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 Millerdid 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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eric Weddle tackles Jesse James in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com
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.
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.
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
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.
Although the words “Hall of Fame” and “Rod Woodson” were already being collocated in 1992, Woodson fell flat in almost every conceivable way possible on this day.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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…
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
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.”
5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
A booming special teams field goal block
Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management
Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.
Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports
The “PoorMike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.
But Mike Tomlinisn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.
Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win
Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.
But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.
After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.
Mike Tomlin called a time out.
Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.
At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.
Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.
Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management
The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.
Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.
Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News
After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.
Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.
Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.
By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:
Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.
Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.
So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.
The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.
And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.
Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.
That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?
Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com
Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season
By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.
Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’sPeter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.
Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.
Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:
Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season
First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.
And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.
Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.
That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.
A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season
Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.
When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:
With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.
First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.
But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.
While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.
When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.
When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.
He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.
Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.
The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.
But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.
Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.
First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.
And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.
It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.
The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.
So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.
Early in the Steelers 2017 season, the answer appeared to be an unequivocal “Yes.” Ben to Brown seemed to be the only thing working, and that seemed to be holding the offense back. In the Steelers win over the Vikings, Tony Defeo noted that Roethlisberger appeared to be ignoring receivers in an attempt to force the ball to Brown.
Martavis Bryant’s outbursts, even if uncalled for, also appeared to at least indirectly lend credence to the “Ben’s too intent on forcing it to Brown story line” even if rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was the target of his Instagram tirade.
While the Steelers offense has improve during the second quarter of the season, Ben to Brown remains its most potent combination, but do the numbers suggest that Ben is trying too hard to get the ball to Brown? Let’s take a look.
Does Ben Roethlisberger try too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown? Find out below. Photo Credit: CBS Sports
Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Distribution History
Eight games gives you a good base of data to see what types of trends are developing during a football season. Sometimes a trend can rapidly reverse itself (think the Steelers anemic sack production during the first half of 2016 vs. the second half of 2016), but 8 games give you an idea of where things are heading.
Here’s how Ben Roethlisberger’s pass distribution has gone during the first 8 games of 2017:
Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets 8 games into 2017
Well, now the data really seems to make the case doesn’t it? Not only is Anotnio Brown Ben Roethlisberger’s top pass target, but he’s more than doubling the targets of the next guy below him, Le’Veon Bell. What’s more at 26% the combined total targets of his next two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, still fall 8 percentage points of Antonio Brown’s 34.1%.
That data also suggest that there’s a justification of Ben’s forcing the ball to Brown (if in fact he’s forcing it)
Antonio Brown’s catches account for just shy of 40% of the Steelers receiving yards. The only player who remotely seems to have an argument that he should be the ball more is JuJu Smith-Schuster.
But before closing this case, perhaps its wise to take a look at how pass distribution broke down in 2016. Given the rash of injuries the Steelers experienced at wide receiver, and given the relative inexperience of the rest of the depth chart, its quite probable that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown even more, right?
Let’s see what the data tells us:
Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2016
The data in fact tells us something else. Ben Roethlisbergertargeted Antonio Brown far less in 2016 and Brown accounted for a much smaller slice of the Steelers receiving yards. This suggest that Brown was double and triple teamed a lot.
But Brown’s catch percentage also suggests that Roethlisberger’s passes to him were more accurate.
The Steelers 2016 season was abnormal in terms of injuries to the wide receiver corps. Let’s see what data from 2015 tells us which was more of a typical year.
Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2015
In 2015 we can see that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown 32.7% of the time, or just over 1% less than he’s targeting Antonio Brown in 2017 thus far. We can also see that Brown is still making the most of is catches, as he accounted for 38% of the Steelers receiving yards, or about 1.5% less than he’s accounted for in 2017 thus far.
That data from 2015 also helps us appreciate that an aging Heath Miller was still more productive than Jesse James in either his 2nd or 3rd year, although James is proving to be a fairly reliable target.
We can also see how much more dynamic Le’Veon Bell is as a pass catcher than DeAngelo Williams, although Williams did well when thrown the ball.
To complete the picture, let’s go back to 2014 to view Ben Roethlisberger’s ball distribution in the 1st year that the Steelers 4 Killer Bees played together:
Ben Roethlisbergers top 5 targets in 2014
2014 marks the first year (in this survey) that Brown’s target percentage from dipped below 30% (we should note that Landry Jones and Mike Vick threw a portion of those passes in ’15 and ’16.) It looks like it was Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller who took those targets away from Bryant, although Markus Wheaton’s 14.1% is a healthier targeting percentage than any of the Steelers other receivers.
Conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger Isn’t Targeting Antonio Brown Too Often
There are a lot of different takeaways from this data. Le’Veon Bell seems to be almost as reliable of a pass catcher as he was two years ago, although his yards after catch appear to be down. That could be due to the absence of Heath Miller’s and Matt Spaeth’s blocking, however.
Martavis Bryant, for all of his big play capability, he’s never been much more than a 50/50 catch to catch what’s thrown his way. Sammie Coates was clearly a dud down the stretch in 2016.
But the data also shows that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t trying too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown.
Indeed, if we really are seeing Father Time begin to exact his toll on Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, then we can know for certain than Ben Roethlisberger is very lucky to have Antonio Brown on his team.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on a 6-2 record at their bye week that was good enough to secure a firm lead in the AFC North coupled with a tie atop the AFC rankings. While this team still has a lot to prove over the next eight games, the 2017 Steelers have established themselves as legitimate contenders at the halfway point.
And the Steelers have done so despite one unfortunate reality:
But for those of you not acquainted with the hit HBO series, show runner D.B. Weiss compared Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons to “inserting an F-16 into a Medieval battlefield.” This is what he was talking about:
During 2014 the first tree Killer Bees, Big Ben, Brown and Bell had already proven themselves as the franchise’s most talented skill position threesome since Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris. Martavis Bryant’s emergence during the latter half of 2014 promised to transform the Killer Bees into a quartet with a John Stallworth caliber player. Of course you know the story since then:
Suspensions kept the Bell and Bryant from starting 2015
Ben Roethlisberger’s injury kept him off the field for their return
Le’Veon Bell’s injury knocked him out for the rest of 2015
Martavis Bryant finished 2015 on a high, literally, and it cost him 2016
2017 was supposed to be the year when things came together. Indeed, to some 30 points a game seemed more of a floor rather than a ceiling. Instead, halfway through 2017 the Steelers highest point total is 29 points and Chris Boswell appears to be Pittsburgh’s most reliable Red Zone threat.
Why has the Steelers offense fallen so short of expectations?
There are a lot of theories floating out there, and Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t pretend to have a crystal ball. Ben Roethlisberger was clearly off early in the season, and this trend was clear long before his 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars. He’s been better since then, although consistency eludes him.
Le’Veon Bell took some time to get into synch as did the entire offense.
Here the Grumpy Old Man inside me wags a finger and admonishes Le’Veon Bell for his hold out and Mike Tomlin for playing his first team offense so little during preseason. Practice still makes perfect, even when you have All Pro talent.
Martavis Bryant drops a would be touchdown against the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com
And of course Martavis Bryant really hasn’t been an offensive force, save for the Vikings game where he had a touchdown, one long catch and drew another deep pass interference penalty. Outside of that Bryant has been best known for the plays he didn’t make on the field and his off the field distractions.
When you account for the fact that Pittsburgh fields a veteran offensive line it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that 8 games into 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is less than the sum of its parts….
3 Signs Hope for the Steelers 2017 Super Bowl Aspirations
…Which isn’t to say that Steelers 2017 offense is a hopeless cause. The Steelers second touchdown drive against the Bengals serves as Exhibit A.
As drives go it covered 75 yards and was pretty run of the mill as touchdown drives go. But the key take way here comes from the fact that aside from a 1 yard Le’Veon Bell run, the rest of the yards came from James Conner, Vance McDonald, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith Schuster.
The lesson of the painful end to the 2016 season was that Ben, Bell and Brown can’t do it all by themselves.
But while Killer Bees’ success and the Steelers success remain intertwined, Todd Haley has to find ways to sting opponents with other weapons. This drives was a step in that direction, although time will tell whether it signals a deeper integration of the Steelers offense or merely serves as an example of the law of averages working its will.
James Conner rushing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today via BTSC
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence in the Steelers win over the Lions is a second reason for hope.
While most of the commentary focused on whether JuJu’s big game in Detroit would cost Martavis Bryant, Bryant could become the beneficiary of JuJu’s coming out. As Chris Adamanski has pointed out, defenses have continued to target Bryant thus far this season. Now JuJu has established also himself as a threat. You do the math — There’s no way opposing defenses can double Brown, Bryant and JuJu.
The third reason for hope comes on the other side of the ball.
During the Steelers rebuilding process, the conventional wisdom is that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler only needed to build a good but not necessarily great defense. The additions of Joe Haden and T.J. Watt, the continued maturation of Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave the stout play of stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have combined to allow this defense to flash greatness.
True, the Steelers defense has yet to put together a complete game, but when Keith Butler’s boys at their best, they’ve thoroughly dominated.
During Game of Thrones season seven Daenerys Targaryen learned that her Dragon’s, however powerful, didn’t provide an automatic key to victory. The Mother of Dragons came to understand she had to do more.
8 games in to 2017, the Steelers have learned that simply fielding Bryant alongside Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown doesn’t magically add up a dominant offense. For the Steelers to secure Lombardi Number Seven more will be required.
Fortunately Mike Tomlin’s men are showing signs that its willing and able to do more.
About 10 years ago, when Dan Kreider‘s best days were behind him, and Carey Davis took his place in the Steelers backfield, the fullback was seen as a dying breed in the NFL, a dinosaur on-par with the rotary phone.
Bruce Arians in fact, liked to insist that his offense “didn’t have a fullback.”
True enough, while Davis did actually play the fullback position, he was known more as a receiver out of the backfield and a special teams ace, than as a true chauffeur for Fast Willie Parker, the team’s top tailback in the late-2000’s. One get the feeling that Arians designating Cary Davis as a “fullback” was more of a way of humoring factions within the Steelers organization that favored the fullback.
Cary Davis was gone by 2010, and the keys to the fullback position, when they weren’t collecting dust in some drawer on the South Side, were often handed off to tight end David Johnson, who certainly needed to find a way to make himself more useful while third on the depth chart behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
When the situation demanded a blocker out of the backfield, Doug Legursky would also do double-duty as a fullback.
But more often than not, one-back sets were the norm on most plays, especially after all-world running back Le’Veon Bell became a star and the team’s workhorse in 2014.
Besides, with passing becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL, why would anyone really need a fullback anymore?
All of this translates into a reliance on Le’Veon Bell, as well as utilizing him more as a true tailback, and not as a tailback who wants to be paid like a wide-receiver.
This leads us to Roosevelt Nix, one of the Steelers 2014 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents out of Kent State, who played defensive line in college, tried to switch to linebacker in the pros, only to switch sides of the ball and become a fullback in-order to make his NFL dreams come true.
Steelers Fulleback Roosevelt Nix paves the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Rosie Nix made the Steelers in 2015; in two-plus years in Pittsburgh, he doesn’t have a single carry to his name, with his only offensive contributions coming on a combined four receptions.
But Roosevelt Nix, who is also a special teams demon, seems to be relishing his role as a blocking fullback.
And he’s already started two games this season, as Pittsburgh is now opening up in more run-oriented alignments.
Obviously, one-back sets and hand-offs to Le’Veon Bell out of the shotgun formation are still very-much en-vogue in Todd Haley’s offense, but the sight of No. 45 acting as the chauffeur or bodyguard for No. 26 is becoming more and more familiar.
And, as I said before, Nix doesn’t seem to care about his number of carries or any other offensive stats, than the ones that belong to Bell and the other tailbacks he seems to love escorting on long runs downfield.
Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix leading the way. Photo Credit: MSN Sports
Take last Sunday’s Steelers win against the Bengals, for example, and how Rosie Nix seemed to make it his personal mission to protect Bell from the very dangerous and factually dirty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who began the game by kicking Nix in the facemask, but ended it with just four tackles and certainly didn’t do much to slow Bell down on his way to 134 yards rushing.
Unlike some previous match-ups against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bell ended the day healthy and ready to do battle again. With Ben Roethlisberger slowly taking a backseat to Le’Veon Bell as the main cog in the Steelers offensive attack, the latter’s health is of the utmost importance.
The Steelers offense may go only as far as Le’Veon Bell can take it in 2017.
It’s nice to know he’ll have his own personal bodyguard in Roosevelt Nix protecting him on his and the team’s journey.
With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and therefore the franchise’s Super Bowl window, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert looked at the team’s tight end depth chart, found it wanting and took action.
The Steelers traded a 4th round pick form the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for tight end Vance McDonaldand a 5th round pick in 2018.
New Steelers tight end Vance McDonald advances the ball for the 49ers against the Broncos. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo Sports
When asked what led the Steelers to make such an uncharacteristic move so late in the season, Mike Tomlin refused sugar coat his assessment of his Tight Ends:
The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort. It’s as black and white as that. They’ve had some moments positively and had some moments negatively, and so we were in the market for a guy that was NFL-capable. McDonald is that.
But if Jesse James ears are burning Xavier Grimble’s hands are likely the ones to tremble thanks to this move.
Grimble spent parts of 2014 on the Patriots and 49er’s practice squads, and then served a full internship in 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. While Grimble made the final 53 man roster, his performance was inconsistent down the stretch, despite having ample opportunity to prove himself in Green’s absence. Word is that Grimble has been inconsistent for much of the summer, and McDonald’s arrival could signal a visit form the Turk for Grimble.
Mike Tomlin has not commented how Vance McDonald’s arrival impacts the rest of the tight end depth chart, nor would he commit to using McDonald in any specific way, explaining that the Steelers first signed Darrius Heyward-Bey as a wide receiver, not realizing his ability on special teams.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted Vance McDonald 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking him six slots after Le’Veon Bell. During his first four season in the NFL, Vance McDonald has started 30 games and appeared in 48, while catching 64 passes for 391 yards for seven touchdowns.
In addition to Grimble, James and McDonald, the Steelers also have veteran David Johnson along with Jake McGee. The Steelers cut hopeful Phazahn Odom shortly after acquiring McDonald.