This Time There’s No Suspense over Sean Spence’s Impending Free Agency with Steelers

25 years ago the arrival of free agency breathed life into the once staid NFL off season by introducing an element of the unknown. Once, after the games ended, news on the NFL would dry up, except for the draft.

  • Now February is filled with speculation over what will happen, while free agent moves dominate the news in March.

Sean Spence has been around long enough that this is his second go-around as a Steelers free agent. Two seasons ago there was legitimate speculation about his fate and future with the team. Today there’s little suspense behind Sean Spence’s free agency. Let’s look at why.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers win Texans Christmas

Sean Spence in Steelers Christmas win over Texans. Photo Credit:

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Steelers Career

The Steelers picked Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft hoping to replace James Farrior and/or Larry Foote. Early returns indicated Spence was that player until devastating knee injury threatened to end Sean Spence’s NFL career before it began.

The Steelers kept him on IR for two seasons, but drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier to hedge their bets.
By the time Steelers OTAs in the spring of 2014, both Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier had passed him on the depth chart, but Sean Spence was back to full health, and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and entered the season as “The next man up” at inside linebacker. Injuries quickly paved the way for Spence’s to get playing time, and he 8 games where he:

Spence didn’t have quite as many “Splash Plays” in 2015, but he continued to rotate with Williams in relief of Shazier, and started four games during the course of the season. Spence’s strong resume led to speculation that the Steelers might resign him with an eye toward replacing Lawrence Timmons.

  • That never happened.

Sean Spence looked like a “Starter Capable” player and he followed Dick LeBeau to the Tennessee Titans. Despite some solid numbers in 2016, Spence didn’t get an offer after playing on his one year deal. The Colts signed him, but cut him before training camp, brought him back for a few games, but Spence was on the couch out of football when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Bengals.

The Steelers resigned Spence and he started immediately, looking ever bit like a player coming off the couch in the Steelers games against the Ravens and Patriots. He played better against the Texans and Browns, but was part of an atrocious defensive effort in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

Sean Spence knows the system, having come up under Dick LeBeau and playing for Keith Butler. Perhaps Sean Spence isn’t a long-term answer or a long term starter for the Steelers at inside linebacker, but his experience suits him to serve as a bridge starter and mentor to the inside linebacker the Steelers will likely chose early in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

The Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich in a matter of minutes, and it was clear through the rest of the game that L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats weren’t up to replacing him in the middle caused Kevin Colbert to look to Sean Spence.

  • But Steelers defense was flatfooted without Shazier, and Spence did little to change that.

Sure, he improved during the regular season, but he really didn’t give much of an indication that he was even a short-term answer. The Steelers need to improve at inside linebacker, and its hard to make the case that Sean Spence’s return helps make that happen.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Spence

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how twin injuries have forever linked the fates of Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier. It was an inspiring story.

  • But inspiration isn’t what the Steelers need at inside linebacker, what they need is a dynamic playmaker.

Word is that Lawrence Timmons will be on the free agent market, and speculation is that the Steelers would bring him back. Its entirely possible that Timmons would do more for this unit than Spence, which should tell you what you need to know.

After the dust of both free agency and the draft settles, Sean Spence may be worth a considering bringing back at a veteran minimum contract, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser,

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Loss to Jaguars – F for Total Defensive Failure

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil test out of the first round of exams, arrive early on test day, only to forget to the the home portion! Here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Mike Tomlin’s 2nd Playoff Loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Sean Spence, Vince Williams

Leonard Fournette burns Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Mike Mitchell & Joe Haden on his 18 yard touchdown run. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger reads 37-58-5-1for 469, which is a Fantasy Owner’s wet dream. And to be honest, Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Jaguars was strong by any conventional measure. Ben Roethlisberger made some incredible throws. But in this case, his grade must go beyond those numbers and recognize that he committed two turnovers, which were detrimental difference makers. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell never got a chance to take over this game the way some thought he might, largely because the Steelers were down by two touchdowns before they knew what hit them. Nonetheless, Bell ran for 67 yards and caught balls for another 88. There are LOTS of fingers to point after this loss, but none of those should aim at Le’Veon Bell. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was the Steelers 2nd leading receiver catching 10 passes for 112 yards (and replays show that he probably couldn’t have caught the ball that was intercepted.) Jesse James had one catch for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Steelers fans should appreciate just how good they have it in Antonio Brown. The man is the best in the game, bar none. Having come up with several critical catches, including both touchdown grabs. Martavis Bryant caught a long touchdown pass to end the first half, and it was welcome to see him as a downfield weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quite game in his playoff debut, making only 3 catches. Grade: B+

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown makes a 4th down 4th quarter touchdown grab. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, including a key strip sack that put the Steelers right back in the 14 point hole they’d dug. Jaguar defenders also hit the Steelers signal caller 7 times. Roethilsberger’s stats suggest he shrugged it off, but imagine if he’d been just a little less hurried on those throws. The line also failed to open running lanes when establishing the run would have made a difference for the Steelers. And the line failed on the 4th down pitch. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers, by their own admission, have deployed Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt differently since Keith Butler arrived. The idea was to sacrifice a little run stuffing to get more pressure on the QB. Against the Jaguars, the Steelers got the sacrifice part right, but where was the pressure on Blake Bortles? As for the run defense, it was non-existent when it counted. Grade: F

Tommy Bohanon, Sean Spence, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Tommy Bohanon scores TD as Sean Spence watches. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

OK. Ryan Shazier was not only head and shoulders above the rest, but he also made everyone else look better. Fine. But can ANY linebacker step up and make a play. Against the run? Against the pass? In the middle of the field? Or ANYWHERE else? Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, despite leaving the game for a time. T.J. Watt did hit Bortles twice, but was largely ineffective. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, while Sean Spence had 5 – none of any consequence. The Steelers linebackers were terrible. Grade: F

With the run defense failing up front, if there was ever a day to stop the Jaguars in third down, it was at Heinz on Sunday. Yet, Jacksonville went 8-14 on third down, and while Blake Bortles was a consummate “Game Manager,” he did hit the Steelers deep a few times. The situation screamed for Artie Burns, Sean Davis or Joe Haden to make a play. They didn’t. But at least they didn’t go to the Jaguars locker room and try to call them out before the game, as Mike Mitchell did. Inexcusable. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on PAT’s. Kick coverage was strong, and the Steelers actually got a 29 yard return out of Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers special teams set up the offense to take control of the game when Robert Golden partially blocked a punt. Alas, the offense failed to capitalize.

While all those were positives for the special teams, Steelers failed at their 15th consecutive on sides kick recovery. While those are by definition low percentage plays, the Steelers absolutely needed that one and they didn’t get it. That result brings the grade down. Grade: C-

Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away, this is probably the only site in Steelers Nation that’s not up in arms over the fourth down pitch that failed so miserably.

  • No, it was not a “great call” nor was it a “good” play call.

And the pitches to the outside hadn’t worked prior to that. But, if properly executed, it could have plausibly gotten the yardage and perhaps even sprung Bell lose. But the Steelers execution was piss poor. That’s not to let Todd Haley (who might be gone anyway) off the hook.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin after losing to Jaguars. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • The Steelers really could have used a strong start to the game, and the offense didn’t get going until they were behind by 21 points.

Still, had you told any Vegas book maker that you knew the Steelers were going to score 42 points, he’d have predicted a big Pittsburgh win.

  • The culpable coordinator here is Keith Butler.

The Steelers knew Leonard Fournette would run the ball. They knew Leonard Fournette could run the ball against the defense — with Ryan Shazier in the lineup. Keith Butler and his staff had had two weeks to prepare for him, and by all accounts they Steelers did use those two weeks to prepare for the Jaguars.

  • Not that anything the Steelers defense did make them look remotely prepared for this game.

That’s a damming observation, and one that extends equally to Mike Tomlin. It wasn’t Tomlin or Butler who were missing those tackles, taking bad angles, or failing to fill gaps. But it’s their job to ensure that the players are in position to execute and they failed miserably at that on defense.

It says here that the Steelers weren’t “looking past the Jaguars,” and it also says here that Mike Tomlin isn’t at fault for the turnovers, which were killers.

While the Jacksonville Jaguars are a good team, position-by-position, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a more talented team. But the score board fails to reflect that, and that’s Mike Tomlin’s fault. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Early in the game it took the Steelers time to get their offense going. But one player who was on the mark from the very get go was Eli Rogers, who caught 4 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, and was a critical element to getting the offense moving when everything else was going wrong and for that Eli Rogers wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field

Well, that neither ended the way we wanted or expected, did it? On the heels of a 13-3 regular season performance and a first round playoff bye, the Pittsburgh Steelers welcomed the Jacksonville Jaguars to Heinz Field for the AFC Divisional playoffs – and promptly self-destructed.

  • The final score reads Jacksonville 45, Steelers 42.

But don’t fool yourself. This one was never that close. The Jaguars opened the game with a touchdown, converted an interception into a touchdown and were up 21 nothing before the Steelers knew what hit them.

This one stings. As it should. Undoubtedly Twitter is a live with folks who wish to see Todd Haley, Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and even Art Rooney II sacked. Who can blame them? This was a total team failure.

But here we seek to tone-down any vigilante in favor of a blow-by-blow distillation of 4 key factors that fueled the implosion of the Steelers 2017 season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger hangs his head after the Steelers 45-42 playoff loss to Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Shazierless Steelers Powerless to Stop Run, Leonard Fournette

Perhaps it is fitting that Jacksonville Jaugar Fred Taylor holds the single-game regular season rushing record against the Steelers, because had he not gotten injured, Leonard Fournette almost certainly would have earned the playoff record.

  • Leonard Fournette owned the Steelers during the game’s first 30 minutes.

Since Ryan Shazier’s injury, the Steelers front seven has struggled against the run. Sure, they made improvements against Houston, but everyone knew stopping the run would be key for the Steelers to set the tone they needed to win.

Instead, Leonard Fournette ran wild, breaking through to the second level with alarming regularity, and benefiting from ruby like scrums on a number of occasions. Even the most optimistic assessments going into the game probably had the Jaguars running well against the Steelers.

But the Jaguars offensive line manhandled the Steelers front seven during the first half. To be sure, the Steelers defense adjusted during the 2nd half (although let’s be frank, Fournette’s injuries limited him) but if you let yourself be dominated 30 minutes in the playoff you can expect to lose.

Turnovers Send Steelers Spinning

Protect the football. If there’s a cardinal rule in playoff football, it’s that. The Steelers were minus two in the turnover differential.

The first turnover came early, when Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Vance McDonald in stride. McDonald got both hands on the ball, but bobbled it and Myles Jack made a text book in bounds catch to keep the ball.

It took Leonard Fournette all of one play to transform that turnover into a touchdown, and put the Jaguars up 14-0, and five minutes remained in the 1st quarter…

Leonard Fournette, Joe Haden, Leonard Fournette touchdown Steelers, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs. Jaguars

Leonard Fournette torches Steelers to score 2nd touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

The second turnover came when the Steelers seemed to be putting together one of their patented end-of-first half scoring drives, which hit the skids when the Jaguars defense got to Ben Roethlisberger who fumbled, only to have Telvin Smith scoop it up and run 50 yards for the touchdown.

Those two turnovers translated into a 14 point hole the Steelers had dug for themselves….

Even Money Not Good Enough for Steelers

….So how does a football coach react when his team digs itself a hole? He gambles. If there’s a record for 4th down attempts in playoff football, the Steelers very well may have tied it.

  • The first time the Steelers tried a pitch to Le’Veon Bell, executed it piss poorly, and lost yards
  • The second time Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant in the end zone for a touchdown
  • The third time Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and came up short
  • The fourth time Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown deep for 43 yards for a touchdown

When a team goes 50/50 on 4th down attempts that’s normally “pretty good.” When a team gets touchdowns on two successful 4th down conversions, that’s very good. But against the Jaguars, it wasn’t enough, as Jacksonville converted both of Steelers other two fourth down failures into touchdowns.

So instead of digging themselves out of the hole, the Steelers gambles simply maintained the status quo. Breaking even on playoff games simply isn’t good enough.

Steelers Special Teams Creates Opportunities, Offense Fails to Capitalize

The critical moments that defined the game’s outcome came at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Steelers had opened the half with a 77 yard, 5 minute 51 second drive that ended with a Ben Roethlisberger pass to Le’Veon Bell.

After that, the two teams traded punts.

You never want to punt, but the Steelers were stopping the Jaguars. On the Jaguar’s second possession the Steelers did them one better, forcing a punt which Robert Golden partially blocked. Danny Smith went wild. Heinz Field erupted.

  • Nothing changes momentum like a big special teams play, and this was one of those.

This was the Steelers chance to tie the game and set themselves up to win it in the fourth quarter. Le’Veon Bell ran for six on first down. He ran for three on second. On third he got stoned for no gain.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers Jaguars 4th down, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin’s 4th down gamble fails. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Then Mike Tomlin gambled with the fourth down pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jaguars took over on their own 39, only 11 yards back from where they’d been just two minutes earlier. It only took the Jaguars another two minutes and 10 seconds to make it 35-21.

Steelers Fail to Recover On Sides Kick. Again.

Someway, somehow, some time, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers will actually execute a successful on-sides kick. They did it once, back in January of 2007 in a meaningless game against the Baltimore Ravens.

  • The stat geeks will tell you that on-sides kick have about a one and 10 chance of success.
  • Since that fateful day in Baltimore, the Steelers have failed at 14 on-sides kicks.
  • So the law of averages had to work in their favor, didn’t it?
  • I mean, the Steelers were due to finally recover an on-sides kick, weren’t they?

Alas, dice don’t have memories. While luck certainly plays a role, execution and not statistical averages determine who recovers an on-sides kick, and the Steelers couldn’t even kick it the requisite 10 yards.

  • Everything after that was window dressing.

After the Jaguars field goal, the Steelers got to the Red Zone with enough time, theoretically to score a touchdown and recover an on-sides kick to try to tie the score. But you really didn’t think their 16th on sides attempt would go any differently than their previous 15?

A Little Word on the Big Picture

Mike Tomlin declined to offer any “big picture” analysis following the game, and I won’t go far down that road here as this article is long enough already.

From a Vulcan like logical perspective, the Steelers gave up a couple of turnovers, struggled to stop the run and simply never dug out of the hole they created for themselves. Plus, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a pretty good football team, even if they have an average-at-best signal caller.

  • But the Steelers had the best playoff positioning they have in 7 years, a bye which was supposed to be a difference maker.

It wasn’t, and the Steelers playoff implosion can’t help but leave the feeling that Pittsburgh’s 13-3 regular season record was an over achievement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed,

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger,

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit:

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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