Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs – Is Corner Finally a Low Priority for Pittsburgh?

As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.

  • Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.

While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.

Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.

After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.

Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City Insider Craig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”

People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)

  • The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.

Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.

Joe Haden’s return helped stabilize a defense reeling for the loss of Ryan Shazier, and he figures to assume a true leadership role in 2018.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.

  • Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.

After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.

Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.

Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs

Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)

The Steelers have used late round picks on players who barely became blips on the radar screen (Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne and Terrance Fredrick.)steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).

With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.

  • That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.

Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card – Defense, Coaches Fall Short for Black & Gold

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t figure out whether he’s got a star group of pupils that under achieved or an  average group that over achieved here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Report Card.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Roosevelt Nix leads Le’Veon Bell past Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
In a welcome change from 2015 and 2016, injuries forced no other quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger to take a snap. And Landry Jones performed well when given a chance. People will forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily on the front end of the 2017 season, yet he pulled his play up so much that is total season number are only a hair off of 2016. Credit Roethlisberger for mastering the end of 1st half two-minute drill and authoring numerous 4th quarter comebacks. But his Jacksonville regular season performance was a disaster, he made a critical error at the end of the Patriots game and his playoff turnovers were costly which brings his grade down. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Once again Le’Veon Bell served as a work horse for this offense, touching the ball 406 times. Started slowing, and didn’t have a dominant type year that he had before, but he was clearly an asset and was clearly indispensable. James Conners looked good in limited action and so did Stevan Ridley. In the background was Roosevelt Nix, who did well enough at fullback to earn Pro Bowl honors. Running back was clearly a team strength in 2017. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald struggled early, but by the time November arrived, no one was questioning the Steelers decision to trade for him. And while Jesse James did well, the contrast between his impact and McDonald’s reveals the difference between a number 2 tight end and a number one. Xavier Grimble had 5 catches, but didn’t distinguish himself during McDonald’s absence. And the Steelers tight ends still need to block better. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown is clearly the best wide receiver in football. His value to the Steelers is immeasurable. After a year-long suspension Martavis Bryant rarely flashed the big play ability he showed in 2014 and 2015, but as the season progress his play become more consistent and he made several critical catches down the stretch. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big news of the unit, turning in a sensational rookie year. Eli Rogers struggled early but played well late in the season and in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter failed to distinguish themselves. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard romp. Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks were up a bit, but nowhere near pre-2013 levels. While run blocking was generally solid, there were times when it lacked the road-grading quality that would be expected of an offensive line comprised of starters in their second contract, although Marcus Gilbert was out of the lineup a lot, but Chris Hubbard filled in admirably. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had a monster year finishing with 12 sacks, the most for a defensive lineman since Aaron Smith in 2004. Stephon Tuitt had a strong year, when healthy, but saw his sack total elipsed by back up Tyson Alualu. Javon Hargrave started the year strong, but faded down the stretch, and L.T. Walton was not up to replacing him in the playoffs. With injuries decimating the linebacking crops, the Steelers defensive line would figure to be a key unit to compensate, but they were not at least when it counted in the playoffs. Grade: B-

Ben Roethlisberger Ryan Shazier jersey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Ryan Shazier’s jersey after the Steelers win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Who was the Steelers MVP? Ryan Shazier. Neither the defense, nor the linebacking crops was remotely the same without him. T.J. Watt was a clear bright spot, netting 7 sack, pulling down an interception and defending 7 passes, making him an all-around asset. Bud Dupree started with 3 sacks in the first six games, then only added 3 more in the next ten. The inside linebacking depth which appeared solid on paper, particularly given Arthur Moats position flexibility, was a mirage on the field. Grade: C-

Secondary
The Joe Haden signing had it skeptics, but he was clearly a difference maker on the defense, as highlighted by his absence. Both Sean Davis and Artie Burns, rookie darlings from 2016, failed to make the second year leap and Burns showed clear signs of regression. Mike Mitchell talked a good game, but more often than not failed to back it up on the field. He delivered no turnovers and defensed only 2 passes. Rookie Mike Hilton was another sensation and a true bright spot. Kevin Colbert has made a lot of shrewd, bang for the buck free agent signings, Coty Sensabaugh is not one of them. Grade: C-

Special Teams
For several years running, special teams coach Danny Smith has been a favorite whipping boy of Steelers Nation. This year the team made some noise with a punt block in the first game, a successful fake punt, and stop on a fake punt. On sides kicks remain an issue however…. Chris Boswell had a phenomenal year kicking and Jordan Berry was solid. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers coaching, specifically Mike Tomlin will be addressed at length in our 2017 Season Review.

Todd Haley took a lot of heat during the year, much of it a little too over the top, but his own stated goal was 30 points a game, a threshold that the Steelers only topped once.

And if the offense suffered from slow starts by Ben Rothlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, for all the gaudy statistics, for all the comebacks and for all the cash the Steelers have invested in the unit, it came up short at critical moments such as the end of the Patriots game and in the first quarter and a half against the Jaguars when a long, clock-consuming drive would have been a difference maker.

  • News of Mike Tomlin’s extensive involvement with the defense makes Keith Butler’s job harder to evaluate.
  • Prior to the injuries to Joe Haden and then Ryan Shazier, the Steelers defense was hinting at shut down capability.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin Jaguars playoff loss. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

That’s easy to forget after dropping 45 points to the Jaguars, but it is fact. What happened and who bears responsibility? It is hard to know for sure, but Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave all failed to make the second year leap, the Steelers Red Zone defense was terrible and in the playoffs they looked every bit the team whose head coach and defensive coordinator were not on the same page.

  • The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lot of adversity, some if it their own making, some of it not.

During the regular season, Mike Tomlin managed to keep his team winning. Certainly, many of those wins were too close for comfort, but style points don’t count.

At the end of the day however, the only conclusion from the Jaguars game is that the Steelers were not prepared, and given the tenuous status of the Steelers Super Bowl window, that is simply inexcusable. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
Every defense needs a scrapper. A guy who makes the tough tackle, is there at the line of scrimmage, plays cleanup man on the quarterback when the secondary has everyone covered. A guy who craves contact. While Ryan Shaizer’s absence did expose is limits as an athlete, Vince Williams, he of the 8 sacks, was that man for the Steelers defense for much of the year and for that he wins Unsung Hero honors for the Steelers 2017 season.

 

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Its Official: Steelers Promote Randy Fichtner as Offensive Coordinator

Two days after firing Todd Haley, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved swiftly to promote quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator. The Steelers simply announced the new on their website, and did not make Fichtner available for questions. However, the Steelers new offensive coordinator did release this statement:

I want to thank Coach (Mike) Tomlin and Art Rooney II for giving me this opportunity to be the offensive coordinator for this organization. We have a tremendous roster, and it will be my charge to continue putting our offensive players in position to succeed and score points. We have the nucleus to be successful, and I am thrilled about the chance to lead the offense as we have already started preparing for the 2018 season.

Randy Fichtner joined the Steelers in 2007 as part of Mike Tomlin’s initial coaching staff, where he replaced Bruce Arians as wide receivers coach.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs 49ers

Randy Fichtner & Ben Roethlisberger prior to Steelers 2015 game vs 49ers. Photo Credit: AP Gene J. Puskar, via Yahoo.

Randy Fitchner Finally Gets “His Turn”

In 2009, where a Super Bowl hangover led to an inconsistent start and a 5 game losing streak, the Steelers front office pressured Mike Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians as offense coordinator. Tomlin resisted, yet he did move Randy Fitchner from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach.

  • At the time, commentators suggested that Tomlin was grooming Fitchner to replace Arians.

While Arians only lasted two more seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, Randy Fitchner didn’t replace him. In fact, if reports are true, he wasn’t even Mike Tomlin’s first choice, which would have been running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who was unable to take the job due to burns suffered in a fire.

Randy Fichtner kept a low profile as Steelers quarterbacks coach, working in the booth on game day and rarely making statements to the press, save for the 2013 NFL Draft when Fichtner spoke following the decision to draft Landry Jones.

However, in the middle of the 2017 season, new and strange face was seen talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines during games. That was Randy Fichtner, who if reports are correct, had been brought down from the booth to serve as a “buffer” between Roethlisberger and Haley.

Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers Coaches Needed

By promoting Randy Fichtner, Mike Tomlin has created another vacancy on his staff as he now need a new quarterbacks coach and new receivers coach. Both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have been mentioned as possible quarterbacks coaches, while Hines Ward and Daniel M. Rooney, the son of Art Rooney II, have been suggested as wide receiving coaching candidates.

Futures Contracts and Free Agent Signings

Earlier this week the Steelers announced that cornerback Mike Hilton tight end Xavier Grimble and long-snapper Kameron Canaday, all exclusive rights free agents, have signed one year contracts to return to the team.

The Steelers also signed “futures contracts” with defensive end Lavon Hooks, linebackers Farrington Huguenin, Matt Galambos and Keith Kelsey, wide receivers Justin Thomas and Marcus Tucker, cornerback Dashaun Philips, Safety Jordan Dangerfield and tight end Jake McGee.

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Steelers Cornerback Mike Hilton – Simply Another Kevin Colbert Gem

You’ll have to excuse me if I seem a little out of sorts, following the Steelers 34-6 victory over the Texans on Christmas Day, a win that clinched at least a bye into the Divisional Round of the 2017/18 postseason.

  • I’m out of sorts because I don’t know if I watched a live NFL game, or a video game, namely Ninento’s old Tecmo Bowl.

You  remember Tecmo Bowl, don’t you? The football video game that emulated NFL teams and players from the 1990’s.

Like I’m sure most young Pittsburghers during that era, I often picked the Steelers as my team when going against the computer or, more enjoyably, my little brother.

As is common with most video games, you could choose a player to control on your own, and I often picked Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.

  • Why? Because, much like in real life, there was nothing you couldn’t do with that guy–including rush the opposing passer as often as you liked.

As I watched Steelers newly-minted slot corner sensation Mike Hilton rush Houston quarterbacks time-and-time again on Monday (eight times, to be exact) and record three sacks, I couldn’t help but think back to my youth as a bit of a gamer.

 

mike hilton, Steelers cornerback mike hilton, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Taylor Heinicke, steelers vs texans

Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton after sacking Texans quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But while Hilton became just the third Steelers defensive back to record three sacks in a game–tying safeties Troy Polamalu and Carnell Lake for the franchise mark–he did something in real life that no other cornerback in NFL history–including Woodson–has ever done outside of a video game.

That’s right, Hilton became the first cornerback in league history to post three sacks in a game since the NFL began recording it as an official statistic in 1982. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has long had a knack for finding gems as Undrafted Rookie Free Agents and street free agents.

  • And Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton is the latest example. Hilton, who, like 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson, played his college ball at Ole Miss.

However, unlike Golson, who never played a meaningful down for the Steelers due to battling various injuries, Hilton took advantage of the chance the Steelers gave him.

After signing with the Jaguars as an UDFA in 2016, Hilton soon found himself on the Patriots practice squad, before winding up on Pittsburgh’s by the end of the season.

Coming into the 2017 training camp, there was great buzz about Hilton and what he could possibly bring to the Steelers secondary.

But isn’t every training camp filled with young unknowns with low pedigree who excite fans that are forever in-love with the underdog?

  • Yet, that buzz never subsided, and even Hilton’s coaches and teammates couldn’t help gushing over him.

And it didn’t take long–about a quarter into the Steelers first preseason game, actually–before it became apparent that, not only was Hilton likely to land on his first NFL roster, the Steelers had huge plans for him to be their starting slot corner, a position once earmarked for his former college teammate, Golson.

Not only did Hilton earn that starting corner slot, through 15 games of his rookie season, he has excelled at the position, with a total of two interceptions, five passed defensed, a forced fumble, 39 tackles and a total of four quarterback sacks.

Nobody’s draft record is perfect–including Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. And it’s clear he missed on Golson, if not in-terms of assessing his talent, then, perhaps, in assessing his durability.

  • But if you’re going to miss on a high draft pick, you better make up for it somewhere else.

After years of struggling to find the right pieces, the Steelers now appear to have a secondary that’s close to being complete.

The unit now includes a young and promising safety in Sean Davis, playing alongside veteran Mike Mitchell, a calculated free-agent signing in 2014. The corner position is comprised of young, aggressive and also promising Artie Burns, along with accomplished veteran Joe Haden, a gift of a free-agent acquisition who miraculously fell into Pittsburgh’s lap right before the start of the season.

And, to round it all out, the Steelers now appear to have Mike Hilton as their very promising slot corner, a formerly unknown UDFA who excited fans at the onset of training camp, and is still leaving them giddy, just weeks away from the start of the postseason.

I love it when a plan comes together.

 

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2 Simple Words to Describe Steelers 27-24 Loss to Patriots: This Sucks

Intense. Thrilling. Captivating. Hard fought. Heartbreaking. The NFL’s most anticipated match of the year, the New England Patriots vs the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field lived up to its billing.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots played a titanic match that went down to the wire.

Unfortunately, the Steelers came up on the short end, and they did so at the cost of losing the man who should be the league MVP, possibly for the rest of the season. Two words describe the situation: This Sucks.

Jesse James, Steelers vs Patriots, Jesse James Touchdown Patriots

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

But We Never Expected “The Standard Is the Standard” to Include Brown…

Going into the game, this site noted that although the Steelers locker room has bought into Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard,” there was no denying that injuries played a major role in recent Steelers defeats at the hands of the Patriots. And it was time to flip the script.

There are times when bloggers beg to be wrong, and this is one of them.

Four plays into the 2nd quarter Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown in the end zone.

  • The pass fell away incomplete.
  • Brown didn’t get up after the play.
  • He couldn’t walk off the field under his own power.

This was new territory for the Steelers.

Since the Killer Bees converged in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have had to win without Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, but never have they had to go without Antonio Brown. The Steelers entered the game without Joe Haden and obviously Ryan Shazier, but their offense was (almost) at full strength.

Not anymore. But Steelers Nation knows the drill, “The Standard is the Standard: Injuries will not be an excuse.” The rest of the 47 men on the active game day roster would not need to find something a little extra special if Pittsburgh was to have any hope of winning. And, for the much of the game they did just that.

Steelers Digging Deep and Delivering

Tom Brady knows how to score points. Tom Brady has written a manual on how to score points against the Steelers! And the game started out as so many other recent Steelers vs Patriots contests have started – with New England scoring a touchdown, and making it look easy.

  • Credit Keith Butler’s defense with not caving, not falling into the rut of past failures.

Cam Heyward started off New England’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady. On their next try, New England made it into the Red Zone, but Mike Hilton defended a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone. Sean Davis broke up another one near the goal line intended for Rob Gronkowski (with a lot of help from Stephon Tuitt who was closing in on Brady.)

On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers showed they could slug it out. With Le’Veon Bell’s running, and short passes to Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jesse James, the Steelers burned 8 minutes off the clock which set up this play:

If anyone had any doubt that the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to find a way to give an extra 110%, this play definitively erased that. The question was, would it be enough?

3rd Quarter Stalemate

The Steelers entered the second half with a 7-point cushion, but the Patriots answered with a methodical, 6 minute touchdown drive. They followed by forcing a punt after just five plays.

But the Steelers turned the tables on the next drive, as Javon Hargrave pressured Tom Brady into throwing just a moment too soon, which allowed Vince Williams to intercept the ball, and the Steelers only needed 5 plays to score another touchdown. Now they held a 24-16 lead.

Vince Williams, Vince Williams interception Tom Brady

Vince Williams is 1st Steeler to intercept Tom Brady since 2005. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Steelers forced another punt. Then they opened the 4th quarter with a drive that amazingly burned 7 minutes off the clock yet saw the Steelers do no more than advance 31 yards. A score here would have been a game changer, but at least the Steelers were keeping the ball out of Brady’s hands.

The Patriots got the ball back, and marched all the way down to the Steelers 21-yard line, where Bud Dupree sacked Tom Brady on third down forcing a field goal. The score was now 24-19, if only the Steelers could hold on….

Steelers Commit Cardinal Sin Against Patriots

The lion’s share of the sound and fury generated by this game will revolve around the Steelers final drive. And rightly so. But if you really want to understand where the Steeler lost this game, you need to look at the two drives that preceded this.

The Steelers got the ball back with 3:56 minutes left. New England had all of their time outs left, so at least 2 first downs were in order. There the Steelers committed their cardinal sins.

  • The Steelers played it cautious, running the ball twice and punting after 3.
  • Sean Davis got both hands on Tom Brady’s first pass, but couldn’t hold on. You NEVER give Brady a 2nd chance.
  • Brady then proceeded to connect with Ron Gronkowski on four straight plays, including a TD and 2 point conversion

If you’re going to beat the Patriots, you really have to find a way to stop Tom Brady to Ron Gronkowski. OK, that’s easy to say but hard to do, and the Steelers knew that as the drive began, but they failed.

The Greatest Comeback that Never Was

The Steelers had 52 seconds and 1 time out left to come back to either tie or win. Such last minute heroics have been a staple for the Steelers during 2017, but nothing prepared them for what came next.

JuJu Smith-Schuster took a simple slant route and while looking for the sidelines, broke free through the Patriots secondary for a 69 yard reception. Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James on the next play for an apparent touchdown….

…Except it wasn’t a touchdown.

The replay officials ruled that Jesse James didn’t have complete control of the ball. Was that the correct call? Honestly, it does look like their ruling was within the letter of the law, although enough neutral observers, including Tony Dungy, argue that the reversal is a gross miscarriage of justice.

  • It matters little now.

Ben Roethlisberger hit Darrius Heyward-Bey on his next throw, who failed to get out of bounds. Instead of clocking the ball and giving Chris Boswell a chance to tie the game, Ben Roethlisberger went for all the marbles. Ben tried to thread the ball in triple coverage to Eli Rogers only to have the pass deflected and intercepted by Duron Harmon.

  • Just like that, it was all over for the Steelers.

Since their 2016 Christmas win over the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a flair for the dramatic. They’ve authored any number of 4th quarter comebacks worth of narration by John Facenda. The Patriots game was no different. The Steelers simply came out on the wrong side.

And man, it really sucks.

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For Better or Worse, Steelers 31-28 Win over Packers Provides Season’s Defining Moment

The Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers gave us something we’ve been longing for: A defining moment.

  • Mike Tomlin calling out the New England Patriots before the ball was even snapped gave the press their defining moment.
  • The NFL commentating class won’t forget – or forgive – Mike Tomlin’s declaration.

But the other, more critical moment came during the game itself, as the contest between the NFL’s two storied franchises laid bare both the fundamental strengths and fundamental weaknesses that will define the success or failure of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers quest to add Lombardi Number 7.

Steelers vs Packers, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown touchdown packers, Morgan Burnett, Davon House

Antonio Brown burns Morgan Burnett & Davon House for his 3rd touchdown in Steelers win over Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Steelers Killer Bees Finally Sting in Unison

For the first 9 weeks of the season, the story on the Pittsburgh Steelers was the under performance of the offense. During 2015 and 2016 injuries and suspensions combined to keep all four Killer Bees Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant from playing together.

Yet, when the Steelers four Killer Bees finally took the field, the result was a plodding, pedestrian effort instead of the Heinz Field re incarnation of The Greatest Show on Turf.

But during the win over the Tennessee Titians Pittsburgh’s offense exploded for forty points and four touchdowns. But excelling for a single week means nothing in the NFL, hence the term “On Any Given Sunday.”

  • Had the Steelers offense come alive, or was the Titans win merely a one-game wonder?

Against the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh’s offense proved it could match another team blow for blow in a contest where the Steelers gave up 3 turnovers, secured zero and had to tie or retake the lead 4 times.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers offense left a lot of plays on the field against the Packers.

While Martavis Bryant scored a touchdown and made important catches, he dropped critical passes. We can say the same of Jesse James and Eli Rogers who came up with critical catches but also suffered drops. All Justin Hunter seems to do is drop passes. But if the supporting cast wasn’t always great, they did clear the stage for stars of the Steelers offense.

  • And the Steelers Killer Bees stung the Packers early and often.

Antonio Brown stung the Packers on long and short routes, with yards after the catch, in the end zone, over the middle and, perhaps most importantly, on the sidelines. Le’Veon Bell had some tough sledding at times, but he remained patient and nearly gouged the Green Bay for 100 yards rushing, while steadily burning them through the air.

And at the center of it, you had Ben Roethlisberger, who in spite of two interceptions, is playing his best football of the season.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Hand in Steelers Defense

While the Steelers offense struggled to find its legs early in the season, the defense filled the void. We saw that dominating defense starting with the Packers second possession of the 3rd quarter.

Things were looking bleak for the Steelers after the Brett Hundley and Davante Adams torched them for a 55 yard touchdown followed by a Ben Roethlisberger interception 7 plays later, followed by a quick Packers first down.

  • But ten L.T. Walton sacked Brett Hundley on first down
  • T.J. Watt defended one of those short passes Hundley had been delivering so lethally all night
  • Cameron Heyward sacked Hundley on 3rd down
  • Then Max McCartney got greedy and tried a 57 yard field goal, which is beyond risky at Heinz Field

When the Packers got the ball back, Mike Hilton and Cam Heyward stoned Jamaal Williams for a two yard loss, followed by an incompletion, followed by Cameron Heyward’s second consecutive sack on third down.

Steelers vs Packers, T.J. Watt, Brett Hundley, Vince Williams

T.J. Watt celebrates his 4th quarter sack of Brett Hundley as Vince Williams looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger PennLive.com

Le’Veon Bell coughed up the ball on the Steelers next drive, but the defense forced a stop in a series highlighted by Ryan Shazier’s pass deflection.

  • If only Steelers defense could have played that well for the rest of the night.

Alas, they didn’t. In the last three games the Steelers defense has given up touchdown passes of 61 yards, 60 yards, 75 yards, 39 yards, 54 yards and 55 yards.

And it is that statistic that gives us the second, and decisive defining moment that surfaced against the Packers.

Steelers Defense, Not Tomlin’s Words Cast Die for Rest of 2017

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it best when he declared, “Mike Tomlin wrote a really big check, so he best cash it.” By declaring that the Steelers should win it all and THEN calling out the Patriots Tomlin looked past the Packers, Bengals and Ravens. That’s a coaching cardinal sin even if another Super Bowl was already the internal measure of success for the 2017 Steelers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Packers

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

But the Steelers head coach has now set the narrative for the rest of the season as the story will now pit Pittsburgh either rising or falling because of Mike Tomlin’s words.

  • And you know what? Those stories will generate a lot of page views and social media clicks, but all will boil down to a bunch of BS.

If you want to know what will really define success or failure of the Steelers for the rest of the season, it comes down to either the defense’s ability to stop averaging one 57 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play or the Killer Bee’s ability to outscore a trio of offenses that are far better than anything Pittsburgh have seen of late.

  • All of the sound and fury generated by Tomlin’s words is nothing more than a distraction.

The success of the 2017 Steelers will come down the their ability to stop the bomb. It really is that simple.

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Brown Bests Big Ben by a Nose in Steelers-Titans Game Ball Winners Poll! And No Love for Todd Haley

The Steelers Thrusday Night trashing of the Titans certainly energized Steelers Nation if voting in our Steelers-Titans game ball winners poll are any indication. And this time the race was hotly contested and for good reason.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Titans, LeShaun Sims, Steelers Titans Thursday Night Football

LeShaun Sims couldn’t ground Antonio Brown and neither could Ben Roethlisberger, at least not in our game ball poll! Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers vs Titans, Steelers Titans Game Ball Poll REsultsAt first glance, it appears that Ben Roethlisberger narrowly out polled Antonio Brown by a single vote to win the poll. However, if you scroll down, you’ll see that someone wrote in “AB” which can only be interpreted as Antonio Brown, so when we had his two votes to his 24, he comes out ahead of his quarterback by one

  • And for good reason, the duo was outstanding Thursday night, with both players in championship form.

The next highest vote getter was Cameron Heyward. That’s not much of a surprise, given how thoroughly Cam Heyward dominated the Titans, including making a critical sack on third down to force a field goal when the outcome remained very much in doubt.

Support for Heyward built slowly however, and one can speculate on whether it was influenced by Tony Defeo’s didactic piece on whether the Steelers 2017 defensive line is simply too talented to contain.

Coty Sensabaugh was the next highest vote getter, with 9 votes, which is a bit of a surprise. Sensabaugh’s interception did come at a critical moment, and did set up a Chris Boswell field goa, but Coty Sensabaugh also bears responsibility for the long bomb the Steelers defense gave up.

Vince Williams came in fifth in the pecking order, after another strong night that included a sack, which was enough to get him six votes. Ryan Shazier and Mike Hilton tied for 6th place with each player polling four votes.

Le’Veon Bell and Stephon Tuitt tied for 7th place with each man garnering 3 votes. Sean Davis was next with 2 votes, followed by Jesse JamesRobert Golden and L.T. Walton who got one vote a piece. Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant had their moments against the Titans, but neither got a ballot slot and no one saw fit to write their names in.

  • On a night when the Steelers offense exploded for 40 points, the one person who found no love was Steelers offensive Todd Haley whose name was on the ballot.

That’s not a terrible shock, given that hatred for Haley runs strong in Steelers Nation, as many fans were quick to point to the usage of the no-huddle to discredit any role Haley had in the Steelers success. Yours truly doesn’t share that opinion, but poll is about what you the readers think, and the readers have rendered their judgement.

Thanks as always go out to all of you who took time to vote. Go Steelers!

 

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