Recent Steelers Third String Quarterback History Shows Mason Rudolph CAN Help Pittsburgh in 2018

Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph have put the Steelers signal caller firmly into the news. Given where we are in the off season, its all that anyone in Steelers Nation is talking about.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick, Steelers third string quarterbacks

Think Mason Rudolph can’t help the Steelers in 2018? Guess again. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steel Curtain Rising has already taken Ben Roethlisberger to task for his implicit attitude behind his statements on Rudolph. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. But there’s another bone to pick with Big Ben’s comments, a bone that’s completely objective in it comes from one of the few seemingly uncontroversial things he said:

Nothing against Mason. I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. [Emphasis added]

OF all of Roethlisberger’s remarks on Rudolph, his assertion in bold is likeliest to elicit a “Well, he’s got a point there” nod from even his harshest critics. Because on the surface it’s hard to dispute his logic. After all, third string quarterbacks don’t do much, even in practice, right?

Third string quarterbacks rarely earn even footnotes in football history. For most of their history, the Steelers offer no exception. When was the last time you saw a parent-child combo strutting around Heinz Field sporting Rick Strom and Brian St. Pierre jerseys on throwback weekend?

  • But in this case, experience trumps logic, and Ben’s own history with the Steelers shows his claim about Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks is wrong.

Think back to the Steelers 2005 season that culminated with victory in Super Bowl XL. That Super Bowl season saw the Steelers start their third string quarterback twice, as Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch started four games that season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ben Roethlisberger after Jacksonville loss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • Its almost certainly as coincidental as it is ironic but Steelers third string quarterbacks have enjoyed their moment in the sun during the Roethlisberger era.

We covered much of this ground on the eve of the 2015 season when justifying Landry Jones roster spot in the face of fans who felt he should have been cast aside in favor of Mike Vick. Let’s spell it out in Black and Gold again:

  • In 2005, Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox both saw starts after holding the QB number 3 designation
  • In 2006, third string quarterback Dennis Dixon started against the Ravens
  • In 2010, Charlie Batch started games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore as the third stringer
  • In 2012, a Byron Leftwich injury again thrust Charlie Batch from 3rd to first as Batch started two games
  • In 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness of Mike Vick elevated Landry Jones from 3rd stringer to starter

Just looking at the math, during the Roethlisberger era about every third season has seen a Steelers third string quarterbacks suit up as a starter….

…And two full seasons have elapsed since that last occurred.

Past performance may not predict future results, but it would behoove Ben Roethlisberger to do what he can to get Mason Rudolph ready to play sooner rather than later.

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Steelers Draft Mason Rudolph in 3rd Round. Has Pittsburgh Picked Roethlisberger’s Replacement?

At the end of the day, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was both right and wrong. In his predraft run up, Wexell devoted a full article which justified the possibility of the Steelers selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

So Wexell was right there but he was still wrong. In the week before the draft, Wexell wrote that the Steelers should only draft Rudolph if they felt he was deserving of a 1st round pick. Well, they did not, and drafted him in the third round.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick

Steelers 3rd round pick Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steelers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner things that Mason Rudolph could have been a first round pick, explaining:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you know that some systems might fit better for certain people. I’ve liked him since the beginning, since we started evaluating him. I think that maybe if there’s any negative to his game, it might must be the ability to except and extend, but boy, you sure do see him do it a lot…. The ability to stand in the pock and make big plays on third down, be effective in situational football, the way he’s been, is very exciting.

The Steelers of course picked Rudolph one round after picking his favorite target, James Washington, in the second round. Rudolph discussed going to “the next chapter with one of your brothers, with your best receiver that you’ve spent your whole college days with, who you can potentially spend another 15 years with, that’s going to be one heck of a ride and I can’t wait to get it going.”

The story and idea of keeping a college QB-WR combo together makes for compelling copy, but there’s no assurance that the same magic can transfer from college to the pros. The Steelers made Charles Johnson, wide receiver out of Colorado their first round pick in 1994 and drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 draft.

Charles Johnson wasn’t a bust, what was more of a Ziggy Hood type first round pick. The ups and downs that defined Kordell Stewart’s stint in Pittsburgh are well documented, but Yancey Thigpen and not Johnson was his top target.

Video Highlights of Mason Rudolph

The Steelers have invested heavily in scouting Mason Rudolph, with Kevin Colbert in attendance at Oklahoma State’s 59-21 win over Pitt last season, which saw Rudolph lead his team to 49-7 half time lead while throwing 5 touchdown passes.

Here’s a longer look at his highlight reel:

Mason Rudolph certainly can plan at the college level.

The question at this point isn’t whether he can play in the NFL, but whether he’s the successor to Ben Roethlisberger or not. When the Steelers drafted Landry Jones in 2013, they bent over backwards to assure the world that Landry Jones was coming to Pittsburgh to replace Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, not Ben Roethlisberger. A year ago, similar assurances were given regarding Joshua Dobbs.

  • But the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph with a third round pick and even traded up a few slots to get him.

You generally don’t project third round draft picks as franchise quarterbacks, but third rounders are premium picks whom you do expect to develop into starters. And the Steelers have a history of turning third round picks into starting quarterbacks, as evidenced by the careers of Buddy Brister and Neil O’Donnell.

  • Neither man brought home One for the Thumb.

But Brister flashed potential in leading the 1989 Steelers to their near miracle turn around season, and Neil O’Donnell rallied a struggling 1995 Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX (where he promptly threw two boneheaded interceptions.)

The 1979 NFL Draft could perhaps offer some hope. The Steelers were picking last in each round, fresh off of their third championship from Super Bowl XIII, but they lacked a 3rd round pick thanks to John Clayton outing Chuck Noll for holding padded practices in the off season.

One slot before the Steelers would have made their third round pick Bill Walsh took a young quarterback who’d grown up in Western Pennsylvania. His name is Joe Montana and he ended up tying Terry Bradshaw‘s then record 4 Super Bowl rings.

Not too many 3rd round quarterbacks have succeeded in following that template since then, but Joe Montana’s story shows that Mason Rudolph can do what’s being asked of him.

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Steelers 2018 Quarterback Draft Needs – Still Too Early to Draft Roethlisberger’s Replacement?

A year ago Ben Roethlisberger’s utterance of the “R” word left Steelers Nation on pins and needles. Although Roethlisberger confirmed he’d return for 2017, he’d unmasked the elephant in the room.

  • Even so, the conclusion here was that it was too early to draft Roethlisberger’s replacement.

The wiser option was to draft players who could help Ben bring home Lombardi Number 7. Fast forward to January 2018: Following another playoff disappointment, Ben Roethlisberger changes his tune and says he wants to play 2-3 more years.

So the calculus on drafting Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement in the 2018 NFL Draft shouldn’t change…. Right? Well, let’s see.

Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger plans 2018

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey. Photo Credit: Phil Sears, USA Today, via SCI

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

At age 36 and after 14 NFL seasons, Ben Roethlisberger finally commands respect as one of the NFL’s premier signal callers.

The days when critics derided Ben as a “game manager” who depended on a strong defense and robust rushing attack to win are over. Neither is Roethlisberger written off as a school yard improviser.

No, with 200 games, 198 starts and 135 wins and rings from Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, people finally, if grudgingly respect Ben Roethlisberger as one of the best.

Ironically, this belated recognition arrives despite Ben Roethlisberger’s agonizingly slow start in 2017. Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell also took their time to find their rhythm, but Antonio Brown pulled down some wild throws to make Roethlisberger look better than he had any right to look early on.

  • Did Ben Roethlisberger take half a season to get his arm into shape as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell suggests?
  • Did Randy Fichtner’s move from the booth to the sidelines give Ben the boost he needed?

We’ll never know. But what we do know is that Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating for the first eight games of 2017 was 82.7, just shy of his career worst 75.1 mark of 2006, but during the final 8 games of 2017 Ben Roethlisberger posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

While a certain segment of Steelers Nation will never accept it, Landry Jones has developed into a quality NFL backup quarterback. Landry Jones may have been as lost as he looked in 2013 and 2014,but something clicked for the Oklahoma signal caller in the 2015 preseason when the Steelers gave 3 separate players shots at unseating Jones from the 3rd quarterback slot.

  • As fate would have it, an injury to Mike Vick turned out to be a lucky break for the Steelers, as Landry Jones closed two wins against the Cardinals and the Raiders.

Since then Jones has started in a losing effort against the Patriots in 2016 and in season finales against Cleveland in 2016 and 2017. Landry Jones won both contests, including a come from behind win in 2016 and an 85% completed passing effort in 2017.

Behind Landry Jones the Steelers have Joshua Dobbs, whom they took in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. A rocket scientist, Joshua Dobbs looked about as good as can be expected in preseason and apparently takes his preparation seriously.

Steelers 2018 Quarterback Draft Needs

Some mass psychology professor should study how Steelers fans react to Ben Roethlisberger news.

Last year, many if not most fans remained convinced that 2017 would be Ben Roethlisberger’s last season. Now, suddenly, after Roethlisberger says he plans to play for 2-3 more seasons, most conclude that he’ll do just that and perhaps even a few more.

They also conveniently forget Roethlisberger’s early 2017 struggles and assume that he’ll l continue to play championship caliber football as long as he desires. Let’s hope he does, but Ben Roethlisberger is 36 and all 36 years old NFL players are taking it year-by-year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • A year ago the smartest thing the Steelers could do was to draft talent to help Ben Roethlisberger win in 2017. T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster fit that bill.

And that remains a wise option today. But dynamics differ a bit in 2018. Unlike last year, the 2018 NFL Draft is said offer a good crop of quarterbacks. And Ben Roethlisberger IS a year older. Steelers fans know too well that in 1983 Terry Bradshaw planned to play for 5 more years and Pittsburgh passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera.

By all means, the Steelers focus in the 2018 NFL Draft should on positions other than quarterback.

  • But if your quarterback is 36 years old and if a franchise quarterback falls to you, you draft the quarterback.

Therefore the Steelers 2018 quarterback draft need must be considered Moderate.

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Why Steelers Shouldn’t Resign Stevan Ridley, the Free Agent Backup Running Back

It’s an uncertain time to be a running back for the Steelers. If you’re superstar Le’Veon Bell, will you be here next year, the year after that and for the rest of your career?

  • If you’re second-year back James Conner, will the torn MCL you sustained near the end of your rookie season heal in time to be ready for 2018?

And if you’re veteran Stevan Ridley, picked up near the tail-end of the 2017 campaign as  a result of James Conner’s injury, do you even want to come back? Stevan Ridley and the merits of retaining his services beyond the proverbial cup of coffee that was his time with Pittsburgh in 2017 is what we’re going to discuss right now.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers free agent Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley rushing for Steelers in Jan 1st win over Browns Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley’s Steelers career

The classic journeyman running back, Stevan Ridley, 29, was a third round pick of the Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft. Ridley played in New England for four seasons, with his standout year coming in 2012, when he rushed  for 1,263 yards on 290 carries.

A free agent the following spring, Stevan Ridley signed a deal with the Jets, but only remained with them for one season, before bouncing around the league through the end of the ’17 season, when the Steelers came calling on December 19.

Stevan Ridley looked pretty good in limited action for the final two games of the regular season–including a Week 17 start in a game against the Browns that was virtually meaningless. All-in-all, Ridley tallied 26 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown with Pittsburgh, but saw no action in the divisional round playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley 

It shouldn’t cost more than the veteran minimum to retain the services of a player like Stevan Ridley, who arrived in Pittsburgh literally hours after watching football from the comfort of his own home. He is a veteran with a history of productivity and perhaps showed he has some tread left on his tires during his limited work with the Steelers in December.

If Le’Veon Bell were to sit out 2018, and if James Conner isn’t fully healed by the start of the season, other than Fitzgerald Toussaint, at this point, a restricted free agent, who would start in Pittsburgh’s backfield as things stand right now?

Stevan Ridley might not be a world beater, but the fact that Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin instructed Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones to hand the ball to Ridley while keeping Toussaint on the bench should tell you all you need to know.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Regarding retaining the services of the All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, many fans contend that any running back could have success behind the Steelers impressive offensive line, one that now includes three Pro Bowlers.

Perhaps an unfair thing to say, but Ridley was  the very definition of any running back, and he averaged 4.15 yards per carry behind the Steelers hogs. If Stevan Ridley can do that, why not James Conner? Why not Fitz Toussaint? Why not any number of college running backs the Steelers could pick up in the 2018 NFL Draft in and indoctrinate in its system?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley did well in his limited time rushing for the Steelers. And while his ability to get off the couch to deliver on short notice, in contrast to say Sean Spence, is impressive, one also must keep in mind that Ridley was playing behind an All-Pro offensive line, and against two teams fighting for draft position.

The most consequential decision the Steelers face in free agency is on Le’Veon Bell. But regardless of whether Bell returns or seeks greener pastures, its also hard to argue that the Steelers shouldn’t be able to find someone who can add more to their backfield other than Ridley in 2018.

So if I’m Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, I’m telling Stevan Ridley, “We have your number. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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Its Official: Steelers Promote Randy Fichtner as Offensive Coordinator

Two days after firing Todd Haley, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved swiftly to promote quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator. The Steelers simply announced the new on their website, and did not make Fichtner available for questions. However, the Steelers new offensive coordinator did release this statement:

I want to thank Coach (Mike) Tomlin and Art Rooney II for giving me this opportunity to be the offensive coordinator for this organization. We have a tremendous roster, and it will be my charge to continue putting our offensive players in position to succeed and score points. We have the nucleus to be successful, and I am thrilled about the chance to lead the offense as we have already started preparing for the 2018 season.

Randy Fichtner joined the Steelers in 2007 as part of Mike Tomlin’s initial coaching staff, where he replaced Bruce Arians as wide receivers coach.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J. Puskar, via Yahoo.

Randy Fitchner Finally Gets “His Turn”

In 2009, where a Super Bowl hangover led to an inconsistent start and a 5 game losing streak, the Steelers front office pressured Mike Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians as offense coordinator. Tomlin resisted, yet he did move Randy Fitchner from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach.

  • At the time, commentators suggested that Tomlin was grooming Fitchner to replace Arians.

While Arians only lasted two more seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, Randy Fitchner didn’t replace him. In fact, if reports are true, he wasn’t even Mike Tomlin’s first choice, which would have been running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who was unable to take the job due to burns suffered in a fire.

Randy Fichtner kept a low profile as Steelers quarterbacks coach, working in the booth on game day and rarely making statements to the press, save for the 2013 NFL Draft when Fichtner spoke following the decision to draft Landry Jones.

However, in the middle of the 2017 season, new and strange face was seen talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines during games. That was Randy Fichtner, who if reports are correct, had been brought down from the booth to serve as a “buffer” between Roethlisberger and Haley.

Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers Coaches Needed

By promoting Randy Fichtner, Mike Tomlin has created another vacancy on his staff as he now need a new quarterbacks coach and new receivers coach. Both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have been mentioned as possible quarterbacks coaches, while Hines Ward and Daniel M. Rooney, the son of Art Rooney II, have been suggested as wide receiving coaching candidates.

Futures Contracts and Free Agent Signings

Earlier this week the Steelers announced that cornerback Mike Hilton tight end Xavier Grimble and long-snapper Kameron Canaday, all exclusive rights free agents, have signed one year contracts to return to the team.

The Steelers also signed “futures contracts” with defensive end Lavon Hooks, linebackers Farrington Huguenin, Matt Galambos and Keith Kelsey, wide receivers Justin Thomas and Marcus Tucker, cornerback Dashaun Philips, Safety Jordan Dangerfield and tight end Jake McGee.

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Steelers Backups Survive The Browns, 28-24, In Regular Season Finale

The Steelers were missing several key starters on Sunday, as they took on the hapless and winless Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field in the 2017 regular season finale.

However, despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and defensive end Cameron Heyward sitting out Sunday’s finale, Pittsburgh prevailed, 28-24, to finish the regular season 13-3, the team’s best record since 2004.

Starting in place of Roethlisberger, fifth-year backup quarterback Landry Jones marched the Steelers offense 72 yards on a scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown run by veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who scampered 29 yards on a reverse to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-0.

While the Browns were forced to punt on their first two possessions, Pittsburgh had its next two series end on an interception by Jabrill Peppers, followed by a stop on fourth and goal, when fullback Roosevelt Nix was stymied at the goal line.

But early in the second quarter, the Steelers went ahead 14-0 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jones to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster

The Browns answered right back, driving 74 yards on five plays and drew within a touchdown, on a two-yard plunge by running back Duke Johnson to make it 14-7. The big play on the drive was a 54-yard pass from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to receiver Josh Gordon down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line.

Pittsburgh answered immediately, driving 75 yards on eight plays and re-taking a two-touchdown lead on reserve running back Stevan Ridley‘s four-yard score to make it 21-7.

It is worth noting that the drive was kept alive after Browns rookie defensive end Miles Garrett was called for roughing the passer on third and three from the nine.

Cleveland answered right back two plays later, exploiting Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of a 56-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to receiver Rashard Higgins to make it 21-14 midway through the second quarter.

The score would remain the same at halftime, but Cleveland tied things up on its first series of the third quarter, making it 21-21, after Kizer found Higgins on a five-yard touchdown pass.

But the Steelers re-claimed the lead, when the rookie sensation Smith-Schuster took the next kickoff 96 yards to make it 28-21.

After a Zane Gonzalez 51-yard field goal drew Cleveland to within 28-24, the Browns had several chances to take the lead.

But Pittsburgh’s defense held firm down the stretch, forcing a fumble and interception on the Browns’ next two possessions.

On Cleveland’s final possession of the game, a fourth down pass intended for Corey Coleman was dropped by the wide-open receiver, deep in Pittsburgh territory, and the Steelers escaped with a 28-24 victory to improve to 13-3 on the season, while the Browns ended 2017 as the first winless team since the 2008 Lions finished 0-16.

For the day, Jones completed 23-27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and Smith-Schuster pulled in nine passes for 143 yards and a score, while also contributing to the victory with the aforementioned 96-yard kickoff return.

Reserve running back Ridley carried 17 times for 80 yards and a score.

As for the Steelers defense, it set a regular season record with 56 sacks, as reserve defensive end Tyson Alualu pitched in with two of the unit’s six on the day.

Photo credit: Pro Football Focus

The Steelers enter the postseason as the AFC’s number two seed and will enjoy their first playoff bye since the 2010/11 season.

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Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

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Steelers History vs Former Assistant Coaches Gives Context to Dick LeBeau vs. Todd Haley Matchup

Tonight the Tennessee Titans come to town for Thursday Night Football. The real story and stakes of the game are in the outcome itself – the Steelers at 7-2 need to keep pace in the AFC race and can ill afford to drop a game to the 6-3 Tennessee Titans who’re leading their own AFC South division.

  • But of course the subtext behind this game is Dick LeBeau’s return to Heinz Field.

No matter how you look at it, Dick LeBeau vs Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau vs. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler add a lot of intrigue to this game. With that in mind, we thought we’d look back to the Steelers history vs former assistant coaches.

While this list isn’t meant to be inclusive, it does highlight the Steelers record vs some of the franchise’s notable alumni.

Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Steelers history vs former assistant coaches

Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley in 2012. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

1979 – Super Bowl XIV – Noll Knows How to Beat Bud

January 20th, 1980 @ Rose Bowl
Pittsburgh 31, Los Angeles 19

The record will reflect that the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams was Ray Malavasi. But no one remembers that, because the subtext to this game was the chess match between Chuck Noll and his former defensive coordinator Bud Carson who was with the Rams.

  • Noll, as Art Rooney Jr. reports in Ruanaidh, informed his wife that “I know how to beat Bud.”

For a little more than four quarters it appeared Noll had erred. Then, facing 3rd and long deep in Pittsburgh territory, Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw to “Go for the big one!” Bradshaw launched 60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go to John Stallworth and 73 yards later the Steelers were ahead for good.

After the game, Carson complained that “All we needed to do was to stop John Stallworth.” Yep, Chuck knew how to beat Bud.

1989 – Bud Carson Gets His Revenge

September 10th, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

Ten years later Bud Carson would FINALLY secure the head coaching job he’d longed for when he left Pittsburgh over a decade earlier. And this time it was with the Cleveland Browns. Fate would have Bud open against his former mentor on the road at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Steelers fumbled on their first possession and the Browns returned it for a touchdown. Things went downhill after that, in an afternoon that saw Bubby Brister catch his own pass.

People took the game as a sign that Chuck Noll was done. It wouldn’t happen right away, but boy would the 1989 Steelers prove a lot of people wrong.

1992 – Dungy Triumphs in His Pittsburgh Home Coming

December 20th, 1992 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Minnesota 6, Pittsburgh 3

Tony Dungy of course played for Chuck Noll, and Chuck Noll not only gave him his first NFL coaching job, but made him the NFL’s first African American coordinator. Dungy was seen as heir apparent to Noll in many circles. But, after the 1988 Steelers disastrous defense Dungy resigned rather than accept a demotion.

Ironically, Dungy took a job as Bill Cowher’s secondary coach in Kansas City, but by 1992 he was back as a defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. While the Steelers managed to get Barry Foster his 100 yards, they couldn’t get it into the end zone and Dungy won his first game back at Three Rivers Stadium.

1996 – Dom Doesn’t Dominate, But Spoils Kordell’s Parade

December 22nd, 1996 @ Ericsson Stadium
Carolina 18, Pittsburgh 14

It only took Dom Capers three years as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to land his first head coaching job. And he’d face his former mentor, Bill Cowher in the final game 1996.

The game was meaningless for Pittsburgh, as its playoff seeding was locked, but Bill Cowher tried it out in an attempt to test drive his secret weapon – putting Kordell Stewart under center as the full time quarterback.

Stewart didn’t start the game, but was inserted midway through, and while he threw over a dozen incomplete passes, he eventually started connecting with his wide out and burned the entire Panthers defense with an 80 yard touchdown scramble. Stewart would come with in a dropped touchdown pass as time expired of leading a comeback.

1998 – Dungy Dominates in the “Crying Game”

December 13th, 1998 @ Raymond James Stadium
Tampa Bay 16, Pittsburgh 3

By 1998 the Kordell Stewart roller coaster had soared to tremendous heights and was now locked in a serious decline. Save for a few games in the middle of the year, Kordell Stewart had struggled for the entire season, and after the Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss Disaster had led and inept offensive effort against New England.

This followed a rainy game in which Bill Cowher replaced an in effected Kordell Stewart with Mike Tomczak, followed by Kordell confronting his coach, only to be seen on the bench crying, and THEN reinserted into the game.

2005 – Steelers Backups Spoil Mularkey’s Starters Playoff Hopes

January 2nd, 2005 @ Ralph Wilson Stadium
Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24

The story of the 2004 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was of course rookie Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben sat this one at as the 2004 Steelers already had home field advantage locked up.

  • Not so for former Steelers offensive coordinator Inspector Gadget, aka Mike Mularkey’s Buffalo Bills, who went into the game with their playoff hopes alive.

Alas, they were hoping in vain. Tommy Maddox would start for the Steelers, and together with Fast Willie Parker, the Steelers backups would defeat the Bills and keep them out of the playoffs.

2007 – Whisenhunt & Warner Get Better of Roethlisberger

September 30th, 2007 @ University of Phoenix Stadium
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14

When Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers head coach, the question most minds was whether the Rooneys would hire Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. Art II and Dan opted to do neither, and hired Mike Tomlin.

  • But that wasn’t the real story behind this matchup.

Ben Roethlisberger had made some seemingly disparaging comments about his former offensive coordinator, to the point where Mike Tomlin publicly admonished him that he should be excited “Simply because he’s playing a football game.”

Excited or not, Ken Whisenhunt platooned Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart to get the better of Roethlisberger in what would mark the first loss of the Mike Tomlin era.

2008 – Super Bowl XLIII – LeBeau Wins Chess Match with Whisenhunt

February 9th, 2009 @ Raymond James Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

The two sides would get a rematch less than 18 months later in Super Bowl XLIII. And by that time, all eyes were on the chess match between Dick LeBeau’s dominating 2008 Steelers defense and Ken Whisenhunt’s explosive offense featuring Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.

While its true that last minute heroics from Ben Roehtlisberger and Santoino Holmes were needed to secure victory, those heorics were possible in part by Dick LeBeau’s defense in the form of the 99 yard pick six authored by James Harrison.

Note, that represented at least a 10 if not 14 point swing in the Steelers favor in a game decided by 4. So yes, Dick LeBeau won the chess match vs. Ken Whisenhunt.

2009 — Roethlisberger and Wallace over Green Bay, by a Nose

December 20th 2009 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 37, Packers 36

By this point in time Dom Capers had had two unsuccessful runs as a head coach, but was back in the booth as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. But the Zone Blitz defensive model that Capers and pioneered with Dick LeBeau (and Marv Lewis) in the early 1990’s in Pittsburgh had gained traction throughout the league.

And the Steelers and Packers entered this game with two of the league’s top defenses which is ironic, because there was no defense to speak of in this game. The Steelers inability to stop the Packers aerial attack was such that Mike Tomlin ordered an on-sides kick late in the 4th quarter with the Steelers holding a two point lead, conceding that  the Steelers coudln’t stop them.

The Steelers couldn’t but got the ball back, as Ben Roethlisberger marched 86 yards in 2 minutes to make the game-winning throw to Mike Wallace with just 3 seconds remaining.

2015 – Bruce Arians Foiled by Landry and Martavis

October 18th, 2015 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13

The story of Bruce Arians, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II is well known, perhaps too well known for its own good. Bruce Arians “retirement” can be measured in days, if not hours, and when he returned to Heinz Field to face his former team, he brought a 4-1 record, a stealer defense, and was viewed as a Super Bowl favorite.

  • The Steelers, in contrast, were quarterbacked by backup Mike Vick, where on their 4th place kicker and decided underdogs.

Things appeared to go from bad to worse in the second half, when a scrambling Michael Vick left the game with an injury. In came Landry Jones, and most fans felt this spelled doom. But, supported by Le’Veon Bell’s rushing, Landry Jones quickly led the Steelers to a touchdown when he connected with Martavis Bryant in the end zone.

Although the two point conversion pass to Antonio Brown would fail, the Steelers would tack on two more Chris Boswell field goals, and were clinging to an 18 to 15 point lead at the two minute warning, when on second and 8 Jones hit a short pass to Bryant over the middle. Here’s what happened next:

Bruce Arians expression says it all! The Steelers beat the Cardinals 25-13.

 

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