Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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Steelers Defeat Texans 28-21 as T.J., Derek Prevail over J.J. in “Watt Bowl”

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Houston Texans 28-21 at Heinz Field, as brothers T.J. and Derek triumphed over big brother J.J. in the Watt Bowl.

  • The Watt brothers provided the game with a nice subplot, but the Steelers 3-0 record is even nicer.

But the nicest part about this win lies in the recipe the Steelers mixed during the Watt Bowl to secured victory down the stretch, as we explain below.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. Watt sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Week 3 is a Curious Place in the NFL

Week 3 is a curious place in the NFL. The math makes it simple. On week one, 50% of the teams must win and 50% must lose. Week two typically clarifies little. Everyone is either winless, undefeated or .500. Not much room for anyone to stand out.

Trends start to confirm themselves in week three, as teams find rhythm, establish personality, and the law of averages begins to weed out the “On Any Given Sunday” element from scoreboard results.

The Steelers entered week 3 with a 2-0 record, while the Houston Texans arrived in Pittsburgh at 0-2.

  • Would one team take a big step forward while another one dug itself deeper into a hole?
  • Or would one team stumble backwards while another clawed out a foothold to stake the rest of their season on?

As the first half end, it things could easily go either way.

Steelers First Half Against Texans Resembles First Two Weeks

The first two weeks saw the Steelers both give their fans a lot to like while leaving a lot plays on the field. During the first half against the Texans, they followed the same script in a topsy-turvy 30 minutes that saw:

  • The Steelers reach the Red Zone with a strong opening drive, only to settle for a field goal
  • The Texans respond with a touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger trying and failing to connect deep with receivers leading to 3 and outs
  • Meanwhile the Texans tacked on another touchdown
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans, JuJu walk off touchdown

JuJu Smith-Schuster literally walks to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

With 2:38 left in the half, Ben Roethlisberger did one of the things he does best – run an effective two minute drill, mixing and matching James Conner runs, short passes to James Washington and Eric Ebron before hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a walk-off touchdown. The Steelers were up 17-14 at the 1:14 mark.

  • A good place to be going into the locker room at half time, right?

Not quite. It was the Steelers defense’s turn to stumble, as Deshaun Watson surgically ripped the Steelers defense apart, completing passes in coverage against Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick to put the Texans back up 21-17 at the half.

These were exactly the types of slips the Steelers suffered during the first two weeks. And unlike the Giants and Broncos, it did not appear that the Texans would be so forgiving.

Steelers Methodically Impose Their Will in 2nd Half

Pittsburgh’s problem in recent years has been a chronic inablilty to put teams away. Sometimes they’ve gotten away with it (remember those Chris Boswell game winners in 2017?). Other times Pittsburgh has paid the price (see the 2nd half of 2018.) Last week, the Steelers had the Broncos on the ropes, only to let them back in before escaping with a victory.

  • Pittsburgh put away Houston through a steady, methodical process that consumed the entire half.

Things started slowly. The Steelers opened with a scoring drive that included that included flashes from rookie Anthony McFarland Jr.. Still, after spending 5 minutes on the field, the Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans

JuJu Smith-Schuster pulls in the 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But Keith Butler’s boys answered the call responding with:

  • A three-and-out where the Steelers defense smothered David Johnson
  • Another three-and-out that featured a hellacious Stephon Tuitt sack on 3rd down
  • A Mike Hilton interception, down at the Pittsburgh 13

With 13:27 left to play and starting at their own 21, the men in Black and Gold did something that has been the hallmark of championship Steelers football – They Imposed Their Will.

By Mixing runs and short passes and getting key third down conversions from Benny Snell Jr. and Vance McDonald, the Steelers methodically moved down the field, keeping the chains moving and the clock running.

By the time James Conner barreled into the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown run, the Steelers had physically dominated the Texans and burned 7 minutes off of the clock in the process, while JuJu Smith-Schuster added a 2 point conversion to make it 21-28.

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

Living in Our Hopes, Not in Their Fears

There’s something poetic about Houston’s final series in the Watt bowl starting with a 11 yard sack by T.J. Watt; that made it a question of “When” and not “If” the Texans would punt.

  • The Steelers got the ball back and again, They Imposed Their Will.

James Conner started the drive off with a 25 yard run. To Bill O’Brien’s credit, his Texans declined to fold. In response, Mike Tomlin refused to blink.

On 4th and 1 at Houston’s 35 with 3:11 remaining, Mike Tomlin not only went for it, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball to James Washington who converted the down. Three plays later, the Steelers had a 3rd and 9 at their Houston’s 26. The smart money here says pound it up the middle, let Chris Boswell tack on 3 points and let Houston try for two scores in 2 minutes.

  • Again, Tomlin lived in his hopes and not his fears having Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for a 24 yard gain that set up the victory formation.

Putting up ten points in a half hardly qualifies the Steelers as the next incarnation as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But combined that with a 2nd half defensive shut out, turnover free football and 36:51 to 23:09 time of possession advantage, and during the Watt Bowl the Steelers may have mixed a recipe for winning football.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Giants: Teacher’s Too Late Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is keenly aware that marrying Monday Night Football with 12 hour workdays doesn’t produce timely blog posts, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Giants.

Bud Dupree, Daniel Jones, Steelers vs giants

Bud Dupree forces Daniel Jones into a Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
In his first game since elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient night throwing 32 times for 21 competitions 229 yards and 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a key first down doing the 2 minute drill. Roethlisberger was rusty at first, but shook it off fast and played a very good game. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner came into this game with something prove, but unfortunately he proved that durability remains an issue. Fortunately for the Steelers, Benny Snell, Jr. answered the call rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell looked good, but fumbled at what could have been a costly moment. With 1 catch and 1 run for 3 yards Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Balls were sparse for the tight ends against the Giants. Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron were both targeted twice with one catch apiece although Ebron’s did convert a third down on a scoring drive. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
After struggling for much of 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong night with 6 catches on 6 targets for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches on 10 targets for 57 yards. And while James Washington only had 2 catches, the sheer determination mustered to reach the end zone set the tone for the rest of the night. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line slipped in 2019 after being one of the NFL’s best, if not the very best, for the last 5 or 6 years. They were a big question mark going into the game. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag for the line. Rushing lanes were spare early in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger had pressure for much of the night, giving up 2 sacks and getting hit 5 times. The unit was good enough against the Giants, but tougher tests will come. Grade: C

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward interception Gaints

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu effectively manned the nose tackle position, leading the team in tackles and dropping runners for losses twice. Stephon Tuitt made his return from injury and recorded a sack. Cam Heyward had one tackle and a pass defense but hit the jackpot with his goal line interception. The unit grounded Saquon Barkley the entire night. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt’s amazing interception set up the Steelers first touchdown and Bud Dupree’s pressure on Daniel Jones ended an 8 minute drive by setting up an interception. Vince Williams had a sack, and Devin Bush led linebackers with 7 tackles. Alex Highsmith rotated in and looked good as did Ola Adeniyi. A strong night for the linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers defensive game plan sold out on stopping Saquon Barkley and the Giants took advantage of that to move a little through the air and they were effective with the short passing game early in the 2nd half. Minkah Fitzpatrick bit on a run fake that exposed Steven Nelson to a 1-1 which he lost badly to Darius Slayton. Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in coverage. This is a concern. On the positive side Mike Hilton was a force with a sack, defensed pass and 5 tackles. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had a solid night punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 33 yard return that could have gone for more had he not tripped. The Steelers were 2-2 on field goals. All positives.

However, Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Giants had a 20 yard punt return. None of these mistakes were fatal, but they could have been far more costly. Grade: C-

Devin Bush, Steelers vs Giants,

No room to run thanks to Devin Bush. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada’s influence on the offense can be seen with increased use of crossing routes and jet screens and Randy Fichtner put together an efficient game plan that moved the chains, spread the ball around and put points on the board.

  • Keith Butler’s defense picked up where it left off in 2020, which is high praise.

When your special teams muff the season’s first punt and give the home team the ball on your own 3 barely 4 minutes into the season, very bad things tend to happen. But Butler’s boys refused to blink and forced a field goal.

It is true that the Giants had more success passing the ball than one would like, but by neutralizing Saquon Barkley the Steelers defense dictated the game to New York’s offense.

All of the COVID-19 induced disruptions to the off season were supposed to benefit a stable team like the Steelers. Mike Tomlin arrived at MetLife Stadium with a team ready, willing and able to execute a straight forward game plan. Special teams snafus drop this grade. Slightly. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were down 3-0 and had already punted twice as the 1st quarter waned. From their own 33 they ran once for a 1 yard run and tossed an incomplete pass. On third and 9 Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the side line and the only rookie on the field for the Steelers offense reached up to grab a pass, taking care to tap his toes to stay in bounds and convert the first down.

It was impressive on its own merits, and it also sustained a drive the ended with the Steelers tying field goal, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 season opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

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How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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Steelers Nation’s Lack of Love for James Washington is Puzzling

Steelers receiver James Washington appears to have all the tools necessary to become an elite receiver in the league, save for height.

But height has never kept a Steelers receiver from achieving greatness, as the likes of Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps and Antonio Brown all will attest.

Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in the 2018 NFL Draft, is physical, he’s fast, he’s capable of making those tough combat catches, etc., etc. All of these attributes were on display during Washington’s sophomore season with the Steelers, when he led the team in receiving yards with 735.

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The fact that James Washington did this after a rather forgettable rookie season in-which he posted a miserable 217 receiving yards on an equally miserable 16 receptions was all the more remarkable considering he didn’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the 2019 season.

That’s right, without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a major elbow injury that would require invasive surgery to repair, the Steelers quarterback play, well, it left a lot to be desired a season ago. Mason Rudolph had his moments, as did Devlin Hodges, but both also turned in moments that weren’t so great.

  • So why not much excitement for Washington?

Maybe because the Steelers just keep drafting receivers with high picks. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round selection out of USC in the 2017 NFL Draft, is now one of the stars of the team, a leader, someone Pittsburgh is counting on to rebound after a 2019 in which he struggled both in terms of production and with his health. Then there’s Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft, a player that came into the pros being compared to Antonio Brown, a comparison that seemed rather apt after a rookie campaign in which Johnson pulled in 59 receptions for 680 yards.

And let’s not forget about Chase Claypool, the Notre Dame receiver the Steelers just selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Claypool is big, fast and strong–they haven’t dubbed the native Canadian “Mapletron” for nothing.

  • Big things are expected from Smith-Schuster, Johnson and even Claypool in 2020.

Why has James Washington gotten lost in the shuffle? Why aren’t bigger things expected of him. How come he’s not expected to make an even bigger leap in 2020 thanks to the return of Roethlisberger?

I wish I had the answer to these questions, but he has just as much of a chance to make an impact on the Steelers offense in 2020 as any other member of their receiving corps.

As the saying goes, I wouldn’t sleep on James Washington if I were you.

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James Washington and Jaylen Samuels Added to Steelers COVID-19 List. 8 Other Cut

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 “training camp” isn’t a week old yet, but two more players have been placed on the leagues COVID-19 reserve list – James Washington and Jaylen Samuels. The offensive duo joins cornerback Justin Layne, a third round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Aaron Springs, a fellow defensive back, was already on the list.

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

Happier times. James Washington and Jaylen Samuels celebrate during the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NFL instituted the COVID-19 reserve list in response to the pandemic. Being put on the list does not necessarily mean a player has tested positive for COVID-19, it can also mean that they’ve been in contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

  • The NFL’s COVID-19 list contains asymptomatic and symptomatic designations.

Asymptomatic players are able to come off the list 10 days after their first positive test OR 5 days have passed since their first positive test AND two consecutive negative tests are completed separated by 24 hours within a five-day period.

  • All returns must be approved by a team’s physician whom must consult with ICS and NFL’s chief medical officer.

Symptomatic players must see 10 days pass after their first COVID-19 symptom and must have a full 72 hours pass since their last symptoms last occurred. Their return must be approved by their team’s doctor in concert with both the ICS and the NFL’s chief medical officer.

  • On top of that, local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

The health and safety of the players impacted must be of paramount concern, and it is Steel Curtain Rising’s sincere concern that James Washington and Jaylen Samules, (and Justin Layne and Aaron Springs for that matter) remain COVID free and return to the practice field in full health at Heinz Field.

  • But even in the pre-COVID era, attrition formed a fundamental part of football.

Put in simple English, injuries are part of the game. In that light, James Washington’s absence shouldn’t impact the Steelers wide receiver corps much. JuJu Smith-Schuster remains the leader, with Diontae Johnson returning to build on his strong rookie year. Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will perhaps get a few more reps, but he was always going to make the team.

Potentially, Dion Cain could benefit (as could Ryan Switzer), but a best-case scenario would see James Washington returning to the Steelers roster before padded practices start on August 17th.

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

James Conners and Benny Snell Jr. are roster locks, and Anthony McFarland Jr.’s status as this year’s 4th round picks doesn’t give him a lock on a roster spot, but a slot is basically his to lose. The Steelers also like Kerrith Whyte.

  • For the past several seasons the Steelers have kept 3 running backs plus a fullback.

Even prior to landing on the COVID-19 reserve list Jaylen Samuels was going to need to fight for a roster spot. Now that fight just got more difficult.

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

To meet the NFL’s 80 man roster limit the Steelers cut 8 players, including:

Quarterback, J.T. Barrett
Running Back, Ralph Webb
Wide Receiver, Quadree Henderson
Offensive Line, Christian Montani
Linebacker and Long Snapper Christian Kuntz
Linebacker, Dewayne Hendrix
Safety, Tyree Kinnell
Defensive End, Josiah Coatney

While it is no surprise, J.T. Barrett’s departure ends any speculation that he had a shot at competing with Paxton Lynch and Devlin Hodges for the third slot behind Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger.

Of the rest of the cuts Quadree Henderson is the most prominent. The Pitt graduate spent the summer of 2018 with the Steelers and turned in an strong preseason effort, but that wasn’t enough to land him a roster spot.

From there he spent time with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers before returning to Pittsburgh last winter via the practice squad.

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Few and Far Between: Steelers Starting Spots Up for Grab as Training Camp Starts

The Steelers are set to report to training camp this week.

It will be a training camp like no other. That’s right, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NFL players will have a ramp-up period to get acclimated to this new reality. This ramp-up period will include testing and weight and cardio conditioning.

Steelers St. Vincents, Steelers training camp, Steelers Latrobe

For the 1st time in 54 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not hold training camp at St. Vincents, in Latrobe. Photo Credit: WPXI

After that, it’s actual padded practices starting around mid-August or so. Oh, and did I mention training camp will be conducted at Heinz Field instead of St. Vincents this year? Also, there will be no preseason games. That’s right, due to the players’ concerns over traveling and putting themselves at risk, the NFLPA and NFL owners agreed to do away with exhibition football as a means to avoid unnecessary exposure and travel.

  • One last thing, teams will begin camp with 80 players instead of the standard 90.

That’s a lot to digest. That’s a lot to take in during this “new normal” that will include a regular season with few or zero fans in attendance at stadiums all across the NFL.

  • What’s a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for two-straight years to do?

Actually, the Steelers are a bit of an anomaly. Even though they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2017 season, they enter 2020 with few starting jobs up for grabs.

Actually, other than the battle between Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor for the vacant starting right tackle spot, I can’t think of any other starting jobs that are truly up for grabs. And when it comes to that vacant right tackle spot, it’s kind of manufactured. In other words, head coach Mike Tomlin announced weeks ago that the team would begin training camp with Matt Feiler, the starting right tackle the past two seasons, as the starter at left guard in place of the recently-retired Ramon Foster.

That was a slightly surprising revelation by Tomlin, especially considering the free agent acquisition of Stefen Wisniewski, a 10-year veteran who could easily slide into the left guard spot for at least the 2020 season. Meanwhile, rookie Kevin Dotson, who Pittsburgh selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, could hone his craft and prepare for life as the starting left guard hopefully by 2021.

But even if things don’t work out, and neither Banner or Okorafor jump up to seize the opportunity at right tackle, Feiler could easily move back to that spot, while Wisniewski assumes the role as starting left guard.

Again, other than the questions along the offensive line, what other starting jobs are open? I suppose the Steelers have to find their next starting nose tackle following the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave.

But do they really? After all, it’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s defense spends very little time in its 3-4 base formation–like 33 percent. Is finding a new starter really all that critical? Veteran Tyson Alualu seems poised to absorb the starter snaps at nose tackle, anyway, so that might be your answer.

What else is there? We know JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to be the number one receiver. After him, James Washington and Diontae Johnson appear to be interchangeable. True, based on his rookie performance, Johnson probably has the inside track on the number two receiver position, but with the Steelers employing so many three and four-receiver sets, does it really matter who your number two receiver is?

  • What else is there? We know James Conner is going to be the starting running back just as long as he stays healthy.

We also know the defense, one of the more elite units in the NFL, has no question marks at the top of the depth chart other than at nose tackle, which, again, doesn’t seem that critical of an issue.

So there you go. The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are about to embark on the most unusual training camp in the history of the NFL, followed by a regular season that figures to be quite surreal.

They’re coming off back-to-back playoff-less seasons, and, rather surprisingly, they don’t have many questions at the top of the depth chart.

Not a bad place to be in this new and surreal NFL reality.

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Friday Night Lights Offers Antidote to NFL’s COVID 19 Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Memorial Day’s passing brings us closer to the NFL season’s start. But in this COVID-19 context, there are more questions than there are answers about the coming NFL year. Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL is fortunate in that it has had time to prepare a Coronavirus virus contingency plan.

  • But the NFL still has no answer to question of whether it will field games in front of fans or play in empty stadiums.

The prospect of staging major league games in empty stadiums is eerie. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist John Steigerwald has gone as far as to argue that if fans can’t attend games “…the NFL should forget it. Write off the 2020 season.”

“Big games need big crowds,” Steigerwald insists, hypothetically wondering what it would have been like for Bill Mazeroski to round the bases at Forbes Field with no fans in the stands.

  • Steigerwald has a point. Or does he?

At BTSC, Tony Defeo suggests that if the WWE can host matches without fans, then the NFL can play games in empty stadiums. As Defeo deftly points out, “Unlike Razor Ramon, T.J. Watt doesn’t need to draw the ire of the fans in attendance in order to be the bad guy—he just has to sack the quarterback.”

  • Technically speaking, Defeo is right.

But imagine the Steelers are mounting a comeback in their Thanksgiving game against the Ravens. Would a T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree strip sack of Lamarr Jackson have the same game-changing impact absent the roar of the fans?

Imagine in the same game, James Washington sets up a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster go ahead touchdown pass with a devastating block followed by an end zone Terrible Towel Twirl al la Yancey Thigpen vs. the Browns in the ’94 playoffs would bring Heinz Field to a fever pitch.

  • The same end zone celebration in front of an empty stadium on a cold November evening at 10:30 pm would just seem kinda strange.

Defeo and Steigerwald advance completely opposite arguments, yet both men are on to something. Fortunately there’s a way to reconcile both of their points.

Friday Night Lights Holds Antidote to NFL’s Empty Stadiums Dilemma

Although it was filmed long before the word “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, fictional coach Eric Taylor provided the antidote to playing games in front of empty stadiums during Season 4 of Friday Night Lights.

Late in the season, rich kids from the rival Dillon Panthers use their 4x4s on to destroy the field of the less-well-to-do rival East Dillon Lions just before their season-ending matchup. The Dillon Panthers need this win to reach the playoffs, and their plan is to force the game on to their home truf.

  • But coach Taylor out-foxes the Panthers by staging the game in an empty field in a local park.

If by September it is unsafe to play games in front of full stadiums, the NFL should follow coach Taylor’s example and stage games at local high schools. Seriously.

Bethel Park Stadium, Bethel Park High Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Bethel Park Stadium

Moving games from pro stadiums to local high school fields would solve a lot of problems. Instead of reinforcing sense of isolation that COVID-19 has wrought, it would bring games back to their roots. If the NFL shifted to smaller venues, the focus would remain on the players and the action itself. Empty seats would fade out of view.

  • For a season at least, football would again become back yard boy’s game, only one played by elite men who are the best at it.

Doing so could also serve to re-connect teams to their communities. General-admission tickets could sell for $25 a head. Local health officials could use the Abbott Labs and/or Bosch machines to test fans before the games, ensuring everyone’s safety. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store workers and other “first responders” could be given free tickets.

  • Assuming enough adequate venues can be found, teams could even rotate home games to different stadiums, further integrating communities.

The Steelers could play one week at Central Catholic, another at Baldwin High, another at Bethel Park, and yet another at Upper St. Clair. I grew up in the DC suburbs rooting against the home team, but to be honest, the idea of the Washington Redskins playing under the lights at Wheaton High School is pretty cool.

  • The chances of this actually happening are pretty slim.

There is simply too much money be lost. Forbes estimates that the Steelers would lose a minimum of $156 million if they have to play in front of an empty Heinz Field. The Dallas Cowboys could lose up to four times that amount. Knowing that, the NFL will do whatever it can to get fans into the stadiums.

But if that proves to be impossible, then Roger Goodell would do well to take a page for Eric Taylor’s book.

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Steelers Draft Chase Claypool in 2nd Round of 2020 NFL Draft, Notre Dame Wide Receiver can Sustain Trend

The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool, a wide receiver out of Notre Dame in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin finally got to make Pittsburgh’s first move after 48 players had been taken off of the board.

The Steelers enter the 2020 NFL Draft with limited draft capital thanks to the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Nick Vannett and Chris Wormley, heightening attention over how the Pittsburgh would use its scare resource.

  • The decision to Draft Chase Claypool suggests the Steelers brain trust is leaning towards best available athlete.

Although the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix suggests that running back, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and safety are all areas of greater need, this is a deep draft at wide receiver. Which isn’t to say that the Steelers can’t use more offensive fire power. They can.

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

A Look at Chase Claypool

As Jim Wexell pointed out Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger has never been shy about his love for big wide receivers. He lobbied in vain for the Steelers to resign Plaxico Burress and wasted little time hooking up with Martavis Bryant as a rookie.

Chase Claypool fits that bill, standing at 6’4” and arrives in Pittsburgh with a 40 ½ inch vertical. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner described him as an immediate Red Zone threat. As Fitchner went on to explain:

Some of the small things just grow on you as you watch his tape and you watch his play. He’s a dependable ball-security player. A guy who plays without the football. There’s no job too small. He blocks. He gives effort when balls aren’t coming to him in his routes. He volunteers for special teams. This guy’s just a football player, and he’s grown.

Chase Claypool played for four years for the Fighting Irish, seeing his productivity increase each year, peaking at 66 catches for 1037 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.

https://youtu.be/4hiyi4y4r8s?t=9

Randy Fichtner is right. Chase Claypool will make for a tempting Red Zone target.

Chase Claypool’s Chance to Sustain a New Trend

As mentioned above, wide receiver is one of the Steelers least needy positions on offense. However, Chase Claypool can still have an impact in 2020. JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely to see his role as number 1 wide receiver threatened.

However, even before this pick came in, the pecking order between James Washington and Diontae Johnson was not established. Chase Claypool could easily push both men. Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer were already going to arrive at Latrobe as roster bubble babies and both men’s standing with the team just became more tenuous.

  • Chase Claypool will also arrive in Pittsburgh with a chance to sustian a new trend.

In the modern era, the Steelers haven’t had much success at drafting players from Notre Dame. (Remember, Rocky Bleier had been drafted by Bill Austin, not Chuck Noll, and Jerome Bettis arrived via trade.) Yet Stephon Tuitt came to Pittsburgh as 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and immediately made the defensive line better.

So the arrow is pointing up for Fighting Irish joining the Steelers. Welcome to Steelers Nation Chase Claypool.

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