Has the Steelers Stevan Ridley Reclamation Project Run Its Course?

NFL “Street Free Agents” are just what the name implies. Players who get signed off of the street. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has a pretty good record when it comes to signing Street Free Agents. Kickers Matt McCrane and Randy Bullock provide to recent examples.

Stevan Ridley is another one of Kevin Colbert’s Street Free Agent signings and his impending free agency provides a good time to assess how well the Stevan Ridley reclamation project has worked.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Patriots

Stevan Ridley rips off a revenge run against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley Steelers Career

When James Conner got injured in the infamous Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots, the infamous Jesse James game, Fitzgerald Toussiant was Le’Veon Bell’s only experienced backup. Kevin Colbert wasted little time signing Stevan Ridley who’d been a quality NFL running back before injuries derailed his career in 2014.

Stevan Ridley saw immediate action in the Steelers Christmas win against the Texans and in their season finale against the Browns. The Steelers resigned him in the 2018 off season, and Ridley began the 2018 season as James Conner’s primary backup, ahead of Jaylen Samuels.

Ridley only got 29 carries and saw 3 balls thrown his way, managing a 2.8 yard per carry average. Worse yet, he fumbled twice.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Those statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for Stevan Ridley, and make it hard for build a case for bringing Ridley back to Pittsburgh. On a recent Post-Gazette chat, Gerry Dulac quipped to a reader that Ridley “led the league in 2 yard carries.”

  • It IS true that Stevan Ridley’s ball security are at issue, and that his average is unimpressive.

Yet the sample size is small, and Stevan Ridley also looked good at times, including in the Steelers win over the Patriots. The Steelers need depth at running back, and Stevan Ridley provides an experienced hand behind Conners and Samuels.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Depth in the NFL is about quality not quantity. Stevan Ridley is going to be 30 next season, and 30 year old running backs don’t offer much in the way of “upside.”

It is hard to justify a modest signing bonus and even a roster spot on Stevan Ridley when the Steelers should be looking to fill that role with a young player for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley’s future in Pittsburgh could largely depend on the Steelers overall approach to building their running back depth chart.

For the last several seasons, the Steelers have opted to go with a starter, a competent backup and untested younger player manning the third running back slot with Roosevelt Nix rounding out the group at fullback.

If the Steelers stick to form, and only carry 3 running backs plus a fullback, it would be a mistake to keep Stevan Ridley as that third running back. However, if the Steelers find a good back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a 2019 equlivent of 2008’s Mewelde Moore, than Stevan Ridley could be a good candidate to occupy that 4th slot, much as Gary Russell did in 2008.

However, with Antonio Brown set to leave town, the Steelers will need to add extra bodies at wide receiver to supplement JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and possibly Eli Rogers as targets for Ben Roethlisberger.

That being the case, it is likely that the Steelers Stevan Ridley reclamation project has come to an end.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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The “Other” Steelers 2019 Off Season Priority: Beefing Up Running Back Depth

What’s the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest priority of the 2019 off season? Well, improving at inside linebacker and at cornerback (if not safety as well) top everyone’s list. As they should. Next comes finding someone to “replace” Antonio Brown.

  • That’s where most people’s lists tend to end. They should not.

There’s another off season priority for the Steelers, and while it make take a backseat to the priorities listed above, ignoring it will only come at Pittsburgh’s peril. The Steelers need to strengthen the depth of their offensive backfield. In doing so they’d be wise to remember the contributions of the Mewelde Moore back in 2008…

Mewelde Moore, David Jones, Steelers vs Bengals 2008

Mewelde Moore, the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

 

Steelers Busted Up Backfield Syndrome

It is kind of funny if you think about it. Steelers fans find no shortage of topics to criticize Mike Tomlin on these days, whether its clock management, challenges, talent evaluation, locker room control or getting tripped up on trap games.

Yet the numbers are there for all to see. Whether we’re talking about Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or the duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, Mike Tomlin has shown little inclination to limit the work load of his starting running backs.

  • While that’s a debatable strategy to begin with, it is even more dubious if when you fail to adequately staff your running back depth chart.

This is after all the team that started Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the playoffs one year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a year later.

First Step – Admitting You Have a Problem

While the Steelers brass hasn’t issued a mea culpa, there are signs that the coaches have realized they have a problem. Before it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s hold out would become permanent, James Conner was on track to touch the ball 378 times this year.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

Although the Steelers dramatically cut back on Conner’s carries starting with the Panther’s game, James Conner got hurt anyway. That forced rookie Jaylen Samuels into the starting role despite never having played running back full time in his football life.

Fortunately, Samuels was up to the task. Unfortunately, it left the Steelers one play away from starting Stevan Ridley or Trey Edmunds as their starting running back.

The Steelers offense couldn’t control the clock, and airing the ball out resulted in more turnovers – even if Ben Roethlisberger’s interception percentage was down.

Solution Staff Moore Running Back Depth

While it is easy to play arm chair head coach and criticize Mike Tomlin and Randy Fitchner for passing too much, the fact is that their personnel left them little choice. This is one case where the arm chair general managers have the upper hand. Steelers history backs this up.

  • It certainly is true that the passing game is preeminent in today’s NFL
  • It may also be true that “Three yards and a cloud of dust” smash mouth “Steelers football” only delivered wins in Super Bowl’s IX and Super Bowl XL

But it is also true that the Steelers lone Lombardi Trophy of the Tomlin era came in 2008, when the front office had the foresight to staff a running back depth chart that was 3 and arguably 4 players deep. The plan was rely on Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell serving as backups.

Mewelede Moore hadn’t just been overlooked by the Pittsburgh media, having signed as a free agent the same day Ben Roethlisberger signed his first extension, the coaches had ignored him too as Carey Davis got the call when Mendenhall got injured in Baltimore.

Moore rushed for 120 yards the following week, and piled up just under 800 all-purpose yards while only making 4 starts. I’ve long argued that Mewelede Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season which ended in victory at Super Bowl XLIII.

  • How might have 2018 turned out had the Steelers dedicated a roster spot to another running back instead of say, Justin Hunter?

We’ll never know. But we do know that the Steelers brass’ decision to staff running back depth charts which are essentially only two players deep has carried steep costs in December and January time and time again.

James Conner and Jaylen Samuels give the Steelers two good backs going into 2019. Regardless of whether he comes from free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers must bring a third running back to Pittsburgh; Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find the 2019 equivalent of Mewelde Moore.

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The Right Choice: Steelers to Let Le’Veon Bell Walk, Will Not Use Transition Tag

As Kevin Colbert announced yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have decided not to apply the transition tag or the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. The move comes as a bit of a surprise because the Steelers had seemed intent on playing hard ball with Bell.

They have chosen not to, and that decision might signal that Art Rooney II has mastered one of the one of the most important tests of his tenure as Steelers president.

Our third and likely final free agent focus profile of Le’Veon Bell reveals why.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Here’s the digest version based on our 2017 and 2018 free-agent profiles of Le’Veon Bell.

In his rookie training camp, Ed Bouchette boldly compared Le’Veon Bell’s debut to that of Franco Harris. Journalists such as John Stiegerwald were skeptical, yet Jim Wexell tracked Bell’s rookie performance against Walter Peyton’s as a rookie.

Six years later, Le’Veon Bell has set regular season and playoff rushing records that neither Harris, Jerome Bettis, nor John Henry Johnson could set.

A lot of signs indicate yes, however the fact that Bell has played only one complete season and been hit with two suspensions raises doubts.

The (Theoretical Case) for the Steelers Retaining Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers decision seems clear, but the point of this exercise is to make the strongest case possible for keeping Bell so here goes.

  • On paper there’s a case for the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell to a long-term deal.
  • There’s also a case for using the transition tag on him.

No one inside or outside of Pittsburgh questions Le’Veon Bell’s talent and his ability to perform at peak level at least in the short term. With James Conners and Jaylen Samuels on the roster, bringing Bell back would give Pittsburgh a more potent running back tandem than the Willie Parker/Rashard Mendenhall duo they envisioned in early 2008 (with Samuels standing in for Mewelde Moore.)

  • Even if the Steelers can’t sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal, the case for putting the transition tag on him is strong, in theory.

As one Steelers scribe privately remarked when Bell’s 2018 holdout became permanent, “It would basically dare any other NFL team to improve on the offer the Steelers made last season.” It would also give the Steelers the chance to match that offer. Theoretically, the Steelers could also match the offer and then trade him to someone else.

And a trade could bring the Steelers a pick in the 2019 NFL Draft whereas any compensatory pick would only come in 2020. With a strike or lockout looming, a draft pick in 2019 helps the Steelers far more than one in 2020.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning or Transition Tagging Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers were prepared to commit an eight-figure salary cap to Le’Veon Bell in offers made in 2017 and 2018. Yet, James Conner delivered excellent production (although not ball security) in 2018 and he’ll only make $844,572 in 2019.

  • The Steelers can use the difference to bolster their defense, which needs the help.

Beyond salary cap dollars and sense, not having Le’Veon Bell probably cost the 2018 Steelers the playoffs. Bell’s behavior and the gap between his actions and words widened in 2018. Do the Steelers need another potential locker room distraction? Ah, no.

  • Using the transition tag on Bell carries risk as well.

First, the transition tag ties up valuable salary cap dollars that can’t be used while the Bell situation sorts itself out. Forget Bell signing his tender so that the Steelers can trade him. The Steelers could try to “match and trade” but would need to complete the trade on the same day to avoid a salary cap hit.

Finally, if the Steelers tag Bell then decline to match, they get nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

During the 1990’s, it often felt like the Steelers served as the NFL’s farm team. Pittsburgh would develop players like Chad Brown or Yancey Thigpen only to see them leave as free agents. The Rooneys promised things would change with a new stadium. Heinz Field opened in 2001, and since then the Steelers have done a remarkable job of keeping their own players since then.

Retaining key players has been critical to the Steelers overall success in the 21st century and critical to their victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • But you can’t keep everyone. Knowing when to let a player walk is just as important as knowing when to keep him.

For a long time it seemed like Art Rooney II and the rest of the Steelers brass was determined to use the transition tag to exert some control over Le’Veon Bell’s fate. While that’s understandable, it doesn’t make sound football sense.

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell would have signed the deal his agent had agreed to with the Steelers. But Bell declined. The Steelers gave it a second go around, and Bell sat out all of 2018 while trolling his team at every chance he got.

The Steelers are going to let Le’Veon Bell walk and that is the right decision.

 

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The Steelers Took a Step Back in 2018. Can They Take One Forward in 2019?

As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:

  • Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
  • How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
  • Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
  • Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship

Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.

We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Rejuvenated Running Game?

Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.

  • Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.

Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.

We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.

  • Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.

Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.

Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)

Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
  • The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
  • Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.

Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.

  • Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
  • Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
  • T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
  • Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
  • Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential

Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.

Emerging Weapons on Offense

The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.

The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.

Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.

Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019

The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.

And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio  Brown.

As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?

  • The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.

Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?

That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.

  • Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?

If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.

 

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal with a Disruptive Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal when Your Star Pupil is Disruptive

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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