Steelers Report Card for the Chiefs Win – Enjoying the Manic Side of Schizophrenia

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is enjoying the manic surge of his schizophrenic students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Daniel Sorensen, Steelers Report Card Chiefs

Daniel Sorensen’s bobble is Antonio Brown’s bounty in the Steelers win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was better than he was last week against the Jaguars and perhaps than he’s been better before. Fewer passes sailed on him, and if he got lucky on his touchdown pass, he also was unlucky yon his one interception. Still, if reports are correct, Roethlisberger check out of run plays in the Red Zone and the team could not convert. The Steelers also struggled on third downs. Grade: C

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell’s Hall of Fame caliber talent had been missing all year…. Until he stepped on to the turf at Arrowhead. How good was Le’Veon Bell? Try the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 9 and converting. Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards on 32 carries and willed his way into the end zone. James Conner ran twice for 14 yards while Terrell Watson converted a third and short. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt Nix paved the way for much of the day. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald’s taken a lot of criticism since arriving here via trade, but he made his presence felt as a blocker, and caught a critical 26 yard pass while the Steelers were in the end zone. Jesse James didn’t have a pass thrown his way, but the running backs don’t have the kind of day they did if the tight ends fail to block. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there any doubt that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver? There should be none in Steelers Nation. Antonio Brown’s 51 yard touchdown has to rank as one of his top career catches, which says a lot. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 3 passes for 32 yards and is showing himself to be an effective blocker. Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards. Thus far Ben Roethlisberger has only established a rapport with 84, and we’ll err on the side of assuming that the responsibly lies with him and not the other receivers. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
When you pay 23 million plus to field an offensive line, this is the type of road grading that you expect to see. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t simply better, so were the men up front. Whether it was Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pulling or Alejandro Villanueva protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, the Steelers offensive line got it done. The third down sack that the Steelers allowed which ended Pittsburgh’s first drive is the unit’s lone blemish. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line didn’t produce the kind of numbers that make fantasy owners happy (to the extent that Fantasy Football even bothers with defense), but it would be fool hardy to overlook the devastating performance of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers defense neutered the NFL’s leading rusher, and they made it look easy. That starts with the boys up front. Stephon Tuitt also had a critical pass defensed late in the game. Grade: A

Linebackers
In case anyone had any doubts, James Harrison proved that age hasn’t robbed him of his decisive, play making capability, as Harrison downed Alex Smith on the penultimate play. Vince Williams was playing as a one-man wrecking crew racking up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage before getting injured. Ryan Shazier had 4 tackles and got his hands on Smith’s last pass. Tyler Matakevich looked good in relief of Williams. An excellent day by the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton had another fine day coming in with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Hilton may be small, but he simply makes plays. Joe Haden got his hand on a pass, but otherwise was invisible… which is good for a corner. Artie Burns stepped up to break up two key passes early on, although he blew the coverage and missed a tackle on the Chief’s touchdown drive. Mike Mitchell also caused a costly roughing the passer play (although he might have been pushed by Anthony Chickillo). The Steelers secondary had a good day, but the Chief’s 4th quarter touchdown surge drops their grade a notch. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and Chris Boswell hit all of his kicks, but other than that the Steelers special teams did little to distinguish themselves. First, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a miscue after the Steelers safety which had the net effect of turning a 2 point advantage into a 1 point deficit. Then Brown almost muffed a fair catch. The Chiefs also had a 32 yard punt return late in the game which brought Kansas City to midfield for his final drive. These special teams mishaps could have been more costly. Grade: D

Coaching
The Haley haters who’ve been clamoring to see more Roosevelt Nix and rushing out of the I-Formation got their wish. The Steelers ran the ball early and often and with great effectiveness. Nonetheless, too many drives stall in the end zone, and the Steelers offense is struggling to convert 3rd downs.

  • The Steelers offense found a way to win, but the unit only managed to put 17 points on the board.

Keith Butler had his unit primed and ready to play. The Steelers went into the living room of the NFL’s best offense and completely shut them down in the first half – had it been a amateur wrestling matching the defense would have scored a technical fall. While its true that Kansas City’s late touchdown came a little too easily, it is also true that the Steelers defense got stuck defending a short field with two minutes left to play and completely stone walled the Chiefs.

Mike Tomlin certainly deserves criticism for the up and down nature of the Steelers performances this season, but Pittsburgh’s hardly provides a unique case in 2017’s NFL. Losses such as the one against the Jaguars and have a nasty ripple effect (see November/December 2009), yet Mike Tomlin prevented that by arriving at Arrowhead with a strong game plan whose execution more than anything else revolved around controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers won those battles, and won the game because of it. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman’s been quiet thus far in 2017 and in fact has been called out for lapses in any number of post-game film analysis on several occasions. But he’ll earn no such criticism from the Jon Leydard’s of the world this week, as he led the team in tackles, and came away with a critical pass defense in the end zone on 4th and Goal. For that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Chiefs.

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Returning to Their Roots Steelers Beat Chiefs 19-13 with Physical Football

The Pittsburgh Steelers walked in to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that opened questions about who they are and what they’re legitimately able to accomplish this season.

  • Their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was playing at home with an 5-0 record and a claim to “best team so far.”

In short, things weren’t expected to get any easier for the Steelers. And they didn’t get any easier. But the Steelers walked out of Kansas City with a 19-13 win and Steelers Nation can count this as one victory where the means to a “W” are just as important as the win itself.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, Frank Zombo, Steelers vs Chiefs

Alejandro Villaneuva stones Frank Zombo as Ben Roethlisberger connects with Antonio Brown for a TD. Photo Credit: Chaz Pallas

Steelers Define Identity Part I: Defense

By any measure, the Kansas City Chiefs figured to offer the Steelers defense a stiff test. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play. Their quarterback Alex Smith would win the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide were the voting head prior to today and their running back Kareem Hunt was leading the NFL in rushing yards.

In contrast, commentators both inside and outside of Pittsburgh had suggested that the Steelers defense was set to broach elite status, only to see Keith Butler‘s boys get gouged on the ground in Chicago and again against Jacksonville.

The Chiefs gift wrapped 2 points to the Steelers with an errant snap that flew through the end zone, but Pittsburgh gift wrapped them right back by muffing the ensuing punt. If the script from the previous four games was to be followed, instead of starting the game 9, or even 10 to zero, the Steelers would instead start it 7-2.

  • But this Steelers defense took the field intent on writing its own script.

The Steelers defense yielded only a handful of yards, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Instead staring at 7-2, the Steelers got the ball back only looking at a 1 point deficit. And that was the story of the first three and a half quarters. The Steelers defense went into the home of the NFL’s most potent offense and proceeded to:

  • Hold the Chiefs to under 250 yards, which includes their late game surge
  • Not allow a first down until the tail end of the first half
  • Neuter Kareem Hunt, holding him to 21 yards
  • Rip a would be touchdown on 4th and goal out of the receiver’s hands
  • Unleash James Harrison to sack Alex Smith on the second to last play of the game

What stands out when looking at the stats is that the Steelers did this without forcing a turnover, and by only sacking the quarterback twice prior to the final drive. While Artie Burns had some smart pass breakups and Mike Hilton was devastating behind the line of scrimmage, the Steelers defense shut down the NFL’s number one offense without a lot of “Splash plays.”

James Harrison, Alex Smith, Eric Fisher, Holding James Harrison, James Harrison Alex Smith Sack, Steelers vs Chiefs

Even Chiefs Eric Fisher holding can’t stop James Harrison from sacking Alex Smith with game on the line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Instead, they excelled by executing on the fundamentals, led by Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt disrupting things upfront, while everyone else behind them simply “did their job.”

The Steelers defense was far from perfect. Kansas City’s lone touchdown drive came much too easily, with missed tackles galore. Comparisons to the ’85 Bears remain a ways off. But against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense proved it can close tight games on the road against a high-octane octane offense playing in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums.

That ladies and gentleman, represents a significant step forward for this young Steelers defense.

Steelers Define Identity Part II: Offense

It is no secret that something has been missing from the Steelers offense thus far in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were supposed to give the NFL its most fearsome offensive quartet this side of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and John Stallworth.

  • 30 points a game was supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling.

The Steelers victory over the Chiefs didn’t come close to transforming that 30 point margin from a pipedream into a reality. But the Steelers offense nonetheless found something important with their win over the Chiefs:

  • They reestablished the run, and they did it with Le’Veon Bell looking like he did a year ago.

While Ben Roethlisberger has born the brunt of the criticism for the Steelers offensive woes thus far, number 7 was far from the only player who was under performing. Thus far this year, Le’Veon Bell has looked average at times, good at others, but he hasn’t flashed anything like the Hall of Fame talent that was so evident just one season ago.

  • That changed against the Chiefs, and changed to the tune of 179 yards on 32 carries.

Indeed, going into the half, Bell had more yards than the entire Kansas City offense. Bell’s wasn’t the only running back to shine. James Conner got two carries, and looked sharp running the ball, and Terrell Watson converted a third and short.

  • The Steelers also reestablished the run without falling into the trap of being one-dimensional.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald 1st Steelers pass, Steelers vs Chiefs

Vance McDonald catches his first pass for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Ben Roethlisberger’s 26 yard pass to Vance McDonald while standing in his own end zone might have been the most important completion of the afternoon. With that said, balance still eludes the Steelers offense. While he did manage to hit Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the success of the Steelers passing game largely hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown.

  • Roethlisberger did that often enough and, quite frankly, can thank his lucky stars that he has someone as talented as Number 84 to catch his passes.

By and large the beauty of the day came in the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball and get it often. More often than not, they failed because the Steelers imposed their will.

Time for Steelers to Take Step Forward Not Back

The Steelers responded to an ugly loss to the Bears with a convincing win over the Ravens. Two weeks later they responded to an uglier loss to the Jaguars with a hard fought win against the Chiefs. Perhaps what was most important was the way the Steelers responded:

  • By reestablishing their identity as a physical team on both sides of the ball.

That amounts to a step forward for Mike Tomlin’s team, but it is a step forward that the Steelers must sustain. A win next week over the Cincinnati Bengals will go a long way defining whether the 2017 Steelers are a team that mumbles in mediocrity or one that asserts its will.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Chiefs Victory

Its that time again Steelers Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers limped into Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following their humiliating defeat at Heinz Field at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars and emerged with a hard-fought 19-13 win over the Chiefs.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs game balls

Le’Veon Bell forces his way into the End Zone in the 2nd quarter of the Steelers win over the Chiefs

As we do after every Steelers win, we give you citizens of Steelers Nation a chance to vote Steelers game ball winners.

Which Steelers deserve game balls for the win over the Chiefs (multiple votes allowed)

While Ben Roethlisberger certainly didn’t play his best game vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, he did look far better than he had the week before. But Ben Roethlisberger’s best move was perhaps to hand the ball to Le’Veon Bell, who looked like his old self in rushing for 179 yards on 32 carries. Big Ben’s next move was to throw the ball to Antonio Brown, who looked simply spectacular in torching the Chief’s defense for 8 catches for 155 yards which included an electrifying 51 yard touchdown.

  • Tight end Vance McDonald also gets a nod. He only had one catch, but it was an important one that got the Steelers out of their own goal line.

Those four men earn ballot positions for the offense, but remember, you can write in James Conners, Terrell Watson, Martavis Bryant or any other offensive player you wish.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sean Davis earns a ballot slot for leading the team in tackles and defensing a pass in the end zone. Vince Williams also gets a nod, thank to his smart two sack performance prior to leaving the game with an injury.  James Harrison also gets a nod, thanks to his critical sack on third down during the Chief’s final drive.

  • Remember, you’re not limited to these choices.

Think that Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt or Cameron Heyward deserve a game ball? No problem, write their names in. Better yet, leave a comment stating your case.

Thanks in advance for voting, and be sure to check back later for Steel Curtain Rising’s full analysis of the Steelers win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead.

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Late Steelers Report Card for Jaguars Loss – Never Too Tardy to Give out F’s…

Taken from the gradebook of a very tardy teacher who fears that his once sharp star student has quite frankly lost his edge, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Calais Campbell, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 5 interceptions, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger tried to ward off the Jaguars Calais Campbell. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Quarterback
“Maybe I’ve lost it…” Ben Roethlisberger responded to a question about his poor play. While that was a stream of conscious utterance (as opposed to Mike Ditka’s tearful admission that he’d lost it as New Orleans Saints coach), Ben Roethlisberger certainly spoke what has been on everyone’s mind. The Steelers are 5 games into the 2017 season, and Ben Roethlisberger has been subpar, at best, in at least four of them. A couple of three of his 5 interceptions might not have been completely his fault, those compensate throws in earlier games defenders should have picked off. Statistics say this was Ben Roethlisberger’s worst day as a pro. Sometimes statistics reveal brutal truths. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell’s taken it upon himself to pronounce that the Steelers offense must rush, and if Ben Roethlisberger’s begun his definitive decline, then that argument makes sense on paper. But after a strong game against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell did little to distinguish himself. True, the Steelers went from being in a position to rush for protect a lead to playing from two scores behind in a blink of an eye. But unlike the Dolphins game a year ago, there was nothing about Bell’s play that suggested he could have taken it over. James Conners had 3 carries for 9 yards in garbage time, he also missed a block on a Roethlisberger’s first interception. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 3 catches on 5 targets for 24 yards showing himself to be a fairly reliable ball catcher, but one who struggles to gain yards after contact. Jones also missed a key block in the Red Zone that could have paved the way for a Le’Veon Bell touchdown. Vance McDonald was targeted on the first interception and did not see a pass come his way. The tight end did not distinguish themselves in this game. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown negated by a penalty. Brown continues to be Ben Roethlisberger’s only reliable receiver and the question of whether is forcing the ball to Brown or remains open. Martavis Bryant gained 13 yards on a reverse, and had 5 catches for 21yards. Thus far, Bryant has shown none of the game-changing explosiveness he flashed before his suspension. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 58 yards. Justin Hunter had 1 catch for 6 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C

Offensive Line
While the Jaguars only sacked Ben Roethlisberger 2, they hit him five times and he was under duress much of the afternoon. Jaguars defenders also made at least 7 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during the game. The Steelers have invested big bucks in their offensive line, and are got precious little return on investment in terms of both pass protection and road grading run blocking. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Pro Football Focus may have graded the Steelers defensive line out highly, but the fact is that the Jacksonville Jaguars rushed for 231 yards. Even if you take out the 90 yard run in garbage time, the Jaguars still averaged 3.9 yards per carry. The defensive line might not entirely be at fault for that, but they certainly share some of the responsibly. Grade: D

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and had a sack. T.J. Watt registered another sack, giving him 3 in four games. Ryan Shazier had what should have been a game-changing interception. Those are all positives, but the linebackers job is to keep running backs from reaching the second level, and the Steelers linebackers weren’t up to the task. Grade: C-

Secondary
Blake Bortles completed 8 passes for 95 yards. Normally that would mark an outstanding day for any secondary, but the brutal truth is that the Jaguars didn’t need to throw the ball. Nonethless, the Jaguars still completed 3 passes for double digit yardage. And even if it was garbage time, the Steelers defensive backs must shoulder responsibility for allowing the 90 yard run. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and the Steelers coverage units didn’t well, although their return game was negligible and included at least one penalty that negated a return. Could a special teams spark have changed the outcome of the game for the Steelers? Possibly. But we’ll never know, because they didn’t produce one. Grade: C

Coaching
Todd Haley has been roundly roasted for his Red Zone play calling and the Steelers lopsided pass-run ratio.

  • Some of this criticism is legitimate, however, some of the breakdowns boil down to execution.

Regardless, the Steelers offense isn’t getting it done, and it is Haley’s job to ensure that this happens.

Going into game five, pundits, both inside and outside of Pittsburgh were posed to proclaim Keith Butler’s defense as an elite unit. After the game, several commentators were content to give Butler a pass, given that the Jaguars defense scored nearly half of the team’s points, and turnovers set up other scores.

Fair enough. But Keith Butler’s defense let the Jaguars open the with a 13 yard drive that consumed 8:07 off the clock when the score was still 20 to 9. That’s simply inexcusable and indicative of a defense that is anything but elite.

Finally we come to Mike Tomlin. Credit Tomlin for attempting to establish the tone immediately after the Raven’s road win by reminding his team that Jacksonville had beaten the Baltimore more badly than the Steelers had.

  • Once again, Tomlin’s motivation and preparation in the face of a supposedly inferior team failed him.

To be fair to Tomlin, if Ben Roethlisberger really is losing it, Le’Veon Bell has had a little too much tread worn of his tires and if Martavis Bryant lost something during his year-long suspension, that’s not something you can blame the head coach for.

  • But what about the poor play of the offensive line, and the consistently inconsistent execution of the defense?

The bottom line is that Steelers are performing poorly on an alarmingly consistent basis 5 games in to the 2017 season. And that comes back to the coach. Grade: F

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Steelers Report Card for Vikings Win – The Yin & Yang of Under and Over Achievement

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher struggling to understand the yin-yangish overachievement-underachievement dynamic of his new class here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home opening win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Steelers vs Vikings, Tyler Matekevich, Steelers stop fake punt,

Tyler Matakevich stops a fake punt attempt to Blake Bell during the Steelers win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled to find rhythm early as evidenced by the Steelers 4 first half punts, although he did throw two touchdown passes and made a vertical strike downfield. On the day, Ben Roethlisberger 23 of 35 for 243 no interceptions and no sacks. He threw a few questionable passes, but none had any negative consequences. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Tony Defeo authored this site’s admonishment not to fret over Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, and we stand by that. But Bell’s ineffectiveness as both a running and a pass catcher makes it hard to not think that a little more bit of practice in July and August would have made for a little more of “perfect” in August. Le’Veon Bell improved against the Browns and appeared to run stronger as the game continued but he’s nowhere near his ’16 level. James Conner had one carry for 9 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble had one pass thrown to him that was caught but negated by a penalty. Jesse James got the starting nod, and was in sync with Roethlisberger early on catching four balls on 5 targets. However, Jesse James appeared to struggle as a blocker at times. He must improve there. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Has Mike Zimmer unlocked the key to shutting down Antonio Brown? That’s probably going to far, but it did take several quarters for Antonio Brown to get in a grove, although he did draw a key pass interference penalty. As did Martavis Bryant, who made the Vikings pay for progress towards shutting Brown down with a touchdown and a 51 yard field flipping play that set up another. JuJu Smith-Schuster made 3 catches, threw a key block, although he had 3 penalties called on him. Eli Rogers helped keep drives alive in the second half. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
While they might not be the Purple People Eaters, the Vikings have a strong front seven and the Steelers offensive line did an adequate job of giving Ben Roethlisberger protection, although pass protection did break down on a number of occasions. Two weeks into the season, their run blocking is remains below par. The Steelers have invested the salary cap space in their offensive line to get road grading quality run blocking, and that is not happening. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 home opener, Case Keenum

Cam Heyward pressures Case Keenum in the Steelers 2017 home opening win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
Can you imagine how good the defensive line would have been last year had Cam Heyward not gotten hurt. Against the Vikings, Heyward acted as a one man wrecking crew. His stats might appear modest, but he disrupted and/or stopped cold everything Minnesota tried to do. His counterparts also also had quiet days on the stat sheet, but don’t be fooled, this unit played well. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt didn’t have a sack, but did end a drive with a batted down pass. In contrast, Bud Dupree had also batted down a pass and did register a sack, as did Vince Williams later in the game. T.J. Watt couldn’t finish the game due to a groin injury, but Anthony Chickillo stepped in and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat. Ryan Shazier led the linebackers in tackles, and defensed a pass. Grade: B+

Secondary
Artie Burns made a heads up play behind the line of scrimmage, showing just how fast he’s developing. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and got a lick in on the quarterback. Sean Davis was second on the team in tackles, but has been figured as the one who lost containment on the Minnesota’s long run. You didn’t hear Joe Hayden’s name much and that’s good for a corner often. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Specials teams isn’t the difference maker it once was. The extra point has become so rote that the NFL had to change the rules. They’re doing the same on kick returns. But if that’s the case, the truth is that a big special teams play can dramatically shift the momentum of a game.

A week ago Tyler Matakevich caused a big special teams play with a blocked punt, and against the Vikings he prevented another by stopping a fake punt.

While Chris Boswell was perfect as a punter, and Jordan Berry was solid, the coverage units did allow longer than you’d like returns (although they did down a punt at the Vikings on). Eli Rogers likewise attempted to field a punt he needed to fair catch, and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned one kick he probably should have downed. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin,

Steelers head coach Mike Tomiln. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Coaching
While it is true that Keith Butler’s defense really hasn’t been tested by a marquee offense yet, that doesn’t change the fact that his unit still had a strong outing. It true that Minnesota did have one touchdown drive that looked easier than it should, but the Steelers defense got off the field on third down, harassed the quarterback and shut down the run.

  • If Todd Haley’s game plan was easier to understand in week two, his unit’s execution remains uneven.

Early in the game, the Steelers offense couldn’t sustain drives and seemingly needed two long pass interference plays to set up touchdowns. In the second half, the Steelers found more rhythm but had to settle for four field goals. Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line do not appear to be on the same page.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin seemed to acknowledge that the Steelers remain a work in progress, something which he has been saying since the summer. You can argue that this shouldn’t be the case for a team that finished one game short of the Super Bowl, but credit the coach for understanding where his team is, and ensuring that his player execute sufficiently well to win. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
For ten years Steelers Nation got accustomed to seeing number 94 as one of those defenders who would always appear in same camera frame as the ball. That number of course belonged to Lawrence Timmons who acted as a force for stability and consistency during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

  • Timmons has of course moved on, and now there’s a new number 94.

Tyson Alualu now wears number 94 and it was plenty visible on Sunday afternoon, as Alualu played well enough Stephon Tuitt’s absence wasn’t really felt. Mike Tomlin preaches that “The Standard is the Standard” and that the “Next Man Up” should be capable of a winning performance. Tyson Alualu breathed life into his coach’s credo, and that’s why he’s the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Vikings.

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Fall to 2-1 in Preseason Following 19-15 Loss to Colts Saturday Night

In the now famous dress-rehearsal, the Steelers took on but ultimately succumbed to the Colts at Heinz Field in their third preseason game Saturday night.

  • Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saw his first preseason action against Indianapolis, as did receiver Antonio Brown, and they were joined by the entire starting offensive line.

Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and moved effortlessly down the field on the legs of running back Knile Davis, who had runs of 11 and 10 yards on the drive, along with a nine-yard gain on a short pass from Roethlisberger.

Seany Davis, Philipy Dorset, Steelers Colts preseason

Seany Davis battles Philipy Dorset but can’t quite get the interception. Photo Credit: WTHR.com

However, on first and 10 from the 33, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was badly beaten on the outside by linebacker John Simon, who hit Ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble that defensive end Hassan Ridgeway recovered at the 33.

      • The Colts then proceeded to march 63 yards on just four plays and went ahead 7-0 on a one-yard run by veteran back Frank Gore.

Pittsburgh answered with an 11-play, 57-yard drive that culminated in a 36-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell to pull the Steelers to within four points.

Two series would be it for the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, who completed six of nine passes for 73 yards, and Antonio Brown, who pulled in two passes for 28 yards.

The Colts again moved the ball down the field in a fairly effortless fashion, but after reaching the 27 yard line, a short pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien was picked off by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who returned it 12 yards to the Steelers’ 20.

With Landry Jones now in for Roethlisberger, the Steelers notched another field goal in the second quarter, while the Colts added two of  their own, and the visitors went into the locker room with a 13-6 halftime lead.

On the Steelers first possession of the second half, Jones, seeing his first preseason action after missing the first two games with an oblique injury, led the Steelers on an eight-play scoring drive that ended when he found tight end Xavier Grimble in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass.

      • Unfortunately, Chris Boswell’s extra point was no-good, and the Steelers still trailed by one point.

The Steelers finally went ahead on their following drive, thanks to Boswell’s third field goal of the night, this time from 37 yards out, but the Colts quickly answered by marching 86 yards on 14 plays and scored on a Josh Ferguson one-yard plunge to make it 19-15 (Adam Vinatieri‘s extra point was no good).

The Steelers appeared poised to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter, after pass interference was called on Colts cornerback Chris Culliver, who was trying to cover rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

      • Since the foul occurred in the end zone, Pittsburgh had it first and goal with 4:36 remaining.

However, one play later, Landry Jones’ pass intended for Smith-Schuster was intercepted in the end zone by Chris Milton, and the Colts held on for a 19-15 victory.

      • It was a nice enough debut for Landry Jones, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Running back Terrell Watson led the way with 40 yards rushing on eight carries, while James Conner and Davis added 26 and 21 yards, respectively.

  • Eli Rogers perhaps cemented his role as the slot receiver catching five passes for 58 yards.

It wasn’t a great night for the Steelers defense which failed to generate much of a pass rush (just one sack split by James Harrison and Vince Williams) and yielded 257 yards through the air. The Steelers shook up their secondary in the week leading up to the game, but neither Coty Sensabaugh nor Ross Cockrell stepped up to distinguish themselves.

Next up for the Steelers is their annual preseason finale against the Panthers this Thursday night at Carolina.

 

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Steelers Improve to 2-0 in 2017 Preseason in Thrilling 17-13 Win over Falcons @ Heinz Field

It wasn’t the prettiest performance for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who opened the Heinz Field portion of their 2017 preseason schedule against the NFC Champion Falcons Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., but in the end, they left with a 17-13 victory, thanks to special teams heroics and a second half shutout by the defense.

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Matt Ryan started at quarterback for Atlanta, and on his one and only offensive series, he led a 10-play, 91-yard drive that culminated in a five-yard touchdown run by Terron Ward to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

  • On the drive, Ryan completed a very efficient four of six passes for 57 yards, as Atlanta averaged over nine yards a play and converted its only third down of the series.

Following Jordan Berry‘s second punt to open the game, veteran quarterback Matt Schaub replaced Ryan before quickly exiting with what appeared to be a hand injury. In his place, third-string quarterback Matt Simms directed the Falcons the rest of the drive, which ended with a 23-yard field goal by veteran kicker Matt Bryant and a 10-0 lead for the visitors.

Pittsburgh’s next drive resulted in its only points of the first half, as third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs, starting in place of veteran Ben Roethlisberger and injured backup Landry Jones, led the offense on an eight-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in a 42-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that cut Atlanta’s lead to seven points.

The big play on the drive was a 23-yard hookup between Dobbs and receiver Martavis Bryant, who made his 2017 preseason debut after being reinstated by the NFL following a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

  • The Falcons reestablished their 10-point lead thanks to a second field goal by Bryant, this time from 26 yards away.

However, the Steelers special teams provided some sparks near the end of the first half.

After nearly blocking a punt on Atlanta’s penultimate drive of the second quarter, fullback and special teams ace Roosevelt Nix did one better by blocking a punt on the final play of the first half, as both teams headed to the locker room with the visitors ahead, 13-3.

Overall, it was a pretty bleak first half by the home team, as Atlanta racked up 259 total yards to Pittsburgh’s 76–including 211 vs. 58 through the air.

  • The Falcons also converted on five of nine third downs, while the Steelers were a paltry one of six in the same category.

The two teams exchanged punts on the first four possessions of the second half, but the Steelers soon closed to within three points on Atlanta’s third possession, thanks to a 64-yard punt return by reserve running back Trey Williams, whose only shot of making the squad may be on special teams.

Following an interception on an ill-advised decision by Dobbs, who was trying to shuffle a pass to tight end Jake McGee while being taken to the turf on a third and short play, second-year safety Jordan Dangerfield provided some heroics by picking off Simms on Atlanta’s very next play to help preserve a three-point deficit.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons faced a third and long from their own six-yard line. As he was about to be taken to the end zone turf by a blitzing Mike Hilton, Simms unleashed a pass that appeared to land short of the line of scrimmage. However, instead of a safety, the officials ruled the play incomplete because Simms’ pass hit a Steelers player before fluttering innocently to the ground.

No problem, as fourth-string quarterback Bart Houston directed the offense on a seven-play, 53-yard drive that resulted in a six-yard touchdown to receiver Justin Hunter, a free-agent acquisition in the offseason, who had turned some heads in the early stages of training camp.

Trey Williams

Trey Williams’ punt return helped brak the game against the Falcons. Photo Credit: Behind the Steelcurtain

The final crucial play of the game occurred with 2:14 remaining when a pass from Falcons’ fourth-stringer
Alek Torgeson bounded off the hands of his intended receiver and into the waiting arms of Jordan Dangerfield, who recorded his second interception of the day and all but wrapped up Pittsburgh’s second preseason victory.

In addition to Dangerfield and Williams, other stars of the game included reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, who recorded two sacks; and feel-good story, James Conner, as the rookie third round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh returned to his college home and carried the football 20 times for 98 yards.

As for the rookie Joshua Dobbs, his day was rather uneventful, as he completed 10 of 19 passes for just 70 yards, no touchdowns and the one interception.

Next up for the Steelers is a tilt against the Colts, as they close out the home portion of their preseason schedule next Saturday night at Heinz Field.

 

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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