A Sight for Sore Eyes: Ben Roethlisberger Throwing a Football Again!

Steelers Nation has experienced a lot of highs and lows in the last 161 days, but Saturday February 22nd brought the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful a true sight for sore eyes: Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football again.

Steelers fans have been waiting to see that since the 2nd half of Sunday September 15th of the Steelers home opener loss to the Seattle Seahawks. My, what a long strange trip its been. Mason Rudolph stepped in and looked strong in relief, but was shaky enough in his first start against the 49ers that Randy Fichtner had to resort to the Wildcat to jump start the offense against the Bengals.

Just when Rudolph seemed to be hitting his stride, he got knocked out against the Ravens with a concussion. Delvin Hodges came in and almost led the Steelers to an upset. Duck Mania was born!

Rudolph returned two weeks later, looked shaky against Miami, hit Diontae Johnson for a big touchdown (with the help of a helicious block by James Washington) and got stronger week-by-week until struggling might in The Body Bag game against Cleveland, as the Brown knocked JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Conner out of the game.

The event shook Rudolph, who was very tentative against the Bengals, leading to Hodges insertion, who in turn led the Steelers to 3 straight wins. Visions of a 1989 Steelers like improbable playoff run danced through the heads of Steelers Nation.

A week later against the Jets, it was Hodges who got the hook, as Mason Rudolph got the Steelers back in the game, only to injure his collarbone.

Through it all, Ben Roethlisberger remained on the sideline, acting as an assistant coach, as his beard and his gut raced to see who could grow faster. The Steelers and Roethlisberger have remained mum on the nature of Roethlisberger’s injury, only revealing that he had surgery in September.

Yet, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all unhesitatingly assured that they expect a full recovery from Roethlisberger. Today we can all see for themselves why they’ve been so confident.

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Steelers Hire Ike Hilliard as Wide Receivers Coach as a Blogger Eats Crow with a Side of Humble Pie

Taken from the notebook of a blogger who is ordering a main course of crow, followed by a healthy slice of humble pie for dessert. But before he can settle down to his meal, he must first of course wipe the egg off of his face because….

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers announced yesterday that Mike Tomlin has hired former New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard has his new wide receivers coach.
Ike Hilliard, James Farrior, Joey Porter

New Steelers wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard being tackled by James Farrior in 2004. Photo Credit: Twitter

About ten days ago Dale Lolley of DK Sports Pittsburgh and Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review reported that the Steelers had hired South Carolina’s offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon as their wideouts coach. Steel Curtain Rising, along with numerous other outlets, took the bait and announced the news.

Gerry Dulac and Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette quickly cautioned that the hire had not been made, and that the Steelers were interviewing other candidates, including Jerricho Cotchery.

It turns out that Dulac was right, and this incident serves as a lesson that the quick and easy “content aggregation” path can just as easily lead you, and your readers, in the wrong direction.

Hilliard Follows Road Well-Traveled

The New York Giants made Ike Hilliard their first-round draft pick of the 1997 NFL Draft, and he spent eight seasons in the Big Apple followed by four more in Tampa Bay. He retired in 2008 and went into coaching.

He broke into coaching with the Dolphins, initiating a series of one year stints in Miami, Washington and Buffalo. In 2014 Jay Gruden asked him to return to the Redskins staff, where Hilliard has remained for the last 5 years.

While 2019 was a particularly brutal year for the Redskins, one undisputed bright spot was the emergence of rookie wide out Terry McLaurin. Under Hilliard’s tutelage, McLaurin led the Redskins with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns.

  • This is a positive sign for a Steelers offense in desperate need of play makers.

Hilliard’s mentorship figures to be critical to the development of Diontae Johnson and James Washington. He could even help JuJu Smith-Schuster turn the corner and solidify his place as a true number 1 wide receiver, just as Richard Mann helped Antonio Brown cement that role following Mike Wallace’s departure.

Ike Hilliard replaces Ray Sherman, who stepped in as interim wide receivers coach last summer, following the death of Daryl Drake.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.
Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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1 Quick Post-Season Lesson for Steelers Fans? Defense Ain’t As Sexy As We Thought

Maybe you’re one of those Steelers/football fans that likes to say things like, “I’d much rather watch a low-scoring defensive-battle than a shootout.”

First of all, no you wouldn’t. And, second, even if you think you would, I encourage you to go back and watch some old NFL games from the early-’70s, back when bump-and-run coverage was still a thing. And I’m not talking about old highlights provided by NFL Films, complete with the iconic music as a backdrop and John Facenda’s heavenly voice doing the narration. Go back and watch some old network broadcasts on NBC, CBS or ABC–they’re usually readily available on YouTube.

  • I guarantee you, you won’t make it through one of those 13-10 snooze-fests before, well, dosing off.

Speaking of 13-10 snooze-fests, maybe that will be the title of the Steelers NFL Films-produced highlight show that’s released to the public each and every summer. It would be fitting, since most of Pittsburgh’s games ended with scores in the teens–and they were just so hard to get through.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Brian Hoyer sack, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree celebrates T.J. Watt’s sack of Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune- Review

Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see the resurgence of the Steelers defense. It was encouraging to watch the unit carry the team for most of the year, following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a lot of fun watching T.J. Watt wreak havoc on quarterbacks week after week, to the tune of 14.5 sacks. How about his bookend at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who had a career year with 11.5?

  • As a unit, Pittsburgh’s defense once again eclipsed the 50-sack mark, posting a suffocating total of 54.

How about all of those takeaways? What suddenly brought those on?

  • How did they go from a paltry 15 a year earlier, to a whopping 38 this past season?

And perhaps the most important new element to the Steelers defense in 2019: an ability to close out a game while holding a slim lead, something the unit did multiple times–including in one-score wins over the Chargers, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals, games where the opposing offenses had the football late in the fourth quarter and a chance to either win or tie.

Yes, the return to defensive dominance really was a lot of fun and helped make fans believe the impossible could happen:

  • Pittsburgh could make the playoffs with an offense that was a founding member of the “One Touchdown a Game” club.

But hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see now that people were just getting swept up in the fun times the defense was providing. Because “lousy” may be too kind when describing the Steelers offensive struggles in 2019.

It was painful to see. Even at their best, it was hard to watch quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges perform without cringing just a little. And at their worst? Let’s just say it’s a good thing those little “bricks” they sell down at the Strip District are made of foam and not the stuff they use for the ones that build houses.

  • The Steelers offense finished near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistic–including total yards and points per game.

But what could you do? Even before Roethlisberger’s injury, the other two “Killer BeesAntonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell had departed. And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner looked more than capable of filling the voids created at both the receiver and running back position, they were either too injured or too compromised due to quarterback play to really be of much help last year.

But if we’re being honest, while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are fine players, the odds of them ever reaching the levels of both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were fairly long to begin with, Big Ben or no Big Ben.

It’s quite popular in this day and age of social media for fans to demand their favorite teams clean house and get rid of the divas and the troublemakers. Such was the case in recent years when it came to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and even Ben due to his advancing age.

  • But be careful what you wish for.

I went to a Penguins game recently and, in addition to the absence of center Sidney Crosby (long-term injury) and winger Phil Kessel (traded this past offseason), the team was missing center Evgeni Malkin due to an illness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the game went into overtime tied at zero. The Penguins won, but it was quite obvious that they were a different team while missing so much fire power on offense.

Maybe the Penguins are a bad example, considering they’ve managed to remain in playoff contention despite the loss of so much offense. But I wonder what their 2019/2020 campaign would look right now if Malkin were out with some sort of long-term ailment. Instead, he’s carried the team on his back and is playing some of the best hockey of his life. It helps that he’s one of the best hockey players in the entire world.

Imagine if, along with Kessel, Malkin was traded away–something many fans have called for in recent years?

  • It’s easy to talk about getting rid of a bunch of players. It’s quite another to replace them.

Not only did the Steelers offense lose All Pros, they spent a good bit of 2019 dealing with the absences of the Pro Bowlers who were entrusted with replacing those All Pros.

Obviously, the best teams don’t just dominate on one side of the ball, they find success through balance. But if I had my choice, I think I’d much rather have a potent offense and a struggling defense than the other way around.

  • You can always out-score your opponents, but it’s just so hard to totally shut them down.

That’s what Pittsburgh’s defense was tasked with in 2019, and while it held up better than most units would have, it couldn’t perform miracles.

Finally, the Steelers may have helped you fall in-love with defense again in 2019. But I hope they also forced you to appreciate the importance of a really good offense.

 

 

 

 

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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Steelers Name T.J. Watt MVP for 2019, Highlighting Balance of Power Shift from Offense to Defense

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the year by voting T.J. Watt as the MVP for the 2019 season, a move that was widely expected and an honor that is richly deserved.

Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider writer Matt C. Steel described T.J. Watt as a “unicorn” in terms of his ability to be the type of outside linebacker who could both pressure the passer and work in coverage.

At the time, the Steelers were coming off of the 2016 season, which had been saved, in part by Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison in his place.

James Harrison made an immediate impact in terms of pressuring the passer and setting the edge, but his limited ability to cover receivers down the field became brutally apparent in the Steelers loss to the Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game. (To be fair, James Harrison was far from the only player who had his limitations exposed that day.)

OK, to be objective a look at the 29 players taken ahead of T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft does reveal some players who were picked ahead of him, but it is also safe to say the number of General Managers who’d like that draft pick is probably measured in the 20’s.

T.J. Watt made an immediate impact as a rookie, logging 7 sacks and making 1 interception. In his second season he exploded for 13 sacks and added 6 forced fumbles. With one game to play in the 2019 season, T.J. Watt already has 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 34 hits to the quarterback.

Those statistics are excellent, but they fail to capture the true value that T.J. Watt brings to the Steelers defense.

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets, T.J. Watt 2019 Steelers MVP, Steelers 2019 MVP

Plays like this strip-sack of Sam Daronold are why T.J. Watt is the Steelers 2019 MVP. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great defensive players don’t simply make great plays. They change games by making them at critical moments. Think:

T.J. Watt has delivered this level of playmaking to the Steelers throughout 2019. To see a recent example, look no further back than last week against the Jets. Mason Rudolph had just come off the bench for Devlin Hodges and gotten the Steelers on the board near with 1:22 left to play.

The Jets remained aggressive, and got to midfield with 0:36 when T.J. Watt hit Sam Daronold with one of his patented strip-sacks. 5 plays later and Mason Rudolph was hooking up with Diontae Johnson to tie the game.

There’s no better example of T.J. Watt’s timely playmaking, a tendency which was on display throughout the season.

T.J. Watt MVP Selection Highlights Shift in Balance of Power of Steelers Roster

T.J. Watt’s selection as Steelers MVP should surprise no one. While the Steelers don’t reveal the vote tally, it is likely that Watt’s closest competition was Minkah Fitzpatrick.

And assuming that’s the case, this highlights a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the Steelers roster. The Steelers are an organization that prides themselves on defense, but T.J. Watt’s 2019 MVP selection marks the first time a defensive player has earned those honors since Troy Polamlau won it in 2010.

The winners through the rest of the decade alternated between Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with Heath Miller winning in 2012 and JuJu Smith-Schuster winning last year. While Cam Heyward would have been a worthy winner in 2017, the Steelers MVP choices accurately reflect a decade dominated by offense and book-ended by stout defense.

Congratulations to T.J. Watt for being the Steelers 2019 MVP.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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Finding New Ways to Win: Steelers Defeat Cardinals 23-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to the desert and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 in another wild, white-knuckle game that went down to the wire.

  • The victory improved the Steelers record to 8-5 and renewed their lease on playoff life for another week.

But more importantly, the victory affirmed a fundamental truth about this team’s identity: When the game is on the line, count on these Steelers to find new ways and, if necessary, new faces to win.

Diontae Johnson, Byron Murphy, Steelers vs Cardinals

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown over Byron Murphy. Photo Credit: AP, Tribune-Review

Steelers Flip the Script, with Unexpected Results

Much has been made about the 2019 Steelers ability to defy the pull of gravity imposed by injuries, starting quarterback ineffectiveness, trades and free agent defections. But at the end of the day, the formula for the Steelers success has remained simple:

  • Secure turnovers on defense
  • Play efficient, turnover free, ball control offense
  • Avoid costly special teams mistakes

Yet, the Steelers showed no inclination to stick to the script. In the first quarter Pittsburgh marched to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Chris Boswell field goal followed by an electrifying 85 yard punt return by Diontae Johnson. For the first time all season, the Steelers were starting fast.

The Steelers continued to deviate from the script on their next possession, when Benny Snell coughed up the ball at Pittsburgh’s 30. The Cardinals marched down to the Steelers 3. It didn’t seem to matter:

  • Steven Nelson stoned Christian Kirk for no gain on first down
  • Kyle Murray scampered around and looked like he might try to run it in, only to be sacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Vince Williams stepped out of his spy role to sack Murray on third down who had nowhere to throw.

In past situations, it’s fallen on Fitzpatrick to secure the turnovers and players like T.J. Watt and/or Bud Dupree to disrupt the backfield, but in their first goal-line situation, Fitzpatrick and Williams did the damage behind the line of scrimmage while Nelson provided the splash in the secondary.

  • Credit the Cardinals for flawlessly executing a no-huddle, tying touchdown drive that the Steelers could not stop.

But Devlin Hodges responded with an expertly managed two minute drill that got the Steelers back on the board with another field goal before the half. Hodges wasn’t flawless on the drive. He gave up a strip sack which would have been disastrous; however Matt Feiler covered it up, and Kerrith Whyte got back all 10 yards with a brilliant run up the middle on the next snap.

Faces in New Places Continues in Second Half

The theme of faces in new places continued in the 2nd half. After the Steelers pulled ahead by 10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals mounted a long drive of their own. Faced with a 4th and 2, Arizona decided to go for it all. Kyle Murray had a lane to get the first down, but aired the ball out, only to have T.J. Watt intercept.

  • The Steelers appeared determined to keep it interesting however, when Jordan Berry botched a fake punt attempt.

That gave the Cardinals the ball at Pittsburgh’s 32, and they only needed 3 plays to move within three points. Yet, Diontae Johnson, who’d already had a critical catch and a touchdown earlier in the half, delivered again.

After a pass interference penalty on James Washington put the Steelers into Cardinal territory, Diontae Johnson ripped off a 16 yard reverse that put the Steelers just outside the Red Zone. Four plays later Delvin Hodges rolled to his left, threw against his body but managed to hook up with Johnson for a 16 yard completion that put the Steelers at the Cardinals 16.

  • Another Chris Boswell field goal gave the Steelers a 6 point cushion.

A clock management lapse by Hodges ended up giving the Cardinals the ball with 1:42 left to play, but successive sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree set up a Joe Haden interception on 4th and 17 with 47 seconds left to play.

Steelers Prepare for Showdown with Buffalo

The Steelers now face a show down next week at Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.

Who would have thought that a year that included a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, a benching by Mason Rudolph, prolonged injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conners would come down to a Week 15 Sunday Night football show down, and one against the Buffalo Bills of all teams?

Yet when asked for the secret to his success, Mike Tomlin explained:

We’re just singularly focused on Buffalo. That’s probably why we’re here. We don’t care about the three games.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott would no doubt say the same. Yet as McDermott focuses on the stopping the Steelers, he’d better do so with a wide-angle lens, because the win over the Cardinals proves that anyone of the 53 men on the Steelers roster can and will make a play when called upon.

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