Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Name T.J. Watt MVP for 2019, Highlighting Balance of Power Shift from Offense to Defense

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the year by voting T.J. Watt as the MVP for the 2019 season, a move that was widely expected and an honor that is richly deserved.

Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider writer Matt C. Steel described T.J. Watt as a “unicorn” in terms of his ability to be the type of outside linebacker who could both pressure the passer and work in coverage.

At the time, the Steelers were coming off of the 2016 season, which had been saved, in part by Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison in his place.

James Harrison made an immediate impact in terms of pressuring the passer and setting the edge, but his limited ability to cover receivers down the field became brutally apparent in the Steelers loss to the Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game. (To be fair, James Harrison was far from the only player who had his limitations exposed that day.)

OK, to be objective a look at the 29 players taken ahead of T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft does reveal some players who were picked ahead of him, but it is also safe to say the number of General Managers who’d like that draft pick is probably measured in the 20’s.

T.J. Watt made an immediate impact as a rookie, logging 7 sacks and making 1 interception. In his second season he exploded for 13 sacks and added 6 forced fumbles. With one game to play in the 2019 season, T.J. Watt already has 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 34 hits to the quarterback.

Those statistics are excellent, but they fail to capture the true value that T.J. Watt brings to the Steelers defense.

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets, T.J. Watt 2019 Steelers MVP, Steelers 2019 MVP

Plays like this strip-sack of Sam Daronold are why T.J. Watt is the Steelers 2019 MVP. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great defensive players don’t simply make great plays. They change games by making them at critical moments. Think:

T.J. Watt has delivered this level of playmaking to the Steelers throughout 2019. To see a recent example, look no further back than last week against the Jets. Mason Rudolph had just come off the bench for Devlin Hodges and gotten the Steelers on the board near with 1:22 left to play.

The Jets remained aggressive, and got to midfield with 0:36 when T.J. Watt hit Sam Daronold with one of his patented strip-sacks. 5 plays later and Mason Rudolph was hooking up with Diontae Johnson to tie the game.

There’s no better example of T.J. Watt’s timely playmaking, a tendency which was on display throughout the season.

T.J. Watt MVP Selection Highlights Shift in Balance of Power of Steelers Roster

T.J. Watt’s selection as Steelers MVP should surprise no one. While the Steelers don’t reveal the vote tally, it is likely that Watt’s closest competition was Minkah Fitzpatrick.

And assuming that’s the case, this highlights a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the Steelers roster. The Steelers are an organization that prides themselves on defense, but T.J. Watt’s 2019 MVP selection marks the first time a defensive player has earned those honors since Troy Polamlau won it in 2010.

The winners through the rest of the decade alternated between Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with Heath Miller winning in 2012 and JuJu Smith-Schuster winning last year. While Cam Heyward would have been a worthy winner in 2017, the Steelers MVP choices accurately reflect a decade dominated by offense and book-ended by stout defense.

Congratulations to T.J. Watt for being the Steelers 2019 MVP.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs The New York Jets

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets are two teams that share little history. They’ve only played 25 times. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers and Saints have played 17 times.

  • For the record, the Steelers own a 20-5 advantage over the Jets, 10-1 at home and 10-4 in New York

What the Steelers and Jets history might lack in quantity is made up in quality. Many meetings between these two teams have been steeped in significance, although that fact wasn’t always eveident at the time.

Click on the links below or scroll down to relive some of the key moments in Steelers-Jets History.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

1969 – Super Bowl III, The Most Important Steelers Game in History – Not Involving the Steelers?

“I Guarantee Victory” – Joe Namath, prior to Super Bowl III

You know the story. The NFL and AFL were merging, and the brash young quarterback of the upstart New York Jets guaranteed victory despite being an 18 point underdog.

The Jets took an early lead, Don Shula of course waited too long to put Johnny Unitas in, and the biggest upset in Super Bowl history was on.

On the Colts sidelines that day was a young assistant named Charles Henry Noll. Who knows what happens if the Colts win? Does the added notoriety lead to a better offer for Chuck Noll? Does perhaps stick around hoping to repeat? We’ll never know. One thing we do know is this:

  • Noll learned that the Colts were too tense prior to Super Bowl III felt it cost them the game.

Chuck Noll avoided the same mistakes when he led the Steelers to Super Bowl IX. The rest, as we say, is history.

1983 – The End of Eras

December 10, 1983, Shea Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, New York 7

A moment far more bitter than sweet for Steelers fans. The Steelers snapped a three game losing streak, but the price, as Myron Cope would write a decade later, was “the last throws that were left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm.”
Bradshaw opened with a pass touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity and followed with another touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney. And that was it.

  • Not just for the game. Not just for the season. But forever.

It was the last NFL game at Shea Stadium. It was the last pass of the last game of Terry Bradshaw’s career. It was the last time the remnants of the Super Steelers would ever contend.

Too many eras ended that day.

1988 – So Far, Yet So Close

October 10, 1988, Giants Stadium
New York 24, Pittsburgh 20

The 1988 Steelers had started 1-6, but on the previous week, led by Rodney Carter, Gary Anderson and Rod Woodson, the Steelers had thumped the Broncos to snap a six game losing streak. Could Chuck Noll’s boys make it two in a row?

The Steelers jumped to a 10-0 lead but, as was the case many times during the 1988 season, the Steelers saw that lead evaporate in the second half.

1989 – The Shadow (and Promise) of Things to Come

December 10, 1989, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 13, Jets 0

Steel Curtain Rising discussed this Steelers-Jet’s match up in the tribute to the 1989 Steelers, celebrating Greg Lloyd’s announcement to the NFL that he was a force to be reckoned with, as he knocked Pat Ryan out of the game, caught an interception, and WWE-style three counted a concussed Al Toon.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Jet’s fans jeered “Joe Must Go!” calling for their coaches head. Joe did go.

Unfortunately he arrived in Pittsburgh; hiring Joe Walton became Chuck Noll’s fateful mistake.

1990 – IF Only this Could Have Been a Divisional Game…

November 25, 1990, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Jets 7

This victory was sandwiched in between losses to the Cincinnati Bengals. The 1990 Steelers would finish 9-7. Unfortunately, only one of those victories came against an AFC Central team.

One more divisional win would have put the Steelers into the playoffs….

1992 – Cowher Power’s Second Victory – Barry “Bananas” Foster Romps

September 13, 1992, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s Steelers shocked the NFL in defeating the Oilers the week before. Chris Berman remained unconvinced, predicting that Brownie Nagel would lead the Jets to victory.

  • Barry Foster had other ideas, as he ran for a then team record 190 yards.

The Steelers revival under Bill Cowher was was on!

2000 – Vinny Testaverde – New Uniform, Same Result

October 8, 2000, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 23, New York 3

The Steelers had tormented Vinny Testaverde in Tampa, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Would things be different in New York?

Afraid not. One week after upsetting the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that set the tone for a decade, the Steelers showed they were for real. The Steelers did not intercept Testaverde because he got only one pass off before getting knocked out of the game.

2001 – Hines Ward’s First 10 Catch, 100 Yard Game

December 6, 2001, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 18, New York 7

It is hard to believe that the Steelers had one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and it is hard to believe that his name is Hines Ward. The previous week the Steelers had lost Jerome Bettis, who had been dominating the league in rushing, and were in need of leadership.

Hines Ward delivered posting his first 10 catch game while breaking the 100 yard barrier for the first time.

2003 – 40 Passes, in the Snow….?

December 14, 2003, Giants Stadium
New York 6, Pittsburgh 0

Ok, it was 38 passes not 40, but the Meadowlands are a difficult place to throw in December, let alone in a blinding snow storm. That didn’t stop Mike Mularkey from throwing the ball, which did stop the Steelers from winning.

During the next draft that proved to be one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser non-decisions

Jerome Bettis broke Franco Harris record that day, causing Mike Prisuta to plead for the Steelers to part ways with the Bus. 1,309 yards and 22 touchdowns and a Super Bowl later, Bettis would prove Prisuta wrong.

2004 – Regular Season – Rookie Roethlisberger’s 11th Victory

December 12, 2004, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 17, New York 6

The Jet’s played this one closer than the score might indicate, as Curtis Martin crossed the 13,000 yard barrier, marking the first time that 13,000 rushers faced off against each other.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger won his 11th consecutive game, in route to setting the rookie record.

2004 Playoffs – Steelers Football at Its Best: Pure Power Rushing Carries the Day

January 15, 2005, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 20, New York 17

People remember this as the game where Ben Roethlisberger started playing like a rookie. They remember it for the Jet’s Doug O’Brien missing 2 field goals that cost his team the game. But the real beauty of the game was the effort put forth by the Steelers running back crops.

  • Jerome Bettis ran 27 times 101 yards and a TD
  • Duce Staley ran 11 times for 54 yards

That might not be an overwhelming total, but both backs had to come out due to injuries at critical times, and the Steelers ability to beat the Jets into submission with two power rushers was a sight to remember.

2007 – Tomlin’s First True “Trap” Game?

November 18, 2007, Giants Stadium
New York 19, Pittsburgh 16

During Mike Tomlin’s rookie season the knock on him was that his Steelers “played down to the competition.” No where was this more apparent than against the Jets. New York was 1-9 in route to 4-12, but the Steelers struggled all day, as Bob Ligashesky’s special teams gave up a 33 yard punt return that allowed the Jets to send the game into overtime where they won by a field goal.

2010 – Jets Out Fox Steelers

December 19th, 2010, Heinz Field
New York 22, Pittsburgh 17

The New York Jets stumbled into this game and seemed prime for the picking. However, Al Everett’s special teams, which had been a strength all season long, gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Steelers fought back with a workman like performance and tied the game at the half.

  • But the miscues continued in the 2nd half.

First Mark Sanchez scored on a 7 yard bootleg after the rest of the Jets offense executed a perfect play fake up the middle. Then Sanchez faked a perfect drop back while LaDainian Tomlinson took a direct snap that converted a third down and burned previous time off of the clock. Rex Ryan’s Jets outfoxed the Steelers.

Finally, when the Steelers were trying to mount a come back Jason Taylor ran unblocked on a tackle of Mewelde Moore, giving the Jets a safety at the 2:38 moment.

2010 AFC Championship – Steelers Defeat Jets, Head to Super Bowl XLV

Sunday January 23rd, 2011, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 24, New York 19

It was a tail of two halves. During the game’s first 3 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers played two of the best quarters of football in franchise playoff history. Running back Rashard Mendenhall took over the game in the first half, running for 97 of his 120 yards during the game’s first 3 minutes.

Rahsard Mendenhall, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Rashard Mendenhall had a career game vs the Jets. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via ESPN

Ben Roethlisberger capped off the Steelers offense’s scoring run at the 2:00 warning of the first half, putting the Steelers up 17-0. 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor strip-sacked Mark Sanchez and William Gay recovered the ball and put the Steelers up 24-0.

The Jets, to their credit, managed to get on the board with a field goal before the half, but it only appeared to be window dressing at the time…

  • Except it wasn’t. That Nick Folk field goal sparked a 19 point New York rally.

In the second half, New York harassed Ben Roethlisberger relentlessly, and shut down Rashard Mendenhall. On offense a 45 yard strike to Santonio Holmes started the scoring for the Jets, followed by a safety and a Jerricho Cotchery scored in the bottom half of the 4th quarter.

  • Unfortunately for the Jets, the safety was set up by a failed 4th and goal attempt at the 1.

Those two series gave New York 9 points when it needed 14, and left Pittsburgh with the ball with 2:56 left to play. That series saw Ben Roethlisberger connect on his first two consecutive passes of the afternoon, first hooking up with Heath Miller for 14 yards on 2nd and 9 and then hitting rookie Antonio Brown for 14 on 3rd and 6.

Going into the game, Peter King had profiled how Rex Ryan had implored his General Manager to get him the players he needed to get past the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs. Rex Ryan fulfilled his goal, and so did the Steelers who were AFC Champions and off to Super Bowl XLV.

2012 – Steelers Workman Like Effort Rebounds from Opening Day Loss

September 16th, 2012, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

The Steelers had open the 2012 season severing as fodder for Peyton Manning’s debut with the Broncos in a defeat raised troubling questions about the Steelers defense. And the defense didn’t do much to answer those as the Jets put 10 points on the board quickly while the Steelers offense could only manage two 45 yard Shaun Suisham field goals.

But the Steelers defense kept the Jets off the board for the entire 2nd half, while Ben Roethlisberger led 3 clock consuming drives that ended with Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman touchdowns.

2013 – Steelers Snap 0-4 Start

October 13, 2013, MetLife Stadium
Pittsburgh 19, New York 6

The Steelers started 2013 by going 0-4, the franchise’s worst start since Bill Austin’s tenure in 1968. Unfortunately, as their game against the Jets began, things looked startlingly familiar as the Steelers lost a player during warm ups, lost tight end David Johnson early on, failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger and started each drive deep in their own territory.

But Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward in his debut as an official starter, helped force Jets to settle for field goals after a long drive. The Steelers then assembled 3 straight Shaun Suisham field goal drives.

Ben Roethlsiberger and Emmanuel Sanders added a touchdown to open the 2nd half, and just when the Jets looked to make it competitive again, Ryan Clark netted the first turn of the season. When the dust settled the Steelers finished with a 19 to 6 victory which, while not impressive, did get Pittsburgh in the win column for the first time in 2013.

2014 – Another Tomlin Team Gets Tripped up in Trap Game

November 9th 2014, MetLife Stadium
New York 20, Pittsburgh 13

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their two year playoff drought in 2014 but it took and up and down ride to get there. Sure, the Steelers noticed some impressive wins, like the victory over the Ravens in Joe Greene’s Jersey retirement game, but also struggled against inferior teams.

  • And the loss to the Jets is probably the best, or worst example of that.

After giving up a field goal on the opening drive, the Steelers could do nothing on their first procession, allowing Mike Vick to hook up with T.J. Graham for a 67 yard touchdown on the Jets next play from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger responded by hooking up with Antonio Brown who promptly fumbled away the ball at Pittsburgh’s 21. It only took Mike Vick 6 plays to hook up with Jace Amaro for 5 yards.

  • The first quarter wasn’t even over, and the Steelers were down 17 to 0.

Things didn’t get much better for the Steelers, who saw Ben Roethlisberger throw a Red Zone interception on their next possession. The Steelers defense held the Jets to just one field goal on the rest of the day, but Steelers offense could only muster two Shaun Suisham field goals until Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant for an 80 yard touchdown with 1:16 left to play.

The 2014 Steelers would rebound for a strong finish to the regular season, but 2014 loss to the Jets counts as one of Mike Tomlin’s worst trap games.

2016 – This Steelers Win over the Jets Came at a Cost

October 9, 2016, at Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 31, Jets 13

The final score makes this game look like a slam dunk for the Steelers, but the truth is that much more up or down event than the naked eye suggests. Nick Folk put the Jets on the board first with a field goal, but Ben Roethlisberger quickly hooked up with Sammie Coates to when he converted a 3rd and 7 with a 72 yard touchdown pass.

However, the New York Jets scored 10 unanswered points and appeared to be set to take a 13-7 lead into the half when they scored a touchdown at the 2:11 mark.

Ben Roethlisberger engineered a masterful 2 minute drill that saw him hit Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates and Xavier Grimble before connecting with Jesse James at the 0:44 mark for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The Steelers dominated the second half, shutting the Jets out and scoring two touchdowns.

But victory came with costs. Sammie Coates, who otherwise had a career game with six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, needed stitches at half time, and never, ever approached that level of play again. The game also represented the end Markus Wheaton’s season, which set up a Steelers playoff run where Cobi Hamilton and DeMarcus Ayers would become defacto starters.

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Another Wolverine to Pittsburgh! Steelers Draft Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan in 5th Round of 2019 NFL Draft

It must have been déjà vu all over again in the Steelers draft room during the 5th round. Except this time it wasn’t a surprise. Four years ago when it came time for the Steelers to pick, they drafted Jesse James.

  • The Steelers followed form in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Michigan’s Zack Gentry.

The move counted as a bit of a surprise, as Heath Miller was still going reasonably strong, and the team had just resigned Matt Spaeth. The move turned out to be a wise one, as Heath Miller retired in after the 2016 season, and injuries to Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald made Jesse James the defacto starter at tight end in 2016 and 2017.

  • The Steelers released 2018 practice squader Bucky Hodges just days before the draft, prompting many to think Pittsburgh would address the position sooner.

Instead, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Dointae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, and running back Benny Snell before turning to Zack Gentry in the 5th round.

Zach Gentry, Steelers draft Zach Gentry 5th round 2019

Steelers draft Zach Gentry in 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland via MLive.com

Draft analyst Lance Zierlein (son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein) described Zack Gentry this way:

With his size and background at Michigan, teams might be tempted to play him as a combination tight end with run-blocking duties, but he’s much better-suited in space than in the trenches. Gentry runs pretty well and moves fluidly as a route-runner, but his hands and focus can be maddening. He showed flashes of what he could do with a more capable quarterback last year, but his disappointing workouts and testing might have pushed back and out of the draft.

Is is the case with Dontae Johnson and perhaps Benny Snell, the Steelers appear to value Zack Gentry a little more highly than do the pundits.

Zack Gentry Highlight Tape

Zack Gentry actually played quarterback during his freshman year for the Wolverines, sat out 2016 presumably due to injury, and was back as a tight end in 2017 and 2018. During that time he caught 49 passes for four touchdowns.

Here is a look at some of his highlights:

IF nothing else Zach Gentry appears to have good hands. Welcome to Steelers Nation Zach Gentry.

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Remember Jesse James Steelers Career for More than the Patriots Touchdown that Wasn’t

Jesse James Steelers career ended last week when he signed with the Detroit Lions. Second string Steelers tight ends don’t occupy much space Steelers lore, and Jesse James as a player won’t change that.

However, Jesse James authored the most pivotal and controversial play of the Steelers post-Super Bowl XLV rebuilding phase.

  • People will remember the Jesse James Play for a long time.

And it is paradoxically unfortunate and appropriate that Pittsburgh will remember Jesse James for that one play.

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

It is unfortunate because instant replay robbed Jesse James of what would have been one of the most sensational touchdowns in Steelers regular season history. It is appropriate because had it worked, the play would have perfectly embodied the type of player Jesse James was for the Steelers.

Revisiting the Fateful Steelers-Patriots 2017 Encounter at Heinz Field

Let’s go back to that fateful day. The Steelers, with a Ryan Shazierless defense and with Antonio Brown injured, had actually led the Patriots for most of the game, until Brady-to-Gronk decimated Pittsburgh in the 4th quarter. All hope appeared lost until JuJu Smith-Schuster transformed a sideline pass into a 69 yard gain that brought the Steelers to the New England 10 with 34 seconds left to go.

Here’s what happened next:

It is hard to know who were Ben Roethlisberger’s primary reads on this play. Ben looks and pumps towards Darrius Heyward-Bey but that could have been an intentional fake. JuJu Smith-Schuster could have been his primary receiver, but he was covered. So instead he looked to Jesse James.

  • As well he should have.

Because by that point in his career, Jesse James had developed himself into a dependable receiver who delivered catches when they counted. For those tempted to roll their eyes, take a look at the numbers.

Jesse James, Jesse James Steelers, Jesse James statistics steelers

Jesse James stats with the Steelers

Just how good Jesse James catch rate, how does he stack up against Heath Miller? Heath Miller’s dependability was legendary, and his catch rate was 72%. Jesse James’ catch rate clocks in at 69.4%

Running backs and tight ends catch percentages tend to be higher than receivers because they’re catching higher percentage passes closer to the line of scrimmage. But Jesse James’ catch percentage trended up in Pittsburgh even as did the length of his average reception. In other words, Jesse James no stats compiler who benefited from check down passes.

  • Numbers don’t lie, but statistics sometimes fail to paint an accurate picture.

Both Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell have higher passer ratings than Terry Bradshaw. Anyone want to take either of those over the Blonde Bomber in an all-time Steelers draft? Nope, I didn’t think so. In terms of tight ends, a high catch percentage doesn’t mean much if you drop the ball when the game is on the line (just ask Bert Jones of Super Bowl XIII fame). While he didn’t get a lot of attention for it, Jesse James delivered.

  • In 2016 vs Dallas, Jesse James set up the should have been Roethlisberger-Brown game winner with a 24 yard catch.
  • Jesse James also helped set up Antonio Brown’s game winner against the Ravens on Christmas going 3-3 on targets including nailing a key 3rd down conversion.
  • In the Steelers 2017 win over the Ravens, Jesse James went 10 for 12 on targets, making drive-sustaining catch after drive-sustaining catch, including going 3-3 to set up Chris Boswell’s winner at the buzzer

I wanted to see Jesse James stay in the Black and Gold. But Kevin Colbert made it pretty clear the Steelers weren’t going to offer Jesse James the kind of money he thought he could get on the open market.

  • Jesse James bet on himself and, unlike Le’Veon Bell, his gamble paid off.

Good for him. For as much of quality, under the radar player Jesse James evolved into for the Steelers, Vance McDonald is a much more dynamic player, and a true offensive weapon. The Steelers made the right decision in terms cost-benefit trade off by declining to match the Detroit Lion’s offer.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesse James Steelers career deserves to be remember for the quiet dependability he delivered when the game was on the line, not for the play instant replay said he didn’t make over the Patriots.

Good luck in Detroit Jesse James. Steelers Nation will be rooting for your success – as long as it doesn’t come at Pittsburgh’s expense.

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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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw 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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Should the Steelers Gamble by Not Giving Xavier Grimble a Restricted Free Agent Tender?

For every NFL rookie that gets a dreaded visit from The Turk, a practice squad slot equals a lifeline to their NFL dream.

  • What they make of that lifeline varies greatly from player to player.

In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers practice squanders, on the one end of the spectrum you have James Harrison who worked his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, you have many more players like Shakim Phillips, who made the Steelers 2015 practice squad, got in invitation back to St. Vincents the next summer where his NFL dream ended. In between you get players like:

  • Ramon Foster, who matured into a solid starter,
  • Isaac Redman the cult-hero who developed into a decent number 2 back before falling to injury
  • Chris Hoke who became an invaluable understudy
  • Justin Brown who shined in practice in 2013 but disappointed on the active roster in 2014

Xavier Grimble is a player who cut his teeth on the Steelers practice squad, an experience which he parlayed into an active roster spot. Now that he’s reached restricted free agent status, his spot on the continuum above will come into clearer focus.

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

Capsule Profile of Xavier Grimble’s Steelers Career

After spending time with the Patriots and the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, Xavier Grimble joined the Steelers practice squad in 2015. In 2016 Xavier Grimble earned a slot on the Steelers active roster behind Jesse James and David Johnson while Ladarius Green sat out in the PAP list.

  • Say what you want about back up Steelers tight ends, they may not catch many passes but when they do, they catch touchdowns.

That was true of Matt Spaeth. Entering the 2015 off season, Matt Spaeth had only caught 53 passes, but 10 of those, or just under 20% went for touchdowns. Xavier Grimble is on a similar path as he has caught 22 passes but three of those have been for touchdowns.

  • Yes, that’s only a 13% touchdown catch rate, but he’s been the number 3 tight end whereas Spaeth was TE number 2.

In three years on the Steelers active roster, Xavier Grimble has appeared in 44 games and made 6 starts, including a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2016, a touchdown in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens, and a touchdown against the Packers in 2017.

Of course the play that most fans are going to remember is the goal line fumble against Denver where Grimble initiated contact unnecessarily (while holding the ball incorrectly) which cost the Steelers the game, if not the playoffs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

The Steelers have invested a lot Xavier Grimble’s development. After four years, Xavier Grimble clearly won’t morph into the 2nd coming of Bennie Cunningham, let alone Heath Miller.

But arguably,  Xavier Grimble has already contributed more than Preston Gothard did as starting tight end for some mediocre teams in the 80’s.

  • The point is that Xavier Grimble is a serviceable player who provides valuable depth at tight end.

Is Xavier Grimble worth the 2 million plus it would take to offer him a restricted free agent tender? Well, if Jesse James is playing elsewhere in 2019, then the answer might be yes. Even if Jesse James is back, the Steelers would be wise to keep keep this valuable backup in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

Practice squad to regular season roster stories may warm the soul, but don’t spontaneously sprout Lombardi Trophies. Sure, Xaiver Grimble is a decent number 3 tight end, but at age 27 he’s reaching the “What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get” phase of his career.

With the Steelers facing the loss of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger is going to need dynamic targets to take heat off of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • Is Xavier Grimble going to be that person?

No. Even if Grimble makes it to training camp, there’s no assurance he’ll beat out Jake McGee for a roster spot. The Steelers would be better off parting ways with Grimble and bringing in a younger player who offers more promise.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Xavier Grimble

Jesse James’ free agent profile has yet to be published, but I’m going to go ahead and scoop myself and say that the Steelers should resign Jesse James and provide a solid number 2 behind Vance McDonald.

Under that scenario, with Jesse James locked up for 3-4 years, the idea of spending the 2 million plus to put a qualifying restricted free agent tender on Xavier Grimble sounds like salary cap insanity.

  • Moreover, the Steelers certainly could gamble that Xavier Grimble will still be available to be brought back at the veteran minimum if they decline to tender him.

However, Kevin Colbert’s comments at the NFL Scouting Combine indicate that the Steelers will probably let Jesse James test free agency. That makes Xavier Grimble a more valuable commodity to the Steelers, but perhaps not valuable enough to warrant a restricted free agent tender.

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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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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Baltimore Beats Pittsburgh 26-14, as Ravens Reveal 2018 Steelers Mediocrity for All to See

Something felt different about the Baltimore Ravens 26-14 defeat of Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In terms of 21st century NFL rivalries, Manning vs. Brady may have supplied a lot of sound but Steelers vs. Ravens generated genuine football fury. Consider:

  • Heath Miller once suffered a hit so ferocious it kept him out for 2 weeks afterwards – and this was before the NFL instituted its concussion protocols.
  • Haloti Ngata once broke Ben Roethlisberger’s nose
  • Isaac Redman wasn’t supposed to be on the field, yet willed his way to the end zone a game winning score

And we forget all of this happened in the same nigh because we remember it as they Troy Polamalu-Joe Flacco strip sacked game. The Steelers-Ravens rivalry was fueled by one thing:

  • Both teams were staking legitimate claims to being biggest boy on the AFC North block and neither was backing down.

And that’s what made this one feel different. The Ravens didn’t necessarily assert their AFC North superiority — Cincinnati’s still leads the division — but Baltimore laid bare the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers mediocrity for all the world to see.

Terrell Edmunds, Javarious Allen, Steelers vs Ravens

Terrell Edmunds unable to stop Javorius Allen in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Against Ravens, Steelers Follow Script Rote

It is still too early in September to draw conclusions in the NFL calendar, but team’s tendencies do become clear by the end of the month. And four weeks into the season the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have their script down pat:

  • The defense gives up an early touchdown
  • The offense will go 3 and out
  • The offense will give up a turnover; if not special teams will surrender big gain
  • The opposing offense takes advantage and scores another touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger completes a big pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Vance McDonald
  • Down a few scores, the Steelers offense comes to life to tie the game or take the lead
  • Having taken the lead, the Steelers offense goes AWOL on 3rd down
  • Not coincidentally, Ben Roethlisberger fail to hook up with Antonio Brown at critical stages
  • The Steelers defense goes AOWL on third down

The game ends alternatively as a player like T.J. Watt or James Conner makes a dramatic dramatics that keep the Steelers from losing, OR the Steelers defensive front seven, which features 3 number 1 picks, 1 number 2 pick and a number 3 pick, gets abused by a running back on a play when EVERYONE knows is coming.

  • Sound sarcastic? Sadly it is not.

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers follow a pattern, and they follow it well. And Pittsburgh would be in business if could convince Roger Goodell fashion a sort of pro football equivalent of a Fabulous Freebirds Rule (Google it) declaring that the Steelers only need keep score for the 2nd and 3rd quarters.

  • Were that the case the Steelers wouldn’t simply be 4-0, they have outscored their opponents 87 to 30.

Alas, the game of football is still played for 60 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters.

Erratic Play from Roethlisberger Continues

Yet, if the Steelers have followed a script thus far in 2018, Ben Roethlisberger has not.

As the Steelers strong performances in the 2nd quarter suggest, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.” He’s still capable of making every throw he needs to make, he can still work the two minute drill, he isn’t playing with a compulsion to force the ball, and he can still make good decisions.

  • But by his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t on the same page as anyone.

True, he is more out of sync with Antonio Brown than anyone else, but last night saw a second half in which Roethlisberger misfired to JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Jesse James and Ryan Switzer on numerous occasions.

  • Is this because Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play enough in preseason or during training camp?
  • Is it because he takes of Wednesdays and needs more preparation?

Mike Tomlin had better figure out the answer, because the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to carry them. Four games into 2018 the Steelers now know that they have a good NFL running back in James Conner. Steelers fans can now also see the difference between a good NFL running back, and a great, Hall of Fame Caliber talent in Le’Veon Bell (who, by the way reminds us he still wants to retire a Steeler – thanks Le’Veon).

Deceptive Perceptions of Defensive Decency in Pittsburgh

Fantasy football owners who started the Steelers for team defense very well may be happen this week. After all, in 2018 holding an opponent to 19 non-turnover assisted points is often times more than enough. And on paper, Keith Butler’s defense made some other improvements:

  • Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave sacked Joe Flacco
  • The Steelers forced another Red Zone turnover
  • Tackling was generally good
  • The Ravens had to settle for 4 Justin Tucker field goals in final 3 quarters of the game
  • After the first touchdown the Steelers secondary stopped surrendering yards in big chunks

On paper it would seem like the Steelers defense approached decency against the Ravens. However, the Steelers defense couldn’t deliver when it counted, as the Ravens converted 8 of 17 third downs. Worse yet, as Baltimore was nursing a 6 point lead, the Steelers defense gave up two six minute plus drives.

Yet neither they, nor anyone else did. Worse yet, no one watching the game would have felt the Steelers defense was capable of making a game-changing play.

Can the Steelers Salvage Something of 2018?

The quarter pole of the 2018 season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1-2-1 and mired deep in mediocrity. If Ben Roethlisberger find a way to play well for more than just the 2nd and 3rd quarter, the Steelers could compete with a lot of teams. Maybe.

If Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler could could find a way to both pressure the passer AND not leave gaping holes in their secondary, the defense could play well enough not to require transforming each game into a shoot out. Maybe.

If the special teams could set up and make a play ever now and then, it would take some heat off of offense and defense. Maybe.

That’s a lot of maybes. And teams that depend on “maybes” heading into October are by definition mediocre ones. That’s who the Pittsburgh Steelers are right now.

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Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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