Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns – “Pittsburgh Finishes It” Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is thrilled at seeing his entire class pull together to overcome adversity, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden interception, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden’s interception ensures that “Pittsburgh Finishes It” against the Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
When asked to assess Devlin Hodges play, an uncharacteristically frank Mike Tomlin confessed “He played his tail off.” Devlin Hodges did not have a strong first quarter, but hit his stride in the second, hitting 8 separate receivers, going 14 of 21 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw an interception late, which could have been devastating, so his grade comes down. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
If there is any bright side to come out of 2019, it is perhaps that the Steelers coaching staff will see that you CAN split carries and run the ball effectively. Benny Snell had 69 yards on 13 carries, followed by Kerrith Whyte added 10 on 3 carries. More important than any numbers or averages, the Steelers ran the ball when they needed to, when the Browns knew it was coming and couldn’t stop them. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Whether by happenstance or design, the tight ends re-emerged in the passing game, with Vance McDonald catch 3 passes for 21 yards and Nick Vannett catching one for seven that helped sustain the Steelers insurance field goal drive. Run blocking was notably better this week, and the tight ends share credit. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
James Washington had another phenomenal game coming up with 3 clutch catches, including a touchdown to close the 1st half. On the day, Washington was 4-111. Tevin Jones only had one catch for 28 yards, but it set up the Steelers tying touchdown before halftime. Diontae Johnson had shaky afternoon with 1 catch on 5 targets, as costly penalty and a route that he cut off too early. But his 17 yard reverse served as the second punch in the combo that sparked the Steelers offense and set up the first score. Deon Cain had 1 catch for 5 yards but it gave the Steelers a first down on their tying drive during the first half two minute drill. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The offensive line didn’t exactly road grade, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will. Delvin Hodges was only sacked once, and hit four times. In the first matchup against the Browns those numbers were 4 and 11, (and Myles Garrett only accounted for 3 of those QB hits.) The Steelers offensive line played its best game in weeks, and their improvement was key to victory. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Browns

Not even 3 Browns can stop Benny Snell. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward served as a two man wrecking crew up front, combining for 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Cleveland ran the ball a little too well at times, and the line holds some responsibility for that.

But numbers fail to fully tell the tail as Cam Heyward recovered the fumble that sparked the Steelers final scoring drive, and he combined for the sack the forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal. Javon Hargrave’s sack forced a punt after Hodge’s interception. That’s some serious playmaking. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Devin Bush lead the team in tackles, followed by Bud Dupree, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with another strip sack and another opportune sack (he would have had a 3rd had it not been for a bogus roughing the passer call.) T.J. Watt “only” had a sack a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and 1 quarterback hit. Mark Barron had 5 tackles while Vince Williams had 2 plus 1 for a lose. Again, Cleveland’s success running the ball brings this grade down a bit. Grade: B+

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles, while Steven Nelson was next with 5. Mike Hilton deflected two passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 1 pass deflected that he should have intercepted. In the end, it did not matter. Two plays later Joe Haden got his hands on the ball and held on to end the game. The Browns were 4-12 on 3rd down conversions, which only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade: A

Special Teams
Kerrith Whyte opened the game with a 34 yard kick return and averaged 24 yards on 3 returns, strong numbers in today’s NFL. The Browns got nowhere on their kick returns. Diontae Johnson is still finding his way as a punt returner, but he did have one good 13 yard return. Steelers punt return coverage was sound. Jordan Berry had a solid day punting, while Chris Boswell was perfect. Grade: B+

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
Last time “Baker out of the pocket” was Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis of what ailed the Steelers defense. He was right. This time, the Steelers contained Mayfield Baker, and that was a difference maker. The Browns ran the ball a little too well for comfort early in the game, but the Steelers defense clamped down.

Randy Fichtner is taking heat in some quarters for the offensive game plan, but after a slow start the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points until the Browns settled for a field goal with 7:34 left to play.

  • Randy Kitchens and the Browns chose to focus on the final 8 seconds of the first game, all the way down to his “Pittsburgh Started It” selfie.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin’s focus was on fixing the errors so painfully apparent in the game’s first 59:52 of play. When challenged about the impact of his T-Shirt, Kitchens was dismissive, insisting his team was “ready to play.”

While Randy Kitchens “talked the talk,” Mike Tomlin “Walked the Walk.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were the team that was ready, willing and able to win. “Pittsburgh Finishes It” indeed. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
He inherited “Next Man Up” status the moment Le’Veon Bell’s no showed in September 2018. Yet, with James Conner ailing last week, Benny Snell got the start upon his return to health.

Nonetheless, against the Browns he had 37 yards on 7 carries including a few out of the Wildcat plus 2 catches for 22 yards on two carries, and for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

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Win or Lose, Mason Rudolph Has Shown a Lot of Fight as Steelers QB in 2019

As John Madden, the legendary former NFL coach and analyst liked to say, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team.

Mason Rudolph, in his first year as the Steelers starting quarterback, is now just beginning to find that out. Why? After his four-interception performance in a 21-7 loss to the Browns last Thursday night, fans are starting to clamor for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford who is affectionately known as “Duck,” to be put into the lineup.

  • “They need to give Duck a shot, just to see if he can give the offense a spark.”

Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that hasn’t been heard around these parts since just days before Ben Roethlisberger made his first-career start way back in 2004 and soon began playing at a Hall of Fame level.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

Poor Mason Rudolph. Not only did the second-year man out of Oklahoma State barely get to enjoy a cup of coffee as the team’s newly-appointed backup quarterback after winning the job with a productive preseason, he couldn’t even make it to his eighth-career start before fans started calling for the other guy to start in his place.

  • Such is life for a starting quarterback who hasn’t achieved “elite” or “franchise” status.

Many thought he had the potential to be a franchise passer, when Pittsburgh, who had a first-round grade on him, traded up in the third round to select Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Truth is, and a lot of fans won’t want to hear it, Mason Rudolph still might have that kind of potential.

Only problem is, he hasn’t shown it right away. In-fact, he really hasn’t even shown glimpses of that kind of potential up to this point. Why? It could be due to many factors, including a lack of talent at both running back and receiver.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You know, people like to compare Mason Rudolph’s first year as a starter with Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 years ago. But what fans may have forgotten is that Big Ben had Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress to throw to. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was handing the football off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis.

Try as you might, even on its best and healthiest day (receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson as well as running back James Conner may miss this Sunday’s game against the Bengals with injuries), you can’t compare this current group of skill-position players with the one from Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign.

Another reason may be because of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative approach on offense with Rudolph at the helm. It was almost a running joke, early on, the way Mason Rudolph was attempting and completing passes that barely made it past the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, while the play-calling has gotten more aggressive, as Rudolph has gained more experience as a starter, the offensive production hasn’t improved much at all. Actually, it has regressed over the past few weeks.

Again, though, this current group of skill-position players, led by Smith-Schuster and Conner, has yet to prove it can be a force, especially compared to the ones previously headlined by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Combine that with the injury factor and, oh yes, the surprising struggles of the offensive line, and it’s just so hard to evaluate Mason Rudolph’s performance so far.

  • But while Mason Rudolph has yet to show glimpses of greatness, he hasn’t proven to be a disaster, either.
Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Before last Thursday’s dreadful performance, Rudolph had thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions, two of which were far from his fault and should have been caught. And even after last Thursday’s game, Rudolph’s quarterback rating in 2019 is 82.9.

That’s not exactly horrible. In-fact, one might say those are numbers you can build on. I’m obviously no expert on quarterback play, and I realize Mason Rudolph’s footwork, pocket presence and arm strength have all been questioned by those who know why more about those kinds of things than I do.

  • But half the battle is not looking totally over-matched, and thus far, it’s hard to say the moment has been too big for Mason Rudolph.

Actually, you might say the exact opposite. You might say he’s shown great fight. In Rudolph’s third-career start against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, he was knocked out cold, thanks to a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot by safety Earl Thomas. Rudolph had to be helped off the field, and he missed the following week’s game after being diagnosed with a concussion.

And, of course, at the end the Body Bag Game against the Browns, Rudolph helped create a national news story by starting a brawl with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett that eventually ended with Garrett smacking Rudolph over the head with his own helmet.

It’s a shame that the fight ended the way it did, and it’s really a shame that Mason Rudolph, 24, has been turned into a villain by many national pundits and fans, many of whom have implied, without any proof at all, that Mason Rudolph may have provoked Garrett’s dangerous act with some sort of racial slur.

  • But the fight Mason Rudolph showed up until the bitter end of that brawl was admirable.

It demonstrated a frustration, not only with his performance, but with losing a game to a bitter AFC North rival. It showed me that Rudolph is fully committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers, to winning and to getting better as an NFL quarterback.

Dangerous head injuries, aside, Mason Rudolph is probably having the time of his life in 2019. Where he goes from here and how much more he improves is anyone’s guess.

But Mason Rudolph is fighting, and he’s fighting hard. At the very least, you have to love that part of his game.

 

 

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“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

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

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

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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The Long Wait Is Almost Over, Steelers Fans Training Camp to Start Soon

Didn’t it seem like only yesterday when you were standing in front of your television set and screaming for, of all teams, the Cleveland Browns to “Come On, baby!” and vanquish those Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium?

That’s right, things had gotten so bad, the Steelers, your Pittsburgh Steelers, needed the help of those once hapless–and win-less–Browns in order to salvage what once seemed like a damn-near certainty: a third-straight AFC North title.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Terrell Edmunds

JuJu Smith-Schuster works against Terrell Edmunds at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unfortunately, the Steelers and their fans were put in such a strange predicament on the final Sunday of the 2018 regular season thanks to an epic collapse over the final six weeks that saw a 7-2-1 record and a 2.5 game lead in the division implode into a 9-6-1 record and a half a game deficit behind Baltimore in the standings.

Unless you’ve been in a coma the past seven months, you know those Brownies didn’t do it, and the Steelers found themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since Ryan Succop indirectly ended their hopes five New Year’s Eves earlier.

It’s obviously been one ugly offseason — this is what happens when you blow a big lead in the standings and must rely on the Browns to save the day — but here we are today, on the eve of training camp.

No more talk of Antonio Brown‘s antics, his motives, his happiness or his sadness. He’s gone, the rage over the third and fifth-round draft picks the Steelers received for him in a trade with the Raiders has now dissipated.

Same for the anger over the ongoing contract saga of Le’Veon Bell, the man who sat out the previous two training camps, as well as the entire 2018 regular season, and is now a member of the New York Jets after finally being allowed to enter free agency this past spring.

  • In their absences appears to be peace and calm. Along with the serenity seems to be a renewed focus and determination.

Those things are easy to have when a couple of major distractions are gone. It’s also easy to have a new and positive attitude in the offseason when you can post videos of the defense getting together for a cookout, or the offense spending some quality time at Ben Roethlisberger‘s summer home in Georgia.

  • It’s easier to smile and laugh when you don’t really have to prove anything to anyone.

It’s easy to look good during offseason workouts when OTAs, rookie camp and mini-camp are all conducted sans pads and hitting. This is especially the case for veterans who have been around the block and know what to do to get their bodies right for the grind of training camp.

It’s easy to get hyped about the newest draft class–and even some undrafted free agents who may have some impressive college stats and/or highlights on Youtube.

But now it’s almost time for that grind to begin. It’s time to answer some questions under the glaring sun at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Steelers have been conducting training camp since the 1960s.

It’s time for the fans, who only get to hear about offseason workout sessions such as OTAs, to consume some football with their own eyes. They get to hear the hitting as they, too, bake in the hot sun of Latrobe.

It takes a lot to get through six months without football–you may have even tried to consume the now defunct AAF, a minor league football spring startup that came and went faster than the Steelers 2.5 game lead late in the 2018 season.

But we did it again, Steelers fans. We made it through the truly cold days of winter (January is always so much harsher when Pittsburgh isn’t in the playoffs), the renewed promise of spring and those dog days of summer (you know which ones I mean–those three or four weeks before the start of training camp).

Now, here we are, on the cusp of fall, the greatest season of them all.

It’s almost time, Steelers fans.

 

 

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Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019 – Exploring the Pros & Cons

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare start St. Vincents this week in Latrobe all eyes are on Art Rooney II and his pending decision to extend or not extend Mike Tomlin’s contract.

The Steelers longstanding policy has been to extend the contract of their head coach 2 years prior to the expiration of his current deal. Dan Rooney began the practice with Bill Cowher in the 1990’s and Art Rooney II continued it in 2017 just months after his father passed away.

  • However, both seasons have ended in disappointment since Mike Tomlin’s last contract extension, leading to speculation that change may be in the air.

Here we take a look at the Pros and Cons of extending Mike Tomlin’s contact in 2019.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II has a decision to make on Mike Tomlin’s contract. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

The Cons of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

For many, there is no debate. Much of Steelers Nation, perhaps even a majority, has wanted Mike Tomlin gone and wants no part of seeing him stay around. This site isn’t inclined to join that chorus but the arguments against extending Mike Tomlin are legitimate.

Two years ago, when the Steelers last extended Mike Tomlin’s contract, the team had indeed suffered a brutal AFC Championship loss to New England, but it looked like it was on the verge of completing an end-to-end rebuild around Ben Roethlisberger without dipping below .500.

  • Anyone who thinks that it is “easy” to rebuild a team around a young franchise quarterback should look at Don Shula and Dan Marino’s experience in the 80’s and ‘90’s.

Yet, the Steelers have taken steps backwards in each of the following two seasons, and they’ve done it against a background filled with a lot of distractions. Are those distractions Mike Tomlin’s fault? Well, in many cases, the truth probably is “No.”

Mike Tomlin didn’t make the decision to franchise Le’Veon Bell on his own. Its entirely possible that Mike Tomlin wanted to cut James Harrison in the summer of 2017 but wasn’t not allowed to. (The fact that James Harrison was a candidate to be cut is a matter of record, the rest is my speculation.)

While Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism for enabling Antonio Brown, it isn’t much of a stretch to argue that Tomlin kept Brown’s Diva tendencies in check far better than Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin did with their Diva wide outs. The bottom line is, Brown was a distraction early last season, then his issues were largely forgotten and only resurfaced at the end.

  • Regardless, deciding to extend Mike Tomlin could be seen as sending a signal that the team’s current direction is acceptable.

Does anyone think the trend lines this team has established over the last two seasons are acceptable?

The Pros of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

There are also strong arguments in favor of extending Mike Tomlin’s contract. For whatever his faults are as a head coach, and Tomlin has faults just as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did, Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

There is only one other NFL head coach whose record is head and shoulders above Mike Tomlin’s. Contemporaries with similar records, such as John Harbaugh, Sean Peyton and Pete Carroll have arguably struggled more than Tomlin has to rebuild around a franchise QB.

Results don’t lie. After knocking on heaven’s door in 2016 the Steelers have taken steps backward.

  • But will refusing to extend Mike Tomlin right this trend?
  • Sure, it could send a message that everyone needs to shape up. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Opting not to extend Mike Tomlin’s contract now would instantly create another distraction. That subplot would play out on social media and the “content aggregation sites” starting with the first training camp scuffle and lasting all the way until the final decision to go for it on fourth or not in the last meaningful game of the season.

In contrast, and to the extent that locker room and off the field distractions have impacted results on the field, extending Mike Tomlin’s contract could be a remedy.

Extending Mike Tomlin’s contract now would send a clear signal to everyone on the roster, “Mike Tomlin is our coach. He’s staying put. Listen to him if you want to do the same.”

Awaiting Art Rooney’s Decision

Art Rooney II has a decision to make. This past off season he’s shown an ability to pivot the Steelers standard operating procedure. The Steelers were ready to use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell by all accounts, yet had a change of heart. And at each opportunity they doubled down in their quest to improve weaknesses at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

  • Will he also make a similar pivot with regard to his head coach’s job security?

For my money, I don’t think he should. The list of NFL owners who’ve tried and failed to fire their way to a Lombardi is long. That’s because good NFL coaches are hard to find. Mike Tomlin’s record shows he’s one of them.

Ultimately Art Rooney’s decision doesn’t come down so much as to whether he thinks Mike Tomlin contributed to the problems of the last two season, but whether he’s confident that Mike Tomlin can be part of the solution.

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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James Washington’s Weight Loss Shows He’s Committed to Improving

If you’re anything like me, you probably never looked at James Washington at any point during his rookie season and said, “That guy really needs to lose some weight.”

It’s rare to think that about any wide receiver, let alone one who came into the league as a second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State with a reputation of being an accomplished deep threat. Yet, the Steelers apparently thought so, as they reportedly wanted him to be at 210 pounds by the start of the 2019 regular season.

Why would Pittsburgh want an already lean looking rookie to lose even more weight? Who knows, but it’s likely not an indictment of the youngster, considering the team has asked that of a lot of its newcomers in recent years–Le’Veon Bell, Bud Dupree and even veteran running back DeAngelo Williams were just a few players who were challenged to slim down shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals 2018 Heinz Field,

James Washington vs the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tribune Review.

The good news is, James Washington came to the NFL with a reputation for having an incredible work-ethic, one that was developed while working on his father’s farm growing up. And that’s why, according to Washington, per an article published on Steelers.com, he managed to drop 15 pounds and get down to his team mandated weight this spring.

“I went home for the first two weeks, was putting in some hard work with my dad on the farm,” said Washington, courtesy of Steelers.com. “I was trying to cut down on weight. Eat less. I went to Miami and worked in the sun. Worked on strength, strong hands, all the things receivers work on.”

When you read that paragraph, it makes you realize just how hard the second-year receiver worked this spring, and how well-rounded his commitment was to honing his craft (if you simply believed what some reporters were saying on Twitter last week, you would have assumed Washington told them he lost the 15 pounds on Daddy’s Texas farm).

At any rate, if there’s ever a second-year receiver who has nowhere to go but up, it’s James Washington. Coming off a 2018 campaign in-which he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one lone touchdown, James Washington certainly has a ton to prove in his sophomore season.

Will he? That’s impossible to know right now. But he certainly seems willing to give it his best shot possible. And with the current look of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, he has a great opportunity to establish himself–and do so rather quickly.

Yeah, sure, the Steelers signed veteran Donte Moncrief to a multi-year deal, and they drafted Diontae Johnson in the third round, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have high hopes for a man they recently invested a second-round draft choice in.

During the now infamous edition to his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan that followed a fairly ridiculous and laughable loss to the Broncos on November 25, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out two of his receivers. One of those receivers was obviously Antonio Brown, who reacted to his quarterback’s criticisms in the worst possible way, as he burned every visible bridge (and maybe even his legacy as the greatest receiver in team history) on his way to Oakland.

  • The other receiver was James Washington, who dove to catch a pass during the game that, had he simply stayed on his feet and caught it in stride, would have gone for a touchdown.

Who do you think would have handled the criticism of his quarterback better, a veteran who was in the midst of the greatest six-year run for any receiver in NFL history; or a rookie that had accomplished nothing up to that point in his career?

Obviously, the betting money would be on the veteran. But as I already alluded to, the veteran is now wearing the silver and black as a member of the Raiders. As for the rookie, he took the constructive criticism as just that, and he’s now using it to try and make himself a better football player.

It remains to be seen if James Washington will make that all-important first to second year leap in 2019. But if his commitment to getting better is any indication, he’s certainly willing to do whatever it takes to find out.

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Grading the Steelers 2014 Draft Class: Overall Grade B+

The picks are in. Coaches have held their press conferences. New players have done their photo ops. The latest installment of the NFL draft is history. Now it is time to grade the Steelers draft class.

  • The Steelers 2014 Draft Class that is.

Instant draft grades are as understandable as they are ridiculous. The NFL Draft IS the day when teams alternatively forge Super Bowl rosters or cement status as pretenders instead of contenders. The desire to evaluate such a momentous in real time is logical.

  • But it can’t be done. Like wine, NFL draft classes need time to mature or sour.

Just how long is a matter of opinion. Certainly you can start drawing a lot of meaningful conclusions after 4 or even 3 years. But Chuck Noll always used to say it took five years, and if that was good enough for the Emperor, who am I to argue? With that, we gladly grade the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

Ryan Shazier, Tyson Alualu, Matthew Stafford, Alualu Stafford Sack, Steelers vs Lions

Ryan Shazier gloats over Matthew Stafford after Tyson Alualu’s 4th down sack. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers 2014 1st Round Pick – Ryan Shazier

If ever you sought an argument against drafting for need, look no further than Ryan Shazier. By the time the 2014 NFL Draft rolled around, the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker wasn’t exactly strong, but it was solid. Certainly, the Steelers had more glaring needs (like cornerback.)

And they were right. Ryan Shazier’s overall career statistics (7 sacks, 7 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles) might look pedestrian, but what those numbers don’t show is the timeliness with which Shazier made those plays.

Whether it was forcing a fumble in the playoffs against the Bengals, grabbing an interception against the Colts or making another play at the right time, Ryan Shazier was broaching Troy Polamaluesque lay making ability before suffering the spinal contusion that has most likely ended his career. Grade: Grand Slam

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2014 2nd Round Pick – Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers picked Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round fate appeared to have stacked the deck against the rookie. The Steelers had a long history of drafting defensive lineman in the 2nd round that blossomed into busts, and they hadn’t had much luck of late in drafting players from Notre Dame.

  • But Stephon Tuitt proved that past performance doesn’t dictate future results.

Tuitt broke into the starting lineup as a rookie because of Brett Keisel’s injury and began making an immediate impact. He built on that in his “sophomore” year, was limited a bit in his next two years by injury, yet had his best year yet in 2018. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Pick – Dri Archer

What a double whammy. This is one that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomiln wanted back two times over. In the 2013 NFL Draft the Steelers traded away their 2014 3rd round pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas, in part because they expected to get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2014.

  • They got that pick and promptly used it to draft Dri Archer, the fastest man in the NFL 2014 Draft.

The Steelers thought to use Dri Archer as a utility back while working him in as a wide receiver. They also wanted him to return kicks. It quickly became clear he could do none of the above. Dri Archer was so bad that when Le’Veon Bell suffered an injury before the playoffs, the Steelers had to go out and sign Ben Tate off of the couch. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 4th Round Pick – Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is an interesting pick to grade. Clearly he is one player who never lived up to his potential, yet as a 4th round pick, with all of his issues, Martavis Bryant delivered decent value.

  • As both a rookie and in his second year, Martavis Bryant made some game-breaking plays.

After coming back from his suspension, Martavis Bryant didn’t make many game breaking plays but started making critical 3rd down catches late in the season. And, while this shouldn’t impact a draft grade, strictly speaking, the Steelers actually got a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant, and one that they used to draft Mason Rudolph, a potential starter.

Not bad value for a 4th rounder that you essentially took a flyer on. Grade: Quality Value Pick.

Steelers 2014 5th Round Pick – Wesley Johnson

The Steelers drafted Wesley Johnson in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the young man made the roster, which was no small accomplishment for an offensive line which was already becoming deep. Unfortunately, injuries force the Steelers to cut Johnson with an eye towards putting him on the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas and claimed him off of waivers.

Since then, Wesley Johnson has appeared in 53 NFL games and started 24. Not bad for a 5th rounder. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Jordan Zumwalt

Sometimes injuries end NFL careers before they get started. Such is the case with Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers put him in injured reserve during preseason of his rookie year. They designated him injured/waived in 2015, but took him back when no one else claimed him. They gave him another shot in 2016, but ended up cutting him.

It is hardly fair to label someone like that a Bust, but the Steelers didn’t get any value out of this pick. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Daniel McCullers

At first glance, a guy as big as Daniel McCullers shouldn’t be able to fail on the football field. Yet Daniel McCullers saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, and then saw his snap count dwindle year after year.

The Steelers surprised by resigning Daniel McCullers in 2018, and then again in 2019. Still, it is hard to label Daniel McCullers NFL career as anything other than what it has been. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2014 7th Round Pick — Rob Blanchflower

Labeling a 7th round draft picks as a “bust” is a bit harsh. Yet the career paths of Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum serve as a reminder 7th round picks can become good players. Rob Blanchflower earned a spot on the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and got invited back to camp in 2015 but got cut at the end of summer. Grade: Bust

Overall Grade for the Steelers 2014 Draft

In 2014 the Steelers had the 15th draft position, tying 2007 for the best draft positioning Pittsburgh has had since 2004, when they picked Ben Roethlisberger. Just like 2007, the Steelers made excellent picks in the first two rounds, and made a solid pick in the 5th round, albeit one that other teams are benefiting.

Their 4th round pick had issues, but delivered value. And their 6th round pick is still in the league. Overall Grade: B+

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