Watch Tower: Did Munchack Help Push Haley Out? Journalistic Freudian Slip on Le’Veon Bell & More

It is mid-April. Free has worked itself out. The NFL draft is almost here as the Steelers 2018 off season reaches its critical mass, leaving the Watch Tower with plenty of material to shine its lights on.

With that, we take a look at new insights into Todd Haley’s departure and the Steelers ownership situation, some extra detail behind an unusual free agent signing while awarding kudos for adding primary details to the story on the Steelers secondary.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

Did Munchak Help Push Todd Haley Out?

The off season’s first piece of news was the departure of Todd Haley, a move which Steelers Nation greeted with adulation. The last edition of the Watch Tower recognized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette for breaking the story and awarded kudos accordingly.

The conventional wisdom, which falls in line with Bouchette’s story is that hat the Steelers parted ways with Todd Haley keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. That almost certainly factored into the decision. But it seems like that wasn’t the Steelers only motive, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct:

The Steelers, in fact, hold Munchak in such high regard that some in the organization believe he, not Ben Roethlisberger, forced the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
On the same day Mike Tomlin announced Haley wouldn’t be brought back, Munchak turned down a second interview to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. [Emphasis added.]

True to his style, Wexell casually weaved that scoop into the text of an article detailing Steelers offensive line prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. While the Watch Tower can’t see behind (enough) paywalls to be certain that Wexell is the only reporter to come up with the Mike Munchak angle in Haley’s departure, some quick Googling appears to confirm this.

Yet again, Wexell earns Watch Tower kudos for his keen reporting.

Reading Between the Lines on Le’Veon Bell

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler made curious comment while surmising the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell:

The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign. [Emphasis added]

Fowler might not have intended this, but the implication behind his words is that Seelers HAVE leaked negative information about Bell. The Steelers leaking information about a player isn’t earth shattering. When news broke that Bell had been late for a walk through, a reader on Steel City Insider suggested that Steelers management had leaked the information, saying he knew an agent that and seen that tactic used against him.

A veteran reporter like Fowler isn’t going to “break Kayfabe” (pro wrestling term, Google it if need be) over something like this, but the Watch Tower wonders if this wasn’t the journalistic equivalent of a Freudian slip….

Zeroing in on the Steelers Secondary

The Steelers have cleaned house in their secondary this off season, from changing secondary coaches (the Watch Tower still isn’t 100% convinced that Carnell Lake‘s departure was 100% voluntary, but let’s not get side tracked, to cutting two former starters and a key backup in the form of Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden.

  • And they’ve of course made moves in free agency to replace both.

While many of these moves were anticipated, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some of the first real insight into the change, as he correctly reported that Steelers would cut Mike Mitchell, although his report also indicated J.J. Wilcox would probably go as well, and Wilcox is still with the team.

In doing so, Gerry Dulac also provided some detailed reporting on how the Steelers see Sean Davis, their rookie standout from 2016 who appeared to struggle in 2017. While there might not have been anything overly earthshaking about Dulac’s insights, he was clearly getting his information from someone well-versed in the team’s thinking, and he deserves credit for delivering that to his readers.

About those Steelers Minority Owners…..

The last edition of the Watch Tower also awarded kudos to Ed Bouchette for his reporting on the apparent (since denied) unrest amoug the Steelers minority owners. The real news nugget that earned Bouchette praise was the insight he offered into the stake that minority owners hold in the Steelers.

Here’s the quote in question from Bouchette:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

Until that point, very little information on who owned how much of the Steelers had entered the public eye, save for the knowledge that the Rooney family (and/or the Rooney family and the McGinley family) maintained control.

However, a report by ESPN on Steelers minority owner David Tepper’s quest to by the Carolina Panthers appears to contradict Bouchette’s reporting. In writing about Tepper’s bid ESPN’s Darren Rovell, David Newton offered:

Tepper, the founder of the global hedge fund firm Appaloosa Management, has a net worth of $11 billion, according to Forbes. He currently owns 5 percent of the Steelers.

So which is it? Do the Steelers minority owners own less than 5% of the team or does Tepper, one of 13 non-Rooney, non-McGinley owners listed own 5% by himself? Or, are the equity advisers supporting Tepper’s acquisition puffing up his stake in the Steelers in order to make their client look more attractive?

  • It is impossible for the Watch Tower to know for sure….

…But this is what the Watch Tower thinks. Look closely at Bouchette’s quote. While his words are (in all likelihood intentionally) vague, it seems like Bouchette only referring to the specific minority owners who made noises about pressuring Art Rooney II to fire Mike Tomlin, not the entire group.

And if that is the case, then it would follow that Bouchette knew the identities of the minority owners in question or that he was at least told by someone inside the organization – “Hey, these guys don’t even own 5% of the team.”

Finally, it suggests that, despite Art Rooney II’s protestations that “he never got the letter,” some of the minority owners did push for Tomlin’s ouster.

An Interesting Detail to an Unusual Free Agent Signing

The Steelers opening salvo in free agency involved a rare move with a low profile player, namely punter Jordan Berry. The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry between the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

  • The Steelers bringing back Jordan Berry is no surprise.

But everything else about the deal was a little off rhythm. The Steelers announced the signing, long before it was time to tender restricted free agents and more over the contract was below the minimum tender. The Steelers have offered long term-deals to exclusive rights and restricted free agents before, see Willie Parker, James Harrison, Alejandro Villanueva or even Roosevelt Nix this year.

  • But those were all long term contracts for well above the minimum tender amounts.

As it turns out, the Jordan Berry needed a contract to keep his work visa valid, and the Steelers moved quickly to accommodate him, and even structured the contract so he’d earn at the level of a restricted free agent.

Now, when Steelers fans gather to watch the 2018 NFL Draft, it is safe to say that they’re not going to be talking about Jordan Berry’s contract, but that was an important detail missing from a story that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler filled, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Good News! Chris Boswell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender (Also Wins FA Poll)

In what has been a “busy” week for free agency in Pittsburgh, some decidedly good news arrived as Chris Boswell announced that he’d signed his restricted free agent tender. The Steelers had extended Chris Boswell a 2nd round tender worth $2,914,000, and Boswell could have signed with another team had that team been willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get Boswell.

Chris Boswell, Chris Boswell steelers restricted free agent, Steelers vs Packers

Chris Boswell has signed his 2nd round restricted free agent tender. LeClarie, USA Today, via Lindysports.com

However, now that Boswell has signed the tender, he is bound to the Steelers for the 2018 season, although Pittsburgh could and presumably will try to sign the place kicker to a long term deal this summer.Steelers 2018 Free Agency Poll

  • If fan reaction on this site is in anyway a gauge, the move will be quite popular within Steelers Nation.

Chris Boswell won our Steelers free agency poll, and he won it by a landside, clocking in at 82 votes, well ahead of Roosevelt Nix, another restricted free agent, who came in with 62.

  • Anthony Chickillo came in third with 53 votes, followed by 50 for punter Jordan Berry. Both men are restricted free agents.

Le’Veon Bell came in 5th with 49 votes, although most of his came in early, before Le’Veon Bell’s social media tantrums began in earnest. After Bell, Eli Rogers’ 37 votes were good enough for 6th place, the injured now unrestricted free agent remains unsigned. Rogers was followed by a tie for 7th place between Stevan Ridley and Chris Hubbard, with Ridley being resigned and Hubbard off to Cleveland.

Unsigned Arthur Moats came in 8th place with 22 votes, with Fitzgerald Toussiant coming in 9th with 14 votes. Justin Hunter, who was recently resigned, came in 10th appropriately after getting 10 votes. Eleventh place brought up another tie, between resigned Daniel McCullers and unsigned Sean Spence who both polled 9 votes.

  • Finally, Greg Durce, the Steelers free agent cornerback came in last place.

No one likes to come in last, but given that no one has ever heard of Greg Durce, polling 4 votes isn’t bad.

As always, thank yous go out to everyone who participated in what was one of our most successful polls. If you haven’t yet, please take a moment to vote in our Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2018 Free Agency Poll Who Stays? Who Goes? Sound Off Steelers Nation!

There’s been a lot of Sound and Fury in Steelers Nation since the playoff loss to the Jaguars and finally its almost time for it to mean something. In a few hours the Steelers will need to decide to place the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, and if reports are correct, that is exactly what they’ll do.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

And, in a little over a week, the rest of the Steelers 2018 free agents will be free to sign with other NFL teams. Steel Curtain Rising has already provided detailed profiles on each of the Steelers 2018 free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, giving our views on who should stay and who should go.

Now it is your turn to sound off in our Steelers 2018 Free Agency Poll:

[yop_poll id=”64″]

Le’Veon Bell is of course the biggest and most consequential decision the Steelers face, and after that there’s a sharp drop off as the only other real “Starter capable” unrestricted free agent the Steelers have is Chris Hubbard.

The Steelers 2018 restricted free agents are and Fitzgerald Toussaint, Chris Boswell, Anthony Chickillo, Greg Ducre (who??? Yeah, we asked that too; you can find out more about Greg Ducre here) and Eli Rogers.

Jordan Berry and Roosevelt Nix were also set to become restricted free agents, but the Steelers have already resigned them. Still, you can vote on whether you think it was a good idea for the Steelers to sign them or not.

So please take a moment to cast your votes, better yet cast your vote and make your case in the comment column! Thanks in advance for voting!

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Free Agency Tracker

Franchise tags are being slapped on star players. Teams, real NFL teams not fantasy ones, are putting together blockbuster trades that they can’t even execute. Instead of talking about sacks, Red Zone performance and third down conversion, football fans fling around words like “cap value,” pro-rated, roster bonus and “dead money.”

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers 2018 free agent focus

Roosevelt Nix blocking for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

The start of NFL Free Agency is almost upon us, and with that Steel Curtain Rising rolls out our Steelers 2018 Free Agent focus, by publishing what will be our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Tracker.

Let’s look at who the Black and Gold at risk of losing during the 2018 Free Agency signing period.

Steelers 2018 Free Agent Acquisitions

Jon Bostic
3/18/18 – Steelers sign Jon Bostic, inside linebacker, to 2 year contract

Morgan Burnett
3/20/18 – Steelers sign Morgan Burnett, safety, to a 3 year contract

Nat Berhe
4/5/18 – Steelers Sign Nat Berhe, special teams, safety

Steelers 2018 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a full free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
3/7/18Steelers place franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell
Arthur Moats
Chris Hubbard
3/15/18Chris Hubbard signs with Cleveland Browns
Justin Hunter
4/6/18 – Steelers resign Justin Hunter
Daniel McCullers
3/22/18 – Steelers resign Daniel McCullers to 1 year contract.
Sean Spence
Stevan Ridley
4/4/18 – Steelers resign Stevan Ridley.

Steelers 2018 Restricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a full free agent profile.

Fitzgerald Toussaint
3/15/18Steelers sign Fitzgerald Toussaint to 1 year contract
Chris Boswell
3/12/18Steelers extend Chris Boswell as 2nd round restricted free agent tender
4/5/18 – Chris Boswell signs restricted free agent tender
Anthony Chickillo
3/14/18Steelers place original round restricted free agent tender on Anthony Chickillo
Greg Ducre (who????)
Roosevelt Nix
Steelers have resigned Roosevelt Nix to 4 year contract
Eli Rogers
3/14/18 – Steelers opt not to tender Eli Rogers, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Jordan Berry
Steelers have resigned Jordan Berry

Steelers 2018 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

B.J. Finney
Steelers have resigned B.J. Finney to 1 year contract
Matt Feiler
Steelers have resigned Matt Feiler

The Steelers will make plenty of moves that don’t involve the men above. The Steelers 2018 Salary Cap situation is fairly tight and that means that several roster cuts are coming, as well as some restructures. A potential extenstion of Ben Roethlisberger, which Art Rooney II has suggest may happen, could also provide short-term Steelers salary cap relief.

The Steelers 2018 secondary is likely to have a very different look, as William Gay, J.J. Wilcox and perhaps Mike Mitchell will likely become cap casualties very soon. Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey could also find himself looking for new work.

Steel Curtain Rising will be following all of the action and we will update this page as news breaks.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Alert – Road Grading Ahead in Pittsburgh: Steelers Sign Roosevelt Nix to 4 Year Contract

Free agency is still a month away, but things are already heating up on the South Side as the Steelers signed restricted free agent fullback Roosevelt Nix to a 4 year contract, binding him to the team through 2021.

  • What is it about undrafted rookie free agents from Kent State University and the Pittsburgh Steelers?

James Harrison was of course a Kent State product, as was Roosevelt Nix, who while playing defensive line in college, joined the Steelers in January of 2015 signing on to play fullback. Rosie Nix did well enough to make the 2018 Pro Bowl.

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix contract

Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix clearing the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

When training camp ended in 2015, segments of the fan base howled over the decision to carry two fullbacks (the other was Will Johnson), yet Nix proved his worth on special teams, including forcing a fumble at a critical moment in the Steelers win over the Oakland Raiders.

With Roosevelt Nix guiding the way, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers regular season AND post season rushing records, helping Bell do something that neither Jerome Bettis nor Franco Harris was ever able to accomplish. Nix has also helped pave the way for the success of backup running backs DeAngelo Williams and James Conner, while providing an extra pair of blocking hands to protect Ben Roethlisberger when need be.

While Roosevelt Nix is a Steelers fullback more in the mold of Dan Kreider than Merril Hoge, Nix has caught 6 of the 8 balls thrown his way, including catching his first NFL touchdown in 2017 during the Steelers Christmas win over the Houston Texans.

  • They say the fullback is a dying position in the NFL, but players like Roosevelt Nix are helping keep it alive.

Roosevelt Nix follows Jordan Berry as the second Steelers restricted free agent to sign a new contract before testing the market. Last week the Steelers signed Jordan Berry to a 1 year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Jordan Berry and Matt Feiler to One Year Contracts

The Steelers made two moves ahead of free agency this past week when they signed offensive tackle Matt Feiler and punter Jordan Berry to one year contract extensions.

  • The Jordan Berry signing comes as a bit of a surprise.

Jordan Berry signed with the Steelers in 2015 and beat out fellow Australian Brad Wing during training camp. With three years of service in the league, Berry was due to become a restricted free agent, and could have held out for a restricted-free agent tender from the Steelers.

  • Berry however, chose to skip the process and sign with the Steelers now.

Jordan Berry’s gross punting average of 43.2 yards per punt ranks him last 32nd among NFL punters. However, Berry’s net average of 39.8 is good enough to get him out of the basement, and ranks him as 24th.

Jordan Berry, Steelers Jordan Berry

Jordan Berry punting during the 2015 preseason. Photo Credit: John Heller, Post-Gazette

However, as Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review points out, “Only two of Berry’s 64 punts were touchbacks; 26 pinned a team inside its 20-yard line.”

That’s an indication of some pretty good directional punting, which can be far more valuable than sheer distance in today’s NFL.While you obviously want to have as good a punter as you can, but if there’s one position that you don’t want to overrate, it is that of the punter. Numbers don’t lie:

Steelers Punters, Steelers punting averages

Quality punting hasn’t correlated very strongly with Super Bowl wins for the Steelers. And, as you can see, Harry Newsome’s punting average in 1988 was almost 5 yards above the NFL average, yet it didn’t help the Steelers avoid their worst season since 1970.

Feiler Returns to Back up Gilbert and Villanueva

The Matt Feiler signing is largely an academic exercise. Feiler was set to become an exclusive rights free agent this march, which essentially means he would have had to sign with the Steelers provided they made him a veteran minimum offer.

Feiler has been in the league since 2014, when he latched on with the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent 2014 on Houston’s practice squad, but got cut before the start of the season, where he joined the Steelers 2015 practice squad.

The Steelers kept Felier on the practice squad throughout 2015 and he started 2016 on the practice squad where he was activated in October, although he did not see action. In 2017, Felier made the Steelers 53 man roster and appeared in 5 games, including a start in the season finale against the Browns.

  • The move was expected given that the Steelers are facing the impending departure of Chris Hubbard.

Pittsburgh also has Jerald Hawkins signed as a reserve offensive tackle behind Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, so unless things very awry, don’t expect to see Matt Feiler protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell (or might it be James Conner….)

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Steelers Report Card for Patriots Loss – A Truly Valiant Effort Comes Up Short

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just watched his students make a valiant effort only to fall short – an all perhaps because of an idiotic administrative error – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster romps for 69 yards. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger faced the loss of his biggest weapon and managed to keep moving the chains and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Roethlisberger was in “the zone” as he has been for several games, even taking it upon himself to run for several key gains. Ben was sharp in the Red Zone, hitting two touchdown passes. However, at the very end of the game Ben Roethlisberger made a mistake in trying to thread the needle (even if the referees ignored blatant pass interference.) An easy mistake to make, given the circumstances, but a costly one nonetheless and the Report Card grades on performance an results, so the interception brings his mark down. Grade: B-

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell had over 150 yards from scrimmage over 100 on the ground. While the Patriots front 7 isn’t exactly 2017’s Monsters of the Midway, they knew it was coming and (most of the time) couldn’t stop him. James Conner came in and had 3 carries and looked strong before falling injured. Fitgerald Touissant had one carry for 3 yards. Roosevelt Nix was excellent as a lead blocker. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
The number one receiver was out, New England was focusing on the run and the Steelers tight ends had had a banner day against the Ravens so naturally you’d figure…. 6 targets. Xavier Grimble was 1-1 for 8 yards. Jesse James actually only caught 2 of the 5 passes thrown his way, including his non-touchdown. However, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t break 100 yards unless the blocking is good. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Before he left the game injured, Antonio Brown succeeded in becoming the first NFL wide out to catch 100 passes in 5 straight seasons. Perhaps its only fitting then that three plays before the injury, Martavis Bryant caught his best pass of the season, a lunging 39 yarder. Bryant wasn’t done, catching a one handed touchdown where he was being blatantly interfered with. Eli Rogers caught 1 pass for 18 yards, but he took it home for a touchdown. The real star of the show was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who went 6 for 6 on target and took a sideline route in overtime 69 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more contact on Ben Roethlisberger than we’re accustomed to seeing, but the quarterback had time to throw on an afternoon when his best receiver was out. The line excelled in run blocking, making holes for Le’Veon Bell on a day when the defense knew the run was coming. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward helped set the “Yes, we’re playing to win” tone with his sack of Tom Brady. Stephon Tuitt didn’t sack Brady but did pressure him, as did Javon Hargrave. The Patriots did have some success running the ball, as Dion Lewis managed 5.2 yards per carry with a long run of 12. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Javon Hargrave

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a the team’s second sack on Tom Brady although he was finishing off work started by others. While the unit continued to struggle against the run, Sean Spence looked getter than he had on the week before, and Vince Williams had what could have been the game-turning play, nabbing the first pick for the Steelers against Tom Brady since 2005. Overall, it was a quiet night for the linebackers who still struggle against the run. Grade: B

Secondary
Artie Burns bounced back and had a strong game, although he did get flagged once, and that hurt. Mike Hilton continues to be a force, breaking up a touchdown and forcing a Brady throw away. Sean Davis actually did a passable job in covering Ron Gronkowski – at least until that crucial Patriots touchdown drive where Davis’ confidence seemed to melt. And of course he dropped an interception that would have ended the game. That brings the grade down for everyone. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell as 1 for one as he didn’t have a chance for any heroics. Jordan Berry punted the ball well, both in terms of distance and direction. The Steelers kick return efforts were respectable, but not consistent. The Steelers kick coverage was solid but punt coverage allowed one long return. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin during the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Coaching
If you have said in January the Steelers will go into a game against the Patriots without Shazier, Haden lose Brown early in the game and start Cam Sutton and only lose by 3 no one would have believed you.

  • So the Steelers coaching staff deserves credit for making this game so competitive.

Yet the key variable in grading isn’t competitiveness, but in winning the competitions and here the Steelers coaches are open to criticism. Todd Haley lost arguable the best wide receiver in football, and managed to not only keep the offense scoring, but to do so in a way that kept the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

  • Still, the Steelers couldn’t kill the clock late in the 4th quarter when 2 first downs probably end the game.

One defense, the Steelers knew they were playing a weak hand coming into the game, and while Tom Brady ultimately prevailed, he didn’t have the kind of field day he did back during the AFC Champioship game.

  • Nonetheless, when Brady to Gronk got going, Keith Butler didn’t attempt an adjustment, and that hurt the team.

Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. He has led this time through a lot of adversity this season, and to be honest the Steelers didn’t blink when they lost Antonio Brown, and other members of the team immediately stepped up. And while the result might have been disappointing, Tomlin WAS right to go for the touchdown at the end. This is Tomlin being Tomlin a coach who (rarely) lives in his fears, and when the game is on the line, Tomlin isn’t going to shy away from risk.

Still, the Steelers were caught in a fire drill situation, and didn’t quite know how to act. Coaches need to prepare for these situation too, and the Steelers preparation wasn’t quite there. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were missing another key, high profile, high salary player, but no one was talking about the impact of his absence either before, during or after the game.

In fact, with Antonio Brown out, the Steelers needed to run the ball better than they have all season long, and they did so, particularly at key moments, and often times this was helped but Chris Hubbard pulling and leading the way for Le’Veon Bell and that’s why Chris Hubbard wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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