Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

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

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals – A’s for Achievement & Innovation

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down a full letter grade for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football 2019

Diontae Johnson catches a 43 yard touchdown in the Steelers win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph’s first start yielded a video game like passer rating of 124.6 as he completed 24 of 28 for two touchdowns and zero interceptions. But those numbers are a product of play calling designed to protect him. Rudolph made a few mistakes, but he also flashed some impressive play making potential. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner had the best night of the season by far, running for 4.2 yards per carry on 10 carries, and catching 8 passes. What was most impressive was the grit and determination which drove Conner, evident on his touchdown catch and another Red Zone carry. Jaylen Samuels operated the Wildcat for the Steelers to great effect. It was an unconventional evening for the Steelers, but one that worked. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry saw his first extended NFL action, and made a tremendous block on Jaylen Samuels touchdown. His effort combined with that of the other tight ends was critical to the Steelers success. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Any game plan that only sees JuJu Smith-Schuster targeted 4 times does not, by definition, feature the wide receivers. Diontae Johnson may have benefitted from a blown coverage, but if he continues to score touchdowns on deep passes, he will force opposing defenses to take note. James Washington remains nearly invisible in the Steelers offense, which is beginning to get worrisome. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
By his own account Mason Rudolph wasn’t touched. That’s saying something given that he tends to hold on to the ball a little longer than he should. The Steelers run blocking was better, as the line was particularly effective in springing the running backs on outside runs. Still, the failure on 4th and short is disturbing. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward spoke loudly during the week about the need for everyone to step up, and he spoke even louder on the field with 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for losses and 3 quarterback hits. All on an injured quad. Javon Hargrave got a sack and Stephon Tuitt hit Andy Dalton twice. An excellent night for the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Mark Barron ended the Bengals first entrance into the Red Zone by defending a pass and his interception blotted out any chance of a Bengals comeback. Devin Bush had his first sack and dropped 3 ball carriers for losses. T.J. Watt had a sack and a half, 3 quarterback hits and recovered the fumble on Bud Dupree’s strip sack that ended another Cincinnati trip to the Red Zone. The Bengals tight ends were a non-factor. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton was swatting passes like flies. Joe Haden almost had an interception. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson’s names weren’t heard much all of which were good signs. The Steelers front seven put the Bengals in several 3rd and long situations, and they only converted 5 of 17 of those, which is on the secondary. 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
The Steelers returned no kicks, and the Bengals only returned two kickoffs to little effect. Jordan Berry boomed off two punts, averaging 49.5 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking including a 49 yard field goal. Grade: B+

Coaching
Keith Butler has taken a lot of grief for a long time. Much of it is understandable. The Steelers have 7 first round picks playing for them, and performance has not matched the investment of draft free agent capital.

  • But against the Bengals, the Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance.

Sure, right now Cincinnati looks like the NFL equivalent of a Junior Varsity team, but the Steelers defense should dominate under those circumstances. They dominated.

Randy Fichtner’s took a lot of heat before the game for his vanilla game plan against San Francisco, and then took heat for resorting to the Wildcat and other gimmicks to beat The Bengals.

  • Who cares?

The Steelers were playing without their fullback, without their number 1 tight end and with a first year starting quarterback in search of his first win. What was Randy Fichtner supposed to do? Alternate between the Wishbone and Run’n Shoot?

  • No. Instead, Fichtner came up with a game plan that did what it was supposed to do – score enough points to win.

Things get pretty bleak when you’re 0-3 NFL team, yet Mike Tomlin kept his players focused and did not shy away from innovating. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Six days before the Monday night game, this gentleman wasn’t even wearing a Steelers uniform. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he informed that the Steelers had been trying to get him in the Black and Gold for some time.

Now we know why. He literally walked in off the street to start for the Steelers in this game, and he made two critical catches as well as contributing to the blocking game. For that Nick Vannett wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Monday Night win over the Bengals.

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Is Mike Hilton’s Slot-Corner Role Up For Grabs @ St. Vincents?

When comparing Steelers third-year slot-corner Mike Hiltons stats from 2017 with those from 2018, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference.

In 2017, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2016, had 54 tackles, four sacks, six passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble while appearing in 16 games and starting four.

In 2018, Mike Hilton had 57 tackles, one sack, eight passes defensed, one interception and two fumble recoveries while appearing in 15 games and starting two.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Other than the number of sacks, which are a bit misleading considering he had three in one game in a Week 16 blowout victory over the Texans in 2017, again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a discernible difference in play and performance over Hilton’s first two seasons in the league.

Yet, after entering his second Steelers training camp as a youngster who appeared to have a bright future in the defense, Mike Hilton enters his third Steelers training camp looking like a player who is in for a fight for his starting role in the secondary.

Yes, the slot corner position is very much considered a starting role in the modern era of football; and after some unsuccessful attempts to fill this now very important role–including with Hilton’s old college teammate, 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson–the Steelers seemed to find their man two years ago.

What changed? It’s not rumor or speculation, either. The sudden drop of Mike Hilton’s stock from one season to the next — specifically, the tail-end of last season, when other corners were now battling him for playing time.

To further reinforce this apparent lack of confidence in Mike Hilton’s abilities, the Steelers barely even made an attempt to negotiate with him on a multi-year contract this past offseason, and he ultimately signed his $645,000 tender as an exclusive rights free agent. as you probably know, an exclusive rights free agent is someone who has no power or leverage to negotiate a deal. It’s a take it or leave it situation.

  • For whatever reason, the Steelers made it pretty clear to Mike Hilton that he had no leverage.

In other words, they opted not to treat him like James Harrison, Willie Parker and/or Alejandro Villanueava who got second contracts as Exclusive Rights Free Agents. 

To his credit, Mike Hilton participated in all offseason workouts, even before signing his tender. Now, he’s at Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa. trying to prove to his bosses that 2017 was no fluke. Again, though, what happened in 2018 that made Mike Hilton’s rookie season seem so fluky?

  • I’m obviously no expert, so maybe there was a drop off in Mike Hilton’s play that only those who get paid to evaluate could have detected.

Nobody on Pittsburgh’s current roster appears to be nipping at Hilton’s heels, not 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, not 2017 fifth-round pick, Brian Allen and certainly not 2016 first-round pick, Artie Burns, who is fighting just to stay on the roster.

Maybe it really is just speculation, this apparent falling out of favor by Mike Hilton with the Steelers. After all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him on any list ranking the NFL’s top nickle corners. Furthermore, Mike Hilton is a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning the Steelers essentially control his rights for another offseason. Therefore, why bother with a multi-year contract at this point?

Maybe the Steelers feel that there is much room for improvement at slot corner, and while Hilton is a nice player, perhaps they’re looking for a little more out of the position.

By all outward appearances, Mike Hilton has been put on notice by the Steelers, and the battle for the slot-corner position is one worth watching this summer.

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Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract by One Year. Tenure Now Tied to Roethlisberger’s Reign?

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by one year, binding him to Pittsburgh through “at least” the 2021 season. The move came as the Steelers opened training camp at St. Vincents, as Art Rooney II moved quickly to remove any distractions about the job security of his head coach.

Since Bill Cowher’s tenure, the Steelers have traditionally extended their head coach when he has had two years remaining on his contract.

The extension is, however, for one year, with an option which is a bit of a break from tradition, and no one really seems to know why. There are several possibilities:

  • The two sides couldn’t agree on money, so this was a quick, clean compromise
  • Art Rooney II wants to hold Mike Tomlin’s feet to the fire
  • One or both parties wanted Tomlin’s contract to overlap with Ben Roethlisberger‘s
  • Mike Tomlin only wanted a 1 year extension

While all four possibilities are viable, some are more likely than others.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

One would like to think that after sticking together through 12 years of ups and downs, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers wouldn’t clash over contract terms. But as Bruce Springsteen wrote, “Sooner or later it all comes down to money honey/Waist deep in a big muddy….”

The idea that Art Rooney II is only offering a one year extension might sit well with fans, and hasn’t been discounted by journalists such as the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac. However, NFL coach’s contracts are guaranteed. Adding an extra year to Mike Tomlin’s contract likely means committing to between 7 and 10 million more dollars.

  • Would you really commit that kind of money to someone you think you might be firing?

The fact that Mike Tomlin’s contract is now aligned with Ben Roethlisberger is lost on no one. Roethlisberger clearly likes playing for Mike Tomlin, and Mike Tomlin likes Roethlisberger. Their fortunes are tied together figuratively, perhaps they’re tied together literally.

  • The next possibility is one that isn’t being discussed, and that’s that Mike Tomlin doesn’t want a longer deal.

Mike Tomlin has two kids, Dino Tomlin and Mason Tomlin, in college and while his boys were in high school he has discussed how difficult be for him to miss seeing them play. Depending on how their eligibility is used, if Tomlin walked away at the end of his current deal, he could conceivably see both boys finish their collegiate playing days.

Regardless of motive, today’s announcement all but ensures that Mike Tomlin will be on hand next summer at St. Vincents.

Hilton Signs, Watt on PUP

A smidge of other major news to come out of Steelers training camp today. Cornerback Mike Hilton signed his Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender which was his only choice. And in a precautionary move, the Steelers put T.J. Watt on the PUP list due to a tight hamstring.

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4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Steelers Draft Justin Layne, Cornerback Michigan State with 2nd Third Round Pick in 2019 NFL Draft

Kevin Colbert swears that he never, ever drafts for need. “Ni en pedo” is what he would swear where he an Argentine porteño.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest 2019 draft needs were Inside Linebacker, Cornerback and Wide Receiver. Could it just be a coincidence that the Steelers first picks in the draft went Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver and Cornerback?

  • Yeah, tell me you believe it is a coincidence and I’ll get you a REALLY good price on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Using their own 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to Justin Layne, cornerback from Michigan State. Justin Layne grew up in Cleveland as the son of a devoted Browns fan, but as Jim Wexell reports, he has already clarified that “Man, my dad threw away all his Browns stuff.”

Justin Layne, Steelers draft Justin Layne, Ron'Quavion Tarver

Steelers drafted Justin Layne in 3rd round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland, MLive.com

Justin Lanye’s past family ties with the Brown can and should be forgiven. After all Chuck Noll was a former Cleveland Brown player and Justin Layne is a graduate of Benedictine High in Cleveland as was Chuck Noll.

  • Like his colleague Brian Allen, Layne arrives in the NFL new to the cornerback position.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminds us, Brian Layne actually began his career for the Michigan State Spartans playing wide receiver, not switching until midway through the 2016 season when he took an interception 43 yards for a touchdown in his first game as corner.

  • How does that cliché go, if defensive backs had hands, they’d be wide receivers?

Perhaps with experience on the other side, Justin Layne can break the mold, as he make 3 more interceptions and broke up 24 passes (while interceptions are coveted, passes defensed is often viewed as the better key performance indicator by secondary coaches.)

Justin Layne’s Highlight Tape

If some were quick to say that the Steeler reached for their first 3rd round pick, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, people just as quickly asked why someone of Justin Layne’s pedigree was still on the board so late in the third round.

Justin Layne’s measurable are solid. He stands just under 6’2” ran 4.5 in the 40, has a 37.5 vertical jump and has strong agility times running a 4.09 shuttle and a 6.9 3-cone. He also has 33 inch arms. New Steelers defensive assistant Teryl Austin was asked of Layne had a flaw in his game and retorted, “I’m not sure what the flaw is.”

Here’s a look at Layne’s tape:

His ball skills are evident and Justin Layne appears to be a solid tackler. The question of how and where Justin Layne will fit into the Steelers secondary will be an interesting one. When asked if he would play in the slot, which would make him an immediate threat to Mike Hilton, Teryl Austin countered by saying he saw Layne as more of an outside corner.

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson‘s status as the Steelers starting cornerbacks would not appear to be disrupted by Justin Layne’s arrival in Pittsburgh. However, it likely decreases any chance that the Steelers resign 2018’s starter Coty Sensabaugh.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Justin Layne.

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Steelers 2019 Cornerback Draft Needs – Pittsburgh’s Perpetual Priority

The 2019 NFL Draft is right around the corner, and there’s no question the Steelers have a few needs. Speaking of corner–as in cornerback–Pittsburgh–and a plethora of experts and armchair experts–have targeted that position as one of need for the team. Washington’s Byron Murphy, LSU’s Greedy Williams and Georgia’s Deandre Baker have all been linked to the Steelers at pick No. 20.

Two questions, should they pull the trigger if one or even all three were available? And just how great of a need is it, anyway?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com


Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

After coming to the Steelers following his release by the Browns just prior to the 2017 regular season, veteran corner Joe Haden has been nothing but a blessing for Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • In 26 games with Pittsburgh, Haden has totaled three interceptions and 19 passes defensed.

On the other side will be the newly acquired Steven Nelson, a former Chiefs cornerback, who the Steelers signed as a free agent in March. In four seasons with Kansas City, Nelson started 28 games, posting four interceptions–all in 2018–and 35 passes defensed. At 26 years old and coming into his all-important second contract, Nelson is expected to be an upgrade over what the Steelers lined up opposite Haden the past two seasons.

Since slot is considered by many to be a starting role in the modern NFL, we should include Mike Hilton in that group. An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi in 2016, Hilton made the Steelers roster one year later and quickly established himself in the slot position. Over the past two seasons, Hilton, 25, has appeared in 31 games and has recorded three interceptions, 15 passes defensed and a very impressive four sacks.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

The confidence in Artie Burns, the Steelers first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is believed to be at an all-time low. Artie Burns started 25 games over his first two seasons and looked like a young corner who could develop into something beyond even adequate, Burns took a big step back last year.

Repeatedly beaten early in the 2018 campaign, Artie Burns only started six games and was a virtual non-factor in the secondary down the stretch. As for Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh’s third-round pick two springs ago, the optimism was high that he would make a huge first-to-second year leap in 2018.

  • But while he showed flashes, it’s more accurate to say Cam Sutton’s sophomore season left a lot to be desired.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are unknown and unproven names such as Marcelis Branch, Kameron Kelly, Herb Waters and Jack Tochno. Brian Allen, a fifth-round pick two seasons ago, is currently listed as a safety on the depth chart despite coming into the NFL as a cornerback.

Drafted in 2017 as a bit of a project, there was a bit of optimism that Brian Allen could be molded into a decent corner. Alas, after two seasons as mostly a special teams player, perhaps Pittsburgh considers him better suited for another position.

The Steelers 2019 Cornerback Draft Needs

Having just turned 30 and on the last year of a three-year deal he signed in 2017, a deal with a base salary of $10 million in 2018, Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh could be coming to an end. steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, the Steelers may be willing to bring the veteran back, but would they be willing to do so at the same price tag–or even in the same ballpark? 

  • And how much longer can Joe Haden continue to play at the level he’s at right now?
  • Can Artie Burns revive his drowning career? 
  • Can Cam Sutton finally meet or even exceed the expectations he fed with his flashes in late ’17? 

As if these questions don’t speak for themselves, remember that Coty Sensabaugh, a journeyman who ate up plenty of snaps in the secondary for Pittsburgh the past two years — and did so to great effect in many cases –remains currently unsigned.

Should the Steelers address the cornerback position with another premium pick? It says here that Pittsburgh needs immedate depth at cornerback and perhaps a future starter. Therefore the Steelers 2019 the draft need at cornerback  should be considered High-Moderate.

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