Steelers Eagles Preseason Report Card

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 preseason campaign against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Here is their Report Card.

Damoun Patterson, Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown, Rasul Douglas, Steelers vs Eagles Preseason

Steelers hopeful Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
As has become the custom the past few summers, 15-year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones got the start, playing three series and completing four of four passes for 83 yards and a 71-yard touchdown strike to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs played the rest of the first half and completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Joshua Dobbs led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Dobbs set up the first scoring drive with an 18-yard run As for the second score, it was a sensational 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Damoun Patterson. Rookie Mason Rudolph took over the reins in the second half and completed seven of 12 passes for 101 yards. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Training camp holdout or not, star running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t going to play, Thursday night. In his place, were a host of running backs, including veteran Stevan Ridley, who led all Steelers backs with 10 carries but for only 14 yards. Fellow veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while second-year man James Conner tallied an impressive 25 yards on just four carries. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The youngster, Damoun Patterson, was the receiving star of the night, as he was targeted 10 times, while pulling down six catches for 77 yards and the touchdown grab that was every bit as sensational as Dobbs’ pass. Smith-Schuster tallied only one catch for the aforementioned 71-yard score, while rookie James Washington grabbed two passes for 44 yards–including an impressive combat catch near the sidelines in the second half. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nothing newsworthy from this group. Veteran Jesse James caught just one pass for two yards. Vance McDonald sat out with an injury, while Xavier Grimble was shutout in the box score. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Line
Missing several key starters–including Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro due to injury prevention and veteran Ramon Foster due to an actual injury, Jones and Company weren’t afforded with the best protection. Sure enough, both Jones and Rudolph were sacked twice each. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward didn’t play at all, Stephon Tuitt played very little, while Javon Hargrave saw the most action out of the starters. The Eagles were held to 106 yards rushing, which is perhaps a testament to the backups and how they’re learning under first-year defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Grade: C

Linebackers
Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the way with four solo tackles, while Jon Bostic collected three. However, neither really distinguished themselves in the battle for the starting job alongside Vince Williams. As for outside linebackers, Anthony Chickillo recorded one sack, while rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi made the defensive play of the night, with a strip-sack early in the third quarter that set up a field goal. Grade: B+

Secondary
Despite missing a good bit of training camp battling injury, Morgan Burnett, the strong safety acquired via free agency in the offseason, looked really good, same for rookie first round pick Terrell Edmunds. Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton each recorded an interception, while Dashaun Phillips provided the low-light for the night when he was burned badly on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Grade: C

Special Teams
Nothing much of note on special teams, as rookie Quadree Henderson only had one chance to return a kickoff, while Justin Thomas totaled just 12 yards on three punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell converted all three of his field goal attempts and both extra points. As for the punters, veteran Jordan Berry averaged 41.7 yards on three punts, while the unknown Matt Wile totaled 96 yards on two punts. Grade: C

Coaches
It was the first preseason game, complete with vanilla game-plans that were executed by a lot of guys who won’t be around in a few weeks. Grade: Incomplete

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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NFL Approves the Jesse James Rule. Now Steelers Nation Needs to Get Over It and Move On

Its official. The NFL has approved the Jesse James Rule, modifying what exactly counts as “a catch” in the pro football. Now receivers no longer must “survive the ground” but merely establish possession, two feet in bounds, and make a football move or an ability to make one (whatever that means.)

  • On other words Jesse James touchdown catch against the New England Patriots would now, in fact be a touchdown catch.

It says here that the NFL made the right decision, however belated it might be. The Jesse James non-catch in the Steelers December loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field represents everything that wrong with the way the NFL is officiating professional football. Take a look for yourself:

Remember, the Steelers were on the ropes. The Patriots had just taken the lead and the Steelers got the ball back with 52 seconds left and one time out. Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for what had to have been the most electrifying 69 yard pass in Pittsburgh Steelers history.

  • Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James to seemingly put the Steelers ahead with 34 seconds remaining.
Jesse James, Steelers vs Patriots, Jesse James Touchdown Patriots, Jesse James Rule

Thanks to the Jesse James rule, this would have been a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Yet, instead of the extra point and furious attempt by the Patriots to rally in less than 30 seconds, football fans were treated to…

…Several minutes of dead air space, while some guy in a suit sat there in New York, reviewing the play frame-by-frame, back and forth, from 15 different angles and ultimately reversedthe call.

  • Instead of most valuable player being someone who did something on the field, NFL officiating czar Alberto Riveron had the most influence on the game’s outcome.

Hat’s off to the NFL Competition Committee and the owners for doing the right thing. Now Steelers Nation must follow suit:

  • Get over the Jesse James Catch/non-catch and move on.

That’s right you heard it. Get over it and move on. Did the Steelers get screwed? Yep, they did, especially when you consider that the NFL secretly modified the rule going into the Super Bowl. Is the play indicative of much of what ails football? Yes, as discussed above.

But you know what? The impact of this call has grown exponentially since that December evening. To listen to some Steelers Nation citizens, it is almost as if the Immaculate Reception had been nullified. It pains me to say this, but Steelers fans whining about the play is almost reaching the level of Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl XL excuse making.

Enough with the “What Could Have Been”

The Steelers loss to the Patriots cost them the first seed in the AFC playoffs, which brought the Jacksonville Jaguars to Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. And we shant say who won that one. But some in Steelers Nation seem to hold Alberto Riveron responsible for that shellacking. He’s not. Let’s look at why.

Go back to the Patriots game itself and review what the Steelers could have done in the 28 seconds after the touchdown reversal.

  • Pittsburgh could have kicked field goal to tie the game. They chose not to.
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey could have dropped the pass to stop the clock. He did not.
  • The Steelers could have clocked the ball and called their final play on their terms. They did not.
  • Ben Roethlisberger could have tried to do something other than force the ball to Eli Rogers in triple coverage. He did not.

OK, the referees could have penalized the Patriots for blatant pass interference on Eli Rogers. They did not.

NFL football teams do not get to choose when they suffer bad calls, only they get to choose on how they react afterwards. Perhaps the ensuing chaos was a straw that broke the camel’s back in Ben Roethlisberger’s fractured relationship with Todd Haley. Maybe the cause lie elsewhere. It matters not. The Steelers weren’t ready.

But let’s imagine that the Steelers had  had scored. Are you so sure that Pittsburgh’s defense would have stopped Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, the same combo at annihilated the Steelers in the 4th quarter? I’m not.

  • But let’s say the Steelers defense holds. Can Steelers Nation jump to the conclusion that today Lombardi Number 7  is getting polished on the South Side?
  • No you cannot.

In a playoff game at Heinz Field, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have a fair shot at beating the New England Patriots. But which outcome are you more certain of? A decisive Steelers win, or a game that goes down to the wire?

My money’s on the game doing down to the wire. Let’s say Pittsburgh beats the Patriots in the playoffs.

  • Would the Steelers have prevailed against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII?

It is possible. But if the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense was powerless to stop Leonard Fournette, is there any reason to think that they stopped LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi? And while we’re at it, let’s remember that this same Philadelphia defense humiliated the the Steelers offense to 3 points the last time the two teams faced.

The Steelers got wronged by the NFL on that fateful December day. But the truth is that the Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion dealt a far graver blow to Steelers 2017 Super Bowl chances the Jesse James non-catch, non-touchdown replay reversal.

Steelers fans need to accept that and move on.

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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Its Pittsburgh “Pennsylvania” After All – Steelers Fans Must Support Eagles in Super Bowl

Super Bowl LII is here and must to the frustration of Steelers Nation, the Steelers will be not only be watching from home, but our beloved Black and Gold finished a step further away from the Big Dance than it did a year ago.

  • Yet, Pittsburgh’s quest to bring Lombardi Number 7 might be on hold, but Pennsylvania still has a skin in the game.

As you well know, the Philadelphia Eagles are set to play the New England Patriots today in the Super Bowl in a match up that no one predicted, at least not since Carton Wentz tore his ACL just a month before the playoffs.

Steelers fans Eagles fans, Steelers support Eagles in Super Bowl

Eagles defensive end takes a selfie with Steelers fans. Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

Despite being relatively close, there has never really seemed to be much affinity, at least in terms of sports loyalties, between the two cities and their respective fan bases. In contrast, Cincinnatians did tend to root for the Browns until the Bengals arrived, and at least when I lived there in 1996 there were stories of pockets of Browns support  lingering into the 80’s and 90’s.

Shifting focus to the South while Washingtonians readily adopted the Baltimore Orioles during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, Baltimoreans, to their credit, remained outright hostile to the Redskins after Colts departure through the Ravens arrival. Yet, in DC during the Raven’s ’00 Super Bowl run, you saw little Ravens decals pop up alongside big GO Skins bumper stickers. Go figure.

Even from as far as away as Buenos Aires, Argentina I feel confident that the just as few Pittsburghers regard the Eagles as their “second team” as Philadelphians regard the Steelers as their “second team.”

It just doesn’t happen.

Heck, I can remember when the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl in 1980. My first real Super Bowl memory had been Super Bowl XIII which was of course followed by Super Bowl XIV. There I was in the 2nd grade, and the Steelers making the Super Bowl was “normal.” (Little did I know that I’d have to wait until Super Bowl XXX when I was in graduate school.)

Anyway, when Super Bowl XV rolled around my folks (who were not football fans) were rooting for Philadelphia, because well, Philly was from Pennsylvania.

  • But it wasn’t the same, no one could muster the same kinda of for Philly, and the Eagles got trounced by the Raiders.

That was then, this is now. IN the interim, The Steelers have added two more trophies to the case in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII while the Patriots have loaded up on 5. That means that one more will allow them to tie the Steelers for the NFL records.

  • And the odds overwhelmingly favor Bill Belichick and Tom Brady getting fitted for a sixth Super Bowl ring on Monday morning.

The Steelers had their chance to defend the franchise’s honor last winter, but came up short in the AFC Championship game, going the way of Le’Veon Bell’s groin injury, a shaky defense, and inability of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown to carry the passing game with help from Jesse James and a bunch of practice squad players starting behind Brown.

  • So be it. Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles are supreme underdogs, but what Pittsburgher (or descendant of Pittsburghers) isn’t a sucker for an underdog story?

If you’re not yet convinced, then there’s this video from Ed Rendell, from Governor of Pennsylvania and mayor Philadelphia.

Very well said, Ed.

So by all means, its time for Steelers Nation to Twirl the Terrible Towels and get behind the Philadelphia Eagles. Tom Brady and the Patriots might own the Steelers, but if falls to someone else upset New England’s Super Bowl six pack then it might as well be another team from Pennsylvania.

E-A-G-L-E-S! Go Eagles!

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Sight of Ryan Shazier Standing with Ben Roethlisberger Offers a Lesson for Steelers Nation

Even if we admit that Steelers Nation is spoiled (we are) the fact is Steelers fans have had a rough 61 days. But yesterday the news out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave every Black and Gold bleeding Steelers fan something to smile about.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so:

Ryan Shazier, Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier Roethlisberger UPMC, Ryan Shazier UPMC

Ryan Shazier with Ben Roethlisberger at UPMC. Photo Credit: Ryan Shazier Instragram, via the Tribune Review

The sight of Ryan Shazier standing alongside Ben Roethlisberger is a sight for sore eyes. It was just 61 days ago that we watched Ryan Shazier made a seemingly routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals only to roll over pointing at his back.

  • Word was, even a few days afterward that Shazier would walk again.

Yet, the inside linebacker has been in a wheelchair in every image relased since then. Until now. Shazier has some sort of brace on his leg, it looks like he’s holding onto something for balance with his right hand and his wheel chair, which he used to leave the hospital, is visible in the background.

  • But Ryan Shazier is standing on his own and you have to stand before you can walk.

And, the image of Ryan Shazier standing upright offers an important lesson for everyone in Steelers Nation:

Complain about Jesse James touchdown/non-touchdown vs the Patriots. Gripe about the spectacle of the Steelers cutting James Harrison, then watching James Harrison sign with the Patriots and help them get to the Super Bowl. Moan about Le’Veon Bell‘s contract talk and his tardiness. Whine about Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance against the Jaguars. Ridicule Randy Fichtner’s reverses to Antonio Brown in the Pro Bowl….

Steelers fans might think they’ve had to “endure” a lot, they might argue that taking Mike Tomlin to task without insisting that Art Rooney II fire him amounts to hollow criticism, but let’s be honest folks, no one in Steelers Nation has had a tougher stretch in these last 61 days than Ryan Shazier. And its not even close.

  • Ryan Shazier standing next to Ben Roethlisberger signals he’s turned an important corner in his recovery.

Perhaps it should also signal to both the franchise and fan base that its time to put a disappointing end to the 2017 season in the past and firmly focus on 2018.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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