Does Ben Roethlisberger Target Antonio Brown Too Often? The Numbers Paint an Interesting Picture

Does Ben Roethlisberger target Antonio Brown too often?

Early in the Steelers 2017 season, the answer appeared to be an unequivocal “Yes.” Ben to Brown seemed to be the only thing working, and that seemed to be holding the offense back. In the Steelers win over the Vikings, Tony Defeo noted that Roethlisberger appeared to be ignoring receivers in an attempt to force the ball to Brown.

Martavis Bryant’s outbursts, even if uncalled for, also appeared to at least indirectly lend credence to the “Ben’s too intent on forcing it to Brown story line” even if rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was the target of his Instagram tirade.

While the Steelers offense has improve during the second quarter of the season, Ben to Brown remains its most potent combination, but do the numbers suggest that Ben is trying too hard to get the ball to Brown? Let’s take a look.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats, Antonio Brown targets

Does Ben Roethlisberger try too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown? Find out below. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Distribution History

Eight games gives you a good base of data to see what types of trends are developing during a football season. Sometimes a trend can rapidly reverse itself (think the Steelers anemic sack production during the first half of 2016 vs. the second half of 2016), but 8 games give you an idea of where things are heading.

Here’s how Ben Roethlisberger’s pass distribution has gone during the first 8 games of 2017:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2017, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2017, Antonio Brown targets 2017, Le'Veon Bell targets 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster targets 2017, Jesse James targets 2017, Martavis Bryant targets 2017

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets 8 games into 2017

Well, now the data really seems to make the case doesn’t it? Not only is Anotnio Brown Ben Roethlisberger’s top pass target, but he’s more than doubling the targets of the next guy below him, Le’Veon Bell. What’s more at 26% the combined total targets of his next two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, still fall 8 percentage points of Antonio Brown’s 34.1%.

  • That data also suggest that there’s a justification of Ben’s forcing the ball to Brown (if in fact he’s forcing it)

Antonio Brown’s catches account for just shy of 40% of the Steelers receiving yards. The only player who remotely seems to have an argument that he should be the ball more is JuJu Smith-Schuster.

But before closing this case, perhaps its wise to take a look at how pass distribution broke down in 2016. Given the rash of injuries the Steelers experienced at wide receiver, and given the relative inexperience of the rest of the depth chart, its quite probable that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown even more, right?

Let’s see what the data tells us:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2016, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2016, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2016, Jesse James Targets 2016, Eli Rogers Targets 2016, Sammie Coates Targets 2016

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2016

The data in fact tells us something else. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown far less in 2016 and Brown accounted for a much smaller slice of the Steelers receiving yards. This suggest that Brown was double and triple teamed a lot.

  • But Brown’s catch percentage also suggests that Roethlisberger’s passes to him were more accurate.

The Steelers 2016 season was abnormal in terms of injuries to the wide receiver corps. Let’s see what data from 2015 tells us which was more of a typical year.

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2015, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2015, Markus Wheaton Targets 2015, Martavis Bryant Targets 2015, DeAngelo Williams Targets 2015, Heath Miller targets 2015

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2015

In 2015 we can see that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown 32.7% of the time, or just over 1% less than he’s targeting Antonio Brown in 2017 thus far. We can also see that Brown is still making the most of is catches, as he accounted for 38% of the Steelers receiving yards, or about 1.5% less than he’s accounted for in 2017 thus far.

That data from 2015 also helps us appreciate that an aging Heath Miller was still more productive than Jesse James in either his 2nd or 3rd year, although James is proving to be a fairly reliable target.

We can also see how much more dynamic Le’Veon Bell is as a pass catcher than DeAngelo Williams, although Williams did well when thrown the ball.

To complete the picture, let’s go back to 2014 to view Ben Roethlisberger’s ball distribution in the 1st year that the Steelers 4 Killer Bees played together:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2014, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2014, Antonio Brown Targets 2014, Markus Wheaton targets 2014, Martavis Bryant Targets 2014, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2014, Heath Miller targets 2014

Ben Roethlisbergers top 5 targets in 2014

2014 marks the first year (in this survey) that Brown’s target percentage from dipped below 30% (we should note that Landry Jones and Mike Vick threw a portion of those passes in ’15 and ’16.) It looks like it was Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller who took those targets away from Bryant, although Markus Wheaton’s 14.1% is a healthier targeting percentage than any of the Steelers other receivers.

Conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger Isn’t Targeting Antonio Brown Too Often

There are a lot of different takeaways from this data. Le’Veon Bell seems to be almost as reliable of a pass catcher as he was two years ago, although his yards after catch appear to be down. That could be due to the absence of Heath Miller’s and Matt Spaeth’s blocking, however.

Martavis Bryant, for all of his big play capability, he’s never been much more than a 50/50 catch to catch what’s thrown his way. Sammie Coates was clearly a dud down the stretch in 2016.

  • But the data also shows that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t trying too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown.

Indeed, if we really are seeing Father Time begin to exact his toll on Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, then we can know for certain than Ben Roethlisberger is very lucky to have Antonio Brown on his team.

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Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix Has Put the “Full” Back in Fullback in Pittsburgh

About 10 years ago, when Dan Kreider‘s best days were behind him, and Carey Davis took his place in the Steelers backfield, the fullback was seen as a dying breed in the NFL, a dinosaur on-par with the rotary phone.

  • Bruce Arians in fact, liked to insist that his offense “didn’t have a fullback.”

True enough, while Davis did actually play the fullback position, he was known more as a receiver out of the backfield and a special teams ace, than as a true chauffeur for Fast Willie Parker, the team’s top tailback in the late-2000’s. One get the feeling that Arians designating Cary Davis as a “fullback” was more of a way of humoring factions within the Steelers organization that favored the fullback.

Cary Davis was gone by 2010, and the keys to the fullback position, when they weren’t collecting dust in some drawer on the South Side, were often handed off to tight end David Johnson, who certainly needed to find a way to make himself more useful while third on the depth chart behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

  • When the situation demanded a blocker out of the backfield, Doug Legursky would also do double-duty as a fullback.

But more often than not, one-back sets were the norm on most plays, especially after all-world running back Le’Veon Bell became a star and the team’s workhorse in 2014.

  • Besides, with passing becoming more and more prevalent in the NFL, why would anyone really need a fullback anymore?

But if you’ve been following the Steelers in 2017, while Antonio Brown shows no signs of slowing, the Ben Roethlisberger of today certainly isn’t the Ben Roethlisberger of 2014. As for Martavis Bryant? Well, there’s a reason why Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant.

  • All of this translates into a reliance on Le’Veon Bell, as well as utilizing him more as a true tailback, and not as a tailback who wants to be paid like a wide-receiver.

This leads us to Roosevelt Nix, one of the Steelers 2014 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents out of Kent State, who played defensive line in college, tried to switch to linebacker in the pros, only to switch sides of the ball and become a fullback in-order to make his NFL dreams come true.

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Steelers Fulleback Roosevelt Nix paves the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rosie Nix made the Steelers in 2015; in two-plus years in Pittsburgh, he doesn’t have a  single carry to his name, with his only offensive contributions coming on a combined four receptions.

  • But Roosevelt Nix, who is also a special teams demon, seems to be relishing his role as a blocking fullback.

And he’s already started two games this season, as Pittsburgh is now opening up in more run-oriented alignments.

Obviously, one-back sets and hand-offs to Le’Veon Bell out of the shotgun formation are still very-much en-vogue in Todd Haley’s offense, but the sight of No. 45 acting as the chauffeur or bodyguard for No. 26 is becoming more and more familiar.

And, as I said before, Nix doesn’t seem to care about his number of carries or any other offensive stats, than the ones that belong to Bell and the other tailbacks he seems to love escorting on long runs downfield.

Roosevelt Nix, Rosie Nix, Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix

Steelers Fullback Roosevelt Nix leading the way. Photo Credit: MSN Sports

Take last Sunday’s Steelers win against the Bengals, for example, and how Rosie Nix seemed to make it his personal mission to protect Bell from the very dangerous and factually dirty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who began the game by kicking Nix in the facemask, but ended it with just four tackles and certainly didn’t do much to slow Bell down on his way to 134 yards rushing.

Unlike some previous match-ups against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bell ended the day healthy and ready to do battle again. With Ben Roethlisberger slowly taking a backseat to Le’Veon Bell as the main cog in the Steelers offensive attack, the latter’s health is of the utmost importance.

  • The Steelers offense may go only as  far as Le’Veon Bell can take it in 2017.

It’s nice to know he’ll have his own personal bodyguard in Roosevelt Nix protecting him on his and the team’s journey.

 

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What the Steelers Decision on Free Agent David Johnson Will Reveal about Ladarius Green

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:17

Fear not, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t suddenly going religious, but this quote seems applicable to the story of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson. The Steelers drafted David Johnson with their final pick of the 2009 NFL Draft following Super Bowl XLIII.

If the Steelers 2009 Draft is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the Colbert-Tomlin era, it is perhaps fitting that David Johnson is the last member of that group to remain with the team.

David Johnson, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Chiefs, David Johnson Steelers free agent

David Johnson on a 26 yard reception in the Steelers 2016 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

Capsule Profile of David Johnson’s Steelers Career

Fits and starts – that’s best description of David Johnson’s Steelers career. Johnson had to settle for the practice squad in 2009, but he earned a roster spot as the team’s 3rd string tight end in 2010 doing double duty that year and in 2011 at fullback. In 2012 Todd Haley announced he was moving David Johnson to fullback full time, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason.

The Steelers brought Johnson back in 2013, ostensibly as a fullback, but he ended up beginning the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end while Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were injured. David Johnson’s season was off to a strong start when disaster struck again as he tore an ACL, ending his season.

In May of 2016 the Steelers made a surprise move by resigning David Johnson. The move looked to be little more than an insurance policy, yet with Matt Spaeth headed to waivers and Ladariyus Green to the PUP, David Johnson once again found himself beginning the 2016 season as the Steelers number 1 tight end.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

David Johnson provided vital veteran stability to a tight end corps that lost a collective 20 years of experience and dependability with the departures of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

David Johnson isn’t going to keep a lot of opposing defensive coordinators up late with worry, but David Johnson will frustrate opposing linebackers who think that running his way will give them a free shot at Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell.

  • Jesse James confirmed in 2016 what he’d flashed in 2015 – that he’s a legitimate NFL tight end.

Xavier Grimble had flashes of his own in 2016, but didn’t have the kind of breakout year some were expecting and hoping for. Ladarius Green was a field flipper when he was healthy, but his season only lasted 6 games and one has to wonder if he can, or should, continue to play given his history with concussions.

David Johnson gives the Steelers a valuable, viable insurance policy at tight end who can resigned for the veteran minimum. This is one easy deal Kevin Colbert should get done.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will draft a tight end fairly early given the uncertainty surrounding Ladarius Green. The Steelers uncharacteristically kept 4 tight ends in 2016, there’s no chance that they’ll keep 5 in 2017.

  • David Johnson would seem to be the odd man out.

The story of a veteran hanging around as an old hand, acting as sort of a mentor, player coach is romantic, but the fact is that every veteran like that is taking up a roster spot for a younger player who has more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and David Johnson

Let’s face it, David Johnson’s impending foray into free agency in 2017 isn’t quite as dramatic as Rod Woodson’s free agent debut in 1997.

Seriously, this writer admits to being somewhat of a homer for David Johnson, but even with that acknowledged, the truth he represents one of Kevin Colbert’s less consequential decisions this spring. David Johnson showed that he still can play and probably remains the Steelers best blocking tight end.

  • Given the Steelers success with the “Big Boy Package” a strong blocking tight end is a must.

But the Steelers also have the luxury of allowing this situation to evolve on its own terms. No NFL team is going to throw money at David Johnson, and the Steelers can go into the draft looking for a tight end, without having to reach for one, because Johnson will still be available afterwards.

Finally, if the decision the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make on free agent tight end David Johnson isn’t terribly consequential, it does promise to reveal something important. If Steelers David Johnson before the 2017 NFL Draft, then we’ll know they’re concerned about Ladarius Green’s future, protestations to the contrary.

If they take a wait and see approach, then we’ll know their confidence level in Green’s return is high.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

Just stop and think for one moment of everyone and everything that comprises the product of an team’s NFL season? It’s a process the delivers the collective sum total of the actions taken by hundreds of players, dozens of scouts and coaches and scores of front office personnel .

  • Trying to quantify that endeavor is as daunting as it is foolish.

While we’re not quite so ambitious here at Steel Curtain Rising, we have tried to single out the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season.

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Antonio Brown’s last second touchdown vs the Ravens on Christmas was a defining moment for the 2016 Steelers. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP.

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

This moment of course came 2 years before the 2016 season even started and, in the predigital age, only would have warranted an inch or two of column space, if even that had it not been for Alejandro Villanueva’s Army background and service in Afghanistan.

  • But Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak saw something they linked in the young man, decided to give him a shot at a new position.

Two years later that move paid dividends as Kelvin Beachum left, while Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins got hurt – yet thanks to Villanueva’s development, the Steelers offensive line played perhaps its best football of the Tomlin era.

2. Heath Miller Retires

After a highly depleted 2015 Steelers roster came SO close to upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High in the AFC Divisional playoff game, it was tempting to look to 2016 and imagine the team picking up just where it left off.

However, as Mike Tomlin reminds the media and his team at the end of every season, each year brings a new start and there is no carry over.

And Heath Miller’s retirement was the first example of this. The move, while not surprising, wasn’t anticipated and, if Heath Miller was no longer a threat to stretch the field, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger about as dependable target as a quarterback can get.

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

If Heath Miller’s retirement was a subtle but sobering reminder that the Steelers won’t field the same team in 2016 that they finished with in 2015, Martavis Bryant’s latest suspension of substance abuse made the point with shocking clarity.

While consistency eluded Martavis Bryant during the 2015 regular season, during the 2015 playoffs Bryant showed that he had Jerry Rice-like transformation talent.

His suspension showed that he also had Randy Moss off the field discipline issues that could prevent him from realizing his full potential.

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The Steelers decision to release Cortez Allen 2 weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft hardly ranks as a surprise, given Mike Tomlin’s comments on Allen at the 2015 season’s end. But cutting Cortez Allen, along with the decisions to let Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin depart as free agents, and not bring back safety Will Allen for yet another year, showed that Tomlin, Colbert, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake were going all in on renewing the Steelers secondary.

Artie Burns, Sean Davis, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers secondary 2016

Sean Davis and Artie Burns at Steelers rookie mini-camp. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

The Steelers need to rebuild on defense has been well documented, particularly their failure at rejuvenating the secondary.

The Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with a plan to boost the defense, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin never flinched drafting Artie Burns in the first round, Sean Davis in the second round and Javon Hargrave in the second round.

The move paid handsome dividends as each player stepped up to make important contributions to the Steelers 9 game winning streak that closed the season.

6. David Johnson Returns

In June the Steelers surprised everyone by signing David Johnson, the final pick from the 2009 Draft Class who’d spent 2014 and 2015 with the San Diego Chargers. The move telegraphed Matt Spaeth’s release, further reinforcing the turnover theme.

However, as training camp dragged on, and Ladarius Green came no closer to practicing, it was clear that David Johnson would give the Steelers a veteran presence and solid blocking ability to a very green crops of tight ends.

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

During the off season, Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly about Senquez Golson, the cornerback the Steelers took in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft who lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The Steelers were counting on Golson to do big things in 2016.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson’s 2016 season amounted to two padded practices in change as he injured his Lisfranc. The Steelers kept Golson on the active roster, but ultimately had to put him on injured reserve, further highlighting the magnitude of the risk the Steelers were taking with their secondary.

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

When the Steelers signed Cobi Hamilton on August 5th they were picking up a guy who’d bounced around to several practices squads over the last three years. By the look of it, they were doing little more than picking up another body to help them get through training camp drills.

  • But Hamilton did well enough to make the final roster.

And if Hamilton did struggle during the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, the rookie effectively functioned as the Steelers 3rd wide receiver during their 9 game winning streak.

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Cobi Hamilton catches game winner in overtime over Browns in Steelers New Years Day win. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via Herald Star

9. Markus Wheaton Gets Hurt in Steelers Preseason win over Saints

The Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints served as their dress rehearsal for the season, and by all accounts the Pittsburgh passed with flying colors.

Steel Curtain Rising admits to being somewhat of a homer for Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton played very well down the stretch in 2015 and the Steelers sure could have used him during the second half of 2016. Alas, Wheaton did return for a 3 game stretch in early part of the season, but was lost for good in week 11.

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

Le’Veon Bell started 2013 injured, finished 2014 injured, began 2015 on suspension and finished the year on IR. Again, he began 2016 serving a suspension. So let’s remember that there WERE legitimate question as to whether this young back could deliver on the field when the Steelers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.

  • Le’Veon Bell steamrolled the Chiefs for 178 all-purpose yards.

In doing so, the young running back put the NFL on notice that stopping the Steelers would mean stopping him.

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

Its no secret that Ben Roethlisberger remains the one, indispensable player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. His injury, in addition to the coach’s decision to abandon the run early, cost the Steelers the game in Miami, and arguably cost the Steelers on the road to the Ravens. Those losses prevented the Steelers from securing a first round bye, which proved costly.

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

The naysayers in Steelers Nation have long been down on Ryan Shazier for being injury prone. The fact is that, with on disrespect to Vince Williams, the Steelers missed his athleticism during the middle portion of the season.

  • Shazier returned to his status as a full time starter against the Ravens.

And while the Steelers defense didn’t pick up its performance immediately, within two weeks Ryan Shazier was back to making splash plays all over the field, and by the season’s end, he was easily the Steelers best defender.

James Harrison, James Harrison color rush, defining moments steelers 2016

James Harrison’s return to full time starter helped fuel the 2016 Steelers nine game winning streak. Photo Credit: USA Today sports via 247 Sports

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

Since James Harrison returned from retirement in 2014 the Steelers have rotated him in some form or fashion, attempting to groom Jarvis Jones to take over the role full time. But Jones flinched on the critical play of the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, and Mike Tomlin wasted little time in promoting James Harrison to a full time starter.

  • All Harrison did was lead the team in sacks in his 7 starts.

More important, James Harrison held transform the Steelers rush defense from a liability into an asset. As Mike Tomlin rhetorically questioned when he announced the move, “What are we saving James Harrison for?” A playoff run, which is what the Steelers got.

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

Yes, the Steelers needed this one to clinch the AFC North division in an all or nothing shot. Yes, this epic Christmas game was worth of narration by NFL Films legend John Facenda, yes Antonio Brown last minute stretch was an act that revealed his sheer greatness.

  • But there’s something more important that happened on Christmas 2016 for the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 5 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens with this win. And while that hardly reestablishes the Steelers as the alpha male of the division, a six straight loss would have conferred that status to the Ravens.

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Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record vs. the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via CBS Pittsburgh Local

15. Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record. Twice

When Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record the first time this, we stopped and reflected on what it meant. Then Bell went out and did it again in the following week.

On an individual level, this feat highlights just how special of talent Le’Veon Bell has. However, on a team level this also seemed to underscore that the Steelers were going to go as far as Le’Veon Bell would take them….

16. Steelers get Thumped by Patriots in AFC Championship (Again.)

…And Le’Veon Bell’s ride would end early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, where the Steelers would fall 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

For all of the growth they made and for all of the adversity they overcame, the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t Super Bowl worthy, as their latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots revealed.
We’re wrapping up coverage of the Steelers 2016 season this week. Check back for their regular season report card and season summary.

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Steelers Designate Ladarius Green PUP, Cut Jacob Hagen, Devaunte Sigler and Kevin White

Pittsburgh made its final four roster moves to meet the NFL mandated limit of 75, and the biggest move saw the Steelers place Ladarius Green on the PUP list. Heath Miller’s retirement began the Steelers 2016 off season, and the Steelers responded to Heath Miller’s retirement by signing tight end Ladarius Green from the San Diego Chargers.

  • By moving so swiftly, the Steelers freed themselves to address their secondary during the 2016 NFL Draft.
steelers, steelers tight end, ladarius green, ladarius green pup

Ladarius Green’s PUP designation will keep him out until at least week 6. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Thus far the Steelers strategy has failed to bear fruit, as Matt Spaeth failed his physical and retired, and Ladarius Green has sat out all of OTA’s. While a slow recovery from an ankle issue landed Green on the PUP list during training camp, he is also suffering from headaches and is reported to be in the NFL’s concussion protocols.

  • Ladarius Green’s PUP designation means that he cannot practice or play for the Steelers during the first six weeks of the season.

After six weeks on the PUP, the Steelers can bring Green back and allow him to practice, then they have 2 weeks to either activate him, or place him on injured reserve. All told, Ladarius Green’s PUP designation will keep him out of action for at least eight weeks.

Steelers Cut Defenders Hagen, Sigler and White

In addition to making Ladarius Green’s PUP status official, the Steelers also cut safety Jacob Hagen, defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler and cornerback Kevin White. Even the most die-hard Steelers fan would struggle to recognize these names, so perhaps the most suprising thing is that the Steelers waited to announce them today, as opposed to doing it on Sunday when they cut Jordan Zumwalt and several others.

Still Hope for Gradkowski, Washington?

The more interesting thing about the cuts the Steelers announced relates to the names not announced. First, the Steelers have made no move with Bruce Gradkowski, who injured a hamstring in the Steelers preseason loss to the Lions. Word was that Gradkowski would be out 4 to 5 weeks. The fact that the Steelers have done nothing with him suggest they see him returning in 2016, in one form or another.

  • Another player who can hold on to his NFL dream for another 48 hours is Donald Washington.

The Steelers plucked Donald Washington out of oblivion, signing the former Kansas City Chiefs safety to play cornerback after Washington had been of the NFL since 2011, and even washed out of the CFL.

Little has been heard about Washington during training camp in preseason, but if the Steelers have kept him around this long, it’s because they’re ready to give him every last chance to show he belongs.

Even with the Steelers depth issues in the defensive backfield, Donald Washington is a long shot to make the team. But Steelers Nation does love good underdog story, and Washington clearly qualifies.

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Steelers Tight End David Johnson – Can Johnson Fill the Void Until Ladarius Green Recovers?

With Ladarius Green lingering injury creating chaos, could forgotten man, David Johnson fill the 2016 Steelers void at tight end, at least in the short term? Clearly, Steelers coaches want Jesse James to fill that void.

Coaches don’t always get what they want but Steelers tight end David Johnson just might provide enough of what Pittsburgh’s offense needs until Ladarius Green recovers….

Steelers tight end David Johnson, pittsburgh steelers, david johnson, steelers lions preseason

Steelers tight end David Johnson catches a pass in preseason. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Whether it is because of his ankle, as Mike Tomlin insists, or because of headaches (sinus or concussion related), the Pittsburgh Steelers are in no hurry to take Ladarius Green off of the PUP list. Green insists his issues are with his ankle and not his head, and that he’s improving. But the Steelers 2016 opener vs. the Washington Redskins is two weeks away, and Green has yet to take a snap with the Steelers offense in practice, let alone a game.

  • And that leaves the Steelers in a quandary at tight end.

Heath Miller has retired. Matt Spaeth failed his physical and the Steelers and has been cut. That shifted most of the focus on Jesse James, the Steelers 5th round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft. So be it. Jesse James looked good as a rookie, catching his second and third passes for scores. But Landry Jones ill-fated 4th interception came as the result of getting drilled before throwing the ball, and James blocking on that play.

If his preseason stats are any indication, the Steelers are not looking to use Jesse James as a weapon on the passing game. And that means that whoever starts for the Steelers at tight end needs to block well. And James is having issues there.

That leaves David Johnson.

David Johnson from Forgotten Man to Key Role Player (Again)

Let’s get this out in the open. I’m a David Johnson fan. David Johnson wasn’t the 2009 NFL Draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” but he was pretty close, as the Steelers drafted Johnson at 241 in the 7th round, or 16 picks before the final player was taken.

  • What exactly are the odds of a 7th round draft pick of a defending Super Bowl champion making the final roster?

Who knows, but they cannot be good, especially when that Super Bowl team has Heath Miller playing in his prime and Matt Spaeth growing into his third year. But Johnson bucked the system and made the Steelers. Johnson first came to my attention in the Steelers 2010 road upset of the Baltimore Ravens. That might seem odd, given Troy Polamalu’s strip sack of Joe Flacco, LaMarr Woodley’s recovery, Ben Roethlisberger’s brawl with Terrell Suggs, and Isaac Redman’s will-power touchdown.

Yet, in naming David Johnson as the game’s unsung hero the Steelers-Ravens Report Card observed this:

…For a guy that never caught anything, to come in to the number two tight end position and bring down three catches including a 25 yarder that was the Steelers first long gain of the night. The Steelers continue to win in the face of so many injuries because David Johnson and players like him are stepping it up.

And that’s largely the kind of player David Johnson has been. There’s nothing sexy about him. He’s a guy who has made a career of fighting for an winning one of those final 10 roster spots year-in-and year out. He’s also overcome adversity.

Todd Haley tapped him to transition into a full-time fullback in 2012, only for Johnson to get injured in training camp. The Steelers made an unhearalded resigning of Johnson in the 2013 off season, and Johnson worked his way back in 2013. A year after being asked to drop weight and become play fullback full time, with Health Miller and Matt Spaeth out, David Johnson stepped into the number 1 tight end role.

  • David Johnson didn’t make anyone forget he wasn’t Heath Miller in 2013, and he’s not going to do it in 2016 either.

But Johnson did have the makings of a nice comeback story until he tore his ACL in the Steelers victory over the New York Jets. The Steelers let Johnson depart to San Diego where he put up the kind of numbers you’d expect him to put up playing behind Antonio Gatesa nd Ladarius Green.

At this stage of his career, it’s clear that even at his best, David Johnson isn’t going to draw comparisons to Bennie Cunningham from fans who are my parents age, or to Mike Mularkey or Mark Bruener from fans who are 40 something. It would be idea if David Johnson could deliver at that level , but that’s simply not realistic. Jesse James might reach that level, but he’s not there now.

  • It says here that if the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are to climb the Stairway to Seven, Ladarius Green is going to have to contribute at some point.

But Ladarius Green isn’t ready to do that now, and won’t be for some time. In the meantime, the Steelers need someone who won’t be a liability at tight end. Jesse James hasn’t shown he’s able to fill that role yet. Likewise, Xavier Grimble can’t do that yet either. David Johnson likely can.

David Johnson is in no way the Pittsburgh Steelers “answer” at tight end. But he could fill an important void in the here and now.

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Steelers Concern for Ladarius Green’s Headaches Reveals NFL’s Changing Concussion Culture

Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com, the same Aditi Kinkhabwala who tried to claim she’d predicted the Steelers dismissal of Jack Bicknell and then stone walled when Dejan Kovacevic challenged her on it, dropped another bombshell:

When Heath Miller suddenly retired following the 2015 season, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t blink an eye and immediately went out and signed Ladarius Green from the San Diego Chargers. The decision to sign Green was uncharacteristic for the franchise, but the move immediately bolstered a weak spot on the depth chart, and freed to Steelers to focus on defense in the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • Since then Ladarius Green has done little except jog during spring practices and at St. Vincents.
ladarius green, steelers tight end, ladarius green concussion, ladarious green headache

Ladarius Green’s headaches have kept him from practicing, per an NFL.com report. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Yahoo! Sports

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has been on top of the story, asking early in training camp if the Steelers were facing “Chaos at Tight End” and then upping the ante two weeks into camp by describing the Steelers “Looming Crisis” at tight end. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette followed with a similar story shortly after Wexell published his.

  • The Steelers have claimed on the record that they knew of Green’s ankle injury and even realized that he could possibly begin the season on the PUP.

However, Kinkhabwala’s story, if confirmed, drastically alters the situation with Green.

Aditi Kinkhabwala quotes Green’s agent, Adisa Bakari as saying that Green’s ankle is fine, and reminds readers that Green has been seen sprinting on open fields at St. Vincents.

Impact of NFL’s New Concussion Consciousness

If Kinkhabwala’s report is correct, it carries serious consequences for the Steelers. Matt Spaeth failed a physical and is out of football, leaving Jesse James, David Johnson and Xavier Grimble as the Steelers top three tight ends.

Jesse James looked good as a rookie last year, but he only caught 8 passes, one more than David Paulson, a rookie who “looked good” in 2012 and then flamed out into nothing.

While one might be tempted to gloss over the importance of tight end, the Steelers opened 2013 by starting their number 3 tight end (David Johnson) and went 0-4. Yes, tight end play was only a small part of the 0-4 start, but the Steelers offense didn’t really get humming until Matt Spaeth returned in December.

  • But what’s bad for the Steelers offense, ultimately might confirm that the NFL has turned a corner on concussions.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion during the January 1st 2011 NHL Winter Classic and saw his symptoms linger for more a year beyond the initial event and was characterized several false starts an set backs.

At the time, someone, whose name now escapes memory, reminded everyone that this is not abnormal for people who’ve suffered concussions and questioned why NFL players never missed more than a few weeks with a concussion.

  • According to Eric.O’Connell of Behind the Steel Curtain, Ladarius Green suffered two concussions in 2015 as well as another in 2014.

In the not too distant past, Ladarius Green’s headaches very well would have been met with either an implicit or even explicit pressure to “Tough it out” assuming Green mentioned his headaches to coaches in lieu of keeping them to himself, as Hines Ward suggested Ben Roethlisberger should have done back in 2009.

Neither the Green or the Steelers are going that route, and that is a positive sign of how the NFL’s culture on concussions is changing.

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Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc Injury = 1 Moment a Blogger Begs to Be Wrong

There are times when bloggers want to blast to the world: “I was right.” Then there are times when bloggers beg to have been wrong. Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc injury falls into the latter category.

senquez golson's lisfranc injury, senquez golson, lisfranc injury, steelers training camp, secondary, cornerback

Senquez Golson throws his helmet in frustration after his Lisfranc injury; Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The Pittsburgh Steelers set a daunting challenge for themselves during 2016 training camp: Rebuild the secondary on the backs of 4 young and untested in the form of first round pick Artie Burns, second round pick Sean Davis, 2015’s 4th round pick Doran Grant, and 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson.

As noted when the Steelers signed Artie Burns, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have gone all in on the youth movement at secondary, trading Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Cortez Allen’s cumulative 82 game appearances, 42 starting performances and 17 interceptions for a grand total of 1 snap of NFL experience.

  • Colbert and Tomlin gambled boldly, but the duo rarely makes personnel decisions based in fear

Fair enough, but four days into training camp Senquez Golson’s Lisfrac injury shows just how thin the Steelers margin of error is. With William Gay and Ross Cockrell, the Steelers should be set at their number 1 and number 2 cornerback positions. The slot remains a mystery. The Steelers had been hoping Golson would emerge as the slot cornerback, which would have given the team greater flexibility manning their Dime defense.

Many outsiders have pegged Davis as the member of the Steelers 2016 draft class most likely to contribute in 2016, giving him an outside chance of unseating incumbent starter Robert Golden. While Davis chances of unseating Golden just took at hit, the probability of him seeing playing time in September just increased exponentially.

Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc Injury Latest Unlucky Twist

The Steelers turned a lot of heads when they picked Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Golson put a lot to like on tape while at Ole Miss, but at his 5’9” frame does not exactly qualify him as a prototypical NFL cornerback.

  • At this point in the young corner’s career, Golson’s same frame suggest fragility.

As Sean Spence showed in 2014, two consecutive injuries hardly spell doom for a promising young player. Spence missed 2012 and then 2013, only to add depth and stability in 2014 and helped author one of the biggest one year-swings in depth chart quality in Steelers history.

Along those lines, a Lisfranc injuries rarely end seasons, as Matt Spaeth and Le’Veon Bell suffered Lisfranc injuries during training camp in 2013 and both returned to post strong season.

  • In other words, fans foaming at the mouth to label Senquez Golson a bust should cool their jets.

Still, a torn rotator cuff ended Senquez Golson’s rookie year, a “mysterious” MRI during Steelers OTA’s, four practices and now a Lisfranc injury will sideline him for at least 12 weeks define Senquez Golson’s NFL resume. Clearly Senquez Golson suffers from an uncanny string of bad luck. And that’s a shame for the Steelers secondary.

Even before his MRI or the the Lisfranc injury, Steel Curtain Rising wondered aloud if Senquez Golson might be this generation’s Kris Farris. Senquez Golson’s lisfranc injury moves that prophecy a notch closer to fulfillment – and Steel Curtain Rising sorely hopes it will move no closer.

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Did the Steelers Underutilize Matt Spaeth’s Pass Catching Skills? – No That’s Not a Trick Question Steelers Nation

If news of the Steelers releasing tight end Matt Spaeth surprised, the articles themselves were predictable: Each and every article, at some point, defined Matt Spaeth as a “blocking tight end.”

  • And the tape tells no lies: Matt Spaeth primarily played as a blocking tight end

But is it also fair to ask: Were Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills underutilized? No Steelers Nation, that’s not a rhetorical question, but rather a serious one.

Matt Spaeth, pass catch, touchdown, steelers vs. packers, lambeau field

Matt Spaeth catches a touchdown @ Lambeau Field in 2014. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 6’7” 260 pound tight end promised to offer Ben Roethlisberger a tantalizingly tall target. And early on it looked like he would do just that. In his first four career games, Matt Spaeth caught four passes, and three of them were for touchdowns.

  • Despite his strong start, Spaeth’s role as a pass catcher never evolved, as the 6’7” tight end’s pass catching production peaked in 2008 at 17 catches on 26 targets.

Still, when Matt Spaeth was heading towards free agency in 2015, an analysis of his passing stats suggested the Steelers should call his number more:

matt spaeth, career receiving stats, spaeth pass catching, touchdown catches

Do numbers lie? Matt Spaeth caught most of the balls thrown his way.

  • Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley never got the memo.

During 2015, Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones only targeted Matt Spaeth three times. For the record, Spaeth caught 2 out of three of those passes for 10 yards, but honestly that doesn’t tell us much. Nor, honestly speaking, does his career target-to-catch ratio of 63.2% suggest much because the sample is so small.

Still, using analysis done to document Heath Miller’s dependability in the passing game, you can see how Matt Spaeth compares to other Steelers pass catchers since 2005:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

Spaeth’s dependability as a pass catcher is on par with Antwaan Randle El and just below Hines Ward, while better than Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace, Markus Wheaton, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant and Nate Washington.

Matt Spaeth “Just catches Touchdowns….”

While Spaeth’s pass catching production might fail to reach statistical relevance, it does tell us reveal something else:

  • Matt Spaeth excelled at catching touchdowns.

Matt Speath’s catch-to-touchdown ratio is 18.2%. In otherwords, almost one of ever five passes Matth Spaeth caught went for a touchdown. Only Martavis Bryant has been better and only three others have numbers in double digits. Yes, the small sample size perhaps distorts things a bit, but it does prove that when the ball got near Matt Spaeth when things were most important, he generally made a catch.

  • All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers target Matt Spaeth more in the passing game?

The easiest, and most likely correct answer, is that Spaeth dropped a lot of passes in practice. That idea is supported by the fact that Spaeth’s most prolific pass catching spell came during 2010, when he started several games for after Heath Miller suffered a devastating concussion vs. the Ravens. During that season, Speath only caught 9 of the 18 balls thrown his way, and didn’t score any touchdowns.

  • Still, if that is the case, why would the Steelers call Spaeth’s number so frequently in the Red Zone?

Steelers Nation will never know the answer for sure. But the numbers certainly suggest that Matt Spaeth’s pass catching skills were underutilized during his time with the Steelers. Even if that is true, that fact would fail to alter one fundamental fact: Matt Spaeth blocked incredibly well.

Although Le’Veon Bell dazzled as a rookie, his performance as pure rusher remained in consistent, and deep into December, Bell had still failed to break the 100 yard rushing mark. That change just before Christmas at Lambeau Field when Bell romped for 124 yards, which was also Matt Spaeth’s 3rd game back from injured reserve.

That’s no coincidence, although if you’re wondering, that Green Bay game also saw Matt Spaeth’s 2nd and final target of the season – which he caught for a touchdown….

…Steel Curtain Rising thanks Matt Speath for his service in Pittsburgh, and wishes him well on his next NFL stop and/or retirement.

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Steelers Release Tight End Matt Spaeth

As per several news outlets, the Steelers on Thursday released veteran tight end Matt Spaeth after he failed a physical.

  • Spaeth, who had offseason knee surgery, evidently didn’t recover in time for the Steelers’ satisfaction.

Here is a quote from team general manager Kevin Colbert, courtesy of NFL.com:

Matt never fully recovered from knee surgery this past offseason, and he will not be ready to return to football activities at this  time,” said Colbert. “Matt played an integral role in our Super Bowl XLIII Championship run, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Spaeth was part of Mike Tomlin’s first draft class in 2007 and came to the Steelers as a third round pick out of Minnesota. He was Heath Miller’s backup and the team’s number two tight end for four years, catching 36 passes for 275 yards and five touchdowns.

Matt Spaeth, Steelers tight end, matt spaeth catch vs. Bengals 2014

Matt Spaeth catches as pass for the Steelers vs. the Bengals in December 2014. (Photo Credit: Michael Conroy, AP)

After his rookie deal expired following the 2010 Super Bowl XLV season, Spaeth signed a deal with the Bears who, according to Spaeth’s Wikipedia Page, then traded future Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers.

After two seasons in Chicago, Spaeth was released and subsequently re-signed with the Steelers prior to the 2013 regular season as insurance for Miller, who suffered a devastating knee injury in Week 16 of the 2012 season.

However, Spaeth was injured himself, at the beginning of the year and never made much of an impact outside of blocking during his last three campaigns in Pittsburgh.

For the 6’7″, 270 Spaeth, 32, it remains to be seen if he’s going to continue to play football, or if he’ll decide to call it a career.

To take Spaeth’s place on the roster, the Steelers signed free agent tight end Mandel Dixon.

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