Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs – Is Corner Finally a Low Priority for Pittsburgh?

As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.

  • Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.

While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.

Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.

After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.

Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City Insider Craig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”

People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)

  • The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.

Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.

Joe Haden’s return helped stabilize a defense reeling for the loss of Ryan Shazier, and he figures to assume a true leadership role in 2018.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.

  • Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.

After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.

Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.

Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs

Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)

The Steelers have used late round picks on players who barely became blips on the radar screen (Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne and Terrance Fredrick.)steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).

With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.

  • That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.

Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation in our Steelers 2018 Draft Needs Poll

What positions should the Pittsburgh Steelers target in the 2018 NFL Draft? “Safety” and “Inside linebacker” is near universal consensus of the punditry. However, the focus of this poll isn’t about what other think, but about what you think.

Sean Davis, Robert Golden, Steelers vs Titans

Sean Davis & Robert Golden team to make tackle. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Please take a moment to vote in our Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-06-2014 18:49:27
end_date 04-23-2018 02:59:02
Poll Results:
Which positions should the Steelers target in the 2018 NFL Draft?

The Steelers do need to get stronger at both safety and inside linebacker in the upcoming draft, although the arrivals of Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic have softened those needs a bit. How much? We’ll let you decide.

Perhaps you think that 2018 would be the time for the Steelers to get Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement. Place your votes accordingly. Likewise, Le’Veon Bell isn’t winning himself any friends in Pittsburgh or Steelers management, so perhaps you think that his replacement should be sought now.

With Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster leading the way, wide receiver isn’t perceived as a glaring need by many. But perhaps you feel differently? Vote accordingly. Tight end is another interesting spot. Do the Steelers stand pat with Vance McDonald, Jesse James, and Xavier Grimble or not?

  • The Steelers appear set at offensive line and defensive line, but if you feel appearances are deceiving, cast your vote accordingly.

Outside linebacker is another intriguing position. The Steelers have praised Bud Dupree, yet as of this writing still haven’t tendered him a 5th year option. Barring injury, with T.J. Watt the Steelers appear set at the other outside linebacking position, but Anthony Chickillo is playing on his restricted free agent tender. Might the 2018 NFL Draft be time to stock up at outside linebacker?

As we have in year’s past, Steel Curtain Rising will be profiling the Steelers 2018 draft needs on a position-by position basis. However, this poll will be running up until a few days before the draft, so please cast your votes accordingly.

Thanks in advance for taking time to participate.

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Easter Sunday Suprise – Steelers To Put Logo On Both Sides of Helmet in 2018

Starting in 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers fans can expect to both get a new look on the field from the franchise they love while at the same time seeing more of the same.

  • How’s that you ask?

In a rare holiday weekend press release, the Steelers announce that starting in 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers logos on appear on both sides of the helmet. Here is the official statement:

For the first time since adopting the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) in 1962, the Pittsburgh Steelers logo will adorn both sides of the Steelers helmet starting in Opening Day 2018. During its 56 years of use by the Steelers, the hypocycloid logo has come to symbolize excellence on the football field. Displaying the logo on both sides the helmet will highlight that legacy of excellence while generating increased exposure for the City of Pittsburgh.

The move of course won’t impact the Steelers fortunes on the field. That will continue to be determined by the performance of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and their supporting casts.

But digital marketing expert Marco James from Crespo Marketing suggests the move could pay dividends, explaining: “We live in a Twitterized world where the space you have to present your brand is limited, and attention spans are short. This ‘win-win’ move effectively doubles the exposure the Steelers logo gets when the attention level of their target audience is at its highest.”

Starting in 2018, the Steelers hypocycloid logo will appear on both sides of the helmet. Photo Credit: Ed Reinke, AP, via USA Today For the Win

A Brief History of the Steelers Hypocycloid Logo

The Pittsburgh Steelers logo draws its roots from the US steel industry. The yellow hypocycloid represents coal, the orange one for iron and the blue one scrap metal, the 3 ingredients in steel.

  • Accounts of how the Steelers came to use the hypocycloid differ.

Republic Steel of Cleveland  takes credit for making the suggestion in 1962, but in his book Ruanaidh, Art Rooney Jr. suggests that John Reger, a former Pitt linebacker who was a walk on with the Steelers, first proposed the Steelers adopt the AISI logo.

  • Cutting through the red tape needed to adopt the AISI logo took time, and it also resulted in another change.

The Steelers had used gold helmets since 1955, but the logo did not stand out well against gold, so the Steelers switched them to black. Reportedly the Steelers made the switch in time for the franchise’s first post-season game ever, their 17-10 loss suffered against the Detroit Lions in Miami Beach in January 1963.

  • Stories also differ on why the logo was only put on one side.

Some say it was because the team didn’t know how well it would work. Others have said it was because there was a shortage of stickers. Art Rooney Jr. however insists that Steelers equipment manager Jack Hart simply wanted cut his work load in half.

Rooney on the Steelers Logo Change

Because the announcement came on Easter Sunday, no Steelers employees were available to answer questions in an official capacity. However, freelance reporter Ridley Rupert caught up with a member of the Rooney family at St. Peters on Pittsburgh’s North Side as he was leaving Easter Sunday mass. When questioned why the team chose today to announce this move, Rooney responded:

Easter is a time of renewal. And this year Easter Sunday falls on April 1st, so I can’t think of a better day to announce we’re putting the logo on both sides of the helmet.

With that, the esteemed member of Pittsburgh’s first family flashed a mischievous grin, got into his car and drove way……

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Why One Big Summer ’17 Steelers Move Fuels Free Agency Excitement in the Spring of 2018

Steelers fans have been groomed to expect the least when it comes to the team’s activity (or lack thereof) in the NFL’s annual free agency frenzy that begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

But you know what? Something the Steelers did at the end of last summer has me more excited about the start of free agency than usual. Why’s that? To find out read on young Padawan, but first let’s acknowledge why the start of free agency has generally been a ho-hum affair in Steelers Nation.

  • To say Pittsburgh rarely makes a splash in free agency is an understatement.
  • To say the Steelers don’t wind up on many “winners” lists following the initial stages of the free agent period is a given.

Indeed, you could even argue that when the Steelers have tried to make splash free agency signings, its backfired on them!

And why shouldn’t they? Number one, it’s generally not the “Steelers Way.” In other words, Pittsburgh’s always been an organization that’s keen on improving itself with college prospects seeking to make it at the professional level (in other words, the draft), and not free agents seeking to cash in on that all-important second contract.

Number two, they generally don’t have much room under the cap, that is, unless they “kick the can down the street” as they say and restructure contracts, a practice that, sooner or later, catches up to everyone.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden intercepts an Andy Dalton pass. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

I don’t mind the Steelers doing their business this way. After all, the reason they’re often up against it in terms of cap space is because of all the success they’ve enjoyed over the years with improving the team with drafted players.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all examples of former draft picks who have elevated themselves to the top ranks of their respective positions. And with that comes huge pay raises and second and third contracts. (If the organization can reach an agreement with Bell on a lengthy and lucrative deal, he’ll be the latest homegrown talent to challenge the remarkable talents of executive Omar Khan, whose reputation for massaging the team’s salary cap is quite legendary.)

Besides, as I’ve said many times, when it comes to NFL free agency, it is far from “free,” meaning the cream of the crop very rarely reaches the open market, what with the ironic franchise tag preventing this from happening. So, you’re ultimately left with a pool of players who weren’t even deemed worthy enough to have their free agency restricted by their former teams.

And this circles everything back to this Wednesday, and the start of the 2018 NFL free agency period.

Again, Steeler fans have grown accustomed to not expecting much.

  • However, based on last offseason’s activities, I’m a little more excited about things this year.

I’m not talking about Pittsburgh’s acquisitions last spring that were obviously moves of depth, such as the signing of journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and veteran defensive end Tyson Alualu.

I’m talking about the Steelers acquisition last summer, when they quickly scooped up veteran cornerback Joe Haden, mere hours after he was released by the Browns.

That’s not chump change.

Sure, it was a perfect storm that brought Joe Haden to the Steelers, as he wasn’t your typical free agent that had the entire month of March to shop his services and decide on the best offer.

But what the Joe Haden deal represented to me was that the Steelers were serious about contending in 2017.

  • They had one gaping hole to fill–the cornerback spot–and they filled it with a high-priced player.
  • Does this necessarily mean the Steelers will be aggressive during the true free agency period  this spring?

That’s hard to say, until it happens.

But as if this writing, I’m feeling pretty confident that if the Steelers feel there is an inside linebacker or a safety who can help them win now, they will do everything they can to bring him into the fold for the 2018 season.

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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Neither Steelers, Nor Le’Veon Bell Wanted Second Franchise Tag. But Perhaps Its What Both Need

It is official. For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have franchised Le’Veon Bell. Unable to shop his services, Le’Veon Bell now must sign the Steelers $14.5 million dollar franchse tender or sit the season out.

  • The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, Bell says he wants to retire in Pittsburgh too.

So neither Bell nor the Steelers wanted a second franchise tag. But as The Rolling Stones reminded us long ago, “You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Why Franchising Bell Isn’t What Either Side Wants

Last year the Steelers were flush with salary cap space. They could apply the franchise tag to Le’Veon Bell, while signing Antonio Brown, Stephon Tuitt, Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Haden and trade for Vance McDonald.

Of course, thanks in part those hefty checks cut to Antonio Brown, , Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and Vance McDonald, plus contracts inked long-ago by Ben Roethlisberger,  David DeCastro and Cam Heyward, salary cap space remains sparse for the 2018 Steelers.

  • They’ve already re-structured David DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt’s contracts just to prepare for tagging Bell.

So to make simple moves like tendering restricted free agent offers to Chris Boswell and Anthony Chickillo, signing their 2018 Draft class or picking up a low-end free agent or two, they’ll need to restructure more contracts and release veterans.

  • A long term deal for Le’Veon Bell would both keep him a Steeler, while providing Pittsburgh with immediate cap relief.

For the average fan, it’s a hard see why Le’Veon finds the franchise tag so distasteful. Last year he cashed a check for 12.12 million dollars. This year, he’ll cash another check for 14.5 million dollars.

  • That’s 26.62 million dollars over two years, far more money than anyone reading this will ever see (unless Stanley Druckenmiller is reading this, and if you are, please RT.)

But this is still less than Bell wants and less than the deal that Bell rejected last season, an offer that would have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, and then some. But Bell wants more.

Bell wants to be paid what he’s worth to the team. What does that mean?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

Well Le’Veon Bell’s accounted for 29% of the Steelers offense since he arrived. With the NFL salary cap at 177.2 million, Bell would half of 29% would be 25.694. Bell isn’t asking for that. But as Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, Bell wants a contract with an annual floor of 14.5 million.

  • The next highest paid running back, Devonta Freeman, averages $8,250,000.

So in other words, Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid 75% more than the next highest paid running back. That’s asking a lot….

Why a Second Franchise Tag for is Perhaps Best for Bell & Steelers

No one wants a second franchise tag, but maybe its what both sides need.

For Bell, the benefits of cashing a 14.5 million dollar check are self-evident. The money is fully guaranteed the moment he puts pen to paper. A second tag will give him a chance to put his money where his mouth has been. Bell balked at signing the Steelers deal because he thought he could get more.

  • Given the limited durability of NFL running backs today, that’s a bold proposition.

A second franchise tag virtually guarantees there will be no tag in 2019 and leaves Bell holding all of the cards. If he doesn’t like the Steelers offer, he gets a chance to have someone like Cleveland, who’ll have gobs of salary cap space, offers on the open market.

  • For the Steelers the franchise tag does cause a lot of short-term heartache, as detailed above.
  • But this could be the case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

The offer the Steelers made to Le’Veon Bell a year ago was more than fair, and by Bell’s own account, they’ve improved upon it. The Steelers love for Le’Veon is understandable, after all in breaking the franchise Regular season and playoff single game rushing records just over a year ago Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis ever accomplished.

But if there’s any difference between Art Rooney II and the late Dan Rooney, it’s that Art Rooney seems to be a little more willing to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the salary cap.

  • A second franchise tag provides the Steelers with a safety valve against making an unsustainable long-term commitment.

As this site has observed numerous times, since the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in 2013, Bell has teased that he has the type of talent to revive the concept of the “Franchise Running back.” Bell clearly wants to be paid as a franchise running back. But the dip in Bell’s rushing average in 2017 undercuts Bell’s argument.

  • It says here that Le’Veon Bell brings a lot to the field that you can’t replace by plugging in players via some Moneyball methodology.

But it also says here that the law of averages and the weight of statistical evidence on the shelf-life of an NFL running back remains pretty convincing, and Bell has yet to show he can buck the trend.

The Pittsburgh Steelers chances of winning Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 improve tremendously by keeping Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant on the field together.

  • A second franchise tag gives the Steelers a “no strings attached” means of accomplishing that, while also giving Bell a 14.5 million dollar check to cash.

That’s not exactly what either side wants, but it perhaps is exactly what each side needs.

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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Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

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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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Difference in Sunday’s Debacle? The Jacksonville Jaguars Played Playoff Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers Didn’t

The Steelers offensive superstars looked the part in Pittsburgh’s AFC Divisional Playoff match-up against the Jaguars at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Injured receiver Antonio Brown turned in a courageous effort, pulling in seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. And running back Le’Veon Bell was the dual threat he’s been his entire career, tallying 155 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns–one through the air; and one on the ground.

  • Yes, the Steelers high-paid offensive stars gave fans their money’s worth.

Only problem was, they didn’t give them a victory, as the Steelers fell 45-42 to end their season one week before most thought it would, and three weeks before everyone wished it would.

Why? Because, while the Steelers stars were dazzling their fans with perfect throws and breath-taking catches, the Jacksonville Jaguars were executing playoff football.

What’s that, you ask?

Part of it is winning the turnover battle.

Ben Roethlisberger, Lerentee McCray, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Jaguars sack ben roethlisberger

The Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger at critical moments. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Turnovers are a big deal during any football game–and they become absolutely vital after the calendar changes from December to January.

While the Jaguars defense collected 33 takeaways during the regular season, to Pittsburgh’s 22, they also took seven of them back for scores, while Pittsburgh put up one giant zero in that department.

Perhaps then it was no surprise that Jacksonville collected two turnovers on Sunday and turned both into touchdowns. The Steelers, meanwhile, couldn’t turn any takeaways into points, because their defense didn’t come up with a single one.

Speaking of Pittsburgh’s defense, after leading the NFL in sacks with 56 during the regular season, it barely got a hand on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Jaguars defense that collected 55 during the regular season didn’t exactly hound Roethlisberger, who was sacked just twice in 58 attempts. But one of those sacks was of the strip variety, and the fumble was taken to the house by linebacker Telvin Smith.

  • What about third down conversions?

The Steelers were seven for 16, which isn’t exactly horrible. Jacksonville, meanwhile, was eight of 14. This doesn’t seem like a huge disparity, that is, until you consider the Steelers were battling back from a 21-point deficit.

When you have a team on the ropes, which the Steelers did after cutting their 28-7 deficit to 28-21 with back-to-back touchdowns to end the first half and begin the second, your defense needs to get off the field as quickly as possible in-order to give the football back to your red-hot offense.

But not only were the Jaguars pretty efficient on converting third downs, they had no three-and-outs the entire afternoon.

  • That’s right, ZERO three and outs for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Steelers. Zip.

What about fourth downs?

The Steelers were four of six in that category, but the fact that they had to attempt so many is indicative of a team that was playing from behind the entire afternoon.

Jacksonville had the lead right from the beginning.

Why?

Because it converted on its only fourth down attempt of the day, when running back Leonard Fournette dived through the tackle attempt of Sean Spence and into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown on the game’s opening series.

  • The Steelers two failed fourth down conversions came when the yard to gain was less than one.
  • The Jaguars simply out-executed Pittsburgh in every important measurable that a head coach holds near and dear to his heart.

Maybe that’s why they rushed 35 times, to Pittsburgh’s 18.

  • Why pass 55 times, when you’re averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the ground?

Like Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said afterwards, Pittsburgh’s porous defense couldn’t really get aggressive on second and third down, because Jacksonville was continuously winning on first down (were you as sick as I  was of seeing second-and-five or six after just about every run by Fournette and T.J. Yeldon?)

The Steelers out-gained the Jaguars 545  to 378, and in many ways, they were the more spectacular offense.

  • But statistics are nice, winning is even nicer.

The Jaguars did just about everything a team needs to do in-order to advance in the playoffs.

And that’s why Jacksonville is packing for the AFC Championship game, and the Steelers are packing for the offseason.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Loss to Jaguars – F for Total Defensive Failure

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil test out of the first round of exams, arrive early on test day, only to forget to the the home portion! Here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Mike Tomlin’s 2nd Playoff Loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Sean Spence, Vince Williams

Leonard Fournette burns Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Mike Mitchell & Joe Haden on his 18 yard touchdown run. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger reads 37-58-5-1for 469, which is a Fantasy Owner’s wet dream. And to be honest, Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Jaguars was strong by any conventional measure. Ben Roethlisberger made some incredible throws. But in this case, his grade must go beyond those numbers and recognize that he committed two turnovers, which were detrimental difference makers. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell never got a chance to take over this game the way some thought he might, largely because the Steelers were down by two touchdowns before they knew what hit them. Nonetheless, Bell ran for 67 yards and caught balls for another 88. There are LOTS of fingers to point after this loss, but none of those should aim at Le’Veon Bell. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was the Steelers 2nd leading receiver catching 10 passes for 112 yards (and replays show that he probably couldn’t have caught the ball that was intercepted.) Jesse James had one catch for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Steelers fans should appreciate just how good they have it in Antonio Brown. The man is the best in the game, bar none. Having come up with several critical catches, including both touchdown grabs. Martavis Bryant caught a long touchdown pass to end the first half, and it was welcome to see him as a downfield weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quite game in his playoff debut, making only 3 catches. Grade: B+

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

Antonio Brown makes a 4th down 4th quarter touchdown grab. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, including a key strip sack that put the Steelers right back in the 14 point hole they’d dug. Jaguar defenders also hit the Steelers signal caller 7 times. Roethilsberger’s stats suggest he shrugged it off, but imagine if he’d been just a little less hurried on those throws. The line also failed to open running lanes when establishing the run would have made a difference for the Steelers. And the line failed on the 4th down pitch. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers, by their own admission, have deployed Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt differently since Keith Butler arrived. The idea was to sacrifice a little run stuffing to get more pressure on the QB. Against the Jaguars, the Steelers got the sacrifice part right, but where was the pressure on Blake Bortles? As for the run defense, it was non-existent when it counted. Grade: F

Tommy Bohanon, Sean Spence, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Tommy Bohanon scores TD as Sean Spence watches. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
OK. Ryan Shazier was not only head and shoulders above the rest, but he also made everyone else look better. Fine. But can ANY linebacker step up and make a play. Against the run? Against the pass? In the middle of the field? Or ANYWHERE else? Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, despite leaving the game for a time. T.J. Watt did hit Bortles twice, but was largely ineffective. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, while Sean Spence had 5 – none of any consequence. The Steelers linebackers were terrible. Grade: F

Secondary
With the run defense failing up front, if there was ever a day to stop the Jaguars in third down, it was at Heinz on Sunday. Yet, Jacksonville went 8-14 on third down, and while Blake Bortles was a consummate “Game Manager,” he did hit the Steelers deep a few times. The situation screamed for Artie Burns, Sean Davis or Joe Haden to make a play. They didn’t. But at least they didn’t go to the Jaguars locker room and try to call them out before the game, as Mike Mitchell did. Inexcusable. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on PAT’s. Kick coverage was strong, and the Steelers actually got a 29 yard return out of Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers special teams set up the offense to take control of the game when Robert Golden partially blocked a punt. Alas, the offense failed to capitalize.

While all those were positives for the special teams, Steelers failed at their 15th consecutive on sides kick recovery. While those are by definition low percentage plays, the Steelers absolutely needed that one and they didn’t get it. That result brings the grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away, this is probably the only site in Steelers Nation that’s not up in arms over the fourth down pitch that failed so miserably.

  • No, it was not a “great call” nor was it a “good” play call.

And the pitches to the outside hadn’t worked prior to that. But, if properly executed, it could have plausibly gotten the yardage and perhaps even sprung Bell lose. But the Steelers execution was piss poor. That’s not to let Todd Haley (who might be gone anyway) off the hook.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin after losing to Jaguars. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • The Steelers really could have used a strong start to the game, and the offense didn’t get going until they were behind by 21 points.

Still, had you told any Vegas book maker that you knew the Steelers were going to score 42 points, he’d have predicted a big Pittsburgh win.

  • The culpable coordinator here is Keith Butler.

The Steelers knew Leonard Fournette would run the ball. They knew Leonard Fournette could run the ball against the defense — with Ryan Shazier in the lineup. Keith Butler and his staff had had two weeks to prepare for him, and by all accounts they Steelers did use those two weeks to prepare for the Jaguars.

  • Not that anything the Steelers defense did make them look remotely prepared for this game.

That’s a damming observation, and one that extends equally to Mike Tomlin. It wasn’t Tomlin or Butler who were missing those tackles, taking bad angles, or failing to fill gaps. But it’s their job to ensure that the players are in position to execute and they failed miserably at that on defense.

It says here that the Steelers weren’t “looking past the Jaguars,” and it also says here that Mike Tomlin isn’t at fault for the turnovers, which were killers.

While the Jacksonville Jaguars are a good team, position-by-position, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a more talented team. But the score board fails to reflect that, and that’s Mike Tomlin’s fault. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Early in the game it took the Steelers time to get their offense going. But one player who was on the mark from the very get go was Eli Rogers, who caught 4 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, and was a critical element to getting the offense moving when everything else was going wrong and for that Eli Rogers wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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