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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Things Feel Different This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

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

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

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Devlin Hodges Rallies Steelers to 16-10 Win over Bengals after Mason Rudolph Benched

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in a rebound win that  puts them back in the AFC Wild Card race, for the moment.

Although Pittsburgh took a 5-5 record and a 10 game winning streak against the Bengals into Cincinnati, in many ways the odds certainly weren’t stacked in the Steelers favor. On offense against Cincinnati, the Steelers would be:

  • Starting their number 2 quarterback
  • Missing James Conner, their number 1 running back
  • Missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, their number 1 wide receiver
  • Missing Maurkice Pouncey, their best offensive lineman
  • Giving carries two players, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain who were playing for other teams last week

In an ironic twist, the decisive change that sparked the Steelers to victory was Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, a player who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Practice Squad Poaching Products Flash, but Don’t Start

While Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph drew all of the attention during the last week, the impact felt from the Body Bag Game in Cleveland was felt elsewhere. Namely, that it deprived Pittsburgh of its number one running back and number one wide receiver.

Kevin Colbert moved swiftly and out of his comfort zone when did some practice squad poaching by signing Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain from the Bears and Colts practice squads, respectively. Deon Cain, who’d last been seen dropping passes in the Colts loss at Heinz Field, proclaimed himself to be a playmaker upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed that they don’t and shouldn’t listen to me. Deon Cain had a 35 yard catch which flipped the field and was the offense’s only play of substance on their 1st half field goal drive. Kerrith Whyte lost a yard on his first NFL carry, but then rebounded to rip off a 15 yard run on his second try.

  • Not bad. But at the end of the day, both of those plays amounted to simple flashes that failed to spark the Steelers offense.

Mason Rudolph began the afternoon respectably. While no one was forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger was on the sidelines, Rudolph held himself reasonably well, and had moved the team into scoring position when a tipped ball led to a Shawn Williams interception.

  • The Steelers defense held the Bengals to zero yards on the next possession, but Mason Rudolph was never the same after that play.

In contrast, the Bengals, under quarterback Ryan Finley showed that they could muster some roar with their rookie quarterback who hooked up on two picture perfect strikes Tyler Boyd, schooling Terrell Edmunds first and Joe Haden for a second and a touchdown.

The Bengals took a 10-3 lead into halftime, and it was fair to question whether the Steelers could summon enough offense to get back in the game.

Tomlin Sparks Offense with Historic Decision

Football fans love the rallying cry “BENCH THE QUARTERBACK” almost as much if not more than “FIRE THE COACH.” Yet, as an organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers bench quarterbacks only a little more frequently than they fire coaches.

Yet going into the game Bob Labriola entertained a question about Mike Tomlin changing quarterbacks in his “Asked and Answered” and at half time Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell tweeted:

Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph one series which began with a sack ended in a three and out and ended with an ugly pass aimed at Diontae Johnson’s feet. The next time the Steelers got the ball back, Devlin Hodges was standing under center.

  • And Devlin Hodges delivered immediately.

He hit on his first two strikes to Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, and on his third try he found James Washington wide open in the field. Washington stiff armed B.W. Webb and ran 79 yards for the touchdown.

Truth be told, those three passes seemed to be about the only tricks that Delvin Hodges had in his bag, but they were enough on this afternoon.

Defense Delivers. Again.

Defense has carried the Steelers throughout 2019 and the win in Cincinnati was no different. While that’s no surprise, there was an important X factor heading into the game, and that was Joe Mixon against a Steelers run defense that had been leaky at times.

  • For 3 quarters the Steelers defense held Joe Mixon in check.

With 10 minutes left to go in the four quarter, it looked like the Joe Mixon had finally found a chink in the Steelers armor, as he ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards, the first of which looked to be a 5 yard loss. On the next play, Ryan Finley found Tyler Boyd for a 22 yard gain.

  • Cincinnati appeared poised to enter Pittsburgh’s end zone and either even the score, or pull ahead.

Devin Bush had other plans, stripping Boyd of the ball, which was scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick who logged his 8th takeaway for the season, which he returned 36 yards. That was the last drive that ended with positive yards for Cincinnati would earn all day.

Joe Haden and Mike Hilton teamed up to bat away passes, while Cam Heyward helped harass Finley up front setting Bud Dupree to end the day with a strip sack and recovery.

Who Starts for Steelers vs Browns?

After the game Mike Tomlin remained coy over whether Mason Rudolph would return to the starting  role against Cleveland next week or whether Duck Hodges would remain. It says here that benching Mason Rudolph against the Bengals was the right move.

  • But it is also far from clear that Delvin Hodges holds a “Hot Hand.”

Overall, he only completed 5 of 11 of his passes and, on his final pass before Chris Boswell kicked his third field goal, Hodges threw the ball away when Vance McDonald was open for a completion, which at the very least would have kept the clock running.

Outside of throwing the ball with a little more confidence, the main difference between Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph was in Hodges ability to avoid the rush.

Perhaps Tomlin had that tendency in mind when he teased reporters by suggesting he might already have made up his mind as to who to start. We will find out soon….

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They Won’t, But the Steelers Should Resign Eli Rogers

Lost in the furor over Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph at the end of the Steelers 21-7 loss in Cleveland is that before the ignominious ending, the contest had already earned the title “The Body Bag Game.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, Cleveland head-hunting defensive backs have left the Steelers “a little” short handed at wide receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson in the NFL’s concussion protocol. That leaves James Washington, Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton he of the 13 targets and 1 catch.|

That leaves the cupboard more than a little bare, especially given that, either by design or by happenstance, tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett are afterthoughts in Randy Ficthner’s 2019 offense.

Situations like this typically elicit questions along the lines of “Why aren’t the Steelers doing more to beef up their wide receiver depth chart” on Bob Labriola’s “Asked and Answered.” To wit, Labriola’s response is, “There are not many experienced NFL wide receivers working in the insurance business.”

And while that’s generally true, there is a 27 year old NFL wide receiver with 30 NFL regular season games and four NFL playoff games under his belt. Moreover, this wide receiver knows the Steelers offense.

  • I’m of course talking about Eli Rogers, who played with the Steelers from 2016 until 2018.

The Steelers cut Eli Rogers just before the regular season shown no interest in bringing him back, although Rogers apparently contacted the Steelers early in the season offering his services, according to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly. The Steelers told him “they were busy and to go home.”

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

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

That was of course before the Steelers decided to cut Donte Moncrief and before they lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionate Johnson to the concussion protocol. However, those loses haven’t change the Steelers calculus because they signed Deon Cain to their active roster from the Indianapolis Colts active practice squad.

Deon Cain was a 6th round pick of the Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft and 7 games this season, his last appearance coming in the Colts loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. With that said, Deon Cain’s NFL resume is quite thin. He’s had 14 balls thrown his way but he’s only caught four of those for 52 yards giving him a catch rate of 28.6%.

For the record, Eli Rogers has caught 78 out of 116 passes thrown his way, for 822 yards, including 4 touchdowns and 39 first downs. Eli Roger’s career catch rate is 67.2% in the regular season and 78.3% in the playoffs.

As mentioned, Deon Cain’s last NFL action came in the Colts loss to the Steelers where he dropped both balls thrown his way. Eli Roger’s last NFL action came in the Steelers 2018 season-ending win over the Bengals, where he caught 9 of 7 passes thrown to him, including the last two.

Just Say’n….

Steelers Make Additional Roster Moves

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Pittsburgh’s lack of interest in bringing Eli Rogers back is their decision to put Ryan Switzer on injured reserved prior the Brown’s game. During training camp, the conventional wisdom was the Steelers would opt for Ryan Switzer or Eli Rogers, and Ben Roethlisberger was known to favor Eli Rogers.

  • So be it. Ryan Switzer’s on IR, Deon Cain is here and Eli Rogers isn’t coming back.

Neither is Roosevelt Nix, at least not in 2019, as the Steelers placed him on injured reserve prior to the Browns game. After the Browns game the Steelers added Kerrith Whyte Jr. to their active roster and parted ways with running back Tony Brooks-James and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott.

If the Steelers follow suit, Jayrone Elliott could be resigned to the practice squad as of today.

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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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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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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:

https://youtu.be/HsGf5XkKiF8?t=4

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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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver — Life Without Antonio Brown

The Steelers have boasted one of the most talented and productive receiving corps in the NFL in recent years, especially last season when both Antonio Brown and second-year sensation JuJu Smith-Schuster caught over 100 passes. But as the title of this article implies, Brown will not be on the team in 2019, thanks to his ugly and bitter divorce that ultimately resulted in a trade to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft choice.

In Smith-Schuster, who already has a Pro Bowl under his belt after also posting 1,426 receiving yards to go along with 111 catches, the question is, can he fill Brown’s very large shoes as the number weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense? Another question revolves around the receiving corps and whether or not Pittsburgh has enough weapons to complement Smith-Schuster.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, M.J. Stewart, Steelers vs Buchaneers, Steelers MNF win Buccaneers

JuJu Smith-Schuster stiff arms M.J. Stewart. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Wide-Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Lining up alongside Smith-Schuster as the number two receiver in 2019 is expected to be veteran Donte Moncrief, who Pittsburgh signed to a free agent deal in March. In five seasons in the NFL, Moncrief, 25, has 200 receptions for 2,543 yards and 21 touchdowns. Moncrief spent his first four seasons as a member of the Colts before signing a one-year deal with the Jaguars last offseason.

Despite playing in Jacksonville’s anemic passing offense that included Blake Bortles at quarterback, Moncrief managed to catch 48 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. He had his best season in 2014 with Indianapoli, reeling in 64 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns. This just so happened to be right before Andrew Luck was plagued by the injury bug. Beings that Luck has a quarterback pedigree much more in-line with Ben Roethlisberger, Moncrief may prove to be more productive for the Steelers.

Steelers Wide-Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

If any receiver figures to challenge Moncrief for the number two spot (at least prior to the draft), it’s second-year man James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State last year. However, to say Washington’s rookie season was underwhelming is, well, an understatement, as he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one touchdown. Late in the season, Eli Rogers made his return from the ACL tear he suffered in the divisional round loss to the Jaguars the previous January, appearing in three games and catching 12 passes for 79 yards.

But it was another young receiver who seemed to find a bit of a niche as a slot in Pittsburgh’s offense. I’m talking about Ryan Switzer, a return specialist that came to the Steelers in a trade with Oakland last summer. Switzer was targeted 44 times, catching 36 passes for 253 yards and a score. Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at receiver are virtual unknowns Ka’Raun White, Tevin Jones and Trey Griffey.

Steelers 2019 Wide-Receiver Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Thanks to the Steelers free agent activity where they addressed needs at cornerback, inside linebacker and receiver, this might be a year where Kevin Colbert’s annual axiom of “Best player available” is the way to go. If that happens to be receiver–and if there’s a player whose value at number 20 exceeds that of linebacker or corner–it wouldn’t be a huge shock if that’s the direction the team goes with pick number one.

After all, Smith-Schuster is really the only proven asset at receiver, and it’s paramount that the Steelers infuse their offense with as many weapons as possible in 2019. Therefore, the draft priority at receiver may accurately be described as Moderate-High

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

 

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Would be Right to Resign Eli Rogers

We begin this latest installment of our Steelers 2019 free agent focus by paying homage to the legendary Washington, DC Sports Radio personality, the late Ken Beatrice who often lamented to his listeners:

  • I offer my apologies for not having gone to law school to bring you the sports news.

And this was in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. We bring that up because it is not 100% clear that Eli Rogers as a free agent, as his contract was “tolled.” Whatever that means. But so was Ryan Shazier’s, and at one point word was that Shazier needed a new contract, but now that’s not so clear.

So we’re presuming that Eli Rogers is in fact a free agent that the Steelers must make a decision on.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

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

Capsule Profile of Eli Roger’s Steelers Career

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as a member of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. Fighting his way up a depth chart headed by Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of securing a roster spot appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire writer Neal Coolong went as far as to compare Rogers to a young Antonio Brown.

Shortly thereafter, injuries ruined Roger’s rookie season sending him to injured reserve.

In 2016 Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise by earning the slot receiver job. By the end of the season, Rogers served as Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had caught 48 passes, putting him behind only Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence and Martavis Bryant’s return diminished Eli Rogers offensive role. Although Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dipped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

  • Unfortunately, Eli Rogers tore his ACL in that game, and began 2018 on the PAP list.

Eli Rogers was activated for the Steelers final 3 games and clearly gave the offense a boost.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

How does 12 of 14 suit you? Those are Eli Roger’s catch-target numbers for the three games he played in 2019. Pittsburgh’s 2018 offense while potent, was missing something for much of the year.

That missing link was a third wide receiver. James Washington wasn’t quite ready to fill that role, and Justin Hunter was unable. While Ryan Switzer was a quality 4th wide out. It is going to be all hands on deck for the Steelers wide receiving corps as Pittsburgh looks to “replace” Antonio Brown.

Eli Rogers is never got to grow into an Antonio Brown type receiver, but he provides quality depth and has shown he came come up in big games, going 4-4 catching everything Ben Roethlisberger threw his way in his first action in the win over the Patriots.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

The Steelers are going to bring in another starting-caliber wide receiver, perhaps through the draft or perhaps via free agency – or perhaps using both channels. Assuming those players deliver as promised, does that really leave room for Eli Rogers on the Steelers 2019 roster?

Perhaps more importantly, does that justify investing precious salary cap dollars and signing bonus money in someone you might end up cutting in late August anyway?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

The Steelers clearly like Eli Rogers, having resigned him last summer when they knew he wasn’t going to contribute for most of the year. Rogers delivered as soon as his number was called, picking up right where he left off in the Jaguars debacle.

The Steelers should bring him back, and almost certainly they will.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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