6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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Friend-Foe Axis Updates: Steelers Sign Arthur Maulet; Villanueva Runs to Ravens

In the “Watch what we do, not what we say” department, the Steelers made their first personnel addition following the 2021 NFL Draft when they signed former New York Jets safety Arthur Maulet to a one year contract.

Sean Davis, who was the number one back up at both positions last season, signed with the Colts. The team has Antoine Brooks, who was their 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Brooks only appeared in four games during 2020. He began the season on the practice squad and was activated in November and saw his first action in the win over the Bengals.

  • This is bad news for Jordan Dangerfield, who served as a backup safety and special teams captain.

The move suggests that the Steelers were looking to address safety earlier in the draft than they did, when they picked Tre Norwood with their first 7th round pick.

The move also suggests, against logic, that the Steelers are comfortable with the depth they have behind Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt.

Arthur Maulet, James Washington, Steelers vs Jets 2019

Aruthur Maulet horse collars future teammate James Washington. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via Jets Wire.

From Foe to Friend Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet broke into the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints. He appeared in six games for the Saints in 2017. In 2018 he made the active roster for New Orleans, but was cut, was signed by the Colts where he saw action in 5 games. The Colts cut him, and he was resigned by the Saints and he played one game for them.

  • The Saints cut him in late January and the New York Jets signed him immediately.

During 2019 and 2020, Maulet appeared in 23 games for the Jets, making 11 starts, and participating in about 1/3 of the defensive snaps, while also being active on special teams. During his NFL career, he has made 2 interceptions and one sack.

During the Steelers 2019 loss to the Jets, Maulet made 4 tackles, and his illegal contact penalty against James Washington set up a Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson touchdown one play later, with 9 seconds remaining in the first half. (He was also fined for a horse collar tackle, picture above.)

From Friend to Foe Villanueva Signs with Ravens

In the from friend to foe department, former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens for two years. The move was widely reported prior to the draft and was expected.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this move later.

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

https://twitter.com/DevinBushFan/status/1334272521235992578

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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