Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”

  • Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?

Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters

The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.

Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.

Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.

Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard

The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.

The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.

But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.

 

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

Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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

Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Rebound with Force Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher unabashedly proud of his student ability forcefully rebound, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Heinz Field win over the Ravens.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
The “Bench Ben” calls look silly now, don’t they? Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his finest game of the season, going 21-31-1-0 for 236 yards and he had a perfectly thrown touchdown ball dropped. You don’t lead 51 comeback wins by accident, and you don’t earn your 51st against the AFC’s leading team if you’re washed up. Grade: A

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his best night on the ground in weeks gaining 71 yards on 21 carries and he banged out his best ones with the game on the line. He also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Benny Snell came in late and while he only had two carries for 13 yards, he ran strong and sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and 3 catches for 26 yards including two that set up the Steelers first score. And he came through with a very difficult 2 point conversion catch. Zach Gentry had 2 catches on the final Steelers scoring drive, one that converted a 3rd down and another than brought them to the 2. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of 11 passes thrown his way for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He is developing into something special. Chase Claypool was having a relatively quiet night, until he opened the 4th quarter by flipping the field, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud had one catch for 7 yards and was robbed of a 32 yarder. James Washington had one pass thrown his way. Diontae Johnson’s dropped TD lowers the group grade. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit 3 other times which might be some sort of record low for the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The biggest difference however was the run blocking. When John Leglue entered the game following B.J. Finney’s injury, he became the 5th player to man the left guard position for the Steelers. Instead of contributing to the downward spiral of the line, he delivered improvements to the run blocking and that, quite frankly, was the difference in this game. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual disruptive self, dropping players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Lamar Jackson and sacking him to help set up the Steelers first score. Montravius Adams walked in off the street and batted down a pass on his eight play as a Steeler. The Ravens came in to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number one rushing attack and barely cracked 100 yards. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt was this good after having COVID how explosive would he have been at full health? Watt’s 3.5 sacks and forced fumble get the attention, but ability to set the edge in the running game and stay disciplined in pursuit of Jackson were equally important. Watt’s first pressure of Jackson forced an interception. His last force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion. Alex Highsmith had struggled against the run but made two tackles for losses. Joe Schobert had a pass defensed. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s end zone interception set the tone not only took 7 points off the board for the Ravens, but it set the tone for the evening. Ahkello Witherspoon got his first start and deflected a 3rd down pass that set up the Steelers final scoring drive. The Ravens converted several third and longs, but the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 19 points. Grade: B+

Special Teams
It was an on and off night for the Steelers special teams. They gave up a long kick return that set up the Ravens 3rd quarter score. Chris Boswell’s mortar kick was well-placed but rolled out of bounds giving the Ravens 15 free yards and untold seconds on the clock. That may not have been his “fault” but the missed extra point was. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK on punt returns but added nothing on as a kick returner. Tre Norwood was perfect on the on-sides kick recovery. Grade: C

Coaching
Matt Canada dialed back some of the bells and whistles of his offense, but remained committed to the run. The Steelers rushing totals weren’t impressive, but it opened up the passing game.

  • Keith Butler had his work cut out for him on defense.

The Steelers defense had gone from suffering quarterly lapses in the running game, to something far more systemic. And they had the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback to defense. Yet Butler managed to find the perfect mix of pressure, containment and coverage.

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But neither Canada’s nor Butler’s schemes wouldn’t have mattered an iota had the Steelers been pushed around at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers instead won those battles after several weeks of losing them. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for snapping that trend and keeping his players positive and focused. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Jersey numbers mean a lot to Steelers fans. Sometimes new players live up to the pedigree. Most often they do not. Since Greg Lloyd retired 22 years ago, 9 different players have worn Number 95. All were either forgettable or disappointing. But against the Ravens number 95 exploded for 2.5 sacks, 3 more QB hits and several stops for no gain, and for that Chris Wormley wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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

Redemption! Steelers Beat Ravens 20-19 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads 51st Comeback

Players coming off the COVID list at the 11th hour. Guys signing off of other team’s practice squads and suiting up. Injury forcing a 4th string guard into action. 26 fourth quarter points. Two 2-point conversion attempts within a span of 92 seconds.

  • Yes, it was the Steelers vs. the Ravens at their best.

The Steelers came out ahead by a nose, winning 20-19. The victory improved the Steelers record to 6-5-1 and kept their playoff hopes alive. But the victory also delivered something more.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Ravens

Diontae Johnson scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Down, But Not Like This Before?

The Mike Tomlin era has seen the Steelers suffer their share of down swings. While some of those might have been mathematically worse, think the 5 game skid in 2009, this one felt different.

After clawing their way back from a 1-3 record, the Steelers won 4 games in a row, working themselves into the thick of the AFC North race. But those wins were all barn burners, each seemingly closer than the one before.

Then came the comedy of errors that led to the tie against the winless Detroit Lions. Then came the dramatic comeback against the Chargers that fell short due to a total offensive line collapse. But with the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like the other shoe had dropped.

The Steelers didn’t just lose 41-10 in a game that was over at half time, they were manhandled on both sides of scrimmage. Veterans from both Steelers Super Bowl eras, Rocky Bleier and Ryan Clark, piled on.

Bleier charged that the Steelers lacked “pride and self-esteem.” Clark condemned the Steelers defense for “not being able to stop a nosebleed” and four days later called for Ben Roethlisberger to be benched.

  • The worse part about it?

Even the most naïve homer would have had a difficult time telling either man that he was wrong.

Treading Water Instead of Suffocating

Stats have always formed part of NFL’s narrative, but with a rise of analytics this tendency has gone on steroids. Today we can’t watch a game without seeing AWS-sponsored graphics telling us what plays the coaches should call next.

  • And the half time stats painted a pretty grim picture for Pittsburgh.

The Ravens had 13 first downs to the Steelers 4. Not surprisingly, Baltimore had gone 4 for 8 on 3rd down conversions while the Steelers were 0 for 4. Worse yet, the Ravens held a 23:30 to 6:30 advantage in time of possession.

  • Those types of numbers typically indicate one thing: One offense is suffocating the other.

The fact that the Ravens bridged the first and 2nd quarters with a 16 play, 99 yard drive that lasted 10:27 and culminated with a touchdown would seem to confirm this.

But there was something a typical afoot. Thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Ravens had come up with nothing after burning off nearly ½ of the first quarter on an 11 play 65 yard drive.

There’s no question that the Ravens offense held the upper hand, but even if the Steelers defense failed to get off the field on 3rd down, Baltimore wasn’t running at will on Pittsburgh as other teams had.

  • Fantasy football owners started players from the Steelers this week doubtlessly felt bummed beyond belief.

But the key stat from the first half was this: Despite dominating in every category possible, the Baltimore Ravens held a meager 7-3 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Instead of being suffocated, the Steelers were treading water.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Dig Deep as Roethlisberger Leads 51st Comeback

When story tellers chronicle games like this they’re wont to fall back on phrases like, (feel free to imagine John Facenda’s voice), “Times like these force players to dig deep, finding something a little extra that they didn’t know they had.”

This is certainly true. The “usual suspects” authored plenty of big plays to either keep the Steelers in the game or push them ahead:

  • Cam Heyward sacked Jackson, ending a drive and allowing the Steelers to score
  • Najee Harris ripping off a pair of 8 yard runs and a 13er on the Steelers touchdown drives
  • Diontae Johnson came up big, with 2 touchdown catches
  • Pat Freiermuth made a difficult 2 point conversion catch look easy
  • T.J. Watt sacked Lamarr Jackson three and a half times

While those players and perhaps some of those plays will live on forever via NFL Films, Mike Tomlin got critical contributions from unknown and/or forgotten players from deep within his roster.

  • Montravius Adams a practice squad poachee played nearly ½ the snaps, improving the defensive line
  • Steelers practice squader and 4th string guard  John Leglue stepped in making  an immediate impact
    Chris Wormley had a had in 3 sacks, two of which shut down drives
  • Ahkello Witherspoon battled away a pass on 3rd and 15, setting up the Steelers final scoring drive
  • Benny Snell ripped off 5 and 8 yard runs on the final touchdown drive

Beyond these splash plays, on both sides of the ball the Steelers played physical football with discipline. They stopped runners at the line of scrimmage, pressured Lamarr Jackson without allowing him to run wild, and gave up only 5 penalties to the Ravens 10.

But if forced to name a single hero, you’d have to name Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers defense managed just 3 points during the first 45 minutes. Ben Roethlisberger remained cool throughout, and then led an offensive explosion for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a 2-point conversion.

The effort marked Ben Roethlisberger’s 51st comeback win. If the Steelers could hold…

Too Much Time? And Perhaps Too Much Time to Think

When Ben Roethlisberger hit Pat Freiermuth with 1:48 left to play, the response of my friend and rabid Ravens fan Bill W. after the Steelers-Ravens 2016 Christmas classic came to mind, “We left too much time on the clock.”

  • Indeed, the Ravens had gone ahead with 1:18 left to play, and Ben Roethlisberger made them pay.

Could Lamarr Jackson return the favor? Well, when Chris Boswell’s well placed mortar kick rolled out of bounds, it seemed like that might happen. When Jackson moved down the field with clock-work precision (minus the strip sack that went out of bounds) “might happen” became “was happening.”

  • When Jackson connected with Sammy Watkins with 16 seconds left, the worst had come true.

Surely, Justin Tucker, the best place kicker there is, was or will ever be, would send it to over time. But John Harbaugh chose the cerebral approach and went with what his analytics told him: He went for the 2-point conversion.

Harbaugh got the look he wanted. Mark Andrews was open in the flat. A walk off 2 pointer was there for the taking…. And yet, T.J. Watt charged in, forcing the throw a millisecond too soon. It hit Andrews’ finger tips, and then bounced to the Heinz Field turf.

  • The Steelers recovered the on-sides kick and then took a knee.

With the victory, the Steelers earned a new lease on their playoff life.

But they also earned something more important: After a week where fans, pundits and even franchise legends gave up on them, the Steelers steeled their faith in themselves and they prevailed. That earned them far greater than a single win, it earned them Redemption.

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