4 Insights the Steelers 2020 Draft Class Gives Us Now

The 2020 NFL Draft is now history. The Steelers 2020 Draft Class is set and the assessments of Pittsburgh’s most unusual draft class in over a half century are already beginning.

  • Defining “Winners” and “Losers” two days after the draft is as understandable as it is silly.

It is understandable because in every draft a select few teams lay foundations for future championships while the rest undermine their shot at a Super Bowl.

  • The silliness comes in pretending to know which team falls on which side of the fence days after the draft.

Vito Stellino is one of the best NFL journalists there’s ever been, but he famously panned the Steelers 1974 Draft class. As Tony Defeo reminds us, it’s the nature of the beast that so many are already second guessing Steelers 2020 picks of Claypool and Highsmith. But how many of those voices rushed to declare Antonio Brown as a “steal” of the 2010 NFL Draft or call out Kelvin Beachum as 2012 NFL Draft’s true sleeper?

  • You get my point.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Draft Class

Steelers 2020 Draft Class. Image Credit: Steelers Twitter Feed

The Steelers 2020 Draft class is getting a B- in a lot of circles, but those grades are about as accurate as an early April batting average. However, Steelers picks nonetheless tell us something important about how Pittsburgh’s brain trust sees it the team.

Steelers 2020 Draft Class at a Glance

2nd Round – Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver from Notre Dame
3rd Round – Alex Highsmith, Outside Linebacker, Charlotte
4th Round A – Robert McFarland, Jr., Running Back, Maryland
4th Round B – Kevin Dotson, Guard, Louisiana
6th Round – Antoine Brooks, Safety, Maryland
7th Round – Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle, Nebraska

That’s 6 picks, evenly divided between offense and defense with an early emphasis on offensive skill positions. Here are some conclusions that we can make now:

1. The Steelers Remain “All In” on a Roethlisberger Rebound

This has been true since the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade and is nothing new. Everything decision the franchise has made since that loss against Seattle suggests it is banking on a full recovery from Ben Roethlisberger. Taking Chase Claypool with their only pick in the top 100 players in the 2020 NFL Draft confirms the trend.

2. Steelers are Sold on Benny Snell Jr.

Before the draft Mike Tomlin was non-committal about whether the Steelers would draft a running back early. But he did commit running better in 2020 regardless of who the Steelers picked. A lot of folks are up in arms over the Steelers decision to leave J.K. Dobbins on the board in the 2nd round.

  • They may be right.

But the Steelers are giving a huge vote of confidence in Benny Snell’s  ability to carry the load should James Conner succumb to injury (again.)

3. The Steelers are Comfortable with Inside Linebacker Depth

Going into the draft with just six picks forced Pittsburgh to prioritize more than normal. Outside of tight end, every other position area could use a shot in the arm.

Yet, after making their first pick, the Steelers chose to address outside linebacker, running back, offensive line and safety at the expense of inside linebacker.

By implication, that suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with Ulysees Gilbert serving as “The next man up” at his position than they are with Jordan Dangerfield, Ola Adeniyi and/or Tuzar Skipper at theirs.

4. Steelers are Hedging on Dupree and JuJu’s Returns

Let’s look at some objective facts:

  1. The Steelers had no first round pick
  2. They have no obvious starting spots to be won
  3. Pittsburgh’s highest profile free agents for 2021 will be Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster
  4. The Steelers first two picks were at wide receiver and outside linebacker

Coincidence? Perhaps. But during the 1990’s the Steelers would routinely drafted with an eye towards replacing future free agents. (The strategy worked, for a while.) Could they be doing the same thing here?

Time will tell, but judging by how the a lot of different stars are lining up, the Steelers appear to be hedging their bets when it comes to the prospect of keeping JuJu and Bud Pittsburgh beyond 2020.

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Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2020 NFL Draft has arrived. And yes, this one has a different feel to it.

  • The Steelers don’t have a first round draft pick for the first time since 1967
  • Precisely ZERO pre-draft visits have taken place on the South Side
  • They’re no announcements from the podium, no Number 1 jerseys given out

Things are even more different in Pittsburgh. Steel Curtain Rising has been running its Steelers Draft Needs Matrix in some form or fashion since 2009. And never, has the Steelers draft needs analysis been this flat across the depth chart.

The same basic analysis holds for every position area:

  • The starters are solid, if not strong, but depth is lacking.

Things get a little more uneven when you start to account for impending free agency and aging at certain positions, but even controlling for those factors can push the Steelers needs as much as it can pull it in other sectors.

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

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

The offensive line and safety present prefect examples. On paper, the Steelers have 7 starter capable offensive lineman. So the line is in good if not great shape going into the draft. But four of those offensive lineman are over age 30.

  • At safety, the situation is very different.

Everyone is young. Free agency is years away. The Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are established starters. have two established starters. Yet, the Steelers depth have zero depth behind them.

There isn’t a position area, save for perhaps one, where the Steelers depth chart would justify passing on someone because they’re too well stocked.

And that has made mapping out the Steelers 2020 Draft Need Matrix all the more difficult.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs

Over the last week or so, with the help of Tony Defeo, we have assessed the Steelers need at each position. Here is a summary of the results.

At Running Back, Tony has rated the Steelers need at High, and that’s the only position to earn that rating.

After that, you get Outside Linebacker and Quarterback rated as High-Moderate. But we’ll treat quarterback a bit differently that its rating suggests as you’ll see.

After that, you’ve got Defensive Line, Inside Linebacker and Safety rated as Moderate-High.

Offensive line comes in as Moderate, while Cornerback, tight end and Wide Receiver clock in at Moderate-Low.

How to sort out the needs? Well, that’s what the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix is all about.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

If the Steelers have need for depth across the roster, all needs are not created equally.

While the Steelers have several bodies at running back, only James Conner is proven, and he has has also proven to be injury prone AND is heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Outside linebacker earns the next slot in the pecking order because Bud Dupree is on a one year tender and the Steelers have neither an heir apparent, nor do they have depth.

After that comes inside linebacker. The key difference between the outside and inside linebacker is that the Steelers can still count on the services of Devin Bush and Vince Williams in 2021.

Inside linebacker gets the nod over safety simply because the backups behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds have more experience than those at inside linebacker.

It might seem odd to list defensive line so low, given that there is a starting spot open, unlike at safety and at linebacker. However, the Steelers might not have a true heir apparent at nose tackles, they have an experienced NFL back up and two other younger players with “upside” who could potentially play along side Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

So Defensive line stands in the middle of the Steelers Draft need matrix and gets the nod over offensive line, which in turn get the nod over cornerback because you need 5 starting caliber offensive lineman and only 3 starting caliber cornerbacks.

The decision to prioritize cornerback over wide receiver is an easy one. Wide receivers are easier to find, and even if JuJu Smith-Schuster is heading into his final year in Pittsburgh, the arrow is pointing up on Diontae Johnson and James Washington even if depth drops off of a cliff after you get past that trio.

The Steelers are fairly strong enough at tight end that even if they had their full complement of draft picks, taking a tight end would probably be a “nice to have.” But that gets to nod over quarterback.

The Steelers need at quarterback “High-Moderate.” Ben Roethlisberger is 37, coming off of elbow surgery and not is it not clear that Mason Rudolph could be a successor. But Ben Roethlisberger’s successor isn’t going to be found with the 49 pick, or any pick after that.

The opportunity cost of using a developmental on a quarterback dramatically short-changes the Steelers ability to address other positions who can help them win in 2020. Therefore, quarterback is their lowest need.

As a caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix isn’t intended to suggest that Pittsburgh should draft for need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns and/or Jarvis Jones happen. Instead, its role is to highlight where the Steelers need the most help and, in the abstract, break any “ties” when two players at different positions are equally matched.

Draft Different, Dream the Same

The 2020 NFL Draft is already underway and the differences are already apparent. So be it. COVID-19 is changing the world and the NFL is not exempt.

Yet, for all of the differences, the NFL Draft continues to be the day that dreams come true for hundreds of young men. Let’s give them their day, and wish that those whose names gets call from Mike Tomlin can be difference makers that help Pittsburgh through the closing window that leads to the Stairway to Seven.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career Helped Shape Offensive Line Transformation in Pittsburgh

All good things come to an end. And so it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ramon Foster.

While most expected this parting of the ways, Ramon Foster threw everyone a bit of a curve last week by announcing his retirement. Today we take time to step back, look at Ramon Foster’s Steelers career and the role he played during his time in Pittsburgh.

Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Ramon Foster, ever the class act and always willing to talk to the media, released this statement:

When the time comes, you just know, and now is the time for me to take a bow. I’ve made some friends for a lifetime, had some moments that I’ll never forget and seen some things I never thought I would because of this game. I’m glad to say I was a Steeler for life, and there is no other organization I would have rather played for in my career.

Ramon Foster’s retirement sets in motion a shakeup on the Steelers offensive line that has been remarkably stable for that last several seasons. With B.J. Finney having signed with the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Foster’s slot will almost certainly be taken by moving Matt Feiler from tackle to guard, opening the way for either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor to start at right tackle.

In a way, it is fitting that Ramon Foster’s departure will spark changes on the Steelers offensive line because Foster’s arrival, unhearded that it was, started the stabilization process.

Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career – From Transition to Transformation

When the book The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line is written, Ramon Foster’s name won’t earn mention alongside guards from the Super Steelers like Sam Davis and Gerry Mullins. He won’t be seen in the same light as colorful figures like Craig Wolfley, nor will he be considered a peer of should be Hall of Famer Alan Faneca. Objectively speaking, Ramon Foster probably wasn’t as good as the talented, but deeply troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • But those omissions mask the role that Ramon Foster played authoring a critical transformation of the Steelers offensive line.

One fact that the “Mike Tomlin only won with Bill Cowher’s players” crowd conveniently ignores is that Tomlin didn’t enjoy continuity of Cowher’s offensive line. Jeff Hartings retired in 2006, and Tomlin enjoyed a one year rental from Alan Faneca. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons performed well in 2007, but both men’s bodies fell apart in 2008.

  • You can best describe the Steelers strategy on offensive line at that point as “Plug and Patch.”

Opportunity would grant 15 minutes of fame to obscure players like Darnell Stapelton and Doug Legursky, who started in Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

Out of both necessity and choice, the Steelers would sign players, guys like Justin Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex and Max Starks to multi-year deals, only to cut them midway through the contract. Indeed, when the Steelers signed Willie Colon in 2011, La Toalla Terrible joked that the Steelers planned to cut him in two years.

Ramon Foster, who arrived in Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was very much a piece in that plug and patch offensive line strategy. Foster started four games as a rookie, then started another 8 in his second year including Super Bowl XLV.

  • By the 2011 season, Ramon Foster was starting 14 of 15 games.

Yet, the Steelers still saw Foster as a transitional figure, as evidenced by their simultaneous decisions to draft David DeCastro in 2012 and move Willie Colon to guard.

But injuries to both men allowed Foster to stake his claim as permanent starter, and since 2012 Ramon Foster has started 119 regular season and 7 playoff games for the Steelers. And during that time, the offensive line has transformed itself from being a perennial liability, to an area of undisputed strength. And make no mistake about it:

  • Ramon Foster wasn’t simply present for that transition, he actively participated in authoring the the transformation.

And through it all, Ramon Foster has served as a source of stability, helping protect Ben Roethlisberger while opening holes for Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and James Conner. Through it all, Ramon Foster was a locker room leader, whose work ethic on the field and commitment to physical football set an example for all.

  • That’s not a bad resume for an undrafted rookie free agent out of Tennessee.

Suffice to say, Ramon Foster will be missed as he beings his “Life’s Work.” Steel Curtain Rising thanks Ramon Foster for his service and wishes him the best.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

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Steelers Win Compensatory Pick Gamble. Now They Must Spend Winnings Wisely

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert have never “lived in their fears” when it comes to making personnel decisions. They also haven’t hesitated to play the long game, even when it comes to gambles.

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

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

On Tuesday, the NFL awarded the Pittsburgh Steelers a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft bringing one of Colbert and Tomlin’s longest gambles to a close.

Devin Bush‘s price was steep. The Steelers first and second round picks from 2019, plus their third round pick in 2020. But the Steelers made that pick in part based on their calculations that they’d get a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing Le’Veon Bell.

  • While the logic was sound, the NFL has never revealed the formula it uses for compensatory picks so a third rounder was never certain.

Uncertainty shifted to despair when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort. Due to a little known rule, for player to count on a team’s signed/lost ledger for compensatory picks, he needed to be on his destination team’s roster by week 10 of the season.

  • The move prompted the Steelers to cut Donte Moncrief whom they’d signed as a free agent.

Granted, Moncrief had not exactly played well for the Steelers in his two outings, and he failed to log a single catch in his three games with the Carolina Panthers. However, by cutting Moncrief the Steelers were essentially giving the nod to Tevin Jones who would only last until the Steelers loss to the Bills.

Nonetheless, the Steelers gamble paid off, ensuring them two premium picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now they must spend their winnings wisely.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe the ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

  • A generation ago the Steelers getting a third round compensatory pick meant a bonanza.

The third round was Tom Donahoe’s money round. Players such as Jon Witman, Mike Vrabel, Hines Ward, and Amos Zereoue arrived in Pittsburgh as third round compensatory selections.

Kevin Colbert hasn’t had as many third round compensatory selections, but his picks have been hit or miss. James Conner was a hit in 2017. Dri Archer was a huge miss in 2014. The Steelers need Colbert’s 2020 3rd round compensatory pick to be more of a James Conner than a Dri Archer.

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A Sight for Sore Eyes: Ben Roethlisberger Throwing a Football Again!

Steelers Nation has experienced a lot of highs and lows in the last 161 days, but Saturday February 22nd brought the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful a true sight for sore eyes: Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football again.

Steelers fans have been waiting to see that since the 2nd half of Sunday September 15th of the Steelers home opener loss to the Seattle Seahawks. My, what a long strange trip its been. Mason Rudolph stepped in and looked strong in relief, but was shaky enough in his first start against the 49ers that Randy Fichtner had to resort to the Wildcat to jump start the offense against the Bengals.

Just when Rudolph seemed to be hitting his stride, he got knocked out against the Ravens with a concussion. Delvin Hodges came in and almost led the Steelers to an upset. Duck Mania was born!

Rudolph returned two weeks later, looked shaky against Miami, hit Diontae Johnson for a big touchdown (with the help of a helicious block by James Washington) and got stronger week-by-week until struggling might in The Body Bag game against Cleveland, as the Brown knocked JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Conner out of the game.

The event shook Rudolph, who was very tentative against the Bengals, leading to Hodges insertion, who in turn led the Steelers to 3 straight wins. Visions of a 1989 Steelers like improbable playoff run danced through the heads of Steelers Nation.

A week later against the Jets, it was Hodges who got the hook, as Mason Rudolph got the Steelers back in the game, only to injure his collarbone.

Through it all, Ben Roethlisberger remained on the sideline, acting as an assistant coach, as his beard and his gut raced to see who could grow faster. The Steelers and Roethlisberger have remained mum on the nature of Roethlisberger’s injury, only revealing that he had surgery in September.

Yet, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all unhesitatingly assured that they expect a full recovery from Roethlisberger. Today we can all see for themselves why they’ve been so confident.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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