Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.
James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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More Mile High Misery: 3 Turnovers Fuel Broncos 24-17 Win Over Steelers

Denver’s Mile High Stadium is the site of landmark Steelers victories such as the 1984 playoff upset of the Orange Crush and the 2005 AFC Championship win that paved the way for Super Bowl XL. But it is also the same venue where Steelers have suffered several agonizing defeats:

With that backdrop, Mike Tomlin’s 2018 Steelers traveled to Mile High Stadium and lost a hard fought game to the Denver Broncos to the tune of 24 to 17. And, like so many defeats before, what stings the worst about this loss is its self-inflicted nature.

 

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Steelers Sketch Game Narrative by Leaving 10 Points on the Board

Every football game tells its own story. In some games, the protagonists spontaneously interact against each other on the field leaving the outcome in doubt until the final bell. Last week’s win over the Jaguars offers a perfect example of that type of game.

  • The story of other games is formulaic, evolving like a plotted novel whose finale is predictable from the first page onward.

Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver was an example of that second type of game. The Steelers established the narrative in the contest’s first 16 minutes, and they kept going back to its familiar refrain until the bitter end.

  • On their very first possession, the Steelers marched down the field to the Broncos 30 where Justin Simmons blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.

The Broncos have been blocking kicks all season, and Justin Simmons has already blocked a field goal. Danny Smith knew this, but it still happened. Only 9:36 had elapsed in the game, and Steelers special team’s failures had already taken 3 points off the board.

The Broncos didn’t respond with anything spectacular, save for transforming a blown Jon Bostic coverage into a 29 yard gain, but they managed to kick a field goal without anyone from Pittsburgh touching it.

Ben Roethlisberger, mindful of the to need stay out of Von Miller’s sights, nickeled and dimed his way down the field with short passes to Jesse James and Ryan Switzer, until reaching Denver’s 27 where he hit Xaiver Grimble in the middle.

With most of the Broncos defense concentrated on the strong side of the Steelers offense, Grimble had a straight shot to the end zone. However, Will Parks arrived in time to hit him at the goal line and knocked the ball lose where it rolled out of bounds in the end zone. So it was touchback Denver instead of touchdown Pittsburgh.

The game was only 16 minutes old and the Steelers had left 10 points off the board.

Plot Twist: Fake Field Goal and Quick Strike TD Keep People in Their Seats

Even the most serialized Hollywood sitcom manages to provide enough plot twists to keep the audience in their seats, and so it was with the Steelers at Mile High. At the end of the first half the Steelers authored the first of two plot twisting teasers that they executed well enough to convince everyone that this was a game that might go off script.

  • After getting on the board with a field goal of their own, the Steelers then gave up an all-too easy 75 yard touchdown drive, putting themselves behind 0-3.

But, with just over 3 minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back, and proceeded to hit Vance McDonald and Ryan Switzer to bring the Steelers down to Denver’s 2 where the drive stalled. With little time remaining, Mike Tomlin opted to take the safe route and kick a short field goal going into the half.

  • Except the ball went directly to Chris Boswell who tossed a 2 yard strike to Alejandro Villanueva tying the score at 10.

The Steelers fireworks continued in the second half. After Denver pinned the Steelers deep into their own territory, Randy Fichtner opted to risk a pass from his own end zone, where Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster with a 97 yard touchdown pass, putting the Steelers up 17 to 10.

The Steelers defense limited Denver to just two yards on the next drive as Pittsburgh gave every appearance of a superior team that was faithfully playing its role by taking control of the game….

Steelers Stick to Self-Destructive Storyline Set in First Half

…Except that the Steelers of course weren’t the superior team on this afternoon as they quickly reverted to the storyline they’d set for themselves early in the game.

On the Steelers next possession, Ben Roethlisberger targeted but badly missed Antonio Brown. Chris Harris Jr. intercepted, and it only took the Denver Broncos two plays to get Emmanuel Sanders into the end zone for the tying score.

As the third quarter ended, the Steelers again moved into scoring position as James Conner reached the Denver 21 yard line, only to fumble the ball away to the Broncos. Denver fed the ball to Phillip Lindsay who the Steelers were powerless to stop, and the Broncos scored the go ahead touchdown to begin the 4th quarter.

  • Every good story has a convincing climax, and the Steelers latest moment of Mile High Misery is no exception.

Javon Hargrave got the end game sequence started with a sack of Case Keenum that forced a punt. Ben Roethlisberger got the ball with 4:26 left to go, and he moved the offense down the field in workman like fashion. The Steelers reached to the Broncos 3 just inside the 2 minute warning.

After an unsuccessful pass and a 1 yard run, on third and goal from the two, almost as if on cue, Ben Roethlisberger tried to force the ball to Antonio Brown and Shelby Harris ended the game with an interception.

The Steelers Mile High Misery is of Their Own Making

Of course a football game isn’t a novel or a TV show. Outcomes are never pre-ordained. Whenever pushed during the season to “speak in broad strokes” about some sort of tendency, Mike Tomlin will respond by insisting that “We are still writing our own story.”

  • And so it is, as it has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mile High Stadium.

While the Denver Broncos offense certainly revealed and then exploited a number of weaknesses within the Steelers defense, Pittsburgh’s offense was responsible for the defining plays in this contest.

  • And, as it does at Mile High, the Steelers offense provided the game’s defining moments by turning the ball over at critical moments.

This latest loss brings Pittsburgh record at Denver to 5-13. And like so many times before, the Steelers Mile High Misery is of their own making.

 

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You Want the Boz? Cough up a 2nd Round Pick. Steelers Tender Restricted Free Agent Chris Boswell

It is time. After close to two months rumblings, the rumors that have driven NFL story lines since the Eagles’s triumph in the Super Bowl are about to displaced by hard decisions. This includes the Steelers who are facing a number of decisions, and they have made one, albeit one with little drama.

  • Doing into free agency, there was little question as to whether the Steelers would tender restricted free agent Chris Boswell.

The only question surrounded what level tender the Steelers would offer Chris Boswell, their dependable place kicker. According to Adam Caplan the Steelers have placed a 2nd round tender on Chris Boswell:

What this means in practical terms is that the Steelers have offered a one year deal to Chris Boswell worth about 3 million dollars. If Boswell signs the tender he is bound to Pittsburgh for the 2018 season, restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed. So the Steelers could cut Boswell, as they did to Isaac Redman in 2013 who was playing on a restricted free agent tender when the Steelers cut him in October 2013.

Chris Boswell, Chris Boswell steelers restricted free agent, Steelers vs Packers

Steelers place 2nd round restricted free agent ender on Chris Boswell. LeClarie, USA Today, via Lindysports.com

However, Boswell is under no obligation to sign the tender and he and his agent are free to negotiate with other NFL teams. However, the Steelers would have the right to match any offer made to Boswell or, should they let him go, the signing team would have to give the Steelers a second round pick.

  • The move virtually ensures that Boswell will play in Pittsburgh during 2018.

A 2nd round pick is a lot to give up to get a kicker, although the Steelers did see New England extend an offer to Emmanuel Sanders when he was a restricted free agent in 2013, just as the San Diego Chargers did in 1993 when linebacker Jerrol Williams was a restricted free agent.

The Steelers chose to match Emmanuel Sanders offer and let Jerrol Williams walk, for those of you boning up on your Steelers free agent trivia.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Wide Reciever Coach Richard Mann Retires. Is Hines Ward a Wise Replacement?

In a move that has been anticipated for at least two years, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann has announced his retirement. And while Richard Mann might not have the profile of other position coaches, make no mistake about it, his presence will be missed.

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

Former Steelers WR coach Richard Mann offers instruction. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Go back to 2012 and the days when “Young Money” aka Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all the rage in Steelers Nation.

Together the threesome was supposed to form the most fearsome wide receiver trio the NFL has seen this side of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It made for excellent copy during the off season and training camp.

  • Then the games that counted started.

While the Steelers offense had a fairly strong start to 2012, the unit fell off the rails during the second half of the season. While an injury to Ben Roethlisberger took its toll, the value of “Young Money” was measured in pennies rather than dollars. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

  • After the season, Wide Receiver’s coach Scotty Montgomery, returned to coach at Duke, despite no position being associated with his hiring.

As The Watch Tower detailed at the time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued dueling stories by Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac offering starkly contrasting interpretations of events. Dulac’s story suggested the move was Montgomery’s and one made only with great reluctance. Bouchette’s suggested Tomlin had pushed Montgomery out, and reported that, absent Hines Ward, chaos had enveloped wide receivers room.

  • Mike Tomlin responded by coaxing Aliquippa native Richard Mann out of retirement.

That’s all one blogger needs to accept Ed Bouchette’s interpretation of what transpired in 2012. The Steelers don’t allow assistant coaches much contact with the media, but when Richard Mann spoke about 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton during the 2013 NFL Draft, the man positively exuded an aura of “Been there, done that.”

  • And you’d expect that from a man whose been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Ravens.

Mann also coached with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he first met Mike Tomlin, and the two forged a bond evident in the words the Steelers head coached used to praise Mann upon his retirement:

I had the pleasure of working with him 15 years ago at a different capacity. My appreciation for him really kind of started there. I was a younger assistant position coach, defensive backs. He was a more senior veteran wide receiver coach. Obviously, by the nature of the positions, we worked cooperatively together in training camp. I learned a lot from watching him coach his guys on the grass and off the grass. I was appreciative of him allowing me to do that. Often times in training camp like settings, we would watch the same video of our guys together. I could hear him make coaching points to his guys about what was happening on the video. He could hear me make coaching points with my guys about what was happening on the same video. It was just a unique learning environment

He’s always been a teacher and not resistant to sharing that expertise with others and that is why I’ve always gravitated towards him. Very accomplished coach. Maybe a lot of opportunities were not afforded to him because of the generation in which he rose through the ranks. I’m cognizant of that. I am appreciative of that. I realize some of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career is because of efforts and accomplishments of men like Richard Mann. I am appreciative on a lot of levels. Probably can’t eloquently describe that level of appreciation, but he is a special man and a special coach. One that has impacted me in a lot of ways.

Richard Mann made an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers staff. People forget, but Antonio Brown’s play dropped off late in the season to the point where their were wispers about whether the Steelers had erred in giving him a long-term deal.

No one says that anymore.

Mann of course, has had a role in mentoring players such as Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He will be missed.

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a candidate to replace Richard Mann. Ward has coached with the Steelers during training camp, and returned for a few stints during the regular season, and was present on the sideline during a number of games.

  • Hines Ward is a fan favorite and a franchise legend, but it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s a wise choice to replace Mann.

Former players returning as assistants always arrive with a sentimental cheer and such was the case each time Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter joined Mike Tomlin’s staff. And so it was with Joe Greene’s return to Chuck Noll’s staff in 1987 and Mike Mularkey’s return to Bill Cowher’s staff in 1996 (well maybe not on Mularkey.)

  • But, a wise fan will remember that Gerald Williams was the best defensive lineman during Joe Greene’s tenure.

If you don’t remember Gerald Williams, you’ve certainly heard his name, right? Well, you probably haven’t. Gerald Williams was a good player, but not a great player for the Steelers. True, Greene didn’t have a lot to work with (remember Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson, no? you’re lucky then) but he reportedly did lobby hard for the Steelers to pick Aaron Jones, who never amount to much more than a marginal starter.

Its perhaps a little harsh to judge position coaches by the development of their players – remember, Chuck Noll’s “Don’t over coach the kid” admonition to Dick Hoak about Franco Harris. But if William Gay and Keenan Lewis did improve under Carnell Lake, Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were clearly mistakes.

Dupree, after an OK start to the season, disappeared from the pass rush down the stretch, although were assured that he was “going into coverage a lot and doing well against the run.” Fair enough, but let’s remind everyone that “they” said the same thing about Jarvis Jones up until the day Mike Tomlin benched Jones in favor of Harrison.

Perhaps Hines Ward will serve as an exception, but thus far no other team is breaking down the door to offer Lake, Olsavsky or Porter opportunities to climb the coaching ladder.

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Ross Cockrell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Dan Rooney’s passing might have consumed the attention of Steelers Nation for the better part of six days but the business of football continues. On Monday Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell signed his one year tender, ending any possibility that he would defect away from Pittsburgh.

  • The news comes with the proverbial glass half-empty half-full catch.

On the one hand, Ross Cockrell has made tremendous strides since the Steelers claimed him off of waviers in August 2015. So it is good that to know that he his continues on his upward trajectory the Steelers will benefit, at least for another season.

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

Ross Cockrell brings down his first interception in the Steelers September loss to the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the flip side, there’s the simple fact that 31 other NFL teams, many of which are flush with salary cap space, didn’t think enough of his current talent or “upside” to part with a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to secure his services.

  • What’s a law abiding citizen of Steelers Nation to conclude?

It says here that Ross Cockrell returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a good thing. When Ross Cockrell arrived in Pittsburgh, the common response was “Who?”

On the face of it, the fact that the Steelers picked a player who’d been waived in the first round of training cuts made it appear like the Steelers were continuing to try to fill their need at cornerback on the cheap, as they’d done with the Brice McCains, Antwon Blakes and Brandon Boykins.

  • But as Bob Labriola cautioned on Asked and Answered, its hard to judge a DB soley on tape because you don’t know what he’s being asked to do.

The wisdom came from the late Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout, and had Nunn lived to see Cockrell play, he’d have been proud, as Cockrell made two interceptions as a rookie and recovered the fumble that Ryan Shazier caused in the 2015 AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, enabling Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback.

The Steelers promoted Cockrell to starter in 2016, and while he did not come away with any interceptions, he did have 14 defensed passes, including a key one in the December win over the Bengals.

A lot of critics suggested the Steelers were low balling Ross Cockrell by only giving him an original round tender, and many suggested that this signified that they the franchise really didn’t regard him as starter material. That may be the case, but the Steelers actual risk factor was low, as they retained the right of first refusal.

The gamble they made with Cockrell really was no different than the ones they made with Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon in 2013.

  • Both men returned to start, and both men remain starters in Denver and New York.

Ross Cockrell returning to the Steelers is a decidedly half full proposition for Pittsburgh. Had the Steelers lost him, they’d almost have been forced to take a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft as Artie Burns has only played on year, William Gay is fading and newly signed Coty Sensabaugh remains unproven.  After that, the Steelers cornerback cupboard is pretty thin – unless you’re ready to count on Senquez Golson.

The Steelers should and probably will take a cornerback with one of their first 3 if not first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but having Ross Cockrell back for a year relieves Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin of the need to reach.

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

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Return on Investment? Steelers Sign Knile Davis to as Kick Returner, Backup Running Back

Bargain hunting continued on Pittsburgh’s South Side Monday as the Steelers signed Knile Davis, a free agent running back who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Knile Davis is listed as a running back, but the Steelers are eyeing him primarily as a kick returner, a specialist position which the franchise has struggled to fill for most of the Mike Tomlin Era.

Knile Davis, Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Spence tackles Knile Davis as Jarvis Jones arrives a second too late. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers Wire

To put the matter into perspective, the last time the Steelers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown as in the 2010’s game against the Tennessee Titans, when Antonio Brown took a reverse and ran it all the way in.

The only Steelers kick returners who’ve returned more than 10 kicks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure to remotely approach an average of 25 yards per return are Stephan Logan, Markus Wheaton, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

  • In just four seasons, Knile Daivs has already returned 73 kicks for a total of 1920 yards, for a 26.8 yard average for two touchdowns.

Given that a touchback now results in the ball being spotted at the 25 yard line, having a kick returner who can routinely better that marks a welcome addition to the return team. (For the record Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey were the only returners during the Tomlin era to average more than 25 yards.)

Now Knile Davis Impacts the Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back

Le’Veon Bell remains the uncontested Alpha Male atop the Steelers running back depth chart, and the unsigned status of DeAngelo Williams might suggest that the he’s been replaced by Knile Davis. Davis would certainly like coaches to see it that way as indicated by his statement to reporters:

I feel like they are confident I can (complement Bell). I’ve had to fill in before. I’ve had 100-yard games in this league. I’ve done well in this league, and I’m prepared for whatever comes in the future.

That’s a little bold, but healthy nonetheless or the new arrival. However, if press reports are any indication, the Steelers primarily interest in Knile Davis is as a kick returner, not as a running back. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald Toussaint has been put on notice that he will need to defend his roster spot at St. Vincents next summer.

The Steelers tried to work Toussaint in at kick returner last year, but without much effect. And while Knile Davis’ 3.2 rushing average isn’t much to write home about it is better that Fitzgerald Toussaint’s career average of 2.9.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Knile Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

He played in Kansas City for three seasons until the Chiefs traded him to Green Bay for a seventh-round draft pick in October 2016. But Davis didn’t remain a Cheesehead for long, as the Packers cut him after two games. He spent one day on the New York Jets’ roster before re-signing with Kansas City.

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

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

Sammie Coates, Sammie Coates drop, steelers trade antonio brown

Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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Ryan Shazier Wins Steelers Thanksgiving Honors for 2016 – Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Thanksgiving has arrived!. Today may mark the 15th straight Thanksgiving that I have celebrated in Buenos Aires, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either meant a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives in Pittsburgh.

  • Pennsylvania Turnpike notwithstanding, either event was a welcome occurrence, and truth be told, something I’ve missed as an adult.

During high school those Thanksgiving trips gave me the chance to read a week’s worth of accumulated Pittsburgh Press and Post Gazette coverage of the Steelers. In those pre-internet days, that was like Christmas come early.

The days of having to rely in imported printed copies Ed Bouchette to follow the Steelers are long over. For 7 years running now Steel Curtain Rising has been publishing an annual column highlighting reasons for Steelers Nation to give thanks. Here is how our Steelers Thanksgiving honors series has gone so far:

2009 – Saw Rashard Mendenhall win Steelers Thanksgiving honors
2010Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Al Everest shared the honors
2011 Antonio Brown won Steelers Thanksgiving honors hands down
2012 – Attention turned to the emergence of Keenan Lewis
2013 – Stud in the making Cameron Heyward earned recognition
2014 – Honors went to Le’Veon Bell for his emergence as an All-Pro running back
2015 Steelers understudies earned Thanksgiving honors

Its also satisfying that even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight there’s no reason to regret any of our“ Steelers Thanksgiving honors” shout outs. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall might not have blossomed into the “franchise” running back he was picked to become, but Mendenhall played a huge role in getting the Steelers to the Super Bowl a year later.

Maurkice Pouncey has won Pro Bowl honors for each year he’s been healthy, Emmanuel Sanders is a first rate NFL wide out, and most fans would exchange Al Everest for Danny Smith as Steelers special teams coach. Antonio Brown is simply the best there is. Keenan Lewis did depart in free agency but honestly, have the Steelers had better play at cornerback since Keenan Lewis left?

Cameron Heyward has grown into the dominant player and leader on and off the field everyone thought he would be back at Thanksgiving 2013, and Le’Veon Bell is probably the most complete back in the NFL. And one year later, the 2015 contributions of DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Alejandro Villanueva and Cody Wallace look no less important to what the team accomplished a year ago.

With that in mind, we now turn our attention to this years Steelers Thanksgiving honors award.

Ryan Shazier Wins 2016 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

It’s become cliché, but when the 2014 NFL Draft arrived the only question about the Steelers top choice was “Which cornerback will Pittsburgh take?” Of course the Steelers wanted Justin Gilbert (perhaps its good they didn’t get him), but when he wasn’t there, they shocked everyone (except Jim Wexell) by picking Ryan Shazier.

Given that the Steelers had Lawrence Timmons, and rising youngsters Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, the moved struck many as a head scratcher.

  • Two and a half seasons later, no one who understands football should question the move.
Ryan Shazier, Josh McCown

Ryan Shazier sacks Josh McCown in the Steelers 2016 win over the Browns at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com

Josh McCown of the Cleveland Browns certainly understands why Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau called Shazier’s number in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sure Shazier has spent more time than you’d like to see on the trainer’s table, but football is a violent sport. Sure Shazier might trail C.J. Mosley, who the Ravens took 2 picks later, in terms of sacks an interceptions.

But in addition to his uncanny athleticism, Ryan Shazier has shown that uncanny playmaking ability that paves the way for greatness:

While a lot of fans are down on Shazier, the simple fact is that he’s only broaching the beginnings of what he can do. This kid still has plenty of upside.

So for 2016, Steel Curtain Rising awards its Steelers Thanksgiving honors to Ryan Shazier, as he give Steelers Nation reason to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Of course Thanksgiving is never been about football (although I do painfully remember the Thanksgiving day Massacre of 1983). It’s about things that are far more fundamentally important for life. Family, friends and faith.

  • Our sincere hope here at Steel Curtain Rising is anyone and everyone who reads this has reasons to give thanks that have nothing to do with either football or the Steelers.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in Steelers Nation.

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Looking @ the Steelers Thanksgiving Record – Can Pittsburgh Break the Turkey Day Curse?

The NFL is “honoring” the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 8th time by putting them in the national spotlight on Thanksgiving Day. Given the Steelers Thanksgiving record, one can imagine Art Rooney II saying a heartfelt “Thanks but no thanks” the next time the NFL offers them a turkey day slot.

Here is a look at the Steelers Thanksgiving record that has made for many a memorable turkey day that most of Steelers Nation Wish they could forget.

steelers thanksgiving record, steelers thanksgiving history, le'veon bell, le'veon bell concussion ravens, steelers ravens thanksgiving

Le’Veon Bell loses his helmet in the Steelers 2013 Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Matt Hafley, Post-Gazette

Pre-Noll Era Steelers Thanksgiving Record 1-2

The Steelers played the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving Day in 1939 and 1940. The Pittsburgh Pirates, as they were still known then, lost to the Eagles on Thanksgiving in 1939 17-14. In 1940 the newly renamed Steelers had no better luck, losing to the Eagles 7-0.

The Steelers would have to wait another ten years, including their World War II stint as the Steagles, before playing on Thanksgiving Day. However, the NFL matched the Steelers up with the Chicago Cardinals on Thanksgiving day in 1950 and Pittsburgh prevailed led by Joe Geri’s 101 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 3 extra points.

1983 – The Thanksgiving Day Massacre

November 24th, 1983 @ The Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 45, Pittsburgh 3

The 1983 Steelers had played the entire season without Terry Bradshaw, but despite that Cliff Stoudt combined with a defense that looked to be Super Bowl caliber had given the Steelers a 9-3 record and command of the AFC Central Division heading into their Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit. Detroit for its part was only 6-6.

As defensive coordinator Woody Widenhoffer admitted later, the Steelers weren’t prepared. And then some:

  • At the time, it was the Steelers worst loss in 36 years.

Cliff Stoudt threw 4 interceptions Mark Malone threw 1, Franco Harris gained 16 yards on 5 carries as both Harris and Walter Abercrombie’s combined totals were less than Frank Pollard’s. Meanwhile, Bill Sims looked like genetic fusion between Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, and Eric Hipple looked like Johnny Unitas.

The Steelers would lose the following week in Cincinnati. The week after it would take the last throws left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm to left them over the Jets as the Steelers stumbled into the playoffs where the LA Raiders quickly eliminated them.

1991 – Joe Walton Fails the Steelers. Again.

November 28th, 1991 @ Texas Stadium
Dallas 20, Pittsburgh 10

Considering that Dallas went to the playoffs and won a game and followed the next season with a Super Bowl Championship, one might wonder why this game was close at all. But it was.

  • And in many ways it symbolized all that was wrong with the Joe Walton era of the Steelers offense.

The Steelers still had a talented defense that had finished number 1 overall in 1990, led by players such as Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. It still had the offensive core that had led the rallies that fueled the 1989 Steelers improbable run. But unfortunately, Chuck Noll’s last hire was his worst one, as he’d name Joe Walton his offensive coordinator and gave him total control.

The Steelers defense kept the Dallas Cowboys to 13 points until late into the third quarter, when Warren Williams narrowed the score to three.

  • Alas, Steve Beuerlein to Michael Irvin pass put the gave the Cowboys a 10 point lead.

And under Joe Walton’s offense, Neil O’Donnell couldn’t muster more than 167 yards, and no other skill player could break the 60 yard mark. In other words, in those days 10 points was far too much to overcome in a quarter.

1998 – The Phil Luckett Coin Flip Thanksgiving Day Fiasco

November 26th @ the Pontiac Silverdome
Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16

For as bad as 1983’s Thanksgiving Day Massacre was, the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster is standard by which every disappointment on the Steelers Thanksgiving record will be judged because it signified the end of an era.

The 1998 Steelers had had their ups and downs. Without a doubt, this Steelers team was missing something and Kordell Stewart clearly lacked the mojo he’d shown in the season before. But these 1998 Steelers had authored enough Tease Games – convincing wins over serious contenders – to give fans legitimate hope Bill Cowher’s boys could pull it together for a deep playoff run.

The scenario for the 1998 Steelers Thanksgiving Day game had all the trimmings for one of The Chin’s late season surges. The Steelers were fresh off a win at home over the division leading Jacksonville Jaguars and took a 7-4 record to Detroit. Jerome Bettis’ parents even had the entire team over for Thanksgiving dinner the night before.

  • It was not to be.

The Steelers played a sloppy game filled with blown coverages and easily catchable balls that receivers dropped. Nonetheless they opened a 13-3 lead in the third quarter, only to see the Lions kick a field goal, followed by a Charlie Batch to Herman Moore hook up that tied the score. Jacksonville added another 3 and the Steelers had to fight to get into position for a Norm Johnson field goal to tie the game.

  • Carnell Lake and Jerome Bettis approached midfield, called tails, the coin landed on tails but referee Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions as Detroit’s captains struggled to suppress their laughter.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers Thanksgiving Record, steelers thanksgiving coin flip, phil luckett

Jerome Bettis clearly called tails, but Phil Luckett said he heard “heads” in the infamous Thanksgiving Day Coin Flip. Photo Credit: USA Today For the Win

The Lions got into scoring position thanks to another Herman Moore reception that came at Carnell Lake’s expense. A ticky tacky face mask penalty gave Detroit even more yards as they kicked the overtime field goal for the win.

The loss knocked the wind out of the 1998 Steelers sails, who would go on to lose their next 4 games. The Pittsburgh Steelers had been contenders since Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began in 1992, but that era ended on Thanksgiving Day 1998 in Detroit.

2013 – The Tomlin Two-Step and the Failed 2 Pointer

November 28th @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20

Outside of Pittsburgh, everyone remembers this game because of Mike Tomlin’s sideline two-step, but inside Steelers Nation this one was a heart breaker – not because the Steelers played poorly, but because they played so well. The 2013 Steelers had of course started at 0-4 and the 2-6 yet had clawed their way back to 5-6. A win vs. the Ravens would have restored the Steelers record to .500 and put Pittsburgh within striking distance of the AFC North title.

  • Alas, it was not to be.

The Ravens scored a quick touchdown, but the Steelers defense held Baltimore to field goals for the rest of the night. The Steelers offense stalled during the first half, but in the second half Le’Veon Bell and Emmanuel Sanders scored touchdowns, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller 9 times.

With time expiring the Steelers moved into scoring position:

  • Ben Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for 19 yards and an apparent touchdown. Overturned on replay.
    Le’Veon Bell rammed it in from the one. Overturned on replay because his helmet slipped off as he was being concussed.
  • Two plays later Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone…
  • ….but the two point conversion failed.

The Steelers tried an on-sides kick, but failed and the Ravens ran out the clock. While this loss was disappointing, it was Steelers-Ravens slugfest in the truest sense of the word.

Can the Steelers  break their Thanksgiving Day curse vs. the Colts in 2016? Time will tell.

2016 – Snapping the Turkey Day Curse

November 24th, 2016 @ Lucas Oil Stadium
Pittsburgh 28, Indianapolis 7

The Steelers snapped a 66 year Thanksgiving Day losing streak with a convincing win over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Steelers triplets, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown led the team to a quick 14 point first quarter lead. Indianapolis would score a touchdown early in the 2nd quarter to cut the Steelers lead to seven, but the Steelers would score before the half, before putting the game out of reach in the 4th quarter with another Antonio Brown touchdown.

  • While the Killer Bees were in fine form on this night, the story of the game came in the contributions from the supporting cast.

Eli Rogers set up the first score with a 30 yard reception, while Ladarius Green penned a good portion of his 15 minutes of fame with the Steelers by setting up Pittsburgh’s 3rd and 4th touchdowns with “field flipping” 32 and 35 yard receptions.

  • This is also the game where Keith Butler’s boys began turning into men.

2016 did not start well for the Steelers defense, culminating in a humiliating last-minute defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys two weeks prior to this game.

However, William Gay and James Harrison helped force early punts with sacks, while Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell (no, that’s not a misprint) Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt came up a combined 8 critical stops on the goal line as Colt’s coach Chuck Pagano went for all the marbles twice and came up short both times.

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Did the Steelers Underutilize Matt Spaeth’s Pass Catching Skills? – No That’s Not a Trick Question Steelers Nation

If news of the Steelers releasing tight end Matt Spaeth surprised, the articles themselves were predictable: Each and every article, at some point, defined Matt Spaeth as a “blocking tight end.”

  • And the tape tells no lies: Matt Spaeth primarily played as a blocking tight end

But is it also fair to ask: Were Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills underutilized? No Steelers Nation, that’s not a rhetorical question, but rather a serious one.

Matt Spaeth, pass catch, touchdown, steelers vs. packers, lambeau field

Matt Spaeth catches a touchdown @ Lambeau Field in 2014. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6’7” 260 pound tight end promised to offer Ben Roethlisberger a tantalizingly tall target. And early on it looked like he would do just that. In his first four career games, Matt Spaeth caught four passes, and three of them were for touchdowns.

  • Despite his strong start, Spaeth’s role as a pass catcher never evolved, as the 6’7” tight end’s pass catching production peaked in 2008 at 17 catches on 26 targets.

Still, when Matt Spaeth was heading towards free agency in 2015, an analysis of his passing stats suggested the Steelers should call his number more:

matt spaeth, career receiving stats, spaeth pass catching, touchdown catches

Do numbers lie? Matt Spaeth caught most of the balls thrown his way.

  • Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley never got the memo.

During 2015, Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones only targeted Matt Spaeth three times. For the record, Spaeth caught 2 out of three of those passes for 10 yards, but honestly that doesn’t tell us much. Nor, honestly speaking, does his career target-to-catch ratio of 63.2% suggest much because the sample is so small.

Still, using analysis done to document Heath Miller’s dependability in the passing game, you can see how Matt Spaeth compares to other Steelers pass catchers since 2005:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

Spaeth’s dependability as a pass catcher is on par with Antwaan Randle El and just below Hines Ward, while better than Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant and Nate Washington.

Matt Spaeth “Just catches Touchdowns….”

While Spaeth’s pass catching production might fail to reach statistical relevance, it does tell us reveal something else:

  • Matt Spaeth excelled at catching touchdowns.

Matt Speath’s catch-to-touchdown ratio is 18.2%. In otherwords, almost one of ever five passes Matth Spaeth caught went for a touchdown. Only Martavis Bryant has been better and only three others have numbers in double digits. Yes, the small sample size perhaps distorts things a bit, but it does prove that when the ball got near Matt Spaeth when things were most important, he generally made a catch.

  • All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers target Matt Spaeth more in the passing game?

The easiest, and most likely correct answer, is that Spaeth dropped a lot of passes in practice. That idea is supported by the fact that Spaeth’s most prolific pass catching spell came during 2010, when he started several games for after Heath Miller suffered a devastating concussion vs. the Ravens. During that season, Speath only caught 9 of the 18 balls thrown his way, and didn’t score any touchdowns.

  • Still, if that is the case, why would the Steelers call Spaeth’s number so frequently in the Red Zone?

Steelers Nation will never know the answer for sure. But the numbers certainly suggest that Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills were underutilized during his time with the Steelers. Even if that is true, that fact would fail to alter one fundamental fact: Matt Spaeth blocked incredibly well.

Although Le’Veon Bell dazzled as a rookie, his performance as pure rusher remained in consistent, and deep into December, Bell had still failed to break the 100 yard rushing mark. That change just before Christmas at Lambeau Field when Bell romped for 124 yards, which was also Matt Spaeth’s 3rd game back from injured reserve.

That’s no coincidence, although if you’re wondering, that Green Bay game also saw Matt Spaeth’s 2nd and final target of the season – which he caught for a touchdown….

…Steel Curtain Rising thanks Matt Speath for his service in Pittsburgh, and wishes him well on his next NFL stop and/or retirement.

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