Perhaps no area on the Steelers roster has seen more turmoil over the last 5 years than inside linebacker. That turmoil began with Ryan Shazier’s injury which set off a series of free agent signings, draft day trades, surprise retirements, training camp trades and more free agent signings.
The question is, have the Steelers done enough to address this position, or must they again dedicate draft capital in the position in 2022?
Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters
Devin Bush started his Steelers career with a bang. As a rookie he made 2 interceptions, recovered 4 fumbles and had a sack, while making 109 tackles. More importantly, he did those at critical moments in games, including his touchdown against the Chargers and his forced fumble against the Bengals that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered, turning the tide in a critical division game.
Bush was back, starting throughout 2021, but he was clearly not the same player. While he did make two sacks and forced a few fumbles, his tackle count was only 79, a sharp drop off from his rookie year.
Expected to start alongside Bush in 2022 is Myles Jack, a free agent signing the Steelers made from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jack brings the Steelers 82 starts worth of experience and should provide much needed stability.
Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups
Behind Bush and Jack, the Steelers have Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen, both of whom are returning as restricted free agents. Robert Spillane stepped in for Devin Bush in 2020 and performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.
However, during the 2021 preseason, he struggled in pass coverage, leading the Steelers to trade for Joe Schobert, whom they’ve subsequently waived. Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker who has seen little more than spot duty at his new position. Ulysees Gilbert III is also in the mix, as the 2019 6th round pick finally got healthy enough to see some playing time in 2021.
Finally, the Steelers have Buddy Johnson. The Steelers drafted Johnson in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he only saw spot duty in 2 games.
The Steelers 2022 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs
What do the Steelers really have in Devin Bush?
Is Devin Bush’s ACL injury, like Rod Woodson’s before him, one of those ACL injuries that takes over a year to heal completely? Or did the Steelers misjudge his talent? Or is it a compilation of both?
Looking beyond Bush, the Steelers also need to ask whether Buddy Johnson can make the 2nd year leap. Given that he was a 4th round draft pick, he wouldn’t have been expected to contribute much, but the fact that Johnson didn’t play much on special teams is worrisome.
Given that Myles Jack is playing on a two year contract and that Devin Bush and Robert Spillane are playing on their final years, the Steelers need at inside linebacker should be considered Moderate-High.
Jack had been cut by the Jaguars, and reported signed a two year, $16 million dollar contract. Jacksonville drafted Jack in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Jack went on to start 82 games for the Jaguars.
During that time with the Jaguars, he has 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 15 passes defensed and 19 tackles for losses. That interception count doesn’t include one that Steelers fans would doubtlessly like to forget, as he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the 2017 Heinz Field playoff loss to the Jaguars, setting up an easy score for Jacksonville and allowing them to go up 14-0. Despite being in the NFL for 6 years, Jack is only 26.
In 2021 the Steelers defense was, in a word “soft in the middle.”
The first official day of free agency brought some other news regarding the team’s restricted free agents. First, Dwayne Haskins signed his original round restricted free agent tender — this was proforma, as no team was going to give up a first round pick for Haskins.
The Steelers also issued restricted free agent tenders to Robert Spillane as expected, but surprisingly issued one to Marcus Allen. While he struggles in pass protection (see the Myles Jack signing), Spillane has been stout against the run. In contrast, Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker and has not been very effective in that role.
One year ago Robert Spillane was the guy who started the season that no one had even heard of and who finished the season as a critical element holding down the center of their defense. So it was a no-brainer that the Steelers would make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender to keep him in Pittsburgh.
A year has passed, and Spillane has now added another 14 games to his tape.
He’s also eligible for restricted free agency where tenders are projected to begin at the 2.4 million mark. Has Spillane done enough to earn one? Let’s find out.
Robert Spillane after tackling Austin Hooper. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com via the Bradford Era
Capsule Profile of Robert Spillaine’s Career with the Steelers
Going into the 2020 season, Robert Spillane conventional wisdom held that Robert Spillane was the ONE player the Steelers could not afford to put on the field. Those fears came to fruition in the Steelers home game against the Browns when Devin Bush tore his ACL, forcing Spillane into the line up.
Spillaine continued his solid steady play until he got injured in the Steeler loss to Washington, and Pittsburgh closed the season going 1-4. And while that oversimplifies things greatly to chalk that up to losing Spillaine, the Steelers defense missed him.
Going into training camp the hope was that Spillaine would win the starting job over Vince Williams.
When Williams retired that hope became a need. But it also became obvious that Spillane was struggling in pass coverage, leading Kevin Colbert to trade for Joe Schobert.
Robert Spillane saw plenty of playing time for the Steelers in 2021, starting 4 games while taking the field for 37% of the team’s defensive snaps. He also participated in 61% of the teams special teams snaps. All told, he made 56 tackles and was the best inside linebacker against the run.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane
Inside linebacker is a weakness for the Steelers and that was not something we were supposed to be able to say nearly 3 years after the Devin Bush trade.
But a weakness it is.
In two seasons worth of work, Robert Spillane has shown that while he might not be a long-term answer or a full time starter at inside linebacker, he is certainly a capable contributor. He has also proven himself to be a solid tackler and is stout against the run and this defense needs run defenders.
At 2.4 million for a season, Spillane offers and upgrade over a veteran minimum free agent and he still has some upside.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Spillane
The Steelers defense wasn’t soft in the middle. No, Pittsburgh’s defense was outright porous in the middle. Yes, Robert Spillane was better against the run, but is anyone ready to confuse him with Vince Williams circa 2015 or 2016? No.
And even if he can improve against the run, “speed is the one thing you can’t teach” and Spillane doesn’t have the speed to cover tight ends let alone wide recievers coming out of backfield. That makes him a 2 down player at best. And Jon Bostic experiment taught us if you have a starting inside linebacker who is strong against the run but can’t cover, you don’t have starting inside linebacker.
The Steelers can invest that 2.4 million elsewhere.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane
If anything, this decision is more of a no-brainer in this year than it was last spring. Joe Schobert could very well be a cap casualty and, for whatever reason, Devin Bush is clearly struggling to return to his pre-ACL injury form.
Right now Robert Spillane isn’t Steelers best inside linebacker, but he is their most consistent one.
And Spillane is certainly their most cost-effective inside linebacker. And if the Steelers secure upgrades in both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, Spillane has already shown he’s a reliable presence coming off the bench.
The 2022 off season has arrived and with that the Steelers enter uncharted waters. Ben Roethlisberger has retired so for the first time since 2004, Pittsburgh has no franchise quarterback.
They are also coming off their 3 straight one-and-done playoff appearance where they again were embarrassed. This came on the heels of a 2021 season that saw the Steelers run defense and first half offense reach historic lows, with futility levels not seen since the 1940s.
And don’t look now, but the Steelers have 24 free agents, setting another franchise record.
The Steelers 2022 Free Agents Signings and Profiles
Click below on the player’s highlighted name for a full-free agent profile.
Steelers 2022 Free Agent Signings
Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback
3/14/2022, Steelers sign Trubisky to a 2 year contract Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle
3/14/2022, Steelers resign Okorafor to 3 year contract Miles Killebrew, Linebacker
3/11/2022, Steelers resign Killebrew to 2 year contract Arthur Maulet, Cornerback
3/12/2022, Steelers resign Maulet to a 2 year contract J.C. Hassenauer, Center/guard
3/15/2022, Steelers offer exclusive rights tender Dwayne Haskins, Quarterback
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
3/16/2022, Haskins signs restricted free agent tender Mason Cole, Center/Guard from Minnesota Vikings
3/14/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive tackle
3/15/2022, Steelers resign to 3 year contract James Daniel, Center/Guard, Chicago Bears
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract Levi Wallace, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract Montravius Adams, Defensive Lineman
3/15/2022, Steelers resign Adams to 2 year contract Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
3/16/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback
3/18/2022, Steelers resign him to 2 year contract Gunner Olszewski, KR/PR, Wide Receiver from the New England Patriots
3/18/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract Genard Avery, Outside Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
3/28/2022, Steelers sign to 1 year contract Karl Joseph, Safety
4/1/2022, Steelers resign Joseph to 1 year contract Terrell Edmunds, Safety
4/23/2022, Steelers resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 year contract
Steelers 2022 Free Agent Losses
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 2 year contract with San Francisco 49ers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs James Washington, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Dallas Cowboys Taco Charlton, Outside Linebacker,
4/5/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with New Orleans Saints Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback
4/8/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with Cleveland Browns
Demarcus Christmas, defensive line DeMarkus Acy, Cornerback
Restricted Free Agents
Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper (signed)
That’s a daunting number and there is no way the Steelers can keep all of those players, even with their salary cap surplus.
But the truth is the Steelers don’t and shouldn’t want to keep all of them. As Mike Tomlin often says, about free agency, “Its free for them and its free for us.” While the Steelers have never been “splash” players in free agency, there are numerous times when they’ve let one player walk and quietly upgraded the position with another, under the radar signing.
As we do every year, staff writer Tony Defeo and I will be doing free agent profiles highlighting the pros and cons of signing or letting the players above walk, and updating movement as time allows.
The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.
Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.
And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.
A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.
Things are different this year.
Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.
Might the Steelers find even more money?
Of course. As The Athletic’sMark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.
That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?
No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.
Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”
NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.
For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.
This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.
But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.
Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.
And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.
The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.
That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.
These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”
But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.
The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.
It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.
The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.
The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.
Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?
No one knows.
But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.
T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+
Tight Ends Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D
Linebackers T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-
Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Secondary Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B
Special Teams Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.
So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.
Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.
Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?
Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.
And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.
On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.
On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)
Mike Tomin stands between Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky during 2020. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via BTSC
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.
Let’s talk about Keith Butler.
It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.
I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.
With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick,Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualuand a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.
As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.
The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.
Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.
The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J.Puskar, via Yahoo.
Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.
Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.
I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.
Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.
Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”
No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.
Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.
Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.
My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.
Will Canada get fired? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he does, will it matter in 2022 if Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins or (insert some rookie or veteran quarterback here) is horrible? Probably not.
Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?
I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.
Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau
In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:
Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.
Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.
The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.
How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”
Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form
If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap, a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.
A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.
The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.
But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.
The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.
That four point differential would come in handy later on….
Run Defense? What Run Defense?
One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.
Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.
The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.
By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.
Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com
The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.
In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.
A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback
Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.
But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.
Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.
Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.
But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.
Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.
The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:
Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.
Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.
This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.
The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.
Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.
One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who understands all too well that his students passed by guessing right on a multiple choice test, here is the Steelers Report card for the win over the Titans.
Minkah Fitzpatrick recovers a fumble in the 2nd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went 16 for 25 for an economical 148 yards and no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for one touchdown. Roethlisberger faced a lot of pressure and the running game was AOWL. The Steelers transformed 4 turnovers into 12 points. If this was Ben’s penultimate game at Heinz Field, he didn’t go out with a bang. Grade: C+
There have been days when Najee Harris hasn’t had good rushing numbers but got good grades nonetheless. The Titans game is not one of those. Harris had no room to run, what else is new, but made bad decisions and lacked the flash that he’s shown thus far this season. Grade: D
Tight Ends Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches but as usual made each of them count until leaving with a concussion. Zach Gentry had a 17 yard catch on the Steelers touchdown drive, Pittsburgh’s 2nd longest pass of the game. Grade: B
Wide Receivers Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 catches for… 38 yards. No, that’s no misprint. James Washington had 3 catches for 36 yards although his 19 yard grab came in garbage time. Chase Claypool had one rush for 12 yards that was credited as a reception even if he’s listed as having zero receptions. Yep, it was that kind of game folks. Grade: D
The Steelers feature back averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 3 times and hit another three times. The Steelers offensive line is what it is, and “is” is terrible. Grade: F
Whew. The Titans “only” ran for just over 200 yards and “only” averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Chris Wormley did have a sack on the Titans opening possession and Cam Heyward’s half sack did force a field goal and take 4 points off the board. Grade: D
Linebackers T.J. Watt had a sack and a half and both were impact plays. Devin Bush had a deflected pass which he could have and should have intercepted. He continued to be blocked in run coverage. Joe Schobert intercepted a pass deflected by Taco Charlton. Grade: C
Secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered a fumble caused by Arthur Maulet that set up the first score. Joe Haden was the game’s MVP recovering a fumble caused by Cam Sutton and icing the game with a textbook tackle on 4th down. Grade: B
Special Teams Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job returning punts and his kick returns were OK. Punt return coverage was awful, at one point giving up a 55 yard return. That 55 yard return came after Pressley Harvin III’s 51 yarder which was an outlier as Harvin “booted” punts of 27 and 32 yards (his other punts were either OK or well-placed.) More consistency is needed.
Chris Boswell remained “Mr. Consistency” Knocking in field goals of 36, 28, 46 and 48 yards. Grade: C-
The Titans have a talented defense, no doubt and the Steelers offense has its liabilities. Still, Matt Canada’s offense accomplished nothing, outside of a lone touchdown drive. No sticking with the rush until Harris ground out yards, no Jet Motions, no no-huddle. Given four turnovers and quality field position, the Steelers offense should have come away with more than 12 points.
Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers Titans game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
It is true that the Steelers effort on defense had more to do with stars like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden making or taking advantage of big opportunities than scheme or out executing your opponents. But it is also true that before the turnover carnival began, the Steelers were only down 10 points.
That’s not bad given how poorly the offense and special teams played.
Overall, the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is one that features a number of All Pro caliber men playing along side either green rookies or retreads that are, at best, roster-bubble babies on any other NFL team.
The fact that playoffs remain a possibility this late in December is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: C
Unsung Hero Award
He’s maligned by both fans and the professional press alike and has been since the day he was drafted. And if he hasn’t lived up to his draft position he’s been consistent since arriving in Pittsburgh and he’s also been delivering steady play under the radar. Against the Titans he made a couple of critical plays behind the line of scrimmage and for that Terrell Edmunds is the Unsung Hero of the week.
The Steelers prevailed in another barn burner, this time beating the Tennessee Titans in a 16-13 contest that only saw Pittsburgh prevail because the Steelers defense had just enough star power to take advantage of the Titans inability to master the most basic football fundamental: Ball security.
Joe Haden recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Ask Lambert for a Tongue Lashing?
Did the Steelers simply need a good kick in the pants? After the Vikings loss, the “honor” of delivering the kick fell to Joe Greene.
Greene pulled no punches labeling the first half against the Vikings as “the saddest day that I’ve had” as a Steeler, concluding “That was a poor, poor example of the Black and Gold. It disappointed me.”
Whew. The only thing that could top a tongue lashing from Joe Greene would Jack Lambert coming out of the woods to lay into this group of Steelers. Hum, maybe Art Rooney II should seek out the recluse?
No. That would be a waste of time. Pittsburgh’s problems are tied to talent and/or health. Or lack thereof. And the Titans game illustrated that reality once again.
First Half – Like a Rerun of Bad 70’s Sitcom. But with a Twist….
The 2021 Steelers first half performances are becoming about as rote as a Three’s Company rerun (if you’re too young to remember, don’t bother Googling it take my word for it, its not worth it.) The Steelers punted four times, with Presley Harvin’s punting getting so poor that one has to wonder if it wouldn’t be wiser for Mike Tomlin just to have Ben Roethlisberger pooch it the rest of the way.
To add insult to injury, his 51 yarder got returned 55 yards….
That return set up a Titans touchdown. With 7:41 left to go in the first quarter a 3 or 4 touchdown lead at halftime seemed to be a mere formality. Except that didn’t happen.
Yes, Pittsburgh played pretty haplessly in the first half, save for a few key plays. Arthur Maulet forced a fumble early in the 1st quarter which Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered. The Steelers offense muddled around for 5 plays, but an 11 yard-hookup to Pat Freiermuth was all they needed set Chris Boswell up for a 36 yard field goal.
With the Steelers run defense again AWOL, the Titans proceeded to milk over 10 minutes off of the clock, driving all the way down to the Steelers 4 yard line. A touchdown seemed certain, when T.J. Watt sacked Ryan Tannehill on 3rd down, effectively taking 4 points off the board.
The Steelers couldn’t get into position for Chris Boswell to kick his own field goal, but the first half foreshadowed what was to come.
2nd Half Happy Days Are Here Again? Not Quite
The 2021 Steelers have followed a pretty standard script. Atrocious run defense allows the opponent to wrack up a large lead. Terrible offensive line play keeps the Steelers offense stranded in first gear, until Ben Roethlisberger rallies the team to a dramatic 4th quarter finish.
Steelers-Titans game featured its own dramatic 4th quarter finish, but it followed a new template.
That’s because Roethlisberger and the offense never found their 4th quarter roar. On the Steelers lone touchdown drive, their biggest plays were a 17 yard pass to Zach Gentry an a 15 yard penalty called for a concussion hit on Pat Freiermuth. It took a pass interference penalty on Chase Claypool to get them to the one, then it took 3 tries from Najee Harris and Ben Roethlisberger to get them into the end zone.
If watching the first half of the Titans game was like watching a Three’s Company re-run, the second half was like watching Happy Days. Because, while hardly television excellence, at least Happy Days featured Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Tom Boswell at their best.
T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
The Steelers 2021 defense is a model of mediocrity, featuring one of the worst defensive lines in franchise history.
But the Steelers defense has a few stars, and when they shine, good things happen. Such was the 2nd half against the Titans which saw:
T.J. Watt scuttle a promising Titans drive with a 10-yard sack
Cam Sutton forcing a fumble which Joe Haden recovered
The Steelers defense forced turnovers on 3 straight drives. Each of those came in Titans territory. And each time the Steelers offense sputtered, leading to Chris Boswell field goals of 28, 46 and 48 yards. Those field goals were enough to give the Steelers a 19-13 point lead, but not enough to close the deal.
In fact, Tennessee tried to close it themselves, moving methodically down the field. On 4th and 7 at the Steelers 16 Ryan Tannehill hit Nick Westbrook-Ikhine about a yard shy of the first down marker. Joe Haden hit him instantly, wrapping to keep him from extending his arms.
Even a gift spot from the officials wasn’t enough for the first down.
Pittsburgh had prevailed at the wire. Again. The win improved their record to 7-6-1 keeping their playoff hope alive for yet another week.