Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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NFL Repeals Pass Interference Replay Rule: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Of all the news to come out of the recent virtual NFL owners’ meetings, the least surprising was the use of the replay challenge system for plays involving possible pass interference — or a lack thereof — going away without much of a fight.

Terrell Edmunds,  Tyler Lockett

Terrell Edmunds pass interference call against Tyler Lockett in 2019. Photo Credit: Justin Berl, Getty Images via The Athletic

No fight, really, and isn’t that sort of fitting? Much like March, this rule roared into existence last spring on the heels of a very controversial non-call on a pass-play near the end of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Rams.

Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints, the screwees in the title game, was adamant that something had to be done so as to prevent the screwers, the officials in the NFC title match-up, from ever again so directly determining who could and could not go on to become Super Bowl champions.

Perhaps the NFL acted a bit too hasty–although, it may have been hard to blame league officials for that. After all, the Saints were the second high-profile team in as many seasons to be prevented from possible championship success due to the incompetence of game-day officials in a very high-profile match-up.

Just one year earlier, in the waning moments of a very important game late in the 2017 regular season, Steelers tight end Jesse James was screwed out of a touchdown that likely would have given Pittsburgh a pivotal victory over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Instead, New England won, the Steelers had to settle for the number two seed in the AFC, and they ultimately lost in the divisional round to a Jaguars team that had run all over them at Heinz Field during the regular season.

Why do I say James was screwed out of a touchdown? Because the very thing that prevented him from being awarded one — the convoluted Catch Rule — was augmented the following year to allow the officials to use their best judgment when determining what an actual catch was.

  • To quote a friend of mine: “The mere fact that they changed the rule is all the evidence you need that the officials blew the call.”

So with the controversy surrounding the Catch Rule acting as a backdrop, perhaps the officials thought they had to do something about pass interference.

They did. On paper, it kind of made sense. I’m not going to lie, as a fan, one who witnessed cornerback Joe Haden get a raw deal on two defensive pass interference penalties in a critical 2018 Week 16 loss to the Saints, ironically enough — a game that prevented the Steelers from reaching the postseason — you better believe I wanted a pound of a flesh.

It seemed so simple; all the league did was add pass interference to its existing replay review system: NFL coaches could throw a challenge flag to review a play in-which pass interference was or was not called. And inside of two minutes of the half or game, such plays were subject to automatic reviews.

  • Simple in theory. Not so simple in application.

In fact, after trying to apply this new pass interference challenge rule over the first two or three weeks, league officials seemingly put it on Injured Reserve for the reminder of the season. That’s right, time and time again, NFL coaches would throw challenge flags on plays that had to do with pass interference, and time and time again, those challenges were wasted.

Why? I guess, at the end of the day, it was a little hard to reverse calls involving pass interference than it was to determine what a catch looked like.

The Steelers didn’t get away unscathed, sadly. Midway through the fourth quarter of a Week 2 game vs. the Seahawks at Heinz Field, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll challenged a non-call on safety Terrell Edmunds on a second and 20 play. After further review, it was determined that Edmunds had, indeed, interfered on the play.

  • Pittsburgh, who was trailing by two points at the time, ultimately gave up a touchdown on the drive and went on to lose, 28-26.

In real time, the play didn’t look like much. On review, I guess you could have made a case for interference. But the caveat the NFL initially threw in when creating the rule was that there had to be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn a play involving pass interference.

  • There didn’t seem like there was.

As you know, the Seahawks game was the one in-which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. Despite that, however, Pittsburgh managed to hang in the playoff race until the very end, missing out by a mere game.

Therefore, a rule that may have helped the Steelers make the playoffs had it existed in 2018 helped in preventing them from making the postseason in 2019.

Too bad the new rule was still roaring quite loudly in Week 2. Had it gone sheepishly into the night a bit sooner, Pittsburgh may have made the playoffs in 2019.

  • At least it won’t be around for the 2020 season.

The NFL, its players and its fans are all much better off.

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs at Safety: Starter-Back Up Breach Looms Large

Safety, as the name implies, is a critical position in football. Unlike other positions, it is almost impossible to mask sub-standard safety play with scheming and/or double teaming.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily at safety via the draft and free agency over the last decade.

Some of those investments have borne fruit, others have rotten on the vine. During 2019 the Steelers had some stellar play at safety for the first time since Troy Polamalu retired. But that doesn’t mean they’re “safe” at safety and we’ll soon see why.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

There’s one thing that the Steelers starting safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick share – no one predicted their arrival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted Terrell Edumnds with their first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, shocking observers everywhere.

That was nothing compared to the shock that came 18 months later when they traded their first round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t trade first round picks. They just don’t. The last time they did it was in the mid 60’s when most people heard the word “Beatles” they still probably thought of insects.

  • In two season Terrell Edmunds has started 31 of 32 possible games and hardly missed a snap.

While the Steelers defense isn’t as complex as it was under Dick LeBeau, it is certainly not easy for a young player to come in and play so consistently.

However, if Edmunds has quantity on his resume, quality is an open question. It is far too early to label him a bust. And Edmunds clearly has the athleticism needed to excel at the position. But he hasn’t shown the type of playmaking the Steelers need at strong safety either.

  • In contrast, Minkah Fitzpatrick has proven the trade skpetics wrong.

As Tony Defeo argued so correctly, Minkah Fitzpatrick did nothing less than save the Steelers 2019 season. Minkah had 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and two touchdowns in just 14 games. Moreover, Minkah makes the rest of the secondary better.

Fitzpatrick forces opposing quarterbacks to account for him on every play, and that extra millisecond of delay helps Joe Haden and Steven Nelson be better cornerbacks, and gives T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree just a little more time to get to the quarterback. The results speak for themselves.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Unfortunately, for the Steelers they’re depth at safety is perilously thin. Their number one backup, Jordan Dangerfield, neither got a restricted free agent tender nor did he get interest from opposing teams. Marcus Allen failed to make the initial 53 man roster, only landing their when AAF re-tread Kameron Kelly was waived due to off the field issues.

Marcus Allen might offer legitimate “upside” and Jordan Dangerfield might get by in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want either man to be starting for an extended period.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

The Steelers find themselves in a similar situation at safety as they do at other positions on the depth chart. They’ve got two established starters.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Terrell Edmunds still has a long way to go to justifying the faith that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert showed in him when the made him a first round pick. But there’s no realistic scenario that would see the Steelers entering this year’s draft looking to find Edmunds’ replacement.

  • Given the Steelers limited draft capital, the idea of targeting a premium pick to push Edmunds is just as imprudent.

But the Steelers depth chart is screaming to be addressed in the draft. Maybe Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen can play at a Will Allen level of pressed into duty.

But nothing either man has indicates they can be counted on to do that.

There have also been whispers about either Cam Sutton and/or Justin Layne shifting to safety on a part or even full-time basis. And while that might work, it would compromise cornerback depth….

So the Steelers needs at safety going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered as Moderate-High.

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Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs: Pittsburgh in an Unusual Position

“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:

  • It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.

During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers pride themselves on building through the draft, but two free agents, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, gave the franchise its best cornerback tandem since Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend lined up in Super Bowl XLIII.

Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:

In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.

  • Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.

The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.

  • Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.

Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

  • With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.

That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.

After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.

That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.

The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs

If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?

That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Watt a Minute! Steelers Sign Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s Brother

Mike Tomlin may or may not be a fan of Game of Thrones, but he does certainly seem to believe in bloodlines. The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with free agent fullback Derek Watt, brother of starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

  • While Derek Watt cannot officially sign his deal until Wednesday afternoon, the two sides have agreed to terms.

Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Derek Watt signed a contract worth 9.75 million dollars that runs for three years. While few expected the Steelers to use their precious salary cap space to sign a fullback, Derek Watt also was a special teams stand out for the Chargers and could fill the void left by the mildly surprising departure of Tyler Matakevich who will bolt to the Buffalo Bills once the free agent signing period officially begins.

  • Derek Watt’s position flexibility extends beyond special teams.

As Roy Countryman from Steel City Insider Points out, the Chargers under utilized Derrick Watt’s pass catching abilities and suggests he could do double duty at tight end.

Another player who might be be looking over his shoulder is Roosevelt Nix. Nix is a fullback and was captain of the Steelers special teams last year, and is due to count 1.8 million against the salary cap this year.

All in the Family

Derek Watt’s arrival in Pittsburgh gives the Steelers their second set of brothers, as Terrell Edmunds and Trey Edmunds are also on the current roster – at the moment. Trey Edmunds is officially a fullback so his roster spot is threatened by Derek Watt.

In addition, Mike Tomlin hasn’t been shy about how Devin Bush’s family lineage attracted him to the linebacker. Likewise, Benny Snell also has an uncle with NFL experience.

Steelers Free Agency Comings and Goings

As expected, the Steelers applied the franchise tag to Bud Dupree, and to make room for Dupree they waived Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo and Johnny Holton, while resigning long snapper Kameron Canaday to a two year contract.

  • However, as is also expected, Javon Hargrave will sign with the New York Jets today.
  • Likewise, B.J. Finney will sign with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon too.

To clear up salary cap space, the Steelers have reportedly restructured the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.

The McDonald restructure is the most interesting, as it signals he will return to the team, something which had been in doubt. That move in turn makes it more likely that Nick Vannett will be allowed to depart as a free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Should Keep Sean Davis in Pittsburgh, but Won’t

How critical of a role does safety play in the Steelers defense? Its hard to say. You can find times when the Steelers defense has struggled despite quality safety play.

  • In contrast, the Steelers defense has never excelled absent strong safety play.

The Steelers history at safety is a minor study in contractions. Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell entered the league as first round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. On the flip side, premium picks like Shamarko Thomas and Anthony Smith floundered, while late rounders like Darren Perry soared.

With that backdrop, we come to Sean Davis, who played safety for the Steelers for four years and is about to become a free agent.

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’ Career with the Steelers

By the end of 2015, it was clear that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had failed and the Steelers responded by drafting Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Sean Davis looked like a steal, earning a starting spot and rookie of the year honors. Davis excelled in run support, hauled in an interception and recorded a sack. In the playoffs he atoned for a costly mistake with a key pass defense in the end zone to help seal the win against Kansas City.

  • Conventional wisdom holds that Sean Davis struggled in his sophomore year.

The truth is that Davis played reasonably well early in the season. Yet, the entire defense slipped following injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis slipped with them, taking bad angles at critical moments and by getting abused by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowkski in the Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers moved Davis from strong safety to free safety in 2018, where Davis’ steady presences helped the Steelers limit long gains which had plagued them the previous season. Unfortunately, Davis’ most memorable play of 2018 was when he KOed Joe Haden, transforming an certain end zone interception into a touchdown in the loss to the Chargers.

Sean Davis got injured during training camp in 2019, missed the season opener. He played in the home opening loss to the Seahawks, aggravated his injury and was out for the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

If Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick gets hurt in 2020, who do you want as your “Next man up?” Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen?

  • That my friends, is a black and white question.

Sean Davis isn’t going to supplant either starter, but he’s clearly a starter-capable backup and superior to any player the Steelers could find in the 2020 NFL Draft or as a veteran minimum free agent.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already signed him…?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

….The Steelers haven’t signed him because with 3 seasons of starts under his belt, Sean Davis isn’t going sign for a veteran minimum contract, nor does he have any incentive to sign any sort of “home town” discount deal. A “prove it” contract has no point because with both starting safety slots locked down, Davis figures to have little chance to prove anything.

The Steelers got good value out of Sean Davis on his rookie deal, but really, there’s no room for him in Pittsburgh now that he’s a free agent. It is time for both sides to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis

While this won’t be popular with a lot of fans, the truth is in pure football terms the Steelers resigning Sean Davis makes a lot of sense. Aside from the depth he’d deliver, the prospect of Sean Davis pushing Terrell Edmunds for playing time isn’t so far fetched.

  • Steelers lack of safety depth isn’t trivial.

Pittsburgh perhaps has less depth at safety than it does salary cap space. The disadvantage they face is great. As Bob Labriola pointed out on a recent “Asked and Answered,” if Jesse James can get 22.5 million dollar contract to catch 16 passes as a backup tight end, another NFL teams will certainly give Sean Davis a 7 figure signing bonus to play safety.

  • Sean Davis knows this, and reportedly cleaned out his locker a long time ago.

It would be great to see Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply not going to happen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Free Agency is Almost Here. Steelers Nation Won’t Have Artie Burns to Kick Around Anymore

In an ideal world, cornerback Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round pick out of Miami, wouldn’t be a part of the Steelers 2020 class of unrestricted free agents. All teams have fifth-year options on the contracts of rookies who were drafted in the first round, an option that must be picked up before the fourth year even starts.

The Steelers elected not to do that with Burns last offseason, a telling move that put not only his fifth but his fourth year with the team in jeopardy. Thankfully for Burns, he made the Steelers final 53-man roster out of training camp, but did he do enough in 2019 to warrant an extended stay into 2020 and beyond?

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Artie Burns’ Career with the Steelers

After the Steelers chose Burns with the 25th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, to say the reactions were mixed would be a lie. They were overwhelmingly negative. Why? Burns was said to be raw and a poor tackler. Also, Burns played primarily man-to-man in college, while the Steelers implemented more zone coverages than any team in football in 2015. However, there were a select few who said that Burns had the potential to be the best cover corner in the 2016 draft.

And after becoming the starter midway through his rookie year, the views of those few in Burns’ corner appeared to be spot on, as he recorded three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Burns started all 16 games in his sophomore year, and even though he appeared to struggle a bit with zone coverages, the arrow still pointed up, this despite a decline in play down the stretch and in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. Despite positive reviews out of training camp, as he battled the legendary Antonio Brown to a draw on most days, Burns play declined so much in 2018, he was benched after six games and was a non-factor in the secondary by the end of the season. Burns’ role a year ago was mainly on special teams; he barely factored into a much improved secondary, as he was on the field for only 66 defensive snaps and started just one game in place of an injured Joe Haden.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

Burns won’t command much of a market in free agency. After earning just under a million dollars last year, it’s safe to say the Steelers could possibly resign him at a bargain price for 2020–perhaps one of those “Show me” one-year contracts. Burns was a starter not long ago, and he appeared to hold his own in his lone start in 2019, while also contributing regularly on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

The Steelers did have a much-improved secondary a year ago, but the fact that Burns hardly figured into the mix on defense–I’m sure the Steelers would have liked to spell the veteran Haden from time to time–was quite telling. Also, I’m sure the Steelers are eager to see what Justin Layne, a third-round pick out of Michigan State a year ago, can do in his second season. And with veteran Cameron Sutton in the mix, Burns may spend another season as the invisible entity in Pittsburgh’s secondary.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Artie Burns

If ever a player needed a fresh start, it’s Burns. And given what the team has at the top of the depth chart at corner in both Steven Nelson and Haden, I see no need for Pittsburgh to put up much of a fight to retain the services of Artie Burns.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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