Steelers Report Card Following Pittsburgh’s 17-7 Preseason Win vs. Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their 2019 preseason winning streak to 2-0 with a 17-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Staff writer Tony Defeo delivers his Report Card where he pulls no punches as he “calls it as he sees it.”

mason rudolph, steelers vs chiefs preseason, Darron Lee

Mason Rudolph evades Darron Lee. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, AP, PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the second-straight game, Ben Roethlisberger did not dress. Mason Rudolphstarted and played the majority of the first half. Like a week earlier, Rudolph looked much more confident and comfortable in Randy Fichtner’s offense. On the night, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards. His night could have been even better, had he not been victimized by some drops and fumbles.

Joshua Dobbs entered the game late in the second quarter and, much like last week, he found James Washington downfield on a 43-yard pass. Late in the first half, just one play after hitting Eli Rogers on a pretty 25-yard pass, Dobbs was intercepted in the end zone on a high throw that was intended for rookie Diontae Johnson. As for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford entered the game early in the fourth quarter and completed just two of four passes. However, one of those passes was a pretty 24-yard touchdown to the rookie Johnson. Grade: B+

Running BacksSteelers, Report Card, grades,
James Conner got the start, and put in a workman like performance, with six carries for 28 yards. Second-year man Jaylen Samuels looked really good, as he tallied four carries for 26 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. As for Benny Snell Jr., the rookie from Kentucky carried seven times for 16 yards. But even though it was another quiet night, he did look decent on blitz pick ups. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started the game but didn’t have any receptions. As for Washington, the second-year man continued to shine, tallying four receptions for 78 yards. Donte Moncrief, the veteran free agent pick-up fumbled the only pass that he caught on the night.

After missing the Buccaneers game with an injury, the rookie Dionte Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Johnson would have had another score, but it was called back on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers kept his hat in the ring in the competition for the slot receiver role, with two catches for 31 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Veteran Vance McDonald started and had just five yards on one reception that he fumbled out of bounds. Xavier Grimble didn’t do much to inspire hope that he can be the number two tight end, catching one pass for 13 yards and showing the old alligator arms while dropping another. Rookie Kevin Rader had two receptions for 20 yards, but he also committed a holding penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Most of the starters played and put in a good night’s work. As for the work put in at right tackle by Chukwuma Okorafor, the second-year man from Western Michigan continued to struggle in his bid to win the swing-tackle job, and he was beaten badly on the Chiefs’ lone sack on the night. Grade: B

Defensive Line
There were no standout performers on the defensive line, but Stephon Tuitt started his first game of the preseason, while Javon Hargrave started his second. Rookie Isaiah Buggs recorded two tackles, while Daniel McCullers, the veteran whose job he could possibly take, did nothing noteworthy. Grade: C

Linebackers
Rookie sensation Devin Bush was held out of the Chiefs’ game for unspecified reasons, but the linebackers continued to shine, especially the outside linebackers. Starting his first game of the preseason, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his career–preseason or otherwise–as he recorded three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was a handful all night, as was T.J. Watt, who seemed to be in the backfield often and recorded two quarterback hits. As for Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie continued to push for a spot on the roster by posting a sack and recovering a fumble. Mark Barron started again at inside linebacker and looked decent in pass coverage. Tyler Matakevich also started and led the defense in tackles with seven. He didn’t look so hot in pass coverage, as he had a hard time keeping up with Chiefs tight end Deon Yelder on a 25-yard catch and run. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III had another active night, posting four tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden did not start. Veteran free-agent pick-up Steven Nelson did and looked decent in coverage. Surprisingly, so did fourth-year man Artie Burns, who started at corner, opposite Nelson. Burns had one pass defensed and forced a fumble while making a tackle in run support. Mike Hilton didn’t dazzle in pass coverage, but he was his usual disruptive self while blitzing. Cam Sutton recorded two tackles–including one for loss–but was victimized in coverage on Kansas City’s lone touchdown. As for the safeties, Sean Davis got his first start of the preseason, posting two tackles and recovering a fumble. Jordan Dangerfield posted two tackles, while Kam Kelly had one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell didn’t have any field goal attempts on the night, but he did convert on both of his extra point tries. Matthew Wright connected on his lone field goal try from 46 yards away.

Jordan Berry averaged 45.7 yards on three punts, while Ian Berryman averaged 36 on two, downing one inside the 20.

It was a quiet night for kick-returner Johnny Holton, who averaged 36 yards on two returns. The rookie Johnson nearly fumbled while fielding his first punt and only tallied 11 yards on three returns. As for Diontae Spencer, he again looked like a real find, returning two for 49 yards–including one for 38. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
It’s hard not to go with Artie Burns for the night he turned in.

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Report Card for Steelers 2019 First Preseason Win Over Tampa Bay

The Steelers started off their 2019 season on the right foot with a 30-28 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field. Here our how everyone graded out on our Report Card. 

Devin Bush Jr., Steelers preseason debut, Peyton Barber

Devin Bush stops Peyton Barber cold. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks

To the surprise of no one, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start for the Steelers as they took on the Buccaneers at Heinz Field Friday night in the first preseason action of 2019. Joshua Dobbs did, and he was succeeded by Mason Rudolph, who was succeeded by growing camp darling, Delvin Hodges. Dobbs probably looked the shakiest, as he completed five of eight passes for 85 yards. However, he did look great while hooking up with James Washington on a 43-yard strike early in the first quarter.

  • Dobbs also showed off his running prowess, as he set up a field goal with a 36-yard scramble in the second quarter.

Mason Rudolph came on in the second quarter and also completed five of eight passes but for 91 yards and two scores. Rudolph’s first touchdown pass came on a beautiful back-shoulder throw to Washington late in the first half. He showed great patience on his second, as he found rookie tight end Zach Gentry alone in the back of the end zone early in the third quarter.

As for Hodges, he completed 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards and an eight-yard touchdown strike to Tevin Jones early in the fourth quarter. Overall, it was a decent performance by all three youngsters, as they battle it out for the roles of backup and third-string quarterback. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs

There was nothing to write home about, as James Conner sat out the night’s action, and Joshua Dobbs was actually the leading rusher with 44 yards on two carries. Rookie fourth-round pick, Benny Snell Jr. got the bulk of the action, gaining 26 yards on 13 attempts, while posting another 25 yards on two receptions. As for Jaylen Samuels, the second-year man carried just twice for 21 yards, while Trey Edmunds, Terrell’s brother, carried five times for 19 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers

Obviously, Washington stood out, as he showed great hands and body-control, while pulling in four passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. Johnny Holton, the return specialist the Steelers signed this summer, put himself on the radar with two receptions for 69 yards–including a dazzling 59-yard catch and run early in the third quarter that set up a touchdown. Tevin Jones and Diontae Spencer were the only other contributors among the receiving corps, as they caught three passes apiece for 24 and 17 yards, respectively. Grade: B-

Tight Ends

Xavier Grimble didn’t see much action, while Zack Gentry caught three passes for 17 yards and a score. Kevin Radar, battling for the third tight end spot, fumbled on his lone catch of the night. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Naturally, most of the veterans got the night off. As for the subs, many of whom are trying to break through as super reserves, they did fairly well in pass protection, only allowing two sacks on the night and very little pressure. But the running game didn’t benefit from many holes. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Javon Hargrave was the only starter to see action. Veteran reserve Tyson Alualu was penalized for roughing the passer on what looked like a questionable call. As for rookie sixth-round pick, Isaiah Buggs, he posted three tackles and recovered a fumble. Grade: C

Linebackers

It was a promising debut for inside linebacker Devin Bush, as he led the team in tackles with 10 and was in on a lot of the action all night. Tyler Matakevich forced a fumble on a sack. And Ulysees Gilbert III, a sixth-round pick from Akron, made a bit of a splash in his debut, recording 1.5 sacks and intercepting a pass on a two-point conversion. Ola Adeniyi combined with Bush to stop the Buccaneers short on a running play on fourth and one in the second quarter. Grade: B+

Secondary

Terrell Edmunds was the only regular who started in the secondary. Justin Layne, the rookie third-round corner from Michigan State, played a considerable amount and recorded eight tackles, but he missed one on the Buccaneers’ first touchdown of the night. Grade: C-

Special Teams

Chris Boswell carried his great camp over into his first preseason game, connecting on both of his field goal tries–including one from 47 yards out–and his lone extra point attempt. As for Matthew Wright, he made his lone field goal attempt from 42 yards away and connected on both of his extra point tries. Diontae Spencer returned two punts for 52 yards–including one for 30. As for the punters, incumbent Jordan Berry averaged 44.5 yards on two kicks, while Ian Berryman’s lone punt traveled 66 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Tyler Matakevich. While he’s always been a special teams ace, Matakevich has never shown much at his actual position of inside linebacker. But he did record a strip-sack on Friday that was recovered by the Steelers.

 

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4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

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Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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Did Steelers Meet ALL Their Needs in the 2019 NFL Draft? No. Now Chill Out

With the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, one may wonder how well the Pittsburgh Steelers did in terms of improving their team for a championship run.

As is always the case this time of year, the opinions on that are mixed. But what about specific needs? Did Pittsburgh adequately address every single one?

  • The answer is: Highly Unlikely.

And it would be foolish to expect a team to do that anyway–at least not with high draft picks. Coming into the draft, the three biggest needs were believed to be inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. And that’s why it was no surprise — despite general manager Kevin Colbert’s annual mantra of not necessarily drafting by need — that the Steelers used their first three draft choices to address those areas of their team.

On Thursday, the Steelers sent a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick (along with their own first-round pick, of course) to the Broncos in-order to move up in the first round to select Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick.

Devin Bush, Steelers 1st round pick 2019, Steelers Devin Bush trade

Steelers 2019 1st round pick Devin Bush of the Michigan Wolverines Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski, USA Today via Saturdaytradition.com

On Friday, the Steelers used their first of two third-round picks (the one acquired from the Raiders in the Antonio Brown trade) to select receiver Diontae Johnson out of Toledo. With their original third-round draft pick, the Steelers took cornerback Justin Layne out of Michigan State.

“What about the depth at outside linebacker, safety, running back and tight end?” asked many fans following the first three selections.

  • This is a natural reaction, because the second a team addresses one need, someone comes along to worry about another position.

But as the title of this article suggests, you can’t hit every team need with every premium (first, second or third-round) selection. Some may say, then, that it was a mistake to part ways with this year’s second-round pick in-order to move up and get Bush.

Fine, but then you don’t get Bush. You likely spend your first-round pick on another position–probably cornerback–and use a second or third-round pick on a lesser talent at the inside linebacker spot.

Some argue that, instead of drafting Benny Snell Jr., a running back out of Kentucky, in the fourth round, the Steelers should have addressed the depth–or lack thereof–at outside linebacker. The theory is you can get a number three running back–with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels firmly affixed at the top of the running back depth chart, that appears to be Snell’s ceiling at the moment — much later in the draft — or even as an undrafted uookie free agent.

True, but it all depends on how much Kevin Colbert and the coaching staff value depth at running back, a position that has been decimated by injuries at playoff-time in recent years.

It also depends on what they think of the depth at outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. It’s safe to say they already know what they have in Anthony Chickillo, a former sixth-round pick out of Miami who was converted from a defensive end. As for Keion Adams (a seventh-round pick in 2017) and Ola Adeniyi (an undrafted free agent in 2018), the coaches see them every day in practice.

  • Perhaps they feel that one or both can provide adequate depth in 2019. That is something we’ll find out once training camp commences this summer.

As for the rest of the draft, if you think Vance McDonald is your number one tight end heading into 2019–and based on his production and salary, there’s no reason to think he isn’t — it wouldn’t seem wise to spend a high pick on one, hence the selection of Michigan’s tight end Zach Gentry in the fifth round. Based on Gentry’s college production, his ceiling screams number two or three tight end.

  • But, again, maybe that’s all Zach Gentry’s ceiling needs to be.

When it comes to the final four picks, which include an undersized edge rusher (Sutton Smith out of Northern Illinois), a defensive tackle (Isaiah Buggs out of Alabama), another inside linebacker (Ulysees Gilbert III out of Akron) and an offensive tackle (Derwin Gray out of Maryland), most likely, you’re hoping for a couple of special teams demons and some depth in the trenches.

  • In other words, your typical end of Day 3 draft menu.

No draft is perfect, and no team is ever going to have one that is universally loved by the experts and fans alike. All you can hope for is that a team addresses its most pressing needs early.

The Steelers appear to have done that in the 2019 NFL Draft. Did they address those needs with the right players? Only time will tell.

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Steelers Draft Derwin Grey in 7th Round, Close 2019 Draft with Offensive Lineman from Maryland

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Gray an offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.

While it is tempting to writer off a 7th round offensive lineman as someone whose NFL dream rides on earning a practice squad spot, it was only in the 2012 NFL Draft that the Steelers ended up picking Kelvin Beachum, who was starting games at both guard and tackle before the season was over.

  • Truth be told, the Steelers 2019 offensive line figures to be much, much deeper than its 2012 predecessor.

Indeed, at lot of thing would need to go wrong for Derwin Gray to find himself protecting Ben Roethlisberger and/or opening holes for James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers are set with David DeCastro and Ramon Foster as their starters, with B.J. Finney entrenched as their top backup on the interior of the offensive line.

Derwin Grey, Steelers draft Derwin Grey

The Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Grey from the University of Maryland. Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer, USA Today

Beyond that, the Steelers have Matt Feiler who started 11 games for the Steelers at right tackle. With Marcus Gilbert now in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona, Matt Feiler is expected to battle Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting spot there.

  • Nonetheless, word is that the Steelers coaches consider Matt Feiler to be a more natural guard than tackle.

While the Steelers depth chart appears to be loaded with both quality players from end-to-end, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers will work Derwin Grey at both at guard and tackle.

Even late round offensive lineman have their own highlight tapes, and Derwin Grey is no exception:

Welcome to Steelers Nation Derwin Gray.

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Is Someone Listening in Pittsburgh? Steeler Draft Benny Snell, Running Back, Kentucky in 4th Round of 2019 Draft

Throughout much of the Tomlin era, and especially in over the past several seasons the Steelers, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choices, have skimped out on running back depth and it has cost them dearly in December.

  • Kevin Colbert took a step towards addressing that problem when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr., running back out of the University of Kentucky in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Although he scored 25 touchdowns, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and ran for just under 2,000 yards in two seasons for the Wildcats, Benny Snell performed poorly at the Combine, he had a 4.66 40 time, prompting some pre-draft analysts to take them off of their draft boards. Even his hometown paper concluded that Snell failed to help himself at the Combine.

Benny Snell Jr., Steelers 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. runs for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Bryan Woolston, AP via Yahoo! Sports

  • Clearly, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Randy Fichtner, new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner felt differently.

Here is a look at Benny Snell’s NCAA Highlight tape:

Clearly, Benny Snell likes to score touchdowns. In Pittsburgh Snell joins a backfield headed by James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, both of whom exceeded expectations in 2018. The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their roster, although Edmunds has never seen an NFL snap.

  • For the record, the Steelers also have Roosevelt Nix, who technically speaking is a running back, occupying the role of fullback.

During the 2018 season the Pittsburgh Steelers passed more than any other NFL team as Ben Roethlisberger threw 675 passes, far more than he’s ever thrown before.

While many commentators criticized Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner for abandoning the running, the imbalance in the Steelers offense began when it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would hold out for the entire season.

  • At that point the Steelers attempted to reduce James Conner’s workload in the hopes of avoiding injury.

That was the first sign that the Steelers brain trust realized that they take a differ approach to how they deployed their running backs. The decision to draft Benny Snell is a second sign and a step in the right direction.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Benny Snell Jr.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2019 NFL Draft is just hours away and when it does the Pittsburgh Steelers will have already logged one of the most unusual off seasons in franchise history.

  • They’ve traded away their best player for near fire sale value
  • The national media has piled on the team and its franchise quarterback
  • Kevin Colbert has been uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency

The latter point is the one that is most relevant one to keep in mind. A year ago the Steelers responded to the playoff disaster against Jacksonville by making piecemeal moves in free agency, and defying the critics and going offense heavy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

This year Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin moved swiftly to address the Steelers most glaring roster needs by signing cornerback Steven Nelson, inside linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

  • While Kevin Colbert denies those moves will impact the Steelers draft decisions, don’t believe him.

Whether the freshly signed free agents turn out to be the next Ladarius Greens and Mike Mitchells or the next James Farriors and Ryan Clarks isn’t relevant tonight. What is relevant is that the Steelers have inoculated themselves against having to reach to fill need in with one of their premium picks.

And just what are the Steelers needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft?

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs

Over the last month, with a whale of an effort from staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising has broken down the Steelers need on a position by position basis. Now that all is said and done, the Steelers areas of need break down into 3 tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

At the top you have cornerback and inside linebacker identified as areas of High-Moderate need, followed by wide receiver and running back which clock in at Moderate-High.

In the middle tier, you have tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and safety which are of Moderate need.

In the bottom tier you have offensive line which is of Low-Moderate need and quarterback which is of Low need.

There’s a lot of clustering there, so how do we break the ties? For that you have our annual Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix.

Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix

The premise of the Steelers draft needs matrix is simple – it is a guide to who the Steelers should pick in the event their on the clock and have two or more players with the same grade on them. Here is the Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix:

Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix, Steelers 2019 Draft Needs

Inside linebacker beats cornerback by a hair. Both are positions where the Steelers could and should draft to meet immediate future need. Inside linebacker wins out because the Steelers have more bodies at cornerback i.e. Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and dare we hope Artie Burns who could still contribute.

  • Whereas Jon Bostic is the only legitimate player behind Vince Williams and Mark Barron.

Running back will surprise many. And so it should. James Washington is the X factor in the quest to replace Antonio Brown. If he pans out as reporters and coaches assure use he will, the Steelers will be OK. If not, the Steelers will fall hard this autumn.

However, as is the case with inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers have more bodies at wide receiver than they do at running back. We’ve written time and time again how a dearth of running back depth as derailed the Steelers in December. Adding a third running back to play along side James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could go a long way to rectifying that chronic problem.

Wide receiver beats safety because of the above mentioned X factor and the simple reality that Ben Roethlisberger no longer has a Hall of Fame talent to target. Safety trumps outside linebacker because Anthony Chickillo has shown he can contribute at a far greater level than Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield.

  • Outside linebacker beats out tight end because the Steelers might need to replace Bud Dupree before Vance McDonald sniffs free agency.

Tight end beating out defensive line is a no brainer. The Steelers could use more depth at defensive line, but they’re OK there. But defensive line depth clearly outshines the need to use a mid or even late round pick on a quarterback for a third straight year.

The NFL Draft – The Day Dreams Come True

Who will the Steelers pick in the first round? Will Devin Bush fall to him, or will Kevin Colbert engineer his first day one draft trade since picking Troy Polamalu in 2003? Or might they look to corernback, and draft Rock Ya-Sin, Bryon Murphy, or Greedy Williams? Or perhaps they’ll tap a safety again, such as Justin Thronhill or Darnell Savage?

  • Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and grab a tight end or a wide receiver?
  • I don’t pretend to know who that person will be any more than I’ll pretend to pontificate on who that person should be.

But every boy who ever wrapped his hands around a Nerf football and yapped out a bogus snap count has dreamed of playing in the NFL. And for a few hundred young men, that dream is about to become true. Let’s give those young men their day and wish the good luck and God speed in the NFL.

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Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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How To Fix The Broken Pittsburgh Steelers? I Believe They’re Already “Fixed”

Since the end of the 2019 season, the questions involving the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers have been abundant. How can they get back to the old “Steeler Way?” How can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin fix this broken situation, this national embarrassment?

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the broken Pittsburgh Steelers have already been “fixed.”

At least when it comes to their sources of bad PR.

I look in my pretend pocket, and I find two receipts. One documenting the trade of receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft pick. The other one is for the transaction that allowed running back Le’Veon Bell to simply waltz into free agency and get the multi-year contract he always wanted–or at least get a multi-year contract with the Jets.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

The way I see it, Brown and Bell–often dubbed the “Toxic Twins” by both the media and the fans–were the headline acts of the circus that had been the Steelers the past few seasons.

They were the players that gave use Facebook Live, bad rap songs, drug suspensions, off-the-field issues involving flying furniture and speeding tickets, Gatorade bucket tosses and camp holdouts.

Brown and Bell were responsible for a great percentage of the non-football related questions — those so-called “distractions”–their teammates had to answer the past few years.

  • So many people wanted Brown and Bell gone, and now they are.

They are no longer going to be a problem for the Steelers. They are no longer going to be creating negative headlines (and even if they do–and even if they’re about the Steelers–they’ll be doing so in other locker rooms).

  • What more can the owner, the general manager and head coach do to “fix” this problem, other than extract the problem children?

I’ll tell you what they can do, they can draft people of higher character, something that has become a reality over the past few seasons. By selecting players like Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington in recent years, Pittsburgh is clearly trying to organically change the culture of its locker room.

This new draft philosophy is something that’s not unique to Pittsburgh, either.

Mostly gone are the days when a team like the Rams would trade its franchise running back — Jerome Bettis — in order to make room to draft another running back — Lawrence Phillips — who was accused of the heinous crime of physically assaulting a woman.

Today, if there’s even a whiff of poor character coming from a prospect’s draft camp, that player’s stock is likely to plummet to the point where he may not even be selected.

No, this recent phenomenon of targeting great players with great character is not unique to the Steelers, but they have clearly hopped on board in a very noticeable way.

Again, what more can be done? Do you want the people of authority to take a more disciplined, hard-line approach to running the team? Do you want Mike Tomlin, who has always been known as a coach who likes to treat his men like men, to become someone he isn’t?

Or do you trust that these young men of great character will grow into veteran players who know what it takes to be responsible professionals, people who won’t embarrass the organization on a local or national level?

Or, maybe, when talking about the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re really referring to a lack of Super Bowl titles for the past decade. “If the Steelers were just a little more disciplined, they’d win it all,” is a popular sentiment among the faithful looking for reasons for their team’s failure to win that One for the Other Thumb.

  • If you think getting rid of two All-Pro players will help that situation, then I guess we’re all about 10 months away from finding out.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer a broken organization, in my opinion–at least, as it pertains to having players in their locker room who will bring them bad publicity.

Are they now fixed to the point where they’ll be able to win a title without two very talented problem children?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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