Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs: In Search of Depth

Just 3 years ago the rest of the NFL was in envy of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart. They had a future Hall of Famer, a budding rookie 2nd round draft pick, and a physical phenomenon coming off of suspension.

  • Change comes quickly in the NFL.

By the middle of 2019 the Steelers were signing guys off of practice squads and playing them later that week. Injuries played a part in making that happen, but how much of it was tied to talent? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about how important wide receiver will be for the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington celebrate Diontae Johnson’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images via Still Curtain.com

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

“I’m ready” proclaimed JuJu Smith-Schuster shortly after the Steelers sent Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And by all accounts JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to be ready to be a legit number 1 NFL wide receiver.

But how would JuJu Smith-Schuster fair now that NFL defenses didn’t need to build their pass defense around shutting down Antonio Brown. No one knew, and a year later we still don’t know. Ben Roethlisberger’s season lasted 6 quarters, and Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly have enough time to find his rhythm before he got knocked out with a concussion.

  • That brought Devlin Hodges into the game, further limiting the Steelers passing options.

Fortuantely for the Steelers and JuJu, there’s evidence that the other two starting wide outs, James Washington and Diontae Johnson and offer enough splash play potential to take some heat off of Smith-Schuster.

James Washington dazzled during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons and, if reports are correct, his play during practice was just as dazzling. Yet Washington struggled to translate that on to the field during 2018 and the first half of 2019.

  • However, during the 2nd half of 2019, James Washington came up with several big catches.

While he needs to sustain that, the arrow is pointing up on James Washington as it is on Diontae Johnson. Diontae Johnson flashed big play potential early in the 2019 season, with impressive touchdowns against San Francisco and Miami. But consistency was an issue. Still, he improved from a disastrous performance against the Browns at home, for big games on the road against the Cardinals and Jets.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

If the Steelers have, at a minimum, three starter-capable wide receivers, their depth leaves a much to be desired. The next most targeted wide receiver in 2019 was Johnny Holton, followed by Donte Moncrief, then Ryan Switzer and then by Tevin Jones.

  • Ryan Switzer is the only one of the foursome who remains on the roster.

And Ryan Switzer was only targeted once after week 2, and missed the last 7 games of the season. Deon Cain offers legitimate potential and looked good while he was on the field, but his NFL resume consists of 6 targets.

The Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

While JuJu Smith-Schuster clearly is a step down from Antonio Brown as a number 1 wide receiver, the same can be said for 97.5% of other NFL wide outs. James Washington and Diontae Johnson also have a lot to prove, but it says here they will prove it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Moreover, Ryan Switzer, when healthy, is not a bad number 4 wide receiver, particularly if a tight end such as Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron is drawing attention from linebackers and safeties.

The issue for the Steelers at wide receiver is depth. They have next to none. And that means that heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Steelers need at wide receiver must 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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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 Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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They Won’t, But the Steelers Should Resign Eli Rogers

Lost in the furor over Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph at the end of the Steelers 21-7 loss in Cleveland is that before the ignominious ending, the contest had already earned the title “The Body Bag Game.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, Cleveland head-hunting defensive backs have left the Steelers “a little” short handed at wide receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson in the NFL’s concussion protocol. That leaves James Washington, Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton he of the 13 targets and 1 catch.|

That leaves the cupboard more than a little bare, especially given that, either by design or by happenstance, tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett are afterthoughts in Randy Ficthner’s 2019 offense.

Situations like this typically elicit questions along the lines of “Why aren’t the Steelers doing more to beef up their wide receiver depth chart” on Bob Labriola’s “Asked and Answered.” To wit, Labriola’s response is, “There are not many experienced NFL wide receivers working in the insurance business.”

And while that’s generally true, there is a 27 year old NFL wide receiver with 30 NFL regular season games and four NFL playoff games under his belt. Moreover, this wide receiver knows the Steelers offense.

  • I’m of course talking about Eli Rogers, who played with the Steelers from 2016 until 2018.

The Steelers cut Eli Rogers just before the regular season shown no interest in bringing him back, although Rogers apparently contacted the Steelers early in the season offering his services, according to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly. The Steelers told him “they were busy and to go home.”

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That was of course before the Steelers decided to cut Donte Moncrief and before they lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionate Johnson to the concussion protocol. However, those loses haven’t change the Steelers calculus because they signed Deon Cain to their active roster from the Indianapolis Colts active practice squad.

Deon Cain was a 6th round pick of the Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft and 7 games this season, his last appearance coming in the Colts loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. With that said, Deon Cain’s NFL resume is quite thin. He’s had 14 balls thrown his way but he’s only caught four of those for 52 yards giving him a catch rate of 28.6%.

For the record, Eli Rogers has caught 78 out of 116 passes thrown his way, for 822 yards, including 4 touchdowns and 39 first downs. Eli Roger’s career catch rate is 67.2% in the regular season and 78.3% in the playoffs.

As mentioned, Deon Cain’s last NFL action came in the Colts loss to the Steelers where he dropped both balls thrown his way. Eli Roger’s last NFL action came in the Steelers 2018 season-ending win over the Bengals, where he caught 9 of 7 passes thrown to him, including the last two.

Just Say’n….

Steelers Make Additional Roster Moves

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Pittsburgh’s lack of interest in bringing Eli Rogers back is their decision to put Ryan Switzer on injured reserved prior the Brown’s game. During training camp, the conventional wisdom was the Steelers would opt for Ryan Switzer or Eli Rogers, and Ben Roethlisberger was known to favor Eli Rogers.

  • So be it. Ryan Switzer’s on IR, Deon Cain is here and Eli Rogers isn’t coming back.

Neither is Roosevelt Nix, at least not in 2019, as the Steelers placed him on injured reserve prior to the Browns game. After the Browns game the Steelers added Kerrith Whyte Jr. to their active roster and parted ways with running back Tony Brooks-James and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott.

If the Steelers follow suit, Jayrone Elliott could be resigned to the practice squad as of today.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Browns, Who got the F’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just seen his classroom endure a traumatic incident here is the Steelers Report Card for the Body Bag Game” against the Browns.

Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers Browns 2019 Body Bag Game

Larry Ogunjobi closes in on Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The short week figured to test Mason Rudolph. Many are writing off Rudolph’s entire future based on one bad night which is foolish. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, Mason Rudolph did some nice things, particularly early in the game. But his interceptions were costly, and grew uglier as the night progressed. One plus, Mason Rudolph displayed excellent tackling technique. The Steelers had a shot to win despite giving up 14 quick points, but Rudolph’s picks killed those chances. Grade: F Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Sometimes the eye can see what it wants to, because memory has James Conner playing very well before he got hurt. However, the stat sheet of 10 yards on 5 carries and 1 catch for 7 yards tells a very different tale. Jaylen Samuels had a decent night running and catching, but his opportunities were limited. Trey Edmunds continues to show he has some serviceable skills as a reserve running back, but blocking is not one of those. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes targeted to him, but with wide receivers dropping like flies he really didn’t appear to be a factor in the passing game. Moreover, on at least one pass early in the first half, McDonald appeared to mail it in terms of blocking. Nick Vannett caught 1 pass on one target. The tight ends have a chance to boost this offense, but do not appear to be taking advantage. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Wow. Where’s Cobi Hamilton when you need him? JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were having decent games before blatant head shots took them both out. James Washington did well. As for Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton? Well, Holton caught his first pass, but missed on a deep one he should have had. Tevin Jones had a hand on a catchable pass that got intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
4-7-11. Those were Cleveland’s numbers for sacks, tackles for losses and quarterback hits. A quality line can’t make miracles, but can certainly provide an offense the foundation it needs to overcome deficiencies at the skill positions. On paper, and certainly when measured in terms of salary cap investment, the Steelers should be fielding an offensive line that does just that. But that wasn’t apparent against the Browns, and hasn’t been apparent for much of the season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Browns actually sniffed 100 yards in total rushing, but the Steelers made them work for it with the defensive line accounting for 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward led the team in tackles which is impressive. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had the team’s lone sack, hit the QB 2 other times and helped drop at least three Browns for losses. Vince Williams and Devin Bush clocked in at 3rd and 4th on tackles while Bud Dupree had 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defense pressured Baker Mayfield, but Mayfield eluded the rush and, at least early in the game made the Steelers pay. That’s not all on the linebackers, but some of it is. Grade: C+

Secondary
Cleveland’s first touchdown looked alarmingly easy. The Steelers defense was in complete disarray on the Browns second touchdown and the play that preceded it. After that the Steelers secondary settled down, and helped limit the Browns to go 6-16 on third down conversions. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton led the unit in tackles and passes defensed. Grade: C

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns 2019

Jarvis Landry scores with nary a Steeler nearby. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Cleveland.com

Special Teams
Diontate Johnson and Cam Sutton returned two punt for an average of 9 yards, which is slightly above the league mean, just as was the Browns kickoff return average. Steeler punt coverage held the Browns below the league average, where as Tony Brooks-James two kick retruns average 16 yards which could be the reason why he’s looking for a job today.

Chris Boswell missed on one field goal, but that came off of a bad snap/bad hold. Boswell made his other attempt and his lone extra point attempt. Grade: C-

Coaching
Keith Butler’s defense has been the strength of the team and the unit was clearly stumbling to find its footing during the first 20 minutes of the game. Following that, however, the Cleveland Browns were scoreless until a Mason Rudolph interception at the 9 yard line with 6:32 remaining essentially gifted them another score.

  • Randy Ficthner’s predictable offense is taking a lot of heat from commentators for whom the Report Card has a lot of respect.

And those commentaries have a lot of merit. Still, Randy Ficthner is charged guiding a backup quarterback through an offense designed for a franchise quarterback with backup and now scout team players thrust into starting roles at the skill positions.

  • Anyone really think that adding a few more layers of complexity is wise?

While preparing such a young team on a short week while on the road might not be “fair,” the results indicate that the Steelers was defense up to the challenge while the offense wasn’t. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when the Steelers offense was struggling to gain any semblance of traction, he kept the Browns offense from gaining any sort of field position advantage by booming off 6 punts that averaged 49.6 yards. This is helped keep the Steelers in the game until it tun overs took their toll in the 4th quarter, and for that Jordan Berry wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Body Bag Game.

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Steelers Browns “Body Bag Game” Ends as Myles Garrett Tries to Maim Mason Rudolph

We can be forgiven if we’ve forgotten, but there was actually a football game in Cleveland Thursday night that saw the Browns defeat the Steelers 21-7. Had the game ended at the 59:52 mark, Thursday night’s contest already was one of the ugliest football games on record.

  • Just how ugly was the game?

To put it into perspective, even before the WWE style shoot weapons match that marred the final 8 seconds, you could already call it the Steelers “Body Bag Game.” Here we’ll focus first on the X’s and O’s before taking a look at the infamous final 8 seconds.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph helmet

Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph with his helmet. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Slate.com

Slow Start by Steelers Defense

Its no secret that the Steelers defense had led the way, and then some, during the four game winning streak that Pittsburgh took into Cleveland. Yet the Cleveland Browns scored on their first drive almost effortlessly.

Keith Butler’s defense forced a few punts, but on the Brown’s first possession of the 2nd quarter, Cleveland scored again. When asked where the breakdown had occurred, Mike Tomlin was succinct:

  • “Baker out of the pocket.”

That’s accurate, but only to a point. The Steelers pass rush indeed pressured Baker Mayfield, only for Baker to elude the rush time and time again, and early in the game Baker made the Steelers pay. Something was clearly off with the Steelers defense early in the game.

Two plays before the Browns first touchdown, the Steelers barely got their 11th man over the line of scrimmage before the snap to avoid an off sides penalty. Joe Haden appeared to come out of the game, then went back in and when Mayfield connected with Jarvis Landry in the end zone there wasn’t a Steeler in sight.

  • But what’s largely forgotten is that the Steelers defense settled down and played qualify football after that.

No, there were no Minkah Fitzpatrick fireworks, and while T.J. Watt did get a sack, unlike previous weeks, it wasn’t a game changer. But after their second score, the Browns went 10 straight possessions without another score.

And while Baker Mayfield would continue to slip past would-be Steelers sackers, as the night wore on the Steelers secondary’s coverage was tight enough they forced Baker to throw the ball away on his extended roll outs.

Giving up 14 points in a game’s first 20 minutes is never something to applaud, but the Steelers defense’s performance wasn’t simply “Above the line” after that point, they kept Pittsburgh in the game.

Steelers Offense, Rudolph, Sputter Out of the Gate, Never Recover

While he’s only started seven games, one thing about Mason Rudolph stands in stark contrast to Ben Roethlisberger: Mason Rudolph doesn’t excel at the school yard style football that typified Roethlisberger early in his career.

Instead, Mason Rudolph is a student of the game. He’s got a voracious appetite for film study, and if anything he is perhaps too patient in working through his reads.

  • But with each week, Mason Rudolph has been making progress.

With each game, he’s taking steps forward, and has made strides towards taking command of the Steelers offense. The question going into the Cleveland game, was could Mason Rudolph continue that progress on a short week?

  • Alas, the answer against Cleveland was a resounding “No.”

Mason Rudolph did do some nice things. He’s beginning to transfer the college rapport he had with James Washington to the NFL. He did a masterful job on the Steelers lone touchdown drive, and showed some quick decision making on his touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels.

It would be easy to look at how the game evolved and chalk up Mason Rudolph’s struggles to having to throw to Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton as his number 2 and number 3 wide outs. It would also be easy to point a finger at the Steelers offensive line, which failed to protect him.

  • But as it so often is, the easy answers are the wrong answers.

The fact is that Mason Rudolph played poorly vs. the Cleveland Browns. He threw four interceptions, interceptions which got uglier as the night progressed. A lot of Steelers fans are ready to write of Mason Rudolph’s future based on that one night (never mind he’s looked far better his 1st 7 starts than Terry Bradshaw looked in his.)

The key takeaway from the Browns game as far as Mason Rudolph is concerned can’t be found by looking back, but rather by looking forward. It all depends on how Mason Rudolph reacts, and whether he can rebound.

Body Bags Mount for Pittsburgh

This was a particularly brutal trip to Cleveland for the Steelers. During the course of the game, the Steelers:

All of this occurred before the now infamous final 8 seconds of the game. The status of the players above remains unknown although one would have to expect that all 3 offensive players named above will not be playing next week in Cincinnati against the Bengals.

Unfortunately, if Mason Rudolph is to rebound from his worst game as a pro, he’ll likely need to do it on his own.

8 Seconds that Will Live in Infamy

It all could have been so simple. Mason Rudolph had just completed an 11 yard pass to Trey Edmunds with 14 second remaining. The Steelers could have run their final play, and then headed to the locker room to tend to their wounded.

He could have let up after Mason Rudolph released his pass. After making impact, he could have let it stand there. He could have been content with a late hit, but instead forced Mason Rudolph to the ground.

  • The two men scuffled. David DeCastro tried to break things up.

Myles Garrett could have ignored Rudolph, but instead tore his helmet off and swung it viciously at his head. Mason Rudolph could have been seriously injured, or worse. Had this happened on the street, Myles Garrett could have, would have and should have faced criminal charges.

The NFL has suspended Myles Garrett indefinitely, as well as Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Ogunjobi

Regardless of what happens moving forward, this incident and how they respond to it will define the 2019 season for both teams.

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Steelers Defeat Colts 26-24 as Game Comes Down to “Who Makes the Last Mistake”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 as Adam Vinatieri shanked a field goal with 1:13 left to play.

  • The win evened the Steelers record to 4-4 and included several impressive defensive performances as well as a number of gritty offensive plays.

But that doesn’t hide the fact that Pittsburgh made more than its share of mistakes and sloppy plays. In that sense, the Steelers victory over the Colts affirmed the wisdom of the late Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who often reminded listeners, “More games are lost every week in the NFL than are won.”

Adam Vinatieri, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Colts, Adam Vinatieri miss Heinz Field

T.J. Watt signals “No Good” after Adam Adam Vinatieri’s miss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Defense Goes Big Play or Bust in 1st Half

The story on the 2019 Steelers thus far had been this:  After the week 1 debacle against New England, only a handful of plays separated a 3-4 Pittsburgh squad from victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore – 3 of the toughest teams in the league.

While the Ben Roethlisbergerless offense was finding its way, a resilient defense reaffirmed the Steelers relevance. That story while true, came with a big “But,” attached to it:

  •  “Oh, But the Steelers haven’t beaten anyone.”

That was true. Cincinnati and Miami are competing for the 1st pick overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, while the Chargers could contend for top 10 pick. The Colts brought a 5-2 record to Heinz Field were certain to offer a stiffer test. And they delivered on their promise.

Despite losing starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, relief pitcher Brian Hoyer moved the Colts offense with alarming ease during much of the first half, leading Indianapolis to two touchdown drives.

But the Colts defense more than held its own against the Steelers, limiting Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense to two field goal attempts on the Steelers only two trips to the Red Zone.

  • Yet the Colts were making mistakes of their own.

The Colts answered Fitzpatrick’s touchdown with a six play 1:36 minute touchdown drive but one that ended with Cam Heyward blocking the extra point. That left 0:42 seconds in the second half, and Mike Tomlin was determined to be aggressive.

Unlike Miami last week, Frank Reich’s defense only allowed piecemeal yardage, yet on what should have been the last play of the half, Darius Leonard got greedy and hit Vance McDonald late. The extra 15 for a personal foul gave Chris Boswell the yards he needed to attempt a 51 yard field goal which he nailed.

Two miscues by the Colts in the last 42 seconds of the 1st half netted 4 points for Pittsburgh. Four points which would come in handy for the Steelers down the stretch.

Who Makes the Last Mistake?

A few critical plays often define the difference between defeat and victory in the NFL. Sometimes contests are decided by who has the ball last – think the Steelers 2009 win over Green Bay at Heinz Field.

Other times, games come down to who makes an error at a critical juncture – think how the Steelers have sabotaged themselves with poor ball security over the last year.

  • The truth is that the in the Steelers match up against the Colts hinged on who made the last mistake.

Both teams made mistakes aplenty in the second half.

It says here that the Steelers won because they did marginally better at taking advantage of those mistakes, but they still needed the Colts to continue making them. Bud Dupree ended the Colts first procession with a strip sack, and the Steelers converted it into a touchdown thanks to a Mason Rudolph to Vance McDonald touchdown.

Yet on their next possession, the Steelers gave up a safety, only to have Ola Adeniyi, Terrell Edmunds force a fumble which Johnny Holton recovered. But despite getting the ball at their 17, the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

Chester Rogers fumble, Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Colts

Chester Rogers fumbles a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

With James Conner and Benny Snell out injured, the Steelers offense figured to see a lot of Jaylen Samuels. And see him we did. While Trey Edmunds got his first extended NFL action, Jaylen Samuels functioned as the focal point of the Steelers offense for much of the afternoon.

The Steelers gave Jaylen Samuels 21 touches, and while he did well, perhaps the biggest mistake Randy Fichtner made was in relying on him a little too much. Samuels was less effective in the 2nd half, particularly in the Red Zone.

And with the Steelers holding a 23 to 18 lead with just under 12 minutes left to play, he fumbled the ball, a fumble which the Colts only needed 7 plays to transform into a touchdown. But, in keeping with the tenor of the afternoon, Terrell Edmunds batted away the two point conversion, leaving the Colts with a meager 1 point lead.

Twice afterwards the Steelers had the chance to put the Colts away for good, but after a drive that started with an impressive 40 yard catch by James Washington and an opportune pass interference penalty on Diontae Johnson stalled at the 8, Pittsburgh had to settle for another Chris Boswell field goal.

  • The Steelers got the ball back with 3:58 left and conceivably Pittsburgh could have put the game out of reach with one first down.
  • Yet, they failed to get that first down.

The Colts got the ball back, and on the heels of one questionable pass interference call and another less questionable pass interference non-call, Indianapolis got all the way to the Steelers 22. Even after Bud Dupree dumped Marlon Mack for a 3 yard loss, all Adam Vinatieri had to do was knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • And, almost as if on cue, he hooked it wide to the left, and the Colts had lost to the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin explained it perfectly as he closed his press conference, “We’re far from where we want to be. But we’ll take it.”

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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NFL Places Anthony Chickillo on Commissioners List. Steelers Resign Jayrone Elliott

Anthony Chickillo is already feeling some of the consequences resulting from his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend last weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. As seems to becoming standard operating procedure in the NFL, Roger Goodell has placed Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner’s exempt list.

While on this list, Anthony Chickillo will continue to receive his salary, but can neither play nor attend games, although he can be at team headquarters for injury therapy or non-football related activities.

Ola Adeniyi is also an available backup behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Interestingly enough, the New York Giants waived Steelers preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper. Tuzar Skipper had made the Steelers final 53 man roster, but the Steelers waived him prior to the loss to the Patriots to make room for Johnny Holton.

Pittsburgh had hoped to bring him back on to the practice squad, but the Giants claimed him off of waivers. Clearly the Steelers see something more in Elliot, but they could still add Skipper to the practice squad.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo in happier times, who found himself on the NFL’s Commissioner’s list. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Exit Bye Week, Return to Health

Mason Rudolph has cleared the concussion protocol and will start for the Steelers this Monday against Miami. Steven Nelson, Roosevelt Nix, Vance McDonald and James Washington have returned to practice and are expected to play.

While the Steelers offense could certainly use a shot in the arm from Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. acquitted himself well in relief of James Conner in the win at Los Angeles. If Joe Haden cannot start, Artie Burns could get the nod to start his second straight game in over a year, although Cam Sutton would be a candidate as well based on his performance against the Chargers.

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