Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals – A’s for Achievement & Innovation

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down a full letter grade for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football 2019

Diontae Johnson catches a 43 yard touchdown in the Steelers win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph’s first start yielded a video game like passer rating of 124.6 as he completed 24 of 28 for two touchdowns and zero interceptions. But those numbers are a product of play calling designed to protect him. Rudolph made a few mistakes, but he also flashed some impressive play making potential. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner had the best night of the season by far, running for 4.2 yards per carry on 10 carries, and catching 8 passes. What was most impressive was the grit and determination which drove Conner, evident on his touchdown catch and another Red Zone carry. Jaylen Samuels operated the Wildcat for the Steelers to great effect. It was an unconventional evening for the Steelers, but one that worked. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry saw his first extended NFL action, and made a tremendous block on Jaylen Samuels touchdown. His effort combined with that of the other tight ends was critical to the Steelers success. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Any game plan that only sees JuJu Smith-Schuster targeted 4 times does not, by definition, feature the wide receivers. Diontae Johnson may have benefitted from a blown coverage, but if he continues to score touchdowns on deep passes, he will force opposing defenses to take note. James Washington remains nearly invisible in the Steelers offense, which is beginning to get worrisome. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
By his own account Mason Rudolph wasn’t touched. That’s saying something given that he tends to hold on to the ball a little longer than he should. The Steelers run blocking was better, as the line was particularly effective in springing the running backs on outside runs. Still, the failure on 4th and short is disturbing. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward spoke loudly during the week about the need for everyone to step up, and he spoke even louder on the field with 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for losses and 3 quarterback hits. All on an injured quad. Javon Hargrave got a sack and Stephon Tuitt hit Andy Dalton twice. An excellent night for the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Mark Barron ended the Bengals first entrance into the Red Zone by defending a pass and his interception blotted out any chance of a Bengals comeback. Devin Bush had his first sack and dropped 3 ball carriers for losses. T.J. Watt had a sack and a half, 3 quarterback hits and recovered the fumble on Bud Dupree’s strip sack that ended another Cincinnati trip to the Red Zone. The Bengals tight ends were a non-factor. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton was swatting passes like flies. Joe Haden almost had an interception. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson’s names weren’t heard much all of which were good signs. The Steelers front seven put the Bengals in several 3rd and long situations, and they only converted 5 of 17 of those, which is on the secondary. Grade: A

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
The Steelers returned no kicks, and the Bengals only returned two kickoffs to little effect. Jordan Berry boomed off two punts, averaging 49.5 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking including a 49 yard field goal. Grade: B+

Coaching
Keith Butler has taken a lot of grief for a long time. Much of it is understandable. The Steelers have 7 first round picks playing for them, and performance has not matched the investment of draft free agent capital.

  • But against the Bengals, the Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance.

Sure, right now Cincinnati looks like the NFL equivalent of a Junior Varsity team, but the Steelers defense should dominate under those circumstances. They dominated.

Randy Fichtner’s took a lot of heat before the game for his vanilla game plan against San Francisco, and then took heat for resorting to the Wildcat and other gimmicks to beat The Bengals.

  • Who cares?

The Steelers were playing without their fullback, without their number 1 tight end and with a first year starting quarterback in search of his first win. What was Randy Fichtner supposed to do? Alternate between the Wishbone and Run’n Shoot?

  • No. Instead, Fichtner came up with a game plan that did what it was supposed to do – score enough points to win.

Things get pretty bleak when you’re 0-3 NFL team, yet Mike Tomlin kept his players focused and did not shy away from innovating. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Six days before the Monday night game, this gentleman wasn’t even wearing a Steelers uniform. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he informed that the Steelers had been trying to get him in the Black and Gold for some time.

Now we know why. He literally walked in off the street to start for the Steelers in this game, and he made two critical catches as well as contributing to the blocking game. For that Nick Vannett wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Monday Night win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – A Classroom Turned Upside Down

From the grade book of a teacher who left for a 10 day professional conference only to return to find his classroom completely turned upside down, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the 49ers.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quarterback
Those who’ve suggested rushing the Roethlisberger era to an end to begin rebuilding sooner rather later experienced reality therapy yesterday. To be clear, Mason Rudolph does not deserve to be a scapegoat. But even if his passing number were on par with Ben Roethlisberger and Neil O’Donnell’s debuts, Rudolph looked like a 3rd rounder making his first start rather than that of a franchise quarterback. Mason Rudolph did some nice things, made some ugly mistakes but ultimately couldn’t spark the team to a win. Grade: C

Running Backs
James Conner ran for 43 yards on 13 carries and looked OK as a rusher at times. He didn’t have a lot of help from the offensive line. Worse yet, he had yet another fumble in a critical moment, which is at least the third time that has happened in less than 16 full starts. Benny Snell had 6 yards on 3 carries and Jaylen Samuels ran some pass routes but didn’t see a ball thrown his way. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had one catch on 2 carries and then left the game injured. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards in his place, and his presence in the blocking game was about as pronounced as his role in the passing game. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster took one to the house showing the he does indeed retain his big play capability. But he was largely a non-factor outside of that play. Diontae Johnson looked good in his first start, but dropped at least one pass he should have caught. James Washington had two catches for 14 yards and is looking like a preseason-practice hero who doesn’t deliver on game day. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph only got sacked twice, but had to scramble 4 times and at other times had to throw it away. The 49ers also recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Championship caliber offensive line play can elevate average running and passing games. But the Steelers aren’t getting anywhere near championship caliber play from their offensive line. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line harassed Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers almost ran at will, particularly when they needed to. That’s not 100% their responsibility, but the line is where stout run defense starts. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had an interception, fumble recovery, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. Nice to see a premium pick delivering. Devin Bush had two fumble recoveries and led the team in tackles, but his inexperience continues to show. Bud Dupree got good pressure and helped force an interception. Mark Barron has yet to justify the free agency dollars the Steelers invested in him. The 49ers moved the ball in the 2nd half when they needed to, and the Steelers linebackers could not come up with a play to stop them. Grade: C

Secondary
Whether the Steelers decision to mortgage their future by trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick is unknown here today. But one thing is clear, he is easily the most dynamic member of the secondary. His interception off of a Joe Haden deflection was exactly the type of playmaking the Steelers secondary has been starved of for a long time. Terrell Edmunds was second in tackles, but has yet to make a splash play. Steven Nelson’s name hasn’t been heard much. The Steelers needed another play from the secondary in the 2nd half. They didn’t get it. Grade: C

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made both of his field goals and both extra points. Jordan Berry averaged 52.3 yards punting. All good. However, the kick return team allowed 25 yards per return, and the punt return team allowed 10 yards per return. Given the Steelers limitations on offense, this team cannot afford to sacrifice this type of field position. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers coaches tried to establish the run to give Mason Rudolph a break. It didn’t work. The Steelers offensive line is doing a passable job in protecting the quarterback, but its run blocking leaves a lot to be desired.

Randy Fitchner made changes to the Steelers wide receiving corps, and there was some marginal improvement, but the wide outs are struggling to create separation. Why was Jaylen Samuels not used in the running game?

On defense the Steelers got opportunistic, which not something that can be said of recent Steelers defenses. However, the offense could not take advantage of those turnovers. Neither could the defense step up and make a stop when the team needed it.

  • Which is becoming a recurring theme.

Mike Tomlin, Randy Fitchner and Keith Butler have some work to do. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
If there is any unequivocal bright spot in this dismal Steelers 2019 season it is this man. Against the 49ers he added another sack, made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and harassed the passer all day, and for that Stephon Tuitt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the 49ers.

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Can Sutton Smith Gain the Size Needed to Play Linebacker for The Steelers?

When you look at the frame of edge rusher/outside linebacker Sutton Smith, the Steelers sixth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in the 2019 NFL Draft, you wonder if he’ll have the size to play with the big boys at the professional level.

  • At first glance, Sutton Smith, at 6’1″ and 234 pounds, appears to be light years away from having the ideal size to play outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense.

But maybe that’s because I’m thinking of Dick LeBeau‘s old Steelers defense, and the likes of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who seemed to carry the bulk necessary for their time.

But times are different in 2019. In Keith Butlers defense, Steelers outside linebackers are expected to be more athletic, more agile than they were in the past. In fact, Bud Dupree, who came into the league at around 270 in 2015, dropped 20 pounds by his second year. T.J. Watt, a budding star in the Steelers defense, is listed at 252 pounds.

  • Both players are more lightning than they are thunder. They’re more quiver than they are quake.

What that means is, for a player like Sutton Smith, he may not have very far to go to get to where he needs to be in order to compete in the National Football League.

Sutton Smith, Steelers 2019 6th round pick

Sutton Smith, the Steelers 1st 6th round draft pick from 2019. Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Tribune

If the desire and intensity he displayed in college on his way to 30 quarterback sacks makes its way into the Steelers weight room, there’s no reason Sutton Smith can’t pack on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. If he does that, he’ll be in the game, he’ll be in the running for a spot on the Steelers roster.

Just take a look at second-year outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, who is the same height as Smith and listed at 248 pounds. There’s a bit of a buzz surrounding Ola Adeniyi as he enters his sophomore season in the NFL. Who’s to say there won’t be a similar buzz about Sutton Smith this time next season?

  • Who’s to say there won’t be a buzz about Sutton Smith this summer?

Fact is, Sutton Smith has a chance to make it on the Steelers’ roster, even if it’s as an inside linebacker (his current weight would be just about ideal at that position). There’s always room on Pittsburgh’s defense for a guy with the ability to get after the quarterback. There’s always room on the Steelers roster for a player with the kind of intensity Sutton Smith displayed in college.

Sutton Smith may have limitations, but his size, well, that probably isn’t going to be one of them.

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Good News (and Some Bad): Steelers Resign Tyson Alualu to 2 Year Contract

NFL free agency may still be almost 3 weeks away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have already made two moves, two very different moves involving Le’Veon Bell and Tyson Alualu. A day after Kevin Colbert announced that the Steelers would not be tagging Le’Veon Bell, the franchise announced that it has signed backup defensive lineman Tyson Alualu to a two year contract.

Terms of the contact have not yet been announced, but the deal that Tyson Alualu signed with the Steelers in 2017 paid him roughly 3 million per year, so one can figure Tyson Alualu’s new contract pays him at a commiserate level.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Vital, Valuable Backup on Defensive Line

While the Steelers employee their “base” 3-4 defense less and less frequently, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and yes, Dick LeBeau, have struggled to staff adequate depth behind their starting front three. Al Woods was blossoming into a viable number 4 lineman in 2012, but the Steelers were unable to retain him, and shuttled through Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews over the next two years.

  • Tyson Alualu promised to change that he he’s delivered on that promise since arriving in Pittsburgh.

The Jacksonville Jaguars made Tyson Alualu the No. 10 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, which saw him go three spots behind Joe Haden and eight ahead of Maurkice Pouncey, but Alualu never lived up to his draft status.

In In 31 games for the Steelers, including 7 starts, Tyson Alualu had registered four sacks and made 61 tackles. To the naked eye, his production may have slipped bit in 2018, but that’s because his snap count declined from 44% in to 29% in 2018.

That drop in Tyson Alualu’s snap count was driven mainly by the relative state of health that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt enjoyed last season, and the coaches decision to get Javon Hargrave on the field more.

  • The Steelers have made the right move in resigning Tyson Alualu.

But this bit of “good news” must be balanced by a bit of less positive news. During the Mike Tomlin era (and arguably the trend extends back to Bill Cowher’s days as head coach), the Steelers have struggled to develop defensive line depth in house.

The fact that the Steelers have moved first to resign Tyson Alualu over extend deal to Daniel McCullers or L.T. Walton shows that Pittsburgh is still struggling in that area. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Steelers have secured a critical defensive backup before free agency has even begun.

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Steelers Fire Joey Porter. Mike Tomlin Makes First of Several Anticipated Coaching Changes

In his postmortem press conference Mike Tomlin promised changes and is not waiting long to implement them. The Steelers announced that they will not renew outside linebacker Joey Porter’s  contract, effectively firing him.

  • Joey Porter of course played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2006.

In fact, one of Mike Tomlin’s first decision upon becoming head coach was to let Joey Porter go a move, that while controversial at the time, paved the way for James Harrison to join the starting line up.

The Steelers went on to draft Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the 2007 NFL Draft (Lawrence Timmons was initially drafted as an outside linebacker, per the Steelers 2007 Media Guide.)

Joey Porter, steelers fire Joey Porter

Joey Porter during Steelers 2018 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via PennLive.

One of the reasons why Mike Tomlin parted ways with Joey Porter was because of an altercation that he reportedly had with Ben Roethlisberger during the Steelers 8-8 Super Bowl hangover induced season following their victory in Super Bowl XL.

However, in February 2014 Mike Tomlin reversed course and brought Joey Porter back to Pittsburgh naming him as a “defensive assistant.” A year later when Mike Tomlim promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, Joey Porter got promoted to outside linebackers coach while Jerry Olsavsky was also promoted to inside linebackers coach.

Jarvis Jones never developed into a player, Bud Dupree has improved since his rookie year, but the consensus is that he still relies more on athleticism than refined skill. T.J. Watt appears to be blossoming into a legitimate Super Star.

  • Joey Porter’s return to the Steelers did not come without controversy.

After the Steelers January 2017 win playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, Porter was caught in a highly public altercation with a South Side bouncer.

A year earlier, Joey Porter presence on the field while doctors were attenting to Antonio Brown helped prompt Adam PAC Man Jones to touch an official, resulting in a 15 yard penalty, that set up Chris Boswell’s game winning field goal (remember those?) in the Steelers playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

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