Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

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

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

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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Played Out in Pittsburgh? Chiefs Defeat Steelers 42-37 at Heinz Field in 2018 Home Opener

There’s no sugar coating this: Pittsburgh has problems. The Steelers 37-42 opening day loss to the Kansas City Chiefs included a multitude of milestones, none of them good:

  • Kansas City won in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1986
  • Mike Tomlin suffered his first home defeat to Andy Reid
  • The Steelers suffered their 1st home-opening loss in 5 years
  • Ben Roethlisberger lost to the Chiefs for the first time since 2009

But those milestones, however unpleasant, tell us more about the Pittsburgh’s past than its present. The Kansas City Chiefs victory a Heinz Field exposed several fundamental weaknesses of the 2018 Steelers, weaknesses which Mike Tomlin will be hard pressed to paper over.

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches a pass as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

One of the Worst Quarters of the Tomlin Era

The simple take away from the Steelers 21-21 against the Browns was that without 6 turnovers from the Steelers, Pittsburgh wins fairly easily.

  • While far from flawless, that analysis is largely accurate.

The simple take away following the loss to the Chiefs is to point to the offense’s 37 points and lay the blame on the shoulders of Steelers defense. That would be a mistake, however.

The Steelers first two drives netted negative yardage, as a hurried Ben Roethlisberger’s passes flew high and off target. By the time the Steelers offense got out of the red, the Kansas City Chiefs had already scored two touchdowns, and the only answer the Steelers offense could muster was a missed Chris Boswell field goal.

  • Credit Randy Fichtner and the Steelers offense for not panicking and keeping sharp enough focus to come back and tie the score at 21-21.

With feeding the ball to James Conner a non-option given the score, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to make anything more than piecemeal connections with Antonio Brown, Ryan Switzer Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped up.

But as it did during the 4th quarter against Cleveland, the Steelers offense sputtered during the 4th quarter. By this point in the game it had become painfully clear that Pittsburgh’s defense could do nothing to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense.

  • In his 2017 season postmortem, Steelers President Art Rooney II quipped that “Its become difficult to play defense in this league.”

While Art Rooney II’s words may hold some truth, if you’re MO for winning games is to score 50 points a game,  then your offense cannot take a quarter to warm up, nor can it sputter in critical moments late in the game.

Steelers Defenseless Against Chiefs

Of course the Steelers goal never was to simply make every game a shootout and count on the offense to prevail. During the 2018 off season the Steelers went through a whole sale house cleaning of their secondary and made moves to bolster its linebacking corps.

  • Last week, against a re-tread quarterback in Cleveland, the Steelers defense had a reasonably strong showing for itself.
  • Against an emerging elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers defense came out flat footed.

One of the key new pieces the Steelers added in the off season was Jon Bostic. The scouting report on Jon Bostic was that he was fairly strong against the run, but struggled in coverage. And against the Chiefs, Bostic defended the run well enough, but looked clueless in coverage as Travis Kelce burned the Steelers down the middle all afternoon long.

The Steelers doubtlessly missed Joe Haden, but on one in the rest of the secondary did anything to suggest things would be different had Haden played.

  • Artie Burns thus far failed to translate any of his summer magic from St. Vincents to the regular season.
  • Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle and looked out of place early and often.
  • Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were forgettable in first starts for the Steelers.

The same can be said for the Steelers front seven. Cam Heyward did force a key incompletion and later a fumble. So did T.J. Watt, but that was his sole highlight of the day. The answer to an ailing secondary is to pressure the passer, and the Steelers front seven barely touched Patrick Mahomes.

Played Out in Pittsburgh?

Furious fans took to social media to draw comparisons to the Jacksonville playoff debacle. That’s understandable, but perhaps the 2002 season opener against the Patriots provides a more accurate comparison.

Following the same script that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick used 16 years ago, Andy Reid and Patrick Maholmes essentially abandoned the run in the second half.

  • And once again, the Steelers were powerless to stop them.

That 2002 Steelers team started 1-3, yet clawed its way to a division championship. Only a bogus roughing the kicker call kept Pittsburgh from an AFC Championship appearance. But that rebound required Bill Cowher to spark the team with a quarterback change, and the Steelers pass defense remained a liability all season long.

  • Mike Tomlin will not and should not bench Ben Roethlisberger.

Nor does the Steelers head coach have any equivalent, dramatic personnel change to make on defense. Which means that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter must find a way to coax better performance out of their defense

Otherwise, the Steelers will continue to fall hard this autumn.

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Steelers Report Card for 21-21 Tie Against the Browns – Struggling Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher whose dismayed that his star pupil can’t seem to perform except when sitting at his own desk, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Opening Day Tie against the Browns.

T.J. Watt, Tyrod Taylor, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Tyrod Taylor as Bud Dupree gets face masked. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Once again Mike Tomlin decided to rest Ben Roethlisberger for the bulk of preseason, and once again Roethlisberger was road rusty in Cleveland. After a rough, 3 interception start, Roethlisberger appeared to settle down in the 3rd quarter, but then failed to move the offense at critical moments in the 4th. The Steelers committed 6 turnovers against the Browns, and Roethlisberger accounted for 5 of those. Grade: F

Running Backs
Le’Veon Who? Ok, it is too early to say that, but James Conners starting NFL debut was a smash success. James Conner ran with the authority of a starting NFL running back, scoring two touchdowns, catching 5 passes and rushing for 135 yards. However, Conner’s fumble was quite costly letting Cleveland back in the game, which brings his grade down significantly. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Steelers coaches might be intent on replacing Jesse James, but Jesse James continues to respond when his number is called, catching 3 passes on 5 targets including a crucial compleition late in the game. And injured Xavier Grimble started but did not have a pass thrown his way. The run blocking was exceptional against the Browns, and the tight ends helped make that happen. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster helped jump start the Steelers 2nd half rally with a 67 yard pass return on a day where he caught 5 of the 8 balls thrown his way. However, late in the afternoon, Smith-Schuster disappeared. Antonio Brown came down with a phenomenal touchdown pass in double coverage. Justin Hunter had 1 catch of 5 and has yet to prove he can perform outside of practice or preseason. James Washington didn’t get a target, and Ryan Switzer was 0 for one, although he did have one carry for 8 yards. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the positive side the Steelers offensive line provided road-grading quality blocking to open holes for James Conner in the running game. However, the unit’s pass protection left a lot to be desired. The Browns sacked Ben Roethlisberger 4 times, two of which were strip sacks and another could have easily been a strip sack. This doesn’t let the signal caller off the hook, but the line must protect Ben Roethlisberger better. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward again reverted to 1 man wrecking crew mode, leading the Steelers defensive line with 1 tackles, a sack, tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Stephon Tuitt had 4 tackles, while Javon Hargrave two tackles. The Steelers defense did a decent job of containing the Cleveland running game. Grade: B

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt’s performance against the Browns is any indication of the 2nd year leap he is posied to make watch out. Watt was unblockable, sacking Tyrod Taylor 4 times, hitting him 4 more times, and making him 5 and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Per ESPN”s count, Bud Dupree had 1 sack as did Jon Bostic who also had 2.5 tackles for losses. Vince Williams led the team in tackles. Compared to the last time the Steelers took the field, the Steelers linebackers were fare improved. However, Tyrod Taylor’s 77 yards rushing hints that the Steelers linebacking corps is still missing Ryan Shazier’s athleticism. Grade: B

Secondary
The Steelers remade their secondary this off season and the results were generally positive. Joe Haden was a force in coverage, breaking up at least one touchdown pass. Mike Hilton stepped up to break up a couple of passes, as did Terrell Edmunds, with Edmunds coming up on a key 3rd down. Cam Sutton got beaten on a touchdown pass, but he was supposed to have help from Sean Davis. He atoned for it with an interception that forced OT. Artie Burns committed a costly penalty that helped set up a Cleveland score. At the end of the game, Tyrod Taylor literally had no place to throw. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry, who had a mediocre at best preseason, played a good game boming off punts when the Steelers needed him to. Ryan Switzer, while not breaking one, showed himself as a kick returner who had the potential to make something happen, a rarity in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal to save the tie.

All positives. The big negative of course is the high snap and missed Chris Boswell kick in overtime that could have won it. That brings the unit’s grade down. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Coaching
Mike Tomlin took a lot of grief from the fans immediately after the game, which is understandable. While a tie is better than a loss, the “W” the Steelers were counting on could easily come back to haunt them with it comes to tie breaker time.

  • On the defensive side of the ball, Keith Butler’s unit played a strong, although not perfect game.

A defense that must compensate for 6 offensive turnovers is starting with an incredible handicap. The Steelers defense pressured the quarterback, limited Cleveland’s running game and didn’t allow a pass play over 40 yards – although Cleveland hit two for 38 and 39.

On the offensive side of the ball, it was Randy Fichtner’s first game as a signal caller, and some of the same Todd Haley haters were already criticizing him for becoming too conservative in the 4th quarter, arguing “Haley would have kept his foot on the gas.” The fact is that the Steelers offense looked tentative during the 4th quarter and overtime after a strong third quarter.

  • The key to this game was turnovers. Coaches don’t throw picks or fumble balls.

Nonetheless, for the second straight year Ben Roethlisberger looked rusty in the opener, and the Home Ben vs. Road Ben issue surfaced again. Neither of these tendencies might be considered Mike Tomlin’s “fault” but both were foreseeable and neither was mitigated. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero
The record will forever reflect that James Conner’s first start was a success. But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. ON play after play, Roosevelt Nix was plowing would be Cleveland tacklers out of plays. Nix also helped partially block the punt in overtime, and for that Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the tie against Cleveland.

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Ben Roethlisberger Sputters in Opening Day Steelers 21-21 Tie with Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 season on the shores of Lake Eire against the Cleveland Browns and came away with… an UGLY 21-21 tie against a team that hadn’t won in over 600 days.

  • The tie stirred up Steelers Nation’s Gloom and Doom contingent, who’re wasting little time in declaring the entire season a total loss.

And their response, is understandable — to a point. A tie football game satisfies no one. It’s like grabbing a still warm mug only to have your mouth find lukewarm coffee. While you certainly lose nothing in a tie football game, you fail to gain anything.

While the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns is a cause for disappointment, Pittsburgh’s performance provided no shortage of positive plays, and its one legitimate area of concern revolves around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

Positive Side of the Tie I – James Conner

One of the key questions facing the Steelers going into the opener was whether they could run the ball effectively while Le’Veon Bell remained AWOL. It was only one game, but James Conner provided a resounding answer in the affirmative.

  • James Conner justified the faith that his teammates invested in him by running hard and playing at the level of a starting NFL running back.

James Conner hit the holes with authority, proved himself a capable target in the passing game, and scored on two separate occasions. Conner’s second TD came on a 22 yard run where the former Pitt Panther showed excellent instincts and hustle.

James Conner’s fumble certainly counts as a costly mistake, but if his game against the Browns is any indication of what he is capable of for the rest of the season, the retailers at Station Square would be wise to start selling “Le’Veon Who?” T-Shirts.

Positive Side of the Tie in Cleveland II – The Steelers Defense

The Steelers defense entered the game as an even bigger question mark than James Conner.

The last time we saw this unit, the Jacksonville Jaguars were putting up points and racking up yards as if they were the Greatest Show on Turf. The Steelers opened themselves to a lot of criticism for their performance against the Browns.

  • But very little of the criticism should be directed against the defense.

Thanks to a snafu with DirectTV’s NFL Sunday ticket, I missed the first half of the game. When I saw that Ben Roethlisberger had thrown 3 interceptions, but that the Steelers still held a 7 point lead, my thought was, “Well, the defense must be playing well.”

Then came the first drive of the 2nd half. The Steelers started things off right by sacking T.J. Watt, then let the Browns right back into it with two successive penalties. Before too long, Tyrod Taylor was out juking Bud Dupree and lowering his shoulder against Artie Burns for a touchdown.

  • Although that drive came far too close to the Jacksonville game for comfort, it represented the low point for the Steelers defense.

Statisticians can make this as fine a point as they want, but when your offense gives up 6 turnovers, you’re not only supposed to lose a game, you’re supposed to lose it badly. The Steelers didn’t lose to the Browns and they can thank their defense for that.

Mike Hilton broke up multiple passes. T.J. Watt recorded four sacks, and looked every bit like a young player blossoming into a dominant one. Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic and Bud Dupree had sacks.

The Steelers defense will face stiffer tests than those offered by the Browns. Cleveland’s tying touchdown came far too easily, but when Cleveland tried to pick on Cam Sutton again, Sutton made them pay the interception that forced over time.

That type of bounce back, paired shut down performance of the Steelers defense during over time offers hope that the arrow is pointed up for Keith Butler’s boys.

As Roethlisberger Goes, So Go the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to win in Cleveland because they committed 6 turnovers. Of those 6, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned over the ball 5 times. Two of Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions in the first half were outright hideous.

  • Ben Roethlisberger appeared to be trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown on one occasion.
  • On a second pick the duo was clearly out of sync.

After Ben Roethlisberger opened the 2nd half with several lightning strike throws to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In little more than the blink of an eye, the Steelers were up 21-7. 247 Pittsburgh writer Jim Wexell offered this observation:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. During the 4th quarter Ben Roethlisberger was ineffective and played tentatively during the critical stretch when the quarter was winding down and again in overtime. Worse yet, he coughed up the ball twice.

Neither those turnovers were entirely his fault, but Ben Roethlisberger has made a career of moving around in the pocket making something out of nothing. In the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns Ben Roethlisberger was unable to do that.

Could Haves, Would Haves Should Haves

As Mike Tomlin conceded, the Steelers had opportunities to win, despite the turnovers. Chris Boswell missed a difficult, yet makeable field goal which should have have won the game in over time.  The Steelers defense came up with a key stop after Roethlisberger’s final fumble in regulation, yet the offense could do nothing.

In overtime the defense limited Taylor to 1 completion, forced two punts and the special teams partially blocked a punt and blocked a field goal.

  • Not sure what the stats are on blocking punts AND field goals in overtime, but one would figure the team that does that usually wins

Unfortuantely, the Steelers didn’t win.

Football is the ultimate team game, and the observations above help show that winning and losing never comes down to the efforts of one player. But the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are built around Ben Roethlisberger, and when he is below the line, its very difficult for the rest of the team to pull itself above the line.

Ben Roethlisberger was below the line in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns, and because of that Pittsburgh has already put itself at a disadvantage in the AFC North race.

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Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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Steelers Streaming Preseason in Mexico. Excellent! ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de América Latina?

Tonight, Steelers fans in Mexico will watch the Steelers 4th game against the Carolina Panthers as they’ve done throughout the preseason thanks to the Steelers decision to stream preseason live in Mexico.

  • It says here, for the first of two times, that this is an excellent move and the Steelers deserve praise.

But with that said, I ask, ¿Y qué pasa con el resto de los fanáticos de los Steelers América Latina? For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, “What about the rest of us Steelers fans in Latin America?

To be clear: I’m happy that my fellow Mexican citizens of Steelers Nation can see Terrell Edmunds, James Washington, Mason Rudolph, Damoun Patterson and Olasunkanmi Adeiyi take their first steps as Steelers.

But I “complain” for one selfish reason and one business reason that the NFL should consider.

Steelers Fans Mexico

Steelers enjoy a massive following in Mexico. Photo Credit: Interceptado

Short Changing International Steelers Bloggers

I’m a self-confessed unrepentant preseason apologist (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) Preseason gives fans their best chance to evaluate young players under live-fire circumstances.

To be truthful, social media and internet video give fans new avenues for gaining insight without watching preseason games. Reading and seeing examples of Jon Bostic and Sean Davis struggling in pass coverage or seeing that James Conner running smartly is a welcome change.

  • But if you can’t watch the games, you’re still dependent on the evaluations of others.
  • And that creates a real challenge for international bloggers.

Sure, you can scrape someone someone else’s work, but the internet is literally littered with “read and regurgitate sites” and Steel Curtain Rising strives to offer something fresh.

Absent access to preseason games, one is left recycling stories of Bam Morris looking off in 1995 while Lee Flowers looked good in the ’95 and ’96 preseason campaigns, or how George Jones look unsuited as Jerome Bettis’ understudy in 1997 or how the Steelers struggled at run blocking during the 1998 preseason.

  • Writing about that gets stale fast and reading about it even faster.

It would be nice to write about the Steelers 2018 preseason campaign while referencing the preseason performances players like Antonio Brown, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier or, even going back further, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. But alas, I can’t because I never saw any of them play in preseason.

Ah, but you retort, “If you’re such a preseason purist, why don’t you plunk down your pesos and pay for NFL Game Pass?”

NFL’s Preseason Business Model Continues to Lag, Locally and Globally

Yes, I could plunk down my pesos and watch Steelers preseason games via Game Pass. Problem? I already pay for NFL Sunday Ticket on DirectTV. But, NFL Sunday Ticket only covers the regular season. Which leaves paying extra for the Game Pass as the only (legal) option for viewing Steelers preseason here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as the rest of Latin America, outside of Mexico.

To that end, the logic of the late Washington DC sports radio legend Ken Beatrice guides me:

  • Never pay major league prices to watch less than major league talent.

Seriously. It asking Sunday Ticket subscribers to pay extra to watch preseason on Game Pass is inane. Sorry Roger, you can get my money for the Sunday Ticket or for the Game Pass but you’re not getting both.

  • If you’re living outside the United States and you actually want to watch preseason football, you’re the essence of a diehard fan.

And if the NFL is serious about its global expansion, then those diehard fans are the base the league will build its global brand upon. Making it easy for them to indulge their passions by proving easy access to preseason football makes sound business sense.

We close by praising the Steelers again. Gustavo Vallegos the Vice President (really, he’s acting more like the President) of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires brought this issue to the attention of the Steelers, and the Steelers responded:

In a nutshell, Sergio tells us that the Steelers short term goal was to make preseason games available in Mexico, while he acknowledges that there are Steelers fans around the world, and that little by little, they want to reach those fans.

  • Good for them. Hey Art II, give the guy who had the idea a raise!

The Steelers showing they care about their fans in Mexico, showing that they understand that fan base is even bigger and wants to take care of them. It is the right thing to do and a smart business decision.

Why is the rest of the NFL so far behind? Jerry Jones is once again floating an idiotic 18 game season complaining that “Its difficult to get people to watch preseason football.”

Well yeah, Jerry, difficult because you don’t even let those who want to watch it, watch it.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Steelers 2018 Training Camp to Test Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert’s Defensive Talent Evaluations

All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.

  • Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:

It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.

But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.

  • But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.

And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.

Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:

  • The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
  • Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
  • Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge

Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.

The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.

  • As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.

It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.

  • By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.

If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.

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Surprise (Not) Inside Linebacker Tops Steelers 2018 Draft Needs Poll

Sometimes it pay to go against the conventional wisdom. After all, the rise of blogging and social media has raised Monday Morning Quarterbacking and Arm Chair General Managing to something of an art form. While easiest examples that come to mind are ones where social media becomes the mother of all bandwagons (think of how Steelers Nation regarded Todd Haley), the real fun is when you take a position that’s contrary to popular opinion and you turn out to be right.

  • But then there are other times when it pays to follow the crowd.

It appears that the Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll is one of them.

Steelers vs Ravens

The Steelers need to find someone who can “replace” number 50 in he 2018 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The results of the Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll are in, and Steelers Nation clearly rates inside linebacker among the Steelers top need heading into the draft.

  • Following his devastating spinal injury against the Bengals last December 4 that left him (hopefully) temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, it’s obviously no surprise Steelers fans desperately want the team to find Ryan Shazier’s replacement, as the defense was most certainly designed around the exceptional talents of the athletically gifted inside linebacker–Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of Ohio State in the 2014 NFL Draft. True, the team did sign veteran Jon Bostic to a two-year deal in March, but is he more a temporary solution than a permanent one? Judging by the votes for inside linebacker, 68 total, it’s easy to see where the fans stand in their opinion of Bostic in particular and the team’s inside linebacker strength in general.
  • Moving on to second place, it’s also no shocker that fans would like to see an upgrade at safety, this despite the celebrated signing of Packers veteran  Morgan Burnett. With Sean Davis set to move over to free safety, and Burnett assuming the role of strong safety–the position he manned at Green Bay–one wouldn’t  think safety would be high on the Steelers draft wish list. However, with 51 votes, the black and gold faithful think otherwise.

 

  • Rounding out Steel Curtain Rising’s poll results, we see that, with the third most votes at 33, fans aren’t exactly thrilled with the all-world talents of running back Le’Veon Bell–or at least his contract demands after he and the franchise failed to come to a long-term agreement for the second spring in a row.

 

  • Following running back is, believe it or not, quarterback, with 24 votes. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger seems more content and eager to play next season and beyond, what with offensive coordinator Todd Haley now employed with the Browns, but many readers of SCR seem to think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find his successor sooner rather than later.

 

  • Speaking of 24 votes, that’s also how many outside linebacker received. Despite spending multiple first round picks on the position over the past half-decade, it appears fans aren’t yet satisfied with the production–their disenchantment with 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree may have something to do with that.

With just two days to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, if the readers of Steel Curtain Rising are any indication, the Steelers’ number one priority is finding the next Ryan Shazier–or at least someone capable of filling his role at a high enough degree to make the position of inside linebacker a strength again and not a weakness.

Stay tuned to Steel Curtain Rising in the coming days for more draft coverage, including an in-depth look at each of the team’s picks, starting with the first round choice Thursday evening.

 

 

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