Back to Basics: Keith Butler’s Promise for Steelers to Practice Tackling is Music to the Ears

“Back to Basics.” Chuck Noll would be smiling broadly if he’d heard Keith Butler‘s promise that the Steelers would be practicing tackling at St. Vincents during summer of 2018. If Michael MacCambridge’s His Life’s Work is any guide, Chuck Noll uttered “Back to Basics” as much if not more than Mike Tomlin trots out “The Standard is the Standard.”

Sean Davis after missing a tackle on Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP via USA Today For the Win.

Chuck Noll was complex person – how many other NFL coaches killed time before playoff games by reading books on celestial maritime navigation – but his coaching philosophies were simple. Noll understood that you win championships by excelling at doing ordinary things – blocking, tackling, taking the right angles, etc…

And that’s why Noll would instruct Andy Russell, the only legitimate Pro Bowler he inherited from Bill Austin, how many inches his feet should be apart, and how to hold his hands prior to the snap. Thus, Andy Russell grew from a good player to a great player.

Seriously, if the Steelers fail to bag Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 do you REALLY think its because Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed a couple of days of OTAs? Troy Polamalu routinely missed OTAs and he seemed to do just fine.

But Steelers OTAs and minicamps sometimes yield useful news nuggets, and hopefully defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s comments about the pitiful state of tackling in Pittsburgh will prove to be one of them. Per the Tribune-Review’s Joe Rutter’s report, Butler isn’t pulling any punches in his self-assessment: “It’s as simple as you can get. Look at the whole last year and we missed a ton of tackles.”

  • Fortunately, Butler plans to do something about it.

According to Butler, the Steelers plan to focus on tackling during training camp, offering that the art of tackling isn’t even something that’s taught much at the college level anymore:

When we get them, we can’t think they know the fundamentals of playing football, we have to teach them the fundamentals of playing football, and it’s our job to do that.

Those are refreshing words from a defensive coordinator of a team that gave up three rushing touchdowns to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a single quarter during the AFC Divisional playoff game. For years, fans have complained about how missed tackles have plagued the Steelers, peppering beat reporters like Ed Bouchette with questions about why things never improve.

  • Bouchette would remind readers that live tackling in practice was a relic, of well, Chuck Noll’s time.

It should be noted, at St. Vincents in Steelers 2013 Mike Tomlin departed from the script and ordered live tackling during training camp. Tomlin hadn’t even told Kevin Colbert he was going to do this, who apparently went apoplectic when he saw it. Tomlin’s goal was to form a “battle hardened unit.”

That didn’t quite work, as the Steelers lost 4 starters to injury on opening day and went 0-4 and then 2-6. And no one rushed to apologize, “But they’re the best tackling 0-4 team we’ve ever seen….”

  • But there’s a difference between simply having live tackling in practice and actually teaching tackling.

Butler’s comments suggest that Steelers coaches are going to focus on the latter. No ever one solved a problem they failed to acknowledge. Butler clearly recognizes the Steelers problem with missed tackles, and he plans to address it, by going back to basics. Chuck Noll would concur.

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Why the Steelers T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree Outside Linebacker Swap Could Be Good News

Perhaps the biggest news, if not only piece of true news coming out of the Steelers first OTAs last week was that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the Steelers twin first round draft pick outside linebackers, were switching sides.

A lot of the “news” that comes out of OTA’s, or football in shorts, doesn’t amount to much (remember the Dallas Baker OTA breakout in 2008? Nope, neither did I), but if Jim Wexell’s reporting is correct, the Steelers outside linebacker swap is permanent.

  • Such a shift might sound crazy for a player like T.J. Watt, perhaps the more promising stud outside linebacker coming off a tremendous first year.

On the surface, this might seem kind of silly. Why would a defense that’s been struggling to find its way the past few seasons mettle with perhaps its best young asset and someone who could develop into its best splash-player?

  • Maybe because that defense needs T.J. Watt to make splashes in other areas, like while covering the tight end, a job Dupree was often tasked with a season ago.

With the unfortunate spinal injury suffered by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier late last year, the Steelers defense lost its best athlete, a player the unit relied on to do many things.

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

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joey Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

T.J. Watt may not be on Ryan Shazier‘s athletic level, but judging by his ability to switch from tight end to outside linebacker in college, along with his ability to quickly grasp the Steelers defense in his very first season, he may actually be pretty darn close.

In addition to his seven sacks, T.J. Watt recorded 54 tackles, seven passes defensed and an interception in 2017. And for good measure, he even blocked a field goal.

Like Ryan Shazier, T.J. Watt certainly has the ability–both physically and mentally–to do a lot of things on the football field, and perhaps those abilities are needed in other areas of the defense.

  • Will this hurt the Steelers pass rush? It says it here that it won’t.

For starters, Pittsburgh recorded a franchise record 56 sacks a season ago, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree accounting for only 13 of those. Second, while Bud  Dupree has struggled to get over the hump, he’s clearly shown a more explosive pass-rushing gear that, say, Jarvis Jones. Put over on a side where rushing the passer is a bigger part of his job requirement, Bud Dupree might actually excel and turn into the player many thought he was tantalizingly close to becoming even a year ago at this time.

  • The whole key in this potential switch, of course, is T.J. Watt.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler obviously don’t want to make its defense weaker by putting such a young stud in a position where his skills won’t flourish.

But while it is a small sample size, T.J. Watt has shown nothing but the ability to be a stud no matter where he plays on a football field.

In today’s Steelers defense where outside linebackers are asked to do so much more than just rush the passer, the left side just might be where T.J. Watt can do the most good.

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Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Bail on Bud Dupree?

Coming off one of the best seasons any Steelers rookie has had in quite some time, T.J. Watt, the first round choice in 2017, appears to have finally satisfied the organization’s long search for the next prolific outside linebacker, a position synonymous with greatness in the Steel City.

Or has he?

With less than three weeks to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, just how high on the list of priorities is outside linebacker for the Steelers? The answer hinges not on Watt’s development, but on the development of his couterpart whom the Steelers drafted two seasons before him. Let’s take a look.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

As mentioned, T.J. Watt had a whale of a rookie season, tallying 52 total tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble (the only player in the NFL at his position–rookie or otherwise–to post such an impressive stat line in 2017.)

Being the younger brother of the legendary J.J. Watt, it’s perhaps no surprise Watt picked things up so quickly and was so productive in his very first season. As I alluded to earlier, unless he’s felled by an injury, Watt seems destined to be the Steelers next great outside linebacker.

  • But Watt can only man one position at a time–the right side.

What about left outside linebacker, a position that has previously been occupied by the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon?

Coming off of his third year in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree appears to have all the potential in the world, and unlike disappointing 2013 first round pick, Jarvis Jones, Dupree has often shown flashes of that potential during his first three years with the Steelers.

After coming back from offseason groin surgery late in the 2016 campaign and recording 4.5 sacks over the final seven games, there was great excitement about Dupree heading into 2017.

  • However, despite starting 15 games, Dupree seemed to fall out of favor, at least with a fan base that wondered why he could only muster six sacks.

But as DK Sports’ Chris Carter pointed out late last year, Dupree was asked to drop back into pass coverage 75 percent of the time, something that seems to be more of a job requirement for Steelers linebackers in general, these days, as the pass rushing duties have been dispersed more evenly among all defenders under Keith Butler‘s watch (the defense set a franchise record with 56 sacks a year ago).

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

As of this writing, there are only two backup outside linebackers on the Steelers’ depth chart–2015 sixth round pick, Anthony Chickillo; and 2017 seventh round pick, Keion Adams.

  • 2017 was a bit of a break out year for Chickillo, as the converted defensive end out of the University of Miami recorded three sacks, including two while starting in place of Dupree in Week 1.

At 25 years old, Anthony Chickillo is still young enough to offer legitimate “upside,” and he’ll surely continue to get that chance, as he’s been a regular part of the team’s rotation at the outside linebacker spot since 2016.

As for Keion Adams, it’s really hard to say what he brings to the table, considering he spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. As suggested here last spring, given the Steelers pedigree at the position, being drafted in the 7th round as an outside linebacker might seem hopeless, but Carlos Emmons faced a similar fate in 1996, and had a pretty good career.

Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

With veteran Arthur Moats currently a free agent after spending the last four years with the Steelers, there is obviously room for another body or two at the outside linebacker spot.

However, with more pressing needs heading into the draft, such as inside linebacker, safety, and even running back, the outside linebacker spot may not be a position the Steelers feel anxious about addressing during the first few rounds–and this would especially be the case if the versatile Moats is still in the team’s plans.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • The real question in defining the Steelers 2018 outside lienbacker draft needs comes down to how you assess Bud Dupree.

When they drafted him the Steelers knew Bud Dupree was a “project” who offered tremendous athleticism but lacked polish. In his time in Pittsburgh, both traits have been on display, although Dupree’s contributions to the Steelers 2016 turn around are often overlooked.

Still, with three years under his belt, Dupree has yet to dispel the doubters. One prominent Steelers writer contacted by this site for an opinion about Dupree asserted that he will never be anything more than a “marginal starter.”

Yet, when asked about him recently, Kevin Colbert argued: “I think Bud is just scratching the surface to what he can be. He’s shown us enough signs that that can happen and will happen.” That’s an unambiguous statement from a General Manger who holds his cards close to the vest.

With that said, tt is true that Dupree’s fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, but that’s still not enough to make the Steelers need at the position anything but Low-Moderate. 

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April Fools Arrives Early? Nope. Steelers Resign Daniel McCullers to 1 Year Contract. Seriously

Sometimes you really must take care with what you wish for. Three years ago yours truly had the idea to do a “Steelers Resign Clifton Geathers” article as an April Fools joke. Instead we went with the faux Steelers trade Lawrence Timmons to Miami one that did so well that a credentialed press member actually called the Steelers to verify the nonexistent trade.

  • Which turned out to be a wise choice, because the Steelers actually DID resign Clifton Geathers on April 1st.

That was then, this is now. While I wasn’t planning on doing it, it occurred to me that a Daniel McCullers resigning might be good April Fools fodder (didn’t do an April Fools article last year, and probably won’t this year. Or will I…..?_)

  • Well, good thing that wasn’t this year’s plan, because it would be back to the drawing board:

The day’s news saw the Pittsburgh Steelers resign Daniel McCullers to a one year contract. One can only assume that it is for a veteran minimum which would guarantee McCullers nothing, but at this point in his career one has to wonder why the Steelers would even devote one of their 90 off season roster spots Daniel McCullers.

Daniel McCullers, David Andrews, Steelers vs Patriots

In a rare action shot, Daniel McCullers holds off David Andrews. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

As our free agent focus profile of Daniel McCullers pointed out, “Big D = Disappointment.” At 6’7″ and 350 plus pounds, Daniel McCullers is every defensive coordinator’s fantasy. Yet measurable don’t always mean much in the NFL, and Daniel McCullers did make some progress from his rookie to sophomore years, but has seen scant little since then.

  • In fact McCullers snap counts went from 9% and change in 2015, to 17% and change in 2016, to 1.33% in 2017.

That’s decidedly the wrong direction.

Too Early to Declare a “Dunbar Effect?”

In looking the prospects of the Steelers resigning Daniel McCullers, about the only plausible scenario involved new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar coming in, reviewing film, and seeing something he feels he could salvage.

  • Perhaps Karly Dunbar has done just that.

Because really, even with Justin Hargrave not making a lot of growth between his first and second year, and even with L.T. Walton perhaps hitting a plateau, Daniel McCullers body after four years in the NFL offers scant justification for a second NFL contract, even at the veteran minimum.

The Steelers declined to activate Daniel McCullers for all but six games in 2017, including the AFC divisional playoff loss the the Jaguars, despite knowing that both Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt were less than 100% going into the game.

  • Perhaps McCullers had an undisclosed injury. That would explain a lot.

Whatever the reasons is, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell and Karl Dunbar are far more qualified to make that judgment that me. But this resigning is a real head scratcher.

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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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: Steelers.com

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, Steelers.com

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

Quarterbacks
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, Penn-Live.com

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

Linebackers
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-

Secondary
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

Coaching
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

Quarterback
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

Linebackers
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

Secondary
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-

Coaching
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, Penn-Live.com

Quarterback
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 Zimbo.com

Linebackers
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

Secondary
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, PennLive.com

Coaching
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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