Steelers Activate Ola Adeniyi, Cut Matthew Thomas

Heading into their critical Sunday night show down with the San Diego er um, Los Angeles Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers made personnel moves, one expected, the other a bit of a surprise.

  • First, the Steelers have activated outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi off of injured reseve.

This move was expected. Bud Dupree’s participation in practice was limited this week, and T.J. Watt also suffered a minor injury in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. Anthony Chickillo also suffered some sort of ankle injury in the Steelers win against the Chargers, although he has practiced since then.

  • So it was not a surprise to see the Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi off of the injured reserve list.

During the preseason Ola Adeniyi, whose full name is Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, was one of the stand out players for the Steelers defense as he recorded 3 sacks, and was a regular presence in the offensive backfield.

Ola Adeniyi, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi

Steelers activate Ola Adeniyi for Chargers game. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

However, their move to make room for Ola Adeniyi does count as a bit of a surprise, as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert chose to wave inside linebacker Matthew Thomas. Matthew Thomas joined the Steelers as part of their 2018 undrafted rookie free agent class, and had a stand out effort in preseason.

In fact, just prior to the opener, Jim Wexell reported some Steelers coaches were considering the possibility that Matthew Thomas could be splitting time with starters Vince Williams and Jon Bostic by the end of the season.

That role for Matthew Thomas never materialized, as the Steelers have turned to L.J. Fort as their primary backup at inside linebacker. The Steelers can of course resign Matthew Thomas to their practice squad, but he would have to clear waivers first.

Other Steelers News Heading into Chargers Game

In other injury-related news, safety Morgan Burnett is also likely out against the Chargers, paving the way for rookie Marcus Allen to see his first playing time of the year taking over the role of dime linebacker.

Starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been ruled out leaving Ben Roethlisberger’s protection in capable hands of either Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor. Cornerback Cameron Sutton is listed as questionable.

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Le’Veon Bell to Sit Out 2018 – The Le’Veon Bell-Steelers Soap Opera Ends. Finally.

It’s over. Thank God. The Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera ended today as the 4:00 pm deadline came and went without Le’Von Bell signing his franchise tender. Now Le’Veon Bell cannot play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, and he’ll forfeit the entire 14.5 million he was due under the franchise tag.

  • The move also effectively ends Le’Veon Bell’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

In football terms both sides lose here, at least in the short term. While James Conner has excelled in Le’Veon Bell’s absence, the drop off from James Conner to Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels is large. Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell hold out,

Le’Veon Bell departing the grid iron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

In addition to losing the money, Le’Veon Bell loses a shot at winning a Super Bowl in 2018. While there’s little doubt that some team, awash with salary cap space will offer Le’Veon Bell more than the Steelers were able (or willing) to pay, money won’t buy Bell a championship.

Sure, Le’Veon Bell could find himself with the Eagles or Patriots in 2019. Even the Browns, who have gobs of cap sapce, are broaching respectability, seem to have a legit quarterback and could become formidable by a soon as next year. Ah, but what if the biggest offer comes in from say, the Oakland Raiders….?

  • But the post-Pittsburgh Steelers portion of Le’Veon Bell’s story remains to be written, and others will write it.

While yours truly wishes Le’Veon Bell would have come back to play out his franchise tag, I’m also glad the fat lady has sung on this soap opera. The Le’Veon Bell-Steelers story has simply become tedious.

The Le’Veon Bell Soap Opera Hour – a Tedious Affair

Sure, the Steeles misjudged things when they used the 2nd Franchise tag.

But the Steelers sincerely desired to sign Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal. While the Steelers reported offers might not have reached the levels that Franchise Running Backs of yesteryear enjoyed (i.e. Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk), they were ready pay Bell far and above his peers.

As for Le’Veon Bell? Yes, Bell said he would hold out (he also said he’d retire) if he got a 2nd franchise tag. He’s also said a lot of other things, some of them even wrote right side up.

  • And that has been the most aggregating plot line of this entire soap opera.

And at almost every stage, Le’Veon Bell’s actions have contradicted his words. Yet that hasn’t stopped both fans and much of the professional press, from hanging on Le’Veon Bell’s every word, acting as if the Burning Bush itself is speaking.

Did Le’Veon Bell show up to start the season as he promised he would? No. Nonetheless, “Sources” indicated he’d show up during the season’s 1st six weeks, and people believed them. Except he didn’t show up. Then Bell himself told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler he was going to show up at the bye week. Everyone bought it, until he didn’t show up.

  • Then of course Bell was waiting to darken doors on the South Side until the trade deadline passed. It passed and Bell remained in Miami.

And while we’re at it, did anyone really believe those trade rumors about Le’Veon Bell? I don’t know about you, but those always struck me as more mischief than anything else.

Thankfully, all of that stops today. Sure, they’ll be talk about the Steelers using a third franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell or even the transition tag (again, do does anyone believe that the Steelers really told Le’Veon Bell they were going to transition him in 2019?) But all indications are the Steelers are ready to move on.

  • And, while that’s the right move on the part of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, that’s a shame.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are probably the three men most responsible (well, you’d have to add Cam Heyward and make it a quartet) for the turn around the franchise has seen since starting 2-6 in 2013.

  • It would have been perfect for Pittsburgh to see the Killer Bees standing on the dais, hoisting Lombardi Number Seven together.

That will never happen now. So be it. Finally we can accept it and move on.

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Underachieving or Just Underwhelming? Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens

From the grade book of a teacher who wonders if his students are underachieving or simply underwhelming to begin with, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2018 home loss to the Ravens.

James Conner, Anthnoy Levine, Steelers vs Ravens

What’s wrong with this picture? James Conner’s tackle of Anthony Levine was perhaps his best play of the night. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Again Ben Roethlisberger started slow in the 1st quarter, played like a stud in the 2nd quarter and then fizzled out in the 3rd quarter. The Steelers failed to cross the 50 in the second half and were 3-11 on third downs. Ben Roethlisberger not only missed several open receivers, he had several almost interceptions. Grade: F

Running Backs
James Conner had 19 yards on 9 carries and 3 catches for 15 yards. In contrast, Le’Veon Bell has owned Baltimore in the Steelers last three games and this Raven’s run defense, while improved is hardly impenetrable. The run blocking was suspect, but the Steelers needed more from Conners, and didn’t get it. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald and Jesse James caught every pass thrown their way and McDonald’s 33 yarder was impressive. However, his fumble set up Ravens’ touchdown and the Steelers defense doesn’t need its offense to do the opposing teams any favors. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster had four catches and Antonio Brown managed 5 catches 11 targets. James Washington caught 2 of four. While it IS clear that Ben Roethlisberger is out of rhythm with his receivers, it does take two to tango, and there were many plays when no one was simply getting open. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Statistics say Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit once. But the pocket seemed to collapse quickly, and several of the Ravens front 7 batted down passes. Nor did the line effectively open holes for the running game. The Ravens won the battle of scrimmage. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and Stephon Tuitt had 4 with Javon Hargrave registering three, a tackle for a loss, and QB hit and a sack. The Ravens team rushing total of 3.2 years won’t impress any fantasy football owners, but Baltimore ran the ball when it needed to especially in the 3rd half. The Steelers defensive line failed to pressure Joe Flacco. Grade: D

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Joe Flacco and had a decent night. Jon Bostic led the team in tackles, and looked to get men lined up properly. T.J. Watt had four tackles but was otherwise invisible. L.J. Fort looked good after Vince Williams got hurt. The Steelers linebackers weren’t a liability, but they failed get pressure and failed to deliver a 2nd half stop when it was needed. Grade: C-

Secondary
Joe Haden had an outstanding night – after whiffing on those two touchdown passes, one of which he and his fellow defender appeared to be confused on. Terrell Edmunds recovered a fumble that Sean Davis forced, although Edmunds barely avoided getting burned on a Joe Flacco overthrow. Baltimore was 8 of 17 on third down, and while that’s not all on the secondary, a lot of it is. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell splitting the uprights not once, but twice for 34 and 39 yards provided the night’s lone bright spot. Jordan Berry also punted reasonable well and the Steelers coverage units didn’t give up any long returns. A special teams spark would have been nice. Grade: B

Coaching
The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook channeled his inner Chuck Noll when he quipped, “The Steelers problems are great, and they are many.”

For all of the accolades that Ben Roethlisberger has won, and for whatever statistics milestones the offense had achieved before the game, the Steelers offense had been inconsistent all season long as it struggled on third downs disappeared for quarters at a time, only scoring 13 points in the 1st and 4th quarters.

  • Why does the Steelers offense explode in the 2nd quarter only to tapper off in the 3rd and then completely peter out in the 4th?
  • Do Randy Fichtner’s scripted plays fall flat, leading him to adjust only to have defenses readjust?

That’s almost certainly a simplistic explanation, but it makes as much sense as any other offered. Clearly Ben Roethlisberger must be more consistent, but is just is clear that Randy Fichtner must create the conditions for Roethlisberger to be consistent. Thus far Fichtner has failed.

  • On defense, it is hard to know what to say.

Is it Keith Butler‘s fault? Or is Mike Tomlin micro managing him? Has Kevin Colbert, with or without Mike Tomlin’s assent, emphasized drafting for athletic talent at the expense of polished football skill? Or are the Steelers assistants deficient in developing that talent?

Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

Sure the Steelers forced field goals and secured a turnover in the Red Zone, but that hardly matters when an offense can protect a 4 point lead by authoring back-to-back 6 minute plus 2nd half. If the Steelers coverage is so weak that it can only rush 3 men, then perhaps the disease is worse than the cure, because at least big plays get the offense back on the field quickly.

  • And the fact that we’re even having this discussion underlines just how deeply into dysfunction the Steelers defense has sunk.

Worse, the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing with confidence. Notice the change in demeanor between the Steelers before and after Vance McDonald’s stiff arm against Tampa. Absent a spark like that, the Steelers are not taking the field with the attitude of a team that believes it can win, and that is on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
This young player caught a couple of passes, including a key 3rd down conversion, ran a play out of the backfield, and feathered the Ravens with a long enough kick return that they squibbed the next kickoff it to Roosevelt Nix and for that Ryan Switzer wins the Unsung Hero Award for 2018 loss to Baltimore at Heinz Field.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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