How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/1305666999813648384

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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Surprise! Turk Visits Ryan Switzer, Daniel McCullers as Steelers Make Initial Cuts

What will perhaps go down as the most unusual cut down day in Steelers history began with a few surprises. The NFL required all teams to cut down to the 53 man roster limit by 4:00 pm on Saturday September 5th, and the Steelers cuts included two names that everyone knows.

First, the Steelers cut Ryan Switzer, who served as their primary kick and punt returner during 2018 and 2019 and who had an extremely close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Injuries limited Ryan Switzer’s effectiveness in 2019 and ultimately ended his season.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Cutting Ryan Switzer was the 1st Steelers surprise on cut down day, 2020.

Still, word out of Steelers training camp was that Ryan Switzer looked good, prompting Ed Bouchette of The Athletic to report that Switzer’s roster spot remained safe, while Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider leaned in that direction.

  • Say one thing about Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh, he has constantly surprised.

Going into the 2018 off season “D” seemed to indicate “disappointment” for Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh has his playing time regressed following his second year. Yet, the transition from John Mitchell to Karl Dunbar opened the door to a 2nd contract for Daniel McCullers, and although he didn’t play much more in 2018, he did well enough to get himself a third contract in 2019.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

Daniel McCullers closes in on RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Word in training camp was that Daniel McCullers had slimed down and was playing his best football yet.

  • Alas, his best wasn’t good enough, as the Steeler cut him.

The other Steelers initial cuts include:

Quarterback
Paxton Lynch

Running backs
Kerrith Whyte Jr.
Trey Edmunds
Wendell Smallwood

Wide Receivers
Saeed Blacknall
DeAndre Thompkins
Deon Cain
Amara Darboh

Offensive linemen
Christian DiLauro
John Keenoy
Derwin Gray
Anthony Coyle
Jarron Jones

Tight Ends
Kyle Markway
Kevin Rader

Defensive Linemen
Cavon Walker
Henry Mondeaux
Calvin Taylor

Linebackers
Tuzar Skipper
Jayrone Elliott

Defensive Backs
Trajan Bandy
John Battle
Antoine Brooks Jr

Special Teams
Punter Corliss Waitman and long snapper Liam McCullough

Of the group above, the only real surprise is the decision to cut Antoine Brooks Jr, the safety who was the Steelers 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Maryland.

However, more surprises were to come…

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin were only getting started.

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

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

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

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

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

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

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

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

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. 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
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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