L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Chiefs Debacle: So Much for Sending the Defense to Summer School

Taken from a gradebook of a teacher who heard all the right things about the ½ his class that went to summer school and now wonders if it was all a mirage, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs.

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Fantasy owners how started Ben Roethlisberger were likely pleased by the quarterback’s 39-60-452-3-0 with one sack and no fumbles performance. And to be sure, Big Ben was far better in week 2 than in week 1. But too many of Ben’s passes were either high, overthrown or just off target, and that fact is obvious in the Steelers 3-11 3rd down conversion rate. The Steelers got a good game from Ben on an afternoon when perfect was necessary. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 8 times for 17 yards while Stevan Ridley ran once for 2 yards. Conner caught 5 passes on 5 targets. Roosevelt Nix caught 1 pass for 19 yards. Teams that fall behind by 21 points in a quarter don’t rely on rushing the ball much, but Conner also didn’t do much with the opportunities presented to him. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Jesse James had 5 balls thrown his way an caught each one of them to lead receivers with 138 yards. At a point in the game when nothing seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way, Jesse James showed he clearly came to play. Vance McDonald made his first appearance of the season, and had 3 catches on 5 targets. Tight ends were one clear bright spot. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Like James, JuJu Smith-Schuster came to play and delivered when things looked bleak, leading all wide receivers with 13 for 121. Ryan Switzer had one catch on one target, while James Washington had 1 touchdown catch on 5 targets. Antonio Brown had 9 catches for 67, yet his visible pouting was the exact opposite of what the team needed, especially given the 17 targets he enjoyed. That brings the group grade down. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
The stat sheet says that Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit 3 times. And it is true that the Big Ben had ample time to throw on numerous occasions. However, there were other times early in the game when he was rushed and those possessions ended in punts. And the lone sack came on the drive after the Steelers defense had scored a safety, and helped kill any momentum. The Chiefs also registered 5 tackles behind the Steelers line of scrimmage.

If ever there was a day when the Steelers NEEDED their offensive line to dominate up front to set the tone, it was the Chiefs game. The line failed to do that. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Six Chiefs touchdown passes and make it easy to miss the struggles the Steelers defense had on the ground as evidenced by Kareem Hunt’s 4.2 rushing average. Worse yet, the Chiefs gained 9 yards on the first carry of their final drive in a situation when the Steelers KNEW they were going to run. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers linebackers didn’t pressure Patrick Mahomes, couldn’t stop the run, and couldn’t keep the middle of the field covered. Jon Bostic did have a nice tackle for a loss and T.J. Watt did pressure Mahomes into a hurried throw that fell incomplete. Bud Dupree and Vince Williams were non-factors. Grade: F

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Wow. No areas of the Steelers defense got more attention in the off season, as the secondary was the subject of coaching, position and personnel changes. And yet, the Steelers secondary was easily the worst unit on the field against the Chiefs. Artie Burns gave up 3 touchdown passes, although one may not have been his fault. Terrell Edmunds missed a key tackle. Morgan Burnett added noting. Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton all looked bad. Grade: F-

Special Teams
How bad were the Steelers special teams? Chris Boswell missed both a field goal and an extra point and even together two plays do not provide the unit’s key lowlights.

D’Anthony Thomas 31-yard punt return set up KC’s first touchdown. A Matthew Thomas penalty nullified an Antonio Brown punt return to the Steelers 47. Jordan Berry did have one nice punt that pinned Kansas City down, but Mike Tomlin thought enough to mention punting during his press conference.

Ryan Switzer did have one very nice kick return, but special teams set up Kansas City scores and sabotaged offensive opportunities – the exact opposite of what they should do. Grade: F

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Whether it is because of execution or play calling, the Steelers offense has now started slowly in two games and sputtered at critical moments in the fourth quarters of games.

  • With that said, Randy Fitchner’s offense put up enough points to win in a normal situation.

…But the Steelers offense was hardly in a normal situation against the Chiefs. Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a devastating blow to the Steelers defense, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have had 287 days to react to that loss.

In that time the Steelers have made numerous changes and position scuffles, and designed and deployed any number of subpackages and schemes all aimed at improving the defense.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers defense starts 2018 worse than it finished 2017.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may have scored 45 points last January, but the defense scored 7 and set up another touchdown with a turnover. Whatever Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had planned for the Steelers defensive game plan, it failed miserably. Grade: F

Unsung Hero
It was a rough day, but after special teams and offensive penalties ruined the chance to capitalize on the safety, all appeared lost. Yet one man stepped up and make a heads up lay by forcing a fumble, which gave the Steelers new life, and that player was Cam Heyward and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the loss to the Chiefs.

 

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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Steelers 2018 Roster Balances Super Bowl Hopes with Long-Term Viability

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 roster is nearing completion and the choices Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made balance the teams Super Bowl aspirations with an eye towards sustaining long term success.

  • In case you’ve been under a rock, the Steelers roster cuts included a minor bombshell when the team cut Landry Jones.

The Steelers also cut Nat Berhe, but resigned him after placing Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on injured reserve, which will keep the undrafted free agent rookie out of the lineup for the next two weeks. The Steelers have not made any trades nor have they tried to claim any players on waivers.

That could change as the week evolves but the Steelers 2018 opening day roster is pretty well set.

Antonio Brown, Heinz Field, pregame warm ups

Antonio Brown in pre-game warmups at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Roster

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger
Joshua Dobbs
Mason Rudolph

Cutting Landry Jones was a major surprise, and for the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without a veteran signal caller as their backup quarterback. The Steelers are clearly taking a short-term risk in the name of making a long-term investment.

Running Back

James Conner
Jaylen Samuels
Stevan Ridley
Roosevelt Nix

The elephant in the room’s name is Le’Veon Bell as of Tuesday morning, Bell had not signed his franchise tag nor given any indication as to whether or when he would do so. The Steelers clearly didn’t expect this, as they likely would not have cut Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Bell stay away, the running back by committee crowd will get its wish.

Tight End

Vance McDonald
Jesse James
Xavier Grimble

The biggest news here is the move the Steelers haven’t made yet. Injuries have abounded at tight end, yet the Steelers haven’t made any move to bring in an outside player.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown
JuJu Smith-Schuster
James Washington
Justin Hunter
Ryan Switzer
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Antonio Brown all of preseason, supposedly only as a precaution. The Steelers have high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington while Justin Hunter looked good in preseason. Again. Ryan Switzer is an unknown while Darrius Heyward-Bey is mainly on the roster to play special teams.

Offensive Line

Alejandro Villanueva
Ramon Foster
Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro
Marcus Gilbert
B.J. Finney
Chukwuma Okorafor
Matt Feiler
Zach Banner

Some felt the Steelers would only keep 8 offensive lineman, however Zach Banner made the cut despite joining the team late in the summer. You can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward
L.T. Walton
Javon Hargrave
Dan McCullers
Stephon Tuitt
Tyson Alualu

Cam Heyward is officially a “tackle” and Karl Dunbar has brought Daniel McCullers further along than anyone ever expected.

Outside Linebacker

T.J. Watt
Bud Dupree
Anthony Chickillo

1 year ago the Steelers carried 5 players here. Now they have 3 albeit with one rookie on IR and another on the practice squad.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams
Jon Bostic
L.J. Fort
Tyler Matakevich
Matthew Thomas

The “battle” between Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic never really evolved and Matthew Thomas has insiders privately wondering whether his role can grow as the season evolves. Insight linebacker might not have to be a strength for the Steelers defense in 2018, but it cannot be a liability.

Cornerback

Joe Haden
Artie Burns
Mike Hilton
Cam Sutton
Coty Sensabaugh

In contrast to quarterback, the Steelers opted for experience over youth, in keeping Coty Sensagaugh over Brian Allen, although Brian Allen remains on the practice squad. For once, the Steelers have strong depth on paper.

Safety

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Morgan Burnett
Sean Davis
Terrell Edmunds
Nat Berhe
Jordan Dangerfield

Sean Davis is the only player who returns from 2017 in the entire unit, although Jordan Dangerfield was on IR. The Steelers have invested heavily in this position and for the defense to improve, those investments must deliver.

Specialists

Chris Boswell
Jordan Berry
Kameron Canaday

Jordan Berry did not post pretty preseason numbers, nonetheless, he made the team. Next time you’re in a Steelers bar either A. Ask people “Who is our long snapper” or B. “Who is Kameron Canaday?” No matter which question you ask, here’s 100 Argentine pesos that says 1% of the people you poll have the right answer. Anonymity is a virtue for a long snapper. Let’s hope we don’t hear “Kameron Canaday” until free agency rolls around.

Steelers 2018 Practice Squad

Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker
Brian Allen, Cornerback
Jarvion Franklin, Running Back
Trey Griffey, Wide Receiver
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Lavon Hooks, Defensive End
Farrington Huguenin, Outside Linebacker
Tevin Jones, Wide Receiver
Patrick Morris, Offensive Line
R.J. Prince, Offensive Line
Christian Scotland-Williamson, Tight End

Perhaps conspicuous by his absences was Joshua Fraizer, the Steelers 7th round draft pick. Christian Scotland-Williamson holds a spot thanks to the International Player Pathway. Trey Griffey is of course the son of Ken Griffey Jr. and the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr. Keion Adams and Brian Allen are members of the Steelers 2017 draft class.

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Steelers Report Card for Preseason Win over Panthers – “Joshua Dobbs Does He Stay or Go” Edition

It was a fun evening for the Steelers, who prevailed over the  Panthers, 39-24, in their fourth and final preseason game, Thursday night at Heinz Field. It was fun for the rookies and roster hopefuls, because the spotlight was on them. It was also fun for the veterans, because most didn’t have to play.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Second-year man Joshua Dobbs was the talk of the town, following Thursday’s final tuneup. “Should they keep Dobbs and get rid of backup Landry Jones?” many wondered quite vocally. And, why? Because Dobbs, who started and played most of the first half, put the finishing touches on a fine preseason, this time, completing eight of 12 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. Dobbs even added 18 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

Rookie Mason Rudolph also looked sharp, connecting on five of his nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Rudolph also showed off his legs (and mean-streak) by taking it in himself on a two-point attempt and then giving the business to the linebacker who was flagged for hitting him late after he crossed the goal line. Sure, these youngsters were going up against fourth and fifth-stringers, but impressive is impressive, so….. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Veteran Stevan Ridley looked impressive as the workhorse, toting the rock eight times for 39 yards. Other than Ridley, no other Steelers running back did much. Although, unknown Jarvion Franklin perhaps fulfilled a childhood dream by scoring a touchdown under the bright lights. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for the receivers who are locks to make the team. As for those hopefuls? While it was likely too little, too late for him, Tevin Jones did put something on tape with two scores. And Pitt’s Quadree Henderson scored a seven-yard touchdown in the same venue where he had many as a college player. It was another subpar night (and perhaps final night in black-and-gold) for Trey Griffey and Damoun Patterson, who combined for one catch for 15 yards. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Can you believe a Steelers’ tight end did something? That would be Bucky Hodges, who pulled in two passes for 43 yards–including a 36-yard reception that set up a touchdown. As for Jesse James, Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble? They were all nursing injuries of varying degrees, and we can only hope that one of them will be ready for Week-1 in Cleveland. Grade: D

Offensive Linemen
As you might expect, the Steelers starting linemen used up their remaining sick days on Thursday, but those super-subs, namely Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney and rookie tackle Chuks Okorafor acquitted themselves quite well, limiting Carolina to one sack. The Steelers also rushed for 108 yards as a team, so all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad night for Pittsburgh’s notable offensive line depth. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
It was also an uneventful night for the veterans of this unit, and of those youngsters and veterans looking to crack the talented defensive line, not much stood out. Although, Lavon Hooks did record a sack. Also, Carolina only rushed for 90 yards on 22 carries. Grade: C

Linebackers
Wow, after yet another impressive showing by Matthew Thomas, who tallied 11 tackles–including six solo–and recorded a strip-sack, recovered the fumble out of the air, and then proceeded to race 75 yards down to the Carolina one-yard line, one has to wonder if the UDFA out of Florida State is already the Steelers’ most-talented inside linebacker. That opinion will be proven over time, of course, but there’s no doubt Thomas cemented his spot on the final roster. Speaking of UDFAs who cemented a roster spot, Steelers’ fans better learn how to spell Olasunkanmi Adeniyi’s name, because the youngster recorded his third preseason sack.  Grade: A

Secondary
Rookie fifth-round pick, Marcus Allen, got plenty of reps at the safety position, along with plenty of tackles (10 and six solo). Second-year corner Brian Allen likely locked up his place on the roster with nine total tackles. As for Mr. Preseason, safety Jordan Dangerfield, he added five tackles. Will this be enough for the veteran to hold onto his job? Grade: B

Special Teams
The newly-acquired Ryan Switzer returned two kickoffs for 43 yards, while Henderson had 29 yards on his lone attempt. Punter Matt Wile may have ousted veteran Jordan Berry by averaging 50 yards on three punts. As for the coverage units, nothing alarming stood out. Grade: B-

Coaching
Not much you can say about coaching in a game like this. When you have a bunch of down-the-liners going up against a bunch of down-the-liners, you can throw strategy out the window. The only thing you can really grade is whether or not the head coach protected enough key veterans from injury. And with the exception of the gruesome knee injury suffered by Malik Golden (who obviously doesn’t have the cachet to sit out a fourth preseason game), it was a job well-done. Grade: A

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