Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

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Steelers Free Agent Landry Jones Should Be Back in Pittsburgh as Backup Quarterback

Who was the most popular player in Pittsburgh from 1984 to 2003? The answer is simple, “the backup quarterback.”

OK, that’s not quite true, but it is no secret that fans often showed a lot more love for the understudies of Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart than they did for those starting quarterbacks.

The same could not be said during Terry Bradshaw’s (latter) days as a starter, nor for Ben Roethlisberger. Such was the cross that Landry Jones inherited when the Steelers took Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft, a cross which he continues to carry into free agency.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Cardinals, Landry Jones free agent, Markus Wheaton

Landry Jones celebrates during his first NFL game against the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Pittsburghblitz.com

Capsule Profile of Landry Jones Steelers Career

As regular readers of this site know, living down in Buenos Aires deprives me of the ability to watch preseason football. Which is a shame because preseason gives fans their one and only shot at getting an unfiltered look at rookies and backup players.

  • But friends of mine assured me during the 2013 preseason that the Steelers should consider bringing Charlie Batch back.

And these were not reactionary, “Fire everyone” types. Their estimation of Landry Jones didn’t change after the 2014 season, and a quick look at the stats confirmed that Landry Jones had under performed Brian St. Pierre in his first two preseason outings.

The Steelers took note and moved to challenge Jones during the 2015 preseason, bringing in Tajh Boyd, Devin Gardner, and Tyler Murphy but Jones held off those challenges. And even though the Steelers signed in Mike Vick when Bruce Gradkowski went down, Jones looked like he belonged, much to the consternation of fans who felt Landry Jones represented a wasted roster spot.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs Browns, Landry Jones Free Agent

Landry Jones in the Steelers 2017 finale against the Cleveland Browns. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

Jones got his first action in 2015, coming off the bench to lead victories against the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders while struggling in his first start against the Chiefs. Jones also looked lost in relief of Roethlisberger in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

In 2016 Landry Jones looked solid, although far from spectacular in a loss against the Patriots, while looking sharp in leading the Steelers backups to a New Year’s Day overtime comeback against the Browns.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

Ever since the Steelers traded for Todd Blackledge in 1988, the franchise’s policy, with a few exceptions, has been to staff a veteran backup quarterback. But injuries to Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich in limited play caused the Steelers to reevaluate that philosophy, leading them to draft Landry Jones, who made a commitment to developing him Jones as a backup.

The Steelers invested a lot of time and effort Landry Jones’ development, while hedging their bets. In 2016 Landry Jones showed that he’s matured into a competent, confident NFL backup quarterback. He knows Todd Haley’s offense, and looks comfortable in the huddle leading superstars like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

Landry Jones is a legitimate NFL backup quarterback and, assuming his salary demands are reasonable, there’s every reason why the Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Landry Jones

After Charlie Batch got hurt in 2008 early in preseason, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper on the field in Western Pennsylvania trying out within a day. When he explained his decision, Mike Tomlin insisted that the Steelers were a Super Bowl team and that both players had been franchise quarterbacks. Should something happen to Ben Roethlisberger, he wanted a quarterback capable of taking the Steelers all the way.

  • Can anyone suggest that Landry Jones is that caliber of a quarterback and keep a straight face?

The reality is that after taking every snap in 2013 and nearly every snap in 2014, Ben Roethlisberger has had to miss or leave games due to injuries on 5 separate occasions in 2015 and 2016. Landry Jones might be a game manager, but it is all but impossible to see him leading the Steelers on a Jeff Hostetlerque run through the playoffs (Google 1990 New York Giants if you’re unfamiliar and/or read our obituary of former Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.)

Given that reality, the Steelers shouldn’t invest a valuable roster spot and valuable salary cap dollars in Landry Jones, and should instead look to the 2017 NFL Draft and/or Zach Mettenberger as their “Next Man Up” for the next time Ben Roethlisberger gets injured.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Landry Jones

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert made no bones about the fact that the Steelers would love to have Landry Jones back. This will not sit well with a large segment of Steelers Nation nor with a good chunk of writers who cover the team.

  • So be it. Although it is painful for a Steelers site to quote Buddy Ryan, but if you think like the fans, you’ll be one.

Might Landry Jones find a team that wants to pay him several million dollars above what he can get in Pittsburgh to wear the backup quarterback cap? Perhaps. If he does then more power to him. But Landry Jones is a viable number 2 quarterback that the Steelers have invested a lot in, and the Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh.
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Like It Or Not: Steelers Will Live and Die with Landry Jones Until Ben Roethlisberger Returns

Pittsburgh Steelers fans had better get used to the sight of Landry Jones with his hands under Maurkice Pouncey’s but, as they’ll see it  week vs. New England and, if reports are correct, perhaps beyond that.

Not that concern isn’t warranted. This was a Steelers team that came close to upsetting the New England Patriots team in the 2015 season opener and has been itching for a rematch faster than you can say “HeadsetGate.”

steelers backup quarterbacks, landry jones

Like or not, Steelers Nation must get used to seeing Landry Jones under center

So fans’ desire for Ben Roethlisberger rise from the trainers bench, al la the Karate Kid, are well founded:

But if the longing for John Norwig to morph into Mr. Miyagi is understandable, the calls to start Zach Mettenberger or even more outlandish suggestions that the Steelers trade for Mark Sanchez, are not. For better and for worse, the Steelers will live and die with Landry Jones as their signal caller for as long as it takes for Ben Roethlisberger’s knee to heal.

There are lots of reasons for this, but everyone overlooks the biggest one….

Steelers Nation Keeps Up with the Changing Times

Bob Labriola and other members of Steelers Nation’s “4th Estate” have derided the outcry to immediately purge Landry Jones form the roster. And they’ve got the right reaction, unless you really think that Peyton Manning, Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow would do better.

But if the sarcasim of the Labriola’s of the world is justified, then you also must credit these Steelers fans for being smart about one thing: They know a franchise quarterback when they see one.

Seriously.

From 1984 to 2004 the most popular player on the Steelers roster was whoever was backing up Mark Malone, Bubby Brister or Kordell Stewart. Neil O’Donnell won a bit of a respite, but even he heard calls to start Mike Tomczak in mid-1994. (Tommy Maddox was around long enough.) But between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger’s time, if the backup quarterback wasn’t the most popular player in Pittsburgh, he certainly earned an honorable mention.

That’s has changed, and as well as it should, but “Landry Jones Anxiety” also reflects another more recent change.

Steelers Nation Appreciates What It Had When Its Gone

Since the beginning of the Bill Cowher Era the composition of the Steelers quarterback has remained pretty predictable: A designated starter, an experienced backup, and an up and comer.

The Steelers coaching staff and front office, whether it’s been headed by Tom Donahoe or Kevin Colbert, believe in experienced backups but have repeatedly tried to staff the 3rd string quarterback position with a player they can nurture into a backup. During the 1990’s they tried, unsuccessfully, with Mike Quinn, Pete Gonzalez and Anthony Wright. In the 00’s the Steelers tried it with Brian St. Pierre and a slew of 5th round draft picks.

  • The closest they got was with Dennis Dixon, who started 3 games for the Steelers, but he never matured into a stable backup.

Landry Jones is the first to achieve that status, and he’s unlikely to lose it save for an injury or a meltdown.

Mike Tomlin Stands By His Quarterbacks

Fans hoping to see Landry Jones on a short, or even medium leash can hold their breath for one simple reason: Rightly or wrongly, Mike Tomlin stands behind his quarterbacks. Going into his 10th year as head coach, Mike Tomlin has never pulled or benched a starting quarterback because of performance. Tomlin is loyal, sometimes to a fault, to his quarterbacks.

In both 2011 and 2012, Mike Tomlin had an experienced, healthy Charlie Batch standing on the sideline as his starter struggled, noticeably limited by injury, but Tomlin kept Roethlisberger and Leftwich in.

  • Given that precedent, it is hardly likely that Tomlin will turn over his offense to newly arrived Zack Mettenberger, who has yet to throw a pass for the Steelers in preseason.

Love it or hate it, the Steelers will live and die with Landry Jones until Ben gets back.

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7 Confessions of a Steelers Blogger – Welcome to Our “Annual” Goofs Column

Being a Steelers blogger comes with a dose bliss. Steelers fans start blogging not simply because they bleed Black and Gold, but because they have something to say that they feel no one else is saying.

  • And it’s pretty awesome when you beat Ed Bouchette to the punch.

Not that it happens terribly often, but it does happen. But blissfulness  can lead even the most conscientious blogger to take himself (or herself) too seriously.

  • Steel Curtain Rising’s delivers its remedy in our “annual” goofs column.

Annual comes in quotes, because after doing one in 2009 and 2010, time pressures from working two jobs prevented me from writing others. But this year Steel Curtain Rising’s annual goofs column is back with a vengeance. As always, we pay homage and acknowledge the example set by the late, great Washington Post columnist David Broder who wrote an annual goofs column.

jesse james, steelers dropped passes, 2015 Hall of Fame game,

Steelers tight end Jessey James can’t hold on in 2015 preseason. Photo credit: Don Wright, Associated Press, used on the Post-Gazette

1 – Shamarko, Cortez & Jarvis Weren’t Keys to 2015 Defense

A good number of the goofs from the last year relate to the Steelers defense. Such was the case with a poll conducted here, where yours truly non-too subtly suggested that the key to improving the Steelers defense in 2015 lay with the development of Shamarko Thomas, Cortez Allen, and Jarvis Jones.

  • Thankfully, you, my faithful readers knew better.

You voted Ryan Shazier as the player the Steelers most-needed to see development from. And you were right. Keith Butler did lead a turnaround of the Steelers defense in 2015, but Cortez Allen and Sharmko Thomas had nothing to do with it. Jarvis Jones did improve, particularly in run defense, but he still couldn’t keep James Harrison on the bench.

2 – Cop-Out on the Steelers 2015 Defense

This one had the potential to earn Steel Curtain Rising “bragging rights,” but a goof negated that opportunity. Last year just before the season, I argued that the Steelers 2015 defense shouldn’t regress under Keith Butler. The argument flowed like this:

  • The Steelers defense greatly improve during 2014, closing the season out with for extremely strong performances.
  • The Steelers defense was loaded with young draft picks, poised to make the next leap
  • Cover-2 should have been easier for younger players to pick up than Dick LeBeau’s Fire-Zone/Zone-Blitz

Ah, it was all there for the taking, but unfortunately that piece was preceded by a copout. As the Steelers defense played like a sieve during the 2015 preseason, I wondered aloud if it was officially time to “worry” about the Steelers defense under Keith Butler, concluding that outright worry wasn’t warranted, but concern was.

3 – No Antonio Brown Hadn’t Already Peaked

Just before the season, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expanded on Joseph Juan numberfire.com article, which traced wide receivers peak production to their age and number of years of service. Juan’s analysis indicated that most NFL wide receivers peaked at 3 years of service and/or at age 26.

Of course Antonio Brown improved on his 2014 season in 2015, and arguably would have improved even more had he been able to establish a rhythm with Michael Vick. To be fair to myself, the piece didn’t simply parrot back Joseph Juan’s research, but reviewed in in the context of past Steelers wide receivers.

  • The conclusion was that Steelers history suggested that Brown did have a chance to beat the odds.

But the headline “Has Antonio Brown Already Peaked” certainly qualifies as a goof.

4 – Dri Archer Fails to Fill the Void

When news of Martavis Bryant’s (first) suspension for substance abuse broke, focus rapidly shifted to who would pick up the slack. I thought it wise to suggest that one Dri Archer had a golden opportunity.
Of course Archer did have an opportunity.

  • But Dri Archer didn’t even remotely even attempt to capitalize the opportunity in front of him.

And with 20/20 hindsight, there was little indicate that he could or even that he would. So yeah, was it theoreically possible that Dri Archer could have thrived in Bryant’s absence? Yes. Was it at all plausible? Not so much.

5 – Filling the Void Created by Antonio Brown’s Concussion

Thanks to Vontaze Burfict, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to play their 1st Divisional playoff game since 2011 without the services of their 2015 MVP, Antonio Brown. That led to speculation over who would fill the void. While it was obvious that Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton would take on larger roles in the offense, most speculation surrounded the third receiver slot.

And most of that speculation centered on rookie Sammie Coates.

That made sense, because Brown’s injury meant Coates would return to the active list for the first time since early in the season. But this site disputed the suggestion that Coates could contribute arguing:

But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

No, the more logical player to fill the void was Darrius Heyward-Bey. Following the logic that:

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four receivers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

That made sense, but when all was said and done, Darrius Heyward-Bey had 2 catches for 64 yards, and Sammie Coates had 2 grabs for 61 yards and acutally had one more target….

…I guess the reporters who watch practice every day AND get off the record access to coaches knew something when they were writing those stories about Sammie Coates.

6 – Mike Vick’s Role (or lack thereof) in the Playoffs

I’ve never been a Landry Jones basher. In fact, I defended him against those who questioned Landry Jones’ roster spot entering the 2015 regular season. And Jones performed above expectations against the Cardinals and then the Raiders, even if he was less than stealer in action against the Chiefs and Seahawks.

As even Bob Labriola recently suggested, Jones looked like a deer lost in the headlights, and made an interception that, by all rights, should have ended the game. With that in mind, and knowing that Ben Roethlisberger was less than 100%, Steel Curtain Rising issued the following plea on behalf of Mike Vick:

Vick’s playoff passer rating just a shade below his career passer rating and is below his rating for the Steelers this year. But Vick has started four playoff games on the road, and won in hostile environs such as Lambeau Field. Mike Vick has been tested by the NFL’s playoff crucible.

At this point, Landry Jones is almost certainly in the Steelers plans for 2016 and perhaps beyond. Given that, and given the positives from him earlier in the year, Mike Tomlin is wise to name him his QB number 2 for the divisional show down vs. Denver.

But if Roethlisberger can’t play and Jones falters, Tomlin should make sure that Michael Vick is ready to step in.

Mike Tomlin it appears, doesn’t read Steel Curtain Rising, as Mike Vick didn’t even dress for the Steelers game against the Broncos. Tally one more goof.

7 – In Bruce We Trust… Not So Much

The memory of Landry Jones’ playoff performance lingered into the off season (and no, I’m still not part of the “Cut Landry Now” crowd.” But in looking at the Steelers free agents, Steel Curtain Rising made this case:

The case for keeping Bruce Gradkowski comes down to this: 2-3-22-0-0.
That was Gradkowski’s stat line from his only action under center for the Steelers. Yes, that is mundane, but it came in the 4th quarter of a playoff game, and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat.
Now take a look at this stat line: 2-5-11-0-1. That’s Landry Jones post-season resume, which came in the 4th quarter of the Steelers win over the Bengals….

…if he’s healthy, the Steelers should consider bringing Gradkowski back.

Unlike with Mike Vick before the playoffs game vs. the Broncos, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert apparently DID get this memo, as the Steelers resigned Bruce Gradkowski. However, Gradkowski entered training camp as the Steelers number 3 quarterback, and while he looked good in limited action in the Steelers preseason loss to the Lions, he also got injured.

It seems like Mike Tomlin is planning on leaving the door open for Bruce Gradkowski to hold a spot on Steelers 2016 roster in some form or fashion, but he’s clearly now their emergency option, and not the next man up.

Looking forward to Making More Goofs in 2016

This of course does not cover all of the goofs I made over the last year or so. Certainly there have been others. And its even more certain that more will follow in the year to come. That’s human nature.

Regardless, a heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has read along over the last 12 months, and rally the last 8 years here at Steel Curtain Rising. Thanks for reading and please continue to come back again.

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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 Nation Salutes Shaun Suisham’s Clutch Kicks that Defined his Steelers Career

87.9 career field goal accuracy… 173 out of 173 on PAT’s… a 93.8% field goal accuracy rate in 2013… those are just a handful of Shaun Suisham place kicking statistics and even if they are impressive, they don’t do him justice.

  • Shaun Suisham’s clutch kicks defined his Steelers career.

Making the mundane kicks in automatic fashion doesn’t mean much if you miss the big one with the game on the line. Sound harsh? Gary Anderson offers the perfect example. Google “Gary Anderson Overtime field goal” and you’ll see that 6 of the first 10 results reference his last minute miss in the 1998 NFC Championship game.

When the Steelers cut Jeff Reed and signed Shaun Suisham in the a commenter on Behind the Steel Curtain cautioned that a Redskins fan warned him, “He’ll break your heart.” Yet, another Redskins fans reassured me, arguing that “…sometimes kickers bounce around a bit before settling down.”

Shaun Suisham settled down in Pittsburgh, and now that his Steelers career appears to be over, we remember Shaun Suisham’s clutch kicks.

"Shaun

2010 – Baptism by Fire in Buffalo

So it wasn’t Shaun Suisham’s first week on the job, but it was the first game Suisham was asked to kick a field goal in. The Steelers struggled in this game, despite some excellent power rushing by Rashard Mendenhall. But outside of an early Mendenhall touchdown, Shaun Suisham was the Steelers offense, kicking field goals of 45, 46 and 48 yards.

The game went into overtime, where the Bills came thissss close to winning it:

James Farrior sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick two plays later, setting up Ben Roethlisberger for a 12 play drive that ultimately stalled at the Bills’22.

But Shaun Suisham made it from 41 yards way, giving him his first clutch kick for the Steelers as Pittsburgh defeated Buffalo.

2011 – The Escape from Indianapolis

Even at the time, before it was clear that the Colts would finish 2-14 to win the #SuckForLuck derby, this game felt more like an escape than a win. Even though Kerry Collins got knocked out of the game, even though Troy Polamalu fumble return for a touchdown with 5:13 remaining, Curtis Painter played lights out on the final drive tying it with 2:09 remaining.

Mewelde Moore an Ben Roethlisberger moved the ball to the Colt’s 18 yard line with 0:08 remaining and, despite taking a hit from Jacob Lacey, Suisham knocked it in from 38 yards away.

2012 – Out Foxing Philly

The Steelers held the lead until 6:33 in the 4th quarter, when Mike Vick led the Eagles on a 17 play, 8:18 drive, before Vick connected with Brent Celek to put Philly ahead with 6:38 left.

Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Antonio Brown, and Isacc Redman responded with a 14 play, 6:33 drive that took the Steelers to the Eagles 16 yard line, where, from 34 yards out Suisham knocked it through the uprights as time expired and Pittsburgh defeated Philadelphia.

2012 – Killing Off Kansas City’s Last Gasp

People forget that the 2012 Steelers actually looked strong at mid-season with three impressive victories over the Bengals, Redskins, and defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Those laid the ground work for what looked to be a cake-walk like Monday Night Football matchup vs. the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs….

…But things didn’t quite work out that way, as the Chiefs gave the Steelers a run for their money, keeping it a tied 10-10 game until Ben Roethlisberger got knocked out early in the third quarter. Byron Leftwich managed field goal in relief, but the Chiefs tied it as regulation ended.

  • The Chiefs won the toss, but Lawrence Timmons intercepted Matt Cassel’s first pass in over time, returning it to Kansas City’s 5.

Timmons interception set up Shaun Suisham’s chip shot 23 yard field goal and the Steelers victory.

2012 – Allowing Charlie Batch to Take a Final Bow

By this point in the 2012 season the Steelers were down to Charlie Batch as their starter, and no one gave the Steelers a chance given Batch’s 3 interception performance the week before at Cleveland.

True to the script, the Ravens led through the entire first half. The Steelers tied it on a Jonathan Dwyer touchdown early in the 3rd quarter, but the Ravens bounced back to take the lead again as the third quarter ended. Charlie Batch connected with Heath Miller to tie the score at 20-20 with 7:24 remaining.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and Charlie Batch, playing his last 15 plays of football he had left in him, led the Steelers down the field as precious seconds ticked off the clock, until finally reaching the Ravens 24 yard line with 0:03 seconds left to play.

From 42 yards out, Suisham split the uprights, given Charlie Batch a win for his final NFL start.

2013 – Beating Baltimore, Saving the Season

The Steelers led this one all the way until the two minute warning when Joe Flacco connected with Dallas Clark to tie it up. The Steelers responded with an Emmanuel Sanders kick return for a touchdown that was called back. Nonetheless, 44 yards of his return stood, and energized the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell worked to position the Steelers at the 24.

Once again, from 42 yards out, with the Steelers season hanging in the balance, Suisham made as the Steelers defeated the Ravens 16-13 to improve to 2-4.

2014 – Cutting Off Cleveland’s Comeback Cold

This was Chuck Noll Day and the Steelers came out gang busters jumping to a 27-3 first half lead….

  • …Only to see Cleveland fight back in the second half, scoring 24 unanswered points, tying the game with 11:20 left to go.

The Browns got the ball back with just under 2 minutes remaining, but a Cameron Heyward sack and two stealer plays by William Gay forced a Cleveland punt. Ben Roethlisberger and Marcus Wheaton led the Steelers down the field reaching the Browns 24 yards line with 5 seconds left to play.

For the 7th, and apparently last time, Shaun Suisham made his last clutch kick for the Steelers, kicking a 41 yarder as time expired.

2010 – 2014 Shaun Suisham Clutch Kicker & Class Act

Shaun Suisham kicked for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2010 to 2014. During that time he made a bunch of clutch kicks. Whenever a game was on the line and the Steelers were inside of 45 yards, Mike Tomlin never hesitated to send out Suisham, whether on the road or at Heinz Field.

  • That’s priceless peace of mind for a head coach

Through it all, Suisham remained humble, and Chris Boswell‘s farewell tweet punctuates that point:

Let that sink in. When the Steelers signed Chris Boswell, and Boswell began making clutch kicks of his own, Suisham continued to offer his support and mentorship to a player who had had to know could cost him his job, even if his recovery from the ACL injury hadn’t taken a “catastrophic” turn for the worst.

  • That is truly the definition of class.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks Shuan Suisham for his clutch kicking and for being a class act. Steelers Nation wishes you well in whatever is next to come!

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Steelers Resign Bruce Gradkowski, Who’ll Compete with Landry Jones for QB No. 2 Slot

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert seemingly left the door open for the Steelers to pick a quarterback during the 2016 NFL Draft, but when the picks where in a quarterback was not among them. Nor did the Steelers bring a quarterback in with their 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class. Then word broke that Brian Hoyer, whom the Steelers liked, signed with the Bears.

  • The stars seemed to align for a Bruce Gradkowski return and it appears that will happen.

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Bruce Gradkowski to a one year deal. The move comes with a bit of a twist, as the Gradkowski will apparently have to compete with Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger.

This development hardly comes as a surprise, as Gradkowski’s repeated last summer caused Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola to compare Gradkowski to Byron Leftwich. As Steel Curtain Rising argued when it made the case for Gradkowski’s return, Charlie Batch also bore the “brittle” label, yet proved to be more durable than either Leftwich your youngster Dennis Dixon.

Gradkowski is a Pittsburgh native, hailing from Green Tree and is a graduate from Seton-La Salle. He’s been in the league since 2006, having played for Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Oakland and Cincinnati before landing in Pittsburgh in 2013. Gradkowski has not thrown a pass in a regular season Steelers game, but did look sharp in relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

While Landry Jones improved tremendously in 2015, ultimately unseating Michael Vick as the Steelers QB number 2, his play in the Steelers playoff win vs. the Bengals left a lot to be desired. In addition to Roethlisberger, Jones and Gradkowski, the Steelers also have Dustin Vaughan on their roster.

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Steelers Free Agency 2016 Poll Results Complete

In the end, Brandon Boykin got a lot of love from Steelers Nation. Or at least this corner of it. As the Steelers 2016 pre-draft visits have begun, Steel Curtain Rising has taken down its Steelers free agency 2016 poll. While it is possible, perhaps even probable the Steelers will make move free agent moves before convening training camp in Latrobe at St. Vincents, the organization’s focus has clearly shift to the draft.

steelers 2016 free agents, steelers nation, votes, william gay

Steelers Nation voted on Steelers 2016 Free Agents

  • But over the last 45 days or so, Steelers Nation has had a chance to vote on what they think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be doing.

Brandon Boykin was the third most popular Steelers free agent, William Gay was first with 51 votes and Ramon Foster was second with 46, followed by Boykin’s 41. The Steelers resigned William Gay and Ramon Foster, but let prance to the Carolina Panthers. Darrius Heyward-Bey came in fourth, whom the Steelers also resigned.

No one outside of that group got more than 30 votes. Almost as many people wanted to see Kelvin Beachum protecting Ben Roethlisberger (25), as want to see Bruce Gradkowski back him up (24). No one else got more than 20 votes.

  • The next highest vote getter is somewhat of a surprise: Doug Legursky who got 19 votes.

Steel Curtain Rising sung Legursky’s praises when he first reached free agency in 2013 and warned the losing Legursky could carry consequences (it did) and scolded the Pittsburgh media for not even bothering to cover it when he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, this site did not call for Legursky’s return to Pittsburgh, but a good chunk of our readers have.

Both remain unsigned and at this point will likely stay that way until after the draft. The Steelers may still bring back Will Johnson, but word is Will Allen will not return. Steelers long snapper Greg Warren also got 18 votes, although the Steelers had already resigned Warren before the voting began.

Below Warren and the Wills, only Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin found double digit support in Steelers Nation, with Michael Vick, Byron Stingily, Clifton GeathersCam Thomas, Jordan Todman and David Nelson (who?) all polling in single digits.

Of the group above, only Jordan Todman has signed elsewhere, and the Steelers are not likely to resign any of those players. Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted in our poll, and encourages you to vote in our Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Poll.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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The REAL Value of the Steelers 6th Round Compensatory Pick in the 2016 NFL Draft

The NFL awarded the Steelers a 6th round compensatory pick for losing Brice McCain in free agency last year. A jaded fan might react: “Woopie an extra pick at the bottom of the 6th round.”

  • Such attitudes would be little more than ignorant bliss.

Steelers.com reminded Steelers Nation that Hines Ward, Mike Vrabel, Amos Zereoue, Willie Colon and William Gay were compensatory picks. They could have added Daniel McCullers, and Kelvin Beachum were compensatory selections (so was Dri Archer, but most people on the South Side would probably rather forget that.)

  • A 6th round pick might sound ho, hum, but Antonio Brown was a 6th round pick.

Vince Williams, Willie Williams, Leroy Thompson, Greg Lloyd and Dwayne Woodruff were all 6th round picks. Those men serve as powerful reminders that good players are on the board in every round, and that no draft picks should be considered “throw aways.”

But that’s not the real value of the Steelers 6th round compensatory pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The Real Value of the Steelers 6th Round Compensatory Pick

The fact that the Steelers got a compensatory pick is good, because before that they were looking at going into the 2016 NFL Draft with only 6 picks, having traded away their 5th pick to get Brandon Boykin and their 6th round pick to get Josh Scobee.

  • By definition, 7 picks is better than 6 picks in any draft.

But the real value that the Steelers 6th round compensatory selection gives Pittsburgh is something else: Flexibility. Ben Roethlisberger is 34 years old. Under Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his life, and his game is not showing any drop off.

Moreover, Ben Roethlisberger has weapons that Terry Bradshaw never dreamed of. And that is no disrespect to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris or Bennie Cunningham.

  • But if Ben’s game isn’t showing any signs of wear and tear, perhaps his body is.

After playing nearly every snap in 2013 and nearly every snap in 2014, Ben Roethlisberger had to be relieved by Michael Vick or Landry Jones on four separate occasions in 2015. This could just be the law of averages at work, or it could be the collective toll of all of the punishment Roethlisberger has taken beginning to make its presence felt.

Either way, the lesson is clear:

  • Ben Roethlisberger is closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it.

Steelers Nation should expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to field a Super Bowl caliber offense in 2016, as for the Steelers defense? Well, that remains a work in progress. As Tony Defeo indicates, Keith Butler deserves praise for his first season.

  • The Steelers defense performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.

Even those who thought that things could be better (like this site), lacked the courage to say that the Steelers defense would be better. But if the Steelers defense was better than expected, it still wasn’t Super Bowl caliber. Anyone who saw the Denver Broncos smother the Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers should immediately understand.

  • Kevin Colbert must strengthen the Steelers defense in the 2016 NFL Draft, and he needs players who can deliver fast.

And that’s where the Steelers 6th round compensatory pick comes in. For the first time since the NFL adopted its compensatory draft pick system in 1993, compensatory picks can be traded. Having a 6th round picks gives Kevin Colbert the freedom to consider some wheeling and dealing during the draft.

Sure… the last time two times the Steelers traded up they picked Shamarko Thomas and Alameda Ta’amu. Neither man worked out.

  • But neither Shamarko nor Ta’Mau is indicative of Kevin Colbert’s record in trading up.

Colbert has traded up twice in the first round. The first time he moved up in 2003 and picked Troy Polamalu. The second time it was to pick Santonio Holmes. One is a future Hall of Famer, the other was the Super Bowl XLIII MVP.

Steel Curtain Rising will leave it to the draft nicks to decide if the Steelers “should” or “should not” trade up in the 2016 NFL Draft. But the Steelers 6th compensatory pick makes trading up a much more viable prospect.

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