Steelers Sign Mark Barron, Possibly Signaling Jon Bostic and/or Morgan Burnett’s Exits

“Be aggressive!” Appears to be the mantra free agency mantra of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 as they continued to bolster their defense by signing former Los Angeles Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron.

If initial reports are correct, Mark Barron’s contract with the Steelers is for two years and 12 million dollars with a $5.75 million signing bonus.

While “Mark Barron” is far from a household name he does have some history with the Steelers, as he was responsible for hit that injured Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2015 win over the then St. Louis Rams. Although Barron’s hit was clearly against NFL rules, he was neither flagged nor fined for the transgression.

Mark Barron, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger

New Steelers free agent Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger in 2015. Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, via TimesWVA.com

As a result of the play, Mike Vick was forced to start 3 games in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, with Landry Jones relieving Vick and rallying the team to a comeback win over Arizona.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Mark Barron entered the NFL as a safety, until they traded him to the Rams in mid-2014, who moved him to inside linebacker. Like some other recent free agent signings from past off seasons, Mark Barron comes to Pittsburgh with some injury history, having missed the first four games of 2018, before starting the final 12 including the Rams 3 playoff games.

This could spell bad news for Jon Bostic, who figured to be the incumbent starter following L.J. Fort’s free agent defection to the Philadelphia Eagles. The move could also signal a coming release of Morgan Burnett, whom the Steelers signed as a safety last season.

The Steelers plan was to start Morgan Burnett at safety, but injuries led to Terrell Edmunds getting the start, and Edmunds played well enough to keep the strong safety spot for the balance of the season. Morgan Burnett did work his way into the lineup, but as a dime linebacker, a move which prompted Burnett publicly request his release.

Although the Steelers have now made high-profile free agent signings at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, Pittsburgh is expected to target all three positions in the 2019 NFL Draft.  The moves however, frees Pittsburgh from the need to reach to fill any of the areas on their depth chart.

  • A generation ago the saying went, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.”

Today you could say, “When you draft for need, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.”

Word to the Wise: Official Word on Barron Signing Pending

A quick word to the wise:  News of the Steelers signing Mark Barron broke on Twitter on Sunday the 17th. By Monday the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review were running the story, seemingly having confirmed Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN.

  • However, as of Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30 am Eastern the Steelers had still not officially announced the signing.

While the delay is likely due to logistical issues, it is possible that the deal hit a snag. Back in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Steelers had signed Bud McFarland. That deal never materialized. However, in that case the Tribune Review had clearly and consistently reported that no deal had been reached with Bud McFarland.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

 

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L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

L.J. Fort, L.J. Fort free agency, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2019 Free Agency Tracker – Change Sweeping Through Pittsburgh

The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.

  • The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Signings

3/13/2019 – Steelers sign Steven Nelson, Cornerback from Kansas City to 3 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Anthony Chickillo to 2 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Jordan Berry to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers resign Eli Rogers to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Donte Moncrief to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Daniel McCullers to 2 year contract
3/19/2019 – Steelers sign Mark Barron to 2 year contract

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Losses

3/13/2019 – Jesse James signs with Detroit Lions
3/13/2019 – Le’Veon Bell signs with New York Jets (for less money than the Steelers offered. Just say’n)
3/13/2019 – Steelers trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for a $3 Starbucks card and 5 box tops (er, um a 3rd and 5th round pick
3/14/2019 – L.J. Fort signs 3 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers 2019 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a feature length free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
Ramon Foster
Steelers resigned Ramon Foster to 2 year contract 3/8/2019
Tyson Alualu
Steelers resigned Tyson Alualu to 2 year contract 2/22/19
Jordan Berry
Ryan Shazier
Anthony Chickillo
Coty Sensabaugh
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Daniel McCullers
Justin Hunter
Nat Berhe
Stevan Ridley
L.J. Fort
Eli Rogers
Jesse James
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2019 Restricted Free Agents

Xavier Grimble
Steelers offered original round tender to Xavier Grimble, 3/8/2019
B.J. Finney
Steelers offered 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney 3/8/2019

Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Mike Hilton
Steelers offer ERFA tender to Mike Hilton, 3/8/2019
Matt Feiler
– Steelers offer ERFA tender to Matt Feiler, 3/8/2019
Jake McGee
Keith Kelsey
Malik Golden
Keion Adams

The Steelers have already been busy in free agency, signing Tyson Alualu to a 2 year contract extension and informing Le’Veon Bell that they will not place the transition tag on him.

  • In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.

We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.

You’ll be able to access all Steelers 2019 Free Agent profiles by clicking on our Steelers 2019 free agent focus category tag.

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal with a Disruptive Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

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

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal when Your Star Pupil is Disruptive

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

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

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Saints: The Teacher is Truant Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is guilty of some Christmas season-laced truancy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to New Orleans Saints.

Antonio Brown, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Saints

Antonio Brown was on fire against the Saints. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Commentators lauded Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Saints. We will not be quite as kind here. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger 3 three touchdowns and avoided any interceptions. He did it facing more pressure than he has most of the year, and in a very tough place to play. But several of Ben’s passes were high early in the game, and he began the Steelers final drive with 3 incompletion. Given all else that transpired, the Steelers needed an A or A+ performance from Big Ben and didn’t quite get one. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels didn’t get many opportunities to run with the ball, but he ran well, and made himself a force in passing game if through nothing other than his touchdown. Stevan Ridley had one strong run and then of course fumbled on 3rd and 2. That hurt, and it brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald gouged the Saints on a 49 yard reception and was the only Steelers tight end to have a ball thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown played like a man possessed and was clearly in playoff from. So was JuJu Smith-Schuster for that matter. Ryan Switzer caught 3 passes for 18 yards. Eli Rogers came down the two point conversion. This game evolved as you’d expect it to, Ben Roethlisberger hitting his top two targets time and time again. While the receivers had a strong day, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble was costly, and brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The New Orleans Saints sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times and hit him on 7 other occasions. That’s a high number, but there’s a reason why New Orleans is a Super Bowl favorite. All things considered, the line provided decent protection to Ben Roethlisberger, but the Saints go through to Ben on the fourth quarter drive that ended with the fake punt, and that brings their grade down. Grade: C-

Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Saints, Mark Ingram

Stephon Tuitt & Vince Williams smother Mark Ingram. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
The new Orleans Saints have a decent rushing attack, yet the Steelers neutralized that into a non-factor. Cam Heyward had a pass defensed, and Stephon Tuitt had a sack, a tackle for a loss, two QB hits (and a tipped pass that wasn’t called….) Grade: B+

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and was followed by Jon Bostic. But the real star of the unit was T.J. Watt who came up with a sack that forced a punt, a pass deflection, a QB hit and a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis came down with the Steelers 2nd Red Zone interception in as many weeks and deflected 2 passes. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and was followed by Joe Haden. Morgan Burnett also added another pass deflection to his resume. When the secondary did a lot of things right, they gave up a 3rd and 20 in the 4th quarter and Haden and Hilton also missed tackles allowing Alvin Kamara to gain 31 yards and get into field goal position at the end of the first half. Those three extra points proved to be costly. Grade: B-

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made all of his kicks, including a 48 yarder. Jordan Berry had a 49 yard punting average and did not have a punt returned.

  • The special teams shining moment was a L.J. Fort’s blocked punt, which could have been a game-changer.

For all the good that play did, the Steelers tried and failed to convert a fake punt. As the upback Roosevelt Nix got 4 of the 5 yards he needed. Which wasn’t enough. Grade: C

Coaching
Critics will second guess Randy Fichtner for going conservative in the 4th quarter after the Steelers took the lead, but if Stevan Ridley holds on to the ball, perhaps that becomes an academic question.

In a playoff like situation, Randy Fichtner had the ball in the hands of his best players on offense and, by any measure, they were above the line.

Keith Butler can and will take heat for giving up yet another late 4th quarter score. This is something that has been all too common this season. However Butler’s defense held the Saints in check, which is not an easy task. And while the Steelers defense wasn’t able to overcome some very bad calls, they went toe-to-toe with the Saints and no one would have imagined that possible back in September.

  • Mike Tomlin will take heat for calling a fake punt, but he won’t hear of that in these parts.

Mike Tomlin made the right decision. It was a risk reward call, and one that is all the more understandable because punting to Drew Brees at that point would have given him the ability to completely kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

In calling the fake punt, Mike Tomlin wanted to ensure that his offense would touch the ball again during the game. He got his wish.

  • Beyond that, this Steeler team has been shaky and inconsistent during this season.

After a big win over the Patriots, one could rightly ask, “Which Steelers team will show up?” There’s no question that the Steelers team that took the field wsa one that not only came to play, but played to win and that was critical. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
He doesn’t get a lot of ink. He doesn’t make a lot of splash plays. You don’t see him much on ESPN highlights. But against the Saints, other than for his two defensed passes, you didn’t hear his name much. And for a cornerback facing Drew Brees that is a good thing. And for that Coty Sensabaugh wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Saints.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

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

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

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Raiders: Sobering Reality of Stumbling into Mediocrity Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher struggling with the sobering sight of once star students stumbling toward mediocrity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the (latest) loss to the Raiders in Oakland’s Black Hole.

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

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

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was 25 for 29 for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, although he had some close calls. But Ben moved the offense at will in the 4th quarter and did well in the first half. Joshua Dobbs saw his first extensive work, and he disappointed. While his passes weren’t wild they were also a little off. Dobbs best play was a run, which is never good for a quarterback. Dobbs led the offense to two punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. Not good enough. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin can claim that rushing the ball is an 11 man job, but we know that neither Jaylen Samuels or Stevan Ridley will be a threat on the ground anytime soon. As a positive, Roosevelt Nix made a great block and Ridley hit the hole perfectly for the first TD, Jaylen Samuels looked really good coming out of the backfield. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Jesse James made a number of key catches up the middle on an afternoon where Steelers offense put a premium on those short and medium passes. McDonald, however could not convert on the 4th and one, and he missed his block on Darrius Heyward-Bey’s reverse. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown had a slow afternoon but still caught 5 of 7 balls thrown his way. But one of those set up a score and another sparked the 4th quarter rally. The real star of the Steelers offense was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who literally is budding into a super star before our very eyes with 8 catches for 130 yards. James Washington caught two passes for 28 yards. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Raiders only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and kept the Steelers quarterbacks clean, but Oakland’s rushing defense is one of the worst in the league, yet the Steelers offensive line could do nothing to take advantage of them. Even a smidgen of rushing offense could have made a difference in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt made another splash play, while Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns stoning Raiders runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. This was nice, but the Steelers really needed someone to make a stop on 4th and 1. That’s not all on the line’s shoulders, but it starts with them. Grade: D

Stephon Tuitt, Derek Carr, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Raiders

Stephon Tuitt sacks Derek Carr. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
T.J. Watt tipped a pass and looked stout in run support as did Bud Dupree who added a sack. L.J. Fort saw extensive time at inside linebacker, and most frequently the back of his jersey was seen chasing down wide receivers or tight ends. The fact is that Oakland was able to complete passes down the middle when it needed to, and while that’s not all on the linebackers they must do their part. Again, where was the drive-ending 4th quarter splash play? Grade: D

Secondary
Mike Hilton came up with a key sack and recovered a fumble. However, he had his hands on a pick that got away, as did Sean Davis. Mike Hilton also blew the coverage on the game winning touchdown. Morgan Burnett came up with a nice pass deflection in the end zone, but that was only after he and Terrell Edmunds got burned for the Raider’s 39 yard pass that set up their final score. The Steelers played the Raiders tight at times, but when it counted, in the 4th quarter, Oakland sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary as if it were Swiss cheese. Grade: F

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had some decent punt and kick returns, and the Steelers return coverage was solid. None of Jordan Berry’s punts were returnable. All positives.

That’s two missed field goals in a game decided by 3 points. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Coaching
The Steelers offense was bound to be one dimensional, and yet Randy Fitchner came up with a solid game plan given the limitations and his players executed it well enough.

  • As for Keith Butler’s defense, 13 games into the 2018 season what you see is what you get.

When the Steelers get pressure on the quarterback this defense is capable of playing with just about any offense in the league. And, as compared to a year ago, the Steelers defense isn’t giving up big plays in droves the way they were.

But the Steelers pass rush is only solid when it needs to be relentless. And that reality, along with coverage lapses and inconsistencies against the run adds up to a brutal truth:

  • This is a defense that simply cannot be counted on to salt a game away.

While a lot of fans are ready to scapegoat Keith Butler, it is entirely possible that Butler is doing well with the talent he has at hand. Hum, “The talent he has on hand” that’s an interesting concept to take into account when evaluating Mike Tomlin’s performance in this game.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Mike Tomlin is taking heat for his use of time outs when the Raiders were in the Red Zone, but this scribe strongly suspects that Tomlin was giving his defense a chance to “Grow up” so to speak. If that’s the case, then its hard to fault his motive, even if his defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • The same cannot be said about Mike Tomlin’s other gamble, namely keeping Joshua Dobbs in the game.

Per Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger was “medically cleared to play” when he reached the sideline. Tomlin also conceded that Ben could have come back in the game a series earlier.

Who knows why Mike Tomlin kept Joshua Dobbs in when Ben was ready to return? Really, it doesn’t matter because it was the wrong choice, a choice that will carry consequences far beyond dooming the Steelers to a loss to a 2-10 team. Grade: F-

Unsung Hero Award
Being asked to step into James Conner’s shoes cannot be easy, but that is what the Steelers asked of Jaylen Samuels. And while Samuels struggled running the ball, he did quite well as a pass catcher, and really impressed with his second efforts and determination to grind out extra yards. And for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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