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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Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

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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Give Steelers Tight Ends Jesse James & Vance McDonald an “A” For Their Performance vs Ravens

OK, not really.

For the record, I’m not the regular Report Card marker for Steel Curtain Rising, so its really not my place to suggest that Jesse James and Vance McDonald get “A” for their efforts in the Steelers win over the Ravens.

But, the position, particularly Jesse James and Vance McDonald, certainly deserved to win the Steelers Report Card’s Unsung Hero Award as they did during the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens for playing a much-bigger part of the game-plan than anyone could have possibly envisioned.

Jesse James, Eric Weddle, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers tight ends ravens

Eric Weddle tackles Jesse James in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

With JuJu Smith-Schuster sidelined while serving a very-controversial one-game suspension for his block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict last week, and with Martavis Bryant continuing to baffle with his inability to get open–this despite Antonio Brown drawing constant double-teams–one wondered who would pick up the slack in the Steelers air-attack.

  • The answer became clear, early on, as James and McDonald combined for four receptions for 45 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two offensive series.
  • Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Steelers first two drives ended in touchdowns and a 14-0 lead.

Speaking of Vance McDonald, he’s sort of been this year’s version of Ladarius Green, who was an athletically gifted tight end the Steelers signed as a free agent prior to the 2016 campaign, but, thanks to concussion-related problems, only played in a handful of games in his lone season in Pittsburgh.

Vance McDonald may not have come to Pittsburgh with the same physical gifts as Green, but when the Steelers acquired him in a trade with the 49ers this past summer, he certainly possessed the size, speed and athleticism Pittsburgh had been searching for at the tight end position for many years.

  • Unfortunately, McDonald has been battling the injury-bug for most of 2017, and he was even forced to leave Sunday night’s game with a shoulder ailment.

But, before Vance McDonald exited the game, he tallied four receptions for 52 yards. This might not seem like much, but considering Eli Rogers and Bryant combined for a mere 66 receiving yards, Vance McDonald’s contribution as welcome as it was necessary.

Speaking of contributions, what about the night Jesse James had for the Steelers on Sunday?

James may have even come up with the night’s most-crucial reception.

  • Trailing by two points with just 1:57 remaining in the game, the Steelers faced a third and 13 from their own 14-yard line.

If Pittsburgh didn’t pick up at least a good chunk of yardage on the play, the game would most-likely be over.

However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found James 16 yards downfield, and the tight end managed to hold on to the pass in traffic, which laid the groundwork for what would become the game-winning field goal drive.

  • All-in-all, James and McDonald combined for 14 catches for 149 yards on the night.

Enough to make the fans stop chanting “HEATH!!!!!” (in honor of legendary tight end Heath Miller) each time a caucasian tight end catches a pass at Heinz Field?

  • Perhaps not anytime soon.

But, in a nip-and-tuck, prime-time affair with the AFC North title on-the-line, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly needed everything Jesse James and Vance McDonald could give them, Sunday night.

And their contributions should not go unnoticed.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Green Bay Packers – 25 Years of Two Storied Franchises Tussling

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises. The latter defined winning and excellence in the 1960’s; the former defined the term “NFL Dynasty” in the 1970’s. Both franchises were fortunate to hit their respective peaks as the NFL was coming of age.

  • Yet, due to the conference and division realignment which followed the NFL-AFL merger, these two teams have seldom faced off of late.

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Green Bay Packers is pretty one-sided affair, with the Cheeseheads holding a 22-15 edge as of 2017, but much of that lopsidedness is due the the Steelers pre-Immaculate Reception Record.

In fact, in the last 25 years, the teams have only met seven times, but those meetings have contributed much to the lore of both franchises. Either scroll down to click on the links below to relive your favorite moment in Steelers-Packers history.

Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Green Bay Packers, Steelers Lambeau field, Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell first 100 yard game, Sam Shields, Steelers vs Packers

Le’Veon Bell rushes for his 1st 100 yard game in the Steelers 2013 win over the Packers @ Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt, Getty Images via Zimbo

1992 – Bill Cowher Reveals His True Nature in 1st Loss

September 17th, 1992 @ Lambeau Field
Green Bay 17, Pittsburgh 3

History will long remember this as Brett Favre’s first NFL start. Conversely, it was also Rod Woodson’s career worst and Bill Cowher’s first loss.

If you have a strong stomach for memories you’d rather forget, you can watch the game summary from NFL Prime Time.

For Steelers fans the significance of this game is in what Bill Cowher revealed about himself.

Near the end of the game Cowher approached Woodson. Rod turned away fearing a tongue lashing. Instead, Cowher consoled him, saying that “You’ve had a bad day at he office. When that happens, you don’t quit the job, you analyze what went wrong and bounce back.”

Steelers fans loved Cowher for his fire, brimstone and in your face bravado, but…

  • …in his first loss as a head coach, The Chin showed that he was a head coach who was smart enough to know when to kick a player in the a_s, and when to pat him on the back.

1995 – Steelers So Close, Yet So Far….

December 24th, 1995 @ Lambeau Field
Green Bay 24, Pittsburgh 19

The Steelers playoff position was set, while the Packers still had something to play for. Bill Cowher benched many starters – Fred McAfee and Steve Avery were the Steelers starting backfield.

Yet this was a hard-fought, knock down drag out game. Kevin Greene hit Brett Favre so hard that he appeared to be coughing up his brains at one point. Jim McMahon did come in for a few snaps, but Favre refused to stay out long.

The Steelers second string almost pulled it off, as Yancey Thigpen dropped a sure touchdown pass as time expired.

1998 – Look What Happens When You Try to Get Too Cute….

November 9th, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Packers 20

Kordell Stewart and the entire Steelers offense had suffered and struggled under Ray Sherman’s offense all season. That seemed to change on Monday Night Football as Steelers amassed a 27-3 lead in the first three quarters.

Pittsburgh Steelers history vs Green Bay Packers, LeRoy Butler, Hines Ward,

Rookie Hines Ward on his 3rd NFL catch as LeRoy Butler closes in. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

As the fourth quarter began, Pittsburgh appeared poised to make it 34-3, until Sherman decided to get cute on the goal line. Sherman thought it would be smart to revive Slash, and sent Mike Tomczak under center with Kordell lining up as a receiver. All went well, until the snap….

A bobbled exchange leads to a fumble, which Keith McKenzie returns 88 yards for a touchdown. The Packers score 17 unanswered points, but Pittsburgh holds on. Barley.

  • The moral of the story there is that trick plays can give an already efficient offense a lethal edge, but they can be just as lethal for a struggling unit.

2005 – Never Underestimate the Importance to Backups….

November 6th, 2005 @ Lambeau Field
Pittsburgh 20, Green Bay 10

Ben Roethlisberger is out, so is Jerome Bettis. Willie Parker suits up, but only lasts for 5 carries. But Bill Cowher a deep bull pen to fall back on. Charlie Batch starts, and while his numbers aren’t pretty, he avoids critical mistakes.

Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Green Bay Packers, Bryant McFadden, Brett Favre, Bryant McFadden sack Brett Favre

Bryant McFadden strip sacks Brett Favre, setting up a 77 yard Troy Polamalu touchdown return. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But the star of the day is Duce Staley, who gets his first carry of the year that day, and adds a total of 14 more for 76 yards and including a long run of 17 and a touchdown. He also catches to passes for nine yards.

  • As Bill Cowher said the day Pittsburgh released Staley, “If we don’t have Duce, we don’t win that game. If we don’t win that game, we don’t make the playoffs, and never get to Super Bowl XL.”

The Steelers signed Duce Staley to a generous contract in 2004, and he only ended up playing 16 games over three season. But in the end, it was money well spent.

2009 – This Mike Wallace is a 60 Minute Man Too….

December 20th, 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Green Bay 36

This installment of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Packers had been billed as the battle of the defensive titans, as the two teams were leading the league in defense. To add an exclamation point, it pitted Dick LeBeau vs. Dom Capers, the two architects of the Steelers defense of the 1990’s.

  • But it was anything but a defensive struggle.

The Steelers and Packers combined for 936 yards and the lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter as Aaron Rodgers passed for 383 yards. Ben Roethlisberger did him better, however, passing for 503 yards and in doing so only becoming only the 10th NFL signal caller to break the half-century mark.

Hines Ward and Heath Miller both broke the 100 yard mark, but the star of the game was Steelers rookie of the year Mike Wallace. Wallace bookended his game with touchdown catches. Taking his first pass for 60 yards to the end zone, and he did it again with his last pass, hauling in a 19 yard grab with 0:03 seconds remaining.

2010 – Super Bowl XLV – Steelers Must Wait for Stairway to Seven…

February 6th, 2011 @ Cowboys Stadium (aka “Jerry’s World”)
Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25

And that brings us to Super Bowl XVL and the Steelers ill-fated quest for Lombardi Number Seven.

The Steelers made some early mistakes and, as Mike Tomlin, ever the class act, insisted, the Packers made some tremendous plays that put the Steelers deep in a hole.

The men in Black and Gold fought back furiously and were alive until the game’s final minute. But, when the final gun sounded, the Packers simply showed themselves to be the better team and, to their credit, the Steelers acknowledged as much.

2013 – Le’Veon Bell Finds His Rushing Feet in the Snows of Lambeau Field

December 22nd, 2013 @ Lambeau Field
Pittsburgh 38, Green Bay 31

Like so many of the other games in recent Steelers-Packers history, this one went down to the wire. Although it seems laughable now, going into the game Mike Tomlin and the Steelers were forced to defend their decision to draft Le’Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy.

Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Green Bay Packers, Le'Veon Bell, Lamari Lattimore, Steelers vs Packers

Le’Veon Bell rushes against Lamari Lattimore in the snows at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps, AP via the Bleacher Report

Le’Veon Bell played as if he took it personally, ripping off runs for 11, 5, and 22 yards in his first four carries. By half time, Bell had 71 yards and was in route to his first 100 yard game. But Bell’s game was hardly blemish free.

  • The game also featured Bell’s first NFL fumble at Pittsburgh’s 2 yard line no less.

Eddie Lacy put Green Bay ahead, but Le’Veon Bell took his next carry and shot through the Packers defense for 25 yards. The fireworks were far from over at that point, as Cortez Allen intercepted Matt Flynn and took it to the house, only to see Green Bay return to tie the score after intercepting a failed Ben Roethlisberger pass to Heath Miller.

  • The Steelers however, regained the lead with 1:25 left to play on another Le’Veon Bell touchdown.

A monster return saw Green Bay return the ball all the way to the Pittsburgh’s 1, but penalties prevented the Packers from scoring as time ran out.

A hundred yard rusher, six changes in the lead, fumbles at the goal line and snow on Lambeau Field – as John Madden would say, “This is what the game of football is all about.”

 

 

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