Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers 2018 Losses in Free Agency – Chris Hubbard Might Be Pittsburgh’s Only Defection

NFL Free Agency isn’t a week old yet, but hundreds of millions, if not billions of contracts have been thrown around. Yet, as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, its been (almost) All Quiet on the South Side Front.

The loss of Chris Hubbard as a free agent, while unfortunate, was completely expected. And as far as Steelers 2018 Free agency, are concerned, Chris Hubbard’s the only free agent defection the Pittsburgh suffers.

  • Now, is that a good thing, a bad thing or is it simply a neutral factoid?
Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers 2018 Free Agency losses

Chris Hubbard might well be only free agent defection the Steelers suffer in 2018. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the surface it seems like a bad thing. It is harsh, but fair to look at Steelers remaining unrestricted free agents, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers Greg Ducre, Daniel McCullers, Arthur Moats, Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley and simply say, “Why would any other team be interested?” The only ones who offer much of a track record is Arthur Moats and Eli Rogers, and Rogers is injured.

  • Kevin Colbert pulled Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley off the couch as injury replacements last December.

Ridley did fairly well, Spence struggled for a couple of games, looked good in the last two regular season contests, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars he did nothing to make Ryan Shazier’s absence less noticeable. But players like these typically don’t get signed until after the draft.

Daniel McCullers   phone will stay quiet unless some team suffers a series of injuries on their defensive line during preseason.

Its unlikely that any team will be willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get Chris Boswell. Anthony Chickillo might be a little more appealing because he would only cost a team a 6th round pick, but NFL general managers seem to value draft picks more than players. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick to get J.J. Wilcox, and J.J. Wilcox had 39 starts under his belt to Chickillo’s 9.

  • The fact that the Steelers most appealing free agents are their restricted free agents speaks well of Pittsburgh’s personnel policies.

Since free agency arrived in the NFL the franchise’s focus has always been to resign players before they hit the open market. You can see that at work in two names that don’t appear above, Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt. Last summer the Steelers inked new contracts for Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt who otherwise would be free to sign with any other NFL team at this moment.

  • With so much going on in the rest of the NFL, it can understandably be a little frustrating to see the Steelers standing pat.

But this spring at least, the reason why the Steelers have so few free agents worthy of attracting attention from the rest of the NFL is because they’ve wise personnel decisions, not foolish ones. Ditto the reason why the Steelers salary cap situation doesn’t allow them to go on any shopping sprees.

Love it or hate it, what we’re seeing this spring is the Steelers Way in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

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

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Steelers & Eli Rogers Face Interesting Restricted Free Agent Decision

Undrafted rookie free agents are the NFL’s answer to Hollywood Redshirts. They’re brought into fill out training camp rosters with a promise of a chance to prove themselves. Earning a spot on the practice squad represents a major victory.

  • Even the scant few lucky enough to land on the 53 man roster end up playing on rookie minimum contracts and face a faint chance of getting a 2nd NFL contract.

Even though Eli Rogers is another Kevin Colbert undrafted rookie free agent success story, last year he earned 4% of what Antonio Brown cleared. Now that Eli Rogers is a restricted free agent, he gets his first shot at NFL riches, and today we look at whether should or will get them.

Eli Rogers, Ryan Shazier, Todd Haley

Steelers, Eli Rogers face interesting free agency decision. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Rogers’ Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Eli Rogers as part of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. With a depth chart that featured Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of making the team appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire editor Neal Coolong was singing Roger’s praises, and even comparing his preseason performance vs Philadelphia to that of a young Antonio Brown.

Unfortunately, Rogers got injured and spent his rookie season in injured reserve.

A year later, however, Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise and won the Steelers slot receiver job at the opening of the season. By the end of the season, Rogers was the Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had grabbed 48 passes, to put him at third behind Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 Eli Rogers found his role in the offense diminished, but that was more due to the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the return of Martavis Bryant. While Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dropped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

Assuming the Martavis Bryant trade rumors prove to be false, the Steelers top three wide receiver slots appear to be set going into 2018. But the number 4 slot remains wide open.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t a reliable option, and Justin Hunter may look good in practice, but he’s done little on the field.

In two seasons, Eli Rogers has shown himself to be a reasonably reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger at receiver who can provide solid depth. Ensuring that Roger’s returns via with a restricted free agent offer would likely lock down the position for the Steelers, would certainly free them to focus on other needs in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

A restricted free agent tender for Eli Rogers around 1.8 million dollars. That’s a pretty hefty sum for a 4th wide out and about a half million more than Darrius Heyward-Bey made in 2017. There’s also the question of injury.

  • Eli Rogers injured his ACL late in the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

While he could certainly be ready for the season opener, there are no guarantees. There’s also the simple reality because of his injury, another team is unlikely to make a run at Eli Rogers should the Steelers leave him unprotected.

The Steelers salary cap space is meager, and they’re already going to enter the season carrying Ryan Shazier’s $8,718,000 5th year option, which amounts to dead money. The Steelers need to stretch their salary cap dollars, and tendering Eli Rogers might just be pushing things too far.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

In the past, after three years, if the Steelers and even an inkling of future interest in a player they’d offer him a restricted free agent tender. Even Daniel McCullers got one last year. About the only exception was Stevenson Sylvester, who didn’t get a tender, but came back at the veteran minimum.

The X-Factor here is Eli Rogers’ injury, and that could swing the balance against the Steelers offering him a tender, but the smart money says one way or another, Eli Rogers will be a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2018.

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Free Agency Tracker

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2018 Free Agent Acquisitions

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

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

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

Steelers 2018 Unrestricted Free Agents

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

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

Steelers 2018 Restricted Free Agents

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

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

Steelers 2018 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Word: James Harrison’s Steelers Desertion Viewed by a Blogger Unable to Write as it Unfoleded

As every Steelers fan registering a pulse now knows, the Pittsburgh Steelers not only cut James Harrison before Christmas, but the linebacking legend signed with the arch enemy New England Patriots.

  • In highly uncanny and very personal sense, this story confirms that all is normal in the world.

And that’s because big Steelers news tends to break while yours truly is traveling and/or unable to write about it. Whether Antonio Brown resigning, Bruce Arians getting fired or Troy Polamalu retiring, its almost like a little light goes on at the South Side saying, “Ok, something big needs to happen NOW.”

James Harrison Patriots

Outside of the Ryan Shazier injury, has Steelers Nation seen a sadder sight this season? Photo Credit:

And so it was that 24 hours after arriving to spend my first Christmas in the United States since 2000, I got a text from my cousin informing me that Steelers had cut James Harrison. Family comes first, (Dan Rooney would certainly agree) and so Steel Curtain Rising said nothing.

  • In fact, the frustration over being unable to write was in fact a blessing in disguise.

My first reaction was “This is wrong.” And had I written anything, aim would have been taken at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for such an unceremonious parting with a franchise legend while leaving the Daniel McCullers and Justin Hunters of the Steelers roster intact.

  • Then of course the situation took another twist, with the Patriots signed Harrison.

The move smacked of psychological warfare on the part of Bill Belichick, and only seemed to galvanize injustice of the situation. How could this be happening? Yet, because of both work and family obligations, Steel Curtain Rising remained silent, while the storm raged on the blogsphere.

If journalism is the first draft of history, then blogging provides a rough draft of journalism. To blog is to react, and sometimes, quite frankly, its best for bloggers to keep their mouths shut, even if that silence is a product of circumstance rather than choice.

  • And the James Harrison fiasco certainly qualifies as on of those situations.

The Steelers locker room remain relatively silent regarding Harrison’s dismissal, but Debos former teammates unload on him the moment he inked his deal with the Patriots.

  • Maurkice Pouncey said he erased his legacy and spit in the Rooney’s face.
  • Fellow linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams called out their former teammate.
  • Marcus Gilbert berated Harrison for not being more honest about forcing his own departure.

The picture that James Harrison’s teammates painted was far different than that Steelers fans have come to know. Silverback was sleeping in meetings and walking out on his teammates on game days after learning he was to be inactive. Instead of serving as a Jerome Bettis-like mentor, Harrison was acted like a selfish brat.

Yep. Sometimes the best favor a fate an offer a blogger is a chance NOT to write about a big story as it is breaking.

The James Harrison Departure in 1 Word: Disappointing

A single word suffices to describe James Harrison’s parting with Pittsburgh: Disappointing. The image below drives that home poignantly.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake

Happier times. Art Rooney II shakes James Harrison’s hand after the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fans forget, but the Steelers defense struggled mightily in during the first half of 2016 and was so bad that Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega went as far as to compare it to the 1988 Steelers defense (which finished last in the NFL).
While the development of Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave was critical you can pinpoint the turn around to Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison following the disaster against Dallas.

The Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs had ended with Harrison drawing a rare holding flag on the Chief’s 2 point conversion, setting up Sean Davis’ pass defense in the end zone. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better. Harrison still wanted to play, the Steelers wanted him back, and signed him to a two year deal complete with a 1 million dollar roster bonus.

  • Yet, the Steelers also knew that their future at right outside linebacker wasn’t to be found in a 39 year old man.
  • So they went out and drafted T.J. Watt.

The stage seemed to be set for Jerome Bettis-Willie Parker in reverse, this time with the Super Bowl record setting undrafted rookie free agent mentoring the ballyhood first round draft pick. Except it didn’t happen that way. Jim Wexell and Dale Lolley signaled during training camp that Harrison might be on the roster bubble.

  • Steel Curtain Rising took their cautions seriously, but speculated that the Steelers were merely “Bettising Harrison.”

Instead, as the season evolved, it looked like Harrison might play a role more closer to what Duce Staley played in 2005 – the veteran buried deep on the depth chart who nonetheless stepped up to deliver in spot duty (see Staley vs the Packers in 2005, Harrison on the closing plays vs the Chiefs and Ravens.)

But we now know that analogy falls flat. Harrison wasn’t the mentor, wasn’t the veteran gracefully aging into the football locker room equivalent of an elder statesman. No, instead James Harrison acted as a malcontent.

Anyone To Blame for This Fiasco? Yes – Harrison

Often times life requires you to give up something, to get something. No Steelers fan who remembers Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone or even Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart slinging the ball wants to see Big Ben strike midnight.

  • But the sight of Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison hosting Lombardi Number 7 and announcing their Life’s Work would be poetic, beautiful and bittersweet.

Ain’t gonna happen now. The question is, is anyone to blame?

The NFL is a results driven business, and Mike Tomlin’s job is to make sure this kind of thing didn’t happen. But Harrison had to know the Steelers didn’t draft T.J. Watt to sit him. He had to see the development of Anthony Chickillo threatened his playing time. Joey Porter also made it clear, VERY early on that the rotation at OLB was over.

While James Harrison has always marched to his own drummer, he had never been a disruptive force in the locker room. And James Harrison has been in Pittsburgh long enough to know that the way to win the favor of Mike Tomlin wasn’t to mail it in.

Its easy to say that “Tomlin suspended Rashard Mendenhall for no-showing at games when he was inactive, so he shouldn’t have had a double standard for Harrison.” Which is true, but in a season filled with Antonio Brown’s tantrums, Martavis Bryant demanding a trade, Ryan Shazier’s injury, would Tomlin really have been wise to create another distraction?

  • As it was, the Harrison situation was kept under wraps until he openly complained in December.

At the end of the day, James Harrison had a choice: He could embrace the Steelers way, and act as a mentor off the field and contribute on the field when called upon or he could pout and act like a spoiled brat.

  • Like fellow Steeler-turned Patriot LeGarrette Blount, James Harrison deserted his teammates.

James Harrison chose to conduct himself like a 16 year old who throws a tantrum when he can’t have the car keys to the car, even when he knows it’s the only way for Mom and Dad to get to work. It is sad. This never should have ended this way. But the person to blame for this fiasco is James Harrison plain and simple.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Pittsburgh’s Upper Classman Carry the Team

Taken from the grade book whose pleased to see his upper classman hit their stride but dismayed by the drop off from his under classman, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Packers.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Jamaal Williams, Steelers vs Packers

Cameron Heyward smothers Jamaal Williams in Steelers 31-28 win over Packers @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Where does Ben Roethlisberger play best? At home under the lights. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s second consecutive Prime Time game at Heinz Field and his second 4 touchdown performance. Roethlisberger’s number would have been even better had he not suffered multiple drops. While he did throw two interceptions, Ben Roethlisberger was on against the Packers. Grade: A-

Running Backs
The Packers run defense didn’t leave a lot of rushing room early on, but Le’Veon Bell was patient, and ended up just below the century mark on the ground. Moreover, Bell seems to be recovering his rappot with Roethlisberger in the short passing game, and that was a true difference maker for the 2nd straight week. Bell did fumble, which brings his grade down. Slightly. Grade: A-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble caught a shovel pass to get the Steelers on the board and convert their first Red Zone opportunity. Jesse James had 3 catches but one notable drop. The blocking from this group was solid, but not spectacular. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there a better wide reciever in football than Antonio Brown? Good luck trying to make that case. Antonio Brown was simply spectacular the entire evening, coming up with the ball whenever the Steelers needed it. Martavis Bryant had a touchdown on a text book fade pattern and made some other drive sustaining catches. But he also had a drop and Eli Rogers had several, although he rebounded with catches later. Justin Hunter had a drop on his only target and one has to wonder if Darrius Heyward-Bey should get the nod instead of him. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
The Packers sacked Ben Roethlisberger deep in Pittsburgh territory, but the Steelers offense recovered to score a touchdown. Rushing room was sparse at times, but the Steelers offensive line eventually opened holes when they needed to be opened. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line kept the Packers running game more or less in check throughout the night, although Green Bay did get some traction early on and then again in the Red Zone. The defensive line accounted for all three sacks. Stephon Tuitt had a tackle for a loss, as did L.T. Walton who also had a critical sack. A very good night for the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack on the Packer’s final possession which should have been flagged, nonetheless it was a heads up play as Brett Hundley could have done some damage with a scramble. T.J. Watt also defensed a critical pass as did Ryan Shazier who led the Steelers in tackles. Vince Williams and Bud Dupree had 4 tackles with Vince dropping one of his men behind scrimmage. Grade: B

Steelers vs Packers, Vince Williams, Jamaal Williams

Vince Williams after stuffing Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Packers threw touchdown passes for 49, 54 and 55 yards. And while the screen pass wasn’t entirely on the shoulders of the Steelers secondary, they bear responsibility for the break down. Artie Burns bit badly on a double pump, tackled poorly in many cases, and Coty Sensabaugh got burned one of the 50 plus yarders. Stats like third down conversions suddenly become irrelevant when opposing teams can count on covering half the field on any given play. Grade: F

Special Teams
The opened the game with their longest kick return of the season and Jordan Berry’s punts were sufficiently well placed and/or had enough hang time that the Packers declined to return them. Kickoff coverage was solid. Steelers missed on a an extra point, but Chris Boswell came through by kicking a Heinz Field record tying 53 yard field goal as time expired. Can’t ask for (much) more than that. Grade: A-

Coaching
It would be easy to say that the Steelers almost fell into another Tomlin trap game or that Tomlin’s comments about the Patriots and the subsequent closeness of the context indicated a lack of focus on the part of the coaching staff.

  • Both of those assumptions are almost certainly wrong.

While the Steelers offense did suffer from some execution errors, they got production out of their key starters all night, and Todd Haley’s overall game planning was solid, and his unit did score four touchdowns including 3 from inside the Red Zone as well as making a 2 point conversion.

  • The bigger and more concerning issues are on defense.

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

  • Even at 9-2, this type of failure could cost  easily the Steelers the AFC North title, let alone home field advantage.

Whether the root cause of these breakdowns is the cause of scheme, execution, personnel or some combination thereof, the Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin must fix it, quickly.

Count the Steelers win against the Packers as another “closer than expected win.” But the Steelers are nonetheless finding ways to win those. And Mike Tomlin gets credit for that. Grade: C-

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Brett Hundley, Steelers vs Packers

Cam Heyward celebrates with Stephon Tuitt after sacking Brett Hundley in the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Unsung Hero Award
In the past we’ve metaphorically referred to him as “One Man Wrecking Crew.” But against the Packers he literally was the only member of his unit to take the field on a number of downs as the Steelers went into a 1-4-6 alignment.

  • And wouldn’t you know, on one of these occasions the player in question came up with a sack on a critical third down.

He also had another sack, and dropped 3 Packers ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, and for that Cam Heyward is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Packers.

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