Steelers Report Card for Win Over Panthers: Bouncing Back Edition

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher proud to see his students bounce back after what could have been a humiliating loss, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Panthers

Najee Harris goes airborne. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky was a careful but efficient 17 of 22 for 179 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he also avoided interceptions.  The Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs, and while some of those were runs, Tribuisky had to several key long throws and authored the NFL’s longest drive since 2001. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Jaylen Warren had 38 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Derek Watt had 2 yards on another 3rd down conversion. The Steelers running backs ran well early. When Carolina clamped down they continued to run hard. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For the first time in recent memory, Pat Freiermuth did not catch a pass. Zach Gentry did catch one for 4 yards. The tight ends helped in the run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 98 yards on 10 catches catching all 10 targets. That’s impressive, as was his ability to convert third downs, even if he seems to have to resist the urge to run backwards. Amazingly, he STILL doesn’t have a touchdown 14 games into the season. Steven Sims and  Gunner Olszewski each had a catch. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Carolina Panthers sacked the quarterback once and hit him one other time. The Steelers ran well during the first half. During the second half as the Panthers adjusted, the Steelers didn’t run as well, but they were able to run the ball at moments in the game when they needed to run it. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was alive, recording 1.5 sacks and hitting the quarterback two other times. Larry Ogunjobi had 5 tackles including 2 for losses. Isaiahh Loudermilk had a tackle for a loss. Carolina’s running game went no where, and the line is a big reason for it. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt looked closer to his old self getting 1.5 sacks on critical downs, and getting to the quarterback on two other occasions. Alex Highsmith also had a sack and a forced fumble. Devin Bush had four tackles. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles, but was out of place on Terrace Marshall  that set up Carolina’s only touchdown. Grade: B

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles with 5 and overall had a strong game. Overall the secondary played well, but this was more of a “bend but don’t break” game for the Steelers. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in a 50 yard field goal that essentially iced the game for the Steelers. Pressley Harvin had a solid day while Steven Sims was above the line as a returner. Kick coverage did allow a long return. Grade: B-

Coaching
Functioning at its best, Matt Canada’s offense isn’t going to make many fantasy football owners happy. Which is just fine by me. What the win over the Panthers showed was that the formula of ball control combined with touchdowns can be downright lethal.

If the Panthers did move the ball a little too easily at times against Teryl Austin’s defense, the Steelers completely neutralized the Panther’s rushing attack forcing them to try to beat them with Sam Darnold, at task which Darnold wasn’t up to.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The loss to the Ravens could have crushed his team. At the very least it appeared to expose the run defense as their soft underbelly. Yet Mike Tomlin opened the game by daring Carolina to run on him and challenging his defense to stop them.

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Panthers

Thanks to George Pickens’ block, Steven Sims runs for 22 yards on 3rd and 1. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Panthers tried. The Steelers stopped them. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
His 38 yard reception converted a third down and set up a touchdown. But it was his block that sprung Steven Sims free on a risky 3rd and 1 call that kept another TD drive makes George Pickens the Unsung Hero of the Steelers 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You III: Steelers Sign Larry Ogunjobi, Veteran AFC North Defensive Lineman

The Pittsburgh Steelers have responded to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement by falling back on what has been their off season mantra: Feed the hand that slaps you.

  • In this case this involves signing defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to a one year contract.

Larry Ogunjobi is no stranger to Steelers fans, Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft and he played for the Mistake by the Lake for four years. Following that he took a cruise down I-71 and sigened with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Browns

Larry Ogunjobi glares at Mason Rudolph after shoving him to the ground. Photo Credit:

Larry Ogunjobi 16 games for the Bengals in 2021, recording 7 sacks, 12 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, for Ogunjobi he injured his right foot in the Bengals playoff game against the Oakland er um Las Vegas Raiders and missed the rest of the post season.

  • The injury unfortunately prevented Ogunjobi from cashing on his “prove it” deal with the Bengals.

In March he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Bears worth a totaling $40.5 million and, if reports are correct, got $26.3 million guaranteed. However, when Ogunjobi failed a physical and Chicago withdrew their offer.

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has pointed out, Larry Ogunjobi has more tackles against the Steelers than against any other teams.

But Steelers fans will undoubtedly remember him from the infamous 2019 “Body Bag Game” at Cleveland Stadium. Shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi pushed Mason Rudolph to the ground. That action earned him a 1 game suspension, which was lenient given that he’d crossed the field of play to interject himself into a fight.

So like fellow new defenders Genard Avery Myles Jack and Levi Wallace, the Steelers signed yet another player who has caused Pittsburgh pain in the past (at least Avery Jack and Wallace did so legally….)

Defensive Line Depth Shored Up

Larry Ogunjobi probably doesn’t alter the Steelers projected starting depth chart for St. Vincents, with Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley expected to begin camp as starters. Assuming he arrives in Latrobe in full health, Ogunjobi could push Wormley or perhaps Alualu for a starting job.

Isaiahh Loudermilk quest for playing time just got more complicated and Montravius Adams’ lease on a roster spot just got looser. As for Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis? None of those men would would be wise to sign long-term leases in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Third round pick DeMarvin Leal remains a lock to make the team, but if he wants to get a helmet, he’d better bone up on his special teams.

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Keeping It Real, Steelers Draft DeMarvin Leal, in 3rd Round, DE Texas A&M

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will go to their graves swearing that they draft the best player available. So the fact that they addressed 3 our of their 4 top needs in the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is just a conscience.

So be it. With their third round pick the Steelers drafted DeMarvin Leal, a junior defensive end out of Texas A&M. Last season the Steelers drafted both Dan Moore and Buddy Johnson out of Texas A&M, which was also the stomping ground of former reserve safety Gary Jones, much to Don Beebe’s chagrin (Google it, ’93 Steelers vs Bills will help your keyword search.)

  • The Steelers interest in DeMarvin Leal is obvious.

He is a versatile lineman who played multiple positions in 33 games at Texas A&M while amassing 13 sacks, 1 interception and 133 tackles. Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin mentioned many times that he expects Leal to add to his 6’4 273 frame, and almost slipped out his draft grade, while admitting that they had a “nice grade on him.”

DeMarvin Leal, Steelers 2022 3rd round draft pick

DeMarvin Leal, Steelers 2022 3rd round Draft Pick. Photo Credit: Noticias del Mundo

Austin also acknowledged the elephant on the room by admitting, “”It’s really important to add young guys in there.” With Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu all over 30 and Isaiahh Loudermilk the only young prospect with serious “upside,” the Steelers defensive line will benefit from the injection of youth.

With that said, the fact that the Steelers waited until the third round, drafting quarterback Kenny Pickett in the first, and wide receiver George Pickens in the 2nd gives us a reasonably firm indication that Tomlin, Austin, and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar expect Stephon Tuitt to play in 2022.

Tuitt of course made the initial 53 man roster, only to sit out the entire season for reasons that still haven’t been explained. At his pre-draft press conference Mike Tomlin declined to confirm whether Tuitt has been attending voluntary workouts.

DeMarvin Leal Video Highlights

Here’s a look at the some tape that Leal put together while at Texas A&M.

Impressive to say the least.

Welcome to Steelers Nation DeMarvin Leal.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

The big day has arrived. The 2022 NFL Draft is here.

A generation from now, will we remember Kevin Colbert’s final draft as the night the Pittsburgh Steelers found their franchise quarterback? Will this be the evening where he tried to go out with a bang and flopped instead? Or will we recall how Kevin Colbert convinced Mike Tomlin not to force things and instead drafted a future Hall of Famer at another position?

Those questions will take years to answer.

As of now, the pundits and tea leaf readers argue that the Steelers brain trust is sold on picking Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder should one be on the board when the clock strikes 20.

steelers press conference,

That may be the case. Mike Tomlin has never been coy about pre-draft crushes. His love for Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Jarvis Jones (ugh), and Najee Harris was well-known long before their names reached commissioner’s desk.

Would picking Pickett, Willis, Corral or Ridder at 20 and/or trading up to get him violate rule number 3 on the Steelers Road Map for Return to the Super Bowl i.e. don’t force finding a franchise quarterback?

  • Honestly, says the guy who thought picking Ben Roethlisberger was a mistake, I don’t know.

But I can opine on what the Steelers needs are in this draft.

Over the past few weeks, with Tony Defeo’s help, we’ve broken down the Steelers needs at each position. Using the Steelers Draft Needs, we’ve clustered their needs into four tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Wide Receiver and Defensive Line clock in at High-Moderate. In other words, a guy Pittsburgh picks there could very well end up starting.

Below that we have a log jam, with Quarterback, Running Back, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker and Cornerback all coming in at Moderate High. In other words, the Steelers aren’t looking for a 2021 starter here, but that could change fast.

Next, we have Offensive Tackle and Safety. The Steelers should be OK here, but could go looking for a future starter.

Finally, we have Tight End and Center/Guard aka “interior lineman,” where the Steelers really are looking for depth.

So how to sort out the pecking order, given that we’ve got apparent ties at several positions?

That’s the Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix comes in.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Here is how I see the Steelers needs playing out:

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Defensive line gets the nod over wide receiver simply because the Steelers two starters there are younger. But that’s close, as the Steelers do have some depth on defensive line with upside on defensive line (Isaiahh Loudermilk), whereas the cupboard is empty at wide out.

The same rational holds at running back over receiver. The Steelers need more at running back than Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, but they’re superior to any backup wide outs.

The fact that the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph and only one Najee Harris is why running back is edges out quarterback. Quarterback comes in over outside linebacker because that’s a more important position, but frankly that’s close because the drop off in proven talent behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is steep.

Likewise, the Steelers have appear to have 3 starter caliber cornerbacks, plus James Pierre, but they have more bodies at inside linebacker, even if there are long term questions about Devin Bush and no “starter in waiting” behind him and Myles Jack.

Inside linebacker is a higher priority over Offensive Tackle because the Steelers have two starters under team control for at least 3 years, and Joe Haeg can provide depth. But again, this is close.

Tackle edges out safety because both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are far more proven commodities than any of the tackles, and Tre Norwood has far more “upside” than Haeg.

  • Safety edges out interior line, because the Steelers four players for 2 positions.

Center-Guard comes out as a higher priority than tight end simply because Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are better, more known commodities than any of the interior lineman.

No, Steelers Mustn’t Draft for Need

With that said, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is anything but a call for Pittsburgh to pick based on need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns happens.

In other words, if the Steelers can grab a play making outside linebacker who could push Alex Highsmith to the bench, by all means they should grab him. Nor should they pass on picking the next Heath Miller let alone a Gronk clone just because Gentry looked good last year.

No, the Draft Needs Matrix seeks to show where the Steelers roster needs the most help and whom they should pick if all other things are equal.

  • Which of course they never are, because success in the NFL draft is a mix of science, art and luck.

The 2022 NFL Draft will be no different, and to the young men who will hear their names called in next three days, we congratulate them on their chance to live the dream that each of us had from the first moment we touched a Nerf football and barked out a snap count!

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line – Invest in the Future Now

Draft picks on defensive line have a way of defining eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Greene’s arrival pivoted the franchise from loser to champion. Passing on Dan Marino for Gabe Rivera was a mistake it took 2 decades to atone for. And the selection of Aaron Smith in the 1999 NFL Draft is one of the unsung moments in the building of the Steelers second Super Bowl Era.

As the 2022 NFL Draft arrives, defensive line is clearly an area of need for Pittsburgh. Lets find out just how deeply that need runs.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart at: The Starter

The bad news? Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers only have one confirmed starter on the defensive line.

When the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert pronounced it a “historic day” for the franchise. Those were perhaps the truest words of post-draft praise since Chuck Noll proclaimed his love for Rod Woodson during the 1987 NFL Draft.

In playing 11 years, 166 games and 131 starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cam Heyward has become more than a dominant player on the field, a locker room leader off the field and a pillar within the community of Pittsburgh, Heyward has arguably become the face of the franchise.

In 2021, at age 32 and playing alongside junior varsity defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, didn’t simply turn in an All Pro performance with his 10 sacks, 17 QB hits, interception and nine defensed passes, he showed himself to be worthy of mention alongside franchise legends Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene.

Heyward will be 33 in 2022, and if he’s shown little sign of slowing down thus far, the Steelers must be mindful of his age.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Could Be Starters

If you are surprised to read that Cam Heyward is the only confirmed starter on defensive line, you should be. Thus far there’s been no public indication that Tyson Alualu will not be back in 2022. And Steel Curtain Rising has zero access to sources that would contradict this.

However, Alualu is 35 and he is coming off of an injury that cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2021 campaign. If Alualu can stay healthy and can return to something resembling his former level, he’ll be an asset to the team.

The Steelers defense dominated at the beginning of 2020 and only began to slip with Alualu’s injury against the Ravens. The run defense took a noticeable hit when he went out against the Raiders in week 2 of 2021 and never improved.

Unlike Alualu, there has been question about whether Stephon Tuitt will return to play football in 2022. Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all expressed optimism, but they’ve all been non-committal.

Stephon Tuitt had a monster year in 2020, 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 3 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Mike Tomlin likes to say that backups are really just “starters in waiting.” Yeah. That might be true in many cases, but it certainly was false for the Steelers in 2021. The absence of Tuitt and Alualu exposed the Steelers defensive line’s dearth of depth the way a root canal without pain killers exposes a nerve.

  • The Steelers had the worst run defense in franchise history since the 1940’s.

The unit was so bad that the Steelers signed Montravius Adams in week 13 off of the Saints practice squad, started him and saw the unit improve. Adams pushed Isahiah Buggs off the team, and will be back in 2022.

One potential “benefit” to the injuries to Tuitt and Alualu is that the Steelers got Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field. The Steelers traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to get Loudermilk, and many questioned the move. However,  Loudermilk played reasonably well with on sack and 3 passes defensed and appears to have upside.

They also have Chris Wormley who started 14 games in 2021 and recorded 7 sacks, shining brightly against Baltimore.

In addition to Wromely, the Steelers have Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis. Mondeaux saw action in 15 games and Davis played in 4 games, or 3 fewer than his rookie season.

The Steelers 2022 Defensive Line Draft Needs

A best case scenario for the Steelers in 2022 would see Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu rejoin Cam Heyward as starters. That would be great, but it wouldn’t change the fact that all are over 30. Loudermilk’s sample size is small, but he has potential to be at least starter capable.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Wormley and Adams’ appear to be serviceable backups, but both are replaceable. As for Henry Mondeaux and Davis? The Steelers trade for Loudermilk reminded me of Mondeaux and Davis faux tussle on the sidelines of the ’20 finale against Cleveland.

That in turn reminded me of my high school wrestling coach, the amateur Hall of Famer Dave Moquin, who once stopped practice admonished two wrestlers who were staring each other down with, “If either of you was as tough as your pretending to be you’d both be state champions. Now get back on the mat.”

  • Neither Mondeaux nor Davis is as tough as they were pretending to be that day. Instead, they’re roster bubble babies.

How does all of this impact the Steelers draft needs? Well, the Pittsburgh probably doesn’t need to draft a starter this week, but they really must to use this draft to find future starters, so their need at defensive line must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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Rally Around Roethlisberger: Steelers Defeat Browns 26-14 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Game @ Heinz Field

Citizens of Steelers Nation: It doesn’t get any better than this. In Ben Roethlisberger’s (likely) last game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh rallied behind their leader as the Steelers defeated the Browns 26-14.

It was an emotional night for Roethlisberger, the City of Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation and the team’s global fan base. In the end it was special, not just because of the win, but because of the way the Steelers secured victory: Hollywood could not have scripted it better.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

Ben Roethlisberger built his career at going against the grain. Quarterbacks are supposed to go down easy. Roethlisberger never relented. Defensive contact with a quarterback is supposed to disrupt his passing. Not Roethlisberger, especially early in his career, when he became more accurate after being touched by a defender.

  • And so it is at the end.

It’s easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that precious few football players get to leave the game on their own terms. Yes, a finite few like Jerome Bettis go out hoisting the Lombardi. Others pick their own time. But of the few that choose when they leave the game, fewer yet choose how they leave the game.

  • As he has throughout his career, Roethlisberger proved he stood apart from most other football players.

Which isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger dominated against the Browns. He did not. Yes, he hit Diontae Johnson with laser like precision to get the Steelers their first, first half touchdown in 4 games. Yes, he helped connected with Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud to convert Ahkello Witherspoon interception into a Chris Boswell field goal late in the first half.

But on this night, Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passes were either off target or his receivers just couldn’t hold on to them (see Chase Claypool – although credit Cleveland’s DBs.)

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

When asked about how his horrendously and historically bad run defense shut down Cleveland’s potent rushing attack, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained, “…we played a lot of people and everybody put their hand in the pile and made the necessary plays.”

The key phrase above is “everyone put their hand in the pile.” Everyone did, but the usual suspects struck first.

Cam Heyward helped end two Browns drives by deflecting passes when the score was 0-0. Later, ended the Brown’s first drive of the second half with a sack.

After the Steelers tried and failed to convert on 4th down, T.J. Watt sacked Baker Mayfield for a 10 yard loss on third down (oh, and Watt deflected a pass on the previous play.) Later, when the Browns were sniffing scoring range at the end of the first half, Watt sacked Mayfield on 3rd and 2.

  • Chris Boswell knocked in field goals of 30, 50 and 48 yards.

All excellent plays made at critical moments from the players you’d expect to make them. But they got plenty of help.

  • Corliss Waitman boomed off punts and staked a claim to pushing Pressley Harvin off the team
  • Alex Highsmith came up with 2 sacks and tackled Nick Chubb for a loss on a critical drive
  • J.C. Hassenauer stepped in at center and the Steelers saw their best line play since October
  • Derek Watt converted a 4th and 1
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk batted down a pass
  • Forgotten players like Ulysees Gilbert III came off the bench to contain Cleveland’s rushing attack
Alex Highsmith, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Alex Highsmith sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The rushing attack? Yes, you might remember that. It once provided the foundation for 5 Steelers Super Bowls and  formed a potent part of the “Killer Bees.” After making guest appearances in fits and starts during October, the Steelers rushing attack has been AWOL since.

Reestablishing the run was one of Art Rooney II’s chief goals this season, and the Steelers have struggled to comply. But even at its bleakest moments, rookie Najee Harris has shown that, behind a competent offensive line, he can be special.

Najee Harris was special against the Browns, turning would-be losses into gains, and ripping off runs of 13, 14, 30 and 10 yards, and he was only getting warmed up – and this was on a night where he rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries.

And Ending to Treasure

When the Steelers went up 19 to 7 with 5:28 left to play in the 4th quarter, the game seemed to be well in hand. When the Steelers hit Baker Mayfield with back-to-back sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, it seemed to be official.

But then the Browns got a pass interference penalty called against Joe Haden. Another one in the Red Zone brought them to the one. The Browns scored, but Minkah Fitzpatrick collected the on-sides kick.

  • The Browns had two time outs, but the Steelers only needed one first down.

Najee Harris ran for 4 yards on 1st and 4 yards on second. Cleveland could not stop the clock and a first down would seal the game for the Steelers. Harris cut to his right, it was clear he would get the two yards. But then he broke out to the second level and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s last play would be a handoff for a touchdown….

…Except it wouldn’t. The Browns got the ball back, only for Baker Mayfield to bounce a pass off of Austin Hooper that Tre Norwood intercepted.

Ten seconds remained on the clock, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to step on to Heinz Field one last time, taking a knee in the Victory Formation.

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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