Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Glimpsing of Ron Erhardt’s Ghost Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is using “work to do and bills to pay” as an excuse for his late grade sheet and not the fact that he thinks he caught a glimpse of the late Ron Erhardt, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the road win vs the Raiders.

Cole Holcomb, Davante Adams, Steelers vs Raiders

Cole Holocomb throttles Davante Adams. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Pundits are parsing this as Kenny Pickett’s best game. Was it? Pickett threw 16-28 for 235 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first multi-touchdown pass game and the Steelers did lead in time of possession. Nonetheless, their 6-15 third down conversion rate must improve. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris earned a gritty 65 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 17 on the Steelers touchdown drive, showing that it was rough sledding up front for most of the night. Connor Heyward got his first carry of the season for zero yards. ON the night, Steelers running backs rushed for 94 yards, a season high which, while still too low represents and improvement. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 41 yards including a perfectly executed play action pass during the Steelers first trip into the Red Zone. That play was set up in no small part by a 14 yarder that he caught two plays before. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
This week it was Calvin Austin’s turn to get open deep in the middle of the field. And Austin delivered by burning the Raiders secondary for a quick six points. George Pickens only had 4 catches but they went for 75 yards and either converted third downs or otherwise set up scores. Allen Robinson had 4 catches, including a third down converter that iced the game. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once. But don’t let that stat deceive you, he took some vicious hits after the pass. And while the running game did enjoy more success this week, the Raiders still recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Not good enough. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Josh Jacobs looked normal, rushing for just 62 yards and a long of only 10 – much better than what we saw the last two weeks. Overall the line authored a strong game, Keeanu Benton breaking through to make a phenomenal sack which saved a touchdown. Grade: B

Linebackers
A glance at the stat sheet suggests “off night” for T.J. Watt, who only had 2 sacks and 3 other QB hits. But those sacks wrecked drives. Kwon Alexander led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cole Holcomb delivered a thunderous hit on Davante Adams that scuttled the Raider’s opening drive of the second half. Marcus Golden also got a sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
No the plus side, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson both came down with interceptions. On the flip side, the secondary got caught on a deep route on 3rd and 1 and was again fooled on a two- point conversion. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 for field goals of 42, 43 and 57 yards. Pressley Harvin averaged 53.8 on 6 punts, pinning the Raiders inside their own 20 on 3 occasions, although his penultimate punt was a short 41 yarder that had terrible hang time. The Steelers return coverage was solid, although they did give up a penalty on a field goal. Grade: B

Coaching
We have a mixed bag on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers defense was sound. It took away the ball 3 times, sacked Jimmy Garoppolo 4 times, contained Josh Jacobs, limited the Raiders to 4 of 15 on third down and opened the 4th quarter by forcing a turnover on downs.

But the unit got caught with its pants down twice on running plays, and the Raiders moved the ball far too easily on their 2 fourth quarter scoring drives. Yes, you can say Minkah Fitzpatrick’s roughing the passer call was bogus. But the Steelers defense had 2 chances to make a stop and failed then allowed a 2 point conversion.

Matt Canada certainly succeeded at one thing in the season’s first two weeks: He got Steelers Nation to forget Randy Fitchner and Todd Haley.

And for much of the game against the Raiders, he did little to jog their memories. As the Steelers offense vacillated between three and outs and field goal drives with one quick strike sprinkled it to keep things interesting.

But at two points in the game, it was almost as if Ron Erhardt’s Force Ghost* appeared to Matt Canada and the entire Steelers offense instructing, “Use the Force.” Seriously. The Steelers third quarter touchdown drive couldn’t have been scripted with better precision. And if the unit followed that with 2 back-to-back three and outs, it responded at the very end to kill the clock.

Mike Tomlin saw to it that the horrific performance against the 49ers had no ripple effect. After the Cleveland win he kept the team focused on a short week, ensuring that it didn’t go to their heads. Grade: C

Jaylen Warren, Robert Spillane, Steelers vs Raiders

Former Friends: Robert Spillane tries to tackle Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

*Truthfully, on that series the Steelers looked more like a Ken Whisenhunt offense than an Erhardt one, but Whiz is still with us and God willing will be for a long time.

Unsung Hero Award
A week ago this player missed his block, causing a sack on third down. This week the same player met Maxx Crosby head on and bought his quarterback time setting up a deep strike. He also ripped of a number of long runs and pass receptions to set up scores and for that Jaylen Warren wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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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:

https://twitter.com/BlitzVideos/status/1035700924893855744

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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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

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.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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 Loss to Bengals: No Christmas Reprieve Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Carl Lawson, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F

Running Backs
Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.

Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+

Linebackers
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Secondary
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.

Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.

    • It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyler Boyd, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens: Flunk Multiple Choice, Ace the Essay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher whose students flunked the multiple choice section but aced the essay part of the exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half, completing just four passes, although he protected the ball. In the second half, Ben Roethlisberger did what he does best – freelancing, and led the Steelers on 3 touchdown drives. Finishing the day going 21 of 32 for an economical 182 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a tough day, only rushing for 47 yards on 15 carries, and added 3 catches for 13 yards. James Conner did score a critical, go ahead touchdown. Anthony McFarland had 1 carry for 1 yard, but he did well in avoiding a loss. Jaylen Samuels was targeted twice and did not catch a pass. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 4 passes for 48 yards, which looks pedestrian, but his touchdown was critical to getting the Steelers back into the game. Later, he made two drive-sustaining catches on series that ended with touchdowns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool made 5 catches for 42 yards, including a picture perfect route on the final go ahead touchdown. Claypool also fumbled the ball, which is becoming a recurring issue. Ray-Ray McCloud and Diontae Johnson each made 1 catch for 6 yards, but he drew a pass interference penalty on a touchdown drive. James Washington was targeted once and drew a pass interference penalty. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice and hit him 6 times, but Big Ben seemed under duress less than he would for a typical Ravens game. The line also gave up several tackles for losses and run blocking remains a challenge. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt was a monster, earning AFC Defensive player of the week for his 2 sack 3 tackles for a loss and 3 quarterback hits effort. Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and had to leave the game twice due to injuries. Tyson Alualu left the game early, and was replaced by Isaiah Buggs who struggled against the run early on. But Buggs made good on the penultimate drive of the game, stoning Lamarr Jackson twice, forcing a fumble on his second try. Grade: B

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane continues to impress, leading the team in tackles, defensing 2 passes, and making a pick six that was a critical difference maker for the team. Bud Dupree had four tackles and a strip sack that wiped at least 3 points off the board for Baltimore. T.J. Watt “only” had a sack and 5 QB hits. Vince Williams had five tackles and recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith made a leaping interception to start the 2nd half, which helped turn the game for Pittsburgh. The linebackers had a part in allowing Baltimore’s massive rushing total, but their critical plays at critical moments were essential. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden had 7 tackles and Steven Nelson had 4, while Cam Sutton and Justin Layne had 2 tackles apiece as did Terrell Edmunds. The real star of the unit was Minkah Fitzpatrick whose pass defense proved once again he was worth every bit of the 1st round pick the Steelers gave up to get him. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a respectable day on kick returns and returned 1 punt for 5 yards. The Ravens kick returns were nothing special, but they did have a 15 yard punt return. Jordan Berry had a spare 42.2 yards per punt, but he did boom off a 48 yard punt and a 56 yard punt. Chris Boswell was perfect on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching
The Ravens have a tough defense that figured to test Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first half, they shut the Steelers down easily. But Randy Fichtner made the necessary half time adjustments. It might not have been the greatest show on turf, but 21 2nd half points on the road after such a rough outing is nothing to sneeze at.

  • The Baltimore Ravens rushed for over 250 yards. Going into the game, teams that do that 215-1-1.Now they’re 215-2-1.

Yardage aside, the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 7 points in the 2nd half. While its probably more of a credit to the players rather than any scheme or strategy, the Steelers defense stopped Lamarr Jackson at every critical juncture that they had to stop him at.

In the last 8 quarters, the Steelers have gone from orchestrating a blow out in their first two tries, getting blown out in their next four, and rallying in their second 2, coming out victorious. Never at any moment has panic been evident in Pittsburgh’s play. That’s a credit to coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster Makes the tough catches against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
He hasn’t seen the end zone since September and he has yet to post a 100 yard or 10 catch game. That didn’t change against the Ravens, but this player make drive sustaining, combat catch after combat catch and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Titans: Learn the Right Lesson Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students don’t learn the long lesson from their experience of starting strong, stumbling badly and still passing, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Titans.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Spillane, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt sacks Ryan Tannehill. And then some. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started this game as he had so many others this year – on fire. By Jim Wexell’s calculation’s Big Ben had a passer rating of 99.4 in the first half, and 17.0 thereafter. His interceptions alone accounted for a 6 point swing. To his credit Roethlisberger manned up after the game, but that doesn’t count as “extra credit for showing your work.” Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner had 82 yards on 20 carries and ran strong in addition to 3 catches for 29 yards. Benny Snell only had 2 carries, but found paydirt on one of them with a touchdown. Jaylen Samuels returned to the offense and got 5 yards on his only carry. Anthony McFarland 6 yards on one carry. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had two catches for 14 yards while Eric Ebron had 6 catches for 50 yards, while Jerald Hawkins sealed the corner on Snell’s touchdown playing as the third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson did something that not easily measured by statistics – they showed that the can and will make opposing defenses pay for double-teaming Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 85 yards and they were combat catches. Diontae Johnson also had 9 catches for 80 yards, but he also scored two touchdowns. Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. The one combat catch that JuJu missed was the end zone touchdown, and that brings this group’s mark down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and he was only hit 3 times per ESPN’s stats. James Conner and the other running backs ran very well in the first half and the line had a lot to do with that. Their rushing average plummeted in the 2nd half, which contributed to two very short drives when clock milking was in order. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Derrick Henry is, daresay, a running back cut out of the Jerome Bettis mold, yet agaisnt the Steelers he only managed 3.8 yards a carry. Certainly some of that is due to the Titans playing from behind, but part of the reason they were behind late was because Henry couldn’t get started early. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt’s stat sheets are slim, but they impact was deep. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and dropped Henry for losses twice the second of which was a key play in forcing a punt. Bud Dupree’s name doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, which is strange, but he was tasked in part with helping ensure Henry remained contained. The real hero of the day is this unit’s work horse, Vince Williams who led the team with 10 total tackles, a sack and another tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Cam Sutton, Corey Davis

Cam Sutton deflects a pass against Corey Davis. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Secondary
Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, and Terrell Edmunds all batted away passes at critical moments. Joe Haden made some critical stops on the final drive. Steven Nelson’s name was seldom heard which is very much a good thing. However, the secondary gave up a 70 yard touchdown which came early enough to allow Tennessee to get back in the game. Minkah Fitzpatrick either slipped or perhaps hesitated and A.J. Brown outran the rest of the secondary. These types of slips hurt. Grade: C

Special Teams
In his return to Pittsburgh Jordan Berry averaged 50 yards on two punts, delivering an immediate improvement. The Steelers kick and punt coverage remained strong. Chris Boswell was 3 for 3 on PATs and hit two field goals. The special teams also quashed an impromptu fake punt attempt. The real star was Ray-Ray McCloud, whose 57 yard punt return gave the Steelers an easy score inside the 2 minute warning. That’s 9 points score by special teams and another 6 directly set up by special teams. Excellent. Grade: A

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense did what it had not done in 24 games, score a touchdown on its opening drive. This immediately knocked the Titans off of their game, which is to ride Henry from ahead. The Steelers offense authored drives of 9, 7 and 7 and a half minutes.

Keith Butler was forced to play without two critical players, in Mike Hilton and Devin Bush, and knew his run defense would be tested by the NFL’s best rusher. The Steelers defense proved to be up to the task, and their early shut downs of the Titans offense were critical to establish and padding a lead which would become quite slim by the end of the afternoon.

  • It is true that Butler’s defense did suffers its share of hiccups, on the long pass play and the goal line, but they delivered.

When a team is on the road, goes negative 3 in the turnover category, gives up a 70 yard touchdown pass and STILL wins to remain undefeated, you suspect the coaching staff is doing something right. But when that team’s players exit the game with a humble, rather than triumphant attitude you simply have to credit head coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
OK. We’ve given the coaches their due. But there’s another reason why a team can turn the ball over so many times, give up long touchdowns and still win. It’s because of plays like this:

Sure, the Titan’s scored two plays later. It doesn’t matter. Good things happen to teams who see their heretofore no-names take on NFL All Pros head on and win and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Titans.

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