5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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Steelers Sign Melvin Ingram, Shoring Up Depth at Outside Linebacker

On the eve of training camp the Steelers moved to shore up a major weakness on their depth chart by signing free agent outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.

  • The Steelers signed Ingram to a 1 year deal for an as yet to be disclosed figure.

Coming out of South Carolina, the San Diego Chargers drafted Melvin Ingram with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Chargers sent Ingram’s name to the podium six picks before the Steelers selected David DeCastro, and ironically it is DeCastro’s departure that paved the way for the signing.

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt, whom they’re looking to lock down to a long term deal, and 2nd year player Alex Highsmith. During free agency Pittsburgh lost Bud Dupree and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi leaving them with journey man Cassius Marsh and 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

Who is Melvin Ingram?

Melvin Ingram is a 3 time Pro Bowler and has played his entire career for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. During that time he has started 96 games and participated in 113 games. His resume includes two 10.5 sack seasons and has made a total of 49 sacks in his career.

He has also logged 3 interceptions forced 14 fumbles and made 70 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Injuries limited Ingram in his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, but then he remained relatively healthy starting 16 games for 4 straight seasons, until missing 3 games in 2019.

A knee injury landed Ingram on the injured reserve list twice in 2020 and it was his least productive of his career.

Like Trai Turner, the guard the Steelers signed to replace David DeCastro, Ingram was looking for a job for a reason. However, he gives the Steelers experienced depth where they need it the most.

Defensive Back Next? Doubtful

If outside linebacker was unquestionably the Steelers thinnest slot of the depth chart, cornerback was second. The Steelers have Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, but after that they’re limited to James Pierre and Justin Layne.

While the Steelers could use a boost of either quantity or quality at cornerback, the only way they’re likely to get one is via the waiver wire.

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NFL Draft 2021: Is Cornerback Back as a Steelers Need?

Steel Curtain Rising has been doing the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix for the better part of the last decade.

  • A year ago something new, and dare we say exciting, happened.

In previous years, cornerback would invariably stand out as a top Steelers need. But last year was different. Last year we went as far as to rate Pittsburgh’s need at cornerback as Low-Moderate. Can history repeat itself in 2021? Time to find out.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers may not draft cornerbacks very well (see Artie Burns.) Nor can they keep them healthy (see Senquez Golson, and Cortez Allen after a fashion.) Nor do they seem to have a knack for trading for them (See Brandon Boykin and/or Justin Gilbert.

  • But they do seem to transform other team’s trash into Pittsburgh’s treasure.

Such is the case with Joe Haden, whom the Steelers swooped up after Cleveland Browns cut in him 2017. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked back since, as Joe Haden started 56 games, hauled in 10 interceptions (or 3 fewer than Ike Taylor’s career total), taken home a pick six, and batted away 48 passes.

Joe Haden will be 32 next year and may be slowing a step, but the Steelers made clear how much they valued him when they opted to cut Steven Nelson who started alongside him.

In his place, Pittsburgh will start Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who, as fate would have it, saw his first action in the 2017 road game against Cincinnati where Ryan Shazier’s career ended. Since the Sutton had developed slowly, but steadily.

He’s logged 3 interceptions during his first four years, and started 6 games in 2020 and his forced fumble was one of the lone bright spots in a remarkably ugly loss to the Bills.

  • In today’s NFL the slot corner is essentially a starter.

The Steelers don’t have one as Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals as a free agent after manning the positon for 4 years.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the Steelers two backups at cornerback will occupy the role of the slot corner. That player will be expected to slide over to the edge while Cameron Sutton moves over to the slot on third down just as Deshea Townsend did.

James Pierre made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent during 2020 training camp, and appeared in all 16 games, including 12% of the defensive snaps in the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns.

  • James Pierre’s playing time came at the expense of Justin Layne.

Justin Layne was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who was drafted on “measurable” as opposed to pedigree. Layne began at wide receiver and transitioned over to cornerback late during his time with the Michigan State Spartans.

He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and all 16 games during the regular season. But tellingly, the coaches after getting 26% of the defensive snaps in the regular season road loss to the Browns, coaches looked to Pierre over Layne for the playoffs. Justin Layne was of course arrested last week.

The Steelers also have free agent Trevor Williams, a five year veteran with 27 starts and 41 games under his belt from his time with the Chargers, Cardinals and most recently the Eagles. The Steelers also have first year veteran Stephen Denmark on their roster.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftWhen the news broke of Justin Layne’s legal troubles, my reaction was, “Better now than after the draft.” Over at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim Benz opined that Layne’s judicial woes probably won’t change the Steelers plans.

  • Benz may be right.

With Trever Williams the Steelers brought in some experience to supplement the youthful potential they have at cornerback, which is a wise move. But right now the Steelers have an aging quality corner on one side and a probably up-and-comer on the other side with little behind them.

Which is to say the Steelers need depth and/or a possible future starter, so their need at cornerback heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Justin Layne Arrested – Better Today than After the Draft

Sometimes it is best to save the best for the last.

Thus far, between Tony Defeo and myself, our Steelers draft needs analysis has each spot on the depth chart save for outside linebacker and cornerback. The latter article just got more interesting as news broke that Steelers reserve cornerback Justin Layne was arrested on traffic violations and weapons charges.

According to Joe Rutter and Megan Guza of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Justin Layne is being charged with “with driving with a suspended license, speeding, and transporting a loaded firearm, which is a fourth-degree felony.”

On Twitter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo reports that Layne was pulled over for “…doing 89 mph in a 50 mph zone.” Marijuana and marijuana odor was also observed.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers, per policy, issued a statement indicating they are aware of the situation but will not make further comment.

So if they won’t, then I will:

  • Regardless of what happens in the courts with Justin Layne, he has failed the idiot test.

Layne apparently already has a warrant out for another outstanding traffic violation. Although he is not yet facing any drug related charges, someone in his car was using marijuana, opening himself up to suspicion for driving with a controlled substance. And he has a loaded fire arm in the car.

  • Right away those are three separate things that could bring Layne into trouble with the law.

But truthfully, the odds are slim that you or I would ever know about any of the above had Justin Layne been smart enough to do one thing:  Drive the speed limit.

People who drive the speed limit and obey other traffic laws still end up getting pulled over, and this happens to African American men far too often. But driving 40 miles an hour is a surefire way to catch the attention of a police officer.

Ergo, driving 40 miles above the speed limit is something that should be avoided if you’ve got an outstanding violation and/or are illegally transporting a weapon. That concept is apparently lost on Justin Layne.

Better This Happen Today, as Opposed to Ten Days from Now

What happens next is anyone’s guess. It could be that Justin Layne innocent of the charges. Even if the evidence is solid, one would have to assume that Justin Layne can afford good enough legal representation to keep him out of jail, assuming jail time is a possibility should he be convicted of the charges.

  • But he could still face discipline from the NFL and/or the Steelers.

Either way, the chances of the Steelers taking a cornerback earlier than expected in the 2021 NFL Draft just got better. Our full analysis will come later, but Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson‘s departures have thinned the Steelers depth at cornerback to Justin Layne and  James Pierre.

  • The urgency of adding someone else into the mix just got greater.

Better that Justin Layne fail the “Idiot Test” one week before the NFL draft as opposed to a week after.

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Mike Hilton Is a Steelers Success Story, But This Free Agent Will Find Fortune Elsewhere

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents have been the secret to Kevin Colbert’s success. OK, his record of only wiffing on two first round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns) since returning to Pittsburgh has had a big role in his success.

  • But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.

Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.

  • Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career

Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.

Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.

The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did this while splitting time with Cameron Sutton.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.

  • Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball

You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.

There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:

  • Move outside when needed.

Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.

The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.

There’s no way they can sign both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton and they probably won’t even try. Expect Mike Hilton to find his fortune outside of Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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B.J.’s Back: Steelers Resign B.J. Finney – What it Means

The Pittsburgh Steelers made a preemptive move to shore up their offensive line when they signed B.J. Finney to a one year contract just days ahead of the start of free agency.

B.J. Finney joined the Steelers via the practice squad in 2015. In 2016, Finney made the active roster appearing in 13 games, including 3 starts at guard for Ramon Foster and spot duty for Maurkice Pouncey. In 2017 he made four starts, including the season finale at center. In 2018 he saw action in all 16 games including two starts.

During 2019 Finney started another four games including starts at center while Maurkice Pouncey was serving a suspension for sticking up for Mason Rudolph after Myles Garrett‘s assault with a deadly weapon.

But the Steelers did not do that, and Finney signed a 2 year, 8 million dollar contract to Finney. But Finney only played 6 games for Seattle who traded him to Cincinnati where he only played one game. The Bengals cut him Raearlier this spring.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

Finney Signing is What Steelers Do

While Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rarely “Live in their fears” when it comes to personnel decisions, they do like to keep their options open when it comes to filling top roster needs. The Steelers need to rebuild their offensive line, and they need to do it in a hurry, if they’re to give Ben Roethlisberger a (serious) shot at a final Lombardi.

  • Going into the 2019 season, inside linebacker and cornerback were glaring needs for the Steelers.

So the Steelers went out and signed Mark Barron and Steven Nelson, and then they traded up in the 2019 NFL Draft to grab Devin Bush and also used a premium, 3rd round pick on Justin Layne at cornerback.

The Steelers are doing something similar with B.J. Finney. While they already have J.C. Hassenauer under contract for 2021, B.J. Finney gives them an option for player to can work at center or guard, releiving them of hte pressure of obligating themselves to draft a center with their first or second round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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Batted Away! Steelers Defeat Ravens 28-24, as Roethlisberger Rally Fuels Comeback

During the 21st century, Steelers and Ravens have delivered the very best football that the AFC can offer. Proponents of the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning narrative will protest, but they will be wrong.

  • Steelers vs. Ravens is physical, intense and nasty.
  • Their games ultimately gets decided by who hits the hardest.

The Steelers 28-24 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium lived up to the rivalry’s pedigree. The win improved the Steelers standing to 7-0 alone atop the AFC North. But what’s perhaps most encouraging about the win is that in leading the comeback, the Steelers signal caller showed something that we haven’t seen thus far in 2020.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

1st Half: No, A Win over the Ravens Really Couldn’t Come So Easily

The Steelers have already had marquee showdown with an AFC North Rival, the Browns. That game started with a pick six authored by all-world safety Minkah Fitzpatrick 3 plays into Cleveland’s first drive. And so did this one.

This time the hero was unsung inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who took it to the house from 33 yards out with less than a minute elapsed in play.

  • The Steelers pick-six against the Browns signaled a blowout — could history repeat?

Miles Boyken, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Ravens

Miles Boyken smokes Vince Williams for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Alas, it would not, and could not.

The Cleveland Browns, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, are a pretenders because they think they can gain respect by demanding it. The Baltimore Ravens are contenders because they know how to earn respect.

  • And during the next 30 minutes the Baltimore Ravens flourished instead of flinching.

Following the lead of Lamarr Jackson, the Ravens did everything that opponents haven’t been able to do to the Steelers thus far in 2020:

  • They converted third downs
  • They stitched together long drives
  • They compiled over 100 yards rushing in a single half
  • They forced the Steelers to punt three times and recovered a Chase Claypool fumble

Sure, the Ravens had their hiccups in the first half. Bud Dupree stripped the ball from LaMarr Jackson when the Ravens were in the Red Zone, but 5 plays and a mere 18 yards later, Jordan Berry was out punting it away for Pittsburgh.

Justin Tucker split the uprights from 51 yards away as time expired to close the first half.  The Ravens held a 17-7 lead over the Steelers, but Baltimore was in full control of the game, and nobody held any illusions to the contrary.

Big Ben Delivers on What He Does Best

The Baltimore Ravens had rendered Ben Roethlisberger ineffective in the first half. The Steelers had logged just 20 plays and pass interference penalties seemed their offense’s most potent weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster started the Steelers 2nd half off right with a 24 yard catch but, true to form, the Steelers were punting three plays later.

  • One play later rookie Alex Highsmith rebooted the Steelers 2nd half by intercepting Lamarr Jackson.

After a 1 yard James Conner run, Ben Roethlisberger and Eric Ebron hooked up to take advantage of a miscue by former Steeler L.J. Fort for an easy touchdown. Suddenly, the Steelers were only down by 3, contesting control of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished a lot since his return from 2019’s season-ending elbow surgery.

He’s shown he can still throw the ball with the same zip as before. He’s shown he can adjust his game to focus more on shorter-higher percentage passes. He’s shown that he can eliminate, thus far (and for the rest of the season, God willing,) the “one dumb interception a game” that once seemed obligatory. He’s shown that he can still move in the pocket to make things happen. He’s shown he can take instruction on details like footwork from Matt Canada.

  • But going into Baltimore, he still hadn’t shown whether he could still takeover a game.

During the 2nd half against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner decided to give Ben Roethlisberger a chance to do just that. Ben Roethlisberger just didn’t work out of empty sets. HE didn’t simply run the no hurry up offense and call his own plays. He was MAKING his own plays in the huddle at the line of scrimmage.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As he told Chris Admanski of the Tribune-Review, “I know everybody says, I do well in playground, backyard football. Today it was in its truest form.” And today at least, playground Ben meant Big Ben at his best as he connected with:

  • Eric Ebron twice
  • James Conner twice
  • Ray-Ray McCloud once
  • Chase Claypool 3 times
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster 5 times

That’s 13 completed passes with just 3 incompletions, along with two pass interference penalties, as Ben Roethlisberger authored two drives that retook the lead twice, setting up an epic, Steelers-Ravens end of game stand.

Defense Delivers for Steelers

Statistically speaking this wasn’t the best day for Keith Butler’s defense. He saw his unit lose Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward, which can’t have helped as the Ravens ran up over 265 yards on the ground on the legs of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Willie Snead IV added 106 yards and a touchdown through the air in a game that saw the Ravens convert 8 of 15 third downs.

  • And, if this story were being written according to Fantasy Football rules then owners of the Baltimore Ravens would have been happy.

But this tale is being told in Reality Football terms where outcomes are fought out in the trenches instead of spreadsheets. And so it was, with 3:48 left to play the Ravens reached the Steelers Red Zone.

  • On 3rd and 5 Isaiah Buggs stoned LaMarr Jackson who tried to rush it up the middle
  • On 4th and Isaiah Buggs stuffed Jackson again with an assist from Minkah

James Conner and Diontae Johnson did manage to get the Steelers to 3rd and 1, but the Ravens held. Fortunately, Jordan Berry boomed off a 45 yard punt. With no time outs remaining, Lamarr Jackson moved Baltimore 40 yards in 46 seconds, delivering Baltimore to Pittsburgh’s 23.

Here’s what happened next:

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1323013477506666499

Minkah Fitzpatrck and Justin Layne were perfect on the play, as Fitzpatrick pushed the pass from Willie Snead’s hands while Layne drilled him, delivering Pittsburgh’s first 7-0 start since 1978.

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James Washington and Jaylen Samuels Added to Steelers COVID-19 List. 8 Other Cut

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 “training camp” isn’t a week old yet, but two more players have been placed on the leagues COVID-19 reserve list – James Washington and Jaylen Samuels. The offensive duo joins cornerback Justin Layne, a third round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Aaron Springs, a fellow defensive back, was already on the list.

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

Happier times. James Washington and Jaylen Samuels celebrate during the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NFL instituted the COVID-19 reserve list in response to the pandemic. Being put on the list does not necessarily mean a player has tested positive for COVID-19, it can also mean that they’ve been in contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

  • The NFL’s COVID-19 list contains asymptomatic and symptomatic designations.

Asymptomatic players are able to come off the list 10 days after their first positive test OR 5 days have passed since their first positive test AND two consecutive negative tests are completed separated by 24 hours within a five-day period.

  • All returns must be approved by a team’s physician whom must consult with ICS and NFL’s chief medical officer.

Symptomatic players must see 10 days pass after their first COVID-19 symptom and must have a full 72 hours pass since their last symptoms last occurred. Their return must be approved by their team’s doctor in concert with both the ICS and the NFL’s chief medical officer.

  • On top of that, local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

The health and safety of the players impacted must be of paramount concern, and it is Steel Curtain Rising’s sincere concern that James Washington and Jaylen Samules, (and Justin Layne and Aaron Springs for that matter) remain COVID free and return to the practice field in full health at Heinz Field.

  • But even in the pre-COVID era, attrition formed a fundamental part of football.

Put in simple English, injuries are part of the game. In that light, James Washington’s absence shouldn’t impact the Steelers wide receiver corps much. JuJu Smith-Schuster remains the leader, with Diontae Johnson returning to build on his strong rookie year. Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will perhaps get a few more reps, but he was always going to make the team.

Potentially, Dion Cain could benefit (as could Ryan Switzer), but a best-case scenario would see James Washington returning to the Steelers roster before padded practices start on August 17th.

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

James Conners and Benny Snell Jr. are roster locks, and Anthony McFarland Jr.’s status as this year’s 4th round picks doesn’t give him a lock on a roster spot, but a slot is basically his to lose. The Steelers also like Kerrith Whyte.

  • For the past several seasons the Steelers have kept 3 running backs plus a fullback.

Even prior to landing on the COVID-19 reserve list Jaylen Samuels was going to need to fight for a roster spot. Now that fight just got more difficult.

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

To meet the NFL’s 80 man roster limit the Steelers cut 8 players, including:

Quarterback, J.T. Barrett
Running Back, Ralph Webb
Wide Receiver, Quadree Henderson
Offensive Line, Christian Montani
Linebacker and Long Snapper Christian Kuntz
Linebacker, Dewayne Hendrix
Safety, Tyree Kinnell
Defensive End, Josiah Coatney

While it is no surprise, J.T. Barrett’s departure ends any speculation that he had a shot at competing with Paxton Lynch and Devlin Hodges for the third slot behind Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger.

Of the rest of the cuts Quadree Henderson is the most prominent. The Pitt graduate spent the summer of 2018 with the Steelers and turned in an strong preseason effort, but that wasn’t enough to land him a roster spot.

From there he spent time with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers before returning to Pittsburgh last winter via the practice squad.

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