Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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Pittsburgh Terrapins er um, Steelers Draft Antoine Brooks Jr. in 6th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Antoine Brooks Jr. in the 6th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, bolstering their secondary depth by adding the safety from the University of Maryland. Antoine Brooks is the second Terrapin to make its way to Pittsburgh during the 2020 NFL Draft, as the Steelers also drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round.

A Lanham, Maryland native, Antoine Brooks stands at 5’11” and weighs in at 220 pounds. He played for the Terrapins for 4 years and played in 40 games during that time span. Brooks started as a linebacker and moved to safety, amassing 4 interceptions and 3.5 sacks.

  • Kevin Colbert confessed that the Steelers have been watching Brooks for two years, explaining:

He played a unique position at the University of Maryland that’s really relevant to today’s NFL in college football. He’s half a linebacker; he’s half a safety. He will be a safety on our defense with the ability to play in packages, because that’s what he’s done and he’s done well.

The Steelers have been searching for someone to play the position of “Dime linebacker” for the past several seasons, and had someone to fill that slot in the form of Mark Barron. However, Barron is gone. Could Brooks fit that bill? Steelers Senior Defensive Assistant/Secondary Teryl Austin explained that Brooks is:

He’s very, very physical. When you watch him, he has a very good feel for the game in terms of instincts and making quick decision and not being afraid to make a decision. That’s what you’re looking for in a guy back there.

However, when asked about whether Brooks would fill that hybrid linebacker-safety role, Austin hinted that Terrell Edmunds could shift into that role and explained, “We’ll get them in our jar, shake ’em up and see where they fit best.”

Antoine Brooks Video Highlights

Four years of NCAA experience gives a player a chance to put a lot on tape. Here’s a look at Antoine Brooks highlights:

You can certainly understand why Teryl Austin appreciates Brooks’ decisiveness. He won’t find NFL players going down quite as easily as they did on tape, but Antoine Brooks fundamentals appear sound.

Given that Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen are the backups behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, Antoine Brooks has a real shot at both a roster spot and, if he can play special teams, a helmet on game day.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Antoine Brooks.

 

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Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Contract with the Bills Puts Free Agency into Perspective for Steelers Fans

Tyler Matakevich, admittedly one of the best special teams players in the NFL during his four-year career with the Steelers, quickly became a Bill at the start of free agency on Wednesday, after signing a two-year deal worth approximately $9 million.

  • You know what Tyler Matakevich was never one of the best at during his time in Pittsburgh?

Playing inside linebacker. In fact, he was so ordinary at it that, three years after drafting him out of Temple in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Steelers had to trade up to the 10th spot of the 2019 NFL Draft just to select Devin Bush. And that happened after they signed veteran Mark Barron to a lucrative enough deal last March.

  • Yet, the Bills sought fit to sign him to such a decent contract.

That’s nine million dollars for a depth player and a special teams ace in an era when that part of the game is becoming less and less of a factor in the NFL.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Nice work if you can find it.

So why did the Bills offer Tyler Matakevich so much money? Because they could. According to Over The Cap, the Buffalo Bills currently have $32 million in cap space to play with. When you have that kind of social distancing (to kind of bring a little laughter into these tough times) between the amount of money you’ve already spent on players and your salary ceiling, a player like Matakevich is a luxury.

It’s the kind if thing you can do when you have money to play with. Will Tyler Matakevich make a huge difference for the Bills next season? Not unless he does something like block a punt during a critical moment in a key game.

  • And that’s why it’s hard to get that worked up over the annual circus that is NFL free agency.

Anyone can sign players if they have the financial flexibility to do so. Those teams get patted on the back in March and April for their activity. If they’re lucky, they may even get added to the “winners” column of the many “NFL Free Agency Winners and Losers” articles that pop up this time of year.

Some are even more successful. Early in his tenure as owner, Daniel Snyder’s Washington Redskins repeatedly and vigorously completed for “off season Lombardi Trophy.” Indeed, former general manager Vinny Cerrato was the architect of multiple successful “off season Lombardi” runs.

  • But the truly smart organizations make the most intelligent signings. Why? Because they have to.

They’re normally up against the cap thanks to being so consistently competitive; they must be wise with their money, with their decisions in free agency.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Pittsburgh, a team that had to cut several players and restructure the contracts of a few others just to make room under the cap (even after the signing of the new CBA increased the salary cap to over $198 million) is a free agent “winner” simply because it signed Derek Watt, a fullback and special teams demon, formally of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

But Derek Watt, whose contract with the Steelers is reportedly for three years and over $9 million, will likely fill both Matakevich’s spot on special teams and the one previous held by Roosevelt Nix,who was cut on Wednesday after an injury-riddled 2019, as the team’s fullback.

  • He could also do spot duty at tight end in a pinch. 

What does that mean? The Steelers are likely going to expect more from Watt for his money than the Bills, who also had the capital to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from the Vikings, will expect from Matakevich.

If Matakevich excels as a special teams ace but fails to improve as an inside linebacker, he’ll still be a valuable commodity for the Bills.

But if Derek Watt, yes, he’s the brother of both T.J. Watt and J.J. Watt, comes up short, Pittsburgh will likely be weaker at two positions in 2020.

  • The Steelers simply can’t afford that.

They also can’t afford to do much else in free agency this spring. But look at at this way. At least they didn’t have the “luxury” of spending $9 million on someone who can only excel on special teams.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Watt a Minute! Steelers Sign Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s Brother

Mike Tomlin may or may not be a fan of Game of Thrones, but he does certainly seem to believe in bloodlines. The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with free agent fullback Derek Watt, brother of starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

  • While Derek Watt cannot officially sign his deal until Wednesday afternoon, the two sides have agreed to terms.

Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Derek Watt signed a contract worth 9.75 million dollars that runs for three years. While few expected the Steelers to use their precious salary cap space to sign a fullback, Derek Watt also was a special teams stand out for the Chargers and could fill the void left by the mildly surprising departure of Tyler Matakevich who will bolt to the Buffalo Bills once the free agent signing period officially begins.

  • Derek Watt’s position flexibility extends beyond special teams.

As Roy Countryman from Steel City Insider Points out, the Chargers under utilized Derrick Watt’s pass catching abilities and suggests he could do double duty at tight end.

Another player who might be be looking over his shoulder is Roosevelt Nix. Nix is a fullback and was captain of the Steelers special teams last year, and is due to count 1.8 million against the salary cap this year.

All in the Family

Derek Watt’s arrival in Pittsburgh gives the Steelers their second set of brothers, as Terrell Edmunds and Trey Edmunds are also on the current roster – at the moment. Trey Edmunds is officially a fullback so his roster spot is threatened by Derek Watt.

In addition, Mike Tomlin hasn’t been shy about how Devin Bush’s family lineage attracted him to the linebacker. Likewise, Benny Snell also has an uncle with NFL experience.

Steelers Free Agency Comings and Goings

As expected, the Steelers applied the franchise tag to Bud Dupree, and to make room for Dupree they waived Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo and Johnny Holton, while resigning long snapper Kameron Canaday to a two year contract.

  • However, as is also expected, Javon Hargrave will sign with the New York Jets today.
  • Likewise, B.J. Finney will sign with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon too.

To clear up salary cap space, the Steelers have reportedly restructured the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.

The McDonald restructure is the most interesting, as it signals he will return to the team, something which had been in doubt. That move in turn makes it more likely that Nick Vannett will be allowed to depart as a free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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NFLPA Approves CBA, Simplifying Free Agency for Steelers in 2020

A majority of the National Football League’s Player’s Association have voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Owners. The new CBA runs through 2031 ensuring another decade of NFL labor peace.

The deal also paves the way for an expanded regular season and playoffs, gives the players a slightly larger chunk of the NFL’s revenue pie, loosens marijuana testing requirements and penalties and curtails some of Roger Goodell’s discipline power.

  • In the short term, it also simplifies the Steelers 2020 salary cap situation.

Prior to ratification of the CBA, the Pittsburgh Steelers were approximately 2 million dollars over the projected 2020 salary cap. The new CBA is expected to bump that up by about 6 million. That extra six million gives the Steelers a little breathing room, but still will not save them from having to make moves to operate.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Before the CBA was ratified, conventional wisdom held that the Steelers would probably need to cut 4 or 5 veterans to keep Bud Dupree, retain a few other free agents, sign their draft class and have some in-season breathing space.

It is likely that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will still make a few “We’ve decided to go in a different direction calls” over the next few days.

  • But they’ll probably be able to make fewer calls because the new CBA will allow the Steelers greater flexibility to renegotiate contracts.

Renegotiating contracts to gain short-term salary cap space is a tactic which the Steelers once scorned, but has been a staple of Steelers policy for the last decade and represents one of the biggest differences between Art Rooney II’s leadership and that of his father Dan Rooney.

Who Is on the Chopping Block?

The players the Steelers are most likely to release remain (or perhaps traded) are still Ramon Foster, Anthony Chickillo and Mark Barron. However, the new CBA may make it easier for the Steelers to keep Vance McDonald.

One beneficiary could likely be Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as the new CBA simplifies any potential contract extension.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Bud Dupree Free Agent Profile – Should the Steelers Keep Him in Pittsburgh?

First Round Draft Picks generate attention. Their success or failure is pronounced the moment their names are announced.

  • People form opinions on First Round Draft Picks fast.

Shades of grey rarely nuance these opinions. Such is the nature of the beast. Then there is Bud Dupree, whose journey as a First Round Pick might sit in a class all of its own as his arrival at free agency shows….

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

It was May 1st, the 2015 NFL Draft was in full swing and for the second time in 4 years a “Top Ten Talent” was falling towards Pittsburgh. In 2012 David DeCastro fell. In 2015, it was Bud Dupree.

  • The Steelers snatched both players immediately.
  • Everyone cheered their pick of DeCastro yet picking Bud Dupree drew a mixed response.

No one questioned Bud Dupree’s athletic talent, but everyone agreed he was “project” who needed to develop. Bud Dupree won the starting job, and when he notched 3 sacks in his first 5 games it looked like the rookie was going to prove a lot of people wrong.

  • But then Bud Dupree hit the proverbial “rookie wall” followed by a 2016 season that began with Dupree on injured reserve.

The Steelers activated him in week 10 and within a few games he was exploding for 2.5 sacks against the Bills and followed by consecutive sacks in the Steelers final two wins of 2016.

  • Bud Dupree seemed primed for big things.

Unfortunately, Dupree disappointed during his next two seasons. Sack production remained static and flipping him with T.J. Watt helped T.J. Watt, but did nothing for Dupree. Coaches leaked that Dupree was doing well in pass coverage. That might have been true, but these were also the same coaches that assured us, off the record, that Jarvis Jones’ was providing robust run support support…..

The Steelers nonetheless picked up his 5th year option, with Kevin Colbert proclaiming that Dupree was only “scratching the surface” of his talents.

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

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

In 2019, Bud Dupree exploded justifying the faith the Steelers had entrusted in him. Bud Dupree registered 11.5 quarterback sacks. Perhaps more importantly, he also forced 4 fumbles, helping change the course of several games. While some 2nd generation stats suggest that Bud Dupree’s wasn’t as dominating as his 2019 sack total suggests, he did give the Steelers their first double-digit outside linebacker sack duo for the first time since the days of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree

For the first time since 2010, the Steelers fielded a championship caliber defense. While Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson certainly contributed to that, the constant stream of splash plays delivered by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were equally important.

Over the last decade the Steelers have invested 3 first round picks, on 2nd round pick, and called Jamese Harrison out of retirement all in an effort to field a dominating duo of outside linebackers.

The Steelers have invested in Dupree’s development, and he delivered in his first year under the direct tutelage of Keith Butler. Is now the time to roll the dice by starting either Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi or Tupac Skipper starting in his place?

Whether it is by a long-term deal or the franchise tag, the Steelers have options to keep Bud Dupree in Pittsburgh in 2020. They must make sure that happens.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2020

1 out of 5 is not bad right? Bud Dupree flopped in his first four years in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers gave him a fifth year because they had no other choice. And they hedged by resigning Anthony Chickillo to a larger than expected contract.

  • Given all of the playmakers he Steelers field on defense, could Bud Dupree do anything but excel?

Let another team overpay Bud Dupree, just as teams routinely overpaid Steelers free agents in the 1990’s. Moreover, to resign Bud Dupree the Steelers would need to part ways with veterans such as Vance McDonald, Mark Barron, Ramon Foster and/or Anthony Chickillo, depleting depth across their roster.

Would you bet your starting tight end, several other key players and $16 million that Bud Dupree can deliver a repeat performance of 2019?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

There are a lot of opinions out there as to what the Steeler should do about Bud Dupree. But there is a lot more harder, objective evidence pointing to what Pittsburgh will do.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all gone on record listing keeping Bud Dupree as a priority for Pittsburgh this off season.

  • The only real question is which veteran players get cut to make salary cap room for Bud Dupree.

Expect Bud Dupree to be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

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

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

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cardinals – How Much to Penalize Special Teams Snafus?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see new members of his class step up when called upon, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Cardinals.

T.J. Watt, Kyle Murray, Steelers vs Cardinals

T.J. Watt prepares to intercept Kyle Muarry. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
For the second straight week an undrafted Devlin Hodges defeated a number one overall pick. Hodges was an economical 16 for 19 for 152, but he ran the two minute drill well, and stitched together two clock-consuming drives. He also coughed up the ball and unnecessarily stopped the clock late. Stil, it was a good day for Devlin. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The opening drive saw all four Steelers running backs touch the ball. Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell clocked in at 41 yards total, with Whyte doing his damage on longer runs. Jaylen Samuels touched the ball 9 times, while Trey Edmunds had one catch for 7 yards. Benny Snell’s fumble helped give the Cardinals life, but other than that it was a good day for the running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 1 catch for 3 yards before leaving the game with a concussion, leaving Nick Vannett as the lone healthy tight end. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
A week ago we were wondering if we should worry about Diontae Johnson, today he looks like a rookie on the rise, after making 3 critical catches in addition to a 16 yard reverse that helped secure victory. James Washington only had 4 catches for 33 yards, but drew a pass interference penalty and helped keep the clock moving. Deon Cain only had one catch, but it went for 22 yards and converted a third down. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Cardinals sacked Delvin Hodges 3 times and hit him 4 times. The Steelers average 4 yards per carry on the ground. Those are overwhelming numbers, but Pittsburgh did have an edge in time of possession which indicates that the offensive line turned in a respectable performance. Grade: C+

Kerrith Whyte, Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Cardinals

Kerrith Whyte rushes for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Kyler Murray is a mobile quarterback, and mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Steelers by getting out of the pocket. Responsibility for containing quaterbacks begins with the defensive line, and Murray got all of 2 yards on 6 carries. Outside of a handful of runs, Arizona running backs were ineffective. Cam Heyward helped snuff out any chance of a Cardinal comeback with sack. Grade: B+

Linebackers
For the first time since September, T.J. Watt did not have a sack, but Watt made one of the most consequential plays of the game by interception Kyle Murray in the end zone. Mark Barron led the Steelers defense with 7 tackles including one sack, followed by Bud Dupree who had a sack and two tackles for losses. Vince Williams also had a tackle for a loss and critical 3rd down sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden logged his 3rd and 4th interceptions in the course of the last 30 days, and batted away two more passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick “only” had one tackle. But it was for a loss, and stuff out a QB run on 2nd and goal form the Steelers 3. Steven Nelson might not have had the “Splash” plays, but he neutralized a goal line pass for zero gain, and tied for the team lead in tackles. Terrell Edmunds shared that tie for the lead in tackles, and dropped one ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. One of the reasons why Muarry was sacked so much was that he simply had nowhere to throw…. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Chase Edmonds, Steelers vs Cardinals

Joe Haden intercepts a pass intended for Chase Edmonds. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson’s 85 yard punt return gave the Steelers the fast started they’d needed. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking and Jordan Berry boomed off a 69 yard punt….

…Which Pharoh Cooper returned for 29 yards. To make matters worse on the ensuing drive, the Cardinals converted a fake punt. Fortunately, Joe Haden ended that drive with an interception, but these types of special teams snafus are exactly the types plays that can fuel upsets by inferior teams.

Which brings us to the Steelers botched fake punt. Mike Tomlin is taking responsibly for it, although reports indicate that someone tried to call it off, but Jordan Berry failed to get the message. The play allowed the Cardinals to pull within 6:44 left to play. The error could have been catastrophic. Fortunately it wasn’t, but  it brings the group grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner doesn’t have a reputation for being an offensive innovator, but he certainly has shown that he knows how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. No one is going to confuse this offense with the Killer Bees, just as no one is going to confuse any of the defenses it has triumphed over for the ’85 Bears.

  • But Randy Fichtner is getting it done, with players that weren’t even on the roster, let along projected as starters, on opening day.

Keith Butler’s defense gave up one clean touchdown drive, but the unit stepped up and killed two more drives that were on the verge of scoring with interceptions. They also stoned another drive that reached their 3 forcing a field goal. Most of the Steelers turnovers have come at home, but Butler’s boys showed they were capable of taking it away on the road.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

With this win, Tomlin clinches his 13th consecutive non-losing season, and if you want to see first hand evidence of Tomlin’s coaching influence, look no further than the contrast between Diontae Johnson’s play against the Browns and against the Cardinals. Tomlin’s strength is as a leader of men, and he’s got the men on this team pulling together, and because of that, they’re winning. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
Regardless of how the Steelers 2019 season ends, people will forget this play. In fact, many have forgotten it already. But on 1st and 10 from the Cardinals 23, with 1:08 remaining in the first half, Chandler Jones strip sacked Devlin Hodges.

The ball lie there for the taking and an Arizona recovery would wipe 3 all but certain points off the board. Matt Feiler jumped on the ball, and the Cardinals never had a chance and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Cardinals.

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