019 NFL Draft as spectators having traded their second round pick to the Denver Broncos to draft Devin Bush, but used the Raiders 3rd round pick they obtained from the Antonio Brown trade to pick Diontae Johnson, the wide receiver from Toledo.

  • The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.

Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers draft Diontae Johsnon

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com

Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout who helped Pittsburgh discover players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and John Stallworth always admonished, “Never draft a player higher than you need to.” (Indeed, Chuck Noll wanted to take John Stallworth ahead of Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert in the Steelers famed 1974 Draft but Nunn convinced Noll that Stallworth would sit on the board – he did.)

  • Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?

According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:

…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.

So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).

Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights

The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”

He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:

Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.

Diontae Johnson doesn’t give Ben Roethlisberger the coveted tall target he seeks, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eli Rogers and Donte Moncrief ahead of him, he won’t automatically get playing time due to his status as a 3rd round pick.

However, Diontae Johnson’s arrival in Pittsburgh could very well leave Ryan Switzer looking over his shoulder, as Diontae Johnson has kick return experience.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Diontae Johnson.

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