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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

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

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

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

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself:

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

Numbers don’t lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

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Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

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

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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Surprise! Steelers Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from Practice Squad, Cut Terrell Watson. What’s Going On?

Its the last week of November, so it must be time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to….

…If you guessed “Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from the practice squad” you’d be right, as that’s just what the Steelers did 24 hours ahead of their show down with the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field. In a move that comes as a surprise, the Steelers cut rookie Terrell Watson and promoted the veteran Toussaint from the practice squad.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger

Fitzgerald Toussiant runs in the Steelers 2015 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Photo Credit: The SteelersWire

Two years ago, almost to the day, the Steelers activated Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad ahead of their 2015 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

At the time, the move Steelers appeared to be protecting Toussaint from practice squad poaching, as the Ravens had just lost Justin Forsett, and Fitzgerald Toussaint had been with the Ravens in 2014.

  • This time the Steelers motives appear murkier.

Le’Veon Bell has been getting the lion’s share of the carries, with James Conner getting a few carries per game. Instead of risking Ben Roethlisberger on quarterback sneaks, Terrell Watson gotten the call as a short yardage back with mixed effectiveness and for the record had 5 carries for 8 yards.

While this site has taken heat on Twitter for being somewhat of a homer for Fitzgerald Toussaint, Watson had out performed Foussaint during training camp and preseason and won the job.

  • Might the Steelers have concerns about either Le’Veon Bell or James Conner’s health?

Or are the Steelers simply engaging in the type of roster shuffling on their running back depth chart similar to what they have done on the inside linebacking depth chart where Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky have alternated L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson on the active roster and practice squad throughout the year.

  • That’s a possibility, its also possible that Fitzgerald Toussaint is looking better than Watson in practice.

While he won’t strike fear into the hearts of any opposing defensive coordinator, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable number 3 running back in his time in Pittsburgh.

His biggest game came in the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals, where he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage, although many fans still haven’t forgiven him for his fumble in the Steelers playoff loss to Denver the following week.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Titans – Have the Star Students Finally “Got It?”

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has crossed his fingers, hoping his students have finally “Got it,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Titans.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, Kevin Byard

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Titans safety Kevin Byard in Steelers win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was playing at home for the first time in close to a month, and he’s clearly more comfortable playing at Heinz Field. While Roethlisberger had an uneven first half, he recognized that challenged everyone including himself to step it up, and he was unstoppable in the second half, keeping drives alive, distributing the ball and throwing touchdowns in the Red Zone. For the night, Ben went 30 of 45 for 299 yards no turnovers and 4 touchdowns. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell didn’t have much room to run, and the Steelers didn’t try to force feed him the ball. Bell was a force catching balls through the air, and helped set up manageable 2nd downs. James Conner ran a little before garbage time and didn’t find much room to run either, but looked OK late in the game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Jesse James might never become a true number 1 tight end, but he’s proving to be a reliable target down field. While the tight ends much share some blame for the lack luster run blocking, James delivered as a receiver and added another touchdown catch to his resume. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had endured a couple of weeks where his production dropped and he was elispecd by JuJu Smith-Schuster. While murmurs of “Is 84 losing a step” hadn’t begun (and for good reason), Brown appeared to take it personally. Brown was clearly the Steelers number 1 reciever on the field catching 10 passes for 144 yards, including 3 touchdowns and one which was a work of pure wonder. JuJu Smith-Schuster had some nice catches, including a tough 3rd down conversion in the Red Zone. Martavis Bryant had a quieter night, but made a key third down conversion. He also recovered a fumble. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Titans had more success getting to Ben Roethlisberger than any team thus far this season, but the Steelers line kept him clean in the 2nd half. The line’s run blocking left a little to be desired, but they were going up against a Dick LeBeau defense intent on making Roethlisberger beat them. He did, and the line helped. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
The Titans barely broke 50 yards rushing and averaged 2.5 yards on the ground, and that starts up front as the Steelers defenders dropped at least 10 Titan ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, by ESPN’s count. Cam Heyward is playing at a level of dominance not seen since the days of the Steel Curtain, recording 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 3 QB hits. Stephon Tuitt wasn’t far behind, recording a sack and 2 QB hits. Javon Hargrave had 1 tackle for a loss. L.T. Walton had a sack late in the game. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday night, DeMarco Murray

Vince Williams, Cam Heyward and others gang tackle DeMarco Muarry in Steelers Thursday Night win over Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Ryan Shazier led the Steelers in tackles with 10 total, Vince Williams had a sack and T.J. Watt tipped a ball. Bud Dupree had part of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker helped shut down the run and get the defense off the field in the third down. Grade: B+

Secondary
Mike Hilton had an interception that allowed the Steelers to go up by 3. Coty Sensabaugh had another interception that set up the Steelers second field goal. Robert Golden’s third interception set up the Steelers 3rd touchdown, while Sean Davis intercepted the ball in garbage time. While those are all positives, the Steelers secondary got burnt, badly on another long pass play. That makes 3 in two games, which cannot continue and brings the grade down considerably. Grade: B-

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Titans, Robert Golden, Steelers vs Titans

Mike Hilton returns on of four interceptions on the night during the Steelers Thrusday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
It sure feels better to be the kick blocker rather than the kick blockee. Thanks to T.J. Watt, the Steelers blocked a Titan’s field goal early in the game, which helped ensure the Steelers lead. Antonio Brown returned two punts and averaged 11.6 yards, a refreshing change, and could have taken his last one farther had he not bumped into one of his own players. Chris Boswell was a perfect 4/4 on field goals and extra points. The Titans did have a long kick return and a decent punt return, neither of which had an impact but could have. Grade: A-

Coaching
Score one for Todd Haley. Haley was going up against a coach who knew his tendencies, his personnel and his way of thinking better than any other opposing defensive coordinator he’ll ever face. Yes, the Steelers used more no-huddle than normal, and Ben Roethlisberger’s comments suggest that he was doing more of his own play calling.

  • But Todd Haley correctly assessed that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to rely on the run to win this one, and he designed his game plan accordingly.

Keith Butler’s defense continues to evolve, and save for the first play of the second half, completely shut down the Titans in the last thirty minutes. Butler is blessed by an awesome defensive line, yet he needs to find a way to coax better play out of his secondary, especially if his starting corner and starting free safety are out as long as they’re expected to be out for.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t start the 2017 season firing on all cylinders.

Mike Tomlin appeared to anticipate that, warning people that the team remained a work in progress as opening day arrived. Tomlin knew his team, but more importantly, the Steelers have made slow but steady (if not always linear) improvement as the season has progressed.

While you always want to play your best football all the time, the truth is that finishing strong is more important that starting fast. The Pittsburgh Steelers still must sustain their progress during the season’s last 6 games, but week 10 saw Mike Tomlin getting his players to play their most complete game of the season, which is a very positive sign. Grade: A-

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Thursday Night

Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin confer on the sidelines during the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Unsung Hero Award
Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed him to be the focus of the Steelers offense. And for the better part of the last 12 months, that’s been undeniably true. But going into the game against the Titans, he knew focus was going to be off him, and he didn’t pout, didn’t complain on social media. Instead, he continued to make the bread and butter plays both on the ground and through the air that kept the Steelers offense humming.

He had what looked to be a really tough touchdown taken away on replay, and instead of demanding a second chance, accepted his role as a decoy in one of the best play fakes the Steelers have executed in living memory, paving away for a critical touchdown and for that Le’Veon Bell is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers Thursday Night win over the Titans.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts – Will “Just Passing” Be Enough When Playoffs Arrive?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose wondering if his students MO of “just passing is enough” will in fact be enough when the pass/fail portion of the course arrives, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Colts, Martavis Bryant 2 point conversion

Martavis Bryant scores critical 2 point conversion in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Nine games into 2017 it’s a fair question to ask if what we’re seeing from Ben Roethlisberger will be what we get. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing his best November and December football, but will that be good enough in January? Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half that included an interception and zero 3rd down conversions. He played well in the second half with two touchdowns and several key completions on the game winning drive. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell is another player who may be in “What you see is what you get territory.” To be fair to Bell, he didn’t have a lot of room to run often times, and there were times when he made something out of nothing. But its hard to watch him and think he’s not a notch below his 2016 performance. James Conner had one carry for 10 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald got wide open in the end zone and made the game tying touchdown. He also had another catch. Still, McDonald missed his block on an end-around and that cost the team. The run blocking was below par, and the tight ends deserve some responsibly. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers top receiver making an Brown-like catch downfield, scoring a touchdown and leading the team with just under 100 yards receiving. Antonio Brown had an off day, he wasn’t targeted much in the 2nd half, but had a drop that would have put the Steelers in the Red Zone and also drew a costly offensive pass interference penalty. Still, Brown came up big late in the game, and his catch and run was a difference maker. Eli Rogers had one catch for 2 yards, but it converted a third down when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pierre Desir, Steelers vs Colts

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2nd quarter catch over Pierre Desir was Antonio Brownesque. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The Colts came into the game with one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses, but you wouldn’t have known it given their 4 tackles for a loss and otherwise proficient run stuffing of Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, the Colts sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him 4 times. While those numbers are not high by Roethlisberger historical standards, its clear that the 2017 edition of Big Ben needs all the help he can get. He didn’t get enough of it, early on at least. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Let it be said that in his absence, the Steelers defensive line played some of its best football of the season (particularly at the goal line.) And upon Stephon Tuitt’s return, the defensive line got better. Ok, perhaps this wasn’t an overall A+ performance as it had been against the Lions as Frank Gore ran reasonably well in the 1st half, but the Steelers shut him down in the second. Stephon Tuitt led the unit with three tackles, including 3 for losses, four QB hits and a sack at a critical moment. Cam Heyward had two tackles and was a force even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Javon Hargrave had a pass defensed. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett early made four tackles including 3 for losses, and Vince Williams brought him down in the 4th quarter. T.J. Watt had a quiet day with 3 tackles. Ryan Shazier made the play of the game, as Shazier’s interception which set up the Steelers tying touchdown. The Steelers didn’t get much pressure on Brissett early, and it showed. They harassed him the entire second half, and that was a difference maker. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Steelers lost Mike Mitchell and more ominously Joe Haden. And they gave up 2 touchdown passes of 60+. When you do that on the road, you normally lose. Its true that the Steelers coverage improved as the game progressed, but those early stumbles could have been fatal. Sean Davis had a spectacular afternoon, and he brings the grade for the entire unit up. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers committed 4 straight penalties on special teams which set up the Colts first touchdown. Jesse James and Alejandro Villanueva lost containment and the Steelers saw their second blocked place kick of the season. Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he kicked the game winner and Jordan Berry boomed off several punts, which raises the grade for the unit. Barley. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley’s play calling came with some head scratchers, including the end around and a very strange lateral run with Le’Veon Bell that went nowhere. Still, the Steelers offense outscored the Colts 17 to 7 in the second half, which amounted to a night and day difference from the first 30 minutes.

Keith Butler’s defense put in another strong day. Given how poorly Pittsburgh’s offense performed during the first half, the Steelers were lucky not to be down by more than 7. Still, the Colts scored two touchdowns and made it look easy. Those types of plays cannot continue.

Mike Tomiln, Steelers vs Colts

Mike Tomlin departs the field after the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The pivotal moment in Pittsburgh’s victory came after the Steelers second touchdown. An extra point would have left the Steelers behind by one, a two point conversion would have tied the game. The Steelers struggled to get the right personnel and play on to the field to the tune of a timeout and a penalty.

Nonetheless, the Steelers still made the 2 point conversation, and that proved to be an important difference, as it forced the Colts to play to win rather than simply burning up the clock. Word is that Mike Tomlin over ruled his lieutenants and made the call himself, and as a result, while the Steelers once again fell short of excellence, finished the game Above the Line. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been a disappointment and a distraction thus far this season. He possibly was at fault for or at least contributed to the first interception. But he came up big when the Steelers needed a two point conversion, and his 3rd down conversion inside the two minute warning got the Steelers to mid field, and for that Martavis Bryant is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Ryan Shazier’s Interception Against the Colts Came at Critical Moment in Steelers Win Over Indy

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, one of the first things head coach Mike Tomlin said about the young lad out of Ohio State was that he was “splash-play capable” (or whatever “Tomlinism” the coach used at that moment).

Maybe that’s why it was no surprise that Ryan Shazier made splash play after splash play in the very exciting and memorable wild card victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season–including a miraculous forced fumble in the final two minutes, which came just one play after it appeared backup quarterback Landry Jones threw the season away to villain linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Ryan Shazier, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts, Ryan Shazier interception Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception against the Colts was a clutch play that came at a critical moment. Photo Credit: Joseph C. Garza, CNIH Indiana

Which brings us to the 2017 campaign, specifically this past Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, where the Steelers were struggling mightily against a 3-6 Colts squad that came into the day having only beaten one team that had beaten other teams (the Colts other two victories came against the winless Browns and the at-the-time winless 49ers).

  • Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was essentially one Colts score away from dropping yet another road game in-which it was a very heavy favorite.

With the offense struggling once again, the Steelers defense not only needed to shut Jacoby Brissett and the rest of Indianapolis’ offense down, it needed to come up with a huge splash play that put the offense in premium field position.

  • No. 50 did just that.

With the Colts facing a third and eight from their own 13, a quick pass from Brissett bounced off  the hands of tight end Jack Doyle, before Shazier, in a Troy Polamalu-like display of otherworldly hand-and-eye coordination, quickly corralled it before being tackled at the 10.

If you were skeptical that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant et. al. would fail to parlay this gift into a touchdown, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, with the help of Vance McDonald they cashed-in to the tune of the maximum eight points and a tie game, before going on to win, 20-17, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell

Speaking of the legendary Polamalu, after he and the rest of Dick LeBeau‘s defense got old in the early-2010’s, there was a very noticeable lack of splash plays, the kind that could ultimately change the course of a game (how many times had No. 43 done so in his prime)?

It’s hard to win in the NFL without an opportunistic defense, and it’s even harder when you don’t have a player who can often come up with a clutch interception, fumble recovery or just a timely hit that forces one.

  • Ryan Shazier has a knack for doing all three, and he has done all three at crucial moments in recent Steelers history.

After a rather-impressive rebuilding of the defense under new coordinator Keith Butler, the unit is full of young, fast defenders who are capable of making a splash play at any time.

But Ryan Shazier, with his unique blend of speed and explosiveness, is often the one who makes the biggest splashes of them all.

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