The Steelers, Defensive Line & the 2020 NFL Draft: Pittsburgh’s Needs Go Deeper than Depth

“Give us a blade of grass to defend, an we’ll defend it.” Mike Tomlin believes in his mantra, and it all begins with the defensive line.

It’s no coincidence that the Steelers win Super Bowls when their defensive lineman feature the NFL’s best. Think Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith.

So, does that mean that the Steelers will or should target defensive line in the 2020 NFL Draft given that history, and given that they’ve just lost a starting defensive lineman in free agency? Let’s find out.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward & Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers 2918 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

At age 30, Cam Heyward has delivered everything the franchise hoped he would when they drafted him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, a move with Kevin Colbert instantly declared as “historic.” Cam Heyward is coming off a season where he registered 9 sacks, hit the quarterback 23 times, batted down 6 passes and otherwise served as a one-man wrecking crew.

  • The scary thing is that, for the first six games, Cam Heyward might not have been the best defensive lineman on the field.

Stephon Tuitt only played six games in 2019, but he’d already notched 3.5 sacks and 7 QB hits and was routinely blowing up his side of the offensive line. While Tuitt’s injury history must be a concern, if he can return at full health the Steelers will have be best defensive line duo in the league.

Starting nose tackle Javon Hargrave departed in free agency, opening up a slot.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

While everyone knew the Steelers had zero chance of keeping Javon Hargrave, many commentators were quick to assert that that the Steelers had pretty good defensive line depth.

  • That’s a little puzzling.

The Steelers defensive line depth is decent. In 3 years, Tyson Alualu has shown he is a capable “Next man up,” at either defensive end or nose tackle. But that’s the point. At age 33, this former 10th overall pick has found his niche in the NFL – as a 4th man on a 3 man defensive line.

A quick glance at Buggs’ tape caused this certified draft ignoramus to ask, “Why did he stay on the board so long?” The Steelers do like Buggs, who saw the field in the second half of 2019, but he failed to break the 100 snap count mark.

Daniel McCullers remains on the roster, mainly because he’s the only true nose tackle the team has and because defensive line coach Karl Dunbar sees something in McCullers that most others miss. Still, in his 6th year as a Steeler, McCullers only participated in 12% of the defensive snaps.

  • Finally, the Steelers have Chris Wormley, whom they traded to Baltimore for a 5th round draft pick.

Wromley’s resume from Baltimore in terms of pure number isn’t all that impressive. But he’s also buried on a deep depth chart, and is an immediate upgrade over McCullers, and until he proves himself, Buggs.

The Steelers 2020 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers are set at defensive end, but nose tackle is a different question. To understand why, look no further than the 2017 playoff debacle against Jacksonville.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

While most focus on the inadequacies of Ryan Shazier’s replacements, injuries to Hargrave and Alualu forced L.T. Walton to do time at nose tackle, and images of Leonard Fournette gouging the Steelers defense by going straight up the middle are easy to find.

  • Perhaps Isaiah Buggs or Chris Wormley can man that spot in the center of the Steelers defense.

That’s plausible, but neither man is proven. And with no clear starting nose takcle on the roster, the Steelers need at defensive line entering the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Streaming Moneyball + Trading Places = Steelers Chris Wormley-Javon Hargrave Swap

First, wherever you’re reading this, it is our sincere wish that you and your family are both healthy and safe. That is far more important than anything and everything else that appears on this blog.

Clearly, the inability to make timely updates to a Steelers blog ranks pretty low when it comes to the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus. Which brings us to Chris Wormley’s addition to the Steelers defensive line.

  • And with Steelers Nation spending its time streaming while on quarantine, a little cinematic twist to the headline only seemed appropriate.
Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

To no one’s surprise, the Steelers lost Javon Hargrave in free agency. Hargrave will move to the other side of the state after having signed a $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles that includes $26 million of fully guaranteed money.

The Steelers could have put together a competitive deal along those lines, but only at the expense of losing Bud Dupree.

Since Bud Dupree is on the field for 90% of the Steelers snaps and Javon Hargrave is on for only 63%, you can see why Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin chose Dupree over Hargrave.

Nonetheless, the move left a rather important hole in the middle of the Steelers defensive line. Hargrave had made 52 starts, recorded 10 sacks over the last two years and was clearly a peer alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

The Steelers declined to stand pat with Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs and traded their 5th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Baltimore Ravens for Chris Wormley.

In 3 years with the NFL, Chris Wormely has made just 15 starts and recorded just 2.5 sacks. He’s also made 9 QB hits, or one more than Javon Hargrave made in his 3rd year in the NFL.

  • Considering that both men were 3rd round draft picks, the Steelers certainly seem to come out poorer for the swap.

And if the only movie we were watching here was Trading Places, there’s no question the Steelers would come out on the short end of the stick. But Kevin Colbert is also streaming MoneyBall in tandem, and that pulls two other numbers into this equation: $3,450,000 and $2,133,000.

  • The former is Javon Hargrave’s cap number for 2020, the latter is Chris Wormley’s.

And this of course ignores the fact that the Eagles have already cut Hargrave a check for 11 million and change. Clearly, Javon Hargrave is a better defensive lineman than Chris Wormley.

  • Kevin Colbert, however, is betting that he can get more bang for his salary cap buck out from Chris Wormley than he could out of Hargrave.

Colbert makes these gambles every spring. One of the best examples came in the spring of 2013 when Colbert reasoned that dollar-for-play, he could get more out of William Gay than Keenan Lewis. (He was also expecting big things from Cortez Allen, but that’s another story.)

Lewis had budded into a pass-defending machine in his 4th year in Pittsburgh, and seemed to offer an oasis for a team starved for quality cornerback play. William Gay had gone to Arizona and, like Bryant McFadden before him, was back in Pittsburgh a year later.

  • McFadden’s 2nd stint in the Steel City barely registers on the memory-radar.

Yet, William Gay’s return to Pittsburgh heralded the days of Big Play Willie Gay, where he notched 8 interceptions and 5 pick sixes in 5 seasons. Keenan Allen got paid a lot more money in New Orleans, but only had 1 strong season before injuries derailed his career.

Of course, these MoneyBall gambles don’t always work. The Steelers essentially swapped Al Woods for Cam Thomas in 2013 and their defensive line suffered because of it.

However, if Craig Wolfley assessment of Chris Wormley is on the mark, expect Kevin Colbert to win this bet.

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

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Watt a Minute! Steelers Sign Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s Brother

Mike Tomlin may or may not be a fan of Game of Thrones, but he does certainly seem to believe in bloodlines. The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with free agent fullback Derek Watt, brother of starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

  • While Derek Watt cannot officially sign his deal until Wednesday afternoon, the two sides have agreed to terms.
Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Derek Watt signed a contract worth 9.75 million dollars that runs for three years. While few expected the Steelers to use their precious salary cap space to sign a fullback, Derek Watt also was a special teams stand out for the Chargers and could fill the void left by the mildly surprising departure of Tyler Matakevich who will bolt to the Buffalo Bills once the free agent signing period officially begins.

  • Derek Watt’s position flexibility extends beyond special teams.

As Roy Countryman from Steel City Insider Points out, the Chargers under utilized Derrick Watt’s pass catching abilities and suggests he could do double duty at tight end.

Another player who might be be looking over his shoulder is Roosevelt Nix. Nix is a fullback and was captain of the Steelers special teams last year, and is due to count 1.8 million against the salary cap this year.

All in the Family

Derek Watt’s arrival in Pittsburgh gives the Steelers their second set of brothers, as Terrell Edmunds and Trey Edmunds are also on the current roster – at the moment. Trey Edmunds is officially a fullback so his roster spot is threatened by Derek Watt.

In addition, Mike Tomlin hasn’t been shy about how Devin Bush’s family lineage attracted him to the linebacker. Likewise, Benny Snell also has an uncle with NFL experience.

Steelers Free Agency Comings and Goings

As expected, the Steelers applied the franchise tag to Bud Dupree, and to make room for Dupree they waived Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo and Johnny Holton, while resigning long snapper Kameron Canaday to a two year contract.

  • However, as is also expected, Javon Hargrave will sign with the New York Jets today.
  • Likewise, B.J. Finney will sign with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon too.

To clear up salary cap space, the Steelers have reportedly restructured the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.

The McDonald restructure is the most interesting, as it signals he will return to the team, something which had been in doubt. That move in turn makes it more likely that Nick Vannett will be allowed to depart as a free agent.

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

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Javon Hargrave Steelers Free Agent Profile: “Grave Digger” to Find Fortune Outside of Pittsburgh

The rookie wage scale implemented by 2011 NFL Collective bargaining agreement was a game changer of epic proportions for the NFL. By locking in rookies to a set wage scale, it gave teams the chance to fix a large portion of their roster and salary cap costs.

  • It also delivered a benefit to general managers who could draft players that could contribute immediately.

An impact player playing on his rookie contract is worth his weight in gold to an NFL team. The Steelers have perhaps had no better example of that than the experience of Javon Hargrave. A quick look at his career reveals why, as well as why such situations create bittersweet moments for teams and fans.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

A Capsule Profile of Javon Hargrave’s Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, drawing uncharacteristic praise from John Mitchell, the Steelers legendary, but cantankerous, defensive line coach.

  • Rookies (not named Casey Hampton) not only failed to start for coach Mitchell, they seldom played.

So Mitchell’s comments were a true eyebrow raiser. And true to form, Javon Hargrave started as a rookie and made an instant impact, making 2 sacks and 5 tackles from behind the line of scrimmage. He started strong, with the rest of the defense in the 2017, contributing to series of epic Red Zone stands against the Lions that yielded no points. Injuries limited Hargrave in late 2017, keeping him off the field at several critical junctures in the 2017 playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

They did, and Hargrave delivered both in 2018 and in 2019, where Hargrave stepped it up following Stephon Tuitt’s injury, where Hargrave made 60 tackles, 4 sacks and dropped 7 players behind the line of scrimmage.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Javon Hargrave

Former Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis once told Jim Wexell that the health of the Steelers defense can be traced to the quality of play in its center, from nose tackle to safety.

Javon Hargrave has shown he is more than up to the task. Moreover, he is versatile. Equally important, the Steelers don’t have an heir apparent but do have offensive needs galore in the draft.

Really, the Steelers have no choice but to keep Javon Hargrave in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Javon Hargrave

Sixty three percent. That is Javon Hargrave’s snap count for 2019 which takes into account his increased time due to Stephon Tuitt being on IR. Prior to that, he averaged about 46% of the defensive snaps. Assuming both Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt return in full health in 2020, it is hard to imagine Javon Hargrave’s time going up appreciably.

  • And as a free agent, Javon Hargrave stands poised to claim the 2nd or 3rd richest free agent contract.

Javon Hagrave knows this. So does his agent. Hargave won’t accept a “home town discount.” Watching a player the Steelers drafted and developed leave is difficult, but you can’t pay everyone.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Javon Hargrave

In a perfect world the Steelers would find a way to keep Javon Hargrave in Pittsburgh. But the world isn’t perfect, and the salary cap forces teams to make exactly these kinds of choices. In fact, the Steelers made one four years ago when they left Steve McLendon go.

  • Expect the Steelers to follow suit here.

The Steelers simply have to accept that Javon Hargrave delivered excellent value on his rookie contract and be glad they can get a compensatory pick.

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

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Mike Hilton: Hold Him While You Can

In 2015, the Steelers went to Ole Miss in search of a 5’9″ defensive back who they thought could be a plug-in slot corner at the professional level.

His name was Senquez Golson, a player they selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Only problem, Golson never saw any live action for the Steelers, as injuries derailed his career quite literally before it even began. Thankfully, another 5’9″ defensive back from Ole Miss came on the scene two years later and became that all-important slot corner the Steelers had been searching for for years. His name was Mike Hilton. Since 2017, he’s been one of the most effective at his position in the NFL. But now that he enters 2020 as a restricted free agent, can Pittsburgh afford to keep him?

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent in 2016, Hilton was signed by the Jaguars but didn’t make the final cut out of training camp and was released. The Patriots quickly signed Hilton to their practice squad but just as quickly–one week later–released him. Hilton was team-less for most of 2016 before landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad in December of that year.

Hilton became a training camp sensation in 2017 and remained the talk of Latrobe all the way up until the end, when he not only made the Steelers final 53-man roster, he was named the starting slot corner (or nickelback) to begin the year. And oh what a rookie year it was for Hilton, as he recorded two interceptions, six passes defensed and four, that’s right, four quarterback sacks–including a whopping three in a Week 16 blow-out victory on Christmas Day in Houston.

The sack rate hasn’t been the same over the last two seasons, but Hilton’s consistent and impressive play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. Hilton was an exclusive rights free agent prior to the 2019 season, meaning he had zero leverage to negotiate a new deal. Unlike previous exclusive rights free agents, such as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers and Hilton weren’t able to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Therefore, Hilton signed his tender which paid him $645,000 a season ago.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

After years of searching for the right parts to make the secondary work, the Steelers appear to have finally found the correct formula. Let’s face it, in the modern world of professional football, where passing is king, a slot corner is basically a starter, which may explain why Hilton was on the field for 62 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019. Like with other restricted free agents, the Steelers have options with Hilton.

They can sign him to a low tender of about $2 million. Or if they’re really interested in retaining him, they can place a second-round tender on Hilton, which will cost about $3 million in 2020. That’s a huge hike in pay, sure, but at 25 years old, Hilton is young and his prime years are likely still ahead of him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

Obviously, Hilton isn’t the biggest Steelers defender who is on the verge of free agency. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave have garnered most of the headlines in that regard, and if one or both stick around, it’s going to be quite expensive. Unlike exclusive rights free agents, restricted free agents have the opportunity to go out and negotiate a deal with another team, a deal Pittsburgh would have the option of matching.

But, again, slot corners are essentially starters, and the good ones make good money. With little room under the salary cap, and with Cam Sutton about to enter his fourth year as a versatile member of the secondary, it might behoove the Steelers to allow Hilton to explore other options. If another team bites, maybe they can get a second-round pick for their efforts.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton

This is a tough call. If NFL players vote to accept the proposed new CBA, that changes everything as far as free agency goes. Not only would the salary cap increase, teams would then able to do such things as restructure current contracts so as to create even more space under the cap. Under that scenario, I say you do what you can to lock Hilton up to a long-term deal.

Unfortunately, that scenario hasn’t presented itself just yet. Having said that, however, I believe the Steelers need to find a way to create $3 million under the cap to keep Hilton around for one more year, and they should place a second-round tender on him prior to free agency.

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

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Steelers Free Agent Profile: L.T. Walton (What? He’s Still Around?)

The image of “The Red Phone” is one that conjures “emergency” in popular culture, wehther you’re watching commissioner Gordon call Wayne Manor or viewing a Cold War epic whose plot centers on use of the Washington-Moscow hotline.

  • The NFL is no different. Every General Manager has a list of emergency players to turn to when disaster strikes.

Kevin Colbert has his list. Sometimes it has involved calling players with no history in Pittsburgh, think Matthew McCrane stepping in for Chris Boswell. Other times he’s turned to familiar faces – think Max Starks at any number of points in his career. In 2020 injuries to Stephon Tuitt forced Kevin Colbert to again to seek a surprise name from his emergency list, that of L.T. Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Capsule Profile of L.T. Walton’s Career with the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers drafted L.T. Walton in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He earned a roster spot, but didn’t play which is no surprise in John Mitchell’s system.

Cam Heyward’s season ending injury in the middle of 2016 opened the door for L.T. Walton to get some playing time, as L.T. Walton saw his snap count rise to 24%. While the dramatic improvement shown by the Steelers defense in the 2nd half of the 2016 season came from James Harrison starting for Jarvis Jones, and stepped up play by Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns, it would have been possible had L.T. Walton been a liability on the field.

Could L.T. Walton build on that in 2017? His record was mixed, with his snap count dropping, but Walton adding sacks in the Steelers wins over Tennessee and Green Bay. Walton also struggled while playing nose tackle in the playoff debacle against Jacksonville, but no Steelers defender played well that afternoon.

  • In 2018, John Mitchell gave way as defensive line coach to Karl Dunbar, and Karl Dunbar decided to give Daniel McCullers another shot.

And Daniel McCullers’ second shot came at L.T. Walton’s expense as his as his snap count dwindled to below 5%. L.T. Walton hit the free agent market a year ago, and failed to get any attention either inside or outside Pittsburgh.

The Steelers signed him on October 21st after putting Stephon Tuitt on IR, then put L.T. Walton on IR on November 19th without dressing him once.

The Case for the Steelers Signing L.T. Walton

“He knows the system,” is the credo coaches frequently fall back on when signing a journeyman veteran whom they’ve parted ways with in the past. That certainly applies to L.T. Walton. Moreover, with Javon Hargrave set to depart in free agency, and with the Steelers having little depth behind Heyward, Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs and even less draft capital to add that depth, a veteran minimum contract for L.T. Walton seems like a low-risk high reward proposition.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.T. Walton

L.T. Walton is a player who has been in the NFL for four years and played a total of 480 snaps. 255 came when Cam Heyward was out and there was literally no one left to play. He sat on the open market a year ago and no one showed any interest, and managed to get injured after his surprise midseason return despite never even dressing.

Do I need to keep going? Even a veteran minimum contract takes up a roster space that could be used to give a chance to the next Willie Parker, James Harrison or Devlin Hodges. Using it one on L.T. Walton would be a waste.

The Curtain’s Call on L.T. Walton and the Steelers

This has all been an academic exercise, hasn’t it? Because there’s no chance the Steelers resign L.T. Walton. Right?

Probably. But….

Stranger things have happened on the Steelers defensive line during free agency. In 2015 the Steelers resigned Clifton Geathers the emergency defensive lineman signed to replace Brett Keisel. In 2018 the Steelers shocked the world when they resigned Daniel McCullers. Last year they did it again.

With that said, the smart money says that neither the Steelers, nor the rest of the league, give L.T. Walton a second look in free agency this spring.

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Free Agency Tracker

It is that time of year again. The NFL’s “League” Year is about to start, which will brings free agency and a flurry of activity as players jump from team to team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be no exception. While the Steelers have been more active in free agency in recent seasons of late, their salary cap situation heading into 2020 would seem to preclude that. That doesn’t mean the news will be slow.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quite to the contrary. If the Steelers simply wish to sign their draft class, tender a few restricted free agents, and give themselves enough room to sign emergency players during the 2020 season, they’ll need to clear salary cap space. A that means saying goodbye to veterans. And then of course there’s the impending big decision on Bud Dupree.

  • With that we kick off our annual Steelers free agency tracker.

As free agency evolves, we’ll update departures and signings here. We’ll also be including free agent focus profiles on each of the Steelers free agents.

Steelers 2020 Unrestricted Free Agents

Bud Dupree
Javon Hargrave
B.J. Finney
Artie Burns
Sean Davis
Nick Vannett
Kameron Canaday
Tyler Matakevich
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agents

Matt Feiler
Mike Hilton
Jordan Dangerfield
Zach Banner

Steelers 2020 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Marcus Allen
Lavon Hooks

Check back for regular updates.

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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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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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