Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Running Back – A Higher Priority Than You Think…

No team has rushed for more yards since the AFL-NFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2010, Steelers President Art Rooney II described quality rushing as a “foundation of the franchise.”

In contrast to Bill Cowher, during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have looked to running back earlier and more often in the draft having used 3 premium picks on running backs. Will that trend continue or, perhaps better stated, should that trend continue in the 2016 NFL Draft?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Although he finished 2015 on injured reserve, Le’Veon Bell will enter 2016 as the Steelers starting running back, and if Art Rooney II’s statements are any guide, the Steelers will look to lock him up to a long-term contract.

  • It is easy to understand why, as Bell’s dynamic ability as a double threat teases to reestablish the concept of “franchise running back.”

Such lofty visions must be tempered with the reality that the shelf life of running backs in the NFL is short and continues to grow shorter, and Bell has already missed 16 of a 51 possible games to injury, including 3 playoff contests. The Steelers have confidence in Bell’s ability to recover, but on the outside that looks like a leap of faith.

While it almost seems quaint to acknowledge a fullback as a “starter” the Steelers chose undrafted rookie free agent Roosevelt Nix over Will Johnson.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

A year ago the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy, and many were skeptical that a 32 year old NFL running back coming off an injury and with 1432 carries on his frame could deliver.

  • Those skeptics were dead wrong.

DeAngelo Williams had his best season rushing since 2009, and showed himself a dangerous double threat, not only did Williams do damage on the ground, but he also gave Ben Roethlisberger an enticing target underneath.. Williams almost literally saved the season.

In late November, the Steelers made a curious move – they activated a guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad. This came before DeAngelo Williams injury, and after Mike Tomlin had assured reporters he would not attempt to groom an understudy for Williams.

The move came shortly after the Ravens put Justin Forsett on season ending IR and activating Toussaint looked like a proactive move to protect him from practice squad poaching. When the playoffs arrived, Toussaint vindicated the Steelers faith in him as he collected over 120 all-purpose yards in the playoff win against the Bengals.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Abou Toure, 2015 practice squader Rajion Neal and Daryl Richardson who has experience with the Rams and Browns.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Running Back

Running back is one slot on the depth chart where Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis likely differs from much of Steelers Nation and likely Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

  • The Steelers have now been forced to start their 4th string running back in three consecutive post-season contests.

OK, 2014 is somewhat of an aberration, as LeGarrette Blount’s insubordination and Dri Archer’s total failure couldn’t have been foreseen, at least not while something could be done about it. Yet, in 2015 the Steelers essentially chose to enter the season with a running back’s depth chart that was two backs deep.

By season’s end, both Bell and Williams were hurt….

  • Sure, Jordan Todman and Toussaint played well, but do you really want pin post season hopes practice squaders and waiver wire pickups?

Sure, the days when the Steelers staffed their depth chart with three or four quality running backs may seem like an anachronistic memory of a bye gone era, but it’s no secret that the Steelers won their last Super Bowl with a depth chart that went Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell and Carey Davis – all of whom were on the opening day roster, and all of whom were at “Above the line” ball carriers.

  • It says here that drafting running back in the first round would be a mistake.

Drafting one in the second round might be too high as well. But the Steelers have rolled the dice on running back depth in two straight seasons and it has cost them in two straight post seasons which means that the Steelers 2016 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate High.

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Steelers Free Agency 2016 Poll Results Complete

In the end, Brandon Boykin got a lot of love from Steelers Nation. Or at least this corner of it. As the Steelers 2016 pre-draft visits have begun, Steel Curtain Rising has taken down its Steelers free agency 2016 poll. While it is possible, perhaps even probable the Steelers will make move free agent moves before convening training camp in Latrobe at St. Vincents, the organization’s focus has clearly shift to the draft.

steelers 2016 free agents, steelers nation, votes, william gay

Steelers Nation voted on Steelers 2016 Free Agents

  • But over the last 45 days or so, Steelers Nation has had a chance to vote on what they think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be doing.

Brandon Boykin was the third most popular Steelers free agent, William Gay was first with 51 votes and Ramon Foster was second with 46, followed by Boykin’s 41. The Steelers resigned William Gay and Ramon Foster, but let prance to the Carolina Panthers. Darrius Heyward-Bey came in fourth, whom the Steelers also resigned.

No one outside of that group got more than 30 votes. Almost as many people wanted to see Kelvin Beachum protecting Ben Roethlisberger (25), as want to see Bruce Gradkowski back him up (24). No one else got more than 20 votes.

  • The next highest vote getter is somewhat of a surprise: Doug Legursky who got 19 votes.

Steel Curtain Rising sung Legursky’s praises when he first reached free agency in 2013 and warned the losing Legursky could carry consequences (it did) and scolded the Pittsburgh media for not even bothering to cover it when he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, this site did not call for Legursky’s return to Pittsburgh, but a good chunk of our readers have.

Both remain unsigned and at this point will likely stay that way until after the draft. The Steelers may still bring back Will Johnson, but word is Will Allen will not return. Steelers long snapper Greg Warren also got 18 votes, although the Steelers had already resigned Warren before the voting began.

Below Warren and the Wills, only Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin found double digit support in Steelers Nation, with Michael Vick, Byron Stingily, Clifton GeathersCam Thomas, Jordan Todman and David Nelson (who?) all polling in single digits.

Of the group above, only Jordan Todman has signed elsewhere, and the Steelers are not likely to resign any of those players. Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted in our poll, and encourages you to vote in our Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Poll.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Jordan Todman Signs with the Colts

The depth of the Steelers backfield is a bit thinner today, after it was announced on Friday that reserve running back Jordan Todman signed a deal to play with the Colts next season.

  • Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

As far as free-agent defections go, this one shouldn’t sting the Steelers. Fact is, with All-Pro Le’Veon Bell and accomplished veteran DeAngelo Williams as the first and second-string running backs heading into 2016, there wouldn’t have been many hand-offs available for Todman–and that’s if he could have beaten-out the promising Fitzgerald Toussaint for third-string on the depth chart.

After arriving in the NFL in 2011, Todman, 26, had brief stays in both Minnesota and San Diego during his rookie season, before landing in Jacksonville in 2012. In three seasons with the Jaguars, Todman rushed for a combined 450 yards and scored three touchdowns.

  • After signing with the Panthers last offseason, Todman was cut right before the start of the regular season, and the Steelers quickly added him to their roster.

After only rushing for 22 yards during the regular season, Todman was suddenly thrust into action during the playoffs, when DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for 907 yards in place of the first suspended and then injured Bell, suffered a severe ankle injury in Week 17.

Teaming up with fellow reserve running back Toussaint, Todman rushed for a combined 71 yards in two postseason games, as Pittsburgh advanced to the divisional round.

A journeyman and career backup up to this point of his career, maybe Todman will finally find a way to contribute extensively as a member of the Colts.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Jordan Todman – The Last Free Agent Profiled, but Is He the Least?

Wavier wire pickups are normally ho-hum affairs. Then there’s Steelers free agent Jordan Todman. He’s special. Why? Because Kevin Colbert’s decision to pick up Todman off of waivers sparked a major emergency in Steelers Nation.

Yet in a few hours, Jordan Todman will be an NFL free agent, and yet there’s been barely a whimper out of Steelers Nation as to whether stays or goes….

Capsule Profile of Jordan Todman’s Career with the Steelers

September 7th, 2015 a day that will live in infamy for Steelers Nation….

…Unless it doesn’t. What the hell are we talking about? Well here’s a refresher. On September 6th, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert released the Steelers initial 53 man roster and the entire Steelers 2015 draft class made the team, save for 7th round safety Gerod Holliman. Then Pittsburgh’s South Side experienced its own Pearl Harbor….

  • Kevin Colbert found a running back he liked and signed him from the waiver wire.

The running back was Jordan Todman and his arrival in Pittsburgh meant the Steelers had to cut someone, who happened to be Doran Grant, the Steelers 4th round pick from 2015 NFL Draft. The crisis that ensued on Twitter and other social media channels leaves one to shudder to imagine what it would have been like had social media existed back in 1997, when Rod Woodson departed as a free agent……

  • Yet, after all the sound and fury, the Steelers added Todman to their backfield, and there he remained in relative anonymity.

Le’Veon Bell began the season suspended, DeAngelo Williams ran strong in his place, Bell got injured, Williams continued to pick up the slack, Dri Archer got cut, Williams continued to carry the Steelers running game on his 32 year old legs. It didn’t matter. Todman remained on the bench.

  • Mike Tomlin openly admitted that he wouldn’t risk the Steelers success by attempting to groom Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint by giving them carries

Then of course came the Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland Browns, where DeAngelo Williams got hurt. The Steelers didn’t need to rush much to beat the Browns, but suddenly, the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th running backs, and the playoffs were a week away….

Far from it. The Steelers handed the ball to Todman 11 times, and he gained 65 yards and generally ran the ball strong. In the playoff loss to Denver, Todman didn’t fare as well, but there’s a reason why Denver defense powered the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

The 2015 Cincinnati Bengals defense will not go down alongside the Four Horseman, Monsters of the Midway, or Purple People Eaters but they have the NFL’s 7th best rushing defense. While 11 carries does not a Merril Hoge’s vs. Denver inspirational performance make, getting 5.9 yards per carry in your first NFL playoff game is respectable.

Moreover, Todman has experience, having made over 100 carries before coming to Pittsburgh. The Steelers opened the season with a backfield that was two players deep in 2015 and it hurt them, Todman shows that he can be a viable insurance policy.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

Steel City Insider’s Matt Steel has the knock on Jordan Todman, explaining:

Just about every time Todman entered the game during the playoffs, teams would know he was going to run because they couldn’t put him in a position to pass-block. Todman put up great rushing numbers with his touches but the staff doesn’t trust him to block, and rightfully so.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates look to give Ben Roethlisberger and incredible arsenal of weapons in 2016. But if there’s one thing that the Steelers offense could not, and should not allowed to become it is one dimensional.

  • And when a player, by default, telegraphs whether it’s a pass or running play, your offense is one dimensional.

This would be true under normal circumstances, but Heath Miller’s retirement heightens the importance, because Heath Miller caught the ball 72% of the times it was thrown to him, making him an incredibly reliable target regardless of the situation. Nothing personal Mr. Todman, this is a business decision.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Jordan Todman

Jordan Todman’s performance in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati confirms that Kevin Colbert gamble of exposing a 4th round pick to the waiver wire to sign him was a wise one. But Matt Steel’s point is also quite valid.

  • The Steelers are in a good position with Todman.

No other NFL team is going to rush to sign him this afternoon when he can officially join another team. Nor is Todman going to come in the second wave of free agent signings.

  • There are some NFL free agents that teams can wait to sign, usually up until or even after the draft.

That’s the category that Todman fits into. The Steelers have the luxury of looking around the league for someone else to challenge Fitzgerald Toussaint for the 3rd string running back slot. They can even consider drafting someone. And if neither of these two things work out, there is a strong chance Todman will still be looking for a job in late spring or early summer.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who thinks his start students learned a valuable lesson in — namely how to win games – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card, which grades the Steelers offense for the the 2015 season.

Quarterbackssteelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, offense, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown, deangelo williams
Everything in 2015 was supposed to hinge on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Yet Ben Roethlisberger had to leave three games due to injury and missed four starts due to injury. The Steelers went 2-2 in those missed starts, and won 2 of 3 closes in Ben’s absence. Michael Vick didn’t have much left in the tank, but he put it all on the field in the 4th quarter vs. San Diego and without that effort, the Steelers miss the playoffs. Landry Jones provides a more interesting study. He showed himself to be a competent backup in the regular season, but struggled in the post season.

Ben Roethlisberger played extremely well in 2015, although his late season penchant for “Stupid interceptions” was worrisome. However, he protected the ball in the playoffs. Taken altogether, the Steelers quarterbacks had a very good 2015. Grade: B+

Running Backs
2015 was supposed to be the year Le’Veon Bell proved that the concept of “franchise running back” was not dead. And had Bell played for more than six games, he might have. However, suspension and injuy ruined his 2015 and the lion’s share of the Steelers rushing effort fell to DeAngelo Williams, who played far better than any 32 year old running back had a right to. Fullback Roosevelt Nix also proved he belonged in the backfield, as did Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Dri Archer was the group’s only disappointment, but that cannot bring this grade down. Grade: A

Tight Ends
There are more than a few whispers with Heath Miller could be a Steelers salary cap casualty. Word is “Heath is slowing a step.” Let’s hope that is idle chatter rather than legitimate leaks coming out of the South Side. The numbers don’t really suggest Heath Miller is slowing a step. His catches are down slightly, but his catches per-target are up. His average yards receiving is down, but that could be due to the presence of other weapons. Matt Spaeth did not figure much into the passing offense, but his blocking helped the running game. Jesse James didn’t play until mid-season, but did what was asked of him, and looks to have a bright future. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
No disrespect to Cam Newton, but Antonio Brown deserved deeper consideration for NFL MVP. Antonio Brown’s performance is approaching that of a “Generational Player” – a special player like Joe Greene or Troy Polamalu who only comes along once a generation.

  • Below Brown, the Steelers situation at wide receiver is a little more muddled.

Martavis Bryant lost 4 games to suspension. He did play well early on, but struggled late in the year, only to bounce back in the playoffs. Markus Wheaton started fairly strong, and then struggled, but also finished the year on a strong note, although he did not step up quite as well in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey played extremely well in Bryant’s absence, and then again in the playoffs in Brown’s absence. Sammie Coates didn’t get much time during the regular season, but played very well in the playoffs. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
What a difference a little bit of depth on offensive line makes? The Steelers lost 40% of their starting offensive line, yet you wouldn’t have known it save for a few games and a few isolated plays. Cody Wallace filled in admirably for Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva played incredibly well at left tackle for a man who was new to the position. David DeCastro continued to emerge as a the road grader the Steelers drafted him to be, while Ramon Foster quietly played well. Marcus Gilbert vindicated the extension the Steelers gave him. Grade: A

Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card series grades the Steelers defense.
Part III grades the Steelers coaches and special teams.

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Hedging Their Bets, Steelers Sign 3rd Place Kicker, Plus 3 Other Futures Contracts

The Pittsburgh Steelers continued to add to their off season roster by signing four more players to reserve/futures contracts. The players are free safety Jacob Hagen, offensive tackle Brian Mihalik, place kicker Ty Long, and running back Daryl Richardson.

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/689919640940711937

The signing of Ty Long gives the Steelers an unprecedented 3 place kickers on their off season roster with Shaun Suisham coming off of injured reserve and Chris Boswell signed through 2016. When asked about carrying so many kickers, Mike Tomlin simply commented that the Steelers were in a good situation.

Of the quartet of futures contract signees, Daryl Richardson is the most experienced, having been drafted by the then St. Louis Rams in the 7th round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Per Pro Football Reference, Richardson appeared in 24 games over two seasons for the Rams, and rushed for 690 yards and caught 38 passes for 284 yards. He did not score a touchdown for the Rams although he did make a two point conversion.

The Rams cut him after the 2013 season, but Richardson caught on with the New York Jets, although he did not appear in any games from them. He spent time on the practice squads and active rosters of the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns in 2015, but did not dress for any games.

The Steelers likely signed Daryl Richardson as another training camp body, but he will have a shot to compete with Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jordan Todman, and Mr. John Q. Draft Pick to back up Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams.

Brian Mihalik played defensive line for for Boston College but was drafted as an offensive tackle by the Phialdelphia Eagles in the 7th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Mihalik neither made the team nor the practice squad, and while the Steelers are listing him at offensive line, they have been known to switch ex-Eagales to new positions as they did with Alejandro Villanueva.

Jacob Hagen played his college ball at Liberty University where he started all 14 games his senior year and led his team with 108 tackles and 8 interceptions. He was signed to the St. Louis Rams training camp roster as an undrafted rookie free agent, but neither made the team nor the practice squad.

Again, the Steelers are most likely projecting Jacob Hagen as a training camp body, but with Will Allen pushing 34 and Shamarko Thomas showing nothing in 3 years outside of special teams, Hagen will certainly have is opportunity.

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Steelers Report Card for AFC Divisional Playoff Loss to the Denver Broncos

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who remains proud of his star student, even if that student fell short of expectations, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.steelers, report card, grades, Denver Broncos, afc, divsional, playoffs

Quarterback
Word on the street is that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t affected by the shoulder injury. This teacher isn’t quite so sure, as Todd Haley seemed to call fewer downfield plays than usual. Still Roethlisberger 24-37-0-0 for 339 yards is impressive and he had at least one touchdown pass dropped and suffered from another non-pass interference call in the end zone. Most importantly, Roethlisberger did not turnover the ball. Grade: B

Running Backs
What a difference a week makes. After the Bengals game, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman played so well fans could be forgiven for wondering where the coaching staff had been hiding them. The Broncos running defense provided a much stiffer test. Toussaint had difficulty running the ball, and Todman was completely ineffective. And while the Steelers have rightly refused to scapegoat Toussaint, his fumble was the turning point in the game. Grade: F

Tight Ends
Heath Miller had one catch for 5 yards and a very visible “drop” that was quite frankly more of a excellent play by the Broncos defense than anything done wrong by Heath. Jesse James posted an excellent 22 yard catch and run that really appeared to position the Steelers to deal Denver the death blow. Matt Spaeth had one catch for one yard. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
With Antonio Brown out Martavis Bryant was going to have to step up with a monster game, and step up Bryant did. Yes, he dropped the first pass thrown to him, but Bryant excelled after that catching 9 passes for 154 yards. Darrius Heyward-Bey also played well and helped set up the Steelers second score. Sammie Coates had two targets and made good on both of him, and was quite impressive. Markus Wheaton was well defended in the end zone, but the pass hit him right in the numbers and he should have caught it. He had a decent day as a receiver beyond that, but the Steelers needed that catch. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlsiberger only gave up 3 sacks, a number that seems low, although that is in part a measure of how his sack totals have dropped on Todd Haley’s watch. Still, those sacks came when the Steelers could least afford it. Denver has a stout run defense that shut DeAngelo Williams down last time around, and this time they did it again. Like they did in a number of other areas, the Steelers needed a little more from their line. Grade: C

Defensive Line
If you throw out the CJ Anderson’s one long run, the Denver rushing stats look almost as anemic as the Steelers do. One problem, that 34 yard scamper came with Denver backed up on its own 5 yard line. Stephon Tuitt led the defensive line with 4 tackles one for a loss and one quarterback hit. Steve McLendon had 3 tackles, although he got blocked on the 34 yard scamper. Cameron Heyward did not record a tackle. The Steelers needed to get just a little more pressure on Peyton Manning, and those contributions could have come from the line. They didn’t. Grade: C+

Linebackers
James Harrison was an absolute monster out there, leading the linebackers in tackles, registering a sack, a quarterback hit and tackling three ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was second in tackles for Steelers defensive lineman, and although he did not have any splash plays of the week before, he played a solid game. Lawrence Timmons also played a very sold game. Jarvis Jones helped deflect a pass and has now logged to quality playoff performances in a row. Bud Dupree had 3 tackles, one of which went for a loss. Grade: B

Secondary
A couple of stats stand out here. First, Denver found itself in 3rd and long until late in the game, and Denver was 3-15 on third downs (although those three conversions did come on their last drive.) Both of those stats show that the secondary is doing its job. William Gay led all Steelers defenders in tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage and had another pass defensed (that, had it been intercepted, could have ended the game.) Mike Mitchell had 3 tackles and a pass defensed. Antwon Blake had a quiet game, and that’s generally good for him. The secondary had a solid day, but given how poorly Manning was throwing the ball, it might not be too much to expect the Steelers defensive backs to come down with one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals and knocked kickoffs through the end zone, although it did look like his on sides kick hadn’t gone 10 yards. Outside of that, the Steelers special teams were atrocious vs. the Denver Broncos. A long punt return set up Denver’s first score. Markus Wheaton looked clueless on punt returns and two costly turnovers were narrowly avoided. Jordan Berry’s punts were erratic and otherwise short. The Steelers special teams were a liability in the playoffs vs. Denver, and only Boswell’s kicking keeps this grade from being lower. Grade: D

Coaching

The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Denver without its top running back, its top wide receiver and with quarterback at less than 100%, yet led the game from the middle of the 1st quarter until the middle of the 4th quarter.

Sure, there are things you can find fault with – why didn’t the Steelers figure out a way to run the ball better? Tomlin’s clock management critics will no doubt insist that he be fired for taking a time out with 2:22 remaining. Why didn’t Tomlin allow Chris Boswell to attempt a 52 yard field goal? Of course going for the deep ball on 4th and 1 will be seen as a mistake.

  • Really, all of that is missing the point.

The Steelers coaches didn’t fumble the ball away in the 4th quarter, not did they muff the punt returns, nor did they not pickoff one of those wounded ducks Petyon manning was slinging.

The Steelers game plan was solid, and the player executed it well. Moreover, after such an emotional win as the one that came over the Bengals, there was no sign of a let down. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero
Maybe it is because he is 33 and realizes his chances for a Super Bowl are dwindling. Maybe it’s because he’s at a point where his experience can make up for any steps he’s lost. Perhaps he simply wanted it more and went out determined to make it happen, but for the second straight week Steelers Will Allen safety put himself at the center of almost every key defense stop, clocking in with 6 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 pass defensed and another quarterback hit, and for that Will Allen wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.

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Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff Finds Both Franchises at Crossroads

You want to know one of the nice things about the NFL? There are very few one way streets. All roads in the NFL might not lead to Rome, ask the Cleveland Browns, but roads double back  to intersect again.

  • And so it is with the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff matchup.

Looking at the X’s and O’s, the Steelers December victory over the Broncos probably offers the best clue to understanding today’s AFC divisional playoff matchup.

It’s a given the Ben Roethlisberger needs to show something and that Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Heath Miller and, yes, Sammie Coates must step up their games in Antonio Brown’s absence. Ditto Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman with DeAngelo Williams out.

  • But you knew that already.

An analysis of the X’s and O’s says that the key to this game will depend on which Steelers defense shows up. If the Steelers defense of the first half of the Broncos game makes even a brief appearance, the Steelers 2016 off season will begin in earnest. However, if the Steelers defense of the second half of that game shows up in full force, the Steelers have a shot at going to Foxborough.

  • But that tells us very little about the story underlying today’s game.

For that you must look back further.

Steelers Getting Tebowed Leads to Transition

The date was January 8th 2012, the site was the same as today, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter trailing by 10 points, but a Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery connection and a Shaun Shuisham field goal had tied it in regulation.

The Denver Broncos got the ball to start ove time. Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle. Ike Taylor missed the tackle. Ryan Mundy couldn’t get into position to take a shot. 80 yards later and Demaryius Thomas ended it all in the end zone.

  • Steelers Nation suffered the ultimate buzz kill.

2011 Pittsburgh Steelers failed at a chance to defend their AFC Championship and atone for the defeat of Super Bowl XLV. But it went beyond that. That loss marked a fundamental shift for the franchise. Shortly afterwards, I remarked to Tony Defeo that I felt I had the feeling that Steelers fans must have had in 1980, when the Super Steelers run can to a sobering end as the Houston Oilers ended their playoff chances.

  • But this thread doesn’t just involve the Steelers, it involves the Denver Broncos too.

Tim Tebow was a terrible quarterback blessed with an uncanny ability for finding a way to win when all appeared lost. That made for some dramatic finishes to football games, but John Elway was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t stake his franchise’s future on an intangible quality.

So he did something about it. He went out and got Peyton Manning, convincing Manning that, like Elway, he still had enough to win Super Bowls in his late 30’s.

  • Elway’s first test of that ability came next season, on Sunday Night Football, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If Steelers Nation has blotted that game out of their collective memory, we’ll forgive them. Much screamed to be forgotten. Its synthesis, however, is rather simple. All night long, Peyton Manning engaged in a chess match with Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu, while James Harrison watched in street clothes from the sideline.

  • And at each and every critical juncture, Peyton Manning outfoxed LeBeau and Polamalu.

In a word, Peyton Manning schooled the Steelers defense. Yes, the Steelers 2012 defense would finish the season as the NFL’s number one overall in terms of total yards. Yes, the defense would keep the Steelers in games they had no business being in late in the season (see the 2012 7 turnover fiasco vs. the Browns).

  • But Petyon Manning revealed that “Coach Dad” had no clothes.

It may have difficult for some of us (read: Steel Curtain Rising) to see at the time, but with 20/20 hindsight, Peyton Manning revealed the bitter truth that Sunday Night opening day loss.

Steelers and Broncos Two Teams at Diverging Crossroads

Now the Steelers and Broncos meet and again the venue is Mile High, and again it is the playoffs. But this time the backstory is decidedly different.

Peyton Manning is in the twilight of his career. One would have to be a fool to discard the possibility that number 18 would be able to find a way to move the needle in dramatic fashion just one more time. And he might.

But the number of quality football games Peyton Manning has left in him are measured in single digits –at best. Objectively speaking, Steel Curtain Rising is already on the record saying that Pittsburgh’s best plan for success is to dare Peyton Manning to beat the Steelers defense.

  • And this is a very different Steelers defense and, for that matter, offense, than the one that lost to Tim Tebow.

On defense, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Will Allen are (about) all that remain. In terms of personnel, the Steelers offense hasn’t seen as much turnover since 2011, but the backfield is completely new, Matt Spaeth is back, and the offensive line presents a mix of old and new.

Regardless of the outcome, assuming that Ben Roethlisberger neither risks nor suffers greater long term injury as a result of playing today, the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff marks as much of a new beginning for the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise as it does an ending for the Peyton Manning era of the Denver Broncos.

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Michael Vick’s Playoff Record Proves He Deserves 2nd Look If Ben Roethlisberger Can’t Play

Pittsburgh’s injury report for the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos offered a mixed bag. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will attempt to practice, but Mike Tomlin indicated Landry Jones will get extensive work in practice.

Antonio Brown remains in the NFL’s concussion protocols with a sharp contrast between local and national reports as to the likelihood of him playing. Running back DeAngelo Williams has been described as “On the outside looking in,” meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman would again have to carry the Steelers running game.

  • No NFL team wants to head to a playoff game with its top three offensive stars on the injury list.

But fortunately the Steelers have the luxury of knowing that some of their heavy hitters may not be able to go so they can plan ahead. As he’s indicated, Mike Tomlin’s contingency plans are already underway, but it says here that Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley might be wise to expand their thinking.

Should Landry Jones Enter Denver Game as QB Number 2?

Most observers expect Ben Roethlisberger to start for the Steelers in the playoffs against the Broncos.

In his video following Mike Tomlin’s press conference, Ed Bouchette all but alluded to Ben Roethlisberger’s history as a drama queen. Dale Lolley advised his readers that when Ben talks about an injury, as he’s doing now, he usually plays. But the Steelers are wise to prepare an understudy, as no one knows how effective Ben will be.

  • The question is, should Landry Jones be Steelers QB number 2 against the Broncos?

Prior to Pittsburgh’s playoff win over the Bengals, Landry Jones had been one of the more pleasant surprises of the Steelers 2015 season. The Steelers gave not one, but three other quarterbacks the chance to unseat him from the 3rd slot on the depth chart, and Jones fought them off.

When injuries forced him into the game against Arizona, it was Landry Jones to the rescue. While Jones did not play particularly well in his lone start vs. the Chiefs, he also closed out a competitive game vs. the Raiders.

  • Unfortunately, Jones was completely ineffective vs. the Bengals in the playoffs.

In his press conference, Mike Tomlin admitted that Landry Jones must improve if he plays vs. Denver, and indicated that extra preparation should help.

Fair enough. Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner know a little more about preparing quarterbacks for games than I do the Steelers coaches would do well to remember that they do have another quarterback on their roster with playoff experience. His name is Michael Vick

Michael Vick Playoff Experience Means He Deserves a Second Look

If memory serves, it was Hines Ward who once said comparing the intensity to an NFL playoff game to an NFL regular season game is like comparing regular season to preseason. Indeed, the NFL playoffs seve as a crucible that separates the average from the good and the good from the truly great. Legendary Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd holds cult hero status here on Steel Curtain Rising, but what were his signature playoff moments?

  • Bruce Gradkowski is no superstar, but the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat when he went in for a few snaps in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens.

It is true that, save for a phenomenal 4th quarter vs. the Chargers, Mike Vick struggled as a starter. And while Steelers beat reporters cannot share what they see in practice, they’ve all but confirmed that Vick has struggled in practice. Fair enough.

  • But Mike Vick has six playoff starts and two playoff wins under his belt.

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Other Steelers Injury Updates Prior to Denver Game

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are not the only names on the Pittsburgh Steelers injury report heading into the playoff game Denver.
Fullback Will Johnson (hamstring), inside linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) and safety Robert Golden (shoulder) are on the injured list but expected to play vs. the Broncos.

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