Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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Should Mason Rudolph Start for Steelers Against the Jets?

Just two days after his young, rookie quarterback threw four interceptions in the Steelers 17-10 loss to the Bills at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football, head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Devlin Hodges would retain his starting role against the Jets in Week 16.

  • Not much of a surprise.

While Devlin Hodges didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to match the “Duckmania” that was born during the 2009 National Duck Calling Champion’s previous three starts and 16 quarters of action in total, fact is, he “didn’t kill us” as Tomlin famously summed up Hodges’ relief efforts, when he rescued a struggling Mason Rudolph in the second half of a game against the Bengals on November 24 and did just enough to guide Pittsburgh to a come-from-behind victory.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

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

Even though his four-interception performance did help kill the Steelers chances against Buffalo, I believe Devlin Hodges retaining his starting role is the logical direction to take for a Steelers team that’s 8-6 and still has the inside track on the sixth seed in the race to qualify for the AFC playoffs.

However, if you were to go by the reactions of a lot of fans and even media members following Sunday’s rather frustrating loss to a Bills squad that appeared to be ripe for the picking, you would have thought the next logical step would be to go with Rudolph in the penultimate game of the 2019 regular season.

Based on what?

In Rudolph, we’re talking about a quarterback that really hadn’t shown a whole heck of a lot of special talent or even an “it” factor during his first nine games as the replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field.

  • This isn’t to say Manson Rudolph was terrible.
  • This isn’t to say he didn’t have his moments.

But he was a guy whose foot-work, accuracy, pocket presence and, eventually, confidence were all called into question. Sure, these things can be corrected. Heck, for all we know, he may have already taken huge steps in fixing these problems during his three weeks as Hodges’ backup — after all, Mason Rudolph may not be a rookie, but in terms of NFL experience, the second-year man from Oklahoma State is essentially at that level.

  • But we don’t know if Mason Rudolph has improved his game while not playing. How could we?

The only thing we know about Mason Rudolph is that he went from looking just okay during his first seven games of action, to looking completely lost during his final six quarters — including that abysmal performance against the Browns on Thursday Night Football, in-which he threw four interceptions and became the center of a national NFL scandal, thanks to an ugly brawl with defensive end Myles Garrett in the game’s final seconds.

  • Fact is, the offensive production hasn’t been much better under Devlin Hodges than it was with Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers have scored just one offensive touchdown in six of the last seven games–including Hodges’ last two games as a starter.

Although, in fairness to Devlin Hodges, he does look more capable of moving the offense and making plays downfield. Yes, that hurt him the other night, as the game-plan seemed to call for more passing than running against a Buffalo team that was elite while defending the former and just okay while defending the latter.

But Rudolph may have made those same mistakes against Buffalo. When you’re dealing with quarterbacks this young and green, a conservative approach seems to be the best one–why the Steelers didn’t stick with that approach is an article for another time.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to find much to love about Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges in terms of talent and performance. Let’s face it, if Hodges didn’t have a cool nickname and backstory, and if he didn’t remind old-time Steelers fans of Bubby Brister, he may never have endeared himself to the faithful in the first place.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked if Hodges will have a short leash if he continues to struggle against the Jets this Sunday. To paraphrase the veteran head coach, he said he does not anticipate failure, and that he will cross that bridge if and when he comes to it.

  • Obviously, Devlin Hodges does have a short leash, especially with the playoffs on the line.

But if Tomlin does go to Mason Rudolph during the game, it won’t be because his talent dictates that he’s the better option. He’d just be the quarterback currently not “killing” the Steelers offense.

 

 

 

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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Finding New Ways to Win: Steelers Defeat Cardinals 23-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to the desert and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 in another wild, white-knuckle game that went down to the wire.

  • The victory improved the Steelers record to 8-5 and renewed their lease on playoff life for another week.

But more importantly, the victory affirmed a fundamental truth about this team’s identity: When the game is on the line, count on these Steelers to find new ways and, if necessary, new faces to win.

Diontae Johnson, Byron Murphy, Steelers vs Cardinals

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown over Byron Murphy. Photo Credit: AP, Tribune-Review

Steelers Flip the Script, with Unexpected Results

Much has been made about the 2019 Steelers ability to defy the pull of gravity imposed by injuries, starting quarterback ineffectiveness, trades and free agent defections. But at the end of the day, the formula for the Steelers success has remained simple:

  • Secure turnovers on defense
  • Play efficient, turnover free, ball control offense
  • Avoid costly special teams mistakes

Yet, the Steelers showed no inclination to stick to the script. In the first quarter Pittsburgh marched to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Chris Boswell field goal followed by an electrifying 85 yard punt return by Diontae Johnson. For the first time all season, the Steelers were starting fast.

The Steelers continued to deviate from the script on their next possession, when Benny Snell coughed up the ball at Pittsburgh’s 30. The Cardinals marched down to the Steelers 3. It didn’t seem to matter:

  • Steven Nelson stoned Christian Kirk for no gain on first down
  • Kyle Murray scampered around and looked like he might try to run it in, only to be sacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Vince Williams stepped out of his spy role to sack Murray on third down who had nowhere to throw.

In past situations, it’s fallen on Fitzpatrick to secure the turnovers and players like T.J. Watt and/or Bud Dupree to disrupt the backfield, but in their first goal-line situation, Fitzpatrick and Williams did the damage behind the line of scrimmage while Nelson provided the splash in the secondary.

  • Credit the Cardinals for flawlessly executing a no-huddle, tying touchdown drive that the Steelers could not stop.

But Devlin Hodges responded with an expertly managed two minute drill that got the Steelers back on the board with another field goal before the half. Hodges wasn’t flawless on the drive. He gave up a strip sack which would have been disastrous; however Matt Feiler covered it up, and Kerrith Whyte got back all 10 yards with a brilliant run up the middle on the next snap.

Faces in New Places Continues in Second Half

The theme of faces in new places continued in the 2nd half. After the Steelers pulled ahead by 10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals mounted a long drive of their own. Faced with a 4th and 2, Arizona decided to go for it all. Kyle Murray had a lane to get the first down, but aired the ball out, only to have T.J. Watt intercept.

  • The Steelers appeared determined to keep it interesting however, when Jordan Berry botched a fake punt attempt.

That gave the Cardinals the ball at Pittsburgh’s 32, and they only needed 3 plays to move within three points. Yet, Diontae Johnson, who’d already had a critical catch and a touchdown earlier in the half, delivered again.

After a pass interference penalty on James Washington put the Steelers into Cardinal territory, Diontae Johnson ripped off a 16 yard reverse that put the Steelers just outside the Red Zone. Four plays later Delvin Hodges rolled to his left, threw against his body but managed to hook up with Johnson for a 16 yard completion that put the Steelers at the Cardinals 16.

  • Another Chris Boswell field goal gave the Steelers a 6 point cushion.

A clock management lapse by Hodges ended up giving the Cardinals the ball with 1:42 left to play, but successive sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree set up a Joe Haden interception on 4th and 17 with 47 seconds left to play.

Steelers Prepare for Showdown with Buffalo

The Steelers now face a show down next week at Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.

Who would have thought that a year that included a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, a benching by Mason Rudolph, prolonged injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conners would come down to a Week 15 Sunday Night football show down, and one against the Buffalo Bills of all teams?

Yet when asked for the secret to his success, Mike Tomlin explained:

We’re just singularly focused on Buffalo. That’s probably why we’re here. We don’t care about the three games.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott would no doubt say the same. Yet as McDermott focuses on the stopping the Steelers, he’d better do so with a wide-angle lens, because the win over the Cardinals proves that anyone of the 53 men on the Steelers roster can and will make a play when called upon.

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This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful The Steelers Haven’t Tanked In 2019

“They’re clearly not trying to win,” is a phrase that’s been thrown around quite liberally during the 2019 regular season.

You’ve heard people say it about other teams like the Dolphins, Redskins and Giants. There are just a lot of bad football teams out there right now, and many of them decided to give up on the season before it even started. Why? They just didn’t think they had the pieces to compete and were more interested in seeing what they had in their younger players. They were also more interested in acquiring the best picks possible for the 2020 NFL Draft.

  • In other words, they decided to tank.

Maybe it’s just me, but this phenomenon of tanking–this mindset of “Well, we don’t have the pieces to win a title, so we might as well just blow the whole thing up and start over”–is becoming more and more prevalent in all of professional sports. It’s grown in popularity in baseball, basketball and hockey in recent years, and now it seems to have become a thing in the NFL.

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

Delvin Hodges rallies Steelers. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

It is a bit surprising to me that NFL teams are starting to develop this mentality, considering football is the ultimate team sport, where one or two players don’t normally make a difference. I realize finding that franchise quarterback can go a long, long way in making that difference, but I also know the chances of landing one, even at the top of the draft, aren’t as great as one might think–this has been proven time and time again.

If you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know this has never been an issue. You know that the team is always interested in winning, in competing, in fighting to stay in contention even when tanking might be easier.

And if ever there was a season where tanking might have been the route to go, it’s this one, where personnel issues have been a thing since Week 2, when franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that required surgical repair.

After losing four of its first five games–including two of the first three that young Mason Rudolph started at quarterback–it looked like Pittsburgh would have no choice but to tank. And after Rudolph was knocked out of the Ravens game with a concussion and would miss the following week’s match-up against the Chargers in Los Angeles, how could the team not throw in the towel, especially with Devlin Hodges, an undrafted rookie quarterback who was cut in training camp, as the starter?

  • The Steelers didn’t throw in the towel that Sunday night in Los Angeles. In fact, they won in impressive fashion, before winning three more with Rudolph back under center.

Fast-forward to today, and the Steelers are now 6-5 and currently sit in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Yes, the odds still seem fairly long that they’ll actually qualify for the postseason, especially with such a putrid offense, one that is not only dealing with the absences of so many key cogs–including injured receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, injured running back James Conner and suspended center Maurkice Pouncey-but with a full-blown quarterback controversy.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

That’s right, Hodges, the undrafted rookie, the guy known as “Duck” thanks to winning a duck-calling contest when he was a child, will start against the Browns this Sunday at Heinz Field, a game with huge playoff implications.

If Pittsburgh wins, it will improve to 7-5, effectively eliminate Cleveland from the race (the Browns would drop to 5-7) and put itself in a prime position for a postseason berth.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Yet, not many are giving the Steelers a chance in this game. I get that. But it also feels like not many people want the Steelers to win because, well, even if they make the playoffs, what are the chances of them doing anything?

  • Not great, but so what?

“I’d rather see them not make the playoffs if they’re just going to go one-and-done,” is a popular phrase you’re hearing from Steelers fans this season.

Another phrase you hear thrown around these days–the era of the tank–is “I’d rather see the Steelers go 3-13 and reload with high draft picks next year.”

Really? Would you also much rather spend a year in a coma? That’s what you’re saying in a sports sense if you want your team to tank for picks. How could you possibly enjoy such a season?

Whatever happened to hope? Whatever happened to the journey being more enjoyable than the destination? Whatever happened to collecting fond memories?

During my weekly Steelers podcast this past Monday–The Hangover–my co-host reflected on the 2002 campaign–the one that gave us Tommy Gun (Tommy Maddox) at quarterback–and how that season, one that ultimately saw Pittsburgh win an exciting wildcard game against the Browns at Heinz Field before bowing out the following week in an equally exciting, if extremely heartbreaking, overtime loss to the Titans in the divisional round, helped get him through some personal issues he was dealing with.

Isn’t that what sports are all about? They’re a distraction, a pastime, they’re their to make us forget about the tough issues in our own lives.

  • They’re there to give us up, to give us something to believe in that’s bigger than we are.

Sure, we’re talking about sporting events–games–but if they weren’t important on a grand scale, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are.

I realize the Steelers chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl are really, really slim. But I also know how tickled I will be if they actually qualify for the playoffs. I also know how excited I’ll be in the week leading up to whatever postseason match-up Pittsburgh may find itself in. I also know how nervous I’ll be watching that game, and how ecstatic I’ll be if the Steelers happen to win. Those are the times you call people out of the blue (who calls anyone anymore?) just to say, “Did you see that?”

The Steelers may give you an opportunity to do and feel all of those things this January, and isn’t that a lot better than tanking for a higher draft pick next spring?

  • You might not think so, but I’m sure glad the Pittsburgh Steelers do.

Thank you, Pittsburgh Steelers, for giving your fans something to hope for this Thanksgiving and beyond.

 

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Devlin Hodges Rallies Steelers to 16-10 Win over Bengals after Mason Rudolph Benched

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 16-10 at Paul Brown Stadium in a rebound win that  puts them back in the AFC Wild Card race, for the moment.

Although Pittsburgh took a 5-5 record and a 10 game winning streak against the Bengals into Cincinnati, in many ways the odds certainly weren’t stacked in the Steelers favor. On offense against Cincinnati, the Steelers would be:

  • Starting their number 2 quarterback
  • Missing James Conner, their number 1 running back
  • Missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, their number 1 wide receiver
  • Missing Maurkice Pouncey, their best offensive lineman
  • Giving carries two players, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain who were playing for other teams last week

In an ironic twist, the decisive change that sparked the Steelers to victory was Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, a player who wasn’t even on the opening day roster.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Practice Squad Poaching Products Flash, but Don’t Start

While Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph drew all of the attention during the last week, the impact felt from the Body Bag Game in Cleveland was felt elsewhere. Namely, that it deprived Pittsburgh of its number one running back and number one wide receiver.

Kevin Colbert moved swiftly and out of his comfort zone when did some practice squad poaching by signing Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain from the Bears and Colts practice squads, respectively. Deon Cain, who’d last been seen dropping passes in the Colts loss at Heinz Field, proclaimed himself to be a playmaker upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

Once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed that they don’t and shouldn’t listen to me. Deon Cain had a 35 yard catch which flipped the field and was the offense’s only play of substance on their 1st half field goal drive. Kerrith Whyte lost a yard on his first NFL carry, but then rebounded to rip off a 15 yard run on his second try.

  • Not bad. But at the end of the day, both of those plays amounted to simple flashes that failed to spark the Steelers offense.

Mason Rudolph began the afternoon respectably. While no one was forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger was on the sidelines, Rudolph held himself reasonably well, and had moved the team into scoring position when a tipped ball led to a Shawn Williams interception.

  • The Steelers defense held the Bengals to zero yards on the next possession, but Mason Rudolph was never the same after that play.

In contrast, the Bengals, under quarterback Ryan Finley showed that they could muster some roar with their rookie quarterback who hooked up on two picture perfect strikes Tyler Boyd, schooling Terrell Edmunds first and Joe Haden for a second and a touchdown.

The Bengals took a 10-3 lead into halftime, and it was fair to question whether the Steelers could summon enough offense to get back in the game.

Tomlin Sparks Offense with Historic Decision

Football fans love the rallying cry “BENCH THE QUARTERBACK” almost as much if not more than “FIRE THE COACH.” Yet, as an organization, the Pittsburgh Steelers bench quarterbacks only a little more frequently than they fire coaches.

Yet going into the game Bob Labriola entertained a question about Mike Tomlin changing quarterbacks in his “Asked and Answered” and at half time Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell tweeted:

Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph one series which began with a sack ended in a three and out and ended with an ugly pass aimed at Diontae Johnson’s feet. The next time the Steelers got the ball back, Devlin Hodges was standing under center.

  • And Devlin Hodges delivered immediately.

He hit on his first two strikes to Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, and on his third try he found James Washington wide open in the field. Washington stiff armed B.W. Webb and ran 79 yards for the touchdown.

Truth be told, those three passes seemed to be about the only tricks that Delvin Hodges had in his bag, but they were enough on this afternoon.

Defense Delivers. Again.

Defense has carried the Steelers throughout 2019 and the win in Cincinnati was no different. While that’s no surprise, there was an important X factor heading into the game, and that was Joe Mixon against a Steelers run defense that had been leaky at times.

  • For 3 quarters the Steelers defense held Joe Mixon in check.

With 10 minutes left to go in the four quarter, it looked like the Joe Mixon had finally found a chink in the Steelers armor, as he ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards, the first of which looked to be a 5 yard loss. On the next play, Ryan Finley found Tyler Boyd for a 22 yard gain.

  • Cincinnati appeared poised to enter Pittsburgh’s end zone and either even the score, or pull ahead.

Devin Bush had other plans, stripping Boyd of the ball, which was scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick who logged his 8th takeaway for the season, which he returned 36 yards. That was the last drive that ended with positive yards for Cincinnati would earn all day.

Joe Haden and Mike Hilton teamed up to bat away passes, while Cam Heyward helped harass Finley up front setting Bud Dupree to end the day with a strip sack and recovery.

Who Starts for Steelers vs Browns?

After the game Mike Tomlin remained coy over whether Mason Rudolph would return to the starting  role against Cleveland next week or whether Duck Hodges would remain. It says here that benching Mason Rudolph against the Bengals was the right move.

  • But it is also far from clear that Delvin Hodges holds a “Hot Hand.”

Overall, he only completed 5 of 11 of his passes and, on his final pass before Chris Boswell kicked his third field goal, Hodges threw the ball away when Vance McDonald was open for a completion, which at the very least would have kept the clock running.

Outside of throwing the ball with a little more confidence, the main difference between Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph was in Hodges ability to avoid the rush.

Perhaps Tomlin had that tendency in mind when he teased reporters by suggesting he might already have made up his mind as to who to start. We will find out soon….

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Bilingual or Not, Myles Garrett Masters Art of “Tirar y después esconder la mano.”

After Myles Garrett attempted to maim Mason Rudolph at the end of the “Body Bag Game” a host of Cleveland commentators rushed to contrast Garrett’s assault with a deadly weapon and his character.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph helmet

Myles Garrett attacks Mason Rudolph with his helmet. Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images via Slate.com

Steel City Insider’s  Jim Wexell perhaps put it best:

Listening to Cleveland-area reporters telling me how nice of a guy Garrett is, and how well he treats his dog, made me think of reporters interviewing neighbors of mass murderers.

We’ve read about how Myles Garrett writes poetry and aspires to be a paleontologist when he retires from the game. There’s been no word on whether or not he is bilingual. But even if he isn’t fluent in Spanish, he’s master the art of:

Tirar y después esconder la mano.”

The statement he leaked after learning this his appeal of his indefinite suspension illustrates this perfectly:

To those of you who are not bilingual the phrase “Tirar y después esconder la mano” literally means “To throw, and then hide your hand.” The meaning isn’t literal however, it refers to someone who says something, and then tries to pretend they really didn’t mean it the way you understood it, when in fact the meant exactly what they were saying.

  • This is exactly what Myles Garrett is trying to do.

He’s not denying he made the accusation. But he’s trying to distance himself from the implications of his very words. His second sentence reveals all:

This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed.

Isn’t that grand! Let’s take this apart piece by piece.

This was not meant for public dissemination.”

Is there ANYONE naïve enough to actually believe this? Would even the most hardened Myles Garrett apologist accept this at face value? Let’s begin with the fact that the number of people who heard Myles Garrett say this is finite. The number of people with access to the notes of minutes of the appeal hearing is larger, but the circle remains small.

Steel Curtain Rising has ZERO access to sources on this, but whoever leaked this is either obviously sympathetic to Myles Garrett or really wants to hurt Mason Rudolph.

Everything leaks out of the league office. He need look no farther than all of the leaks about failed drug tests. If Myles Garrett is as smart as everyone says he is, he knew full well that someone would leak this.

(And this presumes that it Myles Garrett’s agent isn’t the source of the leak.)

“…nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions…”

Really? It wasn’t? Then why say it?

Seriously. If Myles Garrett really accepts that attempting an action on the football field that would carry criminal assault charges if it occurred in the parking lot is not acceptable under any circumstances, then why make an accusation which many people were ALREADY arguing was mitigating, if not justifying circumstance.

“…or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed.”

Hum. Funny how Myles Garrett would insist on denying that this was one of the reasons why he charged Mason Rudolph of provoking him with a racial slur. I mean, he never thought the accusation was ever going to become public, so why would he worry about how “those I disappointed” would react to it?

The last 8 seconds of the Body Bag Game have generated a lot of sound and fury. But the fundamental facts remain the same:

  • Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph late
  • Contact might have been inevitable, but taking Mason Rudolph to the ground was not
  • Mason Rudolph did grab Myles Garrett’s helmet
  • Myles Garrett picked Mason Rudolph up by the helmet and twisted it off
  • David DeCastro tried to separate them
  • Mason Rudolph perused Myles Garrett – he did not, however physical strike him
  • Myles Garrett committed assault with a deadly weapon against Mason Rudolph when
  • Mason Rudolph has said he did nothing to escalate the shuffle

And now we can add one more fact, Myles Garrett has openly accused Mason Rudolph of provoking him by uttering a racial slur in a public effort to justify his actions and have his suspension reduced while branding Rudolph as a racist.

  • Except, if you listen to Myles Garrett, he didn’t intend to do any of those things.

We started by invoking the Latin American slang phrase “Tirar y después esconder la mano.” We’ll close by paraphrasing the words of William Shakespeare as spoken by Queen Gertrude in HamletThe defensive end doth protest too much, methinks.”

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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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Maurkice Pouncey’s Suspension Cut to 2 Games. Steelers Defend Mason Rudolph

It has been over a week since the now infamous Steelers-Browns Body Bag Game yet the contest’s final 8 seconds continues to dominate the news.

Steelers fans got a bit of good news when the NFL’s appeals committee reduced center Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension from 3 games, and unprecedented total for participating in an on-the-field fight, to 2 games. Larry Ogunjobi’s 1 game suspension was upheld and as was Myles Garrett’s indefinite suspension.

Maurkice Pouncey, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns Thursday Night

Maurkice Pouncey slugs Myles Garrett as David DeCastro holds him down. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via the L.A. Times

  • However, the story did not die there. In fact it grew new legs.

During his appeal, Myles Garrett accused Mason Rudolph of provoking him by uttering a racial epitaph. This information was leaked to ESPN reporters Adam Schefter and Josina Anderson. Shortly after the incident Josina Anderson tweeted that a racial slur uttered by Mason Rudolph started the incident. She quickly deleted the tweets and retracted her claim.

In a written statement, Myles Garrett confirmed the leak:

I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension. This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed. I know what I heard….

Gotta love the “This was not meant for public dissemination….” Really? This is from Myles Garrett, the man who everyone extoled for his poetry writing and plans to become a paleontologist expects us to believe this?

If this “…was not meant for public dissemination” then why did he have he or his agent leak the news? (Does anyone really think that Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the men who upheld the suspension leaked the news?)

Speaking both through his agent and through Steelers spokesman Burt Laurten, Mason Rudolph vehemently denied the charges.

  • The NFL also says that they investigated and found no evidence of the charges.

On the latter point, Steelers fans should trust and hope that the NFL did in fact do a real investigation, and that no audio evidence surfaces later. Not Roger Goodell has track record for fishy investigations or anything like that.

However, Steelers who were on the field at the time continue to defend Mason Rudolph. Matt Feiler who was a few feet away during the whole incident told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He didn’t say anything.”

Mason Rudolph did not address reporters, but Cam Heyward described him as “Distraught” by the accusations. Heyward went on to assert, “The kid made a bad mistake, but he never crossed the line when you’re talking about racial slurs.”

Alejandro Villanuava also defended Mason Rudolph, asking “Why wasn’t it said earlier?”

Steelers Injury Update Ahead of Bengals Game

While news that Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension has been reduced was certainly welcome, he will not be available for the game against the Bengals. Nor will other victims from last Thursday’s “Body Bag Game.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and is nursing knee and foot injuries. James Conner has not practiced and is extremely unlikely to play. Artie Burns, another injured player from last week’s game, was a limited participant.

All news was not a bad, however. Diontae Johnson was a full participant in practice, and Benny Snell has practice all week and will likely be available to back up Jaylen Samuels.

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They Won’t, But the Steelers Should Resign Eli Rogers

Lost in the furor over Myles Garrett’s attempt to maim Mason Rudolph at the end of the Steelers 21-7 loss in Cleveland is that before the ignominious ending, the contest had already earned the title “The Body Bag Game.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, Cleveland head-hunting defensive backs have left the Steelers “a little” short handed at wide receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson in the NFL’s concussion protocol. That leaves James Washington, Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton he of the 13 targets and 1 catch.|

That leaves the cupboard more than a little bare, especially given that, either by design or by happenstance, tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett are afterthoughts in Randy Ficthner’s 2019 offense.

Situations like this typically elicit questions along the lines of “Why aren’t the Steelers doing more to beef up their wide receiver depth chart” on Bob Labriola’s “Asked and Answered.” To wit, Labriola’s response is, “There are not many experienced NFL wide receivers working in the insurance business.”

And while that’s generally true, there is a 27 year old NFL wide receiver with 30 NFL regular season games and four NFL playoff games under his belt. Moreover, this wide receiver knows the Steelers offense.

  • I’m of course talking about Eli Rogers, who played with the Steelers from 2016 until 2018.

The Steelers cut Eli Rogers just before the regular season shown no interest in bringing him back, although Rogers apparently contacted the Steelers early in the season offering his services, according to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly. The Steelers told him “they were busy and to go home.”

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That was of course before the Steelers decided to cut Donte Moncrief and before they lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionate Johnson to the concussion protocol. However, those loses haven’t change the Steelers calculus because they signed Deon Cain to their active roster from the Indianapolis Colts active practice squad.

Deon Cain was a 6th round pick of the Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft and 7 games this season, his last appearance coming in the Colts loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. With that said, Deon Cain’s NFL resume is quite thin. He’s had 14 balls thrown his way but he’s only caught four of those for 52 yards giving him a catch rate of 28.6%.

For the record, Eli Rogers has caught 78 out of 116 passes thrown his way, for 822 yards, including 4 touchdowns and 39 first downs. Eli Roger’s career catch rate is 67.2% in the regular season and 78.3% in the playoffs.

As mentioned, Deon Cain’s last NFL action came in the Colts loss to the Steelers where he dropped both balls thrown his way. Eli Roger’s last NFL action came in the Steelers 2018 season-ending win over the Bengals, where he caught 9 of 7 passes thrown to him, including the last two.

Just Say’n….

Steelers Make Additional Roster Moves

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Pittsburgh’s lack of interest in bringing Eli Rogers back is their decision to put Ryan Switzer on injured reserved prior the Brown’s game. During training camp, the conventional wisdom was the Steelers would opt for Ryan Switzer or Eli Rogers, and Ben Roethlisberger was known to favor Eli Rogers.

  • So be it. Ryan Switzer’s on IR, Deon Cain is here and Eli Rogers isn’t coming back.

Neither is Roosevelt Nix, at least not in 2019, as the Steelers placed him on injured reserve prior to the Browns game. After the Browns game the Steelers added Kerrith Whyte Jr. to their active roster and parted ways with running back Tony Brooks-James and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott.

If the Steelers follow suit, Jayrone Elliott could be resigned to the practice squad as of today.

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