Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs: Pittsburgh in an Unusual Position

“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:

  • It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.

During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers pride themselves on building through the draft, but two free agents, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, gave the franchise its best cornerback tandem since Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend lined up in Super Bowl XLIII.

Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:

In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.

  • Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.

The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.

  • Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.

Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.

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

Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

  • With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.

That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.

After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.

That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.

The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs

If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?

That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Mike Hilton: Hold Him While You Can

In 2015, the Steelers went to Ole Miss in search of a 5’9″ defensive back who they thought could be a plug-in slot corner at the professional level.

His name was Senquez Golson, a player they selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Only problem, Golson never saw any live action for the Steelers, as injuries derailed his career quite literally before it even began. Thankfully, another 5’9″ defensive back from Ole Miss came on the scene two years later and became that all-important slot corner the Steelers had been searching for for years. His name was Mike Hilton. Since 2017, he’s been one of the most effective at his position in the NFL. But now that he enters 2020 as a restricted free agent, can Pittsburgh afford to keep him?

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent in 2016, Hilton was signed by the Jaguars but didn’t make the final cut out of training camp and was released. The Patriots quickly signed Hilton to their practice squad but just as quickly–one week later–released him. Hilton was team-less for most of 2016 before landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad in December of that year.

Hilton became a training camp sensation in 2017 and remained the talk of Latrobe all the way up until the end, when he not only made the Steelers final 53-man roster, he was named the starting slot corner (or nickelback) to begin the year. And oh what a rookie year it was for Hilton, as he recorded two interceptions, six passes defensed and four, that’s right, four quarterback sacks–including a whopping three in a Week 16 blow-out victory on Christmas Day in Houston.

The sack rate hasn’t been the same over the last two seasons, but Hilton’s consistent and impressive play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. Hilton was an exclusive rights free agent prior to the 2019 season, meaning he had zero leverage to negotiate a new deal. Unlike previous exclusive rights free agents, such as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers and Hilton weren’t able to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Therefore, Hilton signed his tender which paid him $645,000 a season ago.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

After years of searching for the right parts to make the secondary work, the Steelers appear to have finally found the correct formula. Let’s face it, in the modern world of professional football, where passing is king, a slot corner is basically a starter, which may explain why Hilton was on the field for 62 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019. Like with other restricted free agents, the Steelers have options with Hilton.

They can sign him to a low tender of about $2 million. Or if they’re really interested in retaining him, they can place a second-round tender on Hilton, which will cost about $3 million in 2020. That’s a huge hike in pay, sure, but at 25 years old, Hilton is young and his prime years are likely still ahead of him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

Obviously, Hilton isn’t the biggest Steelers defender who is on the verge of free agency. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave have garnered most of the headlines in that regard, and if one or both stick around, it’s going to be quite expensive. Unlike exclusive rights free agents, restricted free agents have the opportunity to go out and negotiate a deal with another team, a deal Pittsburgh would have the option of matching.

But, again, slot corners are essentially starters, and the good ones make good money. With little room under the salary cap, and with Cam Sutton about to enter his fourth year as a versatile member of the secondary, it might behoove the Steelers to allow Hilton to explore other options. If another team bites, maybe they can get a second-round pick for their efforts.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton

This is a tough call. If NFL players vote to accept the proposed new CBA, that changes everything as far as free agency goes. Not only would the salary cap increase, teams would then able to do such things as restructure current contracts so as to create even more space under the cap. Under that scenario, I say you do what you can to lock Hilton up to a long-term deal.

Unfortunately, that scenario hasn’t presented itself just yet. Having said that, however, I believe the Steelers need to find a way to create $3 million under the cap to keep Hilton around for one more year, and they should place a second-round tender on him prior to free agency.

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

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Free Agency Tracker

It is that time of year again. The NFL’s “League” Year is about to start, which will brings free agency and a flurry of activity as players jump from team to team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be no exception. While the Steelers have been more active in free agency in recent seasons of late, their salary cap situation heading into 2020 would seem to preclude that. That doesn’t mean the news will be slow.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quite to the contrary. If the Steelers simply wish to sign their draft class, tender a few restricted free agents, and give themselves enough room to sign emergency players during the 2020 season, they’ll need to clear salary cap space. A that means saying goodbye to veterans. And then of course there’s the impending big decision on Bud Dupree.

  • With that we kick off our annual Steelers free agency tracker.

As free agency evolves, we’ll update departures and signings here. We’ll also be including free agent focus profiles on each of the Steelers free agents.

Steelers 2020 Unrestricted Free Agents

Bud Dupree
Javon Hargrave
B.J. Finney
Artie Burns
Sean Davis
Nick Vannett
Kameron Canaday
Tyler Matakevich
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agents

Matt Feiler
Mike Hilton
Jordan Dangerfield
Zach Banner

Steelers 2020 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Marcus Allen
Lavon Hooks

Check back for regular updates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

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

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

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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

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

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

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

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

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

Gravity in the NFL

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

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

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

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

1. Poor Special Teams Play

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

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

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

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

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

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

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

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

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

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

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

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns – “Pittsburgh Finishes It” Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is thrilled at seeing his entire class pull together to overcome adversity, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden interception, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden’s interception ensures that “Pittsburgh Finishes It” against the Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
When asked to assess Devlin Hodges play, an uncharacteristically frank Mike Tomlin confessed “He played his tail off.” Devlin Hodges did not have a strong first quarter, but hit his stride in the second, hitting 8 separate receivers, going 14 of 21 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw an interception late, which could have been devastating, so his grade comes down. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
If there is any bright side to come out of 2019, it is perhaps that the Steelers coaching staff will see that you CAN split carries and run the ball effectively. Benny Snell had 69 yards on 13 carries, followed by Kerrith Whyte added 10 on 3 carries. More important than any numbers or averages, the Steelers ran the ball when they needed to, when the Browns knew it was coming and couldn’t stop them. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Whether by happenstance or design, the tight ends re-emerged in the passing game, with Vance McDonald catch 3 passes for 21 yards and Nick Vannett catching one for seven that helped sustain the Steelers insurance field goal drive. Run blocking was notably better this week, and the tight ends share credit. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
James Washington had another phenomenal game coming up with 3 clutch catches, including a touchdown to close the 1st half. On the day, Washington was 4-111. Tevin Jones only had one catch for 28 yards, but it set up the Steelers tying touchdown before halftime. Diontae Johnson had shaky afternoon with 1 catch on 5 targets, as costly penalty and a route that he cut off too early. But his 17 yard reverse served as the second punch in the combo that sparked the Steelers offense and set up the first score. Deon Cain had 1 catch for 5 yards but it gave the Steelers a first down on their tying drive during the first half two minute drill. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The offensive line didn’t exactly road grade, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will. Delvin Hodges was only sacked once, and hit four times. In the first matchup against the Browns those numbers were 4 and 11, (and Myles Garrett only accounted for 3 of those QB hits.) The Steelers offensive line played its best game in weeks, and their improvement was key to victory. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Browns

Not even 3 Browns can stop Benny Snell. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward served as a two man wrecking crew up front, combining for 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Cleveland ran the ball a little too well at times, and the line holds some responsibility for that.

But numbers fail to fully tell the tail as Cam Heyward recovered the fumble that sparked the Steelers final scoring drive, and he combined for the sack the forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal. Javon Hargrave’s sack forced a punt after Hodge’s interception. That’s some serious playmaking. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Devin Bush lead the team in tackles, followed by Bud Dupree, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with another strip sack and another opportune sack (he would have had a 3rd had it not been for a bogus roughing the passer call.) T.J. Watt “only” had a sack a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and 1 quarterback hit. Mark Barron had 5 tackles while Vince Williams had 2 plus 1 for a lose. Again, Cleveland’s success running the ball brings this grade down a bit. Grade: B+

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles, while Steven Nelson was next with 5. Mike Hilton deflected two passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 1 pass deflected that he should have intercepted. In the end, it did not matter. Two plays later Joe Haden got his hands on the ball and held on to end the game. The Browns were 4-12 on 3rd down conversions, which only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade: A

Special Teams
Kerrith Whyte opened the game with a 34 yard kick return and averaged 24 yards on 3 returns, strong numbers in today’s NFL. The Browns got nowhere on their kick returns. Diontae Johnson is still finding his way as a punt returner, but he did have one good 13 yard return. Steelers punt return coverage was sound. Jordan Berry had a solid day punting, while Chris Boswell was perfect. Grade: B+

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

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

Coaching
Last time “Baker out of the pocket” was Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis of what ailed the Steelers defense. He was right. This time, the Steelers contained Mayfield Baker, and that was a difference maker. The Browns ran the ball a little too well for comfort early in the game, but the Steelers defense clamped down.

Randy Fichtner is taking heat in some quarters for the offensive game plan, but after a slow start the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points until the Browns settled for a field goal with 7:34 left to play.

  • Randy Kitchens and the Browns chose to focus on the final 8 seconds of the first game, all the way down to his “Pittsburgh Started It” selfie.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin’s focus was on fixing the errors so painfully apparent in the game’s first 59:52 of play. When challenged about the impact of his T-Shirt, Kitchens was dismissive, insisting his team was “ready to play.”

While Randy Kitchens “talked the talk,” Mike Tomlin “Walked the Walk.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were the team that was ready, willing and able to win. “Pittsburgh Finishes It” indeed. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
He inherited “Next Man Up” status the moment Le’Veon Bell’s no showed in September 2018. Yet, with James Conner ailing last week, Benny Snell got the start upon his return to health.

Nonetheless, against the Browns he had 37 yards on 7 carries including a few out of the Wildcat plus 2 catches for 22 yards on two carries, and for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win at Cincinnati – How Did the Quarterbacks Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who, if nothing else, is happy to see one half of his class picking up the slack when the other half stumbles, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
On the first two drives preceding his interception, Mason Rudolph looked OK. After the interception, Rudolph was tentative and played poorly. Devlin Hodges stepped in and connected on his first 2 throws, the 2nd of which went for a touchdown. Which means he was 3 of 9 on the rest of the day….. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers effectively deployed 4 running backs to rush for a combined total of 160 yards, a season high for the team. Kerrith Whyte ripped off a few impressive runs, as did Trey Edwards. Jaylen Samuels had 2 carries and 3 catches. Overall, a solid game by the Steelers running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For unknown reasons, it is pretty clear that the Steelers tight ends won’t play much of a role in the 2019 passing game, as Vance McDonald had 1 yard on 1 catch for 1 target. Nick Vanett did not get targeted. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
While he’s a long way from being a superstar, with each week James Washington seems to inch up his game a notch and every week he makes an important contribution. Diontae Johnson had 3 catches on 6 targets but all went for short gains. Deon Cain’s 1 catch for 35 yards set up the Steelers first field goal. Tevin Jones had 1 catch for 9 yards on 3 targets. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
On the plus side, after giving up 2 holding penalties and 1 false start against the Browns, the Steelers offensive line didn’t get flagged for either penalty. And when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line delivered the run blocking that was needed. Cincinnati knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. On the negative side, the Bengals had 6 tackles for losses, registered 3 sacks and laid on 7 more QB hits. More quality and more consistency is needed. Now. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward is a monster. Heled the team in tackles, registered a sack, had a hand in two tackles for losses and hit Ryan Finley 4 more times. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. Outside of a few runs late in the game, Joe Mixon wasn’t a factor in the game, and that starts with the line. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and remained in the game following a bone bruise. Bud Dupree was quiet for much of the game, until he ended it with a strip sack of his own. Mark Barron had an almost safety. Devin Bush authored the biggest play for the linebackers when he forced a fumble by Tyler Boyd and Pittsburgh’s 8, changing the game for good. Grade: A

Secondary
And who just happened to scoop up the fumble Devin Bush caused? Minkah Fitzpatrick who had concentration needed to stay in bounds and return it 36 yards. Joe Haden defended 3 passes, including two of which came during the game’s final moments. Mike Hilton also got a hand on three passes of his own. Steven Nelson tipped away another pass. Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden gave away successive big pass plays which led to an easy score, which brings this group’s grade down. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Diontae Johnson returned 4 punts for 5.3 yards, while the Steelers punt coverage was sound. Kerrith Whyte didn’t do much on his first kick return, and the Steelers gave up an average of 23.5 yards on kick returns. Until the Steelers can managed to get that average down, teams are going to continue returning kicks instead of taking the touchback.

Jordan Berry boomed off 7 punts that averaged 45.1 yards and, more importantly, nailed 3 inside the 20. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals, including a 47 yarder. Grade: B+

Delvin Hodges, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Coaching
The Steelers were playing one of the worst offenses in the NFL that, on top of that was, missing its best receiver. While Keith Butler’s boys didn’t quite pitch a perfect game, they did allow one touchdown that looked all too easy, they limited Cincinnati to 10 points. The Bengals went 2-12 on third downs, punted 9 times and suffered seven 3 and outs.

  • Most importantly, when Cincinnati threatened to get back in the game, the Steelers defense delivered a turnover.

It is easy to criticize Randy Fichtner and his “one touchdown a game” offense. And to be certain, Fichtner has his faults. It’s also true that he was playing 6 players who’d been cut previously this season. It was not pretty, but the Steelers offense came from behind once, reestablished the lead another time, and then added insurance points.

  • While ever popular with fans, benching a quarterback is fraught with risk.

Yes, it can give an offense and even an entire season a spark. See Tommy Maddox in 2002. Or it can blow up in a coach’s face (see Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak in the rain at Tampa in 1998).
Or the replacement quarterback can do just well enough to get by.

That’s what happened on Sunday afternoon. Devlin Hodges provided the Steelers with just enough spark to push the Steelers on to victory. However, Hodges hardly has a “hot hand.” Mike Tomlin will need to manage this with care moving forward, but on Sunday switching quarterbacks was the right decision. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Bengals

Benny Snell rushes in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
It was the Steelers best rushing effort of the season and their best rusher of the game brought his best when the game was on the line. He might have been held under 100 yards, clocking in at 98 yards on 21 carries, but 63 of those yards came on nine 4th quarter carries. The Steelers needed that type of effort to close with the win, and Benny Snell Jr. delivered it and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Cincinnati.

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