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 4 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 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.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Ben Roethlisberger Must to Put his Money Where His Mouth Is

Art Rooney II beat me to the punch.

Ben Roethlisberger’s future in Pittsburgh is the story of the Steelers 2021 off season. The sequel to my piece comparing the current treatment of Ben Roethlisberger to what the Blonde Bomber endured early in his career was to carry the headline, “The Steelers Should Welcome Roethlisberger Back. But on One Condition.”

Leave it to Steelers President Art Rooney to steal my thunder as Art II declared: “We’ve been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn’t have him back under the current contract” and then later clarifying “We’d like to see Ben back for another year if that can work.”

So there you go. The head of the Steelers brain trust put black and white: Ben Roethlisberger’s the right man to be the Steelers signal caller for 2021, but only at the right price.

  • Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head.

But since I’ve been wrong about Rooney being right before, (see Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag) let’s give the counter argument its due.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Real Risks of a Roethlisberger Return

Ben Roethlisberger is turning 39. That’s geriatric in NFL years. Moreover, he had major elbow surgery in 2019.

  • Father Time began to catch Ben Roethlisberger in 2020.

Ben Roethlisberger began 2020 playing better than anyone had a right to expect. Disagree? Then let me ask: Would you have gone to Vegas and wagered $100 on Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in release time in 2020? I wouldn’t have either.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility, once his trademark, now eludes him.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

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

So does the deep ball. At first, it seemed like it might be a question of timing. By mid-season the goal of throwing deep to Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool seemed to be to draw pass interference penalties. In November, the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses answered by choking the short passing game. Roethlisberger responded by trying to go deep.

It is almost as if Roethlisberger is struggling to get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm, to borrow Jim Wexell’s words. When Roethlisberger gets comfortable, he recovers his greatness. After throwing 3 interceptions, Ben went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards in the “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff loss to the Browns.

  • Those are championship passing numbers.

But who can win when their quarterback starts 9-17-66-0-3? No one.

Could Ben adequately get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm with a full off season of rehab and workouts with wide outs?

Now add that “If” to other “Ifs” about whether the Steelers can: Beef up the offensive line sufficiently, find a starter-capable running back, find a starter-capable tight end, keep or find corner and nickel backs, develop Alex Highsmith to replace Bud Dupree all while navigating salary cap Armageddon.

  • Look at it that way, and tearing it all down and rebuilding is tempting. Very tempting.

But the Steelers would be wise to welcome Roethlisberger back. It all comes down to a simple mathematical equation.

Why Joe Greene + T.J. Watt = Welcome Roethlisberger Back

Joe Greene wore number 75 and T.J. Watt wears number 90. Put those digits together and you get 7590.

On December 10th, 1983 Terry Bradshaw threw his final touchdown to Calvin Sweeney  at Shea Stadium. On September 19th, Ben Roethlisberger completed his first pass to Plaxico Burress at M&T Bank Stadium.

  • 7590 days passed between those two events.

Terry Bradshaw,

Terry Bradshaw wears a grim look during Steelers Mini Camp on May 29, 1984, at Three Rivers Stadium. (Photo Credit: Jim Fetter, The Pittsburgh Press)

Seven thousand, five hundred ninety days is a long time. Memories of Mark Malone’s 5 interception outing in Cleveland to Neil O’Donnell’s hook ups with Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX to Kordell Stewart‘s struggles in the dark days of 1998 and 1999 make that wait seem even longer.

But 7,590 days really isn’t that long when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback. Minnesota is still waiting on the next Fran Tarkenton. Joe Burrow’s presence notwithstanding, Cincinnati still searches for the next Ken Anderson. And yes, the New York Jets are still struggling to find their next Joe Namath.

Doubts about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to rebound are legitimate, but so were the questions about Peyton Manning and Brett Favre when they left the Colts and Packers. Under normal circumstances taking the risk of welcoming Roethlisberger back would be a no brainer for the Steelers.

But these are not normal circumstances.

Time for Ben Roethlisberger to Put His Money Where his Mouth Is

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with the NFL’s salary cap, which could go as low as 176 million dollars. In 2020 it was $198.2 million. The Steelers already have 203 million in salary cap liabilities for 2021 with just 35 players under contract.

  • That puts them at $21 million over the cap, without drafting a player or signing a free agent.
  • The Steelers could fill out their roster with undrafted rookie free agents and STILL have to cut veterans.

And that’s where Ben Roethlisberger comes in.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger will count $41 million against the Steelers salary cap. $22 million of that comes in bonuses from restructures, $4 million is base salary and the rest is a roster bonus due in March. The plan was to use these pages to call for Ben Roethlisberger take a pay cut to return, similar to what Jerome Bettis did in 2004 and 2005.

Fans asking or expecting players to give “hometown discounts” or take pay cuts simply isn’t realistic, which is why I’ve never done that before. And I don’t have to now, as Ben Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette:

I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year. I don’t care about my pay at all this year.

There you have it. Ben Roethlisberger currently contributes to the Steelers salary cap problem, but he’s offering to be part the solution. There are 18 million ways he can do that. If Ben Roethlisberger were to bite the bullet and agree to play for the veteran minimum, the Steelers would get very close cap compliance.

  • Sure, Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan would have work to do.

But with the stroke of a pen, Ben Roethlisberger could make a huge financial sacrifice that would transform the Steelers impending salary cap hell into a mild form of salary cap purgatory for Pittsburgh.

After publishing is initial article, Ed Bouchette warned readers that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t offering a reverse blank check to the Steelers. That might be the case, and playing for the veteran minimum isn’t the only viable option.

But if Ben Roetlisberger truly believes he can return to championship form and truly wants to do all he can to help the Steelers do that, then he must put his money where his mouth is.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Justice Done! Steelers Bill Nunn, Alan Faneca Elected to Hall of Fame

“Good things come to those who work and wait” or so goes the line of James Psihoulis’ “Western Pennsylvania Polka.

  • Such was the case with City of Pittsburgh and the Super Steelers.

And such is the case with the Bill Nunn Jr. and Alan Faneca’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Class. Both men had been eligible for several rounds of voting only to be passed over in favor of others.

In some cases, such as that of Alan Faneca, he had to sit and wait as other, slightly less accomplished players got in ahead of him. Bill Nunn, who passed away in 2014 on the eve of the 2014 NFL Draft, got passed over as higher profile, more contemporary but less accomplished contributors got their tickets to Canton punched.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

Nunn’s Selection Affirms Role as Architect of the Super Steelers

Bill Nunn Jr. isn’t well known. Even well-educated Steelers fans may only be vaguely familiar with his name. In part, that’s because Bill Nunn wanted it that way. He didn’t believe in tooting his own horn.
Maybe that’s a good thing because the sound would have been deafening.

Bill Nunn started out as a writer and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American publications of the post-World War II period. A confrontational conversation with Dan Rooney over the Courier’s lack of Steelers coverage and the Steelers lack of inclusion of African American journalists led to Nunn joining the Steelers scouting staff.

  • There, Nunn would join Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Modrak and Tim Rooney to form the greatest scouting organization in pro football history.

Nunn provided connections to the nation’s network of HBCU’s, paving the way for the arrival in Pittsburgh of Hall of Famers like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and Donnie Shell. Nunn also had a critical role in bringing players like should be Hall of Famer L.C. Greenwood and as well has his Steel Curtain brethren Dwight White and Ernie Holmes.

Nunn continued working with the Steelers “retiring” in the late 80’s, but continuing to work on a part time basis, grading players and mentoring young scouts for the Steelers organization.

Without Bill Nunn, there is no Steel Curtain, no 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Nunn’s unspoken contributions to the Steelers wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII should not be underestimated either.

Faneca Joins “The Bus,” Polamalu as in Hall from Steelers 2nd Super Bowl Era

The choice of Alan Faneca gives Pittsburgh their fourth representative from the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era. Jerome Bettis was the first member of the Black and Gold to break that barrier. Last year the Hall granted induction to Troy Polamalu and Bill Cowher.

With Fanaca the Steelers are represented by a quartet, a number that will likely increase by one when Ben Roethlisberger joins them one day. (Hines Ward should too, but probably won’t make it.)

While Alan Faneca’s selection represents a lifetime of achievement in the NFL, he had a huge role in securing the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL with his block that sprang Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown:

The NFL’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place on August 7th 2021 where the 2020 and 2021 classes will take their places along side the other legends in Canton.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Played Out at Paul Brown? Bengals 27-17 Win Spells Trouble for Steelers, Roethlsiberger

The Bengals beat the Steelers 27-17, but Pittsburgh was far more dramatic than the 10 point margin that Cincinnati inflicted suggests. It not that…

  • They suffered their 3rd loss after 11 straight wins
  • Pittsburgh lost to a 2-10 Cincinnati team
  • The Bengals were fielding a third string quarterback and missing many starters
  • Steelers fumbled their chance to grab a division title

No. All of those factors are symptoms of a far more troubling trend:  The Ben Roethlisberger era appears to be ending in front of our eyes. Yes, we saw a different, better Ben Roethlisberger in the 2nd half. Could that offer hope for the rest of the season?

Time will tell. But one thing is certain right now:  Watching this happen is real time is painful.

Darruis Philips, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals

Darrius Philips deflects a pass aimed at Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: AP via Benglas.com

1st Half Steelers Nation Suffers its Ali-Holmes Moment

The “Super Steelers” were my heroes growing up in Maryland in the late 70’s. Really. We’d play “Super Steelers” as if Lynn Swann and Joe Greene had super powers. But they weren’t my only heroes

  • Another big one was Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Las Vegas 1980

Muhammad Ali is defeated by Larry Holmes. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Hannibal Boxing.

I’d never seen him fight. Didn’t matter. Popular culture filled the void. Ali could do no wrong. I woke up gleefully on the morning of October 3rd, 1980 expecting good news and still remember my disappointment at hearing my mom tell me that Ali had lost to Larry Holmes.

  • Disappointment wasn’t limited to 8 year old boys.

Veteran boxing correspondent Jack Newfield confessed that he was “… literally crying. I was– there were tears on my notebook as I watched that.” The first half of the Bengals game felt like Steelers Nations’ own Ali-Holmes moment.

  • Sometimes the best way to break out of a slump is to confront your weakness head on.

Credit Randy Fichtner for doing just that. The Steelers have struggled both the long ball and play action this year. So on the very first play Fichtner had Ben Roethlisberger fake the handoff to Benny Snell, rollout of the pocket to his right and target James Washington 40 yards downfield.

  • It was a beautiful sight. It would have been a tone setter
  • It could have even been a game changer
  • Except that the pass was 3-4 yards too short
  • So short that Darius Phillips should have intercepted it

More bad things happened. On the next snap Benny Snell ran the ball for real and only got 2 years. On third down Ben Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson with a pass that was high yet catchable. Diontae dropped it. Not that this really mattered — it was a 4 yard pass when the Steelers needed 8.

Things got worse. On the next possession a four yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster simply set up 2 more deep incompletions and a punt. Next the tried to use “Jet Motion” with Ben Roethlisberger under center – where he promptly fumbled. The Bengals recovered.

Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

The Steelers defense did well to limit Cincinnati to a field goal. But the worst was yet to come. Before the 2nd half was over:

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster would get his noodle rocked, fumbling the ball back to the Bengals
  • Ben Roethlisberger would toss an ugly interception to Mackensie Alexander
  • The Bengals would convert both of those into touchdowns

By the end of the first half, Pittsburgh had just 40 yards from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger had 19 yards passing and two turnovers. In other words, the Steelers offense had 3 turnovers and had made just two first downs.

Damning numbers indeed. But they looked and felt worse in real time. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, yet here was Ben Roethlisberger struggling to connect on simple throws. He didn’t look like a two- time Super Bowl winner; he looked like a hapless rookie 4th string quarterback going up against the ’85 Bears.

Indeed, although Ben wasn’t taking a beating, in the first half he looked every bit as out of control as Ali had against Larry Holmes on the fateful night in Las Vegas.

Roethlisberger Redux? Meh, Not Quite

For the first time ever, I honestly thought that Mike Tomlin should consider pulling Ben Roethlisberger for performance. In Latin America, ESPN Deportes commentators thought it might happen, advising that Mason Rudolph had warmed up after half time.

It didn’t happen. Stout play by Cam Heyward, Avery Williamson and Alex Highsmith forced a 3 and out and the when the Steelers offense came out, Ben Roethlisberger was at the helm.

And for a time, the Steelers looked like the team that went 11-0 in September, October and November and not December’s 3 and 0er. Behind a crushing block from Vance McDonald, Chase Claypool transformed a simple screen pass on 3rd and 3 into to a thirty seven yard sideline scamper. One play later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a laser to Diontae Johnson.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell running in the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the next series, it was Benny Snell’s turn to shine as he ripped off runs of 29 and 13 yards. The Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal, but still, it was a 1 score game and 5 minutes remained in the third quarter.

Out Muscled on the Line, Defense Out Foxed by Finley

Before the game, no one in Steelers Nation knew the names “Ryan Finley” and  “Josh Bynes.” We’ll probably never hear their names again. But together the tandem snuffed out the Steelers 2nd half comeback.

  • In the first half, the Steelers mustered their will to convert a 4th and 1. That was a small but symbolic moment.

Symbolism only gets you so far. When the next time the Steelers faced a 3rd and 1 after Chris Boswell’s field goal, Benny Snell got stoned by Josh Bynes. Instead continuing to fight to tie the score the Steelers punted and asked their defense to bail them out. Again.

  • Out foxed by Ryan Finley, the defense couldn’t deliver.

Ryan Finley completed just 7 passes, but he ran for 47 yards. Three of those runs converted 3rd downs and another other gave Cincinnati a touchdown.

T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson all made excellent plays against the Bengals. But the Steelers defense couldn’t prevent Ryan Finley from looking like the 2nd coming of Fran Tarkenton. Disappointing?

Yes, but hardly surprising given that the Steelers were missing 3 of their 4 starting linebackers, their top backup and were forced to play a safety at inside linebacker.

One Last Hurrah?

Christmas is days away, and the Steelers haven’t played a good football game since before Thanksgiving. Yet, as Mark Kaboly pointed out in The Athletic, minus Bud Dupree, this is the same team that tangled with the Titans in the battle of the undefeated and walked away with a win.

  • For weeks now we’ve been waiting for the Steelers to “snap out of it”
  • Instead, their downward spiral is snapping into high gear

The story of a veteran pulling it together and leaving all out on the field for one final hurrah offers a compelling narrative. Sometimes it even happens in real life. See Jerome Bettis in Super Bowl XL.

But for that to happen here, Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to accept his limitations, find a way to succeed within them and hope his offensive line and running game can do “just enough” to get by.

Otherwise, Steelers Nation will be facing a long, cold winter.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Simple Math: Steelers Beat Bengals 36-10, but Number 7 is Key for Pittsburgh

Football is grounded in physics. Chuck Noll opined that the purpose of training camp was to teach players to use their bodies as projectiles. In his book, A Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell argues that success and failure in football often comes down to subtle changes in angles, stances and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fan.

  • Physics is driven by numbers
  • And in many senses, numbers and the measurables they represent determine outcomes on football fields.

But in the Steelers 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh proved two things:

  • All numbers are not created equally on the gridiron
  • And for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one certainly more equal than others

Lets look at how the men in Black and Gold delivered their lesson in math and physics.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger takes the snap. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sometimes Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

Football fans love statistics. Before the age of Direct TV, streaming and even shows like ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime, reading the stats in the paper at the breakfast table was as close as some citizens of Steelers Nation got to the game itself.

  • Sometimes, stats can be revealing.
  • At other times they can be deceiving.

Walter Abercrombie and Frank Pollard both have better career rushing averages than Jerome Bettis. Who would you rather draft for your all time Steelers team? Case closed. If I grabbed the stat sheet from the Steelers-Bengals game and told you that:

  • James Conner would rush for 36 yards at 2.8 yards a carry…
  • The Steelers would give up a fake punt that went for 39 yards…
  • Samaje Perine averaged 6.9 yards per carry…
  • The Steelers would convert 2 fumble recoveries for 3 points…
  • Pittsburgh would go 6-16 on third down…
  • The Bengals would convert 2 of 3 4th down attempts…

You could easily concluded that Cincinnati came out of Pittsburgh with an upset. But you’d have been wrong, because those numbers just don’t add up.

A Few Numbers that Offset the Ones Above

Football is the ultimate team game and it’s important to remember that because the conclusion of the next two

Cam Sutton, Tee Higgins, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Sutton strips the ball from Tee Higgins. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

sections could suggest otherwise. (Keep reading, we’ll go quick – no skimming down.)

The numbers above are at once accurate and imprecise because they’re counter balanced by statistics like these:

  • T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane, and Bud Dupree combined for 4 sacks
  • Ray-Ray McCloud ripped off a 42 yard punt return to the Bengals 15
  • Cincinnati went 0 for 13 on third downs
  • Joe Haden tipped way 3 passes
  • The Steelers would hold a mere 62 second advantage in time of possession

Take those stats, and look at them alongside the first set of numbers and it paints a picture of Pittsburgh perhaps pulling out another barn burner thanks to a little Minkah Magic magic.

But once again, you’d come away with the wrong image. This game was a blow out instead of a barn burner, and that’s because one number is more important to Pittsburgh than any other.

7 Stands as Steelers Magic Number

The two BIG known unknowns for the Steelers heading into 2020 were how would COVID-19 impact the team, and how well would Ben Roethlisberger rebound from surgery.

  • The confluences of both issues met at Heinz Field this past week.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger was unable to practice, due to potential exposure to COVID-19, but it Big Ben’s performance was the definitive difference maker for the the Steelers.

No, Ben Roethlisberger was not perfect. His long passes remain a work in progress. A couple were too short, a few more flew too long, and a few failed to escape the line of scrimmage without getting batted away.

But that really doesn’t matter when you can:

All of that amounted to the Steelers going 4 of 5 in the Red Zone, while tacking on a Chris Boswell field goal on their other trip, in addition to two other Boswell scores from father out. Two other stats help complete number 7’s tale: Zero sacks and Zero interceptions.

7 is the numeral that means so much more than any other number to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.