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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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 Wide Receiver Draft Needs: In Search of Depth

Just 3 years ago the rest of the NFL was in envy of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart. They had a future Hall of Famer, a budding rookie 2nd round draft pick, and a physical phenomenon coming off of suspension.

  • Change comes quickly in the NFL.

By the middle of 2019 the Steelers were signing guys off of practice squads and playing them later that week. Injuries played a part in making that happen, but how much of it was tied to talent? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about how important wide receiver will be for the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington celebrate Diontae Johnson’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images via Still Curtain.com

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

“I’m ready” proclaimed JuJu Smith-Schuster shortly after the Steelers sent Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And by all accounts JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to be ready to be a legit number 1 NFL wide receiver.

But how would JuJu Smith-Schuster fair now that NFL defenses didn’t need to build their pass defense around shutting down Antonio Brown. No one knew, and a year later we still don’t know. Ben Roethlisberger’s season lasted 6 quarters, and Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly have enough time to find his rhythm before he got knocked out with a concussion.

  • That brought Devlin Hodges into the game, further limiting the Steelers passing options.

Fortuantely for the Steelers and JuJu, there’s evidence that the other two starting wide outs, James Washington and Diontae Johnson and offer enough splash play potential to take some heat off of Smith-Schuster.

James Washington dazzled during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons and, if reports are correct, his play during practice was just as dazzling. Yet Washington struggled to translate that on to the field during 2018 and the first half of 2019.

  • However, during the 2nd half of 2019, James Washington came up with several big catches.

While he needs to sustain that, the arrow is pointing up on James Washington as it is on Diontae Johnson. Diontae Johnson flashed big play potential early in the 2019 season, with impressive touchdowns against San Francisco and Miami. But consistency was an issue. Still, he improved from a disastrous performance against the Browns at home, for big games on the road against the Cardinals and Jets.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

If the Steelers have, at a minimum, three starter-capable wide receivers, their depth leaves a much to be desired. The next most targeted wide receiver in 2019 was Johnny Holton, followed by Donte Moncrief, then Ryan Switzer and then by Tevin Jones.

  • Ryan Switzer is the only one of the foursome who remains on the roster.

And Ryan Switzer was only targeted once after week 2, and missed the last 7 games of the season. Deon Cain offers legitimate potential and looked good while he was on the field, but his NFL resume consists of 6 targets.

The Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

While JuJu Smith-Schuster clearly is a step down from Antonio Brown as a number 1 wide receiver, the same can be said for 97.5% of other NFL wide outs. James Washington and Diontae Johnson also have a lot to prove, but it says here they will prove it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Moreover, Ryan Switzer, when healthy, is not a bad number 4 wide receiver, particularly if a tight end such as Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron is drawing attention from linebackers and safeties.

The issue for the Steelers at wide receiver is depth. They have next to none. And that means that heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Steelers need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-Low.

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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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Steelers Hire Ike Hilliard as Wide Receivers Coach as a Blogger Eats Crow with a Side of Humble Pie

Taken from the notebook of a blogger who is ordering a main course of crow, followed by a healthy slice of humble pie for dessert. But before he can settle down to his meal, he must first of course wipe the egg off of his face because….

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers announced yesterday that Mike Tomlin has hired former New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard has his new wide receivers coach.
Ike Hilliard, James Farrior, Joey Porter

New Steelers wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard being tackled by James Farrior in 2004. Photo Credit: Twitter

About ten days ago Dale Lolley of DK Sports Pittsburgh and Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review reported that the Steelers had hired South Carolina’s offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon as their wideouts coach. Steel Curtain Rising, along with numerous other outlets, took the bait and announced the news.

Gerry Dulac and Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette quickly cautioned that the hire had not been made, and that the Steelers were interviewing other candidates, including Jerricho Cotchery.

It turns out that Dulac was right, and this incident serves as a lesson that the quick and easy “content aggregation” path can just as easily lead you, and your readers, in the wrong direction.

Hilliard Follows Road Well-Traveled

The New York Giants made Ike Hilliard their first-round draft pick of the 1997 NFL Draft, and he spent eight seasons in the Big Apple followed by four more in Tampa Bay. He retired in 2008 and went into coaching.

He broke into coaching with the Dolphins, initiating a series of one year stints in Miami, Washington and Buffalo. In 2014 Jay Gruden asked him to return to the Redskins staff, where Hilliard has remained for the last 5 years.

While 2019 was a particularly brutal year for the Redskins, one undisputed bright spot was the emergence of rookie wide out Terry McLaurin. Under Hilliard’s tutelage, McLaurin led the Redskins with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns.

  • This is a positive sign for a Steelers offense in desperate need of play makers.

Hilliard’s mentorship figures to be critical to the development of Diontae Johnson and James Washington. He could even help JuJu Smith-Schuster turn the corner and solidify his place as a true number 1 wide receiver, just as Richard Mann helped Antonio Brown cement that role following Mike Wallace’s departure.

Ike Hilliard replaces Ray Sherman, who stepped in as interim wide receivers coach last summer, following the death of Daryl Drake.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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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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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.
Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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